Are We Doing First Time Gardeners a Disservice?

>> Friday, February 27, 2009

I would like to see everybody have their own garden. Every yard, every apartment balcony, every city rooftop, every city park needs to be overflowing with natures bounty tended by knowledgeable dedicated gardeners. But, not everyone wants to and not everyone who wants to has the confidence to get started. This is where those of us who write garden blogs or gardening websites need to be diligent about presenting as much accurate information as we can and not paint incomplete pictures that will likely lead to failure or less than desirable success.

In my travels through cyberspace I come across many sites giving ‘tips’ on “How to Start a Garden”. Most list the basic considerations involved in creating a successful garden, whether for flowers or for edibles: color coordination for a flower garden, sunlight requirements, annuals or perennials, and focal point.

There are a few other considerations that don’t usually get mentioned, such as: soil type, when to plant, when or how often to fertilize, what fertilize to use. And then there’s the question of going organic or chemical.

I don’t fault these sites for not mentioning these other considerations, they can get quite involved and the site most likely does not want to invest that much time in these issues. But an injustice is being done by presenting the act of growing nature as a one weekend affair of walking out of a nursery or big box store with plants in tow, digging a hole and expecting those plants to perform year after year. And it is especially callous to paint this image for the sake of selling potted plants. There is quite a bit of work involved in having a successful and productive garden. And one of the most basic and most important steps in attaining a healthy garden is knowing what type of soil you have to work with.

Soil type: The majority of homeowners are not blessed with ideal gardening soil. The easily workable soil you see on televised gardening programs does not occur naturally. This soil type is known as loam, and is the result of mixing composted material with the natural soil which, in most parts of America, is clay. You can grow almost anything in clay, typically clay holds abundant nutrients for almost any plant but getting clay to release those nutrients while providing reasonable drainage are the two major problems with working with clay. These problems are not insurmountable. With dedicated attention, and lots of compost, clay will provide you a beautiful and productive garden.

The third soil type is sand. This soil presents the exact opposite problems of clay: too much drainage and very little nutrients. These problems can also be overcome with compost.

Compost can be purchased or made in your own backyard with cheap, readily accessible ingredients.

You can attain perfect loamy soil in one year’s time if you are willing to remove a lot of your existing soil and replace it with a lot of composted material. Most of us don’t have the money to do this. And the natural soil-type will return if you don’t keep up with it on a yearly basis. Ideal soil takes years to create. In the meantime, while building your substandard soil, you can grow whatever you like by digging individual holes for each plant and filling the hole with store-bought loam. This is going to be a pricey proposition as well, but it will get you started.

The bottom line is that you cannot just plop plants in clay or sandy soil and expect them to survive.

The special attention you give them, year after year, is going to make all the difference between healthy productive plants and brown lifeless twigs.

One important lesson I have learned is to buy from nurseries and not big box stores. Some people can walk into a Home Depot, Lowe’s or Walmart and find a plant that will perform quite nicely in their yard. It is rare that you can find a knowledgeable garden-type person in these stores. Plant tags are getting better about passing on important information but it is usually pretty general if given at all. If you are knowledgeable enough to recognize stressed plants (and know to stay away from them) and if you are confident enough that you can bring them back from otherwise certain death then I wish you much happiness with your choice and ability. But let me interject this thought, nurseries are struggling because they don’t have a very high profit margin due to all of these aforementioned box stores cutting into their trade. So if you can see your way to patronize them for your gardening needs instead, they, and the rest of us, would be most appreciative. By the way, I am not in any way affiliated with any garden nursery. I do not sell plants. My interest is in having local nurseries available to find healthy plants and knowledgeable employees that cannot be found in big box stores.

If you are fortunate enough to move into a home with an established garden then count yourself lucky. Otherwise, expect to add compost and/or composted materials, ideally, each fall but spring works too.

You can find good information on the internet and the many wonderful garden blogs it has to offer, and if you keep in mind this one very basic thought that when you feed the soil you will provide your plants the very best possible chance they have of meeting your expectations whether they be vegetables or flowers.

If we don’t get first time gardens started properly with accurate and complete information then we are selling ourselves short. The larger the gardening community grows the better the chance we have of guaranteeing seed diversity, of maintaining healthy eating habits, of educating our children as to where food comes from and the part we all play in nature, and of providing habitat to wildlife that our spreading population is destroying.


Seedling Update Week 3

>> Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Radish sprouts are 22 days old today. Just 8-13 days from being harvested. They are taking quite well to the bright sunshine through our south facing living room window.

Lettuce Little Gem is also 22 days old, just 23 days from harvest. Plenty of time to pick out a nice vinaigrette. Topped with a few homemade toasted croutons and shredded parmesan-reggiano and, oh my goodness my mouth is watering already.

Here’s a delight I wasn’t quite sure was going to work out. King Edward Tulips I had discovered hanging in a bag in the garage mid-January. I thought I would give them a try instead of letting them hang around. I didn’t really notice the markings when they were in the ground last year. This is the first time I have ever forced bulbs. I am pleasantly surprised.

Discovered some Crocus Four Color growing beside a stepping stone. This is a complete surprise. I planted these a couple of years ago about 12 feet from where they sprouted. I am at a total loss as to how they got here but they are very welcomed. If memory serves there should be some dark blue, lavender striped and a mixed lavender and yellow also.

Truly a day full of pleasant surprises.


Contentious Law Penalizes Gardener for Using Offsite Kitchen Scraps

>> Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms in Los Angeles, California, was cited because of a law on the books that states that “composting material must be generated on-site unless it is placed in a vessel that controls airborne emissions”. What this means is that in Los Angeles you can only legally compost what you produce on your property unless your compost bin is a “commercially approved” device.

I wonder how this affects Starbuck’s program of giving away used coffee grounds to anyone who asks.

Kolla had established a relationship with a local restaurant to fill a garbage can she provided each week with their vegetable scraps, which she would then haul to her half acre urban farm and add to her own compost bin. Sounds like a great relationship. Food scraps and the methane gas they produce via composting, are kept out of landfills and Kolla gets to make rich organic compost for her garden. It’s a win-win.

This illustrates what environmentally conscious individuals are striving for, a closed loop, reducing carbon emissions by keeping everything local, and reducing the amount of waste sent to local landfills. But the current letter of the law in Los Angeles states that if you take grass clippings, orange peels, or fallen fruit from a neighbor, you are in violation of the law and could be cited and fined.

This law needs to be rewritten to reflect the spirit of a time honored practice of recycling nutrients back to the earth in a manner in which they will do the most good. Gardeners and environmentalists have known of this practice for years, we need to educate our law makers.

This is also another example of local bureaucracies interfering in what happens in our backyards and defies common sense. Here’s the original LA Times article in full length detail. An official from the local waste management board stated that he’d like to see the law changed, but intending to change the law is still a long step from tangible changes. Also, bear in mind that your city may have a similar law on the books and that your current composting activities may violate the law.

If this outrages, or even mildly upsets you, you should be aware of the other areas that the government is trying to intrude on the activity in your backyard. Read here about efforts to track every backyard chicken in America with the USDA’s proposed NAIS. And on a positive note about government interventions, read here about Maryland considering a ban controversial food dyes.

Further reading:
National Animal Identification System
U.S. Court, FDA: Raw Milk Like Toxic Waste


Vegetables are less nutritious than in past

>> Thursday, February 19, 2009

How many of you home gardeners think fruits and vegetables we find at the supermarket have fewer nutrients than what we grow at home? Without even peeking, I’m pretty sure all of you raised your hands.

Those vegetables and fruits at the supermarket are grown by big agriculture and those of us who grow our own avoid supermarket produce as much as possible.

A report in the February issue of the Journal of HortScience, says produce in the U.S. not only tastes worse than it did in your grandparents' day, it also contains fewer nutrients - at least according to Donald R. Davis, a former research associate with the Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas, Austin. Davis claims the average vegetable found in today's supermarket is anywhere from 5% to 40% lower in minerals (including magnesium, iron, calcium and zinc) than those harvested just 50 years ago.

Davis does admit the science of testing has improved over the years, and earlier results may not have been as accurate as they are today, and many of these vegetables travel quite a bit further today before they are put on display at our local supermarket, meaning they are older before they reach the consumer.

Just like the general population of humans, today’s vegetables are getting larger. But this doesn’t mean we are getting more nutrients. Most of this increase in produce size is in “dry matter” (90% of which is carbohydrates) spurred along by soil chemistry. Perhaps some of this “soil chemistry” is getting into out bodies and this is what is helping us to all ‘super-size’ our bodies. Scary thought. Also, selective breeding is favoring larger vegetables but for some reason they just are not getting a proportionate increase in nutrients. My feeling is that it is because of all the chemical fertilizers used to increase the farmers productivity.

In the good ole days, everything had to be fed with organic matter because the ‘miracle’ of chemical fertilizers didn’t appear until just after WWII.

Another factor concerning the use of chemically increasing the size is that vegetables are grown faster today, allowing farmers to get their produce to the consumer quicker. The downside to this is the vegetables are not given enough time to absorb nutrients. These are the vegetables whose seeds are being selected to grow the following years. Before long, the nutrients have been selected out.

These arguments backup the necessity to grow organically and to select and save heirloom seeds.

Monoculture farming practices - another hallmark of the Big Ag industry - have also led to soil-mineral depletion, which, in turn, affects the nutrient content of crops.

More than three billion people around the world suffer from malnourishment and yet, ironically, efforts to increase food production have actually produced food that is less nourishing.

Fruits seem to be less affected by genetic and environmental dilution, but one can't help but wonder how nutritionally bankrupt veggies can be avoided. Supplementing them is problematic, too: don't look to vitamin pills, as recent research indicates that those aren't very helpful either.

Further reading:
The Incredible, Edible Front Lawn
Saving Seed
Saving Seeds
Why should we save seed
Heirloom Seeds
Seed Savers Exchange


Garden Looking a Bit Ragged? Why, Yes. Thank-you very much.

>> Wednesday, February 18, 2009

My neighbor (a non-gardener) told me the other day that my garden looks a bit ‘ragged’ and ‘unsightly’. I must admit, I agreed with him. And when I told him that the ‘messiness’ was intentional he gave me a bewildered look.

So, with a bit of a self-satisfied smile, I explained that wildlife can make use of all sorts of garden debris for such things as food and nesting material for birds. I didn’t tell him that rodents also use the unsightly litter for their own purposes because I didn’t want to freak him out by thinking I was raising neighborhood pests. Remember, I am talking to a non-gardener.

Then he said to me, “Well, everyone else around here cleans theirs up before winter sets in.” To that I said, “So, that’s why all the birds come to my yard in the winter.”

I took him over to the Caryopteris to show him the empty seed pods that the finches and sparrows have been feeding on.

After showing him all the natural nesting material and shelter provided by

the catmint

…the cosmos and butterfly bush

…and the zinnia, I told him I’ll just chop the rest of it up and throw it on the compost pile so none of it is wasted.

These plants also provide the additional dimension of movement when the winter winds blow. Plus, seeing a bunch of plants covered with snow is a lot more interesting than looking at snowdrifts piled up against a straight fence.

After our little tour, I asked if he might be interested in starting a garden and he told me it just seems like too much work. I decided right then that I would invite him over to help with a few ‘light’ garden chores this spring. I’m thinking maybe weeding duties might be a bit too much for him, so I’ll ask him to help plant a few seedlings.

Who knows, maybe there’s some hope for him after all.


Popping up and Ready for Spring

>> Monday, February 16, 2009

Just took some photos of bulbs poking through the snow and winter mulch.

Tulip Saxatilis, planted 10 last October 15 and now 8 have come up so far. They actually first sprouted two weeks ago on Feb 2, but I just got around to photographing them. These came from John Scheepers and are supposed to be the earliest tulips of the season. They certainly have a big head start over all the other tulips in this bed.

Hyacinth Woodstock, planted 10 of these on Nov 10, 2006 and right now I can count 18. This year, after blooms die back, they will need to be dug up and separated. I have a couple places in mind for some of these beauties so they won’t get so crowded.

Aster Snowdrift is a groundcover that was planted in October 2007 and stayed green all winter, even under 15” of snow at one point. Pretty hardy, I’d say. There are two here, even though I started with four. Two didn’t make it through the first summer.

These Dianthus Desmond have done real well here in the front of the house. They were planted in October 2007 and stayed green over winter too.
Photo: Dianthus Desmond 09-02-16.JPG


Plant baby pictures!

A few more of the seeds I planted a couple of weeks ago have sprouted.

Thunbergia White-Eyed Susie (Black-eyed Susan Vine).

Sweet Pea Mammoth Mix and Flowering Navy Blue

Also, an update on the Radish and lettuce. Notice the dark orange 'tube' along the right side? That is a strip of flypaper. I had a bit of a problem with root gnats (due to over watering the seedlings) but this is taking care of the problem. Lovely.

This Cyclamen obviously likes this space. It’s on the north side of the room with a large window to allow lots of sunlight in. The sun doesn’t touch the plant though. I like this shade of purple (lilac).


Recipe For Making Your Own Peanut Butter

>> Friday, February 13, 2009

With all the food scares we keep reading about, it’s beginning to look like making all of our own food is becoming more and more necessary. I’m developing a recipe file of homemade foods and this one just got added. Hope you enjoy.

I love peanut butter and although the latest recall doesn’t affect jars of it, my wife and I are getting a little leery of buying any processed foods. I used to believe that food processors would do whatever it takes to protect the highest quality and safety of their food products (without lying) but after reading this we’ve lost our faith. Boy, what a rude awakening we have gone through.

Organic peanut butter is expensive so we don’t buy it very often. Peanuts are not nuts, they are legumes and their use in peanut butter often produces a high fat, high sugar food that is addictively tasty but not good for your health. By making your own, genuinely nut-based nut butters you could eat better, save money and know exactly how your food has been processed.

This recipe is good for any kind of nutmeat, such as almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pistachios or walnuts. There is also tips for roasting and sweetening the nuts.


Update on Radish and Lettuce

>> Thursday, February 12, 2009

These seeds were started on Jan 25th, so that makes them about 18 days old. They are coming along quite nicely.

Only six of the eight lettuce seeds sprouted but thats okay. I’ll start some more in a couple of days, the suggestion is to start every two weeks.

Radish Helios Yellow sprouted only four out of twelve, while the Radish Purple Plum sprouted eight out of twelve. A bit disappointing. But I’m going to start a few more in a few days. The string in the photo is used to separate the two types of radish.

Lettuce and Radish like the temperature to be a bit on the cool side and the room where these are growing is kept at 66F. This is, as far as I know, a pretty good temperature.

The only thing that I can think of that might have caused the poor germination rate is the soil I used. I didn’t use a seed starting medium, opting instead for regular potting soil. I figured if they could grow so well out in heavier soil of the garden they should do fine in potting soil.

Hopefully the second planting will turn out better.

Radish should be edible size in another 10-15 days and the lettuce will be ready in about 30 days.


Winter Sowing for the First Time

>> Sunday, February 1, 2009

This year will be the first time I do the winter sowing thing. I first learned of it last year from Kylee of Our Little Acre and have been itching to try it ever since.

I was in the process of picking up some pointers and stumbled upon the iVillage Garden Web Forums on Winter Sowing when I was reminded how important it is to thoroughly wet your soil before putting it into containers.

When I first began starting seeds indoors I learned this lesson after seeing all of my seeds and soil go floating off without any regard as to where it was all supposed to stay. If you have had the same problem you know what a complete mess you can end up with. Plus, it makes you feel like a total rookie.

Anyway, to prevent any future embarrassing moments I quickly realized that wetting the soil before I put it into the peat pots or starting trays is the way to go. And winter sowing is no different. I used any container large enough to hold most if not all of the soil I needed. I now use one of those Homer’s 5-gallon buckets from Home Depot. These are very versatile and easy to use. Start by pouring about an inch of water in it and then pour about 6-8” of potting mix. Thoroughly mix the stuff together with a trowel, or by hand if you feel like being a real gardening geek like me, You know you’re going to make a mess anyway, so why not enjoy it.

Then I pour in a little more potting mix and add a little more water, mix thoroughly and repeat until I have enough very damp mix for my containers. About the consistency of mud pies works great. Not those lame watery, runny pies, but something you would be proud to serve at a tea party. What can I say, I grew up with four sisters, so I know mud pies.

This method works so much better than my first experience.

The thing about winter sowing that so intrigues me is that the containers you use can be anything that was once used for something else. This so perfectly matches my philosophy of recycle and re-use. Milk jugs, two-liter soda bottles, salad take-out containers, and big plastic jars (the kind pretzels come in at warehouse clubs) are all popular winter sowing containers. The only real requirement is that the container be large enough to hold at least three inches of soil and it must have head room for the growing plants. Drainage holes should be cut into the bottom, and air transpiration holes or slits should be cut into the top of the container.

In order to get the plants in the containers you have to cut the containers to about half way making a top and a bottom. You can make them deeper but you really don’t need that much soil. The one thing I am not completely set on is the hinge. Some people say they cut the container completely through while others leave top and bottom attached to create a hinge. Why do you need to hinge? Maybe it’s because it would be easier to tape it all together if they are not two separate parts. I really haven’t discovered any other reason.

Just like when starting trays of plants, you can either place peat pots or other small containers within each larger container or you can just fill the container with soil and set your seeds. I found these square peat pots fits four perfectly in a gallon milk jugs. However you want to do it, once you have the soil and seeds or containers and seeds in place, tape the top portion to the bottom to make the container whole again. Save the lids in case you want to prevent rain or snow melt from getting inside, you don’t want to over-water everything.

When setting the containers outside, don’t place them under awnings or overhangs where melting snow might over-water them. When spring rains arrive you will want to again protect them from being over-watered. Condensation build-up inside is a good thing. If there is no condensation, it either means that you have too many transpiration holes (tape over some of them if this is the case) or your soil is drying out. If the soil is drying out, use a spray bottle to gently mist the inside of the container through the top opening, you don’t want to disturb seed placement. As spring arrives, and the air warms up, your transpiration holes should be made bigger and bigger, until you remove the top of your container entirely. This is the winter sowing way to “harden off” your plants. After they are hardened off, simply plant your transplants out in the garden.

The whole thing makes sense when you realize that mother nature sprouts seeds outdoors without the help of fluorescent tubes and heating mats and seedling trays. The seeds will sprout when all the conditions are just right.

If the jugs start drying out, set them in a larger container of water and wait until the soil surface begins to get wet, a bit time consuming, especially if you have a lot of containers. I have seen suggestions of using a kiddie pool, but who fills one these with water in the winter? Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m betting on using the kitchen sink or bath tub. If you have a garden hose attachment with a mister nozzle, smooth gentle spray, then you can use that as long as it fits into the top of the container. Of course, I’m picturing a milk jug here.

In this first experiment I started Thunbergia White-eyed Susie, Sweet Pea Winter flowering Navy Blue and Mammoth Mix, Rosemary, and Marigold Cracker Jack Mix. I will add more later as I find more containers, I have already put the word out to neighbors and friends. If they don’t start their own seeds this way I should have more soon.

I found listings of plants that can be winter sown and honestly the list of seeds that are NOT good candidates is much shorter. The seeds that would probably not work as well would be those seeds that start easily by direct sowing, such as beans and peas, and those that don’t transplant well, such as root crops.

Some of the seeds I am using this year are leftover from last year but over my years of gardening experience I have seen many plant seedlings that I would have bet would never re-sprout or volunteer themselves in the strangest places, some far away from where they grew the previous year. So not much surprises me any more. My advice is to experiment. If you aren't sure something will winter sow well, just put a few seeds in a container and see what happens. What do you have to lose?

In reading about how others are doing this I found that some people set their containers outside a couple of weeks ago, in zone 5! Yikes! I really need to get this thing going.

I also started some other seedlings the conventional way because we want these for eating sooner. Radishes Helios Yellow and Purple Plum, Lettuce Little Gem, Chives Garlic, and Basil.

Next on my checklist of things to do before spring is to buy more seeds, get more containers, widen my current plots, build trellises. You see, it’s always something.


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