Small living spaces do not eliminate your gardening options, they simply mean looking at what you have in a new way. Rather than tolerating a lack of space, you can look at it as a challenge to grow vertically!
Balconied apartments, duplexed mini yards, townhouses, and small properties are often seen as too small to garden, but this is simply untrue. All you have to do is look at the dandelions and other weeds pushing their way through concrete in a dank alley to see that plants can and will grow pretty much anywhere that isn’t completely dark or in the Arctic Circle.
What is a vertical garden?
A vertical garden may be nothing more complicated than strings attached to the top of a fence and anchored in the ground near climbing plants, such as peas and pole beans. It may be a collection of stacked cinderblocks, or large coffee cans screwed to a fence. It may be a cylinder of chicken wire placed on top of a half barrel or a planter, and filled with potting soil. A vertical garden may be an elaborate pyramid, hanging, or other store-bought vertical gardening method, or it can be something scrounged from your neighbor’s curb, or something repurposed from the garage or attic. Keep in mind, there are plenty of free options! The fundamental idea behind vertical gardening is that, rather than traditional, horizontal rows at ground level, a vertical garden makes use of several different methods to grow plants up.
Here are just a few fun and easy vertical container gardening ideas:
The point I’m trying to make here is that the only thing limiting your vertical garden is your imagination - and sunlight.
Sunlight is often the most limiting factor when it comes to growing plants in tight spaces or indoors. This is not a time for guessing. You need to know how much sunlight actually reaches each area. For the uninitiated, sunlight exposure is defined as:
If you try growing sun-loving plants in an area with inadequate light levels, the plants will get long-stemmed (‘leggy’) and weak. This is called etiolation. Often, these plants will look pale or bleached, and they usually die. For each space that you have identified, take the time to note when it receives direct sunlight, and for how long. This information can make or break your vertical garden.
You need to select plants that are suited to the available sunlight. Plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers need full sun, while root vegetables, such as carrots, beets, and potatoes, can perform beautifully in partial sun, partial shade, or dappled sun. Salad greens and other leafy vegetables can grow very nicely in full shade or dappled sun. Herbs need sunlight, but they are a pretty tolerant bunch. Once you have identified how much sunlight is available, and the types of plants you want to grow, then comes container selection!
Choosing your containers
Different plants have different types of roots. If you want to grow plants with taproots, your containers will need to be deeper. Plants with fibrous root systems need more lateral space.
Note: There are countless images of amazing and inspiring vertical gardens online. Keep in mind that many of the plants pictured are not actually growing. Very often, they are well hydrated, cut plants, put in place just for the photo shoot. Do not use these images to guide you in your plant selection. Most plants need more root room than many of those images imply. Find out about the normal root depth of the plants you want to grow.
Manufactured planting containers are generally plastic or ceramic, with drainage holes and trays that are either attached or separate. Use these gardening container tips to help your plants stay healthy:
Trellises and hammocks
A trellis can be a sheet of lattice, purchased from your local lumber yard, a section of wood-framed chicken wire, a teepee of bamboo rods, a stock panel, or any other framework that supports your plants as they grow upward. If you are growing crops that produce heavy fruit, you may need to provide a little extra support. Melons, pumpkins, and squash can be held in place with net or fabric hammocks, attached to the trellis or fence.
As you go about your normal day, keep an eye open for unique, useful items that are often kicked to the curb by your neighbors. That unwanted pet staircase can be repurposed into a beautiful, space-saving tiered herb garden!
Summer iced teas, winter colds, and many fruit and fish dishes are all made better with lemon balm.
This easy to grow perennial herb is a member of the mint family, which means it is a rugged, tenacious, and fragrant addition to your foodscape.
Using lemon balm
Also known as cure-all, sweet balm, and honey plant, lemon balm adds a soothing lemon flavor to teas, tinctures, and steam. Traditionally, lemon balm has been used to treat digestive upset, anxiety, thyroid disease, Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, high blood pressure, sores, and even insect bites. Scientific research has demonstrated that lemon balm does provide some significant benefits (besides making a great cup of tea):
Unlike other herbs, lemon balm loses much of its flavor when dried, so fresh is better. I just learned that there is a lemon balm pesto recipe - I’ll let you know how it tastes in an update.
How to grow lemon balm
Once lemon balm is established, it will readily self-seed, so choose a site that has room for it. Individual plants can reach 2 feet in height and width. It can also spread vegetatively, where twig ends touch the ground and develop roots. Unlike many other members of the mint family, lemon balm does not spread using stolons (runners). Regular trimming will keep lemon balm plants healthy and attractive. You can also grow lemon balm in a container. My in-ground lemon balm has always stayed rather low-growing and has been pretty year-round (even after frost!) with just a little bit of trimming. Lemon balm normally dies back in winter above-ground, but comes back in spring. Lemon balm seeds require light and warmth (70 °F) to germinate, but the mature plants prefer some afternoon shade. Lemon balm prefers rich, moist soil with good drainage, and a pH of 6 to 7.
Lemon balm attracts honey bees!
The scientific name of lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, is a reflection of how much it attracts honey bees. The word ‘Melissa’ is Greek for bee. Small flowers, which can be white, pink, red, or yellow, appear each summer, packed with nectar. Many beekeepers throughout history have planted lemon balm near their hives. Whether you keep honey bees or not, attracting them to your garden is sure to improve pollination and production.
Add lemon balm to your garden, landscape, or balcony for healthier bees and a happier you!
Chamomile makes a soothing tea, an excellent ground cover, and, hey, it looks pretty. Just ask Beatrix Potter fans!
Seriously, these dainty little flowers have been used and enjoyed for a really long time. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Chamomile is one of the oldest, most widely used and well documented medicinal plants in the world and has been recommended for a variety of healing applications.” Scientific research has shown chamomile’s anti-inflammatory and soothing properties to be moderately to significantly effective against a number of digestive, respiratory, and sleep-related problems.
Attracting beneficials with chamomile
If all those medical conditions weren’t reason enough to add chamomile to your garden or foodscape, many beneficial insects are also attracted to chamomile. Syrphid or hoverflies, parasitic wasps, tachinid flies, bees, and other pollinators are attracted to chamomile.
There are many daisy-like plants that fall under the name chamomile, but only two genuine varieties: Roman and German. German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), also known as ‘Water of Youth’ or wild chamomile, is an annual that can grow up to 2 feet in height and 2 feet across. Roman, English, Russian, or garden chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) is a low-growing perennial, often used as a ground cover or lawn replacement. When selecting chamomile plants for tea, be sure to select German chamomile and not Roman.
How to grow chamomile
Chamomile (or camomile) prefers full sun to partial shade and moderate amounts of water. It can be grown in a container or directly in the ground. Chamomile is best planted in protected areas if temperatures are expected to rise above 100 degrees F. Chamomile generally does not require supplemental fertilizer. Chamomile is best grown from established plant cuttings or division, but it can be grown from seed. Chamomile seeds require light to germinate, so they should not be covered. Seeds take 1 or 2 weeks to germinate. Plants should be cut back 3 to 5 inches every so often to prevent excessive size and legginess. Trimming will also promote flower production. If growing for tea, flowers should be removed (deadheaded) on the first day they bloom for the best flavor.
Chamomile pests & diseases
Chamomile is a sturdy, drought tolerant plant, but it may become susceptible to powdery mildew, white rust, leaf blight, aphids, thrips, and mealy bugs if is weakened by lack of water or other environmental stresses. Several beetles find chamomile flowers to be as appealing as we do, so it is important to wash plants off when harvesting, to avoid contaminating your tea.
The bad news
Just when you had every reason to add chamomile to your garden, it is important to know that it is not for everyone. All the chemicals that make chamomile so helpful can also make it harmful. People who are sensitive to ragweed or chrysanthemums may develop allergic reactions to chamomile. Also, since chamomile has been shown to stimulate uterine contractions, it should be avoided by pregnant and nursing women.
You can dry chamomile flowers in an old pillowcase, the same way you can preserve lavender. Dried flowers should be stored in an airtight container out of sunlight.
So, put the kettle on and have yourself a piping hot cup of soothing chamomile tea.
Straw bale gardening is touted as providing all the benefits of raised beds without the cost. Poor (or absent) soil can be overcome by growing vegetables in bales of straw. Also, if your soil is host to Verticillium or Fusarium wilt, nematodes, or really tough weeds, straw bale gardening may be the answer. Or, it may not.
These preconditioning steps are needed for successful straw bale gardening:
When are my straw bales ready for planting?
If synthetic fertilizer is used, you can start planting on Day Twelve. If organic fertilizers were used, wait until Day Seventeen. Before you start planting, however, you need to consider other potential problems.
Potential problems with straw bales
Aside from decomposition and the need for frequent watering and fertilizing, straw bales are often produced in fields where persistent herbicides are used. These herbicide do not breakdown quickly and they can adversely affect your crops, your compost pile, and your soil. If you do not know for sure, you have to assume that these chemicals are present and are best avoided. If you can find organic straw bales, you are ready to move forward.
Seeds vs. transplants
Crops that are grown from really tiny seeds, such as lettuce, are best started in potting soil and then transplanted to the straw bale garden. Otherwise, those tiny seeds will end up somewhere in the middle of your straw bale where the only thing they can do is decompose. Adding a shallow layer of potting soil on top of your straw bales can also eliminate this problem. Use a trowel to open up a space in the straw bale for transplants and be sure to water after adding plants or seeds.
What can be grown in a straw bale garden?
Each bale of straw can be used to grow a surprising variety of plants. You can grow 2 or 3 tomato, squash, or melon plants, 4 or 5 pepper plants, or as many as 15 bean plants in a single bale. You can also grow potatoes. The most critical issues of a straw bale garden are water and nitrogen. If either of these are in short supply, your plants will suffer.
Feeding and watering a straw bale garden
Drip emitters and soaker hoses are your best bet for a straw bale garden. Early in the growing process, more water will be needed as plants send roots throughout the bale. Since straw bales are not soil, it is important to monitor your plants for signs of nitrogen deficiency. Stunting and chlorosis (yellowing) are the two most common signs. Normally, monthly feedings will be sufficient.
Until your straw bales completely decompose, you can have multiple plantings, especially if you keep tightening the twine. As the bales decompose, they will shrink. You can keep them compressed by tightening the twine with a stick inserted behind the twine and rotated over the twine as many times as it takes to keep it tight, tucking the stick behind the twine.
Straw bales gardens may last for more than one season, but they will ultimately decompose. Once the bales are unusable as growing mediums, they can be added to the compost pile or used as mulch.
What have you grown in a straw bale? We’d love to see photos!
Parsley - it’s not just for restaurants any more.
As a kid, I always turned a suspicious eye toward that sprig of greenery on my plate. My mother urged me to try it, so I did. Unfortunately, my young taste buds were not impressed. The mildly bitter bite of parsley was not my idea of delicious until many years later. Now that my taste buds are older and wiser, the refreshing tang of parsley adds a bright balance between flavors, cleanses the palette, and spices things up. If that weren’t reason enough to add parsley to a landscape, parsley packs one heck of a nutritional punch and, hey, it looks nice in the garden!
Parsley is a central Mediterranean plant, which means that it grows well in California, as long as it is protected from our scorching hot summers. Parsley makes an excellent shade garden or container plant. You can even grow it on your kitchen window sill for easy access and nice color if you have strong enough sunlight.
Parsley is related to celeriac and celery, which explains its Latin name (Petroselinum crispum), which means ‘rock celery’, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to grow than celery. Parsley prefers well-drained soil that is kept moist, but my plants seem to grow under just about any conditions. In spite of my heavy clay soil, I have several parsley plants that thrive under roses, trees, and shrubs. Research has shown that parsley also repels asparagus beetles, making it a good companion to asparagus and tomato plants.
Growing parsley does require some patience if you are starting from seed. Seeds should be planted 1/2 inch deep, 6 inches apart, and they can take 4 to 6 weeks to germinate. Germination rates are pretty high, so growing parsley from seed is the most cost effective method. While you’re at it, plant some extras and give young plants to family and friends as gifts!
In tropical areas, flat-leafed and curly parsley are grown as annual herbs. In more temperate regions like ours, parsley is biennial. Biennial plants take two years to go from seed to seed, but some of my parsley plants keep on growing for another year or so. In addition to leaf parsley, there is a variety called Hamburg root parsley (P. crispum radicosum). Root parsley is grown for the taproot, which looks, cooks, and eats like a white carrot. (I may have to try that!)
Parsley plants allowed to go to seed provide habitat, pollen, and nectar to honey bees and many other beneficial insets, some swallowtail butterflies, and even goldfinches.You will probably also end up with many free, randomly placed parsley plants next year!
If flavor and looks weren’t reason enough to grow your own parsley, the CDC says it’s a nutritional gold mine. They ranked parsley at #8 as a food that reduces chronic diseases, such as cancer, coronary disease, and osteoporosis. To learn more, check out the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s nutritional analysis website that allows you to look up the nutritional value of pretty much any food. Just 10 sprigs of parsley provides 22% of the RDA for Vitamin C and 200% of Vitamin K.
It’s pretty. It’s durable. It’s good for you. And it tastes good.
Where’s your parsley planted?
While walking across Spain in 2016, I came upon an albergue (something like a hostel) where someone was using a riding mower. There wasn’t any grass, but the air was filled with a sweet, powerfully refreshing smell. Rather than caring for a lawn, this family had a yard filled with mint!
Now, mint is an amazing plant. It is crazy invasive and comes in many varieties. We’ve all heard of spearmint and peppermint, but did you know there is a chocolate mint? I have one growing in a leaky, handmade, stone pond that came with our property. Visitors are always amazed when I urge them to chew on a leaf - instant peppermint patties! I have also learned that there are apple, pineapple, orange, banana, and ginger mints. Needless to say, I am intrigued!
Mint (Lamiaceae) is a huge family, with over 7,000 species. People have been using mint plants for, well, forever! Mint is cousin to a surprising number of familiar herbs and other plants: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, bee balm, lemon balm, lavender, savory, and even your desktop coleus plant and the mighty teak tree! Lamb’s ears, hyssop, self-heal, catmint, salvia, horehound, chia, skullcap, wild bergamot, and bugleweed are also members of this clan.
Most members of the mint family have square stems, small flowers, opposite leaves, and volatile oils that make them taste and smell so wonderful. If you look at any of the mint family flowers up close, you will see that they each have four stamens and five petals that are fused together, with two petals pointing up and three petals pointing down. Most mint plants are perennial.
Mint is super easy to grow. They love the sun, but can handle partial shade, and are drought tolerant. That being said, I find my chocolate mint plants, while nearly indestructible, prefer regular watering during the peak of our California summer. Because mint can be so invasive, you may want to try it for your own lawn replacement, or, for a more restrained planting, use mint in containers. I have found that mint is easiest to grow from cuttings. (If you live near San Jose, California, I am happy to share cuttings of my chocolate mint!). All you have to do is cover the cutting lightly with good soil and keep it moist until new roots start growing. Left to their own devices, mint plants will spread everywhere, using rhizomes, at or just below the soil surface. The real problem with mint is stopping it.
Mint juleps anyone?
Growing houseplants and herbs is a simple way to add beauty to the home and flavor to meals. Houseplants clean indoor air and add a touch of nature to the home or office. Herbs can be very expensive to buy and fresh herbs are often unavailable during certain months of the year. Houseplants and herbs are easy plants to grow with some simple maintenance, such as repotting. Repotting allows you to inspect the root system, refresh the soil, and clean the pots thoroughly.
Prepare for repotting
Healthy plants are far more likely to avoid shock from repotting than plants that are already stressed. To ensure the success of your repotting project, be sure to water any plants that are to be repotted thoroughly a day or two before repotting. You will also want to wash the new pots. Salts, petroleum products, and chemicals on new pots can kill freshly repotted plants. When selecting new containers for herbs, it is a good idea to use pots that are no more than 2" larger than the current one. If there is more space than that, your herbs will focus on root growth, rather than providing you with their delicious leaves, until the container is fully explored. You will also want to buy nutrient rich potting soil. To prepare the pots, fill the them halfway full with soil, tamping the soil into a cup-shaped space in the middle that is big enough to cradle the herb's current root system. Good drainage is critical for most herbs and houseplants, so make sure there is a drainage hole.
How to repot container plants
Repotting goes more smoothly if you have everything you might need already at hand. Sheets of newspaper can help keep the area clean. Scissors and pruning shears are handy tools for trimming dead roots, twigs, and leaves. It is a good idea to have your bag of potting soil already opened and conveniently at hand. Depending upon the size of the current container, it is easiest to dislodge the plant by placing your hand over the top of the dirt, with the plant stems between your fingers, and flip it upside down. To dislodge plants from larger containers, roll it on its side and gently rock it back and forth to loosen the root ball. If you are working with a really large container, you may want to lay a tarp on the lawn. If the roots have wedged the plant into the pot, you may need to use a soil knife or other serrated blade to cut around the edge.
It is important that as much of the dirt around the roots remains where it is to prevent shock. At the same time, this is an opportunity to inspect the root system. As plants grow, their roots continue to grow and spread. Eventually, a plant can become root bound. This occurs when the roots have filled all the available space in a container. If your plants are root bound, you can trim away some of the roots that are wrapping around the root ball before placing the plant in its new container. Next, place the root ball in the new pot and add potting soil around the sides, pressing down gently. Air pockets in the soil can dry out roots and cause wilt. Finally, water your newly repotted plants. As the soil settles, you may need to add more potting soil. It is a good idea to leave the soil ½" lower than the edge of the pot to facilitate future waterings.
Repotting can stress your herbs. For this reason, it is a good idea to keep plants out of direct sunlight for a few days after repotting and water frequently but not excessively. Your repotted houseplants and herbs will now thrive in their new home and you will be able to enjoy their fragrant beauty and delicious additions to meals for years to come!
Nothing compares with the sun-warmed sweetness of a raspberry freshly plucked and popped into your mouth!
Raspberries do not ship well, so the specimens we find at the grocery store, like most tomatoes, are simply not up to par with fresh from the garden varieties. The nice thing about raspberries is that that can grow in some unusual places. When I first moved into our San Jose home, I wasn’t sure where I wanted my container raspberries to end up, so I heeled them in (laid them down on the ground and covered the roots with some soil) in the unlikeliest of places - a 6 inch strip of soil next to a concrete slab, where the property line fence was installed. And then I forgot all about them.
Six months or so later, after unpacking, settling in, and beginning to work the garden and landscape, I came around the corner of my house and BAM! There, in the shade of my garage, the neglected raspberries had thrived and were climbing the fence! All in a 6 inch strip of what was probably construction soil.
What made that dubious location work was afternoon shade and a ready supply of water. It was winter in the Bay area and a rain gutter downspout pointed directly their way. You may not want to try growing your berries in such a questionable location, but it sure shows how tenacious these cane fruits can be. Once the plants are established, they can produce fruit for decades. In addition of the traditional red raspberry, you can also find cultivars that are golden, purple, and black.
How to grow raspberries
Raspberries love water. Sunburn is a common sign that your raspberries are not getting enough water. Our raspberries get nearly daily waterings from the bucket of water we collect in the shower as we wait for the water to heat up, at least when it’s not raining. At the same time, our heavy clay soil can also lead to drowning if there is too much water. Since raspberries have relatively shallow roots, regular light watering is better than less frequent deep watering.
Raspberries prefer cooler, damp weather, but you can recreate those conditions by adding them to a shade garden or growing them in containers under a pergola or on a shady balcony. The plants need lots of sun but they prefer a little shade in the heat of the afternoon. Raspberries grow best in soil with a pH of 5.5 to 7.0. They love raised beds, and fence lines provide the perfect medium for trellising. If the cane tips reach the ground, rather than producing fruit, new roots will form, so trellising is a good idea. That’s how bramble fruits spread in the wild. They also spread using underground stems called stolons.
While you can start raspberries from seed, it is much more satisfying to start with cuttings, dormant bare-root plants, or potted seedlings. You should remove any damaged roots or stems before planting your raspberries in a shallow hole, making sure that the crown is slightly above soil level. Spreading the root mass out, covering with soil, and mudding them in to eliminate air pockets will help your plants get a good start in their new location. Be sure to water well, to help the soil settle. Plants should be placed 2 to 3 feet apart and new plants should be trimmed down to be only 6 inches tall, to encourage strong root growth. Black and purple raspberries should be spaced 3 to 4 feet apart.
Raspberry plants have perennial roots and crowns that grow new canes each year. These new green canes are called primocanes. Then they turn brown and go dormant over the winter, to one degree or another. In spring, these now 2-year old canes are called floricanes. Flowers and fruit are only produced on floricanes, so you don’t want to prune them out.
Fruit production varies between everbearing and summer-bearing varieties. Summer-bearing raspberries bear one crop in summer on two-year old canes, while everbearing cultivars have two crops, one small crop in summer on new canes and one heavier crop in fall on two-year old canes. Everbearing cultivars are sometimes called fall-bearing. It is a good idea to check with your local Cooperative Extension Office to find the best cultivar for your location.
How to prune raspberries
Raspberry pruning methods will vary, depending on the cultivar. Fruit-producing canes of summer-bearing red and yellow raspberries should be cut to ground level after harvest and removed. Thin primocanes to no more than 4 or 5 per foot. Fall-bearing raspberries can be treated the same as everbearing varieties, if you want both the summer and fall crops. Otherwise, leave the canes in place for an extra year. If you are growing black or purple raspberries, you will need to pinch the canes when they reach 2 to 2-1/2 feet in height and then again two or three times during the summer. This will promote lateral cane growth for more fruit. Be sure to remove any dead or damaged canes whenever you are working your bramble fruits. Canes left to grow a third year may produce some fruit on the lower part of the canes but they should be pruned out after that to make room for new canes and to reduce the spread of disease.
Raspberries pests and diseases
Raspberry pests include borers, spider mites, aphids, and Fuller Rose Beetles. Fungal diseases, such as yellow rust, and raspberry leaf curl can also be a problem. Healthy plants are far less likely to be vulnerable, so you will want to feed your raspberry plants each time they start a new bloom cycle. According to UC Davis, 3 to 6 pounds of blood meal, feather meal, or fish meal should be applied for every 100 feet of row. Most of us don’t have a 100 feet row of raspberry plants, so I did the math and it works out to approximately 1 to 2 ounces per plant.
Raspberries are self-fertile, which means you can get fruit from a single plant. If you really love raspberries, and have the room, you can grow a raspberry hedge as part of your edible landscape!
Note: If you have never grown raspberries before, you may be surprised to learn that they ripen unevenly. One part of a berry will look ripe days before the rest of it does. This is okay, simply wait (if you can!) for the entire berry to ripen before picking.
Your Caesar salad wouldn’t be the same without Romaine lettuce and this nutritional powerhouse should be part of every garden.
You can grow Romaine on a windowsill, in a container, on a balcony, in a traditional garden or sprinkle it around your landscape. Wherever and however you grow Romaine, you’ll be glad you did.
Romaine is high in folate, which has been shown to boost male fertility and reduce depression for everyone. The CDC ranks Romaine as the 9th healthiest food you can eat to prevent chronic disease. Hey, and it tastes pretty good on a burger, too!
How to grow Romaine lettuce
Plant Romaine seeds 1/2 inch deep and several inches apart (just picture how large a head of Romaine gets). Water thoroughly at first and then as needed to prevent wilting. One cool thing about Romaine is that you can regrow a head from the stem at the base of the head. Simply place it in a container that can hold 1/2 inch of water, Pyrex baking pans work well and you can always find them at a thrift store for practically nothing. You will need to change out the water every day, but then you can use that water on houseplants, the lawn, or anywhere in the landscape. Once roots develop, move your lettuce into soil for the best growth. To harvest, simply break off outer leaves as you need them, or cut the whole head off and restart the base in water all over again. Just don't start with a grocery store head of Romaine. Grocery store produce is (usually) safe to eat, but that does not mean it is safe to plant. It may be carrying pests or diseases that can take decades to eradicate from your garden.
Earwigs, cutworms, rabbits, and uncaged chickens can cause problems in your Romaine patch.
Planting your Romaine near garlic and chives is said to reduce aphids, but I don't know if that's true or not.
Watercress is one of the most nutrient dense foods you can eat, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and some people say it isn’t all that hard to grow. I'm feeling a bit challenged, but here's what I've learned so far.
We all know that watercress does not ship or store well, so growing your own is a great way to keep yourself supplied. While watercress prefers growing near slowly moving water, you can recreate these condition closely enough for a crop of watercress. Unlike most of the species we talk about at The Daily Garden, watercress is an aquatic or semi-aquatic plant. You do not need to create an entire hydroponic growing system, however, to grow your own watercress, you just need to keep the soil wet.
Experts tell us that people have been eating watercress longer than any other leafy vegetable. Ever. Despite its Latin name, watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is no cousin to the popular salad flower from nasturtium plants. Nasturtiums are Tropaeolum, a unique family, while watercress is a member of the cabbage family. This makes watercress a cousin to mustard, wasabi, radishes, broccoli, and horseradish. This also means that the dreaded, imported cabbageworm (Pieris rapae) will be a major pest of your watercress, should you decide to grow it outdoors.
Watercress may attract flea beetles and mustard beetles. Whiteflies, spider mites, and snails might also cause problems. On the other hand, if your watercress goes to flower, you will receive the added benefit of attracting hoverflies to your garden. Hoverflies love to eat aphids and thrips, so they are welcome any time! Unfortunately, once a plant flowers, much of the flavor is lost. You will get more seeds, however! By the way, if your watercress does become infested with any sort of pest, simply submerge the entire plant for about an hour.
Do not use composted manure from mammals to feed your watercress. It may contain liver flukes (Fasciola hepatica), which can lead to some really nasty digestive conditions. Manure from chickens and fish emulsion are fine to use on watercress.
How to grow watercress
One recommended way to grow watercress is in a fishbowl or other medium-sized glass container. [Check your local thrift store for something truly unique and inexpensive!] Put a 2 inches of pebbles or rocks in the bottom and fill with water. Sprinkle seeds on top of the water or float a few plants on the water surface. The roots will reach down into the rocks and the hollow stems will bring snip-able greens to the water surface. For extra interest, plant food, and glass cleaning, add an algae eater to the mix!
[Update: I tried using a fish tank and it didn't work as planned. I'm not sure if that's because I started with mature plants or just poor logic. Before the plants died completely, I put them in the wading pool outside that serves as a giant dog watering bowl. We'll see what happens.]
[Update.2: The wading pool didn't work, either, and now the algae eater has gone missing. Now my nearly dead watercress plants are in a container outdoors with some bog sage, which also likes lots of water. Fingers are crossed.]
Another suggested way to grow watercress is in aluminum or plastic takeout trays. You will need one tray that is larger than the other, to act as the base. This is the water storage area. The smaller tray is used to hold the plants, but be sure to poke some drainage holes in it before flipping it upside down and filling it 3/4 full of normal potting mix or soilless potting mix that contains perlite or vermiculite. Next, sprinkle watercress seeds on top. You can also use purchased watercress that has any sort of root growth. It grows very quickly. Seeds germinate best at 50 to 60°F.
If watercress is being grown in a container, it is important to change the water every few days. The standing water can be used to irrigate other plants. Also, watercress can tolerate morning sun, but it really prefers being in the shade. With all the water needed by watercress, you may want to plant it near the hose. It also makes an excellent windowsill garden plant.
While nutrient deficiencies are unusual for watercress planted in the ground, it is a good idea to have a basic understanding of what those deficiencies look like, so that they can be corrected:
Give your disease-fighting abilities a major boost with watercress! And if any of you have grown watercress successfully, please let me know how!
The name may be odd, but this nutritional powerhouse is easy to grow, even in heavy clay (though it prefers lighter soil).
Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris vulgaris) is actually a beet that doesn’t develop the fat round root. Both plants, beets and chard, evolved (with some help from humanity) from the sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima). Swiss chard is also called chard, spinach beet, silver beet, mangold, seakale beet, and bright lights. The bright lights name is a reference to the brightly colored leafstalks (petioles), that can be red, yellow, orange, purple, pink, or white. They look as amazing in your salad bowl as they do in your garden!
One of the nicest things about growing chard is that outer leaves can be removed frequently and the plant simply produces more inner leaves, creating a long term supply of easy to grow, highly nutritious food. Chard is so nutritious that just under half a cup of fresh chard provides 122% of the Daily Value of Vitamin A, 1038% of Vitamin K, and 50% of Vitamin C, and all with only 19 calories! Research has also shown that Swiss chard provides tons of antioxidants and even type 2 diabetes protection. If that weren’t reason enough, the brightly colored petioles of Swiss chard make it a lovely addition to your edible landscape and these plants are relatively drought-resistant.
Like parsley, chard is a biennial plant. While it can tolerate light frost, exposure to too much cold will trick it into thinking it has experienced a winter and can cause bolting.
How to grow Swiss chard
Chard can be grown as a summer or winter crop. In areas with scorching hot summers, Swiss chard will perform better as part of your shade gardening plan. Chard seeds should be planted 1/2 to 1 inch deep when temperatures are between 40 F to 95 F. Mature plants can be spaced 6 to 12 inches apart, with rows 15 inches wide, but keep in mind that the plants will grow 1 to 3 feet tall, with a spread of 1/2 to 2 feet wide. Mulching around each plant with aged compost will help stabilize soil temperature and add nutrients to the soil.
How to harvest Swiss chard
Chard is a very satisfying plant to grow. Germination occurs in only 5 to 7 days and you can begin harvesting very early in the plant’s life. There are two approaches to harvesting chard: leaf-by-leaf or cut-and-come-again. The leaf-by-leaf method mentioned earlier simply means outer leaves are removed as needed. The cut-and-come-again method refers to cutting the plant down to just an inch or two above the soil line, avoiding the growing point in the middle. New leaves will emerge from this point.
Pests and diseases of Swiss chard
Swiss chard is a durable plant that has few pest or disease problems. You may find that an overabundance of harvestable chard is your bigger problem, but you can always cook and freeze or gift the extras. That being said, aphids, leaf miners, and flea beetles will cause the most leaf damage, while leaf spot, powdery mildew, downy mildews, and beet curly top can infect Swiss chard plants. Row covers can be used to block these pests and proper plant spacing, feeding and irrigation can reduce the likelihood of disease.
To keep yourself in year round chard, these plants can also be grown indoors in containers. Because chard has a taproot, a 5-gallon planter is recommended.
Beans, beans, the magical fruit.
The more you eat, the more you…well, you know.
What you may not know about this nutritional powerhouse is that it is crazy easy to grow, germinates at lightening speed, adds nitrogen to the soil, and is just plain fun to watch grow.
Beans are the edible seeds of the legume family. Often, but not always, these seeds are kidney-shaped. There are over 40,000 different type of beans found in the world. Some of the more common varieties are:
How's that for a family tree?
How to grow beans
Growing most beans is really simple. Seeds can be planted 1/2 to 4 inches below soil level, watered a little at first, and then only occasionally afterward. Under ideal conditions, some beans can germinate within just 4 days, making them an excellent crop for children. Beans are not very competitive plants, so you can help your bean plants thrive by regularly weeding the area until they are firmly established. Because beans grow so fast, they can be a fun window sill garden addition.
If you have heavy clay soil, be sure you do not overwater. Clay soil can hold so much water that plants will rot or drown. Now, if you want to get really fancy, you can inoculate the seeds with a species-specific Rhizobium bacteria. This does not mean giving tiny shots to each and every seed (But it’s a funny image, right?) Beans can be dusted with, rolled in, or briefly soaked in the inoculant at planting time to help them get the most nitrogen out of the soil, for a better start. Personally, I’ve never used inoculants, but many gardeners and most farmers swear by them, especially in areas where beans have not been grown for a long time.
Bean growth habits
Generally, bean plants come in one of two growth habits: bush (determinate) or vine/pole (indeterminate). As with other crops, determinate types tend to flower and develop pods within a set time frame, whereas indeterminate types tend to continue on for longer periods of time, producing pods as they grow. Beans prefer plenty of sunlight, but they can be grown in partial shade, as well.
Nitrogen boosting beans
Many orchardists plant beans and other legumes among fruit trees as cover crops to improve soil structure and add nitrogen to the soil. You can do the same thing by intercropping beans with other garden crops. Adding beans to your garden or landscape can help fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, making it available to other plants (assuming you cut your beans down and let them decompose before they go to seed. Cowpea roots are pretty tough and deep, so they can also help improve soil structure and reduce compaction. Beans are also part of the Three Sisters method of growing used by Native Americans. The Three Sisters Method intercrops corn, squash, and beans to make the most of available growing space, soil nutrients, and water resources. The corn grows tall, the beans climb the corn, and the squash shades the ground and reduces weed competition with wide leaves.
Beans and crop rotation
If you grow beans regularly, it is a good idea to rotate the bean crop with sunflowers, tomatoes, or wheat, to interrupt the life cycle of some fungal pests, such as bean rust. Bean seedlings are susceptible to damping-off disease. UC Davis provides this extensive list of bean diseases:
Aphids, armyworms, cucumber beetles, cutworms, darkling beetles, leafhoppers, leaf miners, loopers, lygus bugs, spider mites, stink bugs, thrips, weevils, whiteflies, and wireworms are all attracted to bean plants. The corn maggot larvae (Delia platura) and some caterpillars may also gnaw on your planted beans, as well. It’s amazing we get any beans at all, with a list like that! The truth is, bean plants are very productive and these potential problems are all relatively manageable.
Bean seed sources
As tempting as it may be to plant beans that were bought at your local grocery store, this is a bad idea. Those beans can carry diseases that you may never be able to get out of your soil, once they arrive. These diseases are not harmful when eaten by people, but they can be devastating to baby bean plants. Instead, invest in certified bean seed, and then save seed from your harvest for next year’s planting!
As a food, beans are high in protein, fiber, iron, potassium, thiamine, vitamin B6, and folic acid, with no cholesterol. Wikipedia has an excellent graphic that shows the protein, finer, and iron content of various beans. [Spoiler alert - lentils and kidney beans top the chart!]
And if you want to avoid the undesirable side effects of eating beans, be sure to change the water a few times during soaking and/or cooking.
Finally, according to the Smithsonian, kidney bean leaves can be used to trap bedbugs!
Now you know.
Peas have received a bad reputation from those forced to eat the canned spheres of mush that claim to be peas. As any gardener knows, plucking a fresh pea from the vine and eating it whole offers a crisp, sweet flavor that shares nothing with its canned (or even frozen) cousins.
How to grow peas
Many birds love pea seeds, so you may have to protect your crop with netting until the seeds germinate. Seeds should be planted 5” apart, 1" deep in rich, loose, moist soil. As they grow, your pea plants will use tendrils to grasp and climb, so you will want to provide netting or a trellis. Sunflowers work nicely, too. If peas are being grown in a container, a tomato cage works well. Water regularly and be sure to harvest pods as soon as they are ready to keep the plant producing. Peas left on the vine will become too tough and starchy to eat, but they can be saved for planting or stored for some easy split pea soup! Succession planting can provide many months of harvestable peas.
As members of the legume family, peas (and beans) have the ability to transform atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use. Until your peas go to seed, the tiny nitrogen-converting nodules on their roots will provide neighboring plants with an extra boost of nitrogen.
Succulents are some of the easiest plants to grow. And don’t let those high prices fool you - all you need to do is start trading leaves with friends and neighbors!
Succulents come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors, some of which are really amazing. They make great ornamental additions to the garden because they take very little care and they help prevent erosion. Also, most of them have a spreading growth habit that makes it easy to turn them into living gifts for family, friends, and neighbors.
What are succulents?
Succulents have evolved to store large amounts of water in fleshy leaves, stems, or roots, depending on the variety. This makes them an excellent choice for drought-prone areas. As temperatures rise, the plants absorb this stored water, shrinking the storage area for later use, rather than dropping leaves and making a mess. All plants that can survive in dry environments are called xerophytes. Common characteristics of succulents include:
There is some debate about the difference between succulents and cacti. Basically, not all succulents are cacti, but most cacti are succulents. There is also debate over whether or not the mucilaginous sap of aloe actually does anything, but, hey, if it makes us feel better, that’s good enough for me. Most of these plants are not edible, but some are. Be sure to identify a plant beyond any doubt before trying it for a snack. Some mistakes can be deadly.
Here is a list of the more popular succulents (and where they originated):
If you know of someone who already has succulents, they will probably be more than happy to give you cuttings, baby plants, or leaves, depending on the species. Jade plants, in particular, can be started from a single leaf. Simply place the stub of the leaf on moist, rich potting soil and mist it regularly. Within a week or two, new roots should be visible. Cuttings and baby plants can be propagated in the same way.
Caring for succulents
Succulents can be used as permanent ground cover, in containers, and they make lovely windowsill gardens, as long as they get enough bright sunlight. Succulents prefer well-drained soil, making them an excellent choice for slopes, raised beds, and containers. These tips will help you get the most out of your succulents:
• Avoid planting succulents in low areas where water may collect and cause crown rot.
• Do not place succulents near other plants that require a lot of water.
• Remove any dead leaves to prevent bacterial or fungal disease.
• Adding rocks to the soil can improve drainage and they look nice.
• Stop watering if leaves start to look mushy.
• In winter, cover frost sensitive varieties with lightweight, breathable fabric (not plastic).
• Monitor for slug and snail damage.
Succulent container gardens look lovely year round, and they are surprisingly easy to make. You can see several inspiring ideas (complete with instructions) at the Instructables page on Succulents.
I’d love to see what you do with succulents in your landscape!
Thyme is one of the easiest herbs to grow.
Crumbled into scrambled eggs, baked with chicken, or simmered in a favorite spaghetti sauce or stew, the sweet, savory aroma of thyme adds a delicious level of complexity to even the simplest dish.
Thyme is a woody, aromatic evergreen herb. Cousins to mint, thyme and oregano are the foundation herbs used in many Italian dishes, herbs de Provence, and bouquet garni. As an added benefit, the tiny fragrant flowers are big favorites among honey bees and other beneficial insects.
How to grow thyme
Thyme prefers hot, dry sunny locations, with well-drained soil. It is an excellent foodscape addition to areas affected by drought. Thyme grows well in containers, especially unglazed ceramic pots that allow the soil to dry out completely.
Thyme can be grown from seed, cuttings, or by dividing root clusters. If growing from seed, simply follow the directions on the package. Cuttings can be placed directly in loose soil. Root clusters should be placed with the crown (where the stem meets the roots) at the same level as the surrounding soil. Thyme plants should be watered regularly as they are getting established. After that, they need little or no care.
These hardy plants can withstand freezing winters and scorching summers. Thyme prefers a slightly alkaline soil.
Pinch growing tips to keep plants bushy. If a thyme plant becomes too tall or leggy, it can be cut back by 1/3 in spring. Just be sure to cut above some new growth, or the stems may die.
People have been using thyme since the ancient Egyptians and there are currently over 50 varieties of thyme available. Put simply, there are ornamental thymes and culinary thymes. Some of the more popular edible varieties include:
The ancient Greeks believed that thyme was a source of courage and it was placed under pillows during the Middle Ages to ward off nightmares.
According to companion planting claims, thyme is said to repel cabbage moths, but I have not found this to be true. Supposedly, tomato hornworms and whiteflies are also offended by thyme, but I haven’t found any definitive proof.
Thyme oil does have antiseptic properties that may combat minor bacterial and fungal infections. According to Medical News Today, washes made from thyme can help get rid of acne and rubbing your skin with thyme may prevent being stung by the Asian Tiger mosquito, a West Nile virus and Zika virus carrier. These and other potential health benefits of thyme are currently being studied.
Dinner wouldn’t be nearly as delicious without plants from the Allium genus. Ornamental Alliums also attract beneficial insects to your garden.
Allium are monocots that grow from bulbs. Bulbs are a food reserve for the plant (and your pantry). Similar to grass plants, Alliums feature fleshy layers that wrap around the bulb and stem. Their stems do not have leaves, but a single umbel. Umbels are flowers made up of tiny flowerettes, usually forming a curved or flat surface. This surface creates an attractive landing surface for beneficial insects.
Attracting beneficial insects
Planting Allium in the garden is sure to attract beneficial insects. The convenient landing platform and sweet nectar will bring them in from blocks or even miles around. Allium tanguticum, the Lavender globe lily (pictured), attracts hoverflies. These beneficials look like tiny bees and they devour aphids and mealybugs. Spritely black Trichogramma wasps are also attracted and will lay their eggs in moth eggs, preventing caterpillars, such as the tomato hornworm from attacking your garden. If you enjoy the flavor of garlic and chives, you can always plant Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum) another favorite of beneficial insects.
How to grow alliums
These shallow-rooted plants prefer soil that holds a lot of organic material and that means adding compost before planting. They will grow just about anywhere, but our heavy clay soil can slow growth. Allium can be grown in partial shade to full sun. Alliums grow well in raised beds and containers. You can grow chives in a pot on your kitchen windowsill for easy access while cooking!
Growing Allium from seed can be hit and miss. The plants are slow starters and they don’t handle competition (weeds) very well. You can plant seeds in containers or directly in the garden. Seeds should be sown 1/2” deep and 1/2” apart. Thinned plants can be eaten as scallions.
Another way to plant Allium is in the form of “sets”. Allium sets are mature bulbs that can be planted directly in the ground or a container. Follow the package directions for depth and spacing. The only downside to sets is that they tend to bolt. Bolting is the beginning of the going-to-seed process. If you are growing onions, leeks, or garlic, plants that have started bolting should be harvested right away, unless you plan to collect your own seeds.
Garlic and onions are best planted October through January.
What summer picnic would be complete without the tang of rhubarb pie?
While purists may enjoy their rhubarb raw, dipped lightly in sugar, many of us prefer rhubarb pie with luscious strawberries. However you eat rhubarb, it is a sturdy perennial that can provide shape, color, and food in a garden or landscape for decades. These plants can get pretty big, making rhubarb excellent anchor plants in a foodscape.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is generally a cool season plant. It needs temperatures below 40ºF in the winter and prefers temperatures below 75ºF in the summer. That being said, I have had excellent success with rhubarb in San Jose (CA) where our peak summer heat can reach above 100°F.
You may be surprised to learn that rhubarb is related to buckwheat. If you look at the seeds, you can see the similarity. Rhubarb is believed to have started in Asia, some 5,000 years ago. Marco Polo is cited as the one who brought it to Europe and Benjamin Franklin carried rhubarb to North America, way back in the 1700s!
How to grow rhubarb
When selecting a site for rhubarb, keep the plant’s mature size in mind. Rhubarb plants can reach 3’ in height and 4’ in diameter. Rhubarb generally prefers full sunlight, but mine are under a small apricot tree (which probably protects the rhubarb from our summer heat). In temperate regions, the rhubarb harvest begins in April and continues until September.
Individual plants will be productive for 8-20 years, but, since they grow from rhizomes, the plants will replace themselves over time. [Side note: my mother purchased a 200-year old farm house in Upstate New York many years ago and decided to plant rhubarb along the southern side of an outbuilding. Apparently, the original owners felt the same way because, come spring, not only did the new plants come up, but so did the offspring of the original plants! Needless to say, Mom had plenty of rhubarb!]
Rhubarb can be grown in large containers, as long as there is enough room for a season’s growth. Rhubarb will do much better in the ground. Follow these steps to get your rhubarb patch started:
*While rhubarb leaves are mildly toxic, they are not the poison we have been led to believe. You would have to eat several pounds of rhubarb leaves to cause problems. In fact, spinach has more oxalic acid than rhubarb. That being said, I do not feed them to my chickens.
One easy way to keep weeds down in a rhubarb patch is to simply take a few of the large rhubarb leaves and lay them on the ground. The leaves block sunlight needed by the weeds and then they break down, adding organic matter to the soil.
Get your rhubarb crowns in today for a lifetime of red-stalked deliciousness!
Sometimes, the only direction available to an urban gardener is up.
Tower gardening is a great solution for small spaces, lack of soil, or unfavorable conditions. Even if there is plenty of garden space, tower gardening can make better use of space and add nice color and structural accents to a garden.
An extension of container gardening, towers can be used indoors or out. If climbing plants are used, tower gardens can supplement a window sill garden by providing more soil without using up a lot of space.
Which plants can be grown in tower gardens?
It is astounding, how many different types of plants can be grown in tower gardens. Whether you are foodscaping or simply adding color, tower gardens are very versatile. Strawberries, potatoes, herbs, lettuce, spinach, radishes, squash, succulents, and other ornamentals are just a few. As plant selections are being made, keep in mind how much sunlight is available, your local microclimate, and what plants will actually be eaten or enjoyed. (There’s no sense growing a bountiful crop of Brussels Sprouts if no one is going to eat them!)
How to make a tower garden
After deciding which plants will be grown, it is time to build a garden tower. Garden towers can be placed on the ground, in a handle-less trash can lid, or on top of a large planting container. In its simplest form, a tower garden is nothing more than a cylinder of wire filled with potting soil. There are high-tech versions that incorporate irrigation, hydroponics, and much more than we will go into here. (I’m a big fan of keeping life simple…)
For our garden tower, hardware cloth or chicken wire are the best materials for the cylinder. Landscaping cloth can be used with stakes, all by itself, but those tend to fall over.
Begin by deciding the tower diameter. Multiply that figure by 3.5 for the length of hardware cloth needed. Most hardware cloth comes in 36” or 48” heights. Either is fine. Cut the hardware cloth to the desired length and roll it into a cylinder. Join the edges with wire, paper clips, or whatever is on hand, with a little overlap; just make sure it won’t break down after extended exposure to sun and moisture.
Place the cylinder where it will remain and then line the inside with newspaper, landscape cloth, or straw. This job can be made easier by slowly adding soil as you go. The soil will hold this barrier up against the tower. If potatoes or strawberries are being planted, plants can be added at different soil levels for a bigger crop. Otherwise, keep filling the tower with high quality potting soil up to the top. Now you are ready to really start planting!
Planting a tower garden
Using a screwdriver or similar pointy object, poke a hole in the side of the tower garden. Your fingers can make the hole as large as is needed to insert seeds or a seedling. Continue the process until you run out of appropriately spaced plants or seeds, depending on the variety being planted. Water thoroughly and regularly as the seeds sprout or the seedlings take hold.
As plants grow in a tower garden, the roots will spread throughout the soil, collecting nutrients and water. If you happen to notice stray worms on the ground after a rain, add them to the tower garden for better aeration and soil structure.
Aged compost can be placed on top and watered in to add more nutrients to the soil. Over time, your tower garden crop will grow and thrive. As an added benefit, weeding is almost completely eliminated with tower gardens!
Many people wish they could garden, but think they can’t because of where they live. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Container plants can grow on window sills and in sunny rooms without the addition of artificial light, assuming the area receives 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day. Grow lights can also be used for even better growth. Growing edible plants serves many purposes: cleaner air, tastier food, less fossil fuels being burned, and, hey, container gardening is fun!
Window sill garden resources
Start your window sill garden by figuring out what resources are available with these questions:
Choosing plants for your window sill gardens
The next step is deciding what to plant. Being grown indoors, many of these plants will need to be hand-pollinated, but it's not difficult.
Window sill garden containers
The next step is selecting container(s). This is an excellent time to go outside and start walking around the neighborhood. It is astounding what people will throw away these days. Very often, the perfect container can be found just by walking around with an open mind and mindful eyes.
Just be sure to provide drainage for container plants. Overwatering and poor drainage kill more indoor plants than everything else put together. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a good idea to add rocks at the bottom of planting containers. Rocks take up valuable soil space and provide fungal spores with a great place to reproduce. Just be sure there are a couple of holes at the base of plant containers to allow water a way to escape. Place tuna cans, coffee canister lids or plastic packaging under plant containers to catch excess water. A few container possibilities include:
WARNING: IF A CONTAINER IS GOING TO BE USED TO GROW EDIBLE PLANTS, BE SURE THE CONTAINER IS SAFE FOR FOOD. MANY PLASTICS AND CERAMIC GLAZES CAN BE TOXIC.
Soil for your windowsill garden
There are several sources for soil for container plants:
Seeds & plants for windowsill gardens
It’s time to plant!
Plants are more likely to grow to their full potential if they are planted according to the directions on the seed packet. If the information isn’t available, Google it!
To get fruit from some plants, especially fruit trees, the flowers will need to be hand-pollinated. Just grab a small paint brush, Q-tip or something similar, and touch it to each of the flowers every couple of days until the flowers start to turn brown. This bee-ly duty will transfer pollen from one flower to another, completing the pollination cycle. Self-pollinating varieties don’t need this.
That’s all there is to it! The only thing stopping you from gardening now is, I have to say it, YOU!
Yet another member of the mint family, lavender has been used to sooth upset stomach, irritated skin, and bad hair days for over 2,500 years.
The essential oils found in lavender have sedative, antiseptic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties and they smell wonderful! The word ‘lavender’ comes from the Latin verb which means ‘to wash’ or ‘to bathe’.
Sachets, soaps, linen spritz, soup, and even frosting are all made better with the addition of lavender. Flowers can be candied and used to decorate baked goods. Teas, chocolates, and cheeses have all enjoyed the addition of lavender. At the same time, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) does not recommend lavender for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, or to pre-adolescent boys, due to potential hormonal problems. For some people, lavender can cause skin irritation.
This easy to grow perennial can add color to practically any garden. Lavender can also be used as an insect repellent. Simply snip off a stem and rub the leaves on exposed skin - it smells a heck of a lot better than bug spray!
How to grow lavender
Being from a rocky Mediterranean terrain, lavender prefers hot, dry weather. If you live in an area that gets too cold or wet, lavender can be planted in a pot and brought it indoors for winter. A lavender’s root system is significantly bigger than the above-ground portion of the plant, so use a rather large container. Lavender can be grown from seeds, cuttings, layering or root division.
When selecting a site, keep in mind that lavender does best where there is plenty of air flow and good sun, and they can live for 50 years! Sites with poor drainage can cause root rot, black mold, and other fungal diseases. Aged compost can be added to heavy clay soil to improve drainage. Mulching around lavender plants with sand, white stones or oyster shells will reflect light into the plant and help avoid fungal disease. Lavender grows beautifully in rock gardens! Because air is so important to lavender, be sure to work the soil so that it is loose enough to dig into it with your hands before planting. Also, keep in mind the mature size of the variety. Some of them can reach 5’ across! Lavender prefers slightly alkaline soil, with a pH between 6.7 and 7.3, so the Bay Area is a great place to grow it.
Lavender seeds take a long time to grow (up to 6 months to reach transplant size), and many varieties are not viable. If you want to start from seed, I recommend using peat pots filled with seed starter mix. The peat pots allows youngsters to be transplanted into the garden without disturbing their roots. Lavender seeds are very tiny, so only cover them lightly with soil. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Lavender seeds will not germinate below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so a window sill is a good place to start. As seedling emerge, they must be gently and gradually acclimated to outdoor temperatures. To acclimate young plants, put them in a sheltered area with partial sun for an hour, at first, building up to full days and full sun over the next two weeks. Water occasionally, but allow the soil to dry out a bit between waterings.
Lavender loves to eat phosphorus, so bone meal is a good soil addition. Just sprinkle it around the plant and work it into the top inch of soil, or water it in. Mindful weed removal during the first 2 years of a lavender’s life will go a long way toward establishing a healthy, durable plant.
There are over 35 species of lavender, with more than 250 named varieties. Generally, they are categorized as either ‘hardy’ or ‘tender’. Hardy English (or Dutch) lavenders (Lavendula angustifolia or L. intermedia) are the most commonly grown. Both varieties are hardy to Zone 5. Tender lavenders include Spike, Wooly, Egyptian, Spanish, and my all-time favorite, French lavender. Tender lavenders generally cannot handle frost. If an especially cold period is expected, tender lavenders can be protected with a cloth cover for a time. Zones 1-4 are better suited to hardy varieties. When shopping for lavender, be sure to look at the label for the botanical name, so you know what you are getting.
Lavender should be harvested when the first florets open, after the first year of growth. Stalks should be removed just above new stem growth (see photo). Long-stemmed hardy varieties can be bundled and hung upside-down in a dark place to dry. Shorter-stemmed tender varieties, which tend to lose their flowers as they dry, can be threaded and hung in a pillowcase, so none of the flowers are lost (and the pillowcase smells lovely). I hang my lavender in the guest room closet. It stays dark and the aroma is soothing to overnight guests.
Lavender winter care & pruning
Many people think that their lavender has died over the winter, but that is rarely the case. In early autumn, simply cut back the green portion of the plants until only a couple of inches of green remain. This will help your lavender look nicer during the winter and it will stimulate lush growth in spring.
Some lavender plants fall open in the middle, a condition called ‘sprawling’. This happens when the weight of new growth is more than the plant can support. In the wild, this is a great behavior because it allows new shoots resting on the ground to generate new plants. In your landscape, however, it won’t look as nice. You can prevent sprawling by pruning back 1/3 of the plant in spring, then pruning back 1/3 of the new growth. This will create a nice shape and it will help the plant remain upright and full. You may see frothy areas on your lavender plants. These are caused by spittlebugs. Simply spray these pests off with a hose and prune your lavender plants for better air flow.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!