Our Adorable Deer-proof Backyard Veggie Garden

Our Adorable Deer-proof Backyard Veggie Garden

Until this year, our attempts to grow a few tomatoes and peppers in our Pittsburgh backyard have been less than successful. The first year we moved in, Rick popped a couple of beefsteak tomato plants in a sunny corner of the yard and we watched them grow in giddy anticipation of the sandwiches we would make with the fresh-picked fruit. That was before we realized we moved into an area whose deer population rivals that of humans.  (We should have been suspicious when we noticed our neighbors had yard signs reading, “Eat More Venison!”) Just as our tomatoes approached peak ripeness, Bambi came for a visit and ate every last one.

We then tried a motion-activated sprinkler guaranteed to chase the deer from our backyard. We succeeded in inadvertently squirting ourselves numerous times (and a few unsuspecting guests), but did not deter the deer. Perhaps they appreciated the cooling showers as they devoured our garden once again.

Our next attempt at deer-proofing was a pop-up net contraption that I found in a catalogue. It fit nicely over the raised bed garden Rick constructed, and it did keep the deer away. Unfortunately, our plants out-grew the net and before we’d harvested many tomatoes, a windy summer storm blew everything sideways and damaged most of the plants.

Our garden outgrew last year’s pop-up net so Rick cut the top away. This is before the wind blew the whole thing sideways.

So this spring, in the midst of the pandemic quarantine, we decided to build a truly deer-proof and sturdy garden area. I found a kit online that we liked the looks of, but it wasn’t quite the size we wanted and it cost $1,600. Luckily, our son and daughter-in-law are experienced urban gardeners and were willing to help us design and build exactly what we wanted. 

We put the new garden in the same location as the previous one, but we expanded the footprint to eight by ten feet. The growing space is u-shaped with room in the center to attend to the plants, so our actual usable area is 60 square feet. We did lots of sketches on graph paper and then drew full-scale chalk outlines in the driveway to make sure our design gave us access to all of the planting area. Jordan brought his woodworking tools over, including his mitre saw, which made for a really professional looking finish on all of the cuts.

We like to grow our vegetables organically, so we chose to pay more for cedar in place of chemically treated lumber that could potentially leach unhealthy substances into the soil. Altogether, our new garden cost around $900. We spent $600 for the cedar, $100 for wire fencing and hardware, and $225 for three cubic yards of organic soil for the raised beds. The sweat equity of Jordan, Silvan, and Rick was huge. They worked all day and finished up just as the sun was beginning to set.

Since we were doing construction in the beginning of the COVID outbreak, I made us all masks to wear and barked at Rick and Jordan to stay six feet apart throughout the day. (Doesn’t that sound fun? I’m a laugh a minute, especially during a pandemic.)

Rick demonstrating with a tape measure that he is, indeed, six feet away from Jordan.

We planted the garden out with seeds that Jordan and Silvan shared with us and seedlings purchased from Grow Pittsburgh (a great source for heirloom and organic vegetable plants in the Pittsburgh area) and we sat back to watch it grow. If I’m being honest, I’m the only one sitting back watching it grow. Rick is out there multiple times daily babying his plants and texting pictures to Jordan and Silvan to ensure that everything is developing as it should be.

Now here we are at the end of July beginning to reap the rewards of all that work. Earlier this summer, we had a bumper crop of salad greens and radishes and now we’re harvesting cherry tomatoes and peppers, as well as some yellow squash and zucchini that Rick is growing in a local community garden. We have a variety of tomatoes growing, including Sun Gold, Amish Paste, Cherokee Purple, San Marzano and Big Boys; two varieties of peppers, Jimmy Nardellos and Lunchbox, Yukon gold potatoes, basil, and all around the perimeter of the garden we have climbing plants- Kentucky wonder beans, Cannellini beans, Good Mother Stollard beans, and climbing cucumbers. With any luck, sometime in August we’ll be researching canning recipes and filling the new chest freezer waiting in the basement.

We dug the air fryer out of the basement to make a healthier, but every bit as delicious, batch of fried squash! (These were actually grown in the community garden, but I neglected to take photos of the tabouleh we made using tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, and mint from the backyard. Or the pepper sandwiches made with our Lunch box peppers. Or the two batches of pesto made from our basil. I think my blogging skills need a little work.)

If you have any tips for putting up vegetables, or foolproof recipes for pickling vegetables, please share them with us in the comments! Also, if you have any questions about our garden construction, feel free to reach out!

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Why You Should Eat at Apteka in Pittsburgh…Even If You’re Not Vegan!


 Apteka’s backyard garden is open from 5-10 p.m., weather permitting.
Apteka’s backyard garden is open from 5-10 p.m., weather permitting.

Apteka in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh has been on Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurant list every year since its opening in 2016, and for good reason! It serves truly unique, lovingly crafted Eastern European food that just happens to be vegan. Plus, it’s really fun to say the name – Apteka, Apteka, Apteka – see what I mean? It’s also fun to try to pronounce the dishes on the menu, but probably safer to just point to what you want:)

Upon entering the restaurant, you place your order at the bar for both your meal and drinks, carry your drinks and a numbered placard to an open table, and then wait as the food is brought to the table. Since we never really know what we’re getting (we’re neither Eastern European nor vegan) we usually order a few items and share them.  That’s always worked out well for us. Many of the dishes feature pickled or fermented items, some things are a little spicy, and others are smoked. That was a real eye-opener for me. I had no idea it was even possible to smoke veggies, but it obviously is and the results are delicious!

I believe Apteka also gets recognition for their cocktail menu, which features house-infused tonics and alcohol, but Rick usually orders a Polish beer and I stick with wine. When I’m being adventurous with my food choices, I like to stay with a sure thing on my drink;)

Prices are very reasonable – small plates are $6 and $7, big plates (main courses) range from $10-$12, sandwiches $8 or $9, and Koktajle (cocktails:)) are all less than $10.

Apteka doesn’t take reservations unless you have a party of 6 or more, in which case you can email them to place your request. (I’m not even sure they have a phone.)  There is almost always a line to get in.  We’ve had our best luck coming mid-week or getting there unfashionably early – as in a few minutes before they open. And even then, there will be a line, albeit a small one. For more information about Apteka, a link to make a reservation, or to view the menu, visit: https://aptekapgh.com

The Allegheny Observatory: How To Visit Another Planet (or two) Without Leaving the Burgh!

The Allegheny Observatory: How To Visit Another Planet (or two) Without Leaving the Burgh!

We checked yet another item off our summer bucket list! But this one comes with a caveat: If you want to be specific about things, I said we were going to stargaze at the Allegheny Observatory.  Turns out, that is not what you do at an observatory. In fact, our tour guide, (and the facility’s Electronics Specialist and sole full-time employee) Louis Coban, informed me that Pittsburgh’s Observatory Hill might be one of the worst places to look at the stars due to light pollution (this is true of any city).

So enough about what we didn’t see! Here’s what we did see – planets! Jupiter and Saturn were in range on the night we visited and it was a pretty cool experience mounting the stairs to peer through the eye-piece and view another part of our solar system.  Of the two, I would have to say that Saturn was the most impressive since you could actually see the rings around it. Jupiter, on the other hand, looked like a giant full moon.

 The Allegheny Observatory’s beautiful setting is adjacent Riverview Park
The Allegheny Observatory’s beautiful setting is adjacent Riverview Park

We took the tour on a beautiful Thursday evening and we enjoyed walking around the peaceful grounds of the observatory beforehand.  The current building dates to 1912 and the names of influential astronomers are inscribed at the roofline. 

 These may be the reason the observatory still exists.
These may be the reason the observatory still exists.

The tour began with a short lecture about the history of the observatory. Here’s my favorite bit – the telescopes and astronomy may be the soul of the observatory, but if it weren’t for the shrewd business sense of Professor S.P. Langley back in 1867, the whole venture would have gone bankrupt. Using a small transit telescope, he was able to obtain accurate time by observing the position of the stars as they crossed the celestial median. Big deal, you might say, as you glance at the current (absolutely accurate) time on your iPhone or laptop. But back in the 19th century, the era of pocket watches, sundials, and grandfather clocks, the concept was a little more fluid.  Not a problem if it made you five minutes late for a tea party, but a big problem if you were a railroad executive scheduling trains. Langley devised a system to sell time to subscribers through the telegraph, industrialists of the age clamored for the service, and the Allegheny Observatory was made financially sound!

 The 30” Thaw Telescope
The 30” Thaw Telescope

After the lecture we toured the building, starting in the largest dome with the 30” Thaw telescope, the third largest refractor in the United States.  This massive telescope’s primary mission has been to study the distance to nearby stars.  It’s so large that the floor of the dome moves up and down with a pulley system in order to position it! 

 Rick peeks at Saturn
Rick peeks at Saturn

We next moved on to the smallest dome, which houses the 13-inch Fitz-Clark refractor.  Constructed in 1861, it was the primary telescope of the original Allegheny Observatory.  After Coban opened the dome and got first Jupiter and then Saturn in view, our group took turns climbing the narrow stairway to look at the planets.  

We ended the tour with a trip to the crypt. I’m not kidding.  In the basement of the observatory, a few of its most ardent supporters are spending eternity. Early observatory directors, John Brashear and James Keeler, along with their wives Phoebe and Cora and Keeler’s son Henry, are all laid to rest here. (If you’re a fan of Halloween creepiness, you might want to schedule your tour on the last week of October, which is also the last week that tours are available.)


Tours take place Thursday and Friday evenings from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 412-321-2400 between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. The observatory also has an open house coming up on October 4 featuring an expanded tour of the building, additional tour guides and telescopes on the lawn.  For more information, visit https://www.pitt.edu/~aobsvtry/tours.html

Amazing Graze – The Fabulous Sustainable Pittsburgh Farm to Table Event…or why you should totally enter random Instagram contests!


Earlier this summer, I came across a promo on Instagram sponsored by Sustainable Pittsburgh (www.sustainablepittsburgh.org an organization that strives to improve economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental quality in our region). It sounded a little too good to be true: 1. Dine at one (or more) of 150 designated Sustainable Pittsburgh restaurants, 2. Post a photo to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter and include #GrazePGH, tag @SPRpgh and tag the restaurant, 3. Be entered to win a unique farm-to-table dinner experience prepared by four celebrity chefs.

What the heck. Rick and I frequent a lot of the restaurants on the list and how hard is it to snap a photo and post it? (Let’s not talk about the times we went out to eat and I forgot to do just that.) In any case, I remembered to post a handful of times and then I sort of forgot about it. Then last Friday, as I scrolled through Instagram, I noticed the little paper airplane on the banner had a number 3 on it. I’m still learning my way around Instagram so I wasn’t quite sure what it meant (please don’t judge me), but I clicked it and, lo and behold, three messages had been sitting out there – one from my daughter, one from a friend, and one from…drumroll…Sustainable Pittsburgh!

 Lots of screaming ensued! I’m so glad I discovered the Instagram message button before the deadline passed!
Lots of screaming ensued! I’m so glad I discovered the Instagram message button before the deadline passed!

Monday evening, we drove to Churchview Farm at the appointed hour and joined the other promotion winners meandering up the twinkle-lit drive to the picturesque “farmette”. We were met at the top of the hill with a champagne and gin welcome cocktail by Events Coordinator Emeran Irby, who invited us to stroll around the grounds and explore Tara Rockacy’s third-generation sustainable family farm.

It was easy to become a part of the farm’s relaxed vibe – taking in the beautiful gardens and scenic outbuildings on the property while sipping our cocktails and listening to live music by local band, The Beagle Brothers. We mingled with the other guests until Tara and Rebecca Bykoski, the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program manager, introduced the chefs and welcomed us all to the table.

 Beautiful scenery in every direction.
Beautiful scenery in every direction.

 Bill Fuller of big Burrito describes one of the dishes he prepared.
Bill Fuller of big Burrito describes one of the dishes he prepared.

As promised, celebrity chefs abounded! Jessica Lewis of Spirits and Tales www.spiritsandtales.com, Neil Blazin of Driftwood Oven www.driftwoodoven.com, Elsa Santos of Azorean Cafe www.azoreancafe.com, and Bill Fuller of big Burrito www.bigburrito.com worked all evening creating the amazing seven (!!!) course dinner that we enjoyed with wine, cider, or beer pairings selected to complement each. I’m going to post the full menu here rather than rambling on about each dish, but believe me, it was a meal like none other I’ve ever experienced. I imagine you might have gotten a similar meal on maybe the Titanic, but this one came without the terrifying iceburg incident after the dessert course.

 Chefs hard at work in the outdoor kitchen. (Yes, I know. My photography skills need a little work.)
Chefs hard at work in the outdoor kitchen. (Yes, I know. My photography skills need a little work.)

 The Beagle Brothers
The Beagle Brothers

The Beagle Brothers entertained all night with their “Bloomfield Sound,” which they describe as a blend of honky tonk and classic country with an accelerated high-energy performance. It was the perfect accompaniment to the evening.


If you would like to experience an evening like this for yourself, there’s good news and bad news. First, the good news – you don’t need to win a contest to make it happen! Now, the bad news – the rest of this summer’s Farm Dinners, Pop Up Dinners, and Happy Hours are sold out. Tickets for the 2020 series of Farm Dinners go on sale on Thanksgiving Weekend and Happy Hour events become available in March 2020. To be on the safe side, you may want to add your name to their mailing list so you can be notified as soon as they are available. I believe they sell out quickly.

Also, there are still tickets available for Festa Della Porchetta on Saturday, August 17, 2019. This is one of the farm’s newer events and celebrates all things pork and porchetta.

For more information about Churchview Farms and the unique dinners and activities they offer, please visit: www.churchviewfarmpgh.com.

 I just have to end with this: Is this not the prettiest outhouse you’ve ever seen? It was adorable on the inside as well, clean and odor-free thanks to the amazing magic of the composting toilet.
I just have to end with this: Is this not the prettiest outhouse you’ve ever seen? It was adorable on the inside as well, clean and odor-free thanks to the amazing magic of the composting toilet.