growing a bountiful garden in cold climates


Abby’s guest-posting at Modern Alternative Mama today … here’s a preview:

… Yesterday at the grocery store, I noticed small conventional limes were $1.50 each.  I knew it must be mislabeled, so I double checked with the cashier.  She said unfortunately that the price was right, and it was one of many foods on short supply, resulting in much higher prices.

These sort of situations always leave me uncomfortable, longing for the old days when we weren’t so dependent on the grocery store.  It’s another confirmation that, regardless of where I live, I will always grow food.

I live in Montana, where we still have occasional snow showers until early June (and sometimes longer).  This is our fourth summer here, and every year we’ve managed to grow a bounty of food.

If you’re like me and still want an organic garden, but don’t have California sunshine at your disposal,there’s still hope!  Here are a few ways I manage to grow a large garden in a cold part of the country.

To keep reading, click here …

garden 2014 … step one: DREAM

… I had a dream last night that the strawberry patch I planted last year grew baseball sized purple strawberries.  So cool.

But that’s not exactly what I’m talking about.

As our mailbox fills up with seed catalogs, my brain inevitably fills with incredible dreams of the possibilities for this year’s garden.  And the more I think about it, the more I realize how important it is (today) to spend some time dreaming and reflecting.  Reflecting on past years’ gardens, dreaming of tomorrow …

NOTE: See that picture of Abby’s greenhouse?  I’m also dreaming of her garden … I can’t help it.  She’s got a killer greenhouse and I look forward to the day when she can help me figure out how to build mine.  (Put that on your to-do list, Ab.  I’m gonna need lotsa help.)

I’ve been dreaming of all the roasted vegetable salsa, pizza sauce, pesto, broccoli salad, roasted beet salads, bone broth, tomato sandwiches, kale salads, kale crisps, green smoothies, roasted cabbage salads, fermented veggies, stir fries and grilled veggie sandwiches … the list is really too long, but oh so fun to let my mind wander …

And then I REFLECT on what was growing last year …

I didn’t plant enough garlic (which plants in the fall, so I took care of this by planting 40 more bulbs this year, devoting a 10ft x 2 ft bed entirely to garlic).  I didn’t plan enough kale.  I planted too many golden nugget squash.  Too many zucchini.  I always want more tomatoes.  And I’m devoting an entire bed to herbs this year (in part because we’re getting chickens and I keep reading how beneficial herbs are to raising organic, unmedicated chickens who lay beautiful and healthy eggs!)

And then I do a REALITY CHECK

Because as much as I love eggplant parmesan and I think roasted peppers are on my list of favorite veggie bits ever … my experience growing eggplant in Montana’s short summers has not been super productive.  And my attempt at growing peppers?

lone pepper

Not so successful.

Unless (like Abby) you’ve got a greenhouse or a wicked cold frame, growing warm, Mediterranean deliciousness can be a challenge in Zone 4.  I’m not saying you can’t succeed growing eggplant and peppers.  My friend Chris is the KING of Montana eggplant.  He gave me a start two years ago and it’s the only time I’ve ever successfully grown an eggplant in Montana.  But I’ll be honest and tell you I kept that plant inside until July and then never moved it into the garden but let it grow in a pot on our back porch.  I brought it inside if the temps were dropping below 45-50 degrees (more nights in the summer than I like to admit).  And the yield from this Herculean effort?  One.  Small (4 inches, maybe).  Beautiful.  Eggplant.  (That I did not photograph?!?!?)

Okay, so … reality check.  Figure out what will grow where you live.  (Don’t know your zone?  Or why it matters?  Click here to find out.)

And then think about your space … Where is your garden?  How much room do you have?  And what are you looking to accomplish?

We have limited garden space (10 raised beds of varying size in the backyard, a more freewheeling in-ground garden in the front yard (chives, mint, rhubarb, roses, tulips, a few ornamental bushes), and two garden boxes alongside our front porch which are already planted with strawberries and mint.

But I want to grow enough food to avoid the grocery store’s vegetables for at least a few months of the year.  Not that I won’t buy avocados or ginger from the Coop because I can’t grow them in my backyard … I just like being able to walk outside or, once fall arrives, go to our cold storage and pluck out the food we’ll need for dinner.  It makes meal-planning a lot easier when the choices are all right in front of me.  So I’ve got to dream about all the foods we like to eat and then figure out how much of each thing we need to grow.

Which brings me to STEP TWO: PLAN (and order your seeds/starts)

And then on to STEP THREE:  PLANT

STEP FOUR:  TRANSPLANT (getting things in the garden)

And finally … the best step … STEP FIVE:  HARVEST (and see your dreams come true!)

What are your garden dreams for 2014?

Want to know what goes in to planning a garden to feed a family of four for 6-8 months?  More on that next week.


pay off

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February 28

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untitled (1 of 1)-22MAY 16 (Finally moved into the greenhouse.)


Admittedly all rigged up, but what else can you expect from a 8 foot tall tomato plant?  But who cares… we’re getting hundreds of these!!


Isn’t it amazing what ONE SEED can do?!

What did you grow this summer?

PS – Need some organic gardening ideas?  Check this out.

it’s September and we’re freezing in Montana … and pickling, too.

I hope you’re having as much fun as we are in the garden this year.  It’s been a bumper crop so far.

We’ve already eaten every last of our carrots.  (We’re going to have to plant more next year.)

And broccoli. (Another crop we’ll need to expand next year … good thing we just added two more raised beds!)


We have too much zucchini that ripened all at the same time (and just as many left on the vine to ripen in the next week).


A lot of tomatoes …


 … and again, even more on the vine waiting to ripen.

A few pounds of cucumbers.

More than a few heads of garlic.

A good amount of basil.

And not enough peppers (It’s not easy to grow peppers in a raised bed in Montana … the nights are too cold and the season too short).  But we were able to grow ONE (out of  8 plants).

lone pepper

I’m re-thinking the strategy on peppers for next year.  Does anyone have an easy how-to build a cold frame they’d like to share using old storm windows?

So now that we’ve harvested so much of our bounty, my brain is turning to food storage.  Because we want to take advantage of all this goodness, but know we can’t eat it all before it goes bad and as much as I appreciate our compost bin, I don’t want to see this goodness wind up there.  So what to do to preserve and store?


My hope is to preserve as much of the “freshness” as we can with zucchini.  We’re blanching an freezing most of the what we’ve plucked from the garden this year for use in stews and soups as the weather turns colder.

But blanching veggies that you’re  going to freeze is a little different from blanching veggies you’re going to eat right away. When you’re blanching to freeze, do NOT salt the water.  Salt will break down the cell walls and you’ll end up with mushy vegetables.  And that’s not what we want.  We want a bit of crisp fresh goodness in the midst of our winter.  At least, that’s what want.  Maybe you like mushy zucchini?

Here’s how we’re doing it:

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Meanwhile, half-fill a large bowl with cold water and some ice to use as an ice bath.  While the water comes to a boil, chop the zucchini into similar-sized pieces (rounds, squares, wedges … whatever shape you’re hoping to use in the coming months).  For this batch (which is a soup-batch) I chose to chop them into 1-inch bits.  Regardless of their shape, keep the size roughly the same.  It will help ensure even cooking time when you go to use them.


Once the pot of water is at a rolling boil, carefully add cubed or sliced zucchini (in batches if necessary).  As soon as the skin turns “bright green” and the zucchini is a nice firm al dente texture (just about a minute for smaller bits, one to two minutes for larger chunks) use a slotted spoon to remove and add to the ice bath to stop the cooking.


From the ice bath, I move the zucchini to tray lined either with paper towel or a flour-sack towel and let drain for just a few minutes before I put them in Ziploc freezer bags that I lay flat to freeze.


IMG_1022 (NOTE:  I feel funny using plastic for this food storage, but I haven’t found an alternative yet that works for freezing.  And I don’t love what happens to summer squash in canning.  If you have a suggestion, I would LOVE to hear it!)


Unlike my sister Teri, who gagged when I sent her the photo from above of our tomato-bounty :), I love tomatoes.  (In her defense, she had a tomato soup incident as a 4-year-old that pretty much sealed her never-eat-a-tomato-even-ketcheup fate.  I don’t want to tell you about it because it was gross. Needless to say … she doesn’t eat tomatoes.)

But as I said, I love tomatoes. Fresh, they are bright and sweet and perfect.  Heated, they get even sweeter and warmer and

Our littles love tomatoes.  But even so … there are just too many in the garden this year to be able to eat them all fresh.  I can only eat so many tomato sandwiches, caprese salads and ratatouille in one day.  So what we can’t eat fresh, I’ve decided to turn into three staples we need in the kitchen all year long and then freeze.

I’ve already made 1 1/2 gallons of this Tomato Sauce (which I will use for pizza, pasta, meatballs, soup, etc).  I’ve got enough tomatoes in the kitchen this morning to make another half gallon.  When all is said and done, I’ll have up with three gallons in the freezer.

Taco Sauce.  After we’ve got the tomato sauce stored, I’ll turn to taco sauce and do the same process.  My goal is to have at least half a gallon of taco sauce in pint jars for easy use.

And then Tomato Paste … a recipe I’ll share when I have a chance to get some photos of the process.  I just don’t love that most tomato paste comes in BPA-lined little cans.  Tomatoes are so acidic.  And often, recipes call for just a tablespoon or two of this burst of brightness so then you end up using just a little of the 2 oz can and the rest goes to waste.  SOOOOO … I’m off to Owenhouse Ace Hardware for a 12-pack of 4 oz ball jars to prep for the tomato paste adventure.


We used This Recipe to make garlic dill pickles.


I’m going to have to plant even more garlic this year because I’m using so much what we harvested right now.  I’ve used several head in the tomato sauce.  I’ll use more in the taco sauce.  I’ve been on a bit of a hummus-jag these days.  And whatever’s left of the garlic will end up combined with whatever’s left of the basil in a pesto.

All this food-stuff … it gets me so excited for next year’s garden!  I’m already making lists and plans.  And we’re only about a month away from having to plant the garlic!

I need to make a seed order … STAT!



organic gardening: a few tips for beginners

Abby here.

The greenhouse is currently at it’s peak, and is it crazy to say it’s been a blast?! I mean, I would have never guessed this sort of thing would be… well… my thing.

After posting pics on FB of some of our bounty, I’ve gotten quite a few questions on organic gardening.


I’ve been at this for 3 years now, which means I’m far from an expert but I’ve mastered a few things that work. While we do a bit more than throw a seed in the dirt and pray it grows, we keep our methods simple. Nothing too fancy or I think I’d throw in the cards!

I often think back to the professional organic gardener I know who told me even after 10 years she is still learning and changing how she does things every year. I think the unorganized side of me loves that… there’s still so much to learn!

But back to what I do know. Here are few things that will hopefully help those of you considering starting a garden take the leap!



This one is a toss-up, but I think having a greenhouse in the Montana climate has been incredible. A few friends ( Hi Jeanne! Hi Jennifer!) successfully grow food in a garden, but it is a shorter growing season with the risk of an extreme temperature drop or hail storm.

If you live in a more temperate climate and are just gardening for your family, an outdoor garden should suit you just fine. Greenhouses can be expensive and should not stop you from growing food!

Here is professional drawing I threw together of our current layout in the greenhouse.  I only wrote  the main plants in each bed, like tomatoes and blueberries, but didn’t include all their companion plants, as I thought i’d be way to hard to read.  In the tomato beds we also have basil, peppers and onions.   Ohh, and at the front of the greenhouse we have a giant (like 6 feet tall) tomatillo plant that produces one tomatillo… just one.  I have no idea what I did wrong, as it should have produced hundreds.


Whether you are in a greenhouse or garden, do your best to alternate crop locations each year as to not deplete the soil. Given the arrangement of our greenhouse, we can’t easily rotate every year, so we amend our soil with compost like crazy.

20130825-215451.jpg COMPANION PLANTING.

This means planting certain plants in pairs or groups, as they help each other out by encouraging growth, warding off unwanted pest or attracting the beneficial insects.

HERE is a great chart of companion planting in organic gardening.


It’s all about the soil! I must confess that I’m only starting to learn about the pH balance in soil, but plan on researching that more this winter in preparation for next summer. We amend our soil each year with organic compost, and used Jeanne’s soil blend for some new beds this year. Avoid soils such as Miracle Grow that include non-organic fertilizers.

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First off, this whole gardening gig has turned out to be a big job. But the pay off… organic produce that hasn’t been messed with by anyone but us… that is rewarding. Get your family involved, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Kids are great a watering and pulling weeds!

Some years your garden will be so productive you won’t know what to do with everything, and other years you will spend the whole time wondering what you are doing wrong. What works great one year, might not work the next.

Some years the bugs will seem to take over and you will grunt and groan and wish you could spray toxic pesticides all over that place. But instead of poisoning your plants… you pull yourself up by the boot straps and buy some ladybugs and let them do the work.

Some years you will google and google and google to figure if the yellowing of your leaves is from over-watering or under-watering, but you’ll eventually figure it out and have hundreds of tomatoes to thank you.


As I mentioned earlier, this is our third year in the greenhouse and it’s the start of a lifetime of gardening for me. I’ve tasted the (organic gardening) rainbow, and don’t foersee ever going back. I don’t expect everyone to share my enthusiasm, but I promise you’ll experience at least a bit of joy eating food you’ve grown yourself!

ladybugs: the good guys in organic gardening

getting rid of aphids /

Abby here.

Out of nowhere, yellow aphids decided to invade the greenhouse and make my life miserable.

getting rid of aphids /

getting rid of aphids /

When it comes to organic gardening, aphids have by far been my worst problem. These little yellow nuisances have made their appearance in moderation before, going after our cabbage and greens, but this year they had a taste for peppers and parsley.

When I discovered they by the thousands (I know, it’s gross) on the peppers a few weeks ago, my gut reaction was to pull out the pepper plants and get them as far away from the greenhouse as possible. I think I had 3 gone before I settled down and realized there had to be a better solution.

I sprayed them with neem oil, trying to avoid the fruit and focusing on the leaves. Neem oil is safe for organic gardening, but I preferred to not spray the actual fruit if possible. I then ran out quickly and bought 4,000 ladybugs for $22 at our local Planet Natural. We released them that night, per the instructions, and it was incredible to see the aphids disappear by the masses each day. I read that ladybugs eat 40-50 aphids a day, so we kept them busy for a while.  Now there are literally no aphids on the peppers!

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All was good, until I discovered just as many aphids on our parsley in another section of the greenhouse. I opted out of spraying them with neem oil this time, because of the fact we eat the parsley leaves.  I went straight for the ladybugs this time, after how well they worked on the peppers. Again, they had their work cut out for them. It’s going a little slower due to not spraying them with neem oil first, but the aphids are still disappearing more and more each day.

I harvested some parsley today to make some spaghetti sauce, and just soaked it in salt water for about 10 minutes to remove a few remaining aphids.  And if you think the idea of bugs on your produce is gross… well, it’s just a way of life.  If there are no bugs ever, it only means your food has been sprayed to death with pesticides and herbicides and that ain’t no good either, folks.

So what’s the key to organic gardening? I’d say staying attentive to your plants before anything gets too out of hand. I was foolish in thinking the beneficial nematodes and ladybugs I released at the beginning of the summer would do that job. And check the undersides of leaves… aphids generally set-up camp there.

Happy gardening!

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I understand that if you don’t garden and haven’t been through the frustration of keeping plants alive while trying to keep the bugs from eating them up first…. you won’t understand how big of a deal it is to me that I FINALLY got cabbage!

I’ve heard of others growing it easily, but it took me three years to figure it out.

So you can imagine my excitement last night when I was able to harvest almost everything I needed for a big thing of coleslaw.  The only thing I didn’t grow was the apple I added in (and we actually have an apple tree, but they’re still growing).
20130728-214913.jpg Do you ever look at the produce in your grocery cart and wonder how long ago it was harvested?  Sometimes produce (even organic, sadly) is harvested way before it’s ready to offer plenty of time for shipping across the country or world. Another reason local is better, and nothing more “local” than your own back yard.

The peppers are also a huge deal to me, as this is the first year we’ve had an abundance from plants that we started from seeds.  The cabbage was huge, and it took everything in me to not ferment the whole thing.


I’ve posted my coleslaw recipe HERE, except for now I prefer to chop by hand over using the food processor to guarantee it has lots of crunch.

20130728-214928.jpg I’ll leave you with this… because we do a whole lot more around here than just garden.


the greatest scape fish taco

Jeanne here.

We got home Saturday afternoon after a week-long road-trip to discover these beautiful “flowers” in the garden!

garden scapes When we left last week, they were strait as an arrow, and the “flower” was just a small nub on the end of the stalk.  Six days later and they are crazy-curled-bulb-like and gorgeous.

Time to harvest the scapes!

Scapes are the flowering stalks on hard-neck garlic.  You’re probably seeing them at your local farmers markets these days … or in the veggie sections of specialty food stores like Whole Foods.

Garlic scapes are great fun to look at, and even more excellent to cook with.  They taste just like garlic, but have a more mild and delicate flavor.  They can easily be used as a garlic replacement … just finely chop them as you might chop a scallion and use liberally.  They are more fibrous than green onions, though, so make sure it’s a fine chop.  Use them to infuse oil, or in hummus or in quinoa or pasta or in stir fries.  Experiment.  And appreciate this newish culinary trend!

There’s some controversy about whether one should actually harvest the scapes on hard-neck garlic or if one should let them grow.  Some say that harvesting the scapes (just after they curl and plump) will allow the plant to focus its energy on growing the bulb, so you get bugger bulbs.  Some say that it doesn’t affect the size of the bulb, but might stress the plant.

I don’t know the real truth here.  But one of the books I used as a reference suggest that when growing garlic in colder climates (like Montana), it’s better to harvest the scapes just after they curl, let the garlic grow for another week or 10 days, harvest the garlic and then cure it for 2 weeks before storing the bulbs.

The downside of harvesting is that one way to tell garlic is ready to harvest is to wait until the scapes turn fibrous and brown.

The upside is that it basically doubles the garlic goodness you get from each plant.

I (obviously) harvested the scapes.  (To harvest a scape, use sharp scissors and remove the flower just above the top most leaf.)

I planted 19 bulbs last october and harvested 15 scapes.

Not too shabby!

But now what?

Well … there was a beautiful wild-caught cod filet at the Co-op last night.

The nice thing about cod is that it’s not an overly “fishy” fish … and our kids LOVE it … although I’m going to admit that it was a bit of a “discussion” to get our girl to try it last night.  One bite in and she was smitten and ate every bite.  But there was definitely a discussion. 😉

We had a fresh ear of corn left by our house-sitter.  Some Mexican fermented veggies, a little leftover Sonora bean puree, homemade taco sauce, and a little queso fresco in the fridge.


scape fish taco


  • 1 filet of wild-caught cod (bones removed, cut into four smaller filets)
  • 2 garlic scapes (finely chopped)
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 pat of pasture butter
  • Juice from half a lemon or lime
  • 6 small to medium flour tortillas
  • Refried beans (we use Diane Kennedy’s Sonora Bean Puree recipe … page 156-157 … and keep them in the fridge to use as needed, but any refried beans will work.)
  • Mexican fermented veggies (any flavorful non-mayo cabbage salad/cole slaw will work here)
  • 1 ear of corn (kernels off the cob)
  • Taco sauce
  • 1 avocado (sliced)
  • sea salt and fresh cracked pepper (to taste)


Heat the oil and butter a large cast iron skillet.  Add the chopped scapes and heat for a minute or two.

Pat down the cod with paper towel and salt & pepper both sides of the fish.

Carefully add the fish to the hot oil and cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side (until fish becomes opaque).

While the fish is cooking, heat the beans in a small pan.  Heat the tortillas.  We heat them one at a time over the flame from one of the burners (about 5 seconds per side … really fast and really easy), but can also wrap them in a towel and heat them in a warm oven for 7-10 minutes.

After turning the fish, , sprinkle with the juice of half a lemon and then start to prepare the tortillas.  A smear of beans, a tablespoon of slaw, a tablespoon of corn kernels … top with the cooked fish, taco sauce and avocado and dig in!

makes about 6 tacos

We’re linked up:

Kelly the Kitchen Kop
This Chick Cooks
Domestic Superhero

putting kids to work

Abby here.

Not only do I love her whit, her down-to-earthness, her compassion and her humor… my very favorite thing about The Pioneer Woman is how her kids work.

They run a rather large cow/calf operation on their ranch, and it appears that their children are a vital part of the process.

I just love it.

And while we don’t have thousands of acres and thousands of cows, I try my best to put my kids to “work” when possible.

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They love having a task to do and being involved… even if it is help Mom make sense of the greenhouse in late March when it’s been neglected for 5 months.
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(Happy to report that section looks way better now!)

And it is true (especially with the youngest), having them help requires much more work on my part.  But I have a good feeling the pay off will be worth it.

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This is the first year where my 4 year old can actually help water the greenhouse.  Who would have thought it’d be so helpful?  Now if only he could decipher which weeds need to be picked!

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Outside of the greenhouse, they love to help mow and pick up branches.  Indoors, we’re (self included!) working on keeping the house more tidy and cleaning up more during the day to lesson the chaos!

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My kids are still young, so most of the jobs are still fun to them.  On days when the weathers bad or they’d rather stay inside, I love having them come “work” the greenhouse with me… teaching him that sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do!

All-in-all, I just want my boys to grow up being good hard-working men.  In an age where kids have it pretty cush with technology at their fingertips and activities galore, I don’t think they’re ever too young to start learning how to work. 🙂

What “jobs” do your kids do?


Abby here.

With the greenhouse in full swing, I thought it’d be fun to share what’s growing. It’s a lot of green right now, but it means food is coming!
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First up, a chinese green that I don’t know the technical name for.  I bought the starts from a local organic farm and have no idea how they taste.  I’m assuming they will be delicious, but if not I can always throw them in a smoothie! untitled (1 of 1)-36 Tomatoes.  These flourish in the greenhouse, and we plant several. They might not look like much now, but in a few months they should be 6 feet tall producing more tomatoes than we know what to do with.  There is a ton of caprese, tomato sauce and fresh salsa in our future.

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Cabbage.  After getting into fermenting more this year, all I can say is those aphids better steer clear. They were pretty fond of our cabbage in the past, but I’m releasing a few thousand lady bugs next week to try and prevent that!

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Peppers. These and cucumbers are the main veggies my kids will always snack on, so we like to grow tons! untitled (1 of 1)-25

Kale.  This plant is so easy to grow and is perfect for smoothies, kale ships, with a roasted beet salad or this spicy sesame salad.

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Lettuce.  To me, these are as pretty as most flowers, and with my family’s recent discovery of Jeanne’s ranch dressing, we will go through this lettuce quickly!
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Snap peas.  These plants will also grow several feet, and are the perfect snack while outside.  We pull them straight off the vine and they are sweet and crunchy.
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Strawberries.  These come back every year, but have been a disappointment the last few summers.  Like I’ve said… I am not expert gardener and not quite sure what we’re doing wrong.  They look great as of right now, and I’m hoping for a big bounty this year.

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Basil.  My boys love basil, and we use it a lot in the summer.  It’s another one of those things that we end up having more than we know what to do with… needless to say, there will be lots of fresh pesto soon.
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Blueberries!  My kids inhale these… like nothing I’ve ever seen.untitled (1 of 1)-27

Bok choy.  John makes a mean stir fry, and these will come in handy!untitled (1 of 1)-26

Carrots.  Another thing we love to munch on while working outside.  I add the carrot tops to smoothies, too.untitled (1 of 1)-28Rasberries… AKA my worst nightmare.  Although they grow so easy and produce a tasty berry, they are very weed-like and spread like crazy.  Which might sound good if they weren’t trying to take over the greenhouse.  We’ve transplanted them outside now, but they are still relentless!untitled (1 of 1)-32Asparagus.  I’m as confused as you are.  Looks like a bad hair day to me.We also have a cucumbers, sweet potatoes, corn, beets and more herbs growing so far but I forgot to snap pics.What about you?  Growing any food this summer?