A Little Bit of Nature

Short entry here. Was cutting down a tomato plant in my balcony garden as the growing season has ended. Amidst the leaves was a short thread that must have drifted down from someone’s laundry drying on a higher floor. How long the thread was stuck on the plant, I can’t say. What caught my eye, though, was that some sort of spores were growing from the thread, looking like eyelashes. I was fascinated at this example of how nature works.

 

How Does My Garden Grow – Season Two

Just like the surprise return of a critically-acclaimed but unpopular television series, my attempts at urban gardening are back for another season. The story of a green-thumbed underdog trying to coax vegetables to grow in a balcony planter under the hot and humid Thailand sun had a well-documented first season. This season’s theme is “hot and humid tomatoes”. The soil is more fertile and the vines better supported, but will the plants yield any fruit? Tune in to find out!

I ended last season (which, because of my south-facing balcony, is roughly November through April) realizing that my soil had too much clay in it and that I was growing tomato varieties ill-suited to the heat and humidity of Thailand. Tomatoes like hot weather but most varieties require relatively cooler nighttime temperatures so the fertilized blossoms set. 

To address the first issue, I ended last season by creating two compost bins, filling them with the remaining soil from the first season’s plants, and adding kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, and eggshells every week. The earthworms bred like rabbits and by December, I had a much better quality of soil. 

To remove the clods, stones, and other debris, though, I needed a dirt sifter. Dragging my personal assistant to the port-side wood working district, we arranged for a local carpenter to build a sifter using some chicken wire I purchased at the hardware store and some scrap wood from a packing crate. The sifter worked perfectly and over the course of a few mornings, I removed the larger objects from the soil while amending it with ground coconut husks (perfect for aerating the water and helping to retain moisture) and steer manure.

To address the second issue, tomato blossoms not setting, I ordered the “Tropical Hot and Humid” seed collection from TomatoFest.com. Among the varieties I received are, from left, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, the Hawaiian Currant, and the Arkansas Marvel. They are all heirloom varieties and all are supposed to do well under tropical conditions.

Season two is well underway with the first blossoms starting to appear on a variety called Anahu, left, and the Hawaiian Currant, right. Last weekend I transplanted seedlings for the Mortgage Lifter and Arkansas Marvel, and planted seeds for another three varieties including the delicious sounding Chocolate Stripes.

We will see what happens and whether the improved soil and more carefully selected varieties will be sufficient to make my garden a productive one this season. Otherwise, I may just have to give up and be content with herbs. 

Hanging on for Dear Life

While last month I did say that my gardening season had come to an end, I actually still have three cherry tomato plants growing and one of them is managing to produce a dozen or so fruit. Of course, I failed to label the containers so I’m not sure which variety is doing relatively well!

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What I found fascinating and beautiful was the way this one leaf had grown around a support wire, as if grabbing onto it. Normally, the branches of the tomato plant just rest on the support cage. This one seemed to be more vine-like, wrapping around.

 

How Does My Garden Grow – Pt. 6

The arrival of Thai New Year coincides with the end of my gardening season. The sun passes directly overhead here in Thailand and my south-facing balcony receives no more direct sun until sometime in mid-August. With this change of the seasons, it is time to turn my attention to soil maintenance and my first attempt at balcony composting.

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A picture taken two weeks ago shows that in the middle of the day, sunlight is barely hitting the balcony. Within another two weeks, even the pots hanging over the edge of the balcony will be in shadow.

Soil quality is a big issue for me. The initial bags of potting soil I purchased from the nursery here were terrible: filled with rocks, sticks, and lots of clay, it looked like the bags had been filled at a construction site. Considerable effort was invested in sorting through the soil to remove foreign objects and amending it with steer manure, coffee grounds, and chopped-up coconut husks.

Last year, I first mooted the idea of trying to compost on my balcony. I researched various options and once I discovered that there were worms living in some of my pots – and they had survived the several months of direct sun on the balcony – vermiculture seemed potentially workable.

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The first step was to get a plastic storage container. It needed to be a dark color to block light but I didn’t want to choose too dark a color for fear it would absorb too much heat. After returning home with the container, I drilled air holes in the sides and bottom – a total of about 20. According to what I’ve read on a few websites, this should be sufficient but I may need to drill more, or larger, holes in the future.

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At the bottom of the container I placed a layer of shredded newspaper. This provides a base of “brown” (or dry) material and also helps to absorb excess moisture. The paper will bread down over time.

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On top of the paper, I added the left-over dirt I had on hand from previous plantings. Next, I started cutting down some of the tomato plants that are past their prime, clearing the soil from the roots and adding it to the container.

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That’s where I started finding some of my good friends, the earthworms. There seem to be fewer than before, but hopefully these guys will be well-fed, enjoy their new home, and compost like crazy.

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The end result, a neat and tidy compost bin. It is easy to access when I want to add more leaves, vegetable and fruit trimmings, eggshells, and coffee grounds. Because I have a few more tomato plants to pull up, I think I’ll buy another container and expand my composting.

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Side note: Among my lessons learned this season was that you really need to right varieties of tomatoes to grow in hot, humid Thailand. That’s why I’ve already bought this collection of seeds from Tomatofest.com particularly well suited for my climate. Can’t wait to see how those work next season.

For more on my balcony gardening adventures, click here.

 

How Does My Garden Grow – Pt. 5

While the autumn harvest back in November was meagre – two cherry tomatoes and two radishes – my balcony garden has done somewhat better in the intervening months.  Recently, a handful of larger tomatoes have appeared, my container eggplant plant has been doing well, and I’ve even discovered a batch of small earthworms living in one of the pots.

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Pretty pale violet blossoms on my container eggplant plant.  Its broad leaves look slightly prehistoric but the tiny bees love the flowers and it has turned out to be the most productive plant in my garden.

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The plant produces these small purple fruit that grow to about the size of a golf ball.  We had some unseasonable rain for several days in January, which didn’t seem to harm the plants, but slowed the ripening of the fruits by a few days.

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The first harvest of eggplant.  I think a few of them (the yellowish ones) got a little sunburned but they tasted fine.  I used these to make some baba ganoush.  Frankly, miniature eggplants aren’t the most convenient for grilling then scraping out the flesh because there isn’t much flesh left after the grilling is complete! 

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My second watermelon radish grew to a healthy size, much larger than a golf ball though not nearly so large as a tennis ball.  Interestingly, instead of pushing down into the dirt it pushed itself up, keeping a long trailing root.  Proof that my soil has too much clay in it and needs more work.

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Cutting this radish, I got a good look at the unique coloring.  Whereas my first radish (yeah, I only grew two – root vegetables take up too much space) had a pale pink exterior, this one looked more like the picture on the cover of the seed package.  By letting the radish grow so large, it developed a pretty sharp taste, but I actually like that.

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While my first tomato plant never produced more than two cherry tomatoes, the two remaining plants, both of the Chianti variety, were a bit more productive.  They required some creative support since the gardening shops have been out of proper tomato cages ever since the floods a few months ago.  Despite the ad hoc support system, there are five or six fruits that finally set.  We never really had enough of the cooler nighttime temperatures that help the polinated blossoms to set.

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The fruit size is relatively small – just a bit smaller than a tennis ball – and there is some blossom rot on the bottom caused by my watering habits.  I’ve learned that it is better to give tomatoes a really good soaking every second or third day rather than giving them a moderate watering every day.  The first of the tomatoes already ripened and the edible parts were really sweet, dark red, and juicy.  These two plants will be finished after these fruits are ripe but I have another plant about eight inches tall and hopefully I can have some better luck with it over the next few months.

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I also harvested two of the half-dozen carrots I’ve been crowing.  These were a petite French variety and you can again see the effect of too much clay in the soil: very misshapen carrots.  I cleaned them up and put them on a salad, though, and they tasted nice.  Again, root veggies just don’t make a lot of sense in a balcony garden.  Vertical plants are much more efficient.

The last bit of good news from my garden: after pulling out the original cherry tomato plant, I was ammending the soil and discovered dozens of small (inch-long) earthworms.  Don’t know where they came from but I hope they continue to breed.  I transferred many of them to two spare sacks of soil and compost, added some vegetable scraps from my kitchen, and hope they will work over the next several months to help give me better quality soil.

Who knew finding worms could be so exciting?

Bangkok Homes and Gardens Charity Tour

On Saturday the Dusit chapter of Soroptimist International, an organization that concerns itself with issues surrounding women’s welfare, held their biannual Bangkok Homes and Gardens Charity Tour.  We had the opportunity to visit three beautiful homes all located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.  One was a prince’s home, another was a merchant’s, and the third was a nobleman’s.

I’ve compiled a very nice (if I do say so myself) eight-minute video.  Instead of duplicating the information below, I’ll post some pictures with very brief comments.

Wanglee House

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This Chinese house was built in 1881 by a rice merchant.  The Wanglee clan owns it to this day. 

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The house is built according to the principles of feng shui, facing the river.

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Designed in traditional Chinese courtyard style, the house represents a study of the Chinese culture brought to Siam by Chinese merchants during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Chakrabongse House

Pronounced “cha-kra-bong”, this house was built in 1908 by Prince Chakrabongse, the 40th child of King Rama V.  While studying in Czarist Russia, he eloped with a Russian woman, bringing her back to Siam unannounced. 

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The house is now owned and lived in by the prince’s granddaughter. 

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There is also a small boutique hotel built on the property closer to the river.

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We were provided a guided tour to the inside of the house.  No photos were allowed so I have borrowed other photos that appear on the internet.

Praya Palazzo

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An Italian-inspired mansion built in 1923 by a colonel in the customs bureau during an era in which Italian artists and architects were all the rage in Siam.

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The palazzo is now a very exclusive 17-room boutique hotel, accessible only by boat.  Very charming place.

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The unseasonable rain finally caught up to us and the hotel staff rounded up umbrellas to shuttle us back to the pier.  Made it back to the Shangri-La Hotel reasonably dry and appreciated the opportunity to get a peek at what life was like in Bangkok a century ago.

 

How Does My Garden Grow – Pt 4: First Harvest

With the US Thanksgiving holiday just a few days away, it seems fully appropriate that I was able to recently celebrate my first harvest from my balcony garden.  It was a limited harvest – one beet, one radish, and two cherry tomatoes – but at least it is a start, right?  For those of you who have missed my videos, I filmed and edited a new one to mark this momentous occasion.

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The harvest was a small one, but I was excited with it nonetheless.  On the left is a golden beet, on the right is a type of heirloom radish called a watermelon radish.  It is supposed to have a light green skin with a pink interior.  The skin was kind of a pinkish white instead.  Behind the two roots are my carrots which are slowly growing.

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Raindrops on the leaves of my third tomato plant.  Once we hit the start of October – the end of rainy season – the weather rapidly changed.  We’ve had significant rainfall only two or three times since then and my south-facing balcony has been bathed in direct sunlight for about 7 hours a day.  The plants have definitely enjoyed the sun, although I’ve had to be diligent about watering.

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One curious thing is that my tomato plants – both cherry and beefsteak – have had a problem with pollination.  So far only two fruits have grown.  I’ve not seen any bees around my plants but according to my online research, tomato plants are self-pollinating.  One technique recommended in some videos is to give the plants a good shake to encourage the pollinating.  So far that hasn’t seemed to help.  Plenty of blossoms come and go, but few ever become fruit.

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And there they are, my two cherry tomatoes.  Organic, homegrown, and mighty tasty.  Now if I could just get a few more of them off my plant, which is nearly three meters tall!

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Inside of the watermelon radish.  It had a nice flavor, less sharp than the conventional red radishes you see at the market.

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Golden beet.  I have only seen red beets sold in Thailand so was very excited to have golden beets.  What I’ve decided, though, is that root vegetables are a poor use of limited container space.  I need to focus on vertical plants – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc. – where I can get more yield per square meter of soil.  Of course, I guess the tomato plants haven’t really panned out yet, have they?

Here’s the video of the autumn 2011 harvest.

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The healthy salad I made from mostly store-bought vegetables and my few container garden vegetables.  The shredded golden beet is on top, some sauteed beet greens, and the radish.  Success!  Stay tuned for more gardening developments.

Previous entries on this subject:

How Does My Garden Grow – Part 1: Defying Gravity 
How Does My Garden Grow – Part 2: A Move to the Sunny Side
How Does My Garden Grow – Part 3: Back to Seedlings

How Does My Garden Grow – Pt. 3: Back to Seedlings

In the early part of July, I began my grand adventure as a container gardening condo dweller here in Bangkok.  Within a few weeks, I realized that my approach was all wrong: starting seeds in large pots, planting during the rainy season, trying to grow plants on a balcony that doesn’t get sun until mid-August.  Still, I pushed forward.  Eventually, though, it was time to retrench, both literally and figuratively.

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This picture exemplifies the twofold problem I faced: The rain was both too frequent and fell in too great a quantity, and the soil was too clay-like and not porous enough.  The result were poor seedlings (carrot and beet root in this particular picture) that were growing in an environment more suited to rice than anything else.

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My first response was defensive.  Every time the sky started to darken (which is often during this time of year here in Thailand), I would pull the containers off the side of the balcony and move them closer to the sliding glass door.

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This kept them away from the full force of the monsoon rains, but of course did nothing to help the quality of the soil.  Oh, and they were also a pain in the nether regions to move.

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Finally, in late August I broke down and bought thirty small plastic containers, each large enough to start a single plant.  At first, I tried to transplant several of the existing plants including the two healthiest cherry tomato plants and several carrots.  I also started planting new seeds.  This tray-based system didn’t do much to improve upon the soil quality, but made it easier to get the plants out of the way of oncoming storms.

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The new system seems to be working better.  With the exception of one storm that struck when I was away from home and had forgotten to bring the plants off the edge of the balcony, these seedlings have had the opportunity to grow in a much drier environment.  I’ve also been able to stagger plantings, starting a few new seeds each week.

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You can see that they are doing much better.  There are a few golden beet root plants on the right, and Dr. Zakiah’s methi seeds are going gangbusters on the left.

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Best of all, one of my transplanted cherry tomato plants has continued to grow and seems to finally be hitting its stride.  In another two weeks or so I will transplant it into a somewhat larger container.  Before that time, though, I need to address the issue of soil quality.  I’ve brought the other planters in from the edge of the balcony so they can begin to dry out a bit, then I will go to the nursery and see what sorts of soil amendments I can find.  My father, who spent several years growing a massive garden in my childhood home, suggested chicken or horse manure.  Tawn isn’t so keen on that idea.  Stay tuned to see how much shit I have to deal with… literally.

How Does My Garden Grow – Part 1: Defying Gravity 
How Does My Garden Grow – Part 2: A Move to the Sunny Side

 

How Does My Garden Grow – Part 2: A Move to the Sunny Side

Three weeks have passed since I rolled up my sleeves and started my balcony vegetable garden and while there are encouraging signs of life, there have also been a few lessons learned.

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One of the first lessons learned, almost as quickly as I finished washing the dirt from under my nails, was that I should have started the seeds in small containers and then transplanted them once they grew larger.  With our heavy rains nearly each afternoon, the wee seedlings were being pummeled and the soil wound up splattered all over the balcony, creating a mess.  Plus, there is no direct sun on this side of the building for another month or so.

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My solution was to move the pots to the hallway outside our units, where they enjoy some better protection from the rain and at least a few hours of sun in the mornings.  Soon, though, that sun will go away as the star passes directly overhead our building.  At that point, I’ll move them back to the balcony.

Here is a container-by-container update:

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These are the large Chianti Rose tomatoes.  The cherry tomatoes are at a similar stage, with the second pair of leaves growing.  The cherry tomatoes will also need to be significantly thinned as one 15-inch container is not going to handle a dozen plants.  So far, so good.

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The carrots and beets seem to be doing well.  I think I didn’t grow enough carrots and I think my beets may be too crowded, but I’m happy to see the frilly leaves on the carrots – a sure sign that they really are carrots.  I’ve planted some additional carrot seeds in the open spaces between plants.  I realized that each plant produces only one carrot.  For some reason, maybe because I always see carrots in bunches, I expected I might get a bunch of carrots from one plant.  So much for having farmer’s blood in my veins.

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The two mini bell pepper plants are doing well, also with a second pair of leaves forming.  There is another sprout coming up in the background but I don’t think this is a pepper plant.  Not sure what sort of interloper it is.  Curious, though, as I know I planted at least three pepper seeds.

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On to the mixed herbs container: These two stalks are growing in the area I planted parsley seeds.  I’m not sure what baby parsley plants are supposed to look like, but this isn’t what I had in mind.  Am I not looking for crinkly leaves?  Do those just grow in later?

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The first hints of what may possibly be cilantro peeking up through the soil.  These little green flecks have scarcely grown in a week.  The rosemary seems to be missing in action.

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The Italian basil is doing well, not seeming to mind their close quarters.  I’m looking forward to having the basil developed enough to cook with, although I guess I could eat the young shoots, too.

That’s all from the farm.  Stay tuned for more details in another few weeks!

 

How Does My Garden Grow – Part 1: Defying Gravity

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Gardening is probably in my blood.  After all, my father was born and raised on a farm and when I was growing up in suburban San Francisco, he tended to an extensive backyard garden.  But in the nearly twenty years since I moved out of that home, I’ve had only two summers when I was able to garden: 2004, when Tawn and I were living in San Jose and I had five tomato plants growing from 5-gallon buckets, and 2005, when I was living in Kansas City before moving here to Thailand.

Finally, I am going back to the land, getting the dirt under my fingernails, and fulfilling my birthright: to grow my own food!

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In the more than three years we’ve lived in this particular condo, we have wanted to hang plants from our balcony but the wire planters they sell locally are really wimpy – good only for petunias and shrinking violets.  We finally found a gardener who said he could make some heavy-duty planters for us.  It took a year to actually get them made, but finally he delivered. 

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But they look pretty flimsy, don’t they.  Sure enough, just hanging on the edge it looked like they would hold maybe 10 pounds at best before collapsing four stories onto the backs of cars parked below.  So the gardener went back to his workshop and returned a few hours later with three metal brackets to put below the planters, providing better support. 

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I’m still petrified that the planters will crash to the ground below, seeing as how they are actually attached to the balcony railing with wire!  I’ve purchased some plastic cable straps to provide greater security and am inspecting the planters frequently to look for signs of distress. 

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We have two balconies, one in each unit.  For the balcony outside the bedroom, Tawn wanted a hedgerow so we don’t have to look at the abandoned building next door.  These trees provide a nice sense of greenery outside and with the bamboo blinds, one can wake up almost imagining being in a tropical resort.

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While in the US in March and June I did some seed shopping.  Faced with limited space, I whittled down my selection of seeds to these five: mini bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, beets, carrots, and heirloom tomatoes. 

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Didn’t get a picture of me actually mixing the soil, which was a bit of a mess given the small work space.  However, we now have five 37-cm pots hanging over the edge of the balcony.  I mixed chopped coconut husks into the bottom two-thirds of the soil to ensure it drains well and to reduce the weight of the pots. 

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Some Starbucks stir sticks were purloined to make for row markers.  In addition to vegetables, I did one pot with mixed herbs.  I think I’ll have to purchase a few more pots and place them on the floor of the balcony.

One challenge we face is that our units face southwest and during the summer months the sun is actually to the north of us (since we are so close to the equator).  During the cooler months, though, we get direct sun.  I’m worried this might throw the plants off a bit, especially the tomatoes which I think will do best if they have hot days but, as the fruit sets, relatively cool nights.  We’ll see. 

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I planted the seeds on July 4.  Three days later, the first sprouts were pushing their way through the soil.  Here, a cherry tomato seedling.  It occurs to me now that I should have planted first in some small containers, then transplanted into the bigger ones.  I’m going to have to thin out all of the larger pots since I can’t grow multiple tomato plants in a single pot. 

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Sweet Italian basil “micro-greens” – ha ha!  Of the four herbs – basil, rosemary, parsley, and cilantro – the basil is the only one that has so far made an appearance.

Well, stay tuned over the coming weeks and months to see how this experiment at gardening goes.  To be sure, my maid is fascinated by my interest in this.  You have to reach a certain level of the bourgeoisie, I guess, to see growing your own food as a hobby rather than a necessity.