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

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!


Jun 24, 2015

Tumbleweed Junction's Harvest Apron - a Review

If you're anything like me, you often find yourself outside meaning to pull just a few weeds or check the chickens' water level, only to end up harvesting veggies or fruits or eggs. And, again, if you're anything like me, you struggle with how to carry the food you've harvested so you can get it into the house. I usually ending up putting it in the bottom of my shirt - which I have to hold up to make a sort of hammock. But this just isn't practical - it's too easy to drop the food or have it stain your shirt. I've always thought that to solve this problem, I needed a harvesting apron.

So when Lorretta of Etsy's Tumbleweed Junction sent me one of  her harvest aprons to try, I was excited. No more stained, stretched out shirts! No more dropping tender fruit as I walked to the kitchen! And in fact, I've found the apron quite convenient. I just whip it on as I head out to the yard - just in case I find something I might want to harvest. It's light weight and comfortable, but sturdy enough for anything I might want to harvest in my yard.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Tumbleweed Junction's aprons. They are made from high end quilting fabric (designed to last!), not the cheap sewing fabric sold in too many chain fabric stores. The sewing is also extremely well done. Honestly, better than I could do - and I've been sewing since Jr. High.

I find the apron works extremely well for light-weight food, including eggs, herbs, lighter weight veggies (like beans and peas), and smaller quantities of heavier veggies and fruits. Recently, a friend brought me some lemons from her out-of-state yard, so I checked to see how well the apron would handle something heftier. It did just fine with probably 1 - 1 1/2 lbs. of lemons, but when I tried to fill the apron up all the way, I found I needed to hold the top of it with one hand, or the lemons would spill out.

Another thing I love about this apron is that people of many sizes can use it. I am currently a size 16 (but heading toward smaller sizes!), and some aprons just don't fit me well. They don't have complete coverage, and/or their strings are too short to tie around me comfortably. But this apron has neither problem - and it also fits my 9 year old daughter! Usually adult-sized aprons are overwhelmingly huge on her. That's not true with this apron. (In fact, she loves the apron so much, she's been doing most of the egg collecting, just so she can wear it.)

Occasionally, Tumbleweed Junction offers this apron in a child's size. Lorretta tells me that if there's enough interest in the child-sized version, she'll offer it more often - and may even start selling mother-daughter matching aprons, too. I'm sure you could contact her via Etsy if you're interested.

Also, Lorretta just began offering a sewing pattern for this apron - both the adult and child's sizes all in one package - so you can make this harvest apron yourself, should you wish. It's a nicely printed pattern, too, with color illustrations and clear instructions.

Overall, I'm loving my Tumbleweed Junction harvest apron.It definitely makes life around this urban homestead a bit easier. To order your own harvest apron, click on over to Tumbleweed Junction's Etsy shop.

Jun 19, 2015

Bleach as a Weed Killer

In an effort to keep chemicals out of the garden (for the sake of pollinating insects, the soil, our water, and our personal health), I've tried many organic means of keeping weeds at bay. Generally, if I stay on top of hand weeding, there's really no problem. (For examples of other organic weed control techniques, see these posts: The Organic, Weed Free Garden; Lazy Ways to Weed the Garden; The World's Easiest, Safest, and Best DIY Weed Killers, and Why Newspapers and Cardboard are Better Than Landscaping Fabric.)

But a couple of years back, I had my husband remove a portion of our front lawn to make more room for vegetables and fruits. The grass stayed out of this growing area...until this spring, when it came back with a vengeance. I find the grass is impossible to pull out by hand; the roots stay stubbornly in the soil. So what to do? My usual organic weed killers just weren't cutting it. So I decided to try something new: Bleach.

The results? Great! By the next day, some very stubborn weeds were dead, as was the grass. And the invasion blackberry vines that are tough to kill even with Round Up? They were dead, too!

A Few Facts about Bleach

* The chemicals in modern bleach have been in use since the 18th century.

* If you have city water, it contains bleach.

* The ingredients in bleach are organic. However, these natural chemicals are definitely processed. (Read more about that process here.)

* According to OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) (which, in my opinion, is extremely cautious), those who use bleach in the workplace must wear a mask and gloves.

* Some people are concerned about bleach and health risks - but most concerns have to do with indoor air quality.

* Bleach kills bacteria, fungus, and molds, and is sometimes used to kill soil diseases. It's also used to kill certain pests (like nematodes). I cannot find proof that bleach kills beneficial microbes in the soil, but I think it's likely. However, you're only spraying the surface of the soil, and bleach dissipates pretty quickly.

Overall, I think that if you can't kill certain weeds by organic methods, bleach is a good option - and far safer than Round Up.

Blackberry vines killed by bleach.

How to Use Bleach as a Weed Killer

1. Choose a sunny, relatively wind-free day. I recommend spraying on the morning of a day that will be hot.

2. Mow, weed whack, or cut back long or tall weeds. This is an important step because a) you'll use less bleach if the plants are smaller and b) the bleach is more likely to kill the plant if you spay near the roots.

3. Rake away what you've mowed or cut off. This ensures the bleach ends up on the part of the plant with roots in the soil, not just on the part of the plant you've cut off.

4. Pour household bleach into a hand held spray bottle. (You could also use one of these.) Use a fresh bottle of bleach, since bleach that's been sitting around quickly dissipates and becomes ineffective. Wear old clothes, just in case you get bleach on them. Wear gloves and a mask, if you like. (I didn't.)

5. Spray the weeds, covering as much of the leaves as possible with the bleach.

6. Remember: Bleach will kill desirable plants, too. If you accidentally spray something you didn't meant to, just clean off the affected area with water. The plant should be fine.

7. Wait at least a day before walking in the area. By then, the weeds should be browning, if not completely dead. Weeds that are in the shade will take longer to die.

8. Wait a week (I think a couple of days would be fine, but let's be extra cautious) before planting anything in the area that's been sprayed. Because bleach may kill some microbes in the soil, I recommend adding compost to the soil before planting, to replenish any soil microbes that might have died.

May 6, 2015

Eggshells for Slug and Snail Control: Do They Really Work?

I live where slugs and snails are everywhere. And I'm always looking for ways to keep them from destroying my vegetable garden. So naturally, all those Pinterest posts about using eggshells for slug and snail control caught my interest. It's one of the few tricks I haven't tried.

I've tried beer traps. They work great, but you must dump out the drowned slugs/snails every day and replenish the beer. I've tried copper borders. These work great, zapping the slugs/snails so they don't want to cross the copper - but they are only practical if you have raised beds or containers...and even then, only work so long as no leaves cross them and no dirt gets on them. I always hand pick and crush snails (sometimes putting boards down for them to hide under, so I know exactly where to find them), and I feed slugs to my chickens. (My current flock won't eat snails, whereas my last flock loved them.) But still, there are always more, more, more slimy creatures who think my garden is a smorgasbord. 

So usually, I sprinkle Sluggo everywhere. This definitely works, and (unlike most similar products) it's safe for non-slimey critters. The trouble is, I need it most during our rainy springs - and it has to be re-applied after every rain. Which becomes expensive. Plus, when do slugs and snails love to come out? When it's raining! Some years, the rain has been so persistent, I've had to totally replant my vegetable garden because slugs/snails have completely destroyed my original crop.

So eggshells seem like a perfect answer. They are readily available - totally self-sustainable, since we have backyard chickens. And they don't become less effective due to rain. Theoretically, I should only have to apply them once - maybe twice - in the growing season, because they break down quite slowly. (Which is an added bonus: They feed nutrients to the soil, helping to fertilize next year's crop.)

But the question is: Do they really work? That's what I set to find out.

How to Use Eggshells to Deter Slugs and Snails

1. As you use eggs, hang on to the shells. I put mine in a plastic shopping bag that hung from a hook in my kitchen. I didn't bother to rinse the egg shells; I just plopped them into the bag after cracking the eggs. Odor wasn't a problem.
2. Let the egg shells dry for a couple of days, at least. I waited until my bag was full, then let them sit an additional two days. Some of the eggshells weren't perfectly dry, but this was not a problem.

3. A little at a time, I put the eggs in my food processor and pulsed them. (I tried the coffee grinder first, since that's what I'd seen done on Pinterest. It didn't work at all. You might be able to use a blender, though I've not tried it. Either way, I think a food processor or blender is better, since they are easy to sanitize. If you could find a coffee grinder that works on eggshells, I'd recommend dedicating it just for that purpose, since coffee grinders are difficult to clean thoroughly.)

When I was done, the eggshells looked like this:

4. Finally, using a tablespoon, I liberally sprinkled the ground eggshells around my spring seedlings. The eggshells work because they hurt the slug/snail to cross, so don't be stingy with them, and make sure you get them all the way around your plants.

5. Then I waited.

The Good News:
It rained lightly. I watered several times. And slugs and snails did not eat my seedlings! And I sure love the cost of this organic pest control.

The Bad News:
When I watered, the eggshells did jump around a little, and some got covered by soil. I imagine a hard rain would knock them around more. So I will have to reapply more often than I initially thought.

Also, grinding the eggshells in my food processor scratched the plastic cup badly. I'm going to have to reserve that cup just for processing eggshells. In the future, I may experiment with crushing the shells with a rolling pin or something similar. (But if you try this, know that the eggshells must be ground pretty finely or they won't deter slugs and snails.)

If you have leftovers, you can either store them in an air tight container for a later applications, or you can offer them to your hens in place of oyster shell. Laying hens need plenty of calcium or they'll have health problems. Their own eggshells provide it nicely. (It's important,however, to crush the eggshells; not only does this make them easier for chickens to consume, but it prevents hens from identifying food with their eggs. Trust me, you don't want chickens that eat eggs from their nesting box!)

Apr 27, 2015

11 Proven Ways to Make Your Garden More Productive

I don't know about you, but when I take the time, energy, and money to plant an edible garden, I want it to produce as much food as possible for my family. With that in mind, here are my top 11 tips for getting the most from your vegetable garden.

1. Build up the soil. The number one thing you can do to make your garden more productive is to improve the soil. When I began gardening on my own (without my parents guiding me), I had terrible soil. It was heavy clay and had only ever grown grass, as far as I could tell. I planted a vegetable garden there, anyway, not really knowing much better. Sure, stuff grew. But it was nothing like the uber productive garden I had several years later, after adding trucked in soil and lots of organic matter. Do yourself a favor. Take the time to test your soil and add the recommended amendments. Then continue adding as much organic matter to the soil as possible. In the fall, rake fallen leaves into the garden beds. Add aged animal manure. Make compost, and add it to the soil in the spring (and throughout the summer, if you have enough). Mulch with organic materials like grass clippings or straw. All these things feed your plants far better than any store-bought fertilizer. You'll be amazed and how much better your garden grows!

2. Round off your raised beds or berms. Not being a math person, I was amazed to learn that the simple act of gently rounding the tops of your raised beds can give you a considerably more space to plant. For example, if your raised bed is 5 feet across, rounding the soil gives you a foot more growing room than if the soil in the bed was flat. If you have a 20 foot bed, that means you have 20% more growing room!

3. Stagger spacing. Neat freaks hate this one, but planting in perfect little rows is a less efficient use of space than staggering rows. If you stagger so plants are in triangles in your growing area, you'll get 10%  more growing space.

4. Plant intensively. Tighten up the spacing that plant tags and seed packets recommend - but don't go overboard. Intensively planted gardens require more water, more fertilizer, and more organic matter added to the soil. And plants that are too close for comfort never reach their full size or are as productive as they would be if they had a little more room.

5. Get rid of weeds. Few people enjoy weeding, but leaving weeds in the garden crowds out desirable plants while also stealing water and nutrients from them. So pull out those weeds when they are small. Use mulch. And whatever you do, don't let weeds go to seed. Get rid of weeds in walkways, too, by tilling pathways, or covering them with cardboard. Cover crops planted in the fall help, too. Buckwheat and oats are particularly good at crowding out weeds. (Learn more organic tips for weed control here.)

6. Grow vertical. The more plants you have growing up on trellises, fences, and other supports, the more room you have for additional plants. Good choices for vertical gardening include: pole beans, peas, cucumbers, smaller-sized squash (large squash are difficult to support if grown vertically), and indeterminant (vining) tomatoes.

7. Attract pollinators. I've heard some gardeners complain that their squash or cucumbers or...whatever...never produces - presumably because they never get pollinated. And I wonder how many other gardeners could have more productive gardens if their edibles were better pollinated. The key to great pollination is to eliminate all chemicals in the garden - and to plant flowers pollinators love. Perhaps an especially good way to do this is to plant attracting flowers in the middle of your edible garden, so pollinators must pass your fruits and vegetables to reach them.

8. Interplant. For example, in the spring, plant radishes among the lettuce and spinach. While the radishes are growing, the lettuce and spinach are small, and there's plenty of room for them all to grow. By the time you harvest the radishes, the lettuce and spinach will be ready for the extra room the removal of the radishes brings.

9. Use succession planting. For example, early in the spring, you could plant peas. When those are harvested, plant in some quick-maturing corn. When that is harvested, put in some fall lettuces. For best results, plant seedlings, not seeds, in the garden, and choose quickly maturing varieties.

10. Choose the right varieties. When choosing the seeds for any vegetable, I always choose one of the quickest-maturing varieties I can find - and I need a really good reason to select a variety that takes longer. That's because the quicker the plants grow and are harvested, the sooner I can replant the area with more plants, the more food I can get out of my garden.

11. Use season extenders. By adding cold frames or tunnels to your garden, you can gain several weeks of growing time at the beginning and end of the season. In fact, you can grow food right through winter!

Mar 25, 2015

Organic Gardening Isn't Just About Ditching Chemicals

More and more people are interested in growing food without chemicals. But true organic growing is much more than just avoiding chemicals - something that seems strange and new to many home gardeners (and even to many farmers).

Commercially Grown Organic

The organic produce you find in grocery stores - and from some farmer's markets - is more like conventionally grown food than truly organic food. As I've written before, certified organic produce may be sprayed with synthetic sprays; the USDA rules allow this under certain circumstances, and some organic farmers do it on the sly, while others are seemingly unaware that their plants were sprayed per-field.

More often, though, commercial organic fields are sprayed with natural ingredient sprays. Automatically. Whether the plants need them or not. And now it's coming to light that these sprays mostly haven't been tested for human safety. Some that have, it turns out, are harmful to humans. (Here's an example. Remember, natural doesn't mean safe. There are plenty of things that are natural that can make you sick or even kill you.) In addition, much of this organic produce is grown in other ways similar to convention produce, with little thought about the most important aspects of organic gardening.


"More than anything else, organic gardening is about building up the soil so it grows healthy plants strong enough to ward off insects and disease."

The True Organic Garden

The true organic garden, however, is much different. More than anything else, organic gardening is about building up the soil so it grows healthy plants strong enough to ward off insects and disease. How is this achieved? By loading the soil with organic matter.

Some organic gardeners dig into the soil, turning it over or tilling it in preparation for planting. These gardeners also dig in aged manure and/or compost to feed the soil and replenish it from previous plantings. Once the plants are several inches high, good organic gardeners add more organic matter to the top of the soil. They might sprinkle aged manure around, or lay down an organic mulch, like straw, that will hold in moisture, keep down weeds, and slowly decompose, further feeding the soil

For those who choose a "no dig" method - meaning they don't dig into the soil, except to make a hole for a plant - the key is to layer organic matter on top of the existing soil. Lasagna gardening (also called sheet mulching) is a great example of this. Layers of anything that's organic and that will decompose and feed the soil - like straw, bits of vegetables and fruits from the kitchen, grass clippings, and shredded black and white newspaper - are piled onto the soil. This creates a rich bed for planting.

With either method - the dig or the no-dig - the soil is constantly receiving nutrients in the form of decaying matter. (Just like in nature, where tree leaves and other organic matter are always falling to the soil and decomposing there.) This not only enriches the soil and encourages beneficial microbes and worms, but it, in turn, fertilizes or feeds the plants growing in that soil.

What About Disease and Pests?

Some argue that if you rotate crops and use the organic methods mentioned above, you'll never have pest or disease problems. This simply isn't true - although organic practices will decrease the likelihood of pest and disease in the garden.

The best organic gardeners take a daily stroll through their garden so they can catch pest and disease problems early - when they are easiest to control. Many pests can be hand picked off plants. Home gardeners can also use things like milk and other natural, completely harmless ingredients, for warding off disease, as well as simple pesticides like ordinary soap.

Is Fertilizer Necessary?

Because the focus of organic gardening is to feed to soil, fertilizer often isn't necessary. However, if your soil hasn't had much chance to build up good nutrients, or if you're growing heavy feeders like tomatoes, spinach, or celery, you will probably want to use fertilizer. But you don't need to go out and buy commercially prepared "organic" fertilizer. Instead, try to use certain types of animal manure, compost tea, comfrey, and other ingredients I discuss here.

Organic Home Grown is Better

I think you can now see why home grown organic food is so far superior to anything you can buy in a grocery store. When you buy supermarket produce, you simply don't know what you're getting. And once you've tasted fresh from the garden vegetables and fruits, it's tough to go back to store bought.

Happily, organic gardening isn't difficult, but it is a different mind-set from conventional vegetable and fruit gardening - one that is much closer to nature.

Feb 26, 2015

Grow the Dirty Dozen Ebook

Did you know that according to the CDC  90% of Americans test positive for pesticides? Including pesticides that have been banned for home use due to serious side effects? Ugh.

This is why each year The Environmental Working Group releases their famous list of "The Dirty Dozen" - the 12 types of produce that test highest for pesticide residue. Looking at this list, published heavily in newspapers and magazines, can be pretty depressing. A lot of kid favorites are on it.

Theoretically, you can stop your family's exposure to pesticides by buying organic only produce. But not only is this expensive (double ugh!), it may not offer 100% protection. In recent years, there have been several cases where produce labeled "organic" was illegally sprayed with chemicals. (Here is just one example.) And, as I've written about before, even government guidelines for certified organic produce allow the use of chemicals if farmers feel their crop may fail without them. I also recently read that organic produce can legally be sprayed with chemicals as long as they have natural ingredients - but that some of those natural chemicals may be harmful to humans. (Triple ugh!)

So what's a mom to do? One option is to plan your garden according to what foods are the worst offenders. That's where my new book Grow the Dirty Dozen: Stop Buying Produce with Pesticides and Start Growing Your Own Organic Fruits & Vegetables comes in. And by growing the most pesticide-laced foods, you not only know exactly what is in your food, but you'll feel better and save a ton of money.

Grow the Dirty Dozen offers step by step advice for novice and expert gardeners alike. You'll learn which produce is most pesticide-laden, and exactly how to grow it yourself, organically.

You'll also find the best tips for preserving your harvest through freezing, canning, drying, and cold storage. There's even a special section on genetically modified (GMO) produce, how to avoid it, and how to grow it organically.

As our food supply becomes more and more contaminated, growing our own food becomes ever more important. It isn't hard. And it doesn't require acreage. Your kids can even help. And learning how to do it doesn't cost much, either - Grow the Dirty Dozen is only $2.99 at Amazon.

Feb 16, 2015

Backyard Winter Gardening: A Book Review

Over the years, I've read a number of books on winter gardening, but Caleb Warnock's Backyard Winter Gardening is by far the best - for the simple reason that it gives easy to follow advice on the simplest ways to grow and harvest food in the winter.

Warnock is best known for his "Forgotten Skills" books, which look at the way pioneers sustained themselves and how we can recreate these skills for modern life. So it's no surprise that the methods included in Backyard Winter Gardening are old standbys easily duplicated today. Specifically, Warnock focuses on cold frames and hot beds.

A cold frame is just a low, bottomless box with a glass lid that's set over vegetables. Warnock explains he's used many types of cold frames, including the store bought variety and cold frames made with straw bales and a piece of glass. But, he writes, his simple, inexpensive, homemade two by four cold frames work best. Happily, they are extremely simple to make and even someone without building experience should be able to create one.

The author also uses hot beds; they have the same construction as his cold frames, but before planting vegetables in them, the author puts fresh manure or green clippings beneath the soil; as these decay, they keep the temperature in the box quite warm.

Using one of these two devices, Warnock grows an abundance of vegetables in winter, including beans, cabbage, lettuce, peas, spinach, and even melons. Between these fruits and veggies and the produce he keeps in his cellar, he easily feeds his family all winter.

In addition, Warnock offers details about his geothermal greenhouse - an underground greenhouse that requires no electricity and gets quite hot (100 degrees F. or more), even in Utah's coldest, snowiest winters. Here, the author grows tomatoes year round and keeps tropical fruit trees.

Warnock also mentions overwintering some veggies. This produce isn't really growing during winter; it's just staying fresh by staying in the soil. He includes carrots, beets, and other vegetables in this list, and also shows readers how to harvest them pre-winter and store them in a cool location, like a cellar or garage. I was especially excited to see that if stored correctly in a box in a cool place, many vegetable tops will continue growing, giving fresh greens all winter.

Throughout, Warmock stresses that choosing the right seed for growing food in winter is essential. Not all varieties do well in the cold, dark months. To help readers find the right type of seed, he includes the names of some of his favorite varieties and gives advice on the best places to find winter vegetable seeds.

The only thing I feel this book is missing is some information about using tunnels for winter gardening. I do realize the author is trying to focus on the most old fashioned and easy ways to winter garden, and tunnels are more of a modern invention. But at the back of the book, the author excerpts some of his gardening journal, mentioning tunnels briefly, but never explaining why he doesn't recommend them. (Elsewhere in the book, he mentions the high winds his area receives, so I assume this is why tunnels don't work well for him. Still, it would be helpful to read what he feels the pros and cons of tunnels vs. cold frames and hot beds are.)

In addition, it's important to remember that Warnock is somewhat selective in the foods he mentions in the book. For example, he neglects to mention parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, or collards, all of which are good winter vegetables. On the other hand, he talks about his amazing trials growing cantaloupe in hot beds (!) and has a chapter dedicated to mangels, an excellent through little-known crop for livestock.

Finally, several times in the book, Warnock refers readers to his website or blog. For example, he suggests checking his blog for an update about growing cantaloupe in winter. But when I arrived at his site, the search feature wasn't working. In fact, his blog looks a little neglected, with loading problems and infrequent posts.

All in all, however, Backyard Winter Gardening is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it to those who want to grow more of their family's food.

Feb 13, 2015

Gardening From Scratch, Part III: Preparing the Garden Bed

Once you've chosen your garden site, the next step is to get that location ready for planting. There are about a gazillion ways to do this, but today I'll type about some of the most practical ones.

But first, you should decide what sort of garden you want. For example, do you want a traditional, flat in the ground garden? Or a raised bed garden? Or berms? To help you decide, check out my post "Which Gardening Method to Choose?," which lists the pros and cons of each of these methods.

Preparing a Site That's Never Been Gardened Before

If you've chosen a site that's never had a garden, chances are it's covered with weeds and grass. (If there's nothing or very little growing there, your work is increased because you'll need to amend the soil more heavily; more on that in a moment.)

There are two main methods for reclaiming this sort of location. One is to cut away the grass; the other is to cover it.

Before you cut away the grass, mow it - then mark out your beds. If you're not using a traditional row method, remember that you'll want to be able to reach at least halfway across each bed; this ensures you don't have to step into the garden beds in order to weed or harvest, which is important for soil health. To mark the area, use stakes or a little sprinkled flour.

Remove the grass by using a spade or sod cutter. You don't need to dig deep - just deep enough to get all the grass roots out of the soil. (If you leave roots behind, pretty soon the area will be grassy again. No fun!) The sod you remove can go face down in your compost pile, or anywhere else in the yard. (Got an area that isn't grassy and you wish it was? Lay the sod where you want it, grassy side facing up, then water it in.) If you're going to plant directly into the soil, you'll now need to add some topsoil or compost to the area, to fill in the space the sod used to take up.
Lasagna beds. Over time, the organic layers will decompose and the beds will become lower.

You could also cover the area to create a garden bed (especially recommended if the area is weedy, not grassy). The easiest way to do this is with a method called "lasagna gardening" (a.k.a., "sheet mulching). Once the grass is mowed and the beds marked, place cardboard where you want the beds to be. Corrugated cardboard works best. Just flatten some cardboard boxes out and lay them on the ground, overlapping so that sunlight can't peek through to the soil. Some people like to add a few layers of black and white newspaper, too. The idea here is to kill any weed seeds by depriving them of light. As the cardboard and newspaper decay, they will also attract tons of worms, who will do a great deal to make the soil much better for gardening. Once the cardboard and (if desired) newspaper is down, water it well.

Now add layers of organic material over the cardboard/newspaper. Good choices include peat moss, a little wood ash, thin layers of grass clippings or dead leaves, and compost. If you have quite a bit of uncomposted organic matter (like fruit and vegetable scraps), you can even add a layer of those; just be sure they are well buried by other things, or critters like raccoons will come along and make a mess. The more layers you add to the bed, the better the soil will become.

The lasagna method works best if you create the bed early - in the late fall or early winter before you want to plant. But you can create lasagna beds in late winter or early spring, too. Just be sure that your last layer is topsoil or compost - soil to plant your seeds in.

Also note that if you want raised beds with wooden or stone sides, you'll need to construct those first, then use the lasagna method to fill them up.

Amending the Soil

When you considered where to locate your garden, I recommended testing your soil with an inexpensive soil test kit available at gardening centers. If you haven't done this yet, do it now. Supposedly, spring and fall are not the best times to test soil, but if you want a garden bed for this year, it's impractical to test in the summer. So go ahead and do the test, and amend the soil according to the test's instructions, adding whatever organic matter is recommended. In the long run, this will save you a lot of time, money, and heart ache. There's nothing worse than planting something only to find your plants aren't growing because they lack certain nutrients. Ugh!

Building the Beds

Once the soil is all ready to go, it's time to make your beds. If you're planting directly in flat soil, you can either till the soil with a rototiller, or use the double dig method by hand. If you want to plant berms (raised beds without wooden or stone sides), bring in good garden soil and shape your berms as desired. If you want raised beds with sides, now's the time to build them and fill them with great gardening soil. If you used the lasagna garden method, your berms are already formed.

Incidentally, I've found that most soil touted as gardening soil and sold by the yard (by far the least expensive way to buy it) usually isn't that great. Sometimes killer compost has been added to it - compost that was made with manure or other organic matter that has Round Up in it. (In which case, the soil is going to kill anything you plant in it.) It's a good idea to always ask what's in the soil and whether it's been exposed to chemicals. Unfortunately, there is no test I'm aware of for seeing ahead of time whether the soil has Round Up in it. But even if the soil hasn't been exposed to this chemical, you should expect to add plenty of organic matter to it, to boost it's fertility. That means adding lots of good compost - ideally, your own compost.
Raised bed gardening.
See Also:

Gardening From Scratch, Part I: Do Your Research
Gardening From Scratch, Part II: Choosing a Garden Site

Jan 16, 2015

Gardening From Scratch, Part II: Choosing a Garden Site

Aside from the bit of research you did in part I of this series, choosing a location for your garden is the most critical aspect of having well producing plants. Taking a little time to think through your garden location can make the difference between a garden that produces abundantly and one that barely produces anything.


Your new garden needs sunlight. While there are some leafy green vegetables that grow in part shade, almost all vegetables and fruits are far more productive if they get at least 6 hours of sunlight each day. Ideally, those 6 hours happen in the morning and/or early afternoon; afternoon sun is the hottest and therefore sucks more water from the soil. So how do you determine if a potential garden site gets that much sun? By observation.

The old fashioned way of doing this is, in my opinion, the best. First thing when the sun comes up, go out into the garden, and sprinkle any shaded areas with flour. Then go out into the garden at noon and do the same thing. And finally, at around 3 pm, do this again. To make things more clear, use something to differentiate between the three different markings; for example, divide each area with an inch wide "line" where no flour falls, or use a hose to mark off the different area. Now you should have a clear idea of the sunniest spot in your yard; plant your garden there.
From The New Garden Encyclopedia, 1943

A similar method is to draw a rough map of your potential garden area (or whole yard) on a piece of paper. Beginning when the sun rises, go out in the garden and note where it is shady. Lightly color in corresponding areas on your map. Go out again every hour (or at the very least, at noon and about 3 pm) and do the same thing. Make sure the shade on your map is a different color, according to the time of day represented. (At Get Busy Gardening, they use a slightly different notation method. Choose whatever makes most sense to you.) From your map, you should be able to easily tell how much sun any given area receives.

A newfangled way to test a spot for sunlight is to use an electronic sunlight meter. Stick the meter into the soil first thing in the morning (just before sunrise), and remove when night falls. The meter will tell you whether or not the location gets full sun. The only problem with a meter like this is that it only reads the specific location where it's put. To read an entire garden site requires many days of moving the meter around.

Now a word of caution: Sun exposure changes according to season, so don't expect that a shade map made in winter will accurately represent the shade in summer.


Naturally, water is essential for a garden. While some areas generally get enough rainfall to support a vegetable garden, drought will be a huge problem unless your garden has reasonable access to irrigation water. I recommend having your garden near enough a water spigot that a hose can reach all part of your garden with ease.


Certainly, soil health is a vital aspect of a productive garden - but as long as you're willing to bring in decent soil, poor soil in your chosen garden location isn't detrimental. To learn more about what type of soil you have, click here. If, after testing your soil, you determine it's not very healthy, be sure to read up on how to combat the situation.

See Also:

Gardening From Scratch, Part I: Do Your Research
Gardening From Scratch, Part III: Preparing the Garden Bed