A Warm Winter’s Tale

We have had an unusually warm winter this year, including several days of highs in the 50s. But winter is not over! I went back to wearing my winter coat this weekend, and we are expecting snow tonight and tomorrow. The predicted low in a couple days is 10 degrees. This is worrisome to all in our area who have seen plants start to pop up and grow buds much earlier than normal for our area. Everyone is asking what they should do to protect their plants.

Winter Protection

Of course, I’m not going to do anything for the snowdrops pictured at the top of this post. After all, it’s their job to bloom when it’s cold and snowy. What may surprise you is that I’m not going to do anything for the other plants that have started popping up–not even those wonderful Gladiator bulbs that I planted just last fall. (Yes, I was quite thrilled to find them on clearance and finally add these purple beauties to my garden. I do hope they’ll still grow and bloom this year.) All I did was put back the black plastic covers that had blown off several vegetable beds and put the cover on my grill.

The main reason I’ve decided to do nothing is that I’m a lazy gardener–at least when it comes to my ornamentals. In the fall when I have tender vegetables and herbs out there, you may see me covering things up as I try to prolong the harvest. I’ll even cover up or bring inside a good number of ornamental containers to keep the flower bestrewn deck looking as good as possible. But right now, I’m more concerned about my indoor gardening progress. I just don’t want to mess around with these silly plants outside that don’t realize winter is far from over. Come on, kids: we’ve had BLIZZARDS in APRIL!

By the way, this is how things looked outside three years ago TODAY (3/12/17).

Another reason I’ve decided to do nothing now is that this coming snow is actually going protect my plants when the temperature dips even lower afterwards. Why should I work to cover everything when nature is going to do it for me? As for what the weather will do after that–well, I can’t predict it or stop it. Will everything bloom as normal this spring? Probably not! I doubt those Tete-a-Tete daffodils that have already developed buds are going to make it into bloom this year. If any of those buds had opened up and bloomed already (some of my friends’ daffodils have), I’d bring them inside as cut flowers. Or leave them! Like the snowdrops, flowers that bloom in early spring should be able handle some snow and cold.

Shari P.’s daffodils are already blooming! – 3/11/17

Early Spring Clean Up

I’m not sorry we’ve had a warm winter, and I’m not sorry I got a jump on my spring garden clean up a couple weeks ago. I know, I know–I could’ve left the dried plant material out there longer as another layer of protection. Since I always have a lot of work to do with the kitchen garden in spring, I decided it was worth the risk to get some clean up done now. I cleaned up both the herb bed and the front yard perennial garden, leaving only the dried hydrangeas for continued winter interest.

I also finally got around to using the pile of mulch from the ash tree we had cut down. As planned, I put it all in the asparagus bed. It has been out there so long that the mulch has broken down and looks like compost. And now the area where the mulch had been sitting, on top of tarp, is all cleared of grass and weeds. It’s ready to plant this spring–or whenever I can get around to it.  I’d like to put some large hostas back here. Little by little, I’ll keep adding onto this bed.

It probably would have been good to add more mulch around those gladiator bulbs and the other things I planted last fall. (If you planted anything new last summer or fall and didn’t mulch it yet, now would be a good time.) I can never do everything that would be good to do for my garden. I did the things that I was inclined to do and that I had time to do. We’ll see how it all turns out this year.

Normal Winter Tasks

Meanwhile, I’ve been carrying on with my usual winter gardening–and falling behind in my usual way, too. I brought many plants inside to overwinter. I made more ornamental containers for outdoors. I have continued cooking and using the wonderful harvest from my garden.  I’ve begun seed starting and taking cuttings, and this year I tried a little winter sowing, too.  I’d like to record more details about those activities, but I’ll have to save that for another post.


This has been a strange winter, and time will tell how it will affect our gardens this year. I’m thankful for what I was able to do, and I won’t fret over this next round of snow and cold. It is what it is! Keep calm and garden on.

Post-Snow Update – 3/13/17

For any who are curious, I took a few pictures today after the snow. It was a very light snow. I hope it’s enough to protect my plants when the lows go down to 10-15 degrees!

I also took a photo of the kitchen garden. It looks like one of the bed covers I put back yesterday has opened back up a little. We had high winds a while back that had pulled off several of the black plastic covers stapled to the vegetable beds. I covered them back up yesterday and tried to weight them down with whatever was handy.

Kitchen Garden in Late Winter – 3/13/17

Meanwhile inside the house today I did one small seed starting project (potting the first tomato sprouts up into cell packs). I’m also getting the inside of my house decorated for spring. Goodbye, snowmen! Hello, chickens!

Posted in Ornamentals, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Go like a Pro to the Garden Show!

At the 2016 Chicago Flower & Garden Show - Diane, Gayle, me (yours truly), and April

At the 2016 Chicago Flower & Garden Show – Diane, Gayle, me (yours truly), and April

It’s time to get ready for this year’s Chicago Flower and Garden Show! I think this year’s theme is particularly good: Chicago’s Blooming.  It’s all about urban gardening, folks, and I love it! My dad was the best urban gardener on the north side of Chicago.  I’ve gone for many years and learned all the ropes. Here are my tips.

Buy Your Tickets NOW

…and don’t pay full price! Groupon is offering them for nearly half off, plus right now (2/24/17) you can get another 20% off with this sale code: SALE3.

NOTE TO THRIFTY GARDENERS: Before you buy these or anything else from Groupon, sign in through Ebates to get another 6% in cash back later. New members could use my link here to get a $10 BONUS—WOW!

The Groupon deal has been the best one available for the last several years, and it requires buying your tickets in pairs. That’s a good thing because you want to go with friends. Not only do you save money by going together (you could split the expensive Navy Pier parking cost, too), but you’ll always learn more and have more fun.

Gayle got plant recommendations from the master gardeners in our group.

Gayle got plant recommendations from the master gardeners in our group.

Plan Ahead for the Day

Here is my plan for this year:

WE MEET BY 9:30 AM at my house. (That means you can come earlier, but please no later than 9:30.) The show opens at 10 AM. The first seminar is at 11 AM (the last one is at 5 PM), and the first cooking demo is at 11:30 AM (the last one is at 6:30 PM).

I recommend packing snacks/lunches as well as bringing money for food and shopping with the vendors. There are plenty of lunch options there (including a nice deal from Riva’s–fancy!), but I personally prefer getting to as many seminars and cooking demos as possible, and that leaves little time for lunch. 
Once there, you can each go to whichever seminars and cooking demos you want; and whenever you’re not doing that, you could visit the gardens and vendors. Pace yourself however you like! We could meet at 3 PM, at the entrance garden perhaps, to touch base. We’ll compare notes and see if we all got to see everything yet and which, if any, of the remaining talks and demos we want to attend. (That 5 PM one does sound interesting!) We could also decide then what to do for dinner. There are many nice new eating places on Navy Pier that I’d like to try.
We should be ready to drive back home in the early evening, hopefully after rush hour traffic has died down.
Looking forward to this adventure!

Additional Tips

  • Wear comfortable walking shoes. You’ll be doing a lot of walking.
  • Bring a sweater or light jacket. It’s usually a bit chilly in the showroom, but you might want to remove this layer at times.
  • BRING A DIGITAL CAMERA! I like to take MANY pictures. Pro Tip: I also take notes with my camera by using it to take pictures of plant labels and other signs on display.  Speaking of pictures, I prefer to take pictures of the garden displays in the late afternoon, when they are usually less crowded. (That may change, of course, if everyone starts following my tips here.)
  • Bring one water bottle, preferably in some kind of carrier so you don’t have to carry it. You could refill it, as needed, at the water fountain down the hall outside the showroom. Sorry, there are no fountains inside the showroom–that’s why I’m telling you to carry a water bottle.
  • Bring a light daypack. Pack a pen and paper in it, as well as your lunch and snacks.  Throughout the day you will use it to stash the brochures, recipes, and notes you’ll collect, and perhaps any small purchases you make.

I like to go as hands free as possible.  If you look closely at the picture at the top of this post, you’ll see backpack straps on my shoulders. (OK, maybe you won’t. They’re hard to see because I was using a backpack with a blue flowery design, and it blended in with my blue–a different shade of blue–flowery jacket. I like blue flowery stuff!) You’ll also see that my purse/phone, camera (blue camera in a blue case, of course), and water bottle are all hanging from my waist. That’s the way to go like a pro to the garden show!

Posted in Garden Talks and Shows, Tips and Tools | 2 Comments

A Cut Above

img_3548We had another couple days of unusually warm weather for winter, up in the 50s, earlier this week. Since I was home on Monday and it wasn’t raining (like it was going to the next day), I decided it was time to do this winter’s dormant pruning. I used to wait until my husband was available so he could use his reciprocating saw to cut through any branches that were too thick for my bypass loppers. Now I use this nice QuickSaw and can do all the pruning myself. This is one of the tools I got when I won the Corona Tools Fathers Day Giveaway several years ago.

Pruning Lilac

BEFORE Pruning Lilac - 2/6/17

AFTER Pruning Lilac – 2/6/17

AFTER Pruning Lilac - 2/6/17

BEFORE Pruning Lilac – 2/6/17






Above are the before and after pictures of the lilac I pruned. This lilac has come along very well since I got it years ago from my friend April when her family was moving from one home to another. It was small and had grown a little crooked, so it was a good fit for this corner of my cottage garden bed. In fact, it was exactly what my garden plan called for! (I’d adapted it from one of the garden plans then on the Better Homes & Gardens website.)

After the lilac blooms, the spent flowers should be cut off. - 4/27/16

After the lilac blooms, the spent flowers should be cut off. – 4/27/16

From the beginning, I did a good job of pruning the spent blooms away after it had bloomed. That is the proper time to prune all spring blooming shrubs to avoid accidentally removing the next year’s blooms. However, it was not until I was taking Master Gardener classes that I learned I was pruning the trunks wrong–I had been trying to keep the thicker trunks in the middle. I learned that lilac is a multi-stemmed shrub, not a tree, and that the thickest and oldest trunks were the ones I should remove to keep the plant renewed and happy. Little by little I’ve done that every year since then. Granted, this is not the best time of year to be pruning the lilac; but without all the foliage on it, I could better see what remained to be done. I removed the last three thick trunks that were left. You could watch a good explanation and demonstration of what I’ve been doing here: How to Prune a Lilac Bush.

Finally my lilac is in much better shape and condition although I wish I’d been able to get closer to the ground with many of those cuts. (See the mushrooms–turkey tail mushrooms I think–growing on one of its stumps in the picture below.) From now on I plan to keep up with renewal pruning every year after it blooms.

Mushrooms are now growing on one of the stumps left from a previous year's pruning.

Mushrooms are now growing on one of the stumps left from a previous year’s pruning.

The area under that lilac, by the way, is where I intend to put my A Midsummer Night’s Dream themed miniature garden. (As you may already know, I’m a huge Shakespeare fan, so I HAD to pick that theme for my own fairy garden!) Over the last couple years I began clearing away the older plants down there, and I planted some miniature hostas and moss in there. I’ve already collected several lovely treasures for this special corner, and hopefully this will be the year I finally arrange them and set up this fairy garden.

Pruning Mock Orange

BEFORE pruning mock orange shrubs - 2/6/17

BEFORE pruning mock orange shrubs – 2/6/17

AFTER pruning mock orange shrubs - 2/6/17

AFTER pruning mock orange shrubs – 2/6/17







I have not done a good job of pruning the mock orange every year after it flowered. The truth is, I was never very thrilled by this shrub even though it, too, was recommended by the cottage garden plan I originally used for this bed. I even tried planting a reflowering mock orange in front of it, hoping I’d find it more appealing. It wasn’t. It did not flower any more or any better than the older shrub behind it. Now that I have a nice asparagus bed to the right of it, I want to remove that larger shrub  (maybe both shrubs) so the asparagus could get a little more afternoon sun. Therefore, I pruned it back a lot, more than I usually would, so that it would be easier to dig it up this spring. If anyone wants a mock orange, come and get it! The first one to come and dig it up can keep it. Seriously! I might even be willing to give the smaller one away, too, if there’s a call for it.

Pruning Apple Trees

Figuring out how to take care of my organic fruit trees has not been easy, and I do not consider myself an expert–especially when it comes to pruning. These four apple trees are indeed my babies because I grafted them myself at a Midwest Fruit Explorers grafting workshop seven years ago. (Actually, I had a lot of help from older members–and that may explain why all my subsequent attempts at grafting have not done so well. Anyway, that’s a story for another post.) I grafted four apple trees, and three of the grafts took. I planted all four of the trees and then tried to fix that fourth tree a couple years later with a cleft graft, but that didn’t take either. I was, however, successful three years ago when I did regular whip grafts on several branches of the trees with scions of several different varieties. I call that my Frankenapple tree now.  (I’m going to have to do that again with the tree whose trunk snapped below the graft this last year.) Here is what those trees look like now.

I ended up not pruning them now after all.  I’ve decided to wait until closer to the next grafting workshop. Then I could use the trimmings for grafting practice. I might even use any suckers that I could pull up with some root attached as free rootstock for grafting new trees.

Oh, and there’s still the little pear tree by the side fence! It actually fell over last summer because it had so much fruit on it. (It was staked and tied up, but it broke its ties.) I plan to move it this year because I’ve decided I don’t trust the neighbor’s lawn care service. Why should I put all this effort into growing organic pears only to have my tree absorb whatever fertilizers and pesticides the neighbor is putting on his lawn? I should probably prune that tree a bit, too, before I attempt moving it this spring.

Pear Tree - to be moved

Pear Tree – to be moved

Those trimmings would also be useful when comes time to try grafting again next month. What I really should be working on is cleaning of the work table and potting bench in my utility room so I could get started on seed starting. Hopefully my little box of grafting supplies would turn up!

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New Year–New Tool

img_3494Happy New Year! Have you made any New Year’s resolutions for 2017? If one of your resolutions is to exercise more, then you might be interested in one of my all time favorite gardening tools: a set of exercise videos. Yes–that’s what she said!

I know, I know–here you thought all along that gardening WAS exercise. And you were right. The truth is that gardening is so much exercise that it’s necessary to warm up first. I have found that my exercise videos are the perfect warm up for whatever activity the day holds for me, but they are especially necessary when I’m going to do any serious gardening.

There was a period after I had a sprained back years ago that I had to wear a soft back brace whenever I was doing a lot of walking, gardening, or other work. Then I found what turned out to be the best basic exercise regime for me: Wai Lana’s “Easy Series” of 3 VHS tapes. I began doing them 3-5 times a week, and I was thrilled that I no longer had to wear a thick layer of elastic when working and sweating outside on a hot summer day. I’ve adapted the routines to help deal with other issues that came along, and I added other exercises like bike riding or strength training when I wanted more. I’ve been able to stick with these videos for 15 years because they are easy to do–so easy that I hope I’ll still be doing them when I’m in my 80s if, Lord willing, I’m still around.

And speaking of the Lord, I would like to point out that I am NOT practicing yoga.* I am simply doing exercises, many of which are used in a wide variety of physical therapy and exercise programs. However, I’m well aware that Wai Lana IS teaching yoga, especially in the supplemental material before and after the exercise portions. Since this eastern philosophy is unbiblical, I ignore it–no meditation (or “mindfulness” as they now call it) for me, thank you. Now with DVDs, I don’t even have to fast forward through the “ancient yoga sound meditation” chants at the end of the exercises.  I could not simply ignore the yoga philosophy if I went to an actual yoga class, so that is one more reason I prefer using these videos.

A couple months ago, one of my exercise tapes got chewed up in the VCR, so I knew it was time to get the DVD set. Thanks to a CyberWeek sale, I ended up getting another set, too, “Yoga for Everyone,” so now I have 6 DVDs to work with. New Year–new tool!

How to Find the Tool for You

Like other favorite garden tools, the exercises program that works best for me may not be the one for you. Here’s what I did to find mine–maybe these tips will help you!

  1. I checked out every exercise video in my library’s borrowing system that had words like “easy” or “toning” in the title or description. Use whatever key words fit your preferences. NOTE: If videos are not your style, check out classes at libraries, churches, park districts, and medical centers in your area as well as at fitness centers. If classes aren’t your style, look for sports or training programs you’d like to try–lifting weights, running, biking, swimming, tennis, racquetball–anything.  If you need motivation, hire a personal trainer and/or sign up for a race or other sports competition.
  2. I tried all those videos out. If you’re taking any of the suggestions in the above note, you will be trying out other things. I had already tried several other kinds of exercise over the years. Now with little ones at home, I just wanted an easy video that didn’t require working with someone else’s schedule. Some videos I rejected quickly (Aerobics? Ugh. I wasn’t ready to stick with that!), and others, especially one in particular, I kept coming back to.
  3. I bought the video. Mine happened to be part of a 3-pack set, but if yours is not, you should look for similar ones to go with it. Believe me: it helps to have some variety. (Now I have even more variety with the second set–which, by the way, I tried out first by borrowing DVDs from the library.)
  4. Do it! The more I did mine, the better I felt. And that is truly what has kept me motivated to keep doing these videos several times every week. I don’t always feel like doing my exercises, but I often do them anyway because I know I’ll feel better after I do them.
  5. Move up a level when you’re ready, or adapt the program to meet your changing needs. Instead of moving up to a harder level, I added light weights to my routine. To do that properly, I got a video on doing yoga with weights from–you guessed it–the library. I watched and did that a few times in order to figure out how to incorporate weights into my own exercises. When I wanted to add aerobics, I took up bike riding–not running. (I don’t like running; it does not make me feel good. One of the keys to the success of my program is that the exercises make me feel good.) After I had frozen shoulder last year, I cut the weights out and eventually incorporated extra shoulder exercises into my routines.

The stretching and twisting exercises on my videos are the perfect preparation for a long day of physical activity in the garden. I’m thankful I found exercises that work well for me, and I hope you’re inspired to keep looking until you find ones that will help you enjoy your own garden more.

*NOTE: If you’re wondering why I stick to Wai Lana’s physical exercises and would never practice or promote yoga as a spiritual discipline, please read Albert Mohler’s article, “The Subtle Body–Should Christians Practice Yoga?” and his follow up comments.


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Thanksflowering Recipes

Hibiscus Cranberry Sauce Pins - 11/16/16

Hibiscus Cranberry Sauce Pins – 11/16/16

Are you looking for ways to use edible flowers at Thanksgiving? I just saved three different recipes for Hibiscus Cranberry Sauce on my “I just LOVE edible flowers” Pinterest board. Check them out and let me know if you try any of them.

Here at Chez Rea I’m finally decorated for fall and looking forward to a Friendsgiving dinner for our widows’ group and friends as well as the big day itself. Today I’m thanking our Creator for friends, family, and flowers (especially the edible kind).

Here is what I did with the last non-edible flowers I picked last week before we got a frost.

Zinnias - 11/11/16

Zinnias – 11/11/16


Oh, yes–I am VERY thankful for the extended harvest I have had thanks to such a late first frost! We had several frost-alerts when the predicted low could have gone down to 32 degrees but it didn’t. Here are the tomatoes I grabbed from the garden before the last time it happened, when my garden really did get frost.

Final Tomato Harvest - 11/8/16

Final Tomato Harvest – 11/8/16

Next I must work on fall clean up in the garden as well as Friendsgiving and Thanksgiving preparations. So many blessings!

Posted in Herbs & Edible Flowers, Recipes | Leave a comment

The Mystery of the Nosy Tomato

Amish Paste Tomatoes - 8/10/16

Amish Paste Tomatoes – 8/10/16

One of the tomatoes in my garden this year developed a pointy little protrusion. I must confess that I did not give it much thought until a friend recently reported the same thing happening to her:  “My tomato has a nose! Fellow gardeners, have you ever seen this before! Just curious if anyone knows how it got that way. (I don’t.)”.

Being a master gardener, I felt honor bound to look up the answer. My master googling skills turned up a gardening post with this quotation from Joe Kemble, Extension Specialist Professor at the University of Auburn.

It is a physiological/genetic disorder. With tomatoes, you can expect about 1 genetic mutation for every 1,000 plants. That’s actually a very high number.

The images with the pronounced horns resulted from a problem that occurred while the fruit was still microscopic. A few cells divided wrong and produced a extra fruit locule. Usually when you slice a fruit in half horizontally, you see 4 or 6 distinct segments in large fruited tomatoes. These are the locules. The error that occurred during cell division gets magnified as the cells increase in number and in size. The environment is the usually culprit causing the genetic problem. Usually extended high temps (above 90 during the day and above 82-85 during the night) causes the development of malformed fruit. You might only see one or two fruit on an occasional plant. Older heirloom types are more susceptible.

As day and night temps moderate, you should see fewer and fewer of these.

This explanation certainly fits our circumstances here in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. We did have a heat wave or two–that’s pretty typical–and my tomato in the above picture is an old heirloom variety, Amish Paste.

I highly recommend Amish Paste tomatoes, by the way, if you like to make sauces for freezing or canning. They grow much larger than my other paste tomatoes, Ukrainian Pear and San Marzano. Ukrainian Pear is my sentimental favorite, of course, because I am Ukrainian. Its plants are strong and prolific, so I get a lot of fruit for sauces from them even though I often have to cut off their yellow shoulders. The San Marzanos are tasty even though mine are not and cannot ever be official D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes. Alas, they tend to be less prolific and more disease susceptible than the other varieties. (Here’s a fun story, by the way, for any cooks out there who are concerned about the quality of the canned tomatoes they use: The Mystery of San Marzano.)

And thus I’ve solved the Mystery of the Nosy Tomato.



Posted in Harvest Tally, Master Gardeners, Vegetables | Leave a comment

Talk It Up

Shakespeare Picnic - 7/20/16

Shakespeare Picnic – 7/20/16

Summer is in full swing here at Chez Rea, and that means that I’m harvesting and using edible flowers (I just love edible flowers!) as well as vegetables, herbs, and fruit from my garden. Do you wish you could do the same? You can! Come and hear how–I’m giving two gardening talks NEXT WEEK.

  • Edible Flowers–They’re Incredible! Monday, July 25, 2016, at the Palos Heights Garden Club, 7 P.M., in Lake Katherine‘s Brigid O’Malley Auditorium. Debbie Rea will talk about growing and using edible flowers–something she has enjoyed doing for over 15 years. She will share which ones she has found to be the easiest to grow and her favorite ways to use them. Come and find out how to amaze and delight your guests with some incredible edible flowers. ($5 guest fee–no registration required, just show up)
  • Organic Kitchen Garden Maintenance Saturday, July 30, 2016, at the Homer Township Public Library, 11 A.M. Avid gardener Debbie Rea will share how she maintains an organic kitchen garden here in Homer Glen from year to year, her favorite methods for planting, watering, feeding, and putting the garden to bed and how she deals with problems such as pests, diseases, and weeds. (Free–registration available by phone, 708-301-7908, or online).

Here’s what I’ve made this last week.

By the way, I’ve already posted the recipe for that wonderful homemade pickle you see in the Shakespeare picnic picture above.  It’s a long time family favorite that my mom always made with cucumbers from my dad’s garden.

7/25/16 UPDATE:

I cannot always do this when I give my edible flowers talk, but I went out this morning and picked a bunch of live samples to bring when I give my presentation tonight.

Posted in Fruit, Garden Talks and Shows, Herbs & Edible Flowers, Vegetables | Leave a comment