A Summer Farro Salad

It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve finally coerced my wife into contributing another post about food/cooking to this blog. We were all first introduced to her when she shared a strawberry goat cheese bruschetta recipe with us and we have been begging for a follow-up ever since. I can vouch for the following having devoured it recently and think you will enjoy just the same.

I give you my better half:     

I’ve made this salad countless times this summer and I’m sharing the “recipe” because I’m guessing there’s a good chance you’re looking for more ways to enjoy the peak-of-season tomatoes and basil that’s so prolific right now in gardens and farmer’s markets across the land. Or, maybe you’re searching for something different to bring to that end of summer BBQ.

I use the word “recipe” loosely because, as you’ll see, this is really just a blueprint. I apologize in advance if you’d prefer more precise measurements and method, but this is a case of “a little more of this, a little less of that”, based on your preferences and what you have on hand. This “recipe” is really hard to mess up.

It’s quick  to pull together and the amounts can be easily flexed up or down to feed whatever sized crowd you have. Easy, delicious, summery and can we call it healthy? A winner in my book.

Farro* Salad with Tomatoes, Basil, Feta & Olives

*If you’re unfamiliar with farro, as I was just a few months ago, let me introduce you…it’s a satisfyingly chewy and hearty grain that is also really good for you. I’m able to find it in larger, well-stocked grocery stores without a problem. You can absolutely make this with something more familiar, like orzo (which I’ve done many times), but I think using farro makes this a standout. I urge you to give it a try!


1 cup dry farro, prepared according to package directions
(you can sub any small shape pasta, or another grain of choice…this will make a nice amount for a side dish for 4 or 6)

Tomatoes, chopped
(at least 1 cup, more if you’d like…with great tomatoes, you can never really have too much… use a mix of colors and varieties for extra punch…my go-to combo has been yellow Sun Sugar and Red Currant cherry tomatoes – delicious!)


Psst … John here … I grew those tomatoes … go me

Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
(at least 1/3 cup, more if you’re an olive fan)

Feta cheese, crumbled
(I’ve been buying 8 oz chunks of feta and using at least half of it per recipe…sub another salty cheese of choice if you don’t dig feta)

Fresh basil, torn or cut into thin strips
(not sure what to tell you about amounts…I like to use a lot)

Olive oil


Salt & pepper



Place cooked farro (or pasta) in bowl and allow to cool slightly. Add tomatoes, olives, feta and basil. Drizzle liberally with olive oil, and the strained juice of one lemon. Add salt and pepper to taste.

If you’d prefer a “proper” dressing recipe with exact measurements instead of this more casual approach, there are countless versions online…I’d look for one that includes the same basics of olive oil, lemon juice (or maybe even red wine vinegar) and perhaps a squeeze or two of honey. You can whisk that up and pour over the farro while still warm to absorb.


One final note, if you make this ahead of time, you may find that the salad dries out a bit in the refrigerator and therefore you may need to add more olive oil,  lemon and salt. Make sure you taste before serving.

Enjoy these last few weeks of summer!







Five years ago, this photo would have meant nothing to me:


But I am proud of my ability to evolve (which is very different from mature), passion to comprehend, restraint in not messing things up and willingness to connect.





Have a great weekend.



Some new blooms

Helenium autumnale (Sneezeweed): sneezeweed

I’ve struggled with Sneezeweed for a long time now but may have finally found the right location. The ugly “legs” are disguised by other plants in front of them and they have each other for support (three are planted closely to each other).

Because of that, I skipped on cutting them back in June to control their height this year. The true test will be in the next week or so as all of the blooms emerge: 

Chelone lyonii: 


Boltonia ‘Pink Beauty’ is another perennial I typically cut back in June to hopefully prevent it from toppling over when blooming in late summer but completely forgot to do so this year. So far so good. Maybe that proactive pruning wasn’t necessary after all: 

Not necessarily newly blooming, but some new visitors I couldn’t be more psyched to see on Asclepias curassavica (Silky Gold Milkweed): monarch2

Sedum ‘Autumn Fire’ rounding into form: 


Miscanthus purpurascens (Flame Grass): 


Pennisetum ‘Hameln’: 

And my very young Andropogon gerardii ‘Red October’ has thrown up some blooms in its first year (bless her heart): 

This grass will rule over all of the other grasses within the next two years. I am so stoked in anticipation.


Transplanting my excess Monarda (Bee Balm)

As I was recently stressing/obsessing over how to fill in some bare spots in my garden, three things came to mind:

  • New plants are expensive
  • I have a somewhat limited range of plants that work with my conditions
  • Repetition in the garden is good and pleasing to the eye

With that in mind, the obvious choice was to take my excess Monarda (Bee Balm) plants and relocate them to where they can spread to their heart’s content.

Nothing has thrived in my garden more the past few years than Monarda as they have easily doubled in size in just the last two years alone. I love the fact that they spread and fill in aggressively without acting as a true thug.

I started with this location as you can see they are starting to take over the neighboring Juniper:

Why not grab a few that are closest to the Juniper and simply dig them out and move them:

I find it incredibly simple to just place a trowel into the soil underneath the stem of plant, wiggle it a bit to loosen up the roots and then yank it out with my hand:  

And just like that, you have yourself a new plant. You can clearly see from the roots how this perennial spreads so easily:  

I quickly determined where to move my new Bee Balm. This one was going to be relocated between two Miscanthus:

In it went:

And then to assist in the plant’s establishment, I snipped off the spent flowers and all of the leaves so the plant’s energy could be focused on root development (Quick note – I made the decision to do it this way on my own and cannot vouch if I did everything scientifically correct here):

The plant was then deeply watered and left to do its thing. Now we just wait and see how it all plays out.

I moved close to ten of these Monarda and a bunch of Purple Coneflowers as well and it didn’t cost me a dime. They are the gift that keeps on giving.

By the way, I am well aware of the powdery mildew on my Bee Balm:

I even wrote a post about it last year (which you can read here).

My typical move is to cut these down to the ground around this time each year but I’m leaving them all alone this year just to see if it truly causes any future issues. I also enjoy the spent blooms in the fall and covered in snow in winter.

Damn this stuff is fun isn’t it?      


Hiding the vegetables

With all of the deer that roam my property, I have struggled to grow my own vegetables, outside of some container grown tomatoes on my deck. Yes, I could fence in an area to keep them out, but that is assuming:

A) I have the initiative
B) The time to do so.

Not so much.

I was smart enough to create a raised bed and amend the soil in this bed a few years ago. I am not a complete buffoon. A variety of herbs from basil to rosemary to thyme to oregano to parsley have thrived here. All that was missing were the vegetables. And all I needed to do was find a way to keep the herds out. It seems simple enough but the task eluded me for years.  

This spring I bought a bunch of Panicum ‘Heavy Metal’ because … well … that’s what I do. I had no plan for where they would be planted so I circled the house 3 to 4 times before settling on a spot surrounding my raised bed. That is when the light bulb went off:

I love grasses
Deer don’t like grasses 
Why don’t I hide my raised bed behind grasses  

It was a win/win/win.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to come up with this simple concept but it is what it is. No time to look back and lament.

Here is what the raised bed looks like today:

And all of the tomatoes I planted this year have yet to be touched:

I even harvested a ton of seed grown green beans for the first time:

And I have been eating kale right off the plant for weeks now.

I think I am on to something here.

I plan on adding some cool season grasses as well so there is coverage while the warm season grasses are coming into their own. I also have a bunch of boxwood in the area so it is a garden filled with anti deer venom.

I know, you don’t have to say it … I’m a genius.

And by the way, be on the lookout for an upcoming post from my wife who will tell you about her favorite tomato (you’re welcome hon) and a recipe that includes said tomato.



Into the wild (sort of)

When we moved into our house ten years ago, one of the draws was the privacy afforded by the wild growth and woods at the back of our property. Neighbors are great and all, but hanging in your backyard without any eyes on you (deer being the exception) is pretty damn cool. Not to mention the enjoyment of seeing nothing but nature’s gift while enjoying an after dinner cocktail or two on the deck.  

In ten years, I’ve only walked through this wildness twice. The first time was with my son who was three at the time and was dumb naive enough to believe we were actually in the rain forest. We had a great time until we stepped out and realized we were covered in ticks. Not good.

The second time was to chase down the dog who escaped into the unknown one winter. It took me close to 45 minutes to locate her as she managed to get inside an area fenced off with barbed wire. I nearly took my leg off trying to hop inside so I could carry my 75 pound Labrador Retriever to safety. I’m convinced this is where the deer hang at night and sit around the fire planning their assault on my garden. I’m OK with it as I’d rather they hang here safely than venture out and encounter one of the thousand hunters in the area.

This wild area is rather nondescript the majority of the year until the beginning of August. That is when the super aggressive Purple Loosestrife appears. And it appears every-friggin-where:          

It looks great from a distance with the waves of purple weaving in and out and then in and out again. Of course I also realize what a thug this non-native perennial is and just how invasive it can be. Read this piece on the invasiveness of Purple Loosestrife.

I’ve accepted there is nothing I can do about it other than pulling it when it comes to visit my garden from time to time. It is just too pervasive and it would be an overwhelming task to try and eradicate it.

I will admit though, it does bring in massive amounts of creatures and my daughter and I like to check out who comes to visit (some, more welcome than others):

Phase 2 of the backyard wild growth display is when the Goldenrod blooms. My wife is a severe allergy sufferer and when we first moved into this house, I thought for sure we were inundated with the dreaded ragweed. I was in a complete panic until I investigated closer and realized it was truly Solidago. Thank the good lord. If you ever wanted to know the difference between the two, read here. Goldenrod is also a thug, but it does not contribute to allergies.

The Goldenrod literally started blooming this weekend and the activity on the blooms is intense:    

Ailanthus Webworm Moth

Within a few weeks, it will be the annual purple/yellow explosion of two aggressive bastards.

But we also had a third entrant into the display earlier this summer and this one was more than wanted. Out of the blue, we had at least 25 Milkweed plants appear:

Super cool and a chance to educate the children on the plight of the Monarch butterfly. We have seen little action on these plants to date, but will remain patient.

I’ve also just started to see Swamp Milkweed popping up in a few places along the back of my property so the few plants I added myself last year are apparently spreading the wealth:

As always, nature is way more interesting than the man-made garden.


Garden Writer’s Association – 2014 Pittsburgh Symposium

As I had mentioned in my last post, I spent last weekend in Pittsburgh, PA attending the annual Garden Writer’s Association symposium. This was the second GWA conference I’ve ever attended with the first being in Dallas back in 2010.

When I ventured to Dallas I had only been “garden blogging” for seven months. What the hell was I thinking? I had no right to be there at that point in my blogging life. In fact, I gave serious thought to skipping the conference all together upon arriving and touring Dallas on my own for the weekend. I was more equipped to bar hop for three days then I was to share my experiences with writing.

I eventually relented and had a blast and realized there was something to this garden writing thing.

I met so many interesting and unique individuals and the acceptance was overwhelming. Sure, there were a few raised eyebrows when I shared my garden writing role, but the majority were supportive. I considered the trip and my foray into garden writing as a not-quite-mid-life-profession-semi-crisis and was all in. The passion was unearthed and it was full speed ahead.

Fast forward four years and I’m still doing it. And friggin enjoying it. The 3 to 4 post per week pace hasn’t slowed down and I have yet to hit the “worn out” button. Not only do I enjoy what I am doing with this blog, my podcasts, the social media interactions and some other garden related writing, I NEED this. The creative outlet is rewarding and stimulating in ways I had never experienced before. The idea that someone gives a damn about what I have to say is pretty damn cool. Who knew?  

There is such a stark difference between this and my “day job” and that contrast inspires me to express myself in a different and unique way. It just feels good. I have no big plans to conquer this universe; it is much more about enjoying the journey rather than the ultimate destination.

Which brings me to the Pittsburgh trip. I hadn’t attended the last three GWA symposiums due to scheduling conflicts, family travels, costs, etc. but this one was within driving distance so I decided to give it a whirl. I didn’t go with any preconceived notions or a plan of attack. I really looked forward to catching up with people I met in Dallas, connecting with social media friends in person, meeting new garden peeps, getting my brain stimulated through various workshops, going on garden tours in the area and getting to see Pittsburgh for the first time. Maybe someday there will be a book deal to be had but for now, it was all about soaking in the experience.

I can report that all of the above was accomplished and Pittsburgh is all sorts of awesome.

I’ll always remember the trips on the bus and the rotation of people I had the joy of sitting next to. Each had their own fantastic back story and career trajectory. I could have listened to each of them speak for hours and it reminded me that it is the people that make this so damn interesting and rewarding.

I’ll remember catching up with someone I hadn’t spoken with since Dallas as we walked the grounds of The Newington Estate and tried to figure out where we are going with this writing gig.      

I’ll remember being the lone male at a dinner for twelve overlooking the Pittsburgh skyline. I am fairly confident that I admitted to watching and loving The Bachelor and that I have an almost crippling fear of heights.

I’ll remember riding the “Incline” at night, the family of rare spiders that rode with us and the woman with the greatest nails I’ve ever seen outside the Guinness Book of World Records. Those nails led to a spirited discussion on how she functions in the bathroom … never mind.                  

I’ll remember to continue to dig for my inner awesome.

I’ll remember Rick Darke’s keynote address and the images of the NYC High Line. A September trip has already been planned.    

My brain is so full of ideas/directions to take this garden writing/communicating thing and hopefully you will stick with me along the way. Here are just some of the thoughts bouncing around my cranium at the moment:

  • Why the hell not try to write a book? Maybe about the psychology of handling deer damage? Or the best “full sun/deer resistant/rabbit resistant/wet feet/zone 6B loving” plants? That isn’t hyper-specific or anything. 
  • Why not up the videos and get the kids involved? My daughter likes power tools and she would love to show off her abilities for an audience. Maybe she can become a star and I can ride her coattails.

** Quick plug – feel free to click on the YouTube link on the right panel of this page and subscribe to my YouTube channel. It is in its infancy stage right now, but I promise much more to come. **  

  • Why not make this a combined effort with my wife where she cooks what I grow or simply cooks and you just watch me eat? I am like a totally awesome eater.
  • I learned a lot about myself and what gardens/plants/styles work for me based on all of the garden tours (more on that below).
  • I realize the persona I carry on this blog is very different from what people expect when they meet me. It made me realize that the true me is probably somewhere in between “Blog John” and “a little bit repressed in real life” John.
  • I understand attention spans are at an all time low and blog posts need to be short and grab the viewer immediately, but today’s post defies all of that logic and I don’t give a shit.
  • Pittsburgh is really cool and I need to take the family back soon.

Ok, enough words. Let’s continue John’s very very fun and informing weekend in Pittsburgh through some professional level photos:        
First, the garden tours.

I need more …




I live on such an open lot and it has been such a challenge to make it cozy and inviting in any way. I’m not even close to creating even one “garden room”. I’ll keep trying, and it still fun as hell, but maybe it isn’t in the cards at this house. Time to talk to the family about moving.

As pretty and colorful as the following photos look, it doesn’t resonate with me as much as I’m sure it does for so many others. I can appreciate it for what it is, but when you sense there is a full time gardener on staff at that home, it loses a lot of soul:    

I can’t state enough how much I love Amsonia:

All of the following photos were taken at the same private garden – the garden of Ava Davidson – and this was by far my favorite of all the tours. My biggest regret is not finding the time to chat with the owner so I could pick her brain a bit. This garden oozed with stories and it would have been nice to listen to some of those:

The mix of art/foliage/color/texture/fun was perfect and I would be smart to remember that when I am in design mode with my own garden.

On my final morning, I took a walk along the riverfront to say goodbye to the city that treated me so well for four days and to reflect upon all that I had just consumed:  

I loved the mix of urban/grit/modern/plant life Pittsburgh offered and thought the two pics below summed that up pretty well:

I feel invigorated as a result of this trip and hope that translates in all I do in the near future.

Thank you again for taking the time to stop by and read my stuff. It really does put a smile on my face each and every day.


Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden

** I came across some more photos I had taken at Phipps and I’ve updated this post with them. Enjoy … or get annoyed … whatever … just FEEL man ** 

I was in Pittsburgh, PA this past weekend (more to come on why and how damn cool that city is) and part of the time was spent at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

As usual, I won’t spend a lot of time writing about the visit but will let the photos do the talking for me. Just know that generally I am not all that interested in plants that are indoors (just personal preference, no horrible back story) so the majority of the pics are out of doors.

The only exception was a slow walk through the indoor butterfly garden where I chased the butterflies around like a befuddled toddler.



Premature autumnification

Has anyone else witnessed Fall rearing its ugly head a little too soon? Am I missing some sort of scientific explanation here? The change in foliage color is earlier than ever before (don’t make me pull out my spreadsheet to prove it).

Itea ‘Henry’s Garnet’:

Viburnum plicatum:

Is it weather related? It has been a milder summer to date.

Is it moisture related? We’ve had plenty of rain this spring into summer.

Is it exposure related? The Itea are located in both full sun and partial shade and all look exactly the same.

I’m going with “premature autumnification” until proven otherwise. Now we just need to work on a medicinal cure and a Viagra-like advertising campaign:

“Don’t let ‘premature autumnification’ get you down, thousands of gardeners just like you are treating this with …”

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