Category Archives: Urban Gardening

The Bluebirds and the Blueberry Bush

This weekend Levi and I worked and played in the yard together. It’s an exciting time now, as he’s able and interested in helping out on the “Family Farm” on Farthing Street.









A few weeks ago we  put together a bluebird house and stand. I didn’t let him use the drill of course, but his eyes, much better than mine, were able to find the drill bits for me. We staked the house next to the pond and I told Levi I bet they will  love it here at Farthing Pond. We just have to be patient and wait.

Saturday the bluebirds arrived. We watched as one sat  on the house, puffed up mightily, defending his territory from cardinals and thrushes.  This morning, Levi jumped out of bed, opened the curtain and was delighted to see one of the bluebirds sitting on the house.



Outside, daffodils were everywhere like little coming attractions for spring.  Together we planted tulips, which he’d picked out at the garden store for Shawnna (he knows they are her favorite flower.)

As we planted the  tulips in a  row in front of the daffodils, we’d dig up the occasional grub worm. I explained to Levi how bluebirds loved them and we left some as a present for our new friends.

Levi called the ground squishy in some places and he was right. We’ve gotten so much rain this winter.  Over the last couple of months, when it hasn’t been raining,  we’ve been expanding our bioretention area in the back.  The pitcher plant bog is saturated with water and has looked like a small creek at times during the recent rains.


The plants are loving all the extra water that we are catching coming down our sloped yard. For example, we have 3 paw paw trees that are budding now.  The trees sit next to a fake stream bed that I  carved out at the top of the yard in the back. Paw paws are river trees.  We might actually have some to eat this year.











Another example: in front of the bog we have a blueberry bush that is almost eight feet tall. It’s grown like a weed this winter. It’s also expanding sideways and is taken over everything with little runners sticking out all over the  place











There should be enough berries for both birds and humans this year.




Fig Eaters on Farthing Street

Trying to grow our own food has been a challenge, but in recent years we’ve had decent luck with our fruit-bearing plants like strawberries and blueberries, and our enormous fig tree. Every August we eagerly anticipate the fig harvest, and 2017  did not disappoint!

This year little Levi had fun picking figs for the first time. Earlier in the month I had explained to him that we can only harvest the figs when they feel “mushy.”  After that, he’d run up to the tree and squeeze each green, unripe fig, saying “not ripe” to  me.

When the first figs started turning, I pulled one off and broke it in half, showing him the sweet mushy inside, then took a big bite. He did the same with another fig but decided he didn’t really like the taste.  That didn’t stop him from picking figs with Oma, though.

We are now enjoying Oma’s fig preserves, and have been eating them with toast, biscuits, and straight out of the jar.




The Harvest

This week we brought our fingerling sweet potatoes up from the basement where they’d been curing after this fall’s harvest.  Unfortunately our basement wasn’t as cool as we’d thought, so they were a little soft.  Next year we’ll need to keep them under the fan.


This hasn’t  make our little babies any less tasty, though—they  are delicious–but it does mean  we  need to eat them up in a short amount of time.  Of course, I’ve been binging on them from the moment I brought them up from the basement.  It’s been a few days now, and my skin now has a nice, orange glow.

A couple of nights ago while peeling a bunch of them   in front of the television,  I discovered that our bobcat, Franklin, loves sweet potatoes almost as much as his daddy.  He’s become quite a discerning herbivore with a sophisticated palate.


He loves the stringy ends of the fingerlings, usually slinging them around before crunching down on the delicious orange center.  I  gave him a few of the smaller ones.  He seems to like the peeled skin too, which makes me wonder if he’s looking for nutrients. I did a little wikipedia research to find out about cats and vegetables.  Apparently when cats kill a bird they eat the vegetable matter out of its stomach. Kind of gross, huh?   Gives me an idea for a cat toy with a sweet potato center.     FranklinMouthProfile

Flying chickens (and sweet potatoes)

The vagrant chickens of Farthing Street  have been reunited with their owner, who has vowed to clip their wings.

IMG_2487Who knew that chickens could fly?  I sure didn’t.
Of course, their flying acumen  is  akin to the  Wright Brothers first flight.  These things aren’t ready to make a transatlantic voyage yet, but they were able to clear a fence and glide happily across another neighbor’s yard before landing in our tomato patch.  (I’ve  heard that chickens in the wild actually nest in trees.  I’m sure the life of a wild chicken is “nasty, brutish and short” though.)

I had shooed one of the little darlings out of our sweet potato patch.  It turns out she knew before I did that the sweet potatoes were ripe for harvest.  When I went out to water the patch yesterday, I discovered a little dug-out area with the orange end of a sweet potato peeking through.  They are Covington sweet potatoes, which are a little smaller than your run-of-the-mill sweet potatoes, but still just as tasty.  Hooray!

Covtington sweet potatoNow I feel inspired to attend Durham’s own  ChickenStock Festival this Saturday down at Bull City Burger and Brewery. (I told you the Bull City is crazy about chickens.)  The fun starts at 4:00 p.m. and is described as a “free, fun and funky edu-party that brings the community together to learn about urban chicken-raising and sustainable living.”   The Bulltown Strutters, Durham’s own New Orleans-style jazz band, will be providing the musical entertainment.  Inspired I’m sure by Oktoberfest, they’ll be playing “The Chicken Dance.”  That alone would be worth the price of admission,  but happily, the event is free.

Peace out, chicken lovers.

A visit from the chickens

When I pulled open the curtains  this morning, there were three enormous chickens in our backyard.  I have no idea where they came from.   I love Durham.


They are still in the backyard–consider this a live blog–and I still haven’t been able to find the owners.  It’s very amusing.   Of course, it’s all fun and games until they start eating your food.  When I  went inside for a few minutes, they descended on our ‘mater patch with a ravenous fury and started feasting on   cherry tomatoes. So much for tonight’s salad. They seem interested in the sweet potatoes too.

The timing is uncanny.  Those of you who read my last post know that I  pretty much swore off chickens.  I feel like they are asking me for a second chance.



The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken

Before I die,  I want  to write a book called The Weird and Secret History of North Carolina.  In it I’ll chronicle the  strange, the beautiful, the little-known, and the god-awful things that have happened in this state, along with huge heapings of folklore.

In the meantime I have lots of reading and research to do.  This week I’m reading volume 1 of   The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.   Brown was a professor at Trinity College (now Duke University) and  founder of the North Carolina Folklore Society.   The book is a fascinating read.    Last night I was reading stories about voodoo and witchcraft  in  our state before stumbling across a chapter on  plant and animal folklore.    This section contains tiny little nuggets of advice, gleaned from multiple sources over a  number of years.   If there was a North Carolina Farmer’s Bible, this might be the Book of Proverbs.  Here are just a few of them:

It is bad luck to thank anyone for plants or seeds.

Sage must not be gathered during the dog days.

To make hydrangeas blue, place indigo at their roots

To my delight, there was a ton of advice about raising chickens.


Although I’m not the Chicken Man,  I’ve been wanting to write an authoritative piece on chickens for some time now.  (After all, I am the Nature Boy of Durham,  and, as you might know,  the Bull City has seen a near epidemic of Chicken Fever over the last few years.  This is not to be confused with the Avian Flu.  Chances are you know somebody in Durham, NC who has chickens in their backyard, or is talking about it.  I’m thinking the “Durham Chicken” could be a good mascot for Durham Bulls  games;  a San Diego Chicken-like foil for Mr. Wool E. Bull, if you will.)

So here you go, my chicken farmers and wanna-be chicken farmers.  Behold these pearls of wisdom.  These were collected from a number of sources in North Carolina between the years 1912 and 1943:

If you set eggs when the wind is eastward, the chickens will “holler” themselves to death.

If you count chickens, turkeys, etc., they will die.

Hens should be set three weeks before the full of the moon.

If there are thunderstorms while eggs are “setting,” the eggs will not hatch.

To break a hen from setting, put an alarm clock in the nest and let it go off.

To break a hen from setting, put a pan of water in the nest when she leaves and let her get in it when she comes back.

Do not set eggs so that they will hatch during dog days.

Always set a hen on thirteen eggs.

Little turkeys thrive better with a hen than with a turkey.

If it rains on Valentine Day, your chickens will stop laying.

To ensure good luck with chickens, let a woman carry them from the nest to the coop.

Grease little chickens’  heads with lard and kerosene when you take them from the nest and lice will not bother them.

Sprinkle ashes on animals and fowls on Ash Wednesday and they will not be bothered with lice.

Put  Epsom salts in the chicken’s water (one tablespoonful to a gallon) and it will make them healthy.

Boil smartweed and scald out the chicken house to kill any kind of insect.

Cover newly hatched chicks with a sieve and place them in the sunshine a little while, and they will live.

When you have killed a chicken, make a cross on the ground with your finger, lay the chicken on its back on this cross, and it will not flop.

To keep a chicken from flopping when killed, tuck the head under the wing, swing the chicken around in a little circle several times, and then lay its head on a block and chop it off.

Oh, and I’ve heard that raising chickens can be hard, dirty work.  That’s not in the book.

Figgin Out

It’s fig season on Farthing Street.

figshotThis annual harvest is accompanied by a sense of urgency because there is always a very short window of time, sometimes just a day or two,  when a fig is truly ripe and ready for consumption.  Left on the tree too long, the fig will ferment and become food for wasps and bees.

For weeks  I had waited, somewhat impatiently, for that special moment.  Shawnna would come home from work and find me outside, my face buried in the branches of the tree, deftly squeezing the bulbous fruit for signs of “mushiness.”   The mushiness means that the fig is sweet and juicy.

IMG_2265When that glorious day arrived, we had so many figs that I filled up a mixing bowl from the kitchen.  I decided to try a recipe from our mediterranean cookbook, which involves wrapping the figs with pancetta and bay leaves, and then cooking them in the oven.

IMG_2262For you vegetarians or those of you on a kosher diet,  pancetta is pork belly meat that is salt-cured and contains  peppercorns.  It is heavenly.  I was caught off guard when I took it out of the package.  It smelled so good that for a minute I lost the ability to concentrate.  Fortunately I had already halved the figs, and the rest was easy. I gently wrapped my figs in the strips of pancetta, like little pigs-in-blankets. The bay leaves were the finishing touch.  I placed them in a baking dish and set in the oven at 300 degrees for 20 minutes.   Shawnna and I couldn’t get enough of them.  Figs in the raw are tasty enough,  but this was a culinary delight.


Fig trees, which thrive in  mediterranean climates, are drought-tolerant plants. That means you don’t have to water them much, provided your yard gets a lot of sun.  If you live in the Triangle, consider getting one.  The leaves are tough and leathery (you may recall that Adam and Eve, in their postlapsarian shame, made clothes out of them.)  I’ve noticed that the leaves seem to be impervious to the pests that like to chew up our fruit trees.

Plant a fig tree this fall! You won’t regret it.

Thrills from Blueberry Hill

For years we’ve been trying to grow blueberries, but we’ve had scant results.  Despite giving them plenty of water–blueberry plants require at least an inch or two of  water a week–the berries have always been few and  tiny.  That’s why my eyes almost popped out of my head when I visited our neighborhood friends  Sally and Sandi yesterday.

Before my eyes were BlueberriesNorthgate several blueberry bushes,  sagging with plump, ripening fruit. Seething green (or blue?) with jealousy, I grabbed the biggest, fattest blueberry I  could find, and ate it.   At least it made me feel better.

Naturally I wanted to know what their secret was.  Comparing and contrasting their bushes with ours, I discovered three factors that seems to have contributed towards their more  bountiful harvest.

First, their blueberry orchard sits at the bottom of a sloped hill, an area of the yard that gets a lot of drainage. In fact, it is the perfect location for a rain garden.
BlueberriesNorthgate3Sandi told me that they don’t water their plants very often, and I can see why.  Permaculture at work!

There are also no large trees near their yard, which meant  that the plants weren’t visited by those pesky  cankerworms this spring.  These worms chewed huge holes in the leaves of our blueberry plants, which I know must have stressed them out.  Next year we’ll be banding the trees in our yard to repel  the cankerworm invasion.

What might be helping them the most, however, is something called soil acidifier, which is available at most garden centers.  Sandi told me that she applies the soil acidifier at the base of the plant, careful not to get any on the leaves.
blueberriesfertAs you might know, blueberries love acidic soil, which is one of the reasons they thrive in the North Carolina mountains.  Now I’m convinced that we might have the winning formula for blueberry production.

 Why all this fuss about blueberries?   For one thing, they are a healthy dessert alternative; one cup of blueberries has 80 calories.  They are a true super food, containing antioxidants, Vitamin C and fiber.   They seem to promote cardiovascular and brain health, and might help prevent certain types of cancers.  Research studies have shown that they reduce brain damage in rats.  And of course they are tasty!

For more on blueberries, check out the U.S. Highbush Bluberry Council’s website.

Nice work Sally and Sandi!







UPDATE:  Dear readers, it turns out that the “bamboo” in my back yard is actually wheat.  Shows you what I know.  (5/10/13)

Recently some bamboo sprouted up in our yard.


The sight of it made me a little anxious, probably because I’ve heard enough bamboo horror stories over the years to compile an anthology.  These are tales that pit neighbor against neighbor; someone’s well-intentioned bamboo screen screen gets out of control and crosses the property line where it becomes a problem for someone else.

There are two kinds of  bamboo: running and clumping.   The running variety is such a problem because its rhizomes grow laterally, through the soil surface, which make it spread very fast.  I’ve  heard that if you’re going to plant bamboo, definitely plant the clumping kind. Check out the difference:

clumping vs. running
You can control the running kind by creating something called a rhizome barrier.   The idea is to dig a trench around the bamboo that is at least two-feet wide, and just two inches shallower than the width.  Because the rhizomes will eventually pierce through concrete and steel, a HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) barrier must be placed in the trench.  When placing the barrier in the trench, it is essential to angle it in such a way that the rhizomes will move upward as they start to spread.  That way,  any rhizomes peeking over the barrier can be clipped.

I dug around my neighbor’s fence line and discovered that the bamboo was coming up under the fence from their yard. I’ve been digging a trench along the fence line, and  I’m going to get some Polyethylene soon. As far as the rest of the bamboo that has sprouted just a few feet away from the fence line, I think I’m going to create a barrier around it as well so that I will be able to manage it.  I realize  some of you will think I have just lost my mind.  If I create an epidemic, I will take full responsibility for it, and you’ll be reading about it in another post.
I’m willing to take that risk because I truly want our lot to be a closed system, where everything is produced onsite  and nothing is thrown away. With that paradigm in mind, why shouldn’t we harvest our own bamboo? We use it extensively for building trellises and staking out plants in the garden. I’ve even constructed a privacy fence out of it before.  And besides,  Toby Hemeneway gushes over bamboo in Gaia’s Garden, This could be the best thing, or the worst thing we’ve done in the backyard this month.  To be continued…