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The Theoretical Farmers Almanack

The Charm of Keeping a Garden Journal

The Theoretical Farmers AlmanackInspired by Thomas Jefferson’s detailed, multi-faceted garden book, I started a garden journal last year. Like most of my projects, my aspirations were slightly greater than the finished project. I did, however, manage to create a colorful (and slightly muddy!) version of my summer as a gardener. Here’s what I put in my journal:

1. A layout of my garden plot: I drew a grid to the approximate scale of my present garden. This year, I will probably just cut out a square of graph paper and glue it on the journal page, as my grid squares weren’t always exactly square!

2. A list of plants that grow well together. I consulted a couple of online sites to get a general idea of companionable plants:

3. Shopping lists:
• Gardening tools and/or equipment
• Seeds
• Plants
• Soil boosters and fertilizers
• Potting soil
• Gardening/crafting books

4. A few pages dedicated to significant weather events and/or trends (rainfall amounts, extreme temperatures, etc.)

5. A planting log: I dedicate a page to each kind of seed I plant. I like to cut the label from the seed bags or the pictures from seed packets to show exactly what I planted for that season. I also list other information on the page such as where I bought the seeds, planting dates, whether I started the seeds indoors or outdoors, when the seeds germinated, and the results of the harvest.

While I will likely never reach the heights of Mr. Jefferson’s agrarian chronicles, I am enjoying keeping track of my garden adventures. The older I become, the more I enjoy linking the pieces of my life together. Gardening, writing, and journaling make an uplifting combination of “favorite things.”

2017 Garden Journal

Daylilies: 24 Hour Beauties

The Theoretical Farmers AlmanackThey grow by the roadside, marking the spot of long-gone homesteads. They sprout on rocky banks, pop up in random fields, and thrive in most any soil they are planted. They are Hemerocallis: the lovely daylily. The word daylily comes from two Greek words meaning “beauty” and “day.” Literally, their beauty lasts only a day. Each plant, however, produces an abundance of buds and to the casual observer, the flowers appear unchanged from mid-summer to early fall.

I love daylilies for many reasons: they’re beautiful, graceful, and most importantly, they can grow in almost any kind of soil in almost any kind of climate. While my hostas are being systematically devoured by slugs, and my lavender is still complaining of the unusually cold winter, the daylilies are blooming in all of their melon-colored glory!

Although they complain little, daylilies prefer at least 6 hours of sun each day with a generous amount of afternoon shade to keep their colors from fading. As with most plants, they prefer moist, well-drained soil, but I have seen them thrive in marshy areas which hold water even during the most dry season.

Daylilies tend to grow in clumps, and sometimes it’s necessary to divide the roots. Experts say that the best time to divide daylilies is early spring or directly after they finish flowering. Although dividing plants is a somewhat scary process (for me — a non-green thumb gardener), the heartiness of the plant takes some of the fear away! For best results, dig out the entire plant and gently tug the fans- or stems- apart. Each new plant should have 2 or 3 stems.  Cut the foliage back to about 5 inches and carefully replant each division about an inch below the ground line.

So if you want to grow a gorgeous flower garden but lack the time to pamper the plants, daylilies are for you! They ask very little, but give much in return.

Melon-colored Daylilies

Peppermint Potpourri

The Theoretical Farmers AlmanackFrosts are coming more frequently now in the Shenandoah Valley. Leaves are dry and curling, basil plants have turned black and corn stalks loom parched and paper-like in the nearly desolate garden. But there are still a few green plants that brave the low 30 degree morning temperatures. Two cabbage plants have come to life, the oregano is still green and the mint has recovered from its summer drought and is once more taking over the garden.

Today I harvested a bagful of peppermint, spearmint and chocolate mint for my famous winter mint potpourri. There is simply nothing like the refreshing scent of mint on a frosty winter afternoon! And now that summer canning, freezing and preserving is done for another season, it’s nice to pick handfuls of mint leaves to dry for potpourri.

Last of the Summer Mint

My Recipe:

1 cup of cellulose fiber fixative (or orris root) to hold the scent
10 – 15 drops of peppermint oil
3 – 4 cups of dried mint leaves
1 cup of broken cinnamon sticks

1. Spread fresh mint on newspapers or paper towels to dry. (Make sure it is crispy dry before using it.)

2. About a week before mixing the potpourri, put peppermint oil on the cellulose fiber and place the mixture in a glass jar with a lid. Shake occasionally to distribute the scent.

3. When the mint leaves have dried and the oil has soaked into the fiber fixative, combine the mint, cinnamon sticks and cellulose fiber fixative. Mix well. If the scent is not strong enough, add a few more drops of peppermint oil.

4. Place in an open container or in a simmer pot.

5. Enjoy!

Kitchen Window Herbs

The Theoretical Farmers AlmanackA little splash of green always brightens dull winter days, especially if that green is edible! With a few seeds, a cup or two of dirt and a sunny window, you will be able to enjoy the fresh taste of summer herbs all winter long.

Most gardeners recommend planting herb seeds in a potting mix rather than potting soil. The mix is lighter and drains better than regular soil or even a fertilized potting soil. And drainage is important. Herbs do not like “wet feet!”

While herbs enjoy an occasional dose of fertilizer, remember that you want to encourage leaf growth, not flower growth. After all, it’s those leaves that yield the rich, fresh taste that enhances cooking flavor.

You can start some herbs from seed if you’re patient. Basil, although slow to start, will grow well in a kitchen window if it receives lots of sun. I have never had much luck with growing parsley from seed. I’m told that it is possible, but apparently my thumb doesn’t possess the correct shade of green!

One of the best ways to grow herbs indoors is to take cuttings from established plants. Oregano, sage and rosemary can be successfully started from cuttings. Again, it’s best to put the cuttings in a potting mix rather than in potting soil. Thyme can be dug from the garden and transplanted into a pot for indoor use. Chives are also a good indoor herb but they take a little extra prep work. At the end of the growing season, dig a clump of chives and put them in a container. Leave the container in the basement or garage for a few days before bringing it inside. After the chives are transported into the house, make sure they have a place in your sunniest window.

Although winter doesn’t offer a lot of gardening options, planting herbs indoors is a satisfying way to capture a bit of summer to last through the chilly days from December to March. With a little planning and some bright winter sunshine, you can enjoy fresh herbs all winter long!

kitchen window herbs | Fotolia/santiago silver

Photo: Fotolia/santiago silver

Raspberries, Hopefully

The Theoretical Farmers AlmanackThis year, my new gardening venture is a fruit flavored one: raspberries! When I picked the ragged little roots up from my friend’s house last Monday, I couldn’t help but wonder how these small branch-like twigs could possibly grow into healthy, fruit-bearing bushes. You’d think that by this time I would have learned to trust the age-old process of resurrection: the certain cycle of death, rebirth, growth, maturity and death.

My daughter and I were able to get the roots into the ground just hours before the advent of a steady, two-day rainfall. When the ground had dried, and I was able to trek through the backyard without losing a shoe, I inspected the newly planted stems. To my great astonishment (owing, as previously mentioned, to a substantial lack of trust in the growing process), most of the bare sticks had proudly sprouted a few bright green leaves!


Today I mulched the plants with rich, woody soil from the woodpile. I’m hoping the chips will help keep the moisture in, since I dug the raspberry patch quite a ways from the outside water spigot! (I’m an English teacher, not an engineer!)

Research tells me that I should fertilize the plants soon to encourage maximum growth – and believe me, this theoretical farmer wants maximum growth! I was also happy to find out that the bees do a marvelous job of pollinating the plants. I will definitely make sure nobody dares to spray any kind of insecticide on my fledgling bushes.

I am considering turning into a complete fruit fanatic and starting strawberry and blueberry beds as well. Since I successfully dodged the “teaching summer school” bullet, I will have an entire nine weeks to focus on gardening. Who knows, maybe I’ll even turn into a real farmer some day!

Snow Peas in the Snow

The Theoretical Farmers AlmanackThere’s nothing like the forecast of a winter storm to motivate me to dig in the dirt. I’ve been putting off planting the peas for about three weeks now. But yesterday, when the weather forecaster boldly stated that our valley had a 100% chance of snow for Sunday, I knew the time had come to clear out a space for the peas.

I was amazed at the variety of life I found under the dried weeds and leaves. The primrose plants were almost full size, and daffodil sprouts were popping up everywhere. I also disturbed a spider and a few dozen earthworms with my incessant digging.

Finally, after about two hours and an odd assortment of sore muscles, the ground was soft enough to plant the peas. There is a wide range of opinions about pre-soaking hard seeds. Since I’m only a theoretical farmer, I decided to take the advice of a seasoned soil tiller and immerse the dried up little seeds in a bowl of warm water. By the time I had cleared the bed, the peas were plump and moist.

Perhaps it’s a common flaw of humanity not to read instructions before attempting projects. Although I am not a professional gardener, I was pretty sure that I could handle poking a bowlful of peas into the ground without help. A rather arrogant assumption, I was to discover. After the peas had been planted and lightly covered with an inch of soil, I happened to glance at the seed packet. The directions said: “Plant seeds 3 to 4 inches apart; space rows 2 feet apart. I glanced sadly at my little raised bed of peas. The seeds were probably spaced about 3 inches apart, but alas, my rows were also 3 to 4 inches apart!

Oh well, guess I will have a massive thinning once the plants start to sprout. Perhaps I’ll take a bit more time to read directions before I attempt to plant the rest of my garden. But I don’t suppose I’ll be planting for a while. The ground is still cold and the weatherman says another 6 to 8 inches of snow is headed our way this evening. In the meantime, snuggle closely little peapods and try to stay warm!

snow peas 

Photo: Fotolia/Norman Chan

Piles of Pumpkins

It all started from one sad little pumpkin that had spent its better days in Room 8 at the Daycare. After being handled, poked, painted and scarred by a room full of four -year olds, my daughter, the teacher, brought the drooping fruit back to our garden compost for its final resting place. And there it sat through the lingering, cold winter.

Long about mid June, we noticed a row of nicely spaced sprouts filling a row in our garden. We were pretty sure they weren’t weeds, so we left them in their spots to await further development. All through the summer, I posted pictures of the plants’ growth. At one time, there was a rather long-standing debate between those who thought the fledgling sprouts were squash and those who were convinced they were pumpkins. 

Pumpkin Patch

Eventually small, green globes began to form and the squash camp became silent (although some staunch squash-ites insisted the plant was a rare form of squash). Finally, as the green balls began to become shaded with orange, we all knew that the discarded daycare pumpkin had given birth to many healthy plants.

At this point, we have fifteen small to medium sized pumpkins. I have been searching for creative ways to use these unexpected gifts. Given the frantic pace of the life of a teacher in September, I think my best bet is to steam, puree and freeze them for use on those long anticipated mid-winter snow days!

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