Once you start gardening, you will probably find yourself the proud owner of a bunch of seeds. Eventually you will need something to hold all those seeds. That thing is called a seed box.
The DIY seed boxes I saw online were made from shoe boxes, cigar boxes, recipe card boxes, curb-scored dresser drawers, discarded library card boxes, tackle boxes, plastic pill boxes, old 8-track cases, photo organizers, antique letterpress printer’s drawers, old filing tins, cash boxes, ziplock baggies, Mason jars, and lidded cardboard shipping boxes. One was even made from an old fashioned metal lunchbox! Clearly, there was lots of inspiration out there, but what would suit my needs?
What do seed boxes do?
All that variety got me thinking about what seed boxes are for. There’s no point in saving seeds if they get eaten or sprout too soon. Seeds need to be kept in a cool, dry, dark place to avoid germinating before you are ready for them. Plus, you need to be absolutely sure there is no moisture present if your seeds are going to be sealed in something airtight. [If you store your seeds in plastic or glass, it is a good idea to include one of those tiny silica packets you find in show boxes and other products.] I prefer exposing my seeds to as much of the local weather as possible, without getting them wet (or eaten). Also, I am working on reducing my use of plastic, so I decided that my new seed box had to be made out of something else. Since I have a bunch of scrap wood, I decided to take a look in my wood box for inspiration.
How to organize all those seeds?
There’s always alphabetical order, but I decided I needed something that I could organize by planting time. Here, in California, that means separate categories for every month. In colder regions, you might be better off organizing your seeds by plant type: tomatoes, peppers, beans, etc., or by season. I used some heavy duty paperboard to create a divider down the middle of my seed box and index-style cards for each month. Then it was a simple matter of looking at my local monthly planting times to file my seed collection. Or so I thought.
Many people love the idea of a garden, but don’t know how to get started. These tips for a beginner’s garden will help you be more successful, wherever you live.
Fresh, sun-ripened tomatoes are the most common reason people start gardening, but don’t stop there. With just a little space and water, you can grow your own lettuces, radishes, beets, herbs, and more. But start small. Pick one space, a single garden theme, and just a few plants. Pace yourself. Gardeners are in it for the long haul.
Before you get started, you need to know that gardening has changed in recent years. Behind us, hopefully, are the days of ravaging rototillers and cascading chemicals. We have learned a lot about microorganisms that live in the soil. These microscopic creatures actually feed our plants and improve our mood! Extensive digging and plowing disrupt these microorganisms, slowing the transfer of nutrients to our plants. So, save your back and your plants by keeping digging to a minimum.
We have also learned that it is far better to encourage beneficial insects than to spray chemicals when fighting garden pests. Instead of poisoning our food and our soil, we now add a few umbrella-shaped flowers and let Mother Nature do most of the work.
Will your garden be perfect? Will it look like the cover of a magazine? No, it won’t. Real gardens rarely do. And that’s okay. What I can tell you is that when those first seeds germinate, when you harvest your first tomato, when you gift a friend a jar of home grown dried oregano, you will feel amazing. So let’s start gardening!
From the ground up
An inexpensive soil test from a reputable lab is the best investment you can make in your garden. And you can forget those colorful plastic tube kits you see in stores. They may look like a great idea but they are not (yet) accurate enough to be useful. Sending out a sample for testing every 3 to 5 years can save you countless hours and dollars by telling you actually what is missing from your soil and what is in excess. All too often, new gardeners create more problems than they resolve by automatically adding fertilizer every time things don’t look the way they do in magazines and seed catalogs.
Adding unnecessary fertilizer can create nutrient imbalances that make it difficult for plants to absorb the nutrients they need. A soil test will also tell you the soil’s pH, and that’s important, too. Soil can be acidic, alkaline, or neutral. Most plant nutrients can only be absorbed when soil pH is between 6.0 and 7.5. If you soil is outside of that range, you may need to acidify or lime it. These things are not difficult, but you need to know if they need doing and a soil test will tell you.
Set the stage
Most plants need 8 or more hours of direct sunlight each day. This is especially true for fruits and vegetables. Find a spot in your yard that gets plenty of sunshine. Then, prepare that space for gardening by getting rid of weeds and other unwanted plants. Until recently, people used cardboard to block weeds because it sounded like a good idea. We now know that it’s a horrible idea. Cardboard and layers of newspaper attract termites and voles. Instead, contact local arborists and ask about free loads of wood chips. Mulching an area with a 4″ layer of wood chips stabilizes soil temperatures, retains moisture, blocks weeds, and, eventually, improves soil structure. Mulching with wood chips is one of the best things you can do for your soil, and it’s free. In fact, you can use those chips everywhere you don’t already have something growing. It looks nice and it improves soil health, making your next gardening project that much easier.
What lives where you are?
Looking at what already grows well in your yard can tell you what will grow easily in your garden. If most of your weeds are clovers, then other legumes, such as peas and beans, should grow well. If your regular weeds are more of the mustard variety, then the cabbage family will love your yard.
Identify your Hardiness Zone. Your Hardiness Zone is a number or number-letter combination that identifies how cold your winters get. This is important when it comes to plant selection. Most plant labels and seed packets will tell you if a specific plant will perform well in your zone. Of course, each yard is different. The variables of sun, wind, rain, slope, and soil make up your microclimate. As you garden, you will learn more about your microclimate and which plants are best suited to it.
Contact your local County Extension Office or Department of Agriculture for recommendations, while you’re at it. They have plant specific growing, pest, and disease information for your region. There’s no sense re-inventing the wheel, right?
When deciding which plants you want in your garden, you will see notes about sun exposure. This is valuable information and you should use it. “Full sun” means 8 or more hours of direct sunlight every day. “Partial sun” means 4 to 6 hours of sunlight in the afternoon. “Partial shade” means 4 hours of morning sun. Shade means bright dappled sun all day or 2 hours of direct morning sun. Putting plants in the wrong location is a waste of time and money.
As tempting as it may be to order everything that looks good from the glossy pages of a seed and plant catalog, don’t do it. Start small. Taking on too much in the beginning can be discouraging. Pick just a few plants to start and learn about what works for you and your garden. You can expand over time, as you learn more. And you will. You may decide you have the space for a fruit cocktail tree or an artichoke bush. Maybe rhubarb and asparagus are better suited to your space.
The possibilities really are amazing! Once you know what will grow in your yard, you can really run with it. But not at first. Taking care of a garden requires effort and water. Speaking of water, avoid overhead watering, as this can translate into many fungal diseases that are difficult to get rid of, once they are in place.
Finally, resist the urge to use grocery store plants and seeds in your garden. While it seems convenient and inexpensive, these plants are not certified disease-free or pathogen-free. They may be safe to eat, but adding them to your garden can introduce pests and diseases that may take years to be resolve.
For you experienced gardeners, what plants were in your first garden? What worked and what didn’t? Let us know in the Comments!
Bell peppers and chili peppers love the heat, so why talk about them in December? Unless you have an amazing greenhouse, the only thing you can do with peppers this time of year is dream about them - and that’s the point.
Dream now, in December, about a productive pepper garden filled with thick-skinned sweet bells and degrees of fiery heat. Red, orange, yellow, purple, and greens of various sizes and shapes can make a pepper garden both attractive and productive.
December is the time of year to ask yourself where you might put your pepper garden, figure out what peppers need, and consider your options. How can you get your peppers started as early as possible? Collecting answers to those questions now will make designing a pepper garden a breeze and summer production better than ever.
While peppers can certainly be included in your pizza garden, stir fry garden, or victory garden, you can feature them in a space of their own. Because pepper plants are so colorful and diverse, your pepper garden can really be lovely throughout the summer. Pepper bushes tend to be dense and thickly green with sparks of colorful fruits.
Pepper garden design
When designing your pepper garden, choose a site that gets lots of sunlight. Then, read the plant labels and seed packets to learn the mature size for each variety. This way, you can position your pepper plants so they will not block each other’s sunlight.
You can grow peppers in the ground, raised beds, or containers. Peppers perform beautifully in containers as long as they are large enough. Most pepper plants have root systems that can go 24” to 36” deep. One advantage to growing peppers in containers is that it makes moving the plants into ideal temperature ranges an option not available when growing in raised beds or the ground. Our scorching summer temperatures can interfere with pollen viability, causing blossom drop. Sunburn damage and water stress are other common problems.
Peppers come in a wide variety of shapes, textures, sizes, and colors. You can create a rainbow of peppers, if you want to, or stick with some tried and true favorites. Sweet bell peppers come in several colors (if you leave them on the bush long enough). There are five basic domestic species of chili peppers (and countless variations):
• Capsicum annuum - bell, banana, cayenne, and jalapeños chiles
• C. frutescens - tabasco and Thai peppers
• C. chinense - naga, habanero, Scotch bonnet
• C. pubescens - rocoto chiles
• C. baccatum - Bishop’s crown peppers
There are also miniature varieties available.
Starting peppers early
Peppers take time to mature and they grow the best when temperatures are between 80°F and 90°F. Seeds started too soon will simply not germinate. Even if they do germinate, they will not grow well. Here, in San Jose, California, peppers are generally not started outdoors until May. You can jump-start your pepper garden by using grow lights and specially designed seed heating mats. Choosing varieties best suited to your local climate will allow you to start your pepper plants as early as possible.
Pepper plant care
Being heavy feeders, peppers perform best when given regular feedings of fish emulsion or other balanced plant food. Peppers without adequate calcium or those which receive irregular waterings often develop blossom end rot.
Monitor plants regularly for signs of mottling, bacterial spot, and powdery mildew. Learn about pests and diseases commonly seen on bell peppers and chili peppers to minimize the damage. For example, knowing to keep lambsquarters away from your pepper plants can reduce the chance of beet curly top infecting plants.
What about the rest of the year?
Will your annual pepper plants be lush and colorful all year? No, they won’t. By mid to late autumn, they will look spindly and bare. What can you do to keep the space looking nice through winter and preparing for next year’s pepper plants? Before your peppers are done, install seeds and seedlings that will carry your pepper bed through the winter. If you live in Zone 9, you might add fava beans, cabbages, and cauliflower to the pepper bed well before the peppers are done. This succession planting method allows you to produce food, with the cruciferous vegetables, and grow a green manure with the fava beans. The peppers act as nurse maids, helping the next cycle of plants get started. When your pepper plants are done producing, cut them off at soil level and add the debris to your compost pile. This is a good time to add a layer of aged compost to your pepper bed, improving soil structure and adding nutrients.
Scent can inspire powerful memories, improve your mood, and make you more productive. Use the power of scent to your advantage with a scent garden.
The power of scent
Scent is the only sense that has a direct connection to our lizard brains. Fragrances are processed by the limbic system and can impact our emotions, behaviors, motivations, and even our long-term memory.
You learned to associate smells with certain situations when you were very young. Those memories stay with you for life. Come across the smell of baking cookies or Play-Doh and the memories come flooding back. This is called the Proustian memory effect. This effect depends largely on previous experiences and cultural influences, but there are some generalizations you can use with your scent garden design. Fragrance is a tool you can use to create a garden space that improves your outlook on life.
The science of scent
Flowers use fragrance to attract pollinators. Those fragrances can be classified as floral, fresh, spicy, or woodsy. Each of those scent profiles evoke a different response. The floral scents of jasmine and gardenia are said to help us relax, while the fresh aroma of citrus, mint, and lavender stimulate and refresh us. The woodsy fragrances of balsam, cedar, and rosemary are believed to improve our thinking processes, while sage, carnations, and roses are said to make us feel more sensuous.
For me, the smell of thyme invokes a sense of warmth and home, while brushing against a rosemary bush lights up a part of my brain that feels strong and calm. Different scents affect people differently. For some, the smell of freshly mown grass stirs up memories of summer and being active, while pine boughs inspire thoughts of the holiday season. Knowing which scents trigger the feelings you want to invoke will help you with plant selection. Just be sure to choose plants appropriate to your Hardiness Zone and microclimate.
Popular scent garden plants
Some of the most popular flowers for scent gardens include butterfly bush, catmint, creeping phlox, datura, dianthus, freesia, gardenia, geraniums, honeysuckle, hyacinth, jasmine, lavender, lilacs, lily of the valley, paperwhites, peonies, roses, stock, sweet alyssum, sweet peas, Sweet William, and violas. Other fragrant ornamentals include artemisia, boxwood, and wisteria.
Most herbs have pleasing aromas that fit nicely into a scent garden. Anise, basil, dill, lemon balm, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme all have wonderful fragrances when brushed or walked on. Balsam fir, cedar, citrus, eucalyptus, linden, and witch hazel trees can add their aroma to your scent garden.
Scent garden design
As you lay out your scent garden, be sure to note mature plant sizes and bloom times, as well as monthly maintenance. You don’t want a shorter, high maintenance plant hidden behind a rugged, giant shrub. With a good balance of flowers for each season, your scent garden will look as good as it smells!
Did you know that researchers have shown that we can smell over 1 trillion scents? It ends up that our 400 smelling receptors, combined with our amazing brains, are just as good as scenting things as dogs. If we take the time to pay attention.
You can create a gift garden specifically for plants to be given as gifts.
How many times have you been searching for that just right gift for a friend or co-worker, when a miniature herb garden or succulent garden would have been perfect, but there isn't enough time? This is what gift gardens are all about.
Then gather growing information for those plants and count backwards to know when to sow. Even in the midst of winter, or during the scorching days of summer, many of these plants can be started indoors and protected from the elements as they develop into the perfect gift for family and friends, as long as they get enough light.
Too many times, we shop for gifts out of habit, often at the last minute. Many of these gifts are mass produced and have little to do with us or the recipients. A gift garden gives you the space and reminder to create holiday gifts by your own hand. These gifts can be herbs, bulbs, canned goods, seeds, or seasonal decorations. The important thing is that these gifts are created by you for them.
We've all experienced those unexpected moments when a gift would be appropriate, but we are unprepared. It happens. As gardeners, we can maintain a collection of stand-by gift plants, just in case. Miniature herb gardens, flowering bulbs, durable succulents, and perennial edibles can all be welcome gifts that keep on giving. [A potted pineapple, anyone?] A special added touch might be a handmade plant label that includes care directions on the back, for those unschooled in plant husbandry.
Seed packets contain a lot of seeds. We rarely plant them all and, unless they are stored perfectly, they won’t stay viable. Also, after growing plants in a region for a few years, many gardeners end up with a collection of seeds that work best in their microclimate. You can share all those extra seeds with family and friends. Create unique seed packets and gift to your heart’s content!
Each year, many of us end up with far more citrus, nectarines, plums, and tomatoes than we could ever eat. Most of these items can be converted in delicious marmalades, jams, and sauces. Herbs can be dried. Nothing say love like something made by your own hand. And you can use inexpensive address labels to mark the contents and canning date of your edible gifts.
Be prepared for any gift-giving occasion by planning and installing a gift garden.
Imagine, if you will, a circular garden space in spring. At its center, a small tree covered with blossoms. Bees and other pollinators eagerly burrow into the blooms and emerge to repeat the process all day, every day, for weeks. Surrounding the tree, at the outermost edge of this garden space, a hedge of blueberry bushes. Between the tree and the hedge, a covey of potted raspberries, blackberries, currants, and strawberries. Peppering the ground, colorful borage, with its cucumber-flavored leaves and edible flowers, and equally edible Johnny-jump-ups. Imagine all that sweet deliciousness in one place.
Fruit cocktail gardens are designed to provide a variety of fresh and preservable fruits, all in one convenient location. Here’s how you can make it happen in your own yard.
Start with the basics
There is no sense installing all these plants if they won’t grow in your yard. Microclimate and Hardiness Zone must be taken into account, as with any garden design. You also need to know what is in your soil. Get your soil tested by a lab. It’s inexpensive. It’s important to the health of all your plants. And it makes the job of gardening much easier and more likely to succeed. You will also need to know your garden’s chilling hours. All this information will help you select plants suited to your yard.
The fruit cocktail theme
Themed gardens pull an area together with a shared concept. This makes plant selection and garden design a lot easier. The fruit cocktail garden theme starts with a fruit tree at its center, surrounds the area with a hedge or border, and fills the space with other fruit-bearing plants. You can also add artistic touches, such as statuary, a birdbath, or a nice bench. Let’s start with your tree.
Most modern fruit trees are two different trees grafted onto one another. Root stocks are selected for their ability to produce strong root systems and the aboveground portion is selected for fruit producing abilities, as well as pest and disease resistance. This is why planting seeds from your apple or that peach pit almost never works out the way you expect. This is especially true of apples.
Dwarf trees are an excellent choice for backyard gardens. Dwarf trees rarely grow larger than 10’ high and are easier to manage in the home landscape. When selecting a tree for your fruit cocktail garden, be sure to note the chilling hours. Trees are hardwired to go through seasonal changes before setting fruit. If winter temperatures are not cold enough, long enough, your tree will never produce fruit. At the other end of that spectrum, if you opt for a banana tree, you need to protect it from frost damage in winter. While you can select any fruit tree as the centerpiece of this garden, fruit cocktail trees are especially appropriate. Just be sure to use the proper planting depth, or your fruit tree will die within a few short and unproductive years.
What are fruit cocktail trees?
You may have seen them in garden catalogs. Also known as fruit salad trees and family trees, these mostly dwarf varieties are created by grafting scions, or pencil-thin twigs, from several trees onto a host tree. The scions and host must all be in the same genus for this to work. Popular examples include:
There are also family trees that provide several different varieties of the same fruit on one tree. You may have a single apple family tree that produces Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Gala, Braeburn, and Honeycrisp, all on a single tree. The same can be done with practically any fruit tree species. One particularly impressive fruit cocktail tree produces 40 different fruits.
New York artist and professor, Sam Van Aken, creates trees with 40 different types of fruit growing on them. His Tree of 40 includes several varieties of stone fruits, all grafted onto a single tree.
Hedge or border?
The next step in designing your fruit cocktail garden is to select plants for the outer edge. You can create a hedge out of low-growing blueberries, a border with strawberry plants, or something else entirely. You might decide to encircle your fruit cocktail garden with melon or watermelon vines, a blackberry bramble, or delicious groundcherries. Watch out for those blackberries, though. They are tenacious and they will spread. Another possibility is small raised beds, for easy access and as a way to limit plants with invasive natures.
Other possibilities for your fruit cocktail garden
You can put those renegade blackberries into the miniature raised beds or attractive containers. Raspberries and currants can be grown the same way, just be sure to use containers large enough for mature root systems. Raspberry, blackberry, and currant roots spread out more than they dive. Containers need to be at least 20” deep and as wide as possible.
Be sure to mulch the spaces between the border, the tree, and the containers with aged compost or free arborist wood chips, providing several inches of bare ground between the mulch and the tree trunk. You can intersperse this area with herbs, such as greens and purple basil, and edible flowers, including carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus), Johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor), or primrose (Primula vulgaris).
As you design your fruit cocktail garden, be sure to consider the mature sizes of all the plants and their appearance throughout the seasons. You want your plants to have the space they need and you want your garden to look lovely year round.
Fruit cocktail gardens can stand alone or be incorporated into children’s gardens. Either way, you are going to love how delicious your new garden space can be!
This garden design concept came from a friend of mine, Linda King. It is a method used to recreate a garden, setting, or memory using plants that look similar to, but perform better in your microclimate, than the originals. I call these copycat gardens.
Linda’s Scottish garden
Linda was telling me about her Scottish garden and I was intrigued, having never heard of that particular style. Right away, I wanted to urge against this idea, knowing that the mosses, lichens, and liverworts of Scotland would be scorched by our California summers and that our alkaline soil would be wrong for the heaths and myrtles. It ends up, I was wrong in assuming she meant to use the actual plants from Scotland.
Instead, she recreated the look and feel of the gardens she saw while traveling in Scotland by using plants better suited to her yard that look like the Scottish natives. Hence, copycat.
Before we explore copycat garden concept in more depth, let us differentiate between copycat gardens and garden reconstruction. Garden reconstruction refers to larger, more specific architectural and archeological repair and rebuilding of famous, historically significant gardens and landscapes, while maintaining and protecting any existing artifacts. These are restoration projects. Unless you have an archeological dig in your backyard, you will not be taking on a garden reconstruction.
What you can do is select a garden that you love, scale it down, and recreate it in your landscape, using plants better suited to your soil, sun exposure, and Hardiness Zone.
Which gardens can you copycat?
Honestly, any of them. You can recreate the appearance of any garden you’ve ever seen, any scenery you’ve ever enjoyed. The trick is in selecting plants that look enough like the originals to create the same overall appearance and feel. Let’s consider a few possibilities.
Keukenhof Gardens - The Netherlands
Also known as the Garden of Europe, the Keukenhof features millions of bulbs, especially tulips. Carnations, daffodils, hyacinth, iris, lilies, and roses are also present. This garden also features a castle, which might be difficult to add to your landscape. This garden also features winding paths graced with an occasional tree or shrub, with peek-a-boo views into other areas of the garden.
Clearly, you will not plant a million bulbs in your landscape or build a full-sized castle. But you can create a Keukenhof copycat garden by identifying and installing a large number of flowering bulbs that perform well in your area, adding some stepping stones that offer new views on your landscape, and maybe even a children’s playhouse shaped like a castle.
Did you know that the Keukenhof ensures longer bloom times by planting three bulbs at a time, one on top of the other? I didn’t either.
Gardens of Versailles - France
Built in the 1600s, the Gardens of Versailles cover nearly 2,000 acres. The scale of these gardens is overwhelming, filled with grottos, immense fountains, labyrinths, and promenades that are far beyond any home gardener’s budget or ability.
Butchart Gardens - Canada
Canada’s Butchart Gardens are a collection of gardens created by Robert Butchart and his wife. Built on the site of their exhausted limestone quarry, the Sunken Garden is overflowing with flowers, an Italian garden replaced their tennis courts, and a rose garden took over where their kitchen garden once stood.
Fifty-five acres of land, 900 plant species and 50 full-time gardeners is probably not in your budget. But, you can copy the look and feel of these gardens with mounds of flowering plants, a Japanese maple, or something similar, and a meandering path. Get the idea?
So, how does a gardener start a copycat garden?
Start with a plant list
Most historic gardens offer lists of plant species they use. Start with their list. Identify the growing requirements of those plants and see which ones will grow in your yard. Then, look for plants with shapes and colors similar to those unsuitable to your yard, for replacements. Finally, create a generalized layout that matches the original to one degree or another. The nice thing about designing your own garden is that it can look like anything you want it to. It doesn’t have to be exact, or even close. But there is an entirely different type of copycat garden.
Your own copycat garden
My friend Linda is working on something entirely different. Imagine, if you will, a tabletop aquarium. Colorful fish, bubbling water, and some plants floating around, anchored in a bed of stones. Linda is using that image to create a copycat garden of an aquarium scene. Colorful stone paths and mulch lay the foundation for larger stones, a small fountain, and plants that look similar to those that grow underwater. Who knows, there may be colorful flowers in there somewhere that look like a school of tropical fish! Perhaps a rattlesnake plant (Calathea), or a flying goldfish plant, tucked in among some millet or rhubarb might recreate the look and feel of an aquarium.
Other copycat ideas might include a table covered with sweets, a fairy wonderland, or a medieval cottage kitchen garden, complete with wattle and daub fencing. There really is no limit to what you can create in your landscape, with nothing more than imagination and honest effort. Just remember to select plants for your copycat garden that are suitable to your microclimate.
What sort of copycat garden are you considering? Let us know in the Comments!
When it comes to children’s gardens, what child hasn’t dreamt of a pizza garden? And who says grownups can’t have a pizza garden of their own? You can!
Practically every ingredient found on a pizza, besides the cheese and pepperoni, can be grown in your backyard. The sauce, the spices, the toppings, and even the crust can be homegrown and homemade.
Start with the sauce
Most pizzas start with a tomato sauce. These members of the nightshade family are usually pretty high on a gardener’s list already. The nice thing about tomatoes is they are easy to turn into a sauce that can be canned or frozen for later use. And be sure to plant plenty of garlic in your pizza garden. You will also need some herbs and spices.
Pizza herbs and spices
Traditionally, my Italian red sauces contain basil, marjoram, oregano, and thyme. You may also want some red pepper flakes from last year’s chili peppers. Parsley and rosemary are nice additions, too. Other herbs you might want to have include chives, cilantro, dill, or summer savory.
In this case, plant selection is exactly like ordering a pizza. Are you an artichoke hearts, spinach, and mushroom pizza person? Maybe you prefer a rainbow of red, orange, and yellow bell peppers with red, white, and yellow onions. Or, how about a garden variety pizza topped with broccoli, eggplant, and shallots? Other ingredients you might want to consider adding to your pizza garden might include beets, banana peppers, chili peppers, jalapeño peppers, leeks, pineapple, scallions, yellow squash, or zucchini. You may also want to add cherry tomatoes, tomato slices, or sun-dried tomatoes. If you have the space and the time, you can even plant an olive tree, assuming you are in the right Hardiness Zone. Can you think of any others? Let us know in the comments!
By the way, I have grown mushrooms from a kit before and was surprised at how easy it was. I will do it again soon and write a post about it. If any of my readers are mushroom growers, I would love to talk with you about the possibility of educating us all…]
Pizza crust anyone?
Flour is inexpensive and readily available. Converting wheat into flour is labor-intensive. But, if you really want to, planting 9 square feet of wheat should provide 4 cups of finished flour, enough for a single loaf of bread or two medium pizzas. Or, you could grow some cauliflower for your pizza crust.
Planting your pizza garden
Raised beds make creating a themed garden easier, but they are certainly not necessary. You can even make your pizza garden a little whimsical by creating it in the shape of a pizza with “slices” of different plantings. This would make a fun keyhole garden. Just be sure that all your plants are in healthy soil, with plenty of sunshine.
Start by creating two lists of ingredient plants for your pizza garden. One list for annuals and one for perennials. Then, sort those lists by how tall the plants will be at maturity. You will want to place the tallest plants in the center or back of your pizza garden to allow all the plants to get as much sunlight as possible.
Recognizing that the perennial plants will come back year after year, place them in such a way that they will create a nice arrangement during the off-season. Each spring, you can add fresh annuals and repeat your pizza garden indefinitely.
If pizza isn’t your thing, pick a different recipe, and create your own garden theme using those ingredients. The possibilities are practically endless: taco garden, beef stew garden, holiday dinner garden…
Have you ever considered creating a garden based on all the plants mentioned in a favorite book? You can create a storybook garden for your reading and gardening pleasure.
Many people find garden design overwhelming. There are so many possibilities! By selecting a theme, such as a children’s garden, a salad garden, or a storybook garden, plant selection becomes much easier.
Also known as literary gardens and bookworm gardens, these garden themes help narrow down all the choices, creating a unified garden from something we already love. Before selecting your theme, however, a quick reminder about the physics of gardening.
As always, your climate, soil structure, sun exposure, drainage, Hardiness Zone, and soil pH must all be taken into consideration for your plants to thrive. In many cases, you can use copy-cat plants to get the look you want, when the original is not suited to your microclimate.
Let’s consider some storybook garden themes.
You can also design a storybook garden based on generalized concepts, such as pirates, fairies, castles, barnyards, or dinosaurs. But storybook gardens are not just for children.
Other books as inspiration
Unless all of your favorite books occur in outer space, plants are sure to be a part of those stories. Imagine a quiet corner of the yard, dedicated to your favorite novel. A comfortable lounge chair for reading provides the perfect spot from which to surround yourself with the flowers, shrubs, and trees mentioned in your favorite book, or by your favorite author.
If you prefer Greek mythology, you could create a literary garden under and around an almond tree (Prunus amygdalus), sacred to Attis, or an apple tree, favored by Hera and Aphrodite. Demeter’s heavy headed barley, Zeus’ parsley, and Hermes’ saffron crocus are just a few of the lovely edibles that can be used to create a Greek mythology garden. I found an amazing resource for this garden here.
Authors, like cooks, builders, and other creators, tend to have their favorites. If you have an author that you enjoy, you can collect the plants featured in all of their books. Daphne du Maurier’s rhododendrons and azaleas, Dean Koontz’ bougainvillea, or Agatha Christie’s poisonous peach pits and digitalis may provide just the inspiration you need.
Start with a favorite book
We all have them - books that call to us, to be read once more, like a favorite bedtime story. As we read the words, we create images in our minds of what each scene might look like. Words within a story will provide generalizations (a wooded path) and specifics (a bright yellow rose). As you read, write these impressions down, along with specific plant names. Eventually, you will have enough plants listed to start creating your very own storybook garden.
Just remember to include a comfortable place to sit. You are going to want to spend some time enjoying this garden space!
Let us know in the Comments which book might inspire you to create a storybook garden of your own.
Fresh tomatoes are one of the most common reasons why people start gardening. But what about planting a stir fry garden? You can grow everything you need for a delicious stir fry dinner right in your own backyard.
Stir frying (chǎo) is a Chinese cooking style that uses small amounts of “cold oil in a hot wok” to quickly stir a variety of ingredients into delicious, healthful goodness. If you don’t have a wok, you can do much the same thing in a skillet.
There are no rules!
The nice thing about designing a stir fry garden is anything goes. Whatever ingredients you prefer are the perfect choice. Assuming, that is, the plants are suited to your microclimate. In many cases, you can grow these ingredients in containers on a patio or balcony.
Your stir fry garden design is your own. That being said, raised beds make planting and caring for your stir fry garden much easier. The nice loose soil makes life easier for root systems and you don’t have to bend over quite so far when weeding. Before we start counting our chickens, however, let’s take a look at what you might want to plant in your stir fry garden.
Stir fry garden plant selection
Everyone has their favorite stir fry recipes. This makes plant selection easy. Simply start with what you like. Then, try adding one or two you’ve never grown or eaten before. Who knows, they may turn out to be new favorites! The most common plants chosen for stir fry gardens include:
Some of these plants grow best in summer, while others prefer California’s wet winter weather. Each Hardiness Zone and microclimate is unique, as far as planting times and days to maturity. You can click on the links above for planting instructions and potential pest and disease problems.
Bon appétit and happy planning!
Freshly mown lawn, twittering birds, brightly colored flowers, the crunch of a mulched path under our feet - these garden components create a more enriching experience by waking up our senses. You can make more of your landscape with a sensory garden.
Most garden designs are based on visual experiences or crop production. Sensory gardens are designed with the five senses in mind. A fuzzy leaf, a fragrant herb, and plants that attract song birds are just skimming the surface of this sensory garden experience.
Gardens and good health
Research has demonstrated what gardeners have always known - working the soil, tending plants, and strolling through a garden are good for your health. This is especially true of sensory gardens. They pull us out of our fast-paced, tech-driven lives and back to nature. This is critical for both our physical and mental health.
The positive effects of gardens, in general, and sensory gardens, in particular, have been found useful in helping people with autism, dementia, and mental health issues. Public sensory gardens incorporate walkways that are accessible to those using wheelchairs. They also tend to use plant labels with Braille or other interactive plant labels. Disabled or not, we can all enjoy the experience of a sensory garden.
Accessibility is only part of the site selection process. You will also want to make sure that your site will be able to support the plants you want to include in your sensory garden. Soil structure, sun and wind exposure, drainage, soil pH, and overall soil health should be considered before selecting plants.
Sensory garden plant selection requires that we consider different aspects of plants than we might otherwise think about. Instead of selecting the meatiest tomato variety, the most prolific beans, or the sweetest melons, we must think about all of our senses. How will a specific variety feel when touched? Is it brightly colored? How will it sound as a breeze passes? Will it attract buzzing bees or songbirds? Does it have an aroma? Is it safe to eat?
Of course, our senses do not exist in isolation. If you walk across a sidewalk, followed by cobblestones, and then over a pile of pinecones, the sounds, smells, and sights will change with each experience. As you look through seed catalogs and your own seed collection, which plant varieties will be suitable to a sensory garden? Let us explore each of the senses for some ideas. Before we do that, however - a word on native plants.
For ease of care and to increase biodiversity, consider native plants for each of your senses. Native plants are already suited to your microclimate and to the local wildlife, reducing the need for irrigation and protection from pests and diseases.
Now let’s start planning a sensory garden!
Most of us rely very heavily on sight, often taking it for granted. But visual aspects of a sensory garden are more than just brightly colored flowers, leaves, and stems. As with any other garden design project, other visual considerations include lines, shapes, and textures.
Fences, pathways, buildings, and hedgerows create visual lines that the eye will follow. The shapes of plants, raised beds, trellising, and the overall space contribute to the experience. Textures of bark, foliage, flowers, and walkways change how we feel about a space. Garden art, tree cages, furniture, and lighting also impact the visual aspect of a landscape.
Some plants that provide bright colors and contrasting shapes include:
Twittering songbirds, a hummingbird in flight, and buzzing bees can bring a garden to life. Water features, such as a babbling creek, a burbling fountain, or the sound of birds splashing about in a birdbath also add a new dimension to your landscape. So can wind chimes, spinning pinwheels, and rustling stems and seed heads. You can increase the variety of sounds in your sensory garden with bird feeders and plants that make noise as they move, or attract insects and birds that can be heard. Cereals, such as barley, millet, and sorghum, and pseudocereals, like quinoa and buckwheat, rustle nicely in stray breezes. Insectary plants, such as borage, lavender, and yarrow, will attract a variety of insects and birds with all their twitterings, chirping, and other sounds of nature.
Scent can trigger powerful emotions, take us back in time, or lift our mood. Scent is so powerful that entire gardens are designed specifically with scent in mind. These scent gardens are a type of sensory garden.
If you brush your hand across a rosemary shrub or rub a tomato leaf between your fingers, there is no mistaking those heady aromas. Think of how tiny white citrus blossoms can fill an area with their sweet fragrance. Many herbs contain essential oils that can fill your sensory garden with a variety of scents. Chamomile, cilantro, dill, lemon balm, mint, and tarragon are just a few of the scented edibles you may already have in your landscape. Other plants with strong aromas include curry plants, lavender, and salvia.
Pet a moss covered rock, stroke the bark of a tree, or hold a ripe orange in your hand. In each case, your finger tips will experience something entirely different. Fuzzy sage, lacy fennel, and ticklish thyme offer unique textures and scents, especially if you close your eyes.
Taste is is one aspect of garden design most often neglected. You wouldn’t go to a public garden and think about tasting the plants, unless you were a toddler. Which reminds me, if young children will be participating in your sensory garden, be sure to avoid potentially toxic plants. You also need to make sure that these plants haven’t been sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals, or come into contact with fresh manure. You want the plants in your sensory garden to look and be good enough to eat.
Choosing plants for their taste, to nibble them where and as they are, can be a lot of fun. My chocolate mint plant always surprises visitors. Tentative chewing of a raw leaf turns into a look of delight as a peppermint patty appears on their taste buds!
Did you know that borage leaves taste like cucumber? Or that nasturtiums are edible flowers? Basil, cherry tomatoes, chives, mint, and parsley can be enjoyed au natural, fresh from the landscape. Fruit and nut trees provide delicious tastes when in season, plus they offer shade from the sun in summer and textural experiences year round.
The goal of your sensory garden, then, is more than just visual appeal. It is an experience that heightens the senses and makes us more aware of our surroundings while slowing our heart rate, reducing stress, and adding beauty to our lives.
I think we could all use more of that, don’t you?
There is something about rocks that begs us to play with them. Have you ever considered
creating a rock garden?
Rock gardens, also known as rockeries or alpine gardens, consist of aesthetically placed rocks with plants growing in the gaps. This particular garden design is well suited to drought-prone areas and alpine regions. Rock gardens tend to require very little care, once they are established. If you look closely, however, you will see that rock gardens are busy places.
A world in miniature
Rock gardens create a microhabitat for a wide variety of beneficial insects and animals. All those nooks and crannies create wonderful hiding places for native ground nesting bees, predaceous ground beetles, lizards, soldier beetle larvae, spiders, frogs and toads. Rocks also provide great sunning spots for a wide variety of amphibians and reptiles. These creatures are in need of all the help we can offer. In exchange for providing them with some real estate, many of these visitors will consume a lion’s share of the pests that damage and carry disease to your garden.
Types of rock gardens
Your rock garden can be designed to look like a dry stream bed, a natural stone outcropping, a Japanese Zen garden, or something else entirely. Stones of different sizes can be used to create pathways or visual appeal. Amphibians are particularly fond of rock gardens with water features. Your rock garden can be very formal or it can simply be a bunch of rocks positioned in ways that you like. There are no rules.
Types of rocks
Most first rock garden designs are built with rocks and stones that are already present on the property. You can also collect rocks and stones from friends and neighbors, or buy specific rocks, stones, and even boulders. Sometimes, you can get free rocks from construction sites, just be sure to ask permission first.
When selecting rocks for your rockery, more porous rocks are better suited than harder rocks. Harder rocks take longer to look natural. Softer rocks look weathered and like they have been there forever much faster. Also, moss grows on it more readily.
You can encourage the growth of moss on your rockery by collecting mosses that you like and putting them in a blender, along with some yogurt or sour milk. Puree this strange concoction into a thick slurry, which is then poured over the rocks. Sooner or later, moss will start to grow.
Once you have selected a site for your rock garden, remove all of the existing vegetation. Many of these plants may become too large for your rockery. Next, loosen the soil enough for the largest rocks to be somewhat sunk into the ground. This will make it look more natural and prevent the whole thing from toppling or rolling around. For the best results, create a shape with the largest stones and fill that area with high quality planting soil. Mud in that soil in to reduce large air pockets before adding medium-sized rocks. Repeat the soil addition and mudding in until all of your stones have been placed. Now you can start adding plants.
Plants used in rock gardens
Rock garden plants need to stay small or your rock garden will disappear. Limited by the lack of deep soil and all those rocks, rockery plants are chosen for their ability to thrive, albeit slowly, in well-drained soil. Plants that can survive in dry environments are called xerophytes.
Some of the more common rock garden plants include:
*Lichens are not actually plants. Lichens are shared living arrangements. Algae or bacteria living within fungal filaments in a symbiotic relationship are what we see as lichen.
Much like stumperies, rockeries use natural materials to create spaces that are both beautiful and beneficial. Once your rock garden is in place, make a point of examining it closely for signs of life. Your rockery will end up creating a tiny world all its own.
Pollinator gardens attract insects that pollinate your crops. They also tend to look lovely.
Similar to butterfly gardens, pollinator gardens use flowers and other plants to attract and provide for pollinators.
What are pollinators?
Pollinators are mostly insects, such as bees and butterflies, that carry pollen from one flower to another, resulting in fertilization and fruit production. Bats, birds, lizards, and even people can be pollinators, as well. Most pollinator gardens use insectary plants to attract these garden helpers.
What are insectary plants?
Insectary plants are those that provide food, shelter, and/or egg-laying sites for beneficial insects at various life stages. Those beneficials may be predators, pest parasites, or pollinators. The flowers that provide this service are usually globe-shaped, such as chives and onions, umbrella-shaped or flat-topped umbellifers, as in seen in carrot and cilantro plants that have been allowed to go to seed. Depending on your region’s pollinator species, the insectary plants suited to your area may be tall or short or both, but most are brightly colored.
As convenient as generic pollinator plants lists are, you will have a more effective pollinator garden if you take the time to identify pollinators native to your area. You can do this by searching online for “pollinators in [my town/state]”, and by contacting your local native plants society, Master Gardeners, and universities. Here, in California, the following native plants attract and provide for pollinators:
*Those marked with an asterisk are recommended by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. In addition to adding pollinator plants to your landscape, there are other actions you can take to create a more successful pollinator garden.
While you generally want to keep salt as far away from your garden as possible, there are exceptions. Using a damp salt lick to provide minerals and moisture for bees and butterflies is one of those exceptions. If you have an area that stays damp, simply add salt or wood ashes to the mud. Otherwise, you can put out a dish of slightly salty water. Sea salt contains more important micronutrients than table salt, but table salt is better than nothing. Just remember that salt will damage nearby plants.
Plant for variety
Pollinators are active, in most regions, from early spring through late fall. Ensuring that your landscape includes a variety of insectary plants during that time frame will go a long way toward attracting and supporting valuable pollinators. That variety includes clumps of native plants, suited to your microclimate, and some night-blooming plants that provide for moths and bats.
I use a spreadsheet that lists months across the top and a rainbow of colors down the side to document what is blooming, throughout the year, in my landscape. I add to it as I notice or add new plants. This way, I can see when there are gaps in flower production. Since those flowers provide pollen and nectar, the more I have, the better off my pollinators will be. [The file is too large to share here, but you can email me if you would like a copy.]
Evolution is a relatively slow process. Many of our modern hybrids, especially those with ‘doubled’ flowers, have had their fragrance, nectar and pollen bred right out of them. They may look nice, but that’s all they have to offer.
Quit the chemical habit
Broad-spectrum herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and pesticides have no place in your pollinator garden. Even those advertised as “safe” can disrupt the breeding, feeding, and existence of beneficial insects. They are probably not very good for us, either. Instead of chemicals, practice least damage Integrated Pest Management (IPM). If you absolutely must use chemicals, apply them at night, when most pollinators are not active.
Dead limbs can be good
Dead branches and dead trees provide nesting sites for native bees. Stumperies also create habitat and food for a variety of birds and other insects. Just make sure your dead tree does not create a safety issue. Trees are extremely heavy.
Your hummingbird feeder provides nectar for far more than just hummingbirds. Chickadees, wrens, and orioles may also enjoy a sweet sip every now and then. And so will many pollinators. The 1:4 sugar to water ratio used in hummingbird feeders is fine for many beneficial insects, too. Just be sure to wash your hummingbird feeder with hot, soapy water once or twice a week to avoid mold and the spread of disease.
Setting aside just a little space in your landscape for a pollinator garden can profoundly increase the number of butterflies, native bees, and other beneficials you see each year. And they could really use our help these days.
You can instill a love of gardening in your child with a children’s garden.
I learned my love of gardening as a child. It all started with a clear plastic cup, a black sponge, and four hard, dry corn seeds. It was an educational toy which had a child insert the sponge into the cup and then push the corn seeds between the cup and the sponge. Each seed was positioned so that it pointed in a different direction. Water was added and the magic of germination began.
I was impressed by the fact that the first roots (radicles) always knew to go down, while the first shoots (plumules) always found a way to move upward, even if it took some twisting and turning. The whole process still amazes me and you can let your child in on some of that magic with a garden designed with them in mind.
Make it child-sized
Adult-sized shovels and trowels can take all the fun out of gardening for a child. So can cheaply made tools that tend to break. Start your children’s garden off right by investing in a well-made child-sized trowel, shovel, hoe, and rake. A small bucket and watering can will be handy, too.
Create a space
You may not want your child(ren) digging around your prized rhubarb or roses, so set aside space just for them and their garden. You can make the space a fun shape, too, such as a triangle, a butterfly, or a series of small circles. This will help create ownership, which will carry your child through some of the more difficult tasks, such as waiting for plants to germinate or flower.
Ask them what they want to grow
Do they want to grow their own pumpkin for Halloween? Or, maybe a sunflower fort, a pizza garden, a Three Sisters garden, a butterfly garden, or a pole bean teepee. The possibilities are practically limitless. Head to the library with your child and explore the gardening books section. Check out several and be sure to grab one or two grown-up gardening books geared towards your region or microclimate while you are at it. That way, as plants are selected, you can research the best way to help them thrive. [See, you don't have to know how to garden to help your child create a garden of their own!]
Grab a pad of paper and a snack and start exploring all the garden design possibilities with your child. Including them in the planning process is important. As you look through photos and drawings together, have your child create a list of plants they want in their garden (if they are old enough). And you will be there to instill some basic gardening principles and to rule out plants not suited to your area. As much as your child may want their own banana tree, it wouldn’t be a good choice for a beginner. In the beginning, you should keep explanations simple. You can always delve deeper into the information for yourself once they go to bed.
Popular children’s garden plants
You can’t go wrong with radishes. They grow so fast that things start happening before your child loses interest. Soaring giants, such as corn and sunflowers, are nearly always a good choice. Plants with large seeds, such as beans, melons, and squashes are easy to work with and the edible harvest is a bonus. Climbing plants, such as pole beans or dramatic red noodle beans, can be used to create hanging walls or secret hideaways. Mounding miniature lettuces and spiky shallots look nice and are always welcome in the kitchen. Cherry tomato plants are prolific and they provide healthy snacks as your child works and plays in the yard. Marigolds, snapdragons, and zinnias add color with little effort.
Include scents and textures
Children are very tactile. They like to touch, taste, and smell whatever is around them. This makes many herbs good choices for a children’s garden. Chives, dill, mint, and sage add delicious aromas and an edible harvest. Fuzzy lambs’ ears and ornamental grasses are fun to touch, while English thyme can make a fragrant ground cover. Edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, pansies, and violets are also good choices. Just be sure to educate your child about how not all flowers are edible.
Plants to avoid
Most edible plants a re a sage bet, but some plants are toxic and should be avoided when designing a young child’s garden. [Especially those marked with an asterisk.] These plants include:
As your child gets older, the risk of toxic plants becomes less of a problem.
Birdfeeders, pinwheels, crawl-throughs, and other special touches can help make your child’s garden even more engaging and fun. Yard sales are a great place to find a child-sized garden bench and unique garden art without spending a lot of money. You may also want to include a fruit cocktail tree. These trees have been grafted to provide more than one type of fruit on the same tree.
If your child is so inclined, encourage them to document their garden. They can create a book of bug drawings, a chart of plant growth, or a photo album of their garden over the seasons.
At the end of the day, after you have both washed up and eaten supper, you may want to curl up with a good gardening bedtime story, such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It sure worked for me!
How many butterflies did you see in the past year? Not very many, right? You can attract a surprising variety of butterflies to your landscape with a butterfly garden.
Back in my hitchhiking days (the 1970s), I saw millions of butterflies along the Interstate. They would litter the side of the freeway and create colorful clouds in the air. In my own insect-friendly yard, however, I saw no more than a dozen butterflies last year. What happened?
Threats to butterflies
Butterflies have been around for 56 million years, but times are hard. Habitat loss, pollution, pesticide use, invasive species, rising temperatures, and interruptions in their food web all make life difficult for butterflies. Butterflies are particularly hard hit because many of them rely on a single plant species as hosts for their eggs and offspring.
Here, in San Jose, California, we have 144 species of native butterflies. Sadly, we also have the highest density of endangered butterfly species in the nation. Some of the most threatened California butterflies and their host plants include:
Imagine what would happen if everyone added just one butterfly-friendly plant to their landscape.
Most of the plants used in butterfly gardens are insectary plants. Insectary plants are those with the color, shape, and height that appeal to butterflies and other beneficial insects. Common insectary plants include the following:
Members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) also make good insectary plants. The problem with these generic lists is that many of these plants are non-natives, which can cause problems. Even though these plants provide nectar and pollen for adults, they can actually devastate local butterfly populations because the adults see food for themselves and lay eggs nearby. When those eggs hatch, the larvae have nothing to eat. Put simply, these might or might not be the plants your butterflies need. Or they might be perfect.
I cannot tell you which plants, specifically, to include in your butterfly garden. This is because each region has its own indigenous butterfly population. To find out what is native to your area, conduct an online search for “butterflies native to [your town]. The results may surprise you.
Once you have a list of indigenous butterflies, you can track down their host plants. Host plants are those that will provide the pollen and nectar needed by adult butterflies and the leaves needed for egg-laying and caterpillar feeding. Armed with this information, you are ready to design your butterfly garden.
Planning your butterfly garden
Your butterfly garden doesn’t need to be big or formal to be effective. You can scatter host plants throughout your landscape, if you like. Or you can create an elegant parterre. It’s up to you. Butterflies do use sunlight to warm themselves, so south-facing areas are preferable, as are areas protected from wind. A water feature, such as a bird bath or fountain, can help your butterflies stay hydrated. Rocks, for basking, are always appreciated.
There is also nothing saying you have to install plants specifically for endangered species, although it would be nice. The important thing is to get the correct plants in the ground and helping them to thrive.
Adding a butterfly garden to your landscape does not take a lot of effort on your part, but it can make a huge difference for the butterflies. It will also increase the biodiversity in your garden, making it a healthier environment. Other beneficial insects will also be attracted to these plants. These beneficial insects might be pollinators, predators, or they may parasitize insect pests.
And the flowering plants look lovely.
Did you know that some adult butterflies also eat carrion, rotting fruit, and tree sap, while the larvae of some butterfly species eat ants and other insect pests? I didn’t either.
Now we know.
Rather than rushing to a crowded grocery store at the last minute for holiday meal ingredients, wouldn’t it be nicer to simply walk outside and collect the freshest ingredients possible? You can, with just a little planning.
Creating a holiday dinners garden is a form of planting forward. You know ahead of time what you will need, so you estimate which ingredients should be planted and when. That way they will become harvestable as they are needed. And your holiday dinners garden is not limited to edibles. Seasonal decorations, such as flowers and greenery, can be found in your yard just as easily.
This planning process may feel overwhelming, at first. Instead of taking on more than is fun, you might want to select one holiday at a time and build on that over time. Either way, it all starts with a calendar.
Create a calendar
Calendars are handy tools, especially for gardeners. You can use printing paper or an inexpensive paper calendar to design your holiday dinners garden. Start by identifying all the holidays you celebrate each year with special meals. In my family, these holidays are New Years’ Day, Easter, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Mark your family’s holidays clearly on your calendar.
We all have favorite dishes for each of our holiday dinners. In my house, New Years’ Day would never feel right without hoppin’ john and Easter wouldn’t feel like Easter without a ham surrounded by baby beets and carrots.
Whatever your traditional meals include, create generic menus for each holiday dinner. For example:
I do not raise pigs or turkeys in my suburban yard, but including as many of the dishes as I can think of helps me work out the details when figuring out what to plant.
Make a list and check it twice
Using each of the dishes you want to include in your holiday meals, create a shopping list of ingredients that could come from your garden. Be sure to include the date when the ingredients will be needed. Spreadsheets are very handy for this step because this list can get a little unwieldy. You may want to use a separate page for each holiday. Using my menu for the 4th of July, I would start with this:
As you can see, there is some overlap between dishes. [My son, the cook, recently told me that most people have a flavor profile. Apparently, my profile features potatoes, thyme, onions, and garlic!] My avocado tree is not old enough to produce fruit, so I will not include it in my plan just yet.
Nearly all dishes use herbs of one sort or another, so these mostly perennial standbys can be used to create the framework for your holiday dinner garden. The nice thing about perennials is that they are either actively present, or they have been around long enough for you to have canned or frozen some of their harvest.
Common perennial herbs for a holiday dinner might include rosemary, tarragon, and thyme. To make your holiday dinners garden look more attractive and to prevent these frequent members of the mint family from taking over completely, you may want to grow them in containers, placed artfully throughout the garden. Some herbs, such as cilantro, dill, and parsley are not perennials, but they will self-seed once they become established. Others, such as oregano and sage, are perennial in some Hardiness Zones and annuals in others. Once the perennials are in place, you can plan for the annuals.
I love spreadsheets. To me, they make it easy to keep track of a lot of information. You may or may not feel the same way, but they are very handy for this step in the garden design process. You can start with just one holiday or go whole hog with all of them. For this example, I am only using my 4th of July BBQ, but I am including the date for when I add other holiday dinners.
In the first column, list each of your ingredients. In the second column, add the date you want each ingredient to mature. The third column is for a note about whether each ingredient is a perennial, already preserved, or how many days it takes from planting seeds to harvest. Keep in mind that days to maturity found online and on seed packets may be different for your region of microclimate. These numbers are simply averages, but they are still useful.
For each ingredient, count backwards from the holiday the number of days to maturity for a planting date. In the example above, my apples ripen long before July 4th, so I freeze or can them. Then, I see that basil takes 50 to 75 days from planting to harvest, so I count back 75 days from July 4th for a planting date of April 21st. Now, my family loves basil and I plant a lot of it, starting long before April 21st, but I add a reminder in my calendar to plant basil on that date so I know I will have plenty when I need it for that holiday.
If your planting date occurs before it is actually warm enough to plant a specific species, you may need to start it indoors, or buy seedlings at a later date.
In some cases, like celery, I could plant it but I choose not to. For me, celery is fiddly to grow and is so inexpensive at the store that it is not worth the garden real estate. You might feel the same way about onions or garlic. A lot of this will depend on where you live and how much time and space you have. Even if you only select 2 or 3 ingredients for each holiday meal, you’ll be glad you did.
Simply go down the list, counting backwards for each ingredient that needs to be planted. You can add these annual reminders to the calendar in your computer and add alerts in your phone. If you set them to repeat every year, the planning process is done. Before you know it, you will have all the information you need to plant your holiday dinners garden!
Your soil is filled with positively and negatively charged bits of plant food. The percentage of that food being held by soil particles is called its base saturation.
Of course, it’s not that simple. The chemical reactions going on in soil are enough to make a chemist’s head spin. But we are here to simplify and understand, so let’s get started!
Electrified plant food
Plants use electrically charged mineral bits, called ions, as food. The negatively charged bits (anions) are usually found floating around in water. The positively charged bits (cations) attach themselves to soil particles, which are negative charged. Those soil particles have a certain number of electrical charges that can attract minerals. That number is referred to as its cation exchange capacity. The number of those attachments being used is its base saturation.
Playing the percentages
There is some crazy math and lab work involved with calculating base saturation, but we can leave that to the experts. Most soil test results will list separate base saturation percentages for calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Don’t be confused by the fact that these numbers do not add up to 100%. Hydrogen and sodium have been omitted. But what do these percentages tell you?
When the charges of soil nutrients are out of balance, plants cannot absorb what they need to thrive. It doesn’t matter if a nutrient is present if the net electrical charges are wrong. If most of the nutrients in your soil are negatively charged, all of the positively charged bits will be able to connect, leaving many negative bits hanging in isolation. Those leftover minerals impact soil pH.
Base saturation and soil pH
Base saturation measures the number of non-acidic, positively charged bits in a soil sample. That’s why it is called “base” saturation. There are also acidic positively charged bits. Soils with a high base saturation have lots of those acidic, positively charged bits lying around unattached. The more loose acidic bits laying around in the soil, the lower the soil pH.
Using base saturation numbers
Soil test results will tell you how much of each plant nutrient is present and base saturation percentages. One thing you might see is an excessive amount of a nutrient but a normal base saturation percentage. How is this possible? Again, it goes back to electrical charges. Say you have a ton of calcium, a positively charged mineral, but the calcium base saturation is normal. This happens because other charged particles are also present. They can block the excess bits from connecting with anything. Or, there may not be enough negatively charged soil particles available. You need to use both the actual mineral levels and the base saturation percentages when deciding on whether or not to add fertilizer.
This post is an oversimplification of an extremely complex topic, but it is accurate enough to help you get the most out of your soil test results. Soil tests cost around $25 and are worth every penny.
Your soil has a characteristic known as bulk density.
Put simply, if you take a scoop of soil, it will weigh something. If you take a scoop of different soil, it will have a different weight. Those weights are a measure of the material held in that space. No surprise, right?
Also known as scoop density, this measurement tells you how tightly your soil is crammed into a space. It also tells you a lot about your soil’s permeability (ability to drain), infiltration (rate of drainage), porosity (the number of macropores and micropores), soil texture (sand, silt, and clay), and soil structure. This is important information for plant roots.
Another non-surprise: soil is heavy. The weight of the top soil pushes down on the soil below it. That layer pushes down on the layer below that, and so on. This means that soil becomes more and more dense, the deeper you go. This is one reason why so many plants keep their roots near the soil surface.
Bulk density is measured in grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc). Bulk density generally ranges from 1.0 to 1.25 g/cc. Sandy soil tends to have high bulk densities (1.3-1.7 g/cc), while clays and silts normally have moderate densities (1.1-1.6 g/cc). Soils that contain more organic matter tend to have lower bulk density values. Lower bulk densities allow for proper drainage, reducing the chance of fungal disease and helping plants overcome the negative effects of mud and drought.
Too much stuff
If a soil’s bulk density is higher than 1.6 g/cc, your plants are going to have a hard time. Compacted soil restricts the free movement of roots, air, and water. High bulk densities can also prevent germinating seeds from making it to the surface with enough energy to thrive.
What is your soil’s bulk density?
The USDA provides instructions for a DIY bulk density test, but I have to warn you, your kitchen will stink after you bake or microwave a soil sample. A far easier and more pleasant method is to send a sample to a lab. For the price of a bag of fertilizer, your can learn a lot of good stuff about your soil. Soil tests tell you about nutrient levels, the cation exchange capacity, pH, and base saturation numbers, along with bulk density.
Case in point
In 2015, my soil’s bulk density was 1.18 g/cc. By 2019, it had changed to 0.95 g/cc. What happened?
In 2015, my soil test indicated an extreme overabundance of every nutrient, except iron, and compacted clay. [The overfertilizing was done by the previous owner.] To counteract the compaction and the lack of iron (a nutrient needed by plants to help them consume other nutrients), I applied foliar sprays of chelated iron and mulched the heck out of every soil surface with aged compost and chicken bedding.
The iron sprays allowed my plants to make use of and extract the abundant nutrients, bringing them closer to normal, balanced levels. The composted manure and other organic materials created more spaces between soil particles, making it easier for roots, gases, and water to move around. Four years later, all of my plants are growing better and my soil organic matter (SOM) levels went from 3.5% to 7.6%.
If your soil is too dense, your plants can’t thrive. If you know your soil’s bulk density, you can take action to improve it.
Have you ever noticed how the larger bits come to the surface when you shake a container of soil?
This is called the Brazil nut effect. I have no idea why.
Vines - we know what they are, but what makes a vine a vine, and how are they unique?
In some places, the word “vine” is only used to refer to grapevines. But kiwifruit grows on vines. Pumpkins, watermelons, cucumbers, peas, and pole beans also grow on vines. Or do they?
Types of vines
Climbing plants use a variety of methods to reach the sun. They can be climbing or trailing woody-stemmed or herbaceous plants. In general, we call them all vines. Stems tend to be very long and often lack the supportive tissue needed for upright growth. This allows plants to grow upward without the same investment of energy and resources used by trees and other self-supporting plants.
To the purists, grapes grow on vines, all other woody climbers are lianas, and our pole beans, peas, and cucurbits are herbaceous vines.
Now you know.
What does ammonium bicarbonate have to offer your garden?
In the garden, bicarbonates are touted as cure-all treatments of powdery mildew, grey mold, septoria leaf spot, and other fungal diseases, particularly sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and potassium bicarbonate. The truth is, baking soda is a type of salt and always a bad idea in the garden. Potassium bicarbonate, on the other hand, is an effective organic fungicide.
But what about ammonium bicarbonate? What are bicarbonates, anyway?
In chemistry, the word ‘bicarbonate’ is inaccurate and outdated. It was first coined in 1814 by a chemist who observed that there is twice as much carbon as sodium in sodium bicarbonate. After different types of bicarbonates were identified, with different ratios, the observation became irrelevant, but the habit lives on.
Bicarbonates are the main form of dissolved inorganic carbon in the ocean. In freshwater plants, bicarbonates are released into the water as part of photosynthesis. This can shift the water’s pH to toxic alkaline levels. This continues until nightfall, when photosynthesis stops and respiration releases carbon dioxide, causing pH to return to normal. Bicarbonates commonly act as pH buffers in the human body [plop, plop, fizz, fizz] and in soil.
Bicarbonates are lumped together, incorrectly, as antifungal treatments because they are alkaline. Most fungi prefer a slightly acidic environment. Baking soda and other bicarbonates will raise pH temporarily, but the effect is fleeting and fungi take up where they left off as soon as the baking soda is washed or blown off. Applying enough baking soda to kill powdery mildew would end up adding toxic levels of salt to your soil. Baking soda should be kept out of the garden. Potassium bicarbonate, on the other hand, is an effective organic fungicide.
Salt of Hartshorn
Ammonium bicarbonate used to be the leavening agent of choice, before baking powder hit store shelves. Still used today in flatbreads, German Lebkuchen, Danish Christmas cookies, and Swedish "drömmar" biscuits, ammonium bicarbonate is often referred to in older cookbooks as salt of hartshorn or hornsalt. This form of ammonium bicarbonate used to be made by dry-distilling horns, hooves, leather, and hair.
Ammonium bicarbonate fertilizer
In the plant world, ammonia means nitrogen. This makes ammonia bicarbonate sound like a good idea as a fertilizer, right? In China, ammonium bicarbonate is used as an inexpensive fertilizer. But, because of its instability, it is being phased out in favor of urea. Also, ammonium bicarbonate is an eye, skin, and lung irritant. If you were to use it (against my advice) be sure to wear protective clothing and a respirator.
High soil bicarbonate levels commonly occur when soil or irrigation water have a pH of 7.5 or higher. Alkaline soil and irrigation water tend to have lots of bicarbonate and carbonate ions floating around. These ions tend to attach themselves to and transform calcium and magnesium into less soluble forms that are difficult for plants to use. Also, as these minerals are altered, they leave salt behind in your soil. Not good. When these conditions occur, chelated fertilizers should be avoided. The level of bicarbonates in your soil also determines how much acid is needed to acidify the soil.
If powdery mildew or other fungal diseases are causing problems in your garden, forget the baking soda and ammonium bicarbonate, Instead, space and prune plants for better air flow and apply potassium bicarbonate, Bordeaux mixture, sulfur, fixed copper, or milk. You may also want to apply insecticidal soap (not dish soap) to reduce the spread of disease by ants.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!