Showing posts with label Gardening 101. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gardening 101. Show all posts

Mar 28, 2019

How to Test Garden Soil

How to Test Soil pH, NPK
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When someone tells me they have a black thumb, one of the first things I ask is what type of soil they have in their garden. Almost inevitably, they either give me a blank stare or a shrug.

In the excitement of starting a new garden, it's easy to get caught up in seed catalogs and grand gardening dreams - but for any garden to succeed, you must first do two things: Determine what type of soil you have, then test it. That is the chief key to having a so-called green thumb.

This said, there's no need to test your garden soil every year. Most extension offices recommend testing every five years or so, unless you notice growth problems in your plants. The best time of year to test soil is in the fall, but it's acceptable to test in the winter (as long as your soil isn't frozen) or even in early spring. However, it takes time for soil amendments to do their work; the sooner you test, the sooner the amendments can do their thing and the sooner you can have a thriving garden.

Different Soil Types

Clay soil is made of tiny, densely packed particles. Clay is less than ideal for gardening because water won't drain well from it (which can lead to plant rot) and may also take too long to reach plant roots (making them die of thirst). In addition, clay can prevent plants from spreading their roots - and plants without strong root systems are plagued by ill-health.

Sandy soil has - you guessed it - lots of sand in it. This can be beneficial, except that pure sand has no nutrients to feed plants and, since water drains away quite quickly in sandy soil, plants may not get enough to drink, either. On the other hand, some sand in the soil helps keep plants from getting soggy and rotting.

Loamy soil is a mixture of silt (which is particles that are between the size of sand and clay), sand, and clay. It's ideal for gardening; it retains the right amount of moisture and nutrients for plants.

How do you know which category your soil falls into? The simplest test is to sprinkle water on the ground, making the soil moist, but not wet. Scoop up a handful, squeeze it, and open your hand. Does it crumble when gently poked? Then the soil is loamy. Does the soil retain its squeezed shape even after a gentle poke? It is clay. Does the soil crumble the moment you open your hand? It is sandy.

It can also be helpful to test the drainage of your garden's soil. To do this, dig a hole one foot deep and about 6 inches wide, then fill it with water. Allow the water to completely drain. Fill the hole with water again, but this time, pay attention to how long it takes for the water to completely drain from the hole. Well-draining soil drains 1 or 2 inches of water per hour. If the soil drains more slowly, it either has rocks blocking water drainage or is high in clay. If the latter is the case, work compost and other organic matter into the soil.

If the soil drains more quickly than an inch an hour, it's too sandy and adding organic matter will also help.

Testing pH

Next, you need to know the pH of your garden soil - how acidic or alkaline it is. If the pH is too high or too low, your plants will not be healthy. For example, potatoes grown in soil that's too alkaline tend to get scab and other diseases. And while potatoes do like slightly acidic soil, if they are grown in soil that's too acidic, they simply don't thrive and could potentially die.

A pH of 7.0 is considered neutral; 0 means the soil is highly acidic; 14 means it's highly alkaline. In general, food crops prefer soil that has a pH of 6.0 - 6.5, but a range of 6.0 - 7.5 is considered acceptable for most vegetables. Many berries prefer a range of 5.0 - 7.0 and acid-loving blueberries prefer the pH to be 4.0 - 5.3. See the chart at the end of this post for more specific guidelines for common food crops.

Other Tests to Run

In addition to knowing what type of soil you have and what its pH level is, you should test the soil for basic nutrients, commonly referred to as "NPK."

"N" stands for nitrogen, which is the nutrient that makes plants grow rapidly, putting on many leaves. Lack of nitrogen in the soil results in plants that grow slowly, turn yellow, and drop leaves. Too much nitrogen in the soil causes too-rapid growth that results in weak, spindly shoots.

"P" stands for phosphorus, which helps plants grow healthy root systems and is especially beneficial during blooming and seed setting periods. Too little phosphorus leads to purplish stems, dull green or yellow leaves, and potentially no blooms. Too much phosphorus reduces a plant's ability to use micronutrients (especially zinc and iron), which leads to poor growth and even plant death.

"K" stands for potassium (sometimes called potash). It helps plants form chlorophyll and can aid in fighting disease. If soil lacks adequate levels of potassium, plants may appear generally sick, have small fruit, and/or older leaves that turn yellow. Too much potassium in the soil reduces a plant's ability to use other nutrients.

How to Test Your Soil's pH and NPK 

There are a few ways to test your garden soil's pH and NPK. One is to purchase a soil meter (like this one). A huge benefit of buying this tool (which generally sells for around $30 - $60) is that it's reusable year after year. Just stick the prongs in the soil and BAM! you have a reading. However, to remain reliable, it should be recalibrated every year, which usually includes purchasing recalbration liquid.

Another way to get your soil tested is to send a sample off to a laboratory. This typically costs $40- $100; you can find regional labs that will do garden soil tests through your local extension office. (Find your local extension office here.)

Another method (and the one I currently use) is a home testing kit (like this one). For about $25, you can buy such a kit at a local garden center or online. Kits give you everything you need to test your soil multiple times.

Generally, professional laboratory testing is considered the most accurate, but for the average gardener, any of these methods is accurate enough to prove useful.

DIY Soil Testing with a Kit 

Although I keep meaning to buy a meter, I typically use a home test kit when I need to test my garden soil. To give you an idea of how easy it is to test your own soil, I'll walk you through the steps I took last fall when I tested the soil in my greenhouse. (When we moved to our homestead three years ago, I knew my small, unheated greenhouse had terrible soil, and while I've been adding lots of organic matter to it, I could tell by the state of my plants that I needed to test the soil to determine more precisely what the soil was lacking.)

I chose to use a RapidTest kit, which I've used in the past with good results. My directions and the photographs accompanying this post focus on this brand, but whatever test you choose to use, please read the instructions carefully - and follow them exactly.

I began with a pH test:

1. First, locate the tube or container used exclusively for pH testing. In my test kit, it is clearly marked and color-coded. Remove this testing container's lid.

2. In the garden soil, dig a hole that's about 4 inches deep. Remove a small amount of soil from the bottom of the hole. Throughout this process, be sure to never touch the soil with your hands.

3. Fill the testing container with soil to the fill line.

4. Find the bag that contains the color-coded capsules meant for pH testing. Carefully separate the two ends of the capsule and pour the powder that's inside into the testing container.
5. Using the dropper included in the kit, fill the testing container to the water line using distilled water. Do not use tap or well water, which may skew the results.

6. Put the lid on the testing container and shake well. Set the container aside for one minute, or until the soil fully settles.
7. Examine the container and compare the color of the water/soil mixture to the color chart on the side of the testing container. Find the color that's closest to your results and note the corresponding pH. When comparing colors, use natural daylight, but not direct sunlight. My test results show that my greenhouse soil is a bit acidic.

Next, I tested NPK:

1. In the garden soil, dig a hole that's about 4 inches deep. Remove soil from the bottom of that hole, never touching it with your hands.

2. Fill a freshly washed, large bowl or jar with 1 part soil and 5 parts distilled water. (Tap or well water may skew the test results.) Stir or shake thoroughly for at least one minute.

3. Allow the mixture to completely settle. This will take at least 10 minutes, but could take up to a day.

4. Find the testing containers that are marked N, P, and K. Remove their lids. Find the corresponding capsules and make sure you use the correct ones for each testing container. (With my kit, the color of the capsule matches each testing container's lid.)

5. Using the dropper included in the kit, fill each container with the water and soil mixture, to the marked line. For the most accurate test results, don't allow any sediment to get into the testing container and don't disturb the sediment in the bowl or jar you've used.

6. For each container, separate the ends of the corresponding capsule and pour the powder into the correct testing container.

7. Place the lids on the containers and shake well. Set aside for 10 minutes.

8. Compare the liquid portion in each container to the corresponding color chart to discover whether levels are good, deficient, or excessive. When comparing colors, use natural daylight, but not direct sunlight. As you can see from my test results, the soil in my greenhouse is depleted in everything!

What to Do About Imbalances 

If you send your soil to a lab for testing, your results should come back with recommendations for amending your soil to cure any imbalances. If you use a DIY kit or meter, it should also come with instructions on amending. But here are some general guidelines.

To make soil more acidic: Amend with sphagnum peat, iron sulfate, or elemental sulfur (a.k.a. "flowers of sulfur” or "micro-fine sulfur"). Do note that sulfur can kill beneficial microbes in the soil. After adding sulfur to the soil, re-test in 40 - 60 days. You may also wish to add the following, which will, if added over a period of time, add acidity to soil: pine needles, woodchips, and rotted leaves or leaf mold,

To make soil more alkaline: Amend with lime; after adding it to the soil, re-test in 40 - 60 days. Over time, if you periodically add them, the following will also help make soil more alkaline: bone meal, ground eggshells or clamshells, and small amounts of hardwood ashes. Note that making acidic soil more "sweet" for garden plants is a long-term project; you shouldn't expect just one treatment to do the trick.

To increase nitrogen: Amend with alfalfa meal, blood meal, shellfish meal, or ammonium sulfate.

To increase phosphate: Amend with bone meal or shellfish meal, or rock phosphate.

To increase potassium: Amend with greensand, rock phosphate, or potash-magnesia ("Sul-Po-Mag").

To improve clay soil: Amend with sphagnum peat, greensand, biochar, compost, and aged manure. To improve sandy soil: Amend with sphagnum peat, compost, and aged manure.

Always check your soil test instructions for details on how much of any given amendment you should apply to your garden soil. You can add too much of a good thing! When re-testing soil after adding amendments, expect only small changes in pH - typically, 0.5 to 1 unit, tops. Don't add more amendments to change pH without waiting 5 - 6 weeks between applications.

Optimal Soil pH for Some Common Edible Plants 

Apples 5.0 - 6.5
Blackberry 5.0 - 6.0
Blueberry 4.0 - 6.0
Lemon 6.0 - 7.5
Orange 6.0 - 7.5
Peach 6.0 -7.0
Pear 6.0 - 7.5
Pecan 6.4 - 8.0
Plum 6.0 - 8.0
Raspberry (red) 5.5 - 7.0
Asparagus 6.0 - 8.0
Bean, pole 6.0 -7.5
Beet 6.0 - 7.5
Broccoli 6.0 - 7.0
Brussels sprouts 6.0 - 7.5
Cabbage 6.0 - 7.0
Carrot 5.5 - 7.0
Cauliflower 5.5 - 7.5
Celery 5.8 - 7.0
Chives 6.0 - 7.0
Cucumbers 5.5 - 7.0
Garlic 5.5 - 8.0
Kale 6.0 - 7.5
Lettuce 6.0 - 7.0
Pea, sweet 6.0 - 7.5
Pepper, sweet 5.5 - 7.0
Potatoes 4.8 - 6.5
Pumpkins 5.5 - 7.5
Radishes 6.0 - 7.0
Spinach 6.0 - 7.5
Tomato 5.5 - 7.5

This post featured at Simple Life Mom's Homestead Blog Hop.

Jan 29, 2019

Winter Sowing Q & A

Winter sowing is by far my favorite method of starting seeds for my vegetable or flower gardens. It's so easy, so cheap, and so effective, producing hardier seedlings than other seed-starting methods do. If you want to know the simple steps required for successful winter sowing (yes, even if it is snowing, you can start seeds right now!), either check out my ebook Starting Seeds (which covers multiple methods of seed sowing) or click over to this post that gives step-by-step winter sowing directions.

I've been touting winter sowing for many years, and over those years, I've consistently heard a handful of questions about the method. So I finally made a video to answer them!

Do you have other questions about winter sowing? Or gardening? Or homesteading? Or homekeeping? Please leave a comment with your question and I promise I'll answer.

Dec 13, 2018

Deciding What to Plant in Your Vegetable Garden

Is 2019 the year you're finally going to grow food? Or maybe it's the year you get serious about growing enough veggies to stop buying them at the store? If so, you may already find yourself inundated with seed catalogs...and like an 18th-century sailor hypnotized by the siren's song, you might be under the spell of the many, many, MANY seeds available to today's gardeners. But before you spend a bunch of money on seeds, I encourage you to take a good hard look at what you really should be growing.

What Do You Eat?

Surprisingly few people ask themselves this question when browsing seed catalogs - yet what you already eat should be the backbone of your home vegetable garden. While you might be tempted by all manner of fancy or rare vegetable seeds, first consider how you can replace store-bought produce with home-grown.

In some cases, you might not be able to replace everything you buy at the store. For instance, I can't grow the mandarin oranges my son adores because they simply don't produce in my area. (Unless they are in a heated greenhouse, which isn't within my budget any time soon.) But in most cases, you can grow most veggies you currently buy.

When I look at what I vegetables I buy the most, I see onions, bell peppers, and garlic at the very top of the list. Bell peppers are the most difficult for me to grow here, but I can do it if I choose a warm enough location. Therefore, my goal on our mountaintop homestead is to eventually grow all the onions, bell peppers, and garlic we need for at least a one year period.

To that list, I'd add our favorite low carb veggies, which are side-dish staples at our house: broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, Brussels sprouts, kale and collards, lettuce, cabbage, asparagus, kohlrabi, and zucchini. Happily, our location is terrific for all of these foods, except zucchini (which, believe it or not, I've struggled with growing on our new homestead). So already I have a strong list of must-haves for my garden.

To determine what vegetables your family eats most often, I recommend jotting down every veggie you buy for at least one month. These are your staple veggies, and should be priorities for growing at home.

What Will Save Money?

Almost all of us have limited growing space; therefore we have to ask ourselves what foods we can grow that will save us money. For example, when I lived in the suburbs, growing garlic was not a priority for me because I had such limited space and garlic was pretty cheap to buy at the store. And although I liked canning dilly beans each year, I knew a local gardener with much more space than I had who'd sell them to me super-cheap. It made more sense to buy my green beans from her than to use up a lot of space growing my own.

If organic food is important to you, you may also wish to consider the Dirty Dozen. Which store-bought foods have the most pesticides, and therefore are more important for you to grow?

What Can You Not Afford to Buy?

Next, think about veggies that you'd love to eat more often, but simply can't afford. For my family, Brussels sprouts fall into this category. We love them, but they've been really expensive the past few years, so we haven't been eating them. Growing these is a top priority for me.

What Will Give the Most?

If you plant loose leaf lettuce, it will give you lettuce the entire time it's growing in the garden (as long as you leave behind at least three center leaves). If you plant head lettuce, you'll only get one head of lettuce per plant. Likewise, an onion plant only gives you one onion, but a green bean plant provides you with many meals. Choose plants accordingly.

How Much to Grow?

If you're new to gardening, it's smart to start with a small garden. Trying to grow all your own produce in your first year is likely to lead to frustration, discouragement, and expensive mistakes. Instead, keep your garden small at first and gain some knowledge and experience.

If you've never grown a particular type of veggie before, it's also wise to start small. Instead of planting rows of something new, nurture just one or two plants. I also like to try two or three different varieties of that new-to-me vegetable, so I can get a feel for which varieties do best in my garden.

Each year, aim to expand your garden as your experience and know-how also expands.

For ideas on how many plants you need to feed your family, see my post "How Many Vegetables to Plant?"

Choosing Varieties Suitable to Your Garden

It's a huge mistake to not consider your growing conditions when selecting seeds. You should not only know your USDA gardening zone, but you'll also need to know the growing conditions in your garden. Do you have full sun (6 or more hours per day)? Then you shouldn't grow, say, spinach, which likes some shade. Do you only have part shade? Then there's little point in planting tomatoes, which will only happily produce in full sun.

You should also strive to purchase seeds that are grown in a climate similar to your own. For short season climates (the northern tier of the U.S.) I generally recommend: Stoke Seeds, Johnny's Select Seeds, Veseys Seeds, William Dam Seeds

For moderate climates (middle America, where the summers are hot and steamy and the winter freezes the soil at least 12 inches deep.): Stoke Seeds, Johnny's Select Seeds, Harris Seeds, King Seeds

For warm climates (southern America, where the soil doesn't freeze solid and the summers are long, hot, and humid): Park Seed, Southern Exposure, Seeds for the South.

For maritime climates (the Cascadia, including the redwoods of northern California, extending into Oregon, Washington, and the Lower Mainland and islands of British Columbia, with relatively cool summers and rare soil freezing): Territorial Seed, West Coast Seeds, New Gippsland Seeds.

Find more seed companies by region here

Also consider how long it takes each variety to produce. If I have a choice between a 40-day tomato and a 70-day tomato, I'll almost always pick the tomato that matures more quickly. After all, that means more food in my kitchen, sooner, and more room opened up in the garden for another round of plants. 

For more tips on choosing the best seeds for your needs, click here.

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May 26, 2018

Can You Grow Fruit Trees From Seed?

Grafting vs. Seeds
Years ago, I saw a tv program that tried - and succeeded - making so-called "preppers" look as crazy as possible. I found myself freuently shaking my head at the families featured on the show - mostly when their mistakes could easily be avoided by educating themselves with a few books.  One thing I particularly remember was a family who saved seeds from their grocery store fruits and veggies, keeping them to plant a garden in case hard times fell upon them.

There was a lot wrong with their plan, including the fact that they were saving seeds not suited to their climate and that they had no gardening experience, but somehow thought they'd be successful gardeners if need arose. But today, I want to talk about why their seeds were, at a very basic level, not a good choice.

The Seed of Our Plum Tree

We have one plum tree on our homestead that we all adore. Unfortunately, while we have many plum trees, only one of them is this variety - deep red, with blood red flesh that's a wonderful mix of sweet and tart. We've been unsuccessful at researching what variety it might be, and cannot find anything that even looks similar at our local stores, where we believe all the newer fruit trees on our homestead were purchased by the previous owners. So the other day, my husband said he was going to save some of those plum's seed pits and plant them.

Unfortunately, that won't really work.

Our coveted red plums.
Yes, we can plant the plum's seed pits and trees will grow from them. But the resulting plant won't produce fruit that's exactly like the plums we adore. This is because fruit seeds aren't "true to seed."

Seeds vs. Grafting

At first blush, this may seem ridiculous, but it's all about genetics. Fruit seeds are produced via sexual reproduction - that is to say, they have a male parent and a female parent. Because they have genes from two different parents, the seeds won't produce a plant (or fruit) that's exactly like either parent. (Just like my kids don't look or act exactly like me; they are a mixture of my genes and their father's genes.)

So if you want an Elberta peach tree, how do nurseries ensure you get what we've come to know as an Elberta - a vigorous, sweet peach with classic, fuzzy skin? By grafting.

Grafting is an asexual form of reproduction; it does not require two parents, but instead uses genes from only one parent, creating a genetic clone.

In the grafting process, one tree branch (perhaps from that Elberta peach) is inserted into the trunk of another tree (which can be totally unrelated...say, an apple). The Elberta begins using the apple's sap, growing into its trunk until there's just a bump where the two meet.

All root stock for known fruit tree varieties is traced back to the original tree, which was created
Peach pit. Courtesy of
naturally, through seed. For example, if you have a Granny Smith apple tree, it has rootstock that's traced back to the original Granny Smith tree, which originated in Australia in 1868, from a pile of crabapples someone tossed into a pile. (Maria Ann Smith liked the fruit from the resulting tree and reproduced it via grafting.)

There is an exception to the grafting vs. seed rule: Most citrus trees are "true to seed" because their seeds contain more than one plant embryo. One of those embryos requires sexual reproduction, but the rest are clones. Citrus that doesn't grow "true to seed" are: Meyer lemon, Clementine mandarin, Pummelo, Marumi Kumquat, Nagami Kumquat, Trifoliate orange (a.k.a. Poncirus trifoliata, Citrus trifoliata, Japanese bitter-orange, or Chinese bitter orange), and Temple Tangor.

What About Vegetables?

Genetics are similar when it comes to seeds from grocery store (or hybrid) vegetables. You can save the seeds, and often they are fertile, but they will not produce food like what you originally purchased. (Please don't confuse hybrid plants and seeds with GMO seeds. Click here for further explanation.)

Hybrid veggies are made by crossing the pollen of two different varieties, either naturally (via wind, birds, etc.) or human interferance. The resulting "babies" have traits from both parent plants, and therefore produce food that has a different combination of genes from their genetic pool.

Granny Smith apples.
Does It Really Matter?

There are plenty of people who will tell you none of this matters and you should go ahead and plant fruit trees from seed and use the seed saved from hybrid plants in your garden. They may be right. It's all a matter of perspective.

If you don't mind waiting years for fruit trees to produce fruit - only to perhaps discover you don't like the taste of that fruit - then go for it! Have fun experimenting with planted fruit pits.

And if you don't mind not knowing exactly what you'll get when you plant seeds saved from hybrids - whether they will taste good (or be totally inedible), be productive, or be disease or pest resistent - then go ahead and use those, too.

But if you want a more reliable crop, you'll want to either buy or make grafted fruit trees. And  vegetable seeds? You'll either save open-pollinated varieties, or buy hybrid seeds, or a combo of both. There is nothing wrong with either way of gardening - so long as you understand the pros and cons of each.

Mar 12, 2018

Why You Shouldn't Worry About GMO Seeds in Your Garden

the difference between GMO seeds, hybrid seeds, heirloom seeds, open-pollinated seeds
It's that time of year when people are buying and starting seeds for their vegetable gardens, and it seems everywhere I go someone is asking "Where can I buy non-GMO seeds?" Trust me, friends; this is something you don't have to worry about.

It's not that I'm pro-GMO. I'm definitely not. (When humans play God it always ends badly. And where are the studies showing a lifetime of eating GMO food - or pesticide-ridden food, for that matter - is safe? Hint: No such studies exist.)

But here's the deal: GMO seeds are not available to home gardeners. That's right: You can't buy GMO seed unless you're a commercial farmer.

The reason for this is simple: Profit. The creators of GMO seed want to make a whole lot of money from them. Therefore, they don't want just anybody being about to grow GMO food. I know this because they regularly sue farmers who accidentally grow GMO food in their fields because the wind or a bird or some other natural thing makes GMO seed fall on their property. GMO seed costs more than traditional seed, and the makers of GMO seeds want to keep it that way.

No, little ol' backyard gardeners like you and me can't get our hands on GMO seed. worries!

What is the Difference Between GMO Seeds and Non-GMO Seeds?

To help clarify further, let's talk about the differences between GMO, hybrid, heirloom, and open-pollinated seeds...because this is where a lot of the confusion about GMOs sits.

GMO seed: Seeds that are created in a lab. These seeds could never be created in nature...never. GMO plants may have DNA from non-compatible plants, as well as from animals and bacteria. (Learn more about creating GMO seeds here.)

Hybrid: Hybrid seeds and plants have been around for a very long time. Hybridization often happens in nature, because wind or animals cross-pollinate plants. Hybrids can also be created by humans, when the process is used to bring out special traits in a plant. (For example, a human might cross a tomato that is particularly disease-resistant with a tomato that is especially tasty and, if she is lucky, come up with a tomato that is tasty and disease-resistant.) No laboratory is needed to make a hybrid. Instead, gardeners simply remove the male portion of a flower to create a "mother plant" and push the male portion of a different flower into it. (Learn more about cross-pollinating plants here.)

Hybrid plants are not the best for seed saving because hybrid seeds aren't usually true to the parent plant. For example, if you collect seed from that hybrid tomato I mentioned above, the offspring plants probably won't have all the good qualities of the parent plant - and may have some of the bad qualities from the hybrid tomato's ancestor plants.

Heirloom: Seed from an older variety of plant, handed down for generations. All heirlooms are open-pollinated.

Open-pollinated: A hybrid seed that was created by insects, birds, wind, humans, or any other natural process. Open-pollinated seeds are excellent for seed-saving because they tend to be true to the parent plant. While all heirlooms are open-pollinated, not all open-pollinated seeds are heirloom.

One Last Thing

Because someone will bring it up. GMO seeds might be a real concern if you live near commercial farms growing GMO crops - because the wind or animals could potentially drop GMO seed into your garden. If you're in this situation and you see seedlings where you didn't plant them - especially if they are GMO crops (corn, soy, sugar beets, papaya, zucchini, yellow summer squash, canola, or cottonseed) - pull them immediately and burn them.

Jan 18, 2017

7 Gardening Hacks that DON'T Work

Winter on the homestead is a pretty quiet time. Other than caring for animals, doing a little winter canning, and the usual household stuff everyone does, there's not a lot of "homesteady" things going on. Except in my mind.

Because January is the perfect month to finalize garden plans, deciding exactly what I'm going to plant and where. So if I seem a little garden-centric lately, that's why.

As usual, I fuel my passion for gardening by browsing Pinterest gardening boards. I love looking at gorgeous gardens - especially food gardens - but this browsing also exposes me to some of Pinterest's...oddities. Namely, bad gardening advice. So you don't waste your time, money, and heart on bad gardening advice, here are the top gardening tips I see that really don't work.

1. Use eggshells (or egg cartons) for seed starting. These tiny containers don't allow seedlings to grow big, strong roots...And if you transplant your seedlings into bigger containers (or directly into the garden) before they have strong roots, your chances of success plummet. That said, starting containers don't have to cost a fortune. I'm partial to the plastic, lidded containers some greens and salads come in. You can also use the similar plastic containers that bakery goods come in, or tubs from store bought potato salad and the like. (More about using such containers here.) You can even make small pots from toilet paper tubes.

2. Plant your tomatoes with eggshells, Epsom salts, etc. It's true we need to feed the soil in order to feed our plants, but by the time all these organic materials have totally broken down and are available to give the plant nutrition, the plant may already be spent. It's far better to prepare the soil with lots of good, finished compost, shortly before planting. (Or, put uncomposted organic matter in the soil at least a season before planting.)

3. Plant everything in pots. Plant everything close together. This is not to say you should never do these things; they just not always the best route to take. A common myth among gardeners is that wide-spaced vegetable garden rows were first used when fuel powered tractors took hold of farming. They were used long, long before that because plants that aren't very close to each other require less watering! Wide spacing allows their roots to spread, which gives them more access to water in the ground. So plant close together if you wish, but give plants room to grow and breathe (to avoid disease), and know that you'll have to water closely spaced plants more frequently. And if you plant in pots, understand that your plants will also need more watering than if they are planted in the ground (because the soil in pots dries out quickly). By the way, you know what the worst containers are? Those trendy metal ones. Put those in full sun and the soil in them will dry out very, very quickly. (P.S. One type of plant I do recommend growing in pots are herbs that tend to spread and take over the garden.)

4. Grow tomatoes in upside down containers. Here's the thing: Healthy tomato plants have big, long roots. Those upside down containers don't give them nearly enough root room - which means your plant will not give you a good harvest. Plus, tomatoes are heavy drinkers (so to speak), and as I already mentioned, things grown in pots require additional watering.

5. Use a planting guide. Often these are apparently supposed to be universal. That is to say, they are designed for someone in California, or Montana, or New York, or Missouri to use. But all those places have different climates. (In fact, all those places have multiple gardening climates.) So such planting guides are pretty useless. If you need help knowing when to plant what, your best bet is to look at your local extension garden website. (And if the website doesn't help, call your local extension office. Click here to find your local extension office.)

6. Worry about companion planting. Okay, so some people really do believe that some plants grow better next to certain other plants, or that some plants don't grow well together at all. But in my experience, as long as you pay attention to the plant's soil and light requirements, this is definitely not the case. For example, common companion planting advice is that peas and beans
(Courtesy of
don't grow well next to onions. Well, I've grown them together many times and had a great harvest. So my advice is to not get caught up in this type of advice.

7. Grow potatoes in towers. There is one persistent myth I see all over the internet: Grow 100 lbs. of potatoes in a 4 square foot potato tower. Long story short: It's not true. Read why - and learn better ways to grow potatoes - here.

Related Posts:
* Newbie Vegetable Gardening Mistakes - and How to Avoid Them 
* The Pros and Cons of Raised Bed and In-the-Ground Vegetable Gardens
* Starting a Vegetable Garden on a Budget 
* 10 Tips for Brand New Vegetable Gardeners
* Getting More From This Year's Garden

Jul 5, 2016

The Best Method for Growing Potatoes

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

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

The Potato Box

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

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

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

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

Garbage Can Potatoes

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

Potato Tower

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

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

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

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

Potatoes grown traditionally. (Courtesy of Ishikawa Ken)

Old Fashioned In the Ground Potatoes

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

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

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

More Tips for Growing Potatoes 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 2, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potager style raised beds. Courtesy of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 19, 2016

Starting a Vegetable Garden on a Budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save by Going Organic

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

Save on Water

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

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

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