Best Trellis Ideas

pea trellisIf you haven't planted your Sugar Snap, English or Snow peas by now, it's time to get them in the garden! These springtime plants grow quickly and can be used in a vertical garden, thereby freeing up precious space on the ground. I use all sorts of different trellises in the garden and no one exhibits these better than Lily over at Rake & Make. This is her favorite pea trellis, and I'd have to agree. We use string in all of our gardens, but a staple gun and netting is a fine idea - you can roll it up when the season ends. I also love her version of a cucumber trellis - it's a great way to get those heavy fruits up and off the ground and makes them easy to harvest.

Incidentally, both peas and cucumbers can be grown in pots, making them a great choice for anyone with limited space or a small balcony. These tall pea vines would provide temporary (and delicious) privacy between neighbors.

Lily and I met in 2007 when we both attended an intensive organic gardening series. She had just bought a home and I was researching an article for Edible Seattle. Since then, she has become and urban farming master and a wonderful homemaker as well. She made her own wedding dress, knits her own sweaters and grows her own food. Marry ME, Lily! Her blog is an amazing resource full of great information.

Check out her site for more awesome vertical garden tips and best trellis ideas, along with crafty DIY projects. I highly recommend!

Save

Fall Planting, Pacific Northwest

blueberriesAutumn is an excellent time to think about adding to your homes landscape. While vegetable gardens are transitioning to fall crop, Autumn is a great time to plant shrubs and perennials - the soil is still warm, while the cool temperatures and rain provide perfect growing conditions that support root growth. Plants will thrive come spring! I just found out that neighborhood nursery, Swanson's in Ballard is having an amazing sale on trees, shrubs and perennials just now - 30% off until September 30th. They have a large selection of blueberry bushes and some gorgeous low-growing native flowering plants, like these gorgeous hellebores. And check out this stunning online "August Lookbook" of plants. It is one of THE MOST GORGEOUS WEBSITES I've ever seen & will make you want to plant. Immediately. Not only are the pics amazing, each plant has a bio and short tips on growing in the Pacific Northwest.

Merlin HelleboreFurther, the smart garden folks over at Swanson's Nursery created all of these faux garden situations like the "Parking Strip Project" I highlighted on my Instagram a few weeks ago  or a "Rockery Garden" all of which give you some great ideas on how to transform your property. They are SO brilliant, you must check them out. There's more info on these on Digging Deeper, Swanson's blog.

And YES, I know this sounds like a crazy advertisement, but honestly…..get thee to the nursery, take advantage of these great prices and immediately improve your home (not to mention increase your property value) and the environment, as well. It's a smart deal at a smart time and I repeat - it ENDS on September 30th. And don't forget to let me know what you decide to plant!!!

 

HOW TO :: IDENTIFY, HARVEST & COOK SQUASH BLOSSOMS

Squash Vine & BlossomsOne of the most frequently asked questions I get every summer is when and how to harvest squash blossoms. These brilliant tangerine-colored flowers can be cooked in broths, sautéed, or more commonly stuffed and dipped in light batters and fried. Every- one loves fried squash blossoms! Summer squash plants (all members of the Cucurbitaceae family, for that matter— cucumbers, pumpkins, melons, gourds, and so on) send out both male and female blossoms. Through pollination, male blossoms lend their pollen to the female blos- soms, and those female blossoms turn into the fruit of the plant. A plant will create more male blossoms than are necessary for pollination, and some of these may be harvested and eaten. (But if you eat all of the male blossoms, you will not have any fruit to harvest!)

Identifying male versus female blossoms is a reasonably simple task. Male flowers have stamens—a long, slender “stalk” that runs up the center of the bloom, tipped with a thick carpet of pollen. Male blossoms grow on long, thin stems from the base of the squash plant—typically about six or seven inches in length. By contrast, female blos- soms sit low to the plant and do not have a stamen. To harvest, cut the male blossoms at the base of their stems, as close to the plant as possible. You can use the stem in your cooking or trim it down to a few inches. (You may also harvest female blossoms, if you are trying to reduce the fruit of the plant or it’s early in the season and you wish for the plant to fully establish itself before fruiting.)

Use harvested squash blossoms right away, as they wilt quickly. If you need to store them for a short time, line a storage container with a linen cloth or paper towel and mist it until just damp. Lay out the flowers in single layers, leaving space between the blossoms, and stack them between layers of moistened towel. Store in the fridge for up to two days.

To prepare squash blossoms for cooking, I like to remove the stamen, particularly if the anther is thick, as it can taste quite bitter. (The anther is the tip of the stamen and contains the pollen.) To do this, use a small paring knife and delicately open the blossom to remove the stamen at its base or as close to the base as possible. Cook squash blossoms by dipping them into a light egg batter and frying, briefly, in a shallow pool of oil. Make sure the heat is high, as they cook quickly and you need only let the batter brown slightly before serving. For more crunch, roll them in bread crumbs (after dipping them into the batter) before frying.

You can also chop squash blossoms and add them to soups, such as Ricotta– Squash Dumpling Soup or Carrot Peel Soup. I have also had squash blossoms in a simple, light quesadilla. Heat a tortilla in a dry pan; when both sides are golden, add cheese and several squash blossoms to one side and fold in half, pressing the sides together. The cheese will melt and the blossoms will steam. Delicious!

[This article has been excerpted from FRESH PANTRY, so if you're looking for more tips & tricks for eating, growing and living seasonally, please check out my book!]

 

HOW TO :: Tomato DIY - Pruning & Trellises

Pruned tomato vineCome summertime, when the air is hot and the sun is high, everyone comes down with a little case of tomato fever. I’m not sure how this plant grew to such epochal proportions as to measure the success of a home gardener, but it has. Today we present tomato tips and tricks, from pruning for maximum yield to easy DIY trellises.

Pruning Those Suckers Tomato suckers are the small sets of leaves that grow between the main stem and a leafy branch of a tomato plant. These suckers, if left to grow, become additional flowering and fruiting stems for the plant. That's good, right? Not quite. If allowed to bloom and fruit, these additional tomatoes will ultimately compete for nutrients from the plant. Over time, this lessens the overall chances of all the fruit coming to delicious maturity. Cooler and shorter seasons (like in the Northwest), cannot support such prolific tomato production -- but regardless of your temperature, all tomatoes do well with a little pruning.

Pruning, in this case, refers to snapping off those little suckers. When the stems are new and short (say, 3 to 4 inches) you can snap them off with your fingers by bending them back quickly. If you let them get much larger, it’s best to use a set of shears so you don’t tear the main plant stem in the process. Starting in early August (after the plants have some good strong growth and the weather is consistently warm) I snap off suckers -- no hesitation, no regrets -- from the top half of the plant. (If you planted a smaller tomato variety or cherry tomato plant, leave more suckers on the plant. Because cherry tomatoes are smaller, they ripen faster and the plant can support more production.)

In addition to trimming suckers, now is a great time to prune about 30% of the green leaf stems from the tomato vine. This sends the plant's energy into fruit production, rather than upward growth. This also allows for air to pass through and for sun to shine on the fruit, which helps develop sweetness. More practically, pruning also allows a gardener to clearly see when tomatoes are ripe.

pruned tomatoesBe aggressive and fear not -- pruning will seldom cause damage to the plant or overall tomato production. Our "job" as home cooks and gardeners is to produce the most luscious tomato for our table. Keep that in mind, and you won’t have a problem getting rid of suckers and excess leaves. One last note: some people (like me) find the leaves of tomato plants highly irritable to their skin, especially on prolonged contact. For this reason, I always, always wear gloves and long sleeves when dealing with tomato plants.

DIY Trellises A structured tomato trellis offers support to climbing or tall plants and is perfect for maximizing and managing your space -- they keep tomato stems from breaking and allow for pruning. I know everyone loves tomatoes, so now is the time to get in the garden and focus on building tomato supports, if you haven’t already!

DIY Fence TrellisPerhaps you’re one of the many who purchase tomato "cages," but find that the plants are growing well over the confines of the cage and dragging it down. I’ll be honest and admit I am not a fan of tomato cages. Instead, I build a support system of bamboo in all of my tomato beds. DIY trellising is uber-efficient and less expensive. It also allows for easy pruning, good air circulation, and good fruit maturity, as it allows sun to sit on individual tomato fruits, ripening and sweetening them up. There are lots of other options for trellising, as well – re-using a fence, for instance. If you have supportive items like this around, use them. If not, build your own.

Tomato trellis

To Build: You need 5 lengths of 6-foot bamboo. Crossing two pieces of bamboo, tie string about 5-inches down, creating a small “X” at one end. Once tied, splay the bamboo apart, making a large “X” – these will act as the foundation for the trellis. Do this twice and position the the bamboo legs about 5 feet apart in the bed. Position the remaining piece of 6-foot bamboo across the frame and voila! A super durable, strong trellis in which to trail over vining plants.

To Support Tomatoes: Use garden twine and loosely make a knot around the main stem of the tomato, winding the string up to the top of the bamboo and tying off. Do this in one or two places along the main stem, gently twisting the tomato plant around the string for extra support and VOILA. Tomato support!

Watering Tomatoes For heat-loving tomato plants, it’s smart to water in the morning before you leave for work. Watering in the morning leaves time for plants to soak it up before the heat of day and evaporation take over. Watering in the evening results in a drop in soil temperature which these heat-lovers do not appreciate. You wouldn’t like to go to sit outside in wet socks at night time, would you? Same, same.

Keep me posted on all of your tomato successes and failures. Have a great tip? Be sure to post it in the comments.

[One last note -some people (like me) find the leaves of tomato plants highly irritable to their skin. For this reason, I always, always wear gloves when dealing with tomato plants.]

How To :: Propagate Herbs

Last summer I met up with my friend Sarah, a farmer. Sarah has been farming for years and she's an absolute pro, so I asked her to meet me out at a new space to help me devise the perfect garden plan. (She's a genius that way – indispensible knowledge.) We met up and walked to the garden. On the way, she spotted a old, prolific fig tree and stopped in her tracks. "Oh – I need that," she exclaimed, and simultaneously reached into her back pocket as she crossed the street. With at quick snip, she cut a couple inches length from the fig plant, looked at me, and whispered, "You want one?"

Splitting thyme rootsThe practice of growing a plant from a small clipping is called propagation, but I had no idea you could grow a fig tree from a mere four inches of branch. Propagating a plant from a cutting or root division is one of the coolest parts of gardening. Propagating plants, quite simply, extends a plant's reproduction beyond the usual blooming and seeding. There are two methods we'll cover today: splitting the roots of a parent plant, called root division, and taking a cutting. (Grafting is also considered a form of propagation, but requires a bit more work.)

Root Division: Split One Plant Into Two
Many herbs and plants can be divided by simply splitting up their roots: Thyme, Oregano, Mint, Strawberries, Rhubarb, Chives, Tarragon, Lovage, and Marjoram are all perfect candidates. It's easy:

transplanting thyme

1. Dig up the plant and its entire root system as best you can in early spring or fall. Growth is slow during these seasons, which makes this treatment easier on the plant.

Root Division, thyme

2. Work apart the roots and slice through them with a clean knife or your hands. (You can also trim the root balls with scissors.) Be sure that each division has both healthy roots and at least one small green shoot!

Root division, repotting thyme

3. Repot into a large enough pot and water well. Be sure to keep it watered well until the plant catches on and begins to put out new growth. You don't want to add any additional stress to the plant from lack of water!

A note for apartment gardeners: if you already have perennial herb pots going, it may be time for you to split them and separate the division into two pots. Every three years or so, perennial herbs do well with some dividing. Add some compost to the new potting mix and repot in a same-size or larger container. If you don't need more of the same herb, divide them anyway and repot as gifts for friends or neighbors.

Taking a Cutting: Cloning Your Plants
Some plants root out from the stem, making them excellent candidates for cuttings. Examples include Figs -- like the one my friend Sarah clipped -- Lavender, Lemon Balm, Mint, Scented Geraniums, Tarragon, Sage, Lemon Verbena, and Oregano. (Yes, many plants can be propagated in both ways -- use the one most convenient for you.)

As a general rule of thumb, take a cutting from new plant growth. This is best done in late spring or early summer -- cuttings prosper in warm conditions. This also allows enough time for the cutting to put on some new growth without the stress and cold of winter.

7180027437_1e3ba60313_z

1. On some plants, new growth comes in the form of a side shoot; in others it grows from the top of the plant's branches. Choose the newest growth and cut about a five inch length just below a set of leaves.

propagating scented geranium

2. Remove the lowest leaves from the cutting, as well as any buds or blossoms on the stem. (If left, these will take energy away from the plant by producing seed.)

propagating geraniums

3. Place the cutting directly into a small pot of potting soil (leave it unfertilized for now), being sure to bury the lowest leaf node (the node is the area below the lowest leaves that you just removed) and water well. This leaf node is where the bulk of the plant's hormones are located, and they will aid in root development. Keep the cutting watered until the plant begins to put on new growth.

Propagating geraniumYou will know it's ready when the cutting does not pull out of the soil with a gentle tug, indicating the new growth is sufficient for transplanting to a bigger pot. This generally takes from four to six weeks.

There are many, many edible plants that you can propagate easily (including tomatoes!), so share in the comments if you have some great tips! And if you're interested in learning more about herbs, check out this upcoming class on Growing Herbs in Containers from Swanson's Nursery in Ballard, Seattle.

Photos by Della Chen

 

 

 

TGIF Cocktail Hour :: Spring Amaro

SpringAmaro_BlogI've been on a Manhattan kick lately. Any after-hours drink made with whiskey and something bitter has been my go-to for weeks. (I miss you Dry Sapphire Martini!) I'm a huge fan of a dry punch in these cocktails - an extra shake of bitters, a splash of Fernet, Campari or a herbaceous amaro. The bitter quality acts as a digestive, and I like the bracing quality they add as a counterpoint to the sweeter bourbon. Hell, let's be honest….. I'm happy to sip any bitter liqueur simply, over ice. It was such a pleasure then, to recently stumble upon a recipe for homemade Amaro from Beth Evans-Ramos on her blog Mama Knows Her Cocktails. Beth is a prolific speaker and travels the country hosting seminars and classes on gardening - her current focus is creating garden cocktails! Not a bad gig.

Amaro is a technically an Italian liqueur, and is essentially a bitter-sweet infusion of herbs, roots and other earthy ingredients. Sugar is added for a more syrupy quality. And while there are many awesome amaro products for purchase, you can certainly make your own version at home.

Mama Knows Her Cocktails makes a different amaro with every season, taking advantage whatever is in bloom at the time.  Even better, she graciously allowed me to re-post her image and recipe. Here, her version of a Spring Amaro uses lovage (celery-like leaves and a strong flavor that grows well in containers), lemon verbena (a delicate and beautiful floral-lemon herb) and even chive blossoms, which I bet add a bit of kick. Her recipe for the drink is here, though you essentially pour vodka over a boat load of herbs & plants! No big secret, though I'll warn you all plant material MUST be submerged. Oxygen interacting with plants may introduce some funky bacteria to the mix and you don't want to worry about mold or microbes, so just keep it covered. (If your plant ingredients float, you can weigh them down with a rock or plate.)

This takes a few weeks to infuse, so unfortunately you may just need to splash a little vodka in a glass and add soda water & ice for tonight. Or meet me out for a Manhattan. Bottoms up!

 

 

 

How To :: Building Potato Cages

Potatoes, diggin upPotatoes are one of the most often requested vegetables when I first meet with clients, and they're a great crop to grow if you have limited space. Potatoes are a 'tuber', an underground, fleshy stem bearing buds that eventually turn into the potato. (Jerusalem artichokes aka sunchokes are tubers, too.) Dahlias are also tubers, but those roots are simply food-storing roots for the plant. Once the potato seed is planted (check out this detailed post with pics for details), the seed (which is a small cut piece of a potato with a sprouted 'eye') will put on top growth - a leafy part of the plant that develops in about 4 weeks after planting. This leafy bit produces leaves and flowers. As the plant stem grows, they produce too much energy for the plant and this energy is then stored in the 'tubers', which we call potatoes. Get it? Good.

The trick with growing potatoes then, is to cultivate a healthy environment so that each stem produces as many tubers as possible. To do this, after some stem and leaves develop, we slowly mulch the beds with hay which helps to hold in moisture and also creates a growing medium for the tubers. When mulching, aim to leave about 3 to 4 inches of stem exposed and add hay as needed.

NOW - how to actually GROW potatoes? There are several techniques, and I've tried them all over the years. The most common is called "hilling" - dig a 6-8" trench, drop in cut & sprouted potato seeds and fill the trench halfway with soil. As the plant grows its vine, you continue covering the trench, leaving about 8" of covered seed - all the more volume to grow in. This is the old school farm-y way, but can be difficult for urban farmers with limited space.

http://www.nwedible.com/2013/04/how-to-make-a-heavy-duty-potato-cage.htmlI've successfully grown potatoes in a soil bag on my apartment garden deck, in burlap bags at Volunteer Park Cafe and in trenches when I have the space. This year, I came across a post by Erica over at Northwest Edible Life, wherein she built potato 'cages' - tall planters made from cementing mesh and landscape fabric. You essentially make circular beds with the fencing and line them with landscape fabric to hold in the soil. Building tomato cages is cheap and easy to do, so I added some to Volunteer Park Cafe this year. One roll of 5 foot tall, 100' long concrete mesh cost me $35 at Stoneway Hardware. I had saved up some cool looking vintage feed bags a few years ago, and lined the beds with this instead, but landscaping fabric also works well and looks decent. Erica has a long, detailed How To post that I highly recommend you read. And she posted her results after trying this new potato-making project, which are also great food for thought.

To check out side by side growth, I encourage all of you to head up to Volunteer Park Cafe one afternoon soon (Agnes, my gardner cohort is there on Wednesday afternoons and I'm there one day a week, too - say hi!) and check out both the NW Edible-style planters aka potato cages and our burlap bag planters. Two different techniques side by side makes for a nice afternoon conversation! And don't forget to grab a pastry - that obviously makes the visit sweeter.

Potato Cages

ps - You can plant potatoes (in the Pac NW) from TODAY through mid-June, so get crackin' and feel free to email me your project pics so I can share!! amy AT amy DASH pennington DOT com.

pps - I'll write a follow up post on How & When To Harvest potatoes, what to plant next in the cages and some other techniques for potato-growing 2015. Stay tuned!

Grow With Us Project :: Swanson's Nursery

GWU_heroimageAs you know, I've started working with Swanson's Nursery to help highlight their offerings and remind people to get out in their yards and grow something this year. The beautiful thing about Swanson's, outside the gorgeous grounds and their many plant offerings, is the resource their staff offers - they all have wisdom and ideas about how best to plant damn near anything. This year, they're trying something new and recently launched the "Grow With Us" project - an innovative new way to connect with customers and offer advice and ideas. Do you need help with a corner in your yard? Don't know what plants work in shade? Not sure what plants are even ON your property? Here's how they can help:

1. Snap a Picture

2. Tag it #HEYSWANSONS & post to your Twitter or Instagram. They'll be on the lookout for your questions and projects, can answer your questions, and THEN (get this)…..

3. Get Ideas! The smarty staff will put together a Pinterest board for you with appropriate planting options and any other materials you'll need (compost, plant food, etc) and send it to you. (You can also browse their Pinterest boards for inspiration & ideas, of course.)

4. 10% Off! They will also add a 10% off coupon to your board for your shopping spree. Just show your board at the register (print it out or bring your phone) for your discount.

How cool is that? Check out this early board for a "Full Sun Rockery" to see how it works & follow them on Instagram, too.  I'll be watching also and am happy to answer any urban farming q's that come up. Have fun!

All expressed opinions and experiences are my own words. This is a sponsored post. My post complies with the Word Of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) Ethics Code and applicable Federal Trade Commission guidelines.

 

May Day :: Make This Your Year to Garden + Awesome News

whereto_pruning_diagramHappy May Day! I'm thrilled to announce a new garden partnership that I hope will get everyone out in their yards and loving their gardens. As an apartment dweller, I'm always jealous of my friends that have yards while simultaneously befuddled at their lack of interest in making the plantings AWESOME. Too many of you buy a house and stick with the existing landscape & plants - let's switch it up! For the next several weeks, I've aligned myself with Swanson's Nursery in Crown Hill in order to highlight their plant offerings and take advantage of their expertise. I've been shopping at Swanson's for about 14 years now, and they are my most trusted source for both healthy plants and growing information. [Like this brilliant harvesting & pruning tip, here.]

When I first moved into my apartment 14 years ago (yup - same apartment I'm in now!) I was coming from a house fire wherein I lost everything. As in, like……EVERYTHING. Through very generous donations & support from the Red Cross, I managed to cobble together a home. What happens, however, when you're given things versus choosing them is you end up with a lot of hodge podge. I was very grateful for every piece someone gave me (a desk, a dining table, a cheap rug) but my apartment didn't feel like "me". Luckily, the apartment came with an wide balcony and I started dabbling in plants. Back then, I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I wanted a space that smelled amazing and brought me comfort and peace. Swanson's helped me with that and while the house came together slowly, the garden came together quickly and was a cozy place of respite.

All of that is to say, I have a very warm place in my heart for Swanson's and NOW we are working together. Win-win, I say! Feeling blessed.

I'll be posting some pictures and growing information in the coming weeks and branching out a bit from edibles, which is exciting! I definitely don't need help on how best to grow tomatoes, but put a lilac bush or a maple tree in my hands and I'll stare blankly. Keep me posted if you want to learn anything in particular and stay tuned for an update on how to transform your yard! I'm stoked & ready to get growing.

How to Harvest & Eat Dandelions

Poor dandelions, always getting a bad rap for wreaking havoc on lawns and in general being a ruthless weed. It’s true that dandelions are a deeply rooted “weed” that are a real nightmare to dig out, but it’s also true that they taste pretty good and are literally everywhere. One need not look very far to find a bed of dandelions fit for eating; they are easily identifiable. Dandelion greens turn bitter and woody quite quickly, so very early spring is the best time to harvest them. To harvest and eat dandelions, try to clip the small leaves from the plant before the plant flowers. How to Harvest & Eat Dandelions

Once the yellow flower has bloomed, taste the dandelion greens first to see if you find the flavor too off-putting. Harvest by picking off the small leaves and eating straight away. Be sure to wash dandelion greens well, and steer clear of picking them out of public lawns. Those areas are too heavily sprayed with chemicals to warrant
eating. Use dandelion greens in salads, or
cook them in a sauté. I like my greens
wilted with a little bacon and an egg
in the morning. You may also use the
flower petals in recipes. I roll chopped
 petals into cracker or pie dough, for their 
bright yellow color, but the taste will not
shine through unless you use an exorbitant
amount of petals. If you're really brave, you can try this recipe for Dandelion Jelly & Pectin.

Lemon Trout with Dandelion Greens

Whole fish can sometimes be intimidating, but trout cooks quickly and tastes great. No need to clean anything—commercial trout comes scaled and gutted already. I learned this wholesome and healthy recipe from my friend Jaime years ago; it has been a standard of mine ever since.

Whole trout is cooked quickly under the broiler and served topped with a salad of dandelion greens and almonds. The dandelion greens are quite bitter, but work well with the subtle fish. They are also very healthy for you; ounce for ounce, they have more vitamin A, iron, and calcium than broccoli.

Harvest new dandelion growth in spring; older, bigger leaves are too tough and woody, and their flavor is harsh.

Dandelion Greens

Serves 2

1 garlic clove, peeled 1 handful sliced almonds 2 handfuls dandelion greens, coarsely chopped 1 lemon, zested, then sliced 1 tablespoon olive oil Salt and freshly ground black pepper 1 whole trout

Preheat the broiler and raise a rack to the highest position in your oven.

In the bowl of a mortar and pestle, mash and grind the garlic clove. When the oils have covered the walls of the mortar, remove and discard the garlic flesh. Add the almonds to the bowl and grind until they are broken up into smaller pieces. Add the dandelion greens and lemon zest and mash all the ingredients together until com- bined. The mixture will look a little bit like a salad and a little bit like a pesto. Inconsistency in the size of the leafy bits is perfect. Add the olive oil and a pinch of salt and give it one last stir with the pestle. Set aside.

Meanwhile, season the trout on both sides and inside the belly with salt and pepper. Insert several lemon slices into the belly of the trout. Place on a sheet pan and lightly coat the trout with a drizzle of olive oil to prevent sticking. Place the sheet pan directly under the broiler, and broil on one side until the skin starts to shrivel and char, 4 to 5 minutes. Take out the pan and flip the trout with a spatula. Return to the broiler and broil the other side until charred and cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes.

Place the broiled trout on a platter and spoon the dandelion salad over it. Serve immediately.

More Garden Recipes: Dandelions are a great green for adding to your salad, but use them sparingly so they don’t overpower the other flavors. Try making a dandelion pesto with crushed garlic and pine nuts. Dandelion greens can also be used as a filling for the Pea Vine Dumplings, which are in my book Apartment Gardening

Small Plants for Small Pots

Small pots, illustrationYou might think choosing pots would be the easiest part of container gardening, but interestingly, it is not. Containers and pots come in many sizes and seemingly just as many materials. You can look at your planting vessel in one of two ways—you can choose the pot first and then pick the best-suited plant, or buy the plant and then choose the best-suited pot. Most plants need a little legroom to stretch their roots. Try to plant in a pot that’s a bit bigger than the plant will actually need. It is better to leave a little wiggle room than to have plant roots mashing up against the container walls. If you allow for some growth, you increase the odds of your plant growing to full maturity. The end goal is for the plant to produce as much as possible.

That said, I find myself consistently drawn to the cutest little pots with the brightest colors, but they end up being fairly useless. There are lots of adorable small ceramic vessels and even compressed bamboo pots in bright and festive colors. (A nice counterpart to all that green, I say!)

In my own garden, the smallest pot I have used is about four inches deep and about that wide—I treat it as an experiment. Nothing really grows well in such a small space, and the plants are typically root-bound. Even lettuces, which are pretty tolerant, suffer in such tight confines. Their leaves never get bigger than baby lettuce size. The smallest pot I recommend is about six inches deep and about the same width.

There are a few plants that work reasonably well in small pots. Shallow-rooted plants work best, as do plants that you will not harvest from often. Lemon balm, for instance, is quite hardy and will survive the tight conditions, though its leaves will be much smaller than those of a plant given room to reach its full potential. This doesn’t matter so much for lemon balm, as it is a strong herb that you will likely use only occasionally.

Keep in mind, also, that small pots need lots of watering on hot days— likely at least twice a day.

Following is a list of some good plant options for smaller pots—as either they are shallow-rooted, or a kind of plant you will not use in large quantities and can harvest in smaller batches.

.Lemon Balm .Microgreens: arugula, radish
 or amaranth grow quickly .Mint & Scented Mints - chocolate, pineapple or apple .Strawberries - one plant per pot!

Materials for Vegetable Beds - Is Treated Wood a No-No????

Spring has sprung and it seems like everyone is ready to hit the dirt, literally. This is the time of year when my garden business, GoGo Green Garden, really heats up (despite morning frosts) and everyone wants a garden RIGHT. NOW. DIY Timber Raised Beds

Today, I consulted with a new client who has bed materials ready to go, but isn't sure about their safety. She has a gorgeous stack of thick, old fir beams that were treated way back when when arsenic and other chemicals were freely used. In 2003, the EPA banned the sale of treated lumber, which contained CCA  (chromated copper arsenate), but today that aged wood is often found at construction sites and can be somewhat easily salvaged.

The question then becomes, is it better NOT to use the gorgeous (free?) wood? Or is it ok to use when building vegetable beds? I found a great article in Fine Gardening, though you can read the meat of it here……….

"Sally Brown, a research assistant professor of soils at the University of Washington, knows her way around both food and metals. Starting out as a chef and then a food broker between farmers and restaurants, she became fascinated with soils and went on to earn a PhD in agronomy. Brown’s current research includes identifying the mechanisms by which organic residuals reduce the availability of soil metals to plants. She has some hard-earned opinions.

Brown says that if you already have the older, arsenic-treated wood in your garden, don’t panic. Plants will not take up arsenic unless the soils are deficient in phosphorus. That is not a problem for gardeners who use compost generously. As for the new copper-based wood treatments, Brown believes the actual risk is minimal. First of all, if plants take up too much copper, they will die before a gardener can eat them. In addition, if homegrown vegetables make up a small percentage of the diet, exposure to any metal taken up is insignificant. Do not use copper near ponds and streams because it is toxic to aquatic life."

Of course, you can always look at other materials like this lovely garden, pictured, which I built that last year for a client on Mercer Island. We re-used leftover pavers (from their new house construction) and built simple timber beds using untreated lumber. I know the masses frown on timber framed beds as inferior, but in my urban farming experience, they've held up beautifully. For a fraction of the price of cedar, timber beds maintain their structure for at least 6 years and even then, only demand the addition of re-bar supports  to extend their life.

Was this article helpful?!?!? Please let me know in the comments and I'll continue adding veg bed material options, of which I have many! 

Setting Up Your Container Garden - Tips for Apartment Dwellers and Small Spaces

Many moons ago, I tried to convince a boyfriend to let me grow food in his yard, tearing out existing landscape. (He declined and now has a vegetable bed in the worst place, which I secretly love.) I have a habit of sizing up random yards searching for the perfect place to grow food because sadly, I don’t have a yard or garden of my own. I’m relegated to planting any food I want in pots. It's honestly not my preference, but still, I like to think that I’ve perfected the art of growing in my microclimate. I know I share circumstances with many of you: without some pots on a patio, balcony, or windowsill, we would be plant-less. No fun. So, here, I am covering container basics for the urbanite looking to supply their kitchen with some garden goodness. Filling pots

You should know from the onset that not all vegetables grow well in containers. By planting in a contained environment, you are inhibiting the plant’s growth to some extent. Think about it — plants can send out roots and root hairs only as far as the walls of the pot allow. Restricted by the pot, not all plants will come to full maturity and produce food. This presents the biggest challenge of growing food in small spaces.

Deciding What to Grow The ultimate goal is for your garden to be productive. I aim for a constant supply of ingredients for the kitchen, so I nurture plants that can be continually harvested. I suggest growing plants that will be used frequently, but in small amounts. This gives plants time to regrow between cuttings — no sense in planting a crop that you’ll wipe out in one go. (I figure it’s better to have something available over a long course of time.)

• I rely heavily on herbs in my garden. Herbs will single-handedly change the flavor of most recipes and are often pricey at the grocery; many are not commercially available.

• Plants that produce abundant quantities of ingredients that I know I’ll use often are also a favorite. Lettuces, for example: these are wonderful to grow at home. They take up little space, produce (and reproduce!) quickly, and offer fresh greens for salads, or for a nice leafy garnish. I use lettuce in large amounts, and their fast growing cycle makes them highly productive, economical, and worthwhile.

• Plan on mixing it up to make sure there is always something new and different to harvest. Choose plants that will run through their life cycle in one season (annuals) as well as plants that continue to come back year after year in the same pot (perennials).

• Make the most of what you grow by considering its uses beyond the kitchen. Lavender makes a subtle herb rub for seared duck breast and can also be used as a herbal stuffing for an eye pillow. Scented geranium leaves can be chopped and used in sweet recipes, infused into water for a facial toner, or steeped to make teas.

• A container garden should ebb and flow, just like a large garden. Some plants are grown for their leaves, some for their seeds, and some for their fruits. I try to round out my garden plan so there is always something ready to harvest. Today, as I write this, I have marjoram, thyme, and scented geraniums that survived the winter. Arugula and mache are just popping up, too, having reseeded themselves from last year (at the end of the season I stopped harvesting their leaves and let them "go to seed" — the matured plant grows seed pods that fall into the soil and regrow). Within three weeks, the lovage should be starting to show (the same plants I’ve had for four years) and I’ll be planting a second crop of arugula.

Soil

Getting Started To start a garden in containers, at a bare minimum you’ll need pots, soil, and a low-level organic fertilizer. A bag of compost is also a great addition. Access to water is an important consideration. In my own garden, I fill eight old water bottles and carry them back and forth from my kitchen sink. Just make sure you have some way to water your plants, as containers require a diligent watering schedule.

Most plants need a little legroom to stretch their roots. Try to plant in a pot that’s a bit bigger than the plant will actually need. It is better to leave a little wiggle room than to have plant roots mashing up against the container walls. If you allow for some growth, you increase the odds of your plant growing to full maturity.

Planting in Pots

Materials Plastic pots are the least expensive container option, so they’re great for anyone on a budget. It’s true that they are usually the least attractive option, but they hold their moisture longer than clay or ceramic pots and are lighter and easier to move around.

Clay pots are porous, so air moves easily through their walls. This is helpful in that it allows roots to breathe and keeps them out of direct water, but it’s not helpful in that the soil tends to dry out quickly. In hot weather you’ll need to closely monitor the moisture in your clay pots. They are a fairly inexpensive option for the home gardener after plastic, and they come in myriad shapes and sizes. If you choose clay pots, be sure to purchase a saucer or plate to sit under the pot. This works in two ways — to keep moisture off the surface of your deck or patio and to hold in moisture for the plant.

I won't be discussing it here, but making your own pots is super rewarding, too!

Soil You must use potting soil in your containers — soil mixes are formulated to maintain a certain level of lightness so that plants are able to breathe, drain well, and still hold in some moisture. (Air is right up there with sun and water in importance to healthy, thriving plants!) Look for organic potting soil mixes from smaller regional companies rather than the national brands you’ll find in big-box stores. Choose a potting soil that has no added fertilizer or nutrients. It is best to add those on your own as needed for the particular plants you will grow.

Remove all Roots

If you are adding new plants to previously used containers, do not rely on simply digging a small hole in the soil and stuffing in a plant start. Old soils often contain dead roots from previous plants (see above). These roots will impede the new plant’s roots and constrict air as the new plant tries to grow into the same small space. For that reason, just as you would in a garden bed, it’s best to rework your soil before planting. As on the farm, till your soil using a fork or your hands. Loosen it up, remove the root hairs, then gently work in some compost and a spoonful of a low-level organic fertilizer before adding a new plant start.

We will cover more container plant topics like feeding your plant, tending for plants, and more in upcoming articles, but for now these are the basics you need to get growing. As ever, I’m looking forward to all of your questions in the comments!

Up next, seed starting: big things come in tiny packages.

Photos by Della Chen

How to Prep Your Garden Beds

Plotting Your Way to the Garden(all pictures by Della Chen Photography)

With the basic principles covered (water, sun, and spaceseeds) and the impending approach of spring, it is officially time to break ground in the garden. Whether starting from scratch, or adding to an already growing landscape, following these general rules will help guide you through the process. And checking out some online vids for how to prepare your gardens for spring is never a bad idea.

6917354665_049216f777_z

The next step in the great urban gardening adventure is to actually get to building and shaping your beds. First, though, you have to make sure your ground is ready to plant.

6917352511_1e4270bb9b_z

Prepping your Plot City farmers need to start with a nice clear garden space before building or planting — you may need to kill grass or pull weeds before starting. To clear grass or sod, you can rent a sod cutter (which will include directions), or use good, old-fashioned manual labor to cut away squares of grass with a spade. Turn each dug-up patch of grass upside down — burying the grass, exposing the soil, and allowing the grass to rot over time. Instant homemade compost!

For invasive ground cover — plants that root down deep and grow back even after weeding or mowing — there really is no easy way short of getting in there and mindfully digging it out. Ground cover plants spread quickly, as is their intended habit, and so you must be careful to remove every root system. Use a shovel (I prefer my spade) and dig deep, loosening the soil a bit deeper than the roots have grown. For truly invasive plants, like ivy, you must also take care to remove all leaf matter, as even cuttings can produce new plants. Have more questions about grass removal? Post in the comments and I'll do my best to help!

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 6.11.10 PM

Once the area is clear, it is wise to compost and mulch it. In Erin's garden (above) we had a crew of friends over one winter Saturday morning and worked really hard for six hours to complete the task. Be sure to share your future vegetable harvest with your helpers! Here are the layers you'll need:

• An inch-thick layer of compost will add needed nutrients and organic matter to the soil.

• A layer of mulch will further aid in decay, which is good because it invites good bacteria into your soil in addition to protecting the exposed soil from erosion and compaction from rain.

• A layer of cocoa bean chaff ($10 a bag at Theo Chocolate in Seattle; you can also use wood chip mulch) to eventually break down and decay into compost. (NOTE: Cocoa bean chaff can be life-threatening to dogs, so if you're a pet owner, another form of mulch is highly recommended!)

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 6.11.02 PM

• Use burlap coffee bean bags (procured from Stumptown Roasters and available at other Seattle roasting houses) to cover the garden. You can also use coffee grounds and newspaper, or just cardboard — any not-too-thick material that will decompose and add organic matter to the soil is perfect. Covering the compost and soil has many benefits; it will keep sun off any left-behind plants preventing them from growing, warm up the earth, and further help the process of decomposition.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 6.11.34 PM

Materials When you're ready to plant, it's time to build the garden beds themselves. Beds are essentially formed mounds of soil that are raised higher than the surrounding landscape. If you're starting with a blank slate, there are many options for building a bed outside of simply mounding up the soil.

When contemplating any space, the first two items to consider are aesthetics and budget — a happy marriage of both principles should always be your goal. You can use a variety of materials for garden beds, so long as there is support for the bed walls to hold in the containing soil. These super simple designs allow you to avoid construction if you have an aversion to tools or lack any formal toolbox or training:

• Cinderblocks are inexpensive if not free, are often salvageable from existing sites, and require no tools at all outside your physical brawn to stack them.

 Sticks and fallen branches you gather from the ground can be used to erect a bed. Create a retaining fence by pounding rebar or another sturdy stake material about 12" deep and about 1-2 inches apart into the earth in parallel rows. This acts as your frame wherein you can stack sticks horizontally between them creating a wall. You can fill in any gaps with smaller sticks or Spanish moss.

• Wood can be used to easily construct a rectangular bed — look for untreated lumber (cheap and durable) or cedar(more expensive than lumber, but longer-lasting). You can even add a ledge to sit on when you weed your garden beds.

As for the perfect size, remember not to build any bed more than 4 feet wide. Any larger and you won't be able to easily reach in to the center. Also be sure to leave a two-foot minimum of space between each bed to allow for walking between beds.

Soil Now that the garden beds are complete, you'll need to fill them. The easiest way to do this is to have a mix of topsoil and compost delivered — I recommend a 70-30 mix. Often new gardeners will their beds exclusively with compost; while it adds necessary organic matter to your soil, compost also retains water and lacks the mineral structure found in topsoil. Topsoil allows for drainage and is a necessary ingredient in any garden mix. When you fill your beds, be sure to fill them to the very top. You want the soil/compost flush with the lip of the bed, as soil will compact over time. This can create a shade ledge in the bed — not the best for sun-loving seedlings.

If you're starting the year with already-built beds, you'd do well to top them off with a bit of pure compost. I cover the topsoil with about an inch of compost and hoe it in, but any amount is better than none. Compost helps add good bacteria, organic matter, and nutrients like nitrogen to your soil. Always choose organic, and opt for a compost made close to home. Many city municipalities are turning their waste into compost, so call your city offices for details.

6917359097_85d938a99c_z

 

Garden Work & Nelson Mandela

nelsonmandela I came across a post on the internet this week, after learning of Nelson Mandela's death. There are so many lessons, thoughts and mantras that he left behind with his words, and the following passages are particularly meaningful to me. Namaste.

This is a short excerpt from his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

“The Bible tells us that gardens preceded gardeners, but that was not the case at Pollsmoor, where I cultivated a garden that became one of my happiest diversions. It was my way of escaping from the monolithic concrete world that surrounded us. Within a few weeks of surveying all the empty space we had on the building’s roof and how it was bathed the whole day, I decided to start a garden and received permission to do so from the commanding officer.

“Each morning, I put on a straw hat and rough gloves and worked in the garden for two hours. Every Sunday, I would supply vegetables to the kitchen so that they could cook a special meal for the common-law prisoners. I also gave quite a lot of my harvest to the warders, who used to bring satchels to take away their fresh vegetables.” “A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a taste of freedom.

“In some ways, I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. A leader must also tend his garden; he, too, plants seeds, and then watches, cultivates, and harvests the results. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved, and eliminate what cannot succeed.”

Winter Transition in the Garden - How-To

garlicHere in the Pacific NW we've had the good fortune of a relatively mild autumn, while on the east coast it snowed this week. Regionally, garden news will vary in terms of timing - I still have tomatoes in the ground in gardens here in Seattle, but everyone should (or should have!) work to transition their gardens this week or next. A winter garden transition essentially rids the beds of any lingering summer crops and any plants that will not over winter. In their place, it is best to cover and protect the soil. You can do this by ...mulching - adding a layer of autumnal leaves or a sack burlap directly over your soil. Sowing cover crop will also generate a green mulch, one that you can chop into the soil for green compost next spring. Choose a cover crop mix (often sold in bulk at small nurseries) of cereal (rye, barley), vetch and favas.

Below, I have a few bullet pointed items for winter transition. If you like them well enough, let me know in the comments and I can expand the section to include your landscape plants, trees and shrubs. (Or maybe even your rosemary and sage bushes that are out of control??)

- It's not too late to plant garlic. Plant single cloves about 6 to 8 inches apart, and push them (tips up) about 2 inches below the surface.

- Collect flower head seeds and save the seed if so inclined. Work methodically, as seeds are easily dropped and it is NO fun weeding out 100s of borage plants in February, trust me on this!

- Remove all of your annual plants and compost them.

- Cut back perennial plants like thyme, sage and oregano. As leaves dull and brown, you can trim off their woody stalks at the ground. Take care not to cut off any new shoots - those will put on slow growth through the season.

- Remove all summer crops from the beds - green tomatoes can be harvested and stored in a bucket in the garage, where they will ripen slowly. Check for ripe tomatoes daily, as they will break down and mold/rot easily if not removed.

- Mulch strawberry plants with a covering of dry hay. You can find this at Walt's Organic in Ballard, or try your local hardware store. Sprinkle a layer directly over the strawberries, but no more than a few inches deep, which can smother plants. Plan to mulch as the temperature continues to drop, so put it on your list for late November/early December.

cutting back raspberries- Cut back any dead raspberry canes. Dead canes are those that have fruited and/or have brown, brittle canes. Thin remaining canes (choosing the thickest and strongest) so there is one every 6-inches, leaving them room for them to grow in and receive sun. Lastly, you must tip or trim the canes, using sharp pruners, to about 4 or 5 feet in height.

- Mulch all overwintering vegetable garden beds with dry leaves or hay, being careful to leave a bit of space around the stem of each plant.

 

 

 

Late Summer Tomato Care

Summer is waning, and the days are getting shorter. September marks the time of year where diligent tomato care pays dividends in the shape of glossy, colorful tomato harvest. TomatoesMost importantly, you really need to start pruning the plants, allowing almost-mature fruit to ripen and discarding any very small or grossly immature green fruits. This is especially true on plants that produce larger fruits. There is not enough time in the season/day to mature a big slicing tomato or a medium-sized paste. I know you don't want to, but remove all of those green tomatoes from the plant will allow the almost-mature fruits to ripen successfully. For notes on how to prune, read this post from earlier in the summer.

Secondly, I recommend getting aggressive about harvesting tomatoes. When fruit is nearly mature, it often times cracks. Cracked tomatoes are a product of fluctuating water levels for the plant. If the plant takes in too much water, it swells the fruits which may not have enough elasticity in their skin to stretch, so the fruits crack. To minimize this, harvest mature tomatoes immediately as they are ready. Letting them sit on the vine risks a late summer rain and leads to mushy fruits. Always try and harvest fruits after a few days of dry weather - they are the sweetest then, and won't be overly saturated with moisture.

Questions?

Also, if you haven't already, please check out my new TOMATO eBook. It's $2.99 for 16 awesome tomato recipes, including a handful of preservation recipes. (It's the time to save some for winter!)