Showing posts with label Gardening. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gardening. Show all posts

Sep 16, 2016

Can I Use a Septic Drain Field as a Vegetable Garden?

Recently, author Liberty Speidel - a friend of mine and a long time reader who just happens to write great superhuman novels, the first of which is free - (an unabashed plug for my friend!) asked me:

"We're getting our own homestead, depending on whether they agree to make some repairs. The house has a septic field with lateral lines. I'm wondering if it's safe to plant a garden over the lateral field? Or would it be unsafe to eat the food that's grown there? From the perspective of not having to water the garden much, it makes sense, but I want to make sure it's safe, too."
As I told Liberty, I'm not a septic system expert. However, I immediately had some concerns about growing food in a drain field, and a little research proved I was right to feel cautious.

Why You Shouldn't Garden Over Your Drain Field

* I think the field would be too damp to grow healthy fruit trees or bushes. Too much moisture leads fruit trees to have disease issues.

* I also wonder if the soil over the drain field would be too high in nitrogen to grow happy plants. High nitrogen levels lead to plants with lots of leaves, but not much fruit. And if the nitrogen is high enough, it will kill the plants.

* I'm also concerned that vegetables could potentially have bacteria in them that would lead to illness. According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE), this risk varies depending upon the type of soil in the drain field. Clay soils are better at filtering bacteria and can "[eliminate] bacteria within a few inches of the drain trenches." Sandy soils filter bacteria less effectively and "may allow bacterial movement for several feet." VCE goes on to say that "A properly operating system will not contaminate the soil with disease-causing organisms, but it is very difficult to determine if a field is operating just as it should."

Why You Should Plant Over Your Drain Field

That said, planting over the drain field is considered a good idea. Turns out, the right plants can help your drain field by removing excess moisture and reducing soil erosion. But which plants are best? Dense grass is the most common drain field plant, and according to VCE, if you don't have at least that, you should plant it ASAP. If you want flowers, and the drain field is the only available space for them, plant shallow rooted plants that don't need tons of water. Plants with deep roots or intense water needs can clog the draining or grow into drain field pipes. Never deeply till a drain field and do not use raised beds, as they may prevent moisture from evaporating in the soil.

If you have limited space and really want to grow fruit in your drain field, VCE says to choose safer options. For example, shallow rooted vines (like cucumbers) work, if you keep the fruit on a trellis. They also mention tomatoes as a possibility, but I do not recommend them personally; tomatoes can have very deep roots, which could damage your drain field.

Title image courtesy of Tim Evanson.

Jul 27, 2016

Tour Our Upcycled Greenhouse

Have I mentioned that I love our little greenhouse? One of the great things about it is that even though we didn't build it, it's built just like we would have built it: Using upcycled materials. Come take a peek!

Some of my favorite features of this greenhouse include:

* Its simple but effective rainwater collection system
* The potting bench that easily disappears to provide more growing room
* The brick pathway
* The simple ventilation system


Jul 5, 2016

The Best Method for Growing Potatoes

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information.

 Potatoes are an important part of the American diet, yet an awful lot of people don't grow their own. There are many of good reasons to change that; the first is that potatoes rapidly absorb whatever is in their soil, so if you're buying commercially grown potatoes, all the pesticides and man-made fertilizers that are used on them are readily found in the vegetable you're eating. Also, organic potatoes are hard to come by in many regions, and are considerably more expensive. Finally, there are now some GMO potatoes sold in grocery stores, and they are unmarked, of course.

The good news is, there's more than one way to grow potatoes at home. You don't need a huge patch of land to grow excellent, organic potatoes. On the other hand, the Internet is full of bad advice on potato growing let me save you time, energy, and money by sorting through the various methods for you.

The Potato Box

Potato grow boxes. (Courtesy of
You may have seen a dramatic claim that you can "grow 100 lbs. of potatoes in just 4 square feet" of space. It is seemingly everywhere online. The first time I read about this method, I got pretty excited - but after I researched a bit, I discovered it's not as wonderful as it sounds. No, I didn't try this method myself; rather, I spoke to gardeners all over the U.S. who'd tried the method...and failed. They followed the directions perfectly, but got no where near the promised 100 lbs. of potatoes. Many only got 10 or 15 lbs.

After talking with these gardeners - all of them experienced vegetable growers - I came to several conclusions. One is that the original source (and many of the imitators) don't mention what type of potatoes to grow in the box. To make the box work well, you must choose late season varieties. These will take 90 days or longer to mature, but they'll "set tubers" throughout their growing season. (Short season varieties set fewer tubers before the plant dies back.)

You must also plant more than one layer of seed potatoes in the box and cover no more than 1/3 of the stems and leaves at a time. Using late season potatoes, some gardeners have succeed in growing 80+ lbs. of potatoes using a potato box.

Potato Sacks
This method is very like the potato box, except the container is a burlap sack. You can see an example of this method over at Home Grown Fun. One problem particular to this method is drainage - water pours out of the bags, not really letting the soil absorb much moisture. If you still want to experiment with this method, use a drip irrigation method. Yield will depend upon the size of the bag; a large bag will yield less than a well-planted potato box.
Potatoes growing in a garbage can. (Courtesy of Mad Mod Smith)

Garbage Can Potatoes

Here, a garbage can is the growing container. To work properly, though, you'll first need to use an electric drill to put plenty of holes in the bottom and sides of the can. Place a little gravel on the bottom of the can, or place the can on top of some bricks so drainage is improved. Add a little soil to the bottom, plant the seed potatoes, and add dirt as they grow. This method works about as well as a potato box.

Potato Tower

This method uses wire panels (like chicken wire) with potatoes planted in loose soil on the bottom. Straw is placed over the potato plants as they grow. (Some people put straw only on the edges of the tower and use compost or good soil in the center, so the plants mostly come into contact with the soil and the straw really just holds the soil in place.) You can see an example of a potato tower here.

Potatoes growing in tires. (Courtesy of Tony Buser)
If you have little space for growing potatoes, this is an acceptable method, but don't expect the huge yields some people claim. To up your chances of a good yield, use late season potatoes, plant more than one layer of potatoes, and never cover up more than 1/3 of the stems and leaves.

Potato Tires
For this method, an old tire is placed flat on top of the soil. Additional soil (and seed potatoes) are placed inside the center of the tire. As the potatoes grow, more tires and soil are added on top of the first tire. This is one method I've never tried because I just don't like the idea of the tires leaching into the soil of any edible tuber. Expect results similar to previous methods.

Grow Bag Potatoes
Again, this method is very similar to the ones I've already mentioned, except you're using a store bought "grow bag" as your planter. These grow bags are made from special, porous fabric. (Here are some that I similar to the ones I use.) I've seen tutorials for making your own, but I don't think they'd work at all the same, because the genius of these bags is their fabric; it seems to encourage potatoes to grow more tubers than other container methods I've tried. For best results, use late season potatoes, plant more than one layer of seed potatoes, and never cover up more than 1/3 of the stems and leaves. Also be sure to use taller grow bags. I have had yields of 25+ lbs. per grow bag.

Potatoes grown traditionally. (Courtesy of Ishikawa Ken)

Old Fashioned In the Ground Potatoes

If you do this right, it will result in the highest yield of potatoes. The down side is that it takes more space than other methods.

The traditional method is this: Dig some trenches in your garden, ideally about 20 - 36 inches apart, as space allows. The trenches should be about 6 - 8 inches deep and 3 inches wide. Plant potato seeds in the trenches, about 12 inches apart. Cover with 3 - 4 inches of soil. As the potatoes grow, add more soil to cover much of the plant.

Or, you can plant potato hills: Designate a circular area for the potatoes and plant as described in the row method.

More Tips for Growing Potatoes 

* Yes, you can use store bought potatoes for planting, but your yields will be lower. Store bought potatoes are sprayed with chemicals the help prevent them from sprouting and slow growth.

* For best results, buy certified seed potatoes. Not only will they grow better than store bought potatoes, but they are far less likely to develop disease problems.

The bumps where potatoes will eventually sprout are called "eyes." (Courtesy of Steve Johnson)
* Wherever you grow potatoes, give them full sun (at least 6 hours a day).

* Some late season potatoes to try: Kennebec, Katahdin, Butte, All Blue, Bintje, Diseree, German Butterball, Purple Peruvian, and King Harry.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Types Of Potatoes – What Are Late, Mid And Early Season Potatoes?,

Read more at Gardening Know How: Types Of Potatoes – What Are Late, Mid And Early Season Potatoes?

Read more at Gardening Know How: Types Of Potatoes – What Are Late, Mid And Early Season Potatoes?,

* Whatever soil potatoes are planted in should be light and airy. This allows roots to spread and tubers to produce more abundantly.

* Potatoes can't grow until the soil is 45 degrees F. If you plant before that time, especially if you plant directly in the ground, your seed potatoes are likely to rot.

* Prepare your seed potatoes correctly: Cut them into small pieces, making sure each piece has at least two eyes. Leave plenty of potato around the eyes, since the new sprouts will feed off those pieces. (Seed potatoes that are about the size of an egg can be planted whole.)

* Chitting (pre-sprouting) can increase yields: Cut up seed potatoes about two weeks before planting and place them in a single layer on some newspaper, eyes pointing up, in a warm location (about 70 degrees F.), away from direct sunlight.

* The earliest you can plant potatoes is two weeks before your last frost date.

* One of the most common mistakes when growing potatoes is to plant them too late, especially if using late season varieties.

* Don't "hill" (or add soil to) the potato plantings until the plants are 8 inches tall.

* Water well, but it's best to water in the morning, so the plant can dry out before the cool temperatures of evening. Watering too much or in the evening can result in potato rot.
Kennebec potatoes are my favorite to grow.

* If you want potatoes that can be stored, don't dig them up until 2 or 3 weeks after the foliage dies back. Some variety of potatoes store better than others; Russet, Yukon Gold, Red Pontiac, and (my favorite) Kennebec store well. Before storing, allow potatoes to sit in a single layer in a dry, cool place for 3 days.

* Don't store potatoes near onions because both veggies release gases that cause the other to spoil faster. Store potatoes in a cool, dark, location.

Jun 30, 2016

Easy Plastic Bag "Greenhouses"

We're now living in an area that's cooler than what we're used to, so one of my primary concerns is how to grow heat-loving edibles - like tomatoes - abundantly. Perhaps this is a concern for you, too. Or maybe you just want to extend your growing season to earlier in the spring and later in the winter. If so, I think you'll appreciate a clever trick my mom-in-law uses: Plastic bag "greenhouses."

There are many ways to create inexpensive greenhouses for your plants. For example, when I winter sow, I use upcycled food containers. Once plants are in the ground, I sometimes use upcycled milk jugs or even canning jars to keep them snug, warm, and bug-free. But until I saw my mom-in-law's garden recently, I never considered using plastic bags to warm up my plants.

My mom-in-law gets her bags from friend who in turn gets them from a grocery store that uses them to bag aluminum cans for recycling. They cost just 50 cents each. But any sturdy clear bag would work just as well; for example, Amazon carries clear garbage bags for 24 cents each that look like they'd be perfect.

My mom-in-law's summer squash under a plastic bag "greenhouse."
To turn the bags into "greenhouse" material, just stick bamboo or other wooden stakes (or even tree branches) in the soil and place the bags over them. Viola! Instant warmth for your plant babies.

I should add that my mom-in-law's property can be rather windy, but the plastic bags stay put. She uses them only for potted plants, but I think they'd work equally as well for plants that are directly in the ground.
A tomato plant that's been under a bag and is huge for this time of year in this climate.

Jun 2, 2016

Pros and Cons of Rasied Bed and In-the-Ground Vegetable Gardens

I wish I could adequately describe to you how we feel, sitting in a nearly empty house with virtually nothing to do but wish we were on our new homestead. My daughter says (daily): "It feels like we'll never get moved!" She struggles to finish her school work because she's so busy dreaming about the bunnies she's going to raise. My son goes outside into our empty suburban back yard, then comes back inside minutes later. "There's nothing to do. I can't wait until I have the woods to explore!" My husband tries to fill his time with mowing and edging the lawn, but what he really longs to do is get his BBQ set up on our new property and start making accommodations for our next flock of hens. This being in limbo stuff is for the birds, people.

The only way I am surviving is by planning. Even this is a little tricky, since I've only seen our property once. But one of the things I've been pondering a lot is my garden - specifically, will I used raised beds, or not?

Truth is, I love the look of a traditional, in the ground vegetable garden. And given that I want to eventually grow as much of my family's produce as possible (and maybe even enough to sell at a local farmer's market), it's tempting to make an easy-to-expand, old fashioned, in the bed garden. However, there are some good reasons to consider raised beds, too.

Urban raised bed. Courtesy of Carol Norquist.
Pros and Cons of Raised Beds

* Raised beds warm up quicker in the spring and stay warmer in the fall than gardens planted directly into the soil. This is a pro if you live in a cooler area, but may be a con if you live where it's hot.(Too much heat can burn plants and drastically raise the need for watering.)

* Raised beds have good drainage if you purchase soil or build your soil "lasagna" or sheet mulching style. This is a pro if your ground is lousy or you get a lot of rain, but it may also be a con, since raised beds generally require more frequent watering.

* Raised beds, if built quite high, are ideal for those who have trouble bending over to care for a garden. High raised beds may also help keep out critters like small dogs, wild rabbits, and gophers.

* Raised beds may be easier to keep weed free. If you purchase soil, it should not contain weed seeds, and because raised beds are usually planted rather intensively, it will be difficult for weed seeds that blow in to overtake the raised beds.

* Raised beds aren't the cheapest option, a definite con. Even if you construct berms (border-less raised beds), if you bring in soil, it will still cost a few hundred dollars.

Potager style raised beds. Courtesy of

* Purchased soil may not be that great. Often, it is low in nutrients and may even contain traces of Round Up that can harm (even kill) the plants in the soil.

* It may be harder to keep improving the soil in raised beds. Raised beds (unless in the form of border-less berms) eventually fill up. That means you are limited in the amount of organic matter you can put on or in the soil, because it will, at some point, overflow. Eventually, the soil in raised beds will be depleted and require replacing.

* Typical raised beds aren't suitable for some edibles. For example, you'll need deeper than average raised beds to grow carrots, and tomatoes do best if you give them several feet of space for their roots. Sprawling veggies, like pumpkins, will need space to spread down and out of raised beds.

* If you are gardening in the city or suburbs, raised beds may be considered "neater" looking by your neighbors and city officials. (Although a well maintained traditional garden can look tidy and beautiful, too.)

My garden, two years ago.
Pros and Cons of In-the-Ground Vegetable Gardens

* Traditional in-the-ground gardens don't require store bought soil. Even if your soil is lousy, you can improve it by amending with organic matter and using lasagna or sheet mulching methods. However, it does take time for soil to improve.

* In-the-ground gardens make for weed-free pathways if you're willing to lightly till them. However, you'll need to prepare the garden area by laying down cardboard (watered and weighed down) the fall before you plant, in order to keep the growing areas relatively weed free. (For tips on preparing a garden site, click here.)

* In-the-ground gardens are easier to mulch, and more mulch means less watering and better soil over time.

* You can continually improve the soil of in-the-ground gardens with organic matter (like composted manure, dry leaves, compost, straw, etc.). You will never have to worry that soil will overflow, as with a raised bed.

* In-the-ground gardens generally requires less frequent watering than raised bed gardens.
In-the-ground garden. Courtesy of Jean-noƫl Lafargue.

* If you live in a hot climate, an in-the-ground garden is less likely to burn plants than a (hotter) raised bed is.

* It's cheap and easy to expand in-the-ground gardens because there's no building materials or soil to purchase. final decision for our new homestead? Because we'll be living in a cooler, wetter climate, I think it's probably best to go with raised beds. But I reserve the right to change my mind!

May 19, 2016

Starting a Vegetable Garden on a Budget

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information.

 Years ago, I remember talking with a friend about growing vegetables. "I read The $64 Tomato and now I'm scared to start a garden!" she said. I'd never heard of this book, so next time I was at the library, I checked it out. Oh my goodness! Now I knew why my friend was afraid to start gardening! The author of The $64 Tomato spent ginormous amounts on his garden, and after figuring out his costs, yes, indeed, his tomatoes cost his $64 a piece. Crazy! But let me assure you, friends, this is not the norm! Most people save money when they grow their own food. For example, the last time I figured how much our vegetable garden produced, I learned we saved a minimum of $1,492.89 over buying our veggies at a grocery store.And I wasn't doing anything extraordinary.

Here's how I recommend starting a garden without breaking the bank

Save on Raised Beds
Raised bed gardens don't have to be expensive. (Courtesy

There are advantages to raised beds - namely, the soil in them gets warmer more quickly in the spring and stays warmer in the fall, which increases yields. They can also be a solution to problems with poor soil - if you fill them with great dirt. But there's no reason you need to spend a fortune buying or making raised beds.

You could go without, just layering organic matter on top of the soil in a method called lasagna gardening. Or you can use old fashioned berms - a method I've used successfully for years, and which is basically raised beds without any structure holding the dirt in place.

Other ideas include building raised beds from found materials (like free pallets - make sure they are the safe kind, rocks found in your yard, excess building materials like bricks, etc.) You can even use logs to create raised beds.

It's easy - and not expensive - to build great garden soil.
Save on Garden Soil

I do understand the desire to start your garden right away. When I began growing food in earnest at our current suburban home, I spent a couple hundred dollars to bring in soil to create berms. Even with that expense, I saved some money on our food bill. But the soil wasn't terrific (which is often the case when you buy garden soil in bulk), and maybe you don't have enough money laying around to purchase soil. (I think I was actually fortunate the soil didn't contain traces of Round Up. That seems to happen fairly often, and makes the soil deadly for any plant.)

So, begin at the beginning. Test your soil first; you can buy inexpensive soil test kits at gardening centers. (I've successfully used Leaf Luster brand's kit.) Follow the kit's instructions on how to amend your soil using organic matter. Or, if your soil seems really terrible and you can't truck in dirt, consider lasagna gardening (also called sheet mulching). As soon as the top layers are composted (rotted through), you can begin planting.

Assuming your soil isn't the depleted clay I was dealing with when I first began homesteading, you can also plant directly in the dirt, amending with good organic matter as you go. Start a compost pile. Use grass clippings as mulch. In the fall, shred fallen leaves and add them to your garden bed. Dig trenches in the soil, near plants, and place vegetable and fruit leavings in them. And if you have livestock like chickens, rabbits, goats, etc., be sure to compost their manure and add it to the garden soil. Pretty soon, you'll have soil so good, money can't buy it.

It's a good idea to start with inexpensive garden tools. (Courtesy of
Save on Gardening Tools

Confession: I have cheap gardening tools. I do want to upgrade to more durable tools, but right now I can't. And if you're just starting out in gardening, I actually recommend you don't buy expensive tools. For one thing, you have no idea what type of tools you need or like best! So don't be afraid to buy less expensive tools right now.

Which brings me to the subject of tillers. Every spring, I see people all over Facebook and Craigslist, desperately seeking someone to till their garden. But you don't need a tiller.

There's a whole gardening philosophy that says tilling is really bad for the soil. It disrupts the good bugs n the dirt, ruins top soil, brings up weed seeds, and just plain makes you - and your plants - work harder. So, you see, there's no need to spend oodles on a tiller.

It's easy - and much cheaper - to start plants from seed. (Courtesy
Save on Plants

Don't buy seedlings; they are too expensive. Plus, the plants will be at least somewhat stunted when you change their environment and plant them in your garden. (And especially don't buy starts at big box stores, since there is no way to know if thwinter sowing, or planting seeds in "mini greenhouses" made from re-purposed plastic containers, like the lidded bins salad greens often come in. For more on seed starting, check out my ebook Starting Seeds, which gives step by step information. (And is only 99 cents!)
ose plants will thrive - or not -  in your garden.) Instead, start plants from seed. You can do it - really. The easiest method for beginners is

If you have a friend who gardens, you might also consider a seed exchange. For example, if you don't use all of the seeds in a seed packet, offer them to your friend - and in turn, she will give you some of her extra seeds.

You might also try cuttings, especially of tomato plants. You can buy one or two tomato plants (or maybe a friend will let you take cuttings), snip off a branch, pop it in the soil, and viola! You'll soon have a new tomato plant.

As your skill increases, you can consider saving your own seed, too.

Above all, though, be realistic about what you can grow. Make sure it will thrive in your gardening zone and in the conditions in your garden. (Don't expect tomatoes to produce abundantly in part shade, for example.) And when you're just starting out, keep your garden small. As your skill increases, you can add extra beds to your garden.

Save by Going Organic

Some methods of watering are more economical than others. (Courtesy of
Buying chemical fertilizers and pesticides is expensive. Plus, it's not great for the soil, the water table, or your health. The happy thing is, growing organic is a lot less expensive because it's mostly about building the soil up so your plants thrive. See "Save on Garden Soil," above, for cheap, easy ways to do this.

Save on Water

Irrigation can seriously increase the cost of your garden, but there are several things you can do to reduce watering costs. First, mulch your garden, to help keep moisture in the soil. (Use an organic mulch, like bark or straw and the mulch does double duty, decomposing and helping to improve your soil.)

Second, water only when necessary. (If you insert a finger into the soil and it feels dry two inches down, it's time to water.)

Third, don't use a sprinkler system, which throws water where it won't help your plants grow; instead, use a soaker hose or hand water at the base of plants.

May 10, 2016

Newbie Vegetable Gardening Mistakes - and How to Avoid Them

Anyone who grows veggies was once a newbie - and as beginners, all of us made mistakes. But you don't have to make the most common vegetable garden mistakes if you follow these simple guidelines.

Mistake # 1. 
Not Prepping the Soil.

When I was a kid, I helped my dad with our large vegetable garden, but when I married and tried to start a veggie garden all on my own, I made a big mistake: I had no idea that my hard, clay soil was totally unsuitable to gardening! My veggies did grow, but they sure didn't thrive. Trust me: Ignoring your soil can make a huge difference between vegetables that produce abundantly and vegetables that seem stunted.

So before you do anything else, prep your soil properly. This means getting rid of any grass, weeds, and rocks; testing the garden soil; and amending the soil with organic matter. To learn the details of how to do all these things, click here.

An expert's large garden along a canal in Amiens, France. (Courtesy of Vassil.)
Mistake #2. Starting Too Big.

If you've never gardened before, don't make your first garden a huge one. Time and time again, I've seen newbie gardeners loose interest this way. They just get too overwhelmed, and soon weeds are everywhere and vegetables are on the ground, rotting.

Instead, start with a small patch. As your skills as a veggie gardener grow, expand your garden. It's a lot less frustrating and wasteful!

Mistake #3. Not Paying Attention to Sunlight.

Another common newbie gardening error is not putting the garden in "full sunlight." Yes, there are some edibles that will grow in part shade, but almost all of them are far more productive in full sun.

What exactly is "full sun?" Six hours a day of complete sunlight. In an ideal world, those 6 hours are morning sun, since hotter afternoon sun will wither and dry out plants more quickly. To learn how to figure out how much sunlight your proposed gardening area gets, click here.

Mistake #4. Not Choosing the Right Plants.

If you buy your seeds from a catalog, you'll be tempted by all sorts of plants that just aren't suitable for your climate. All gardeners have been tempted! But if you want a productive garden, you need to focus on seeds and plants that are well suited to your climate.

Plants that grow well in one region may not grow well in another. (Courtesy of Mark Ahsmann.)
First, you need to know your USDA gardening zone. You can easily learn that information at the USDA website. Whatever number the USDA assigns to your area is the gardening zone number you need to look for in seed catalogs and plant tags. Click here for more information on understanding your local gardening climate.

I also recommend that you find a local seed company, if possible. Seeds grown in your area are quite simply most likely to thrive in your garden. If you can't find a local seed company, look for a business that grows seeds in a climate similar to yours.

Mistake #5. Planting Too Early.

Every gardener wants to start his or her garden as soon as the sun comes out in the early spring. But this is a great way to kill plants. Instead, learn you first frost date, and don't plant any veggies before that time. Here's a handy site listing first and last frost dates for the U.S. 

Of course, if you winter sow your seeds, you don't need to worry; you can plant your seedlings out in the garden as soon as they are the right size.

A well mulched potato patch. (Courtesy
Mistake #6. Not Mulching.

Mulch not only prevents the garden from being overrun by weeds, it adds valuable organic matter to the soil, boosting it's fertility, and lowers the need for watering. Examples of organic mulch include straw, wood chips, grass clippings, leaves, and compost. (The latter is most often dug into the soil, but it can also be used on top of the soil, as a mulch.)

Don't allow the mulch to touch plant stems (because this will make them susceptible to disease). Fine mulch (like compost or grass clippings), should be about 2 - 3 inches thick. Mulch with bigger pieces (like bark or straw) can be applied up to 4 inches thick.

Mistake #7. Over Watering and Fertilizing.

Plants will rot and become susceptible to disease when over-watered or -fertilized. Instead, test the soil before watering by sticking a finger about a two inches down into it. If the soil feels dry there, water deeply. Always water in the mornings. (Evening watering may lead to excess dampness and therefore disease; afternoon watering results in too much moisture loss).
Too much water actually damages plants.

If you decide to fertilize your plants, choose an organic fertilizer, and carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions. If you make your own fertilizer (learn how here), I recommend fertilizing once or twice over the entire season. If your soil is well prepped with organic matter, you may not need fertilizer at all.

Mistake #8. Not Harvesting.

Strange as it might at first seem, a lot of inexperienced vegetable gardeners hesitate to harvest their edibles. In fact, a few years ago, I called this the #1 biggest mistake gardeners make. For example, maybe a few beans seem ready, but not enough to feed your family of four - so you let those beans sit on the vine. However, not only will those beans likely go to waste, but when you don't harvest veggies when they are ready to be picked, it sends a signal to the plant that it's time to stop growing. The plant slows production and will eventually go to seed, becoming useless for food.

Instead, harvest even small amounts of edibles when they are ready. (They make great snacks!) Not sure when the food is ready for picking? Click here for advice.

Mistake #9. Not Strolling Through the Garden.

When it's growing season, I grab my morning tea and wander around the garden, just looking. This may seem like a waste of time, but I assure you it's not. By strolling through the garden and observing, you can catch many problems in their early stage - when they are still easy to manage. For example, you may notice something is beginning to munch on one of your lettuce's leaves. This gives you time to research what it might be causing the damage - and act before the critter eats your entire crop.

These daily wanderings also help prevent food waste. Sometimes you can be in the garden one day and all the tomatoes are green, and the next time you see them, a few days later, they are rotting. But that's not gonna happen if you take the time to wander through and enjoy your garden.

Perhaps best of all, daily strolls through the garden are good for you. Study after study (and plenty of good old fashioned experience) shows that gardening makes gardeners healthier. Some of the positive affects are from eating better and getting more exercise, but a good portion of it is simply the peaceful, relaxing experience of being around plants. Take the time to enjoy!

Apr 13, 2016

Reader's Gardens: Tereza's Treasures

Last week, bemoaning the fact that I won't have much of a garden this year (due to moving), I asked readers to send me their garden photos, and a little about why they started growing food. (If you'd like to participate, send your photos to kriswrite at aol dot com. If you have a blog or website, be sure to let me know, so I can link readers to it.) Tereza, a long time reader, sent this:

"I began gardening because I live in a small rural town and love to cook. I really wanted fresh herbs and other produce I could not find here or they were way too expensive. Five years ago we moved into this house and it is in the middle of 5 acres - so there's plenty of space for gardening. 
Before this, we lived in a garden home and my husband wouldn't let me do much in our backyard. So I tried planting herbs in pots and planted a few tomatoes in a corner. Although they produced well, I didn't know much about helping them thrive. When I moved to this house, I convinced my husband to build me 3 raised beds. He wanted to buy a tiller and till the ground, but I told him I wanted to begin small with something doable so I wouldn't get overwhelmed. Since I homeschool, I also wanted to be able to, if necessary, take a break or neglect my garden, and not feel guilty. :)
Tereza says many of the greens were planted last fall; the lettuce was planted about 5 weeks ago.
So I planted green beans, kale, mustard, basil, cilantro, green onions, peppers, tomatoes and we all fell in love with gardening. My husband had experience eating produce fresh from the garden because his Grandpa gardened while he was growing up. But he never did participate in it much, other than eating. This time around he built the boxes, gave me some instruction based on what he watched his Grandpa do, and gave me support. Lots of support.
After the first year, I asked for more boxes, a compost bin, more pots with herbs and we began increasing. I got lots of free plants from our local garden center. I befriended an older man who gave me lots of tutorials. I watched tons of YouTube videos. I used your ebook on planting seeds. (Note from Kristina: She means Starting Seeds.) I asked you questions and you answered them. :)
Today I have 20 raised beds plus all the pots I used for herbs and tomato plants. I have 3 strawberry beds that got started with 5 free plants. Today I saw the first ripe strawberry of the season. Last year, I didn't have to buy a single strawberry carton! I love gardening. At the end of summer, I am so tired and don't want to do much. But then, I can't entertain the idea of not having fresh produce during the winter. So I plant greens and anything else that will grow in the winter. The gardening gives me motivation in the Spring to come outside and begin working. I love gardening.
We are thinking of moving and traveling. The one thing that always makes me hesitate is that I will not be able to garden and will have to give up my green patch. :)"

Tereza has a YouTube channel with some gardening videos, and she also blogs at Creating Treasures.

Dec 7, 2015

How to Kill E. Coli on Vegetables and Fruits

In the last few weeks, there have been several recalls on fresh produce due to possible E. coli contamination. Since then, I've seen a myriad of Internet articles and posts claiming all sorts of ways to kill E. coli, salmonella, and other bacteria on fresh produce. The question is: Do any of them work?
How to Kill E. Coli on Vegetables and Fruits
First, How Common Are E. Coli Infections?

According to the CDC, there are an estimated  265,000 illnesses E. coli infections in the United States each year. However, it's important to note that this figure is an estimate only; experts say most people don't seek medical care for infections, and even those who do usually don't have a stool test for positive identification. Also remember that not all incidences of E. coli outbreaks are caused by contaminated food. For example, E. coli is also spread by hands (which are usually contaminated with human waste), or when human hands touch (live) animals (for example, at a petting zoo)

Dr. Robert Brackett, the Director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  - See more at:
Does Washing Kill E. Coli?

Most Internet articles, videos, and news reports about bacteria on produce say to scrub fruits and vegetables in hot water to remove bacteria. But according to Dr. Robert Brackett of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology, washing fruits and vegetables - whether with plain water, vinegar, bleach, dish soap, or hydrogen peroxide - does not remove harmful pathogens that make you sick.

This is because E. coli actually attaches itself to the surface of the food and produces something called a biofilm - which you can think of as a sort of protective bubble that makes it extremely difficult to wash away the bacteria. Because of this biofilm, something like bleach, which would normally kill E. coli, is ineffective. (Not to mention that putting bleach or hydrogen peroxide on your food could make you sick all by itself)

So yes, something like a vinegar wash may remove some bacteria (and certainly dirt and some portion of the pesticides used on the food), but it certainly won't get rid of everything that makes you sick.

How to Kill E. Coli on Produce

The only way for consumers to be sure their produce is free from bacteria is to cook it thoroughly. Sadly, a quick toss in the skillet or a light steaming isn't enough to kill E. coli and other bacteria. Instead, you'll have to make sure your produce reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. for at least 15 seconds. (That means testing it with a good thermometer, folks.)

What About Home Grown Fruits and Vegetables?

There are no statistics about home grown food and E. coli. This is probably mostly because most people don't know what's making them sick. Is it the flu? Or food poisioning? Most of us never learn. My personal belief, however, is that home grown produce is less likely to make you sick. After all, it's not fertilized with sludge (human waste), watered with manure-contaminated water, or handled by very many people. However, home gardeners must follow certain basic precautions:

* Don't use greywater on edibles. (Though it should be fine for watering fruit and nut trees.)
* Don't use roofline water on your edibles. (It can contain animal feces and other contaminantes.)
* Never use fresh manure in the garden. Always age it at least 6 months before applying it. As an added precaution, dig composted manure into the soil, instead of using it on top of the soil.
* When handling produce, always make sure your hands are clean. (Wash them for 30 seconds in the hottest water you can stand, using soap, then rinse thoroughly.)

Do Does This Mean We Shouldn't Eat Raw Vegetables and Fruits?

Most experts say no; it's unlikely you will get E. coli from produce. Some experts recommend peeling fruits and veggies to lesson your risk of exposure (but often the most nutritious part of a veggie is it's peel). Others suggest removing the outer leaves from lettuce and cabbage heads to reduce the risk of exposure of harmful bacteria.

My best advice is to grow the veggies you eat raw and to cook all those you buy. Those who are at higher risk of death or serious injury from E. coli, such as small children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, should probably only eat vegetables if they are well cooked.

they produce a substance called “biofilm,” which encases the bacteria in a sort of shell and helps them stick to whatever they’ve latched onto. This coating keeps them from being washed away and also protects them from chemicals that could otherwise disable them.  In other words, adding a few drops of bleach to the water you use to wash vegetables will kill any bacteria in the water but won’t do much to the bacteria on the vegetables. - See more at:
Dr. Robert Brackett, the Director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  - See more at:
Dr. Robert Brackett, the Director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  - See more at:

Nov 17, 2015

Garden Like a Pilgrim

I'm a lover of history. And as I tend my garden, I often find myself wondering what I'd be doing differently if I lived in the Victorian era, or the Revolutionary era, or - especially at this time of year - the colonial era. How would I garden if I were a Pilgrim? Well, despite the fact that early Pilgrims struggled to feed themselves, it turns out a lot of their gardening techniques were excellent - and are quite applicable in the 21st century.

Vintage postcard of Plymouth Plantation.

1. Pilgrims grew what was easy to grow and store. You think you're busy, but Pilgrims spent all day just trying to survive. They didn't have time to while away in the garden. So they chose crops that were filling and easier to grow. This included corn (which they ate as a grain), onions, leeks, carrots, turnips, fava beans (then called "broad beans"), cabbage, winter squash, and kale. All of these foods could easily be stored for the months without refrigerators, freezers, or canning.

2. They grew flowers and herbs among their veggies. The idea of edible landscaping really isn't new. Unless they were wealthy, Pilgrims couldn't spend a lot of time on separate garden or herb beds. They grew them among their vegetables. Not only did this save labor and time, but it attracted pollinators - and looked pretty, too.

3. They used raised beds and berms. Berms - or rows of dirt hoed at least several inches above the soil line - kept the garden warmer and made tending crops easier. So did raised beds, which measured 4 feet wide - an ideal width to be able to reach to the middle from either side. Most of the Pilgrim's raised beds were 12 feet long.

4. They sometimes used hotbeds and cold frames. To get a jump start on the spring garden, wealthy Pilgrims used hotbeds. This time honored technique involves putting fresh (not composted) horse manure in a pile, then covering it with a tarp (in those days, made of cloth) until it reaches approximately 160 degrees F. Then the manure is shoveled into a pit about 2 feet deep. A cold frame (a bottomless wooden box) is placed on top and about 4 inches of good garden soil shoveled over the manure. When the soil is about 70 degrees F., seeds are planted in it and straw is used as mulch. The resulting hot bed stays warm about 3 - 4 weeks. Cold frames were also used without manure. They were whitewashed so they'd reflect the sun's heat better, and a glass top was set on top to warm the frames even further.

5. They used garden tunnels. We tend to think of low garden tunnels as a modern invention, but they aren't! Pilgrims made their hoops out of cypress limbs and glued linseed oil-covered paper to them. These hoops were used mostly by the wealthy to grow coveted melons.

6. They used floating row covers. Seedlings were often covered with cheesecloth to protect them from bugs, but still let the sunshine in.

7. They used organic methods. Though the Victorians were quick to put all manner of chemicals on their food, the Pilgrims didn't. Of course, many of the pests we have today weren't yet in the New World. They had cucumber beets, cabbage loopers, and squash-vine borers, but cabbage worms, snails, slugs, potato beetles, and flea beetles had yet to be brought over on ships.

8. They made compost. Animal manure was placed in a pile to age and make garden beds fantastic growing mediums. Leaves and other garden clippings were composted, too. And what plant-based food not given to livestock like pigs and chickens was also thrown in the compost heap.


Other Fun Facts:

* Gardening was mostly a female affair. Men grew the grains, but women tended the herbs, vegetables, and flowers.

* The Pilgrims grew some easy veggies we are no longer familiar with, like skirrets and scorzoners. They might be fun for us to try!

* Not all Pilgrims kept a garden. Raising pigs, for example, required a lot less time and energy, so they might be chosen over vegetables. In those days, meat was considered the most important part of the diet. Plus, eating lots of meat was a sign of freedom, since only the rich ate that way in Europe. (The rich had land to hunt on. It was illegal for the poor to hunt the land, and so they ate mostly vegetables.)

* The corn the Pilgrims ate was different than the sweet corn we eat today. It was native to the New World, and the Pilgrims called it "Indian corn." It was red, yellow, white, and black, all on the same ear. It was dried, then pounded into flour. This was the main source of nutrition in the Pilgrim diet and was eaten at nearly every meal.

* The Pilgrims originally tried to keep a community garden of sorts. They thought it would be best to have one garden that everyone contributed to. This idea failed so badly, the Pilgrims nearly starved. After this experiment, the Pilgrims kept their own gardens and each family was responsible for it's own food. This lead to far better times for the Pilgrims.

* While doing research for this post, I bumped into the book Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th-Century Methods for Today's Organic Gardeners. It looks fascinating; check it out!

Jul 29, 2015

Food That Grows When I Ignore It

Other than planting a few greens, I did not plant a garden this year. I thought we'd be moved by now (sigh), and didn't want to go to all the work of starting a garden only to abandon it. What garden does remain at our suburban home, I've largely ignored. I've killed a few weeds here and there and watered just enough to keep things from dying. And yet still my family is enjoying some fresh produce! Here's what's growing, despite my ignoring it.


I love growing garlic because it's so stinkin' easy. Just put garlic cloves in the ground, pointy end up, and next year, harvest a whole head! This garlic was from cloves I planted last spring. This year, all I did was cut down the scapes (the flower stalks) when they appeared (chopping them up for food, mind you), and then waited for the leaves to get mostly brown. Then I pulled up the whole plant and let it sit in a warm, dry location for a week or so, to cure the heads. Soon, I'll take some cloves from this harvest and plant them for next year.

(Incidentally, when you plant and harvest garlic depends upon the type. My garlic is hardneck; more info here.)


Normally, early in the spring, as soon as my local gardening center has them, I buy seed potatoes and plant them around St. Patrick's Day. This year, I didn't do that. But I still got potatoes! That's because during last year's harvest I accidentally left behind some teeny weeny baby taters. This spring they sprouted, so I went ahead and added soil to the grow bags they were in. Although they are all the same type of potato (Kennebec, which we love), one grow bag got eaten by slugs, my nemesis. The other died back and I got a good harvest. And there is still one bag with happily growing potatoes that I will harvest as soon as the green tops die back.


This our best year ever with our columnar apple trees. They've got lots of apples and grow without anything more than a watering now and then.

Ground nuts (Apios americana)

Early in the spring, the shoots of this plant were eaten almost totally back by slugs and snails. But the vine is rebounding, and I expect to harvest ground nuts this year.

Jerusalem Artichokes

This food producing plant is completely effortless to grow - and it even gives abundantly when I abuse it. (It's currently in too much shade, I tend to forget to water it, and I've been putting off revitalizing the soil it grows in for years.)


Admittedly, I should have rejuvenated my strawberries this year, replacing old plants with new runners. But I didn't...And even though I haven't mulched them and I keep forgetting to water the poor little babies, they are still producing some berries. The plants that are doing the best are these, in an overcrowded, broken down pot sitting in the shade. Go figure.

Hardy Kiwi

These really should be producing way more fruit, but they are being shaded too much by other plants. Even so, with no pruning, little watering, and no talking to, I am getting kiwi fruit.


Many people wouldn't consider nasturtiums food, but I love their peppery leaves in salad...and their seed pods? Amazing peppery goodness! These things self-plant every year - so long as I don't eat all the seed pods.

This plant is gargantuan! It's about 56 inches tall and 77 inches wide and produces like mad! In fact, it produces way more than my family can handle, so I often ask friends to come and take as much as they want. It's planted in terrible clay soil, too.

A couple keys to getting such prolific rhubarb: 1) Rumor has it that rhubarb plants with stalks that are more green than red are more prolific; my dinosaur certainly has  green stalks. 2) Leave the plant alone the first year; don't harvest from it at all. 3) Remove all flower stalks as soon as you see them. 4) When harvesting, leave at least half the stalks in place. 5) Stop harvesting in August, to give the plant a chance to get ready for cold weather. 6) Instead of composting the very poisonous leaves, lay them down under the plant. This is the only fertilizer mine gets, and it loves it!


We had tons of blueberries this year...which no one is complaining about! All I did was give them a little acid fertilizer early in the spring, and made sure they had periodic water. 


Many of my herbs don't die back, even when it snows in the winter. These include rosemary, chives, sage, cilantro (if put in a sheltered area), and thyme. Thank you, trusty little guys!