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

May 19, 2016

Starting a Vegetable Garden on a Budget

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 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!


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!