Jun 272011


Gardening is a delightful, money-saving hobby. But it also involves a series of skills that need to be learned. Your best teacher is right outside your door—your garden. As we tend our yards, the garden gives us feedback. It shows us what is working and what’s not.

The leaves on your flower and vegetable plants can tell you about the state of your soil. Are the leaves a healthy bright green? Or are they turning light green to yellow? That’s often a sign that the plant isn’t getting enough nitrogen. Do the older leaf edges look as if they are scorched? Then maybe your plant doesn’t have enough potassium. Are the older leaves reddish purple, especially on the underside of the leaf? Then the problem may be not enough phosphorus. Try adding a small amount of balanced fertilizer and see how your plant responds.

Do you ever wonder how often you need to water? Push your finger a couple of inches into the soil to find out when it needs water.

By observing and recording information, you’ll learn which varieties of vegetables, fruits and flowers do best in your garden and how much of each crop to plant.

Science project

Turn your inner scientist loose in the backyard for homemade science projects. Create a couple of small experimental and control plots. Then use them to try different plant spacing, planting times or pest control methods to see which ones work best. Gardens are terrific educational tools for both children and adults.

Try planting different flowers and herbs mixed in with your vegetables and see which ones help attract beneficial insects and confuse the unfriendly pests. Sally Jean Cunningham’s book Great Garden Companions has good suggestions to get you started.


Our yards can teach us about design too. When you are in your garden, look around. Does your yard have the look and feel that you want, whether that’s serene, woodsy, formal, natural, abundant or whimsical? Are there are places to entertain and play? Are there comfortable spots to sit, relax and enjoy the view? Is there a view? Have you planned some focal points for your yard? Even the humble vegetable patch can be designed to be beautiful as well as practical. Little by little, we can create a place we enjoy spending time.

Our gardens provide us with feedback on our efforts. If we pay attention, we can learn to be better gardeners.

Apr 082011


a vase of purple azaleas

Purple Azaleas

Cut flowers grace a home. And you can get some spectacular blossoms for free just by doing your annual pruning a bit early.

Many spring-flowering shrubs are pruned after blooming. The annual trimming keeps the bushes from getting leggy. Shrubs like spring-flowering azaleas, bridal wreath (Spirea x vanhouttei), forsythia, lilacs, mock-orange, rhododendron and weigela are pruned soon after flowering.

But you can start your pruning while they are still blooming and use the pruned branches for spectacular bouquets. Before you take your first cut, study the bush for a while and think how you would like it to look. I prefer a natural-looking shape. It fits my cottage garden landscape (also known as the jungle). Is the shrub getting too tall? Is it crowding its neighbors? Are there stray branches that look out of place? Choose which branches you would like to prune and choose those for your bouquet.

Then finish the pruning after the shrub has finished blooming. Prune a few of the oldest, largest stems. Cut them close to the ground to stimulate new growth. Then trim the rest of the bush to get the look you desire.

Branches from shrubs and trees are known as “woodies” in the cut flower trade. You can use them for artistic arrangements or just let them fall naturally (or almost naturally) in a vase.

If you have flowering bushes landscaping your home, experiment with cutting some branches. Enjoy their blossoms inside as well as outside.

Mar 172011


A DIY Germination test

Do you have seeds left from last year or the year before? While some seeds (like parsnips and onions) are good for just year or two, many seeds will still grow when they are several years old, if they have been stored where it’s dry and not too warm. It’s easy to test older seeds to see if they are still good.


You probably have most or all of the things you need to get started. You will need:

  • a paper coffee filter or a piece of a paper towel
  • plastic bag
  • masking tape and pen to label the bag
  • water
  • and, of course, seeds.
Step 1

Write the seed name on a piece of masking tape. Stick the label on a plastic bag.

Step 2

Moisten the filter or paper towel. Don’t get it too wet. Aim for damp, not soaking wet. Squeeze out any excess water. Then smooth the filter or towel.

Step 3

Sprinkle the seeds on the filter or towel. If you are doing a home germination test, use 10 seeds to make it simple to figure the percentage of seeds that sprout.

Step 4

Fold the filter or towel and place in the plastic bag. Blow into the bag to provide some air. Then close the bag.

Step 5

I store my bags in an open show box, near a window.

Step 6

Check the seeds every couple of days until they sprout.

Step 7

After the seeds sprout, you can transplant them into pots or a seed flat. Handle the baby seedlings very gently. You might try a toothpick to lift the seedlings to their new home.

This simple way to sprout most seeds has lots of uses beyond a DIY germination test:

  • You can use this method to start seeds indoors in the winter.
  • It hastens the sprouting of slow-germinating seeds like parsley
  • Try sprouting lettuce and other seeds indoors during summer’s hottest days when the outside temperature is too warm for seeds to germinate.


sprouted pea seeds

Some pea seeds, newly sprouted, with 100% germination


Feb 212011

One of the great pleasures on a cold winter day is browsing through seed catalogs. I love to see the beautiful photos and imagine how different plants would look in my garden.

You can buy seeds locally, but catalogs often carry varieties that are hard to find in the neighborhood garden center or big box store.  For example, I can find cornfield beans that grow in semi-shade, a dazzling array of melons from around the world and peppers sized to grow in containers. A good catalog also provides information about how to grow different plants.

Periodically I need to remind myself that seed catalogs are written by professionals in order to sell products. In order to keep my seed purchases within a reason budget, I developed a few strategies.

Inventory current seeds

Many commercial seeds, if stored well, are usable for several years after they are purchased. Seeds need to be kept from heat and humidity. I store my seed collection in covered airtight containers in the refrigerator. A small amount of silica gel (from a craft store) wrapped in a paper towel, several tissues or a bit of fabric absorbs excess humidity. You can also use the packets of drying material that comes in many vitamin bottles.

However some vegetable seeds only keep one to two years, such as:

  • sweet corn
  • onions
  • leeks
  • chives
  • Swiss chard
  • parsley
  • okra
  • parsnips.

Pelleted seeds also are short-lived.

Think about last year’s garden

What worked? What didn’t? Were there any gaps? Each year I try to keep a running list of the hits and misses in my garden. The Cloud Nine eggplants were prolific, but I wished they were open-pollinated instead of hybrids. I didn’t like last year’s zucchini selection. And last fall I wished for some peppers and tomatoes that were planted in containers that could be brought inside on cold nights.

Plan the garden

A garden plan doesn’t have to be perfectly scaled or incredibly detailed. Even rough sketches indicating major plantings help me decide what seeds are needed and how much to buy.

Prioritize the wish list

Every year, there are more seeds and plants I’d like to try than my budget or garden space will allow. So I fall back on an old-fashioned technique: I prioritize my want list. What seeds do I need? What seeds do I most want to get this year and what ones can wait for another time? After all, as baseball fans say, there’s always next year.

Sep 272010

Your garden doesn’t have to end when frost nips the tomatoes and squash. If you provide your plants with some protection from the cold, you can grow a wide array of vegetables that thrive in cool weather. Here’s a sample of what you can plant for your fall and winter garden.


Lettuce grows easily in spring and fall. These are the seasons for both heading lettuce and loose-leaf varieties. But don’t try to keep big heads of lettuce through a cold winter. They may turn to mush. Instead plant leaf lettuce close together and harvest the leaves while they are small. Choose lettuce varieties bred to stand the cold, such as Arctic King, Winter Density, Marvel of Four Seasons (Merveille des Quatre Saisons), Brune d’Hiver and Little Gem. However why limit your salads to just lettuce? There are so many other salad greens that love cool weather:

  • Belgium endive (witloof endive)
  • Sugarloaf endive
  • escarole
  • arugula
  • rocket (sometimes spelled roquette)
  • spinach
  • radicchio
  • cress (both upland cress and garden cress)
  • mizuna
  • mache (sometimes know as corn salad or lamb’s lettuce)
  • miner’s lettuce (claytonia)

Root vegetables

Many root vegetables can be harvested all winter long:

  • carrots
  • beets
  • turnips
  • rutabagas
  • radishes, especially daikon and black Spanish radishes
  • leeks
  • scallions
  • bunching onions, potato onions and walking onions
  • parsnips
  • mangels

Mangels? What’s a mangel? It’s a sweet beet used for animal feed. However some mangels were bred for their fine flavor. Bountiful Gardens has seeds for them.

Onions are grown in different season, depending on where you garden. Here in the South, fall is the traditional time to plant onion seed for early-summer harvests. In the North, they’re spring sown. On the other hand, in both the North and the South, garlic is planted in the fall for harvesting the following summer.

Some root veggies like turnips, kohlrabi and beets can be grown for their greens as well as their roots.

Greens for Cooking

For winter green vegetables, nothing beats the cabbage family. They love cool weather. There are many different member of the cabbage clan to try:

  • cabbages, both green and red
  • Chinese cabbage
  • broccoli
  • gai lohn (Chinese broccoli)
  • kale
  • cauliflower, one of the fussier cabbages to grow
  • tatsoi
  • mustard greens
  • pak choy
  • bok choy
  • Brussels sprouts
  • and that epitome of southern green veggies: collards

Not all cold-tolerant green vegetables are members of the cabbage tribe, although sometimes it seems that way. Spinach and Swiss chard grow happily in fall and winter. Swiss chard is so hardy, that during mild winters, it will grow in my zone 7b garden without any protection.

Beans and Peas

You may be able to squeeze a fall crop of peas in between the hot days of summer and a killing frost. Use disease resistant varieties. In mild winter area, pea plants can be over-wintered. In spring, the plants revive and will produce an early crop of peas. 

You can eat fava beans from your winter garden—with or without the Chianti. A warning: a few people, mainly of Mediterranean heritage, can have a deadly allergic reaction to fava beans.


Finally don’t forget to plant some herbs, such as:

  • parsley
  • chervil
  • thyme
  • sage
  • oregano

In mild areas, rosemary can grow outdoors, under with some protection from frost. Chives and lemon balm disappear during the coldest winter days, but are among the first plants to reappear in early spring.

Aug 272010

Imagine eating fresh vegetables from your garden all winter long. You don’t have to live in Florida or southern California to harvest fresh vegetables in January. Many people famous for their cold-weather gardens live in the northern parts of the U.S.

In most parts of the U.S. and in many countries, there is sufficient daylight to harvest vegetables year round. The key is the word “harvest”. Vegetables grow slowly during the short days of autumn. Even the hardiest vegetables stop growing during the weeks surrounding the winter solstice. But while new growth isn’t possible during those weeks, harvesting fresh vegetables is. If you plant vegetables so that they will be ready to pick by the shortest winter days and protect them from freezing, you can eat fresh vegetables from your garden even during the coldest days.

There are three steps to fall and winter gardening success.

Choose the right vegetables for winter gardening.

Unless you live where the winter is warm, you need to plant the right vegetables, ones that will thrive- or at least survive-in freezing temperatures. Think carrots, broccoli, leeks and salad greens, not tomatoes, corn and squash.

Plant on time

Next plant your vegetables at the correct time to make sure they will be ready to harvest during the winter.  Since the days grow shorter as winter approaches, plants grow more slowly than they do in the spring.  Look on the seed packages to see the time each plant takes from seed to harvest in the spring. Then add extra time.  How much extra time will be specific to your area.  When starting out, plant your seeds over several weeks. Then keep track of how long each planting took to grow. Write it down in your garden journal or in a file on your computer. Next year you can use that information to know when to plant.

Protect your plants

Finally protect your homegrown bounty from the wind and freezing temperatures.  You can use row covers, cold frames, mini-greenhouses, solar cones,  plastic tunnels and hoop houses.  Eliot Coleman combines both row covers and an unheated greenhouse to keep his plants safe from the cold Maine winters.

Winter gardens are easier to tend than summer one. You don’t have to water much. Insect problems are reduced. Since your garden is under cover, you don’t have to worry about deer,  rabbits and raccoons beating you to the harvest. And you have the fun of eating lovely fresh-from-your-garden vegetables in the middle of winter.

Jul 232010

I like bunnies; but those sweet, innocent-looking creatures are cotton-tailed eating machines in my vegetable garden. I use various strategies to keep those “wascally wabbits” from my veggies and fruits.

Method 1: Raise the garden

Some of my vegetables grow in a tall raised bed and large containers. These need to be at least 18 inches high so the rabbits can’t reach the plants.

Method 2: Fence the garden

Small fences surround my main garden areas. Originally I tried plastic poultry-netting for the fence. It’s easy to use. However rabbits can chew through plastic. It took my bunnies a year to discover this. You can try using a double layer of plastic netting to discourage chewing. Now I use chicken wire or metal screening material. Screening material (just like the kind you use in a screen window) is my first choice. It’s easy to handle and cut. If you use chicken wire, the openings should be no bigger than one inch. Bunnies have a talent for squeezing through tight spaces. Hardware cloth makes a good barrier too, but handle it carefully, because it’s sharp.

Support the fencing material with stakes, spaced a few feet apart. The fence should be about 2 feet tall to prevent high jumps into the vegetable patch. Make it 3 feet tall if you have jackrabbits. Bury another 6 to 12 inches of netting or chicken wire, half of it outward at a horizontal angle to discourage burrowing. I buried mine under a deep mulch of newspapers and grass clippings.

Method 3: Protect young trees

Rabbits and other critters like to eat tree bark in the winter. Their snacks can kill small trees. Bunny-proof the trunks by wrapping a loose circle of hardware cloth, plastic barrier material or chicken wire around trunks of small trees. Make sure that the barrier is higher than your snowline.

Method 4: Grow a flower fence

My final barrier is the prettiest. I am planting a wide flower bed outside the rabbit fence. It disguises the fence, provides flowers for the house, adds another layer of protect against critters and looks beautiful. I use perennial herbs, comfrey, cannas and daylilies. Their roots form a barrier that discourages burrowing. Summer annuals like zinnias provide midsummer color. And daffodils are an important part of a floral fence. Their bulbs contain alkaloids that are toxic to rabbits. So bunnies avoid them.

So far the rabbits have ignored the plants in my flower fence. Of course, your rabbits may have different tastes than mine.

Jul 212010

How much food can you grow in a tenth of an acre? In 2010, the Dervaes family grew 7,030 lbs of vegetables, fruit and herbs in urban garden. They raise about 350 different kinds of vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, nuts and other products.

How do they manage to grow so much food in such a small area? The family uses every bit of space they have in both the front and back yard. Their lot is a fifth of an acre. Half is devoted to the garden. Trees and shrubs used to landscape their property bear edible fruit. They garden intensively, spacing plants fairly close together, Vegetables climb up trellises and their homemade arbor. Their animals provide fertilizer.

Animals? Yes, in addition to an extensive garden, the family keep a few chickens and ducks for eggs, bees, a pair of miniature goats named Blackberry and Fairlight and plenty of red wiggler worms. This makes sense. Animals traditionally provided both food and fertilizer for families. In small settings, animals can be tended humanely and their waste is an asset, not a disposal problem. As late as the 1940s, backyard chickens were not uncommon in American cities. It’s great to see this environmentally-friendly practice continue.

The Dervaes family lives in Pasadena, California, which has a twelve-month growing season. However, by using season-extending techniques, many of us can harvest fresh food year-round.

The family’s ingenuity doesn’t stop at raising food. They are working to increase their energy independence. They’ve built a solar shower, a solar oven and solar food dryer. Two years ago, they built a backyard cob oven that cooks food using wood scraps. The Dervaes Family also turn used vegetable oil, collected from local restaurants, into biodiesel to run their car.

With imagination, time and hard work, small spaces can be bountiful.