Happy Outcomes

Our cook’s bed has had its fair share of challenges this year and as the season comes to a close it’s exciting to see the positive outcome of everyone’s effort and support.  By far, our biggest challenge is the creeping shade looming over our fenced vegetable garden which has contributed to plants struggling to germinate, grow and thrive. As a team we pondered various ways we might be able to solve this issue. Leslie Paulson listened, brainstormed, and advocated with the monastery. The outcome…our vegetable garden has been approved to relocate to a sun drenched area! This will require more teamwork, but we are motivated by the support we have received from the teaching garden as a whole, from Sister Pat and the monastery, and the public attending the Saturday in the Garden seminars who are eager to learn the best practices being demonstrated.

Another recent happy outcome came in the form of purple sweet potatoes. Early this season we said goodbye to one of our cook’s team volunteers, Dawn Barr, as she embarked on a new adventure to Germany. Before leaving she gifted us with some purple sweet potato slips. These little slips endured an early summer of cool and wet temperatures and a few encounters with wildlife breaching the fencing protection. We were starting to doubt if anything edible would be found in the soil, but I’m happy to report that despite all these challenges we still harvested a generous handful of sweet potatoes. A few MG’s took some home to try this All Purple variety in the kitchen. Dawn, thank you for the gift!

Our current challenge has been the very long spell of hot and dry weather. If reports are correct, a fix in the form of rain should be on its way. It’s always a good outcome when nature decides to side with Team Gardener!

Amye Foelsch

Scarlet Runner Beans

There is a story that’s been growing in raised bed four. It contains all the good elements of storytelling; a dynamic and beautiful main character that has the ability to heal and provide nourishment for the hungry, while remaining trapped in a 4×6 fenced space in the middle of a beautiful garden setting with the unfortunate problem of being mostly forgotten. In her desperate need to be noticed, she creates beautiful, brilliantly colored flowers, grabbing the attention of all who enter the garden, but as these flowers fade, so does the attention she receives. Alone again, she produces long, green pods which over time begin to fade to brown and crackle in the wind, as she herself comes to the end of her season. Yet, she leaves one last gift—jewels! These purple-speckled jewels are edible and contain a nutrient packed inside.

Who is this heroine that gave so much, in return for so little? Her name is Scarlet Runner Bean, and she became part of the Teaching Garden story in late May when we still had an empty raised bed in need of planting. In 2016 this bed grew tomatoes and okra, something we did not want to repeat in the same area. After spending all spring prepping and planting the bio beds and other raised beds, we were mostly looking for a plant that would keep the soil covered during the summer months and not be something we would have to fuss over. Thomas had Scarlet Runner Bean seeds available, and it was quickly decided we would grow these beans for its legume nitrogen fixing soil benefits, and not necessarily for the harvest of beans.

As the above story goes, we truly did plant and forget…okay, we did water, but that has been the extent of our efforts. This plant has thrived, filled, and spilled over its caged area. There have been many happy pollinators zipping in for visits, but no bad bugs to be found threatening its welfare. By mid-summer it burst into flames of brilliant, crimson colored flowers, which I imagine would look beautiful in a vase arrangement.  Green pods followed, but most of us were not fans of eating them raw.  So we left the plant alone again, only to come back and find gorgeously colored dried beans inside the now brown pods. This story will end after we have harvested enough of the dried beans to use in a recipe. Fortunately, there are a couple of Master Gardeners with some amazing cooking talents who might be willing to help write the last delicious chapter.

If you would like to recreate this story in your own garden, here is a link to a good read with more detailed information.



Treats in the Garden

Today we continued the garden ritual of harvesting, weeding, and watering. We also took a peek under the sweet potato protection fencing to see how things are growing. We were surprised to see there were no big tubers bursting from the soil, and concluded this is most likely the result of the wet and cooler summer; sweet potatoes like it hot! So this prompted the decision to change the vegetable topic for the October 21st Saturday in the Garden (SIG) from sweet potatoes to garlic and brassicas. Charlene will be putting together another recipe book, so make sure to send any favorite recipes that include garlic or the brassica family her way. This past SIG was especially sweet with getting to sample Charlene’s chocolate pea pods. I think every child would eat up their legumes if they grew like that.

Visual treats around the garden included: monarch caterpillars in Jannell and Karen’s native bed; a honeybee taking in the menu on the Bee, Butterfly and Hummingbird garden sign; and beautiful, unblemished eggplant dripping off the plants in Jannell’s raised bed.

Enjoy your week and all the visual treats it has to offer.



Signs of Fall in the Vegetable Garden

A change in season can be just the pick-me-up needed to renew one’s spirit, outlook and feel invigorated to tackle new tasks. Out at the Teaching Garden there has been a lot of talk about nature’s way of showing the gardener that fall is approaching. Master Gardener Robin Finehout wrote and posted an excellent write up on this very subject. Her shared research has me noticing signs of fall in my own garden.

In the vegetable garden one of the biggest signs fall is approaching stems from the activities of the gardener. Row covers and trellis are erected for cool loving crops like broccoli, cabbage, and snow peas. Seed packets of lettuce, spinach, turnips and kale once again share a spot with the garden tools. The dying vines of squash and cucumber plants are removed and those areas are prepped with rich compost and covered with seeds of crimson clover and rye.  More time is spent harvesting the flush of tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos. All these activities occurred this morning at the Teaching Garden. We are ready for fall, and with brilliant green cilantro springing up in the corner of the garden, all on its own, the veggie garden is telling us it’s ready for fall too.


Check out Robin’s post:


Veggie Garden Update

Just a quick recap of things from Tuesday morning.

No groundhog damage in FEGH or, surprisingly, to the sweet potato vines growing outside the cage in B and C.

The lemon cucumbers were pretty disease-ridden so I took them out. They were covered in squash bugs. I also took out several squash plants including all of the summer squashes. I did salvage a few cucumbers, a patty-pan, a zypher, 2 spaghetti squashes and 3 butternuts for the sisters. The butternut seems to be weathering things the best and at least 1 spaghetti squash is hanging in there. I didn’t see many squash bugs, but there is powdery mildew everywhere.

We did get a fair number of wax peppers and ripe tomatoes. Most of the tomatoes I harvested showed little damage from insects or splitting. Still no San Marazaro tomatoes. On a side note, I’ve only had 4 mature at home and blossom end rot and slugs got to them before I could harvest any. The brassicas haven’t grown much but don’t seem to have any damage from pests.

There is 1 wax or provider bean in E that actually looks healthy – still no flowers yet. The scarlet runner beans have started producing pods! Yay, we have legumes. I hadn’t seen any at SIG but a couple on the backside of the bed were quite large. I opened up the tomatillo cage and harvested as many ripe fruits as I could find – a little more than a plastic grocery bag of them.

I overseeded a mix of rye and crimson in D and H (except the cucumber area on Saturday, but nothing had come up yet. I’ll bring more covers out on Tuesday.

Jeff S. brought two buckets of hop slurry that we’ve laid out in pans under a picnic table. It’s a lovely split pea soup looking mess. We have the picnic table covered in case it storms. The hope is to evaporate out the liquids and see if the hop solids are useful as compost or fertilizer.

The slurry didn’t work for Joe in the compost, but we suspect it was the residual alcohol in the liquid portion that caused the problem. This should give us a better idea of it was the problem. I also poured some of the excess liquid on some of the weeds in the mulch outside the fence by H. Based on what happened when a bucket was spilled in the compost area, that should kill them.

There were at least 3 swallowtail caterpillars feasting on the fennel next to where the cucumber were in H. Native bees were very active on the hyssop and scarlet runner beans.

Charlene, thank you for watering and getting the produce to the monastery.


Gardening In The Rain

Picture this scene: adults wandering around outside, dripping wet from rain, with soil streaks on their clothes, hands, and face. This scenario might make some raise an eyebrow or even ignite some concern. Now insert the words “in the garden” and the setting makes sense. This happy side effect of gardening brings the adult outside on days most would rather stay inside to remain warm and dry.  The gardener knows rain days mean brilliant colors, no sweltering sun, and best of all; that childhood spirit coming out to play. This was our Tuesday morning at the Teaching Garden–wet and beautiful.

The focus in the vegetable garden was getting the cabbage, broccoli and spinach into the ground. This preparation marks the starting line of fall’s fast approach. These veggies, which were started in the office, are off to an excellent start, as the bed was prepped with rich compost made on premise by the compost team. Once the last plant was nestled into the ground, the row cover came out from its summer hibernation to help protect these fellows from future frost and pests like the imported cabbageworm. By the time these little veggies are big and producing, fall will be approaching the finish line. Until then, there is plenty of time to meander in the rain, and take in all the beauty and brilliant colors our garden has to offer.



Struggles in the Vegetable Garden

Let’s begin with an image.

At first glance, one might think this photo was taken at the beginning of the gardening season. After all, large parts of the beds appear to be bare; but, upon further scrutiny, the viewer notices zinnias in full bloom and no signs of brassicas growing, and thus, concludes the photo must have been taken later in the season.

That conclusion is accurate as the photo captures the current state of our fenced vegetable garden in August: a time when our garden is usually keeping us very busy with harvest and hiding our walking paths.

My garden friends, we have a wicked problem, as these sparse spaces you see in the photo are not caused by lack of planting or effort. We have indeed planted, replanted, and tended to seeds and nursed plants this season. From observation the problem seems to be the result of a perfect storm of determined hungry wildlife, soil concerns, and creeping shade.

These are heavy topics, especially the ever encroaching shade. We are a teaching garden and our garden’s failure to thrive impacts not just the master gardeners who enjoy tending to the vegetable garden, but also the community we serve to educate, demonstrate and inspire, as well as the monastery kitchen we deliver harvest to.

The positive is we have time on our side. Through careful observation we have begun to notice the signs and symptoms our garden is sending us. So, yes, the fenced garden is not growing as prolific as it once was, but, none the less, it’s still producing. We are not caught off guard, we are aware of what is happening and have the time to start brainstorming and putting plans into action.

This post is an outreach for a call to action to get our thinking caps on, all ideas and solutions welcome. The ultimate goal: to keep our vegetable garden in the sun and continue to be a place where education, inspiration and bounty can be shared with all.



July 15th: Saturday In the Garden

Beneficial Insects and Vegetable of the Month: Squash.

Hello there!

Hopefully everybody had a great weekend, because we sure did! This past Saturday was another monthly installment of our “Saturday In the Garden” Class Series and there was fun had by all! In case you weren’t able to join us in the garden this past weekend, here’s a recap of our morning.

After all of our guests arrived, our SIG began with introductions from everyone’s favorite insect enthusiast, Nancy Berlin! Nancy went over the agenda for the day, gave a brief description of The Master Gardener Teaching Garden, and then lead the guests on a tour of the garden beds. Nancy and our participants traveled all over the garden to places that exemplified the topic of “Beneficial Insects” as well as any plants or beds that showed off some of the many pests that we have lurking around! Some of the stops included; The Herb Garden and all of it’s insect attracting plants, the black swallowtail caterpillars found on the fennel, the praying mantis egg cases found in the drought-tolerant bed, the many fragrant plants in the Fragrance Bed, and of course, the Bee, Butterfly and Hummingbird Bed. Nancy did a wonderful job and was able to spread the idea of promoting beneficial insects, while also answering any questions that arose.

“The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” – J.B.S. Haldane

This quote was used by our terrific guest speaker, Jeff Schneider, to start off his lecture on Beneficial Insects. If you haven’t met Jeff yet, you should really get to know him! He and his wife Judy have been Master Gardeners since 2002 and they both have been actively involved ever since! Each year, Jeff goes to the Virginia Biological Farming Conference to bring back the newest information on organic farming techniques and he participates in many different aspects of the Master Gardener Lifestyle, including teaching our Vegetable Gardening Training Class, working at the Dale City Farmers Market, and regularly doing BEST Lawns Evaluations! Jeff is very knowledgeable on the topic of insects in the garden and he did a fantastic job of relaying all of his knowledge to our guests for the day! He really stressed the importance of getting bugs to do the work in your garden for you, and how these techniques can save time and money. Jeff was also able to incorporate squash, our Vegetable of the Month, into his talk by outlining specific management techniques for dealing with squash bugs and cucumber beetles.

And speaking of squash….. To highlight this month’s vegetable, each of our guests received a copy of Charlene Toloso’s Squash Recipe Book! To make the day even sweeter, Charlene brought samples of her Zucchini Dessert Squares and they were delicious! If you’re interested in getting your own copy of Charlene’s recipe book for this month, feel free to reach out to Collin Miller, the VCE Summer Intern, at CMiller6@pwcgov.org.


In summary, this month’s Saturday In the Garden was a success! Now we can look forward to next month’s class, “Some Like it Hot! Top Summer Plant Performers” on August 19th. Hope to see you there!


The Herb Garden

Herbs: What are they?

What are Herbs? Where do they come from? And why do we have them in our garden?! To answer these questions we have to start from the beginning…

I’m sure everyone has notice all of those delightful scents every time they walk past the herb garden, but what makes them smell SO good?

We know that the sense of smell has always been a vital part of the ecosystem. Many animals use the sense of smell to find food, to find mates, and to avoid danger, and in this case, our plants are no different! Many plants produce different aromatic chemicals in order to attract animals needed to disperse their seeds or to avoid being eaten by hungry insects. Mint, for example, contains chemicals that are toxic to some insects, but to use, however, it smells and tastes delicious!

Herbs have been used since some of the earliest civilizations. The Ancient Egyptians were shown to have used herbs such as fennel, coriander, and thyme as medicine, and many civilizations in China have been using herbal remedies since the 1st Century! Most of us, nowadays, just use these herbs for cooking, while some modern cultures still use herbs such as mint to take care of coughs, digestive issues, and headaches.



Our Wonderful Herb Garden!

About the Bed and the Bed Leader: Cheryl Ayres

Cheryl has been the bed leader of this aromatic bed for around 2 years now and she has been doing a fantastic job. This bed was originally started and maintained by Marilyn and Hank Spencer, until the role of “Bed Leader” was handed over to Cheryl and she keeps the bed looking as lush as ever (especially with all the rain we got this week), while certainly supporting the many diverse types of culinary and scented herbs planted by the original caretakers.

Over time, this bed has gone through many changes, such as the addition of new like the woolly thyme (perennial) and red basil (annual), while still maintaining the staples. The bed has also undergone a recent renovation, as you’ve probably already seen. One of the columns has been rebuilt, and the other is scheduled to be redone in late fall.

The Herb Bed is one of the few beds where taking a hands on approach is not only allowed, but it’s encouraged! One of the best features about the Herb Bed is that most of the plants growing here are edible! Cheryl even plans on putting up a sign that says, “Please Touch”. Luckily, most of the plants here are unappetizing to the local wildlife, so there is no need to worry about animal damage, unless the local deer decide to sit lay in the chamomile! (Pictured Below) Other than the signs of deer, this bed is often visited by turtles, birds, and plenty of butterflies.

After working in the bed for a long time, Cheryl recommends planting certain plants, especially the mint and lemon balm, in more confined spaces because she has seen how easily these plants can “take over”. She also wants homeowners to be aware of horseradish and fennel because of how deep their roots extend.


The Native Bed

The Teaching Garden has many beds, each unique. The Native Bed is a beautiful display of native plants to Virginia and Northern Virginia, meticulously maintained by Master Gardeners Janell Bryant (right) and Karen O’Leary (left). These ladies work very hard to keep the bed under reasonable control! This year is the 6th year they have been co-leaders. Janell has been a MG for 6 years. She also helps with a community MG project in Woodbridge. Most of her MG volunteer hours are spent at the TG. She believes that native plants are very bit as beautiful as other garden perennials and annuals. In her spare time Janell also enjoys crocheting and reading. Karen also graduated with the MG class of 2010. She and Janell took over the bed as interns. They remember the bed being a “jungle” when they first started, not knowing where to begin. They have slowly removed some plants to open it up, replacing with natives, and learning more about them as they went along. After reading Doug Tallamy’s book, “Bringing Nature Home“, Karen realized the important role that natives  bring in maintaining the ecological role of an area, and planting them is one thing we can all do to help the environment.

Native plants are very important in our landscapes. They tolerate a wide range of conditions and provide food for our birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insects. Easy to grow when you have “the right plant in the right place”, they are often resistant to drought and other stressful environmental conditions.

This year the Native Bed is undergoing a much needed renovation and throughout the growing season they will be adding new plantings. As the season progresses and more plants flower, the garden comes alive with birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insects. This week the Pussy toes, yellow and white violets and Golden Alexanders are in bloom. The flowering dogwood is quite beautiful this year, and the Coral Honeysuckle is also in bloom.

Please come by and visit the Janell and  Karen’s Native bed. They would love to show you around!  You can read these signs to figure out what they have growin,g and where.

Great references on native plants and beneficial insects can be found at MGPW.org :