Know Your Soil and the Top 3 Myths

When most gardeners think about their garden, they picture big beautiful blooms or perfectly ripe tomatoes…I think about what’s underneath: Dirt. (Sidenote: I would bottle that scent and wear it if I could!)

But first things first, test your soil. The importance of soil testing cannot be overstated. Most vegetables prefer a pH of 6.5, but without a starting point you won’t know whether you need lime to raise it, or sulfur to reduce it. Your results also tell you which amendments to add if you want to grow brassicas, nightshades or something else. Soil test kits are available at your local extension office and for a nominal fee you’ll get all sorts of helpful information (it’s worth the investment).

Don’t scrimp on soil. I saw it time and again when I worked in the nursery, weekend warriors trying to save a few bucks on inferior soil, while spending huge amounts of money on dahlia tubers, new seeds or bright, colorful annuals and perennials. This ADES (All Dirt Is Equal Syndrome), affects many new (and experienced) gardeners, and can be disastrous in the garden! Let’s dispel soil myth #1 first: topsoil is not the answer. All “topsoil” means, is, that that dirt was scraped from the top, including troublesome weed seed. It doesn’t indicate if it has organic matter (which you want) or what percent of sand, silt and clay is in the bag. What you really want instead is loam. Loam has just the right balance of soil particles, giving you excellent drainage and improved nutrient and water-holding capacity (yes!). Look at soil bag descriptions and look for something that drains well.

Every year I start with a soil test to determine what my plants are going to need and add accordingly (blood meal for foliage, bonemeal for flowering plants and lime/sulfur to adjust the pH). Just follow the directions on the bag and apply.

A note on digging. Unless you are starting a brand-spanking new bed, DON’T DO IT ! This is soil myth #2: rototilling mixes your soil. No. It doesn’t. Actually, it breaks apart your soil’s structure and kills the beneficial microbes and worms living in your garden. Instead, top dress your beds with a few inches of compost and let the earthworms do the work. It’s what those little, slimy things want to do anyway and they’re good at it. They’ll sense that delicious, nutrient-rich compost ladled on top of your garden bed and crawl up, around and down as fast as they can to digest nutrients, leaving castings and distributing nutrients throughout the soil. Why would you want to mess with the natural order of the universe?

Garden Bed Topped with a couple inches of compost

For new raised beds, fill them with a 50/50 mixture of garden loam and compost, topping it with a few inches of straight compost. Otherwise, all the same principles for amending and no tilling apply.

Soil myth #3: you need to aerate your soil. Wrong-o. While you want some space in your soil for air, water and roots to tunnel through and reach nutrients, let the soil microbes handle that. This is why good soil structure is so important (remember that mix of sand, silt and clay we talked about?). You don’t want too much sand because that will cause all your water and nutrients to drain away before plants can get a hold of them, and you don’t want too much clay either, which causes root rot. With the right blend of soil particles, earthworms and microbes not only till, but they aerate as well, leaving behind hundreds and thousands of channels as they slide, inch and wiggle their way through your garden.

Once your bed has been made (ha!) and planted in, try to avoid stepping on and compacting the soil. Each time you compress the soil, you’re squeezing out all those air channels and suffocating the roots.

As you plant into your beds and notice an increase in earthworms, that means you are doing something right! Unpleasant as they are to look at, earthworms are a sign of healthy, biological activity in your soil. If you don’t see as many worms as you like, you can add casting to help improve the fertility, buy actual earthworms and toss them into the garden or raise your own in a homemade earthworm bin (there’s lots of free plans available online).

Personally, I use drip tape and landscape fabric (rated for 12-15 years) with holes burned into them, and plant directly into these little pockets to help control the weed situation. Most of us hate weeds because they make the garden look sloppy, but they’re extremely dangerous because they steal all that organic matter goodness and water from your plants, and overcrowd your garden. To make it look more aesthetically pleasing you can cover the fabric with wood chips, straw or gravel.

For more information on soil, its amendments and nutrients, compost, as well as everything you can (and can’t) imagine about organic growing and the kitchen garden, pick up a copy of Kelly‘s book, The Backyard Gardener, available on Amazon, Barnes+Noble’s or get your signed copy on her site, Bowery Beach Farm.

To Seed or Not to Seed?

Propagation is one of my favorite garden tasks. It’s just a big word to describe a couple simple techniques for starting new plants.

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There’s seed (which I’m sure everyone is familiar with), cuttings (think of it as cloning, but all you need is part of a stem, leaf or root to do it) and layering. Since layering is a technique that is used on actively growing plants, I’m going to ignore that one for now and just focus on starting baby plants.

Sowing is the traditional way to grow plants. 

Just follow the directions on your seed packets and you should be fine. A good rule of thumb when sowing is to plant the seed only as deep as its diameter. 

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There are a few seeds that are dormant and need a little help breaking dormancy. In that case you can soak, nick or freeze your seeds for a specified amount of time. Few seeds require treatments like that, so unless your seed packet indicates otherwise no worries.

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Not all seed is created equal. Yup, you heard me. 

Some plants are sterile and don’t produce any seeds, while others which do, don’t come true to seed. This phrase “not true to seed” refers to planting seeds from a single plant, but the emerging seedlings show wide variation in color, form and/or growing habit. When this is the case, you should take cuttings. 

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I take cuttings for rosemary, tarragon, lavender and my scented geraniums in the fall so they have a good start before the following growing season. And even though you can take cuttings anytime, spring and fall are best.

Use clean, sharp snips or a razor to sever a 3-6″ long stem or leaf from the mommy plant just above a node. Then, trim the bottom to just below a node–your cutting will root quicker from there. Sometimes rooting hormone is useful, others not-so-much, but stick your cutting in a light potting mix and firm up the soil. Most cuttings root in 3-4 weeks. 

And whether you are starting from seed or cuttings, a heating mat is invaluable! 

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Cuttings are also useful when you see a plant at your friend’s house that you want to steal covet. It’s less of an imposition to ask if you can just snip off a stem rather than tucking the whole thing into your bag when no one’s looking and giving “innocent eyes” when someone discovers the plant is missing.

For more on sowing seed, cuttings and the organic kitchen garden, check out my new book, The Backyard Gardener!

Tomatoes, Who is Not Growing These?

Yesterday I spent the morning seeding tomatoes (they take a while to get started) and as I was gearing up for the season I thought about who wasn’t seeding them … I mean isn’t everyone?

I’m all about supporting your local nursery, but when they’re so easy and cheap to start and all you need is time and patience, why not? You’ll get much better selection with seed, and then you can swap with friends! 

So here are my Top 10 Tomato Growing Tips to get you excited!

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Tomato Growing Tip #1: Pick tomato varieties that you will use and are best for your zone. Besides trial and error, which while important and educational, is time consuming. You’ll get much better information about which varieties are good for what, grow well and taste good when talking with friends and neighbors (even your local agricultural extension).

Some varieties preform better than others in specific climates. There are even disease-resistance varieties available. So save yourself some time and ask around.

Tomato Growing Tip #2: Compost and feed your soil, don’t over think it! Get that nutrition in the soil BEFORE you plant your tomato seeds/seedlings. So many people I know add compost and fertilizer after they plant, but starting with a rich, compost soil first is much more beneficial.

Humus, present in healthy, rich soil provides all the potassium (K) your tomatoes need to develop strong roots and stems. And your compost contributes all the phosphorous (P) you need to flowers and fruits. So when you feed your soil a ‘balanced’ fertilizer you are adding more potassium and phosphorous to an already hefty supply. Then adding the extra nitrogen (N), which of course makes your tomato plant look green and lush, results in more foliage and less tomatoes.

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Tomato Growing Tip #3: Plant in a sunny spot. And by sunny I mean about 10 hours. The more sun the better. And if you can find a spot that has lots of air circulation that is even better. Not only will your tomatoes grow bigger with more sun, but the air movement keeps disease and pests away.

Tomato Growing Tip #4: Plant your seedlings deep. Whether you grow your seedlings from seed or purchase them at your local nursery, dig a hole deep enough so that the stem is buried up to the top 2 leaves (after removing the lower leaves).

Your plants will develop more roots this way. And more roots means a healthier stem, and a healthier stem means a healthier plant, and a healthier plant makes more tomatoes. Boom!

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Tomato Growing Tip #5: Mulch. So simple. Mulch your tomato plants. Use straw, pine needles, leaves, grass, seaweed, whatever! But mulch not only breaks down into yummy things for the soil, but it also keeps the roots cool, prevents weeds, and helps the soil keep its moisture. Which is especially important once the heat and dryness of summer arrive.

Tomato Growing Tip #6: Use Seaweed as a mulch. Your tomatoes will get some supplemental potassium (think stronger and quicker root development), and as the mulch breaks down it integrates into your soil, making it richer.

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Tomato Growing Tip #7: Grow your plants vertically. Keeping the stems and leaves off the soil helps keep pests and disease at bay. It also lets in lots of light to all sides of the plant, helping it grow stronger and healthier. I like to use the basketweave trellis technique (please ignore the pink twine … I ran out of the regular jute stuff and that was all I could find in a “trellising emergency”)  This complements the bright and airy spot in tip #3.

Tomato Growing Tip #8: Pluck the first flowers off your plant. This stops the plant from making its first tomatoes. Hence, sending its energy back into growing more stems, leaves and new flowers for new tomatoes. Most experienced tomato gardeners do this, and it is for a reason! Some are even more hardcore and pinch out all the flowers until the plant is a foot tall. I haven’t been that brave yet … but it is some good food for thought.

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Tomato Growing Tip #9: Pinch off suckers and non-fruiting branches. These divert your plants energy to places that lead nowhere. Instead by pruning these branches out your tomato plant can focus its energy on making bigger, tastier tomatoes!

Tomato Growing Tip #10: Water long and good. You don’t have to water everyday (except, maybe at the height of summer, in which you probably need to water more frequently) when your plant is growing. It is better to soak it once a week at the plant base. And avoid getting the leaves wet, that could cause some leaf scorch or lead to disease.

And plant, plant, plant! Plant a second (or third if you live in warmer climates) succession of tomatoes in 2-3 weeks of each other. This spreads out your harvests and increases your tomato yield. Which means more tomatoes, which is always a good thing.

For more on growing tomatoes, other vegetables and the organic kitchen garden, check out my new book, The Backyard Gardener!

The Backyard Gardener is Here!

 

I am over the moon! The first copies of my first book, The Backyard Gardener have arrived and I can’t believe I’m holding my book in my hands!

 

This all started with an email from my now editor asking what today’s gardeners are looking for and if I be willing to submit a proposal for one of the ideas we discussed.

 

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So, I thought hard about what I’ve always wanted out of a kitchen garden book. Then I talked to my garden friends and asked what they were looking for. In the end, there wasn’t really a book on the market that describes the whole process—holistically. I mean, they all have great info with the vegetables listed from A to Z, but we’ve all flipped backward and forward to see page so-and-so to get the whole picture. And by the time you’re ready to start growing, you have to figure out which vegetables and fruits go in each bed, then mark those pages throughout the book. I wanted to do something different.

 

This book covers all you need to know in the first three chapters. I start by talking about gardening from the ground up (the basics): soil, light, water, plant care, pests, etc., followed by the various propagation techniques I use (sowing seed and how to take and start cuttings). The third chapter is a departure from many other garden books. I share my favorite organic practices to improve your crops without chemicals. Crop rotation, season extension, different ways to warm the soil, and even my own sheet mulch (lasagna gardening) recipe are covered here. There are also growing tips, like my heating-mat hack or how to make a potato tower sprinkled throughout.

 

I’ve grown everything in this book and that’s what the second half (more like 70%) of the book focuses on: Growing vegetables and fruits! I’ve compiled everything I know from personal experience with years of reading and advice from friends into each plant listing. I laid these pages out just like I garden-in crop rotation groups. You’ll find all the Brassicas together, followed by the nightshade vegetables, and so on. Then I talk about my Top 10 herbs and flowers that no kitchen garden should be without, and in the final chapter I break down all my garden chores by month and season. Now you’ll know everything I know!

 

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Screen Shot 2017-02-21 at 11.40.31 PMThe past year-and-a-half has been crazy. So many hours of writing, gardening and photographing went into this little book and I’m so proud! ? My husband was a real trouper. As my deadline drew closer, the laundry pile never seemed to shrink and I began naming the dust bunnies left undusted. When he left for work in the morning I’d be out in the greenhouse and when he came home I’d be at my desk writing or photographing in the garden. His only consolation was that our little house was overflowing with produce!

 

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I wrote this book from my heart. I hope you read it as if we were having a riveting conversation over a fresh tomato salad and the upcoming growing season.

 

“All through the long winter, I dream of my garden. On the first day of spring, I dig my fingers deep into he soft arch. I can feel its energy, and my spirits soar.” ~ Helen Hayes

 

I’ve had a clipping of that quote tacked to my cork board since I was 16 and it never fails to capture my feelings about growing. Every time I sink my hands into the soil I feel my connection to the world, and that is my wish is for every gardener, new or experienced. Go out, get dirty and grow. It feeds both your tummy and your soul. Happy gardening!

By |February 22nd, 2017|Books, Growing & Gardening, The Backyard Gardener, Writing|

Compost, the Black Gold

Every gardener’s compost pile aspires to the almighty ‘black gold’. Full or nutrients and beneficial microorganisms, it feeds your vegetables, herbs and flowers so much better than any fertilizer can and the best part of it is, it’s FREE!

The hardest aspect of composting for me is the patience. I have none.

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It takes at least 6 months to turn your garden’s leavings from garbage into gourmet food.

You can make compost in a pile in the corner of your yard or homemade bin. If you are using wood, just be sure that is it not pressure-treated. You don’t want those nasty chemicals leaching out into your compost and then into your food. There are a number of materials that can be used to make great compost, including: plastic, wire, wood, pallets or fencing.

The key to happy, healthy compost is heat and the right amount of brown and green material. 100908_4354

Heat is generated by keeping your piles to a manageable size (3’x 3’x 3′) and turning it weekly. The ingredients are the other half.

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Shredded newspaper, pine needles, dried leaves and cardboard are all good sources of carbon (or brown) materials, while vegetable scraps, grass clippings and other green things are good nitrogen sources. The rule of thumb is for every one bucket of nitrogen, use two of carbon.

Since carbon materials can be in short supply in the growing season I’ll bag up a bunch of leaves in the fall and store them in the shed for use in the summer.

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Once your pile smells nice and woodsy, it’s time to spread it out in the garden. And don’t be stingy! Use a good 3-4 inches and your garden with thank you.

For more on composting and the organic kitchen garden, be sure to check out my new book, The Backyard Gardener!