Tag Archives: Gardening

Eco-Saturday: Grow your own sprouts

I love sprouts. They’re higher in protein and nutrients than lettuce and taste good in salads and sandwiches.

What I don’t love are the plastic containers in which they’re packed. Those clamshell boxes are usually recyclable, but the little humidifier pads at the bottom aren’t, and avoiding plastic altogether is generally better for the environment than using it once and then recycling it.

That brings me to one of my favorite winter projects: growing my own sprouts.

In this planting zone, December gardening is a no-go unless you have a heated greenhouse or a hydroponic operation. Sprouts, however, grow just fine on a shelf in the dining room, where I keep a sprouter going most of the winter.

Theoretically, you can grow sprouts in a canning jar with a piece of cheesecloth stretched across the top, but I’ve never had good luck with this approach. Small sprouters are available for about $20 apiece (I use this one, but any similar model will do), and they tend to work much better than the canning-jar approach.

Alfalfa seeds, left, and lentils, right, are good for sprouting. You'll probably have to hit the health-food store for alfalfa seeds.
Alfalfa seeds, left, and lentils, right, are good for sprouting. You’ll probably have to hit the health-food store for alfalfa seeds.

Sprouting is easy, but like any other kind of gardening, it requires a little time and attention. Here’s the general upshot:

1. Change the water frequently. My sprouter is designed with stackable trays that have small drainage holes in the bottom. You run water in the top tray, and it percolates down, watering the sprouts at each level before collecting in a solid tray at the bottom. At least twice a day, I dump out the water, rotate the trays, and water the top one. (Don’t reuse the old water.)

2. Keep an eye on the drainage holes. As the roots grow, some may extend down into the holes and clog them up. If you notice water doesn’t seem to be draining right, sterilize a needle and use it to unclog the holes.

3. Don’t let your sprouts dry out. If your indoor air is really dry, you may need to cover the top to help keep moisture in for the first day or two. When the sprouts are about a quarter-inch long, remove the cover and start rotating the trays each time you water so the same tray isn’t constantly on top, where it’s more likely to dry out.

4. Stagger your plantings. Most varieties will go from seed to salad in three or four days. If you start new seeds every couple of days, you’ll have a constant supply of fresh greens. (Be sure to wash the trays in between harvests.)

You should be able to find sprouting seeds at any health-food store. You can also sprout brown lentils, which are available by the pound at pretty much any grocery store.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Fall garden chores

We’re sneaking up on the first frost of the year, which means it’s time to start putting the garden to bed.

This is always a bittersweet task for me — more bitter than sweet, because I’ve never liked winter — but prepping the garden for winter ensures it’s ready to go in the spring, and this year, I have a long list of projects to work on.

I’ll share more specifics about some of these tasks as I go, but today, I’d like to offer a general overview, in case you’re looking at a soon-to-be-dormant garden and trying to figure out what to do before the next planting season. Your garden’s specific needs may vary, but here’s my to-do list for the next 25 weekends:

* Make compost. Not sure how? Click here.
* Buy six more fire rings. These will become raised beds.
* Harvest seeds. Instructions here.
* Harvest the last of the produce and pull out the old plants.
* Rake leaves. If yours are from safe trees, compost them. We don’t have that luxury, as our house is flanked by pecan and walnut trees, so we’ll have to let the city take ours.
* Plant daffodils and tulips.
* Winterize the pond.
* Winterize the quail pen. The Great Stuff I used to seal it when I built it is wearing out, and the polystyrene panels are degrading a bit, so I’ll have to hit the hardware store for replacements.
* Fence the berry patch.
* Treat the strawberries with coffee grounds. Supposedly this will ward off slugs.
* Inventory beekeeping and gardening equipment.
* Buy flagstone and install more paths.
* Mulch between paths.
* Mulch strawberries.
* Build raised bed in the front yard.
* Prune rosebush.
* Map next year’s garden.
* Order seeds. Two good sources: Seedsavers.org and Baker Creek Heirloom seeds.
* Start plants. Check the USDA planting-zone map and consult your seed packets before you schedule this.

Chaff on the left; seeds on the right.
Harvesting seeds: Chaff on the left; seeds on the right.

Harvesting seeds is one of my favorite fall chores. This year, I’ve brought in tomato seeds, which are drying on paper towels on top of the refrigerator as we speak; Trail of Tears beans, which need to be removed from their pods; and a newcomer to the garden this year: zinnias.

This doesn't really look like an hour's worth of work, does it?
This doesn’t really look like an hour’s worth of work, does it?

I spent the better end of an hour the other day separating zinnia seeds from chaff. It’s tedious work, but there’s something hopeful in the act of saving seeds — a sort of contract between the plants and their caretaker. The seeds contain the promise of spring; saving them is an act of faith in that promise and a statement of intention: “I’ll be back to tend you in a few months.”

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Leafcutter bees

Left to my own devices, I would have ordered at least one nuc hive and two packages of honeybees this spring, and we’d have a yard full of pollinators tending my garden and entertaining me. Ron, however — frustrated by the departure of yet another colony of notoriously flighty Carniolan-Italian hybrids last year — decided he wasn’t spending another dime on bees this spring and would just put our names on a couple of swarm lists and wait to catch a feral colony.

No one called, so we didn’t get the opportunity to catch our own swarm, and as a direct result, my cucumber crop this year consisted of three fruits. THREE. A typical plant will produce cucumbers faster than I can put them up, but those flowers won’t pollinate themselves, and without several thousand bees living a few feet away, the blossoms just withered away without producing anything.

When I finally realized what was happening, I decided enough was enough and ordered myself a leafcutter bee kit. Leafcutters are a gentle, solitary species that don’t produce honey but do pollinate at least as enthusiastically as honeybees.

The bees arrive as pupae encased in little pouches made of — you guessed it — pieces of leaves their mamas cut from lilac or rose bushes. My kit came with a little bee house consisting of a plastic PVC pipe with a cap on one end, predrilled for easy mounting to a fence or other vertical space, and a wooden block with holes drilled in it for the bees to use as nests.

leafcutter2

One bee had already emerged from her little cocoon when she arrived a couple of weeks ago. I peeked in the other day, and it appears the others have emerged, although I haven’t seen any of them in the garden.

I may not. There are no guarantees they’ll like my yard; these are, after all, living creatures with minds of their own. But I planted a rose bush for them before they arrived, and I’m hopeful they’ll find the foliage and flowers in my garden attractive enough to entice them to stay, raise kids, and overwinter with me.

I had a secondary motive in trying leafcutters: I have a mild allergy to bee venom that seems to have gotten worse in recent years. I still prefer A. mellifera to all other bee species, but if the day comes when traditional beekeeping is no longer a safe hobby for me, I’d like a reasonable alternative to ensure I can continue to nurture pollinators in my garden.

We’ll see whether these girls decide to stick around. I’ll keep you posted.

Emily

Make-it Monday: Flowerbed

echinacea

Inspired by an end-of-season sale on echinacea, rudbeckia, and Oklahoma Indian blankets, I was just turning over the first few spades of dirt for a new flowerbed in the front yard when a young man walked up and asked if I’d consider paying him to do some yard work. He was stranded in town, he said, and was trying to earn enough money to buy a bus ticket home to Springfield, Missouri, to see his daughter.

I’d already hit three rocks by that point and was losing my enthusiasm for the project, so I told him I’d give him $20 an hour to spade up the area I wanted to plant and flatten out the rise left in the yard after the plumber replaced our sewer line last year.

I figured he’d be out there the rest of the afternoon, but he had the flowerbed spaded up in less than 15 minutes, and in the time it took me to install mulch cloth and plant my flowers, he’d flattened that rise. He was done in just over an hour, so I treated him like those fraction-of-an-hour-is-an-hour contractors and sent him off to the Greyhound station with $40, a big bottle of Gatorade, and a big smile.

I cannot believe he did this in 45 minutes. It would have taken me all weekend.
I cannot believe he did this in 45 minutes. It would have taken me all weekend.

After he left, I took myself to Lowe’s to pick up mulch and more flowers — including several daylilies to plant along the sewer line.

Daylily. I forget the variety, but I like the dark eye.
Daylily. I forget the variety, but I like the dark eye.

Between the two of us, I think we did a pretty good job.

Finished bed. Well, almost finished. It still needs edging.
Finished bed. Well, almost finished. It still needs edging.

I still need some flagstone to use as edging, and I need to move the coupler and spare hose to the front so I can water more easily, but I’m happy with this project so far, and I’m looking forward to expanding the beds in the coming months so they’ll be ready for planting in the spring.

Emily

Secret Garden

Hidden behind our six-foot privacy fence, our garden really is a well-kept secret. The only hint of its existence is the occasional tomato plant stretching above the top of the fence. The bulk of my plantings still lie beyond the metal fence at the back of the yard, but I’m slowly expanding my planting areas beyond that, and I think in a couple more seasons, I’ll have something worthy of a Frances Hodgson Burnett story.

Here’s a quick update on the back garden, which is primarily vegetables and herbs, with a few zinnias thrown in for fun:

My wisteria-laden arbor makes exactly the welcoming entrance I had in mind when I installed it behind the garden gate.
My wisteria-laden arbor makes exactly the welcoming entrance I had in mind when I installed it behind the garden gate.
I planted beans along the fence last year. They planted themselves at the end of the season and came up on their own this spring.
I planted beans along the fence last year. They planted themselves at the end of the season and came up on their own this spring.
Those zinnias the neighbor boys helped plant this spring are blooming nicely. I need to gather a bouquet and give it to their mom.
Those zinnias the neighbor boys helped plant this spring are blooming nicely. I need to gather a bouquet and give it to their mom.
Couple more zinnias.
Couple more zinnias.

garden

I’m a little frustrated with my cucumber plants; they’re blooming like mad, but they’ve yet to set fruit. The garden is feeling the absence of the apiary this year. Our last hive crashed last winter, and instead of buying more bees this spring, Ron put our names on the swarm list and hoped for the best. We didn’t get any calls, so we don’t have anybody living in the bee yard this season. Next year, I’m ordering two packages of Italians and maybe one of Russians. I miss having fuzzy little six-legged friends working alongside me in the garden, and I can think of way better ways to spend my time than standing out in the garden with a paintbrush, hand-pollinating cucumber blossoms.

I’ll have to do it within the next week or so if I want them this season, but I’m half-tempted to order some leafcutters just to bridge the gap until we can re-establish a proper apiary next spring. Leafcutters are, like orchard mason bees, a gentle, solitary species that won’t produce honey but will work their little butts off in the garden without giving me any static. In the absence of my beloved A. mellifera, I’m not against hiring a few temps in the interest of getting a decent cucumber crop.

Emily

What a spring.

I keep thinking I’ll get on here and write a post catching up all the stuff I’ve done this spring, but every time I think I’m about to catch my breath, something else happens.

March was a little bit busy, but nothing ridiculous; mostly just the usual preliminary garden work, and I started a redecorating project in my dining room that got pushed back a bit when I landed a gig painting a mural at the new juvenile justice center the county is developing. I spent the middle of April working on that. I think it turned out well:

Ignore the white smudges; that's just sealer that hadn't dried yet when I took the pictures.
Ignore the white smudges; the sealer hadn’t dried yet when I took the pictures.
The mural is in an area where little kids in the foster system wait when they have court dates.
The mural is in an area where little kids in the foster system wait when they have court dates.

I also had three road trips in April: a nice trip to Pontiac, Illinois, on April 9 to help the Illinois Route 66 Association spruce up the museum ahead of tourist season; a pleasant trip to Tulsa for a Judy Collins concert April 24; and a trip to Afton, Oklahoma, for our friend Laurel’s memorial service April 30.

That last trip started out well but turned into a nightmare 70 miles from home, when my Subaru decided to have its second catastrophic breakdown in as many years. When we described all the problems we’ve had with the car since we bought it, Subaru corporate offered us $1,000 off a new one. Uh, no. I already spent $5,000 having the transmission rebuilt in this one — for which I still owe $8,500 — and now it needs a $6,800 engine and radiator replacement. I’ll just cut my losses now and park it until I finish paying it off, thanks.

Of course this happened the week I decided I was going to break my 30-year swearing habit by assigning Weight Watchers-style points to profanities, giving myself a daily quota, and cutting off an inch of my hair for every day I exceeded my points.

When we left for Afton, my hair looked like this:

memarch

After I spent two weeks cussing that bloody Subaru, it looked like this:

memay

I don’t love it, but I hate it less than I expected, for various reasons.

Automotive woes notwithstanding, it’s been a pretty good spring. I’ve been doing a lot of landscaping projects. Here are a few I especially like:

We bought an arbor in April. I’d wanted one for a long time.

To the right is a wall I built around the asparagus patch to keep Riggy from sneaking into the garden via that gap between the metal fence and the privacy fence. Just beyond the gate is the new arbor I bought in April to train the wisteria.
April. To the right is a wall I built around the asparagus patch to keep Riggy from sneaking into the garden via a gap in the fence.
This is the wisteria a month later. (Notice the parsley to the left of the arbor, too. It grew all winter and got huge this spring, so I'm letting it go to seed.)
This is the wisteria a month later.

I also decided to try my hand at fairy gardening, Whovian-style:

Fairy gardening is all the rage on Pinterest. This is my geeked-out version.
Don’t blink.
A month later, the lucky bamboo is struggling a bit, and the fern is a lost cause, but the other plants are thriving.
A month later, the lucky bamboo is struggling, and the fern is a lost cause, but the other plants are thriving.

And, of course, my pride and joy:

March.
March.
April.
April.
The pond as it looked today, with the water irises blooming profusely.
Today. Love those irises.

Finally, here are two views of my front porch since I started adding plants and decorations to it:

Curb appeal. We haz it.
Curb appeal: We haz it.
The view from my front door. Love those ferns.
The view from my front door.

I have several other projects to share, but this post is getting out of hand, so I’ll stop there for now. Hope you’re having a good spring, wherever you are.

Emily

How my garden grows

I’m slowly but surely turning my backyard into the sort of enchanted garden I’ve always wanted. I’m still several hundred pounds of Sackrete, ten lawn gnomes and a couple more growing seasons away, but it’s really taking shape this summer.

A few photos:

Here is the view from the little bench next to the pond. You can see the spots where my Darwin approach is taking off and making magic.
Here is the view from the little bench next to the pond. I love my mermaid.

From the bench by the pond, you can kind of see what I’m trying to do. The raised beds behind the little black fence are full of compost and have vegetables coming up in them. So far, I’m delighted with them, as they’re super easy to weed, and most of the plants are thriving. I’m still figuring out the ideal spots for various species based on light conditions back there. In the foreground is the pond, barely visible behind the perennials I’ve planted around and in it, and at left is the Darwin Garden, so named because it’s an exercise in survival of the fittest: I’ve planted it entirely with perennials and vigorous self-seeding annuals and let them live or die as they will. It’s thriving, as I expected it to, and I intend to expand it into the rest of the yard as time goes by.

Now for a few details:

I cleaned the pond filter today. I still can't believe my $12 homemade filter is working as well as it is.
I cleaned the pond filter today. I still can’t believe that $12 homemade filter is working as well as it is.
Tomatoes and cucumbers. The tomatoes are Tigerellas -- a tasty, wonderfully reliable variety in this area.
Tomatoes and cucumbers. The tomatoes are Tigerellas — a tasty, wonderfully reliable variety in this area.
Darwin Garden residents: last year's chives came back; this year's cilantro and marjoram are doing nicely, and the collards are coming up around the strawberries. Arugula is reseeding itself just outside the frame.
Darwin Garden residents: last year’s chives came back; this year’s cilantro, marjoram and parsley are doing nicely, and the collards are coming up around the strawberries. Arugula is reseeding itself in the upper left.
Trail of Tears beans coming up along the vegetable garden fence.
Trail of Tears beans coming up along the vegetable garden fence. The ground is covered with commercial-grade mulch cloth and a thick layer of leaf mold, so weeds are minimal and easily pulled. In the background, a lawn gnome cosplays the Tenth Doctor between the beehives.
I love my chooks. That pail in the corner is actually the best-designed water dispenser I've ever used.
Buff Orpington hens. That pail in the corner is actually the best-designed water dispenser I’ve ever used.
The water irises I planted in the pond last spring started blooming in May. I am madly in love with them.
The water irises bloomed in May. I am madly in love with them. Dig that mint that decided to be an aquatic plant.

I have a lawn gnome I bought last spring that I’m going to paint this week to look like the Ninth Doctor. I’m hoping to make a pilgrimage to East Alton in a few weeks to score some more gnomes. Eventually, I want gnomes cosplaying each of the Doctor’s regenerations, sprinkled randomly around the yard.

Yay for finally going gray like I mean to accomplish something!
Hooray for gray!

While I was taking pictures, I accidentally set the phone to selfie mode, so I took this totally egocentric photo of my new haircut, which I got last week. I don’t like it, but I never like my hair short. I do like having it healthy, and I’m really going to like it when all this salt and pepper is down to my shoulders and looking all Judy-Collins-circa-1993.

Hope your weekend was productive and pleasant.

 

Earth Day

I had a massage this morning and work this afternoon, but in between, I had just enough time to celebrate Earth Day by weeding the Darwin Garden, filling my raised beds with a mixture of compost and peat moss and getting my tomato seedlings into the ground.

Behold:

I'm really excited about these raised beds. Hopefully the tomatoes will like them.
I’m really excited about these raised beds. Hopefully the tomatoes will like them.
I still can't believe these fish survived the awful winter we had.
I still can’t believe these fish survived the awful winter we had.
Darwin Garden is going strong, with arugula already going to seed and chives, sage and strawberries blooming.
Darwin Garden is going strong, with arugula already going to seed and chives, sage and strawberries blooming.
The asparagus I planted last fall is coming up nicely. We'll leave it alone and let it get established this year.
The asparagus I planted last fall is coming up nicely. We’ll leave it alone and let it get established this year.

I’m utterly amazed by my goldfish. We got that early, intense cold snap in November, and the top of the pond froze solid before I had a chance to dip the fish out and bring them inside for the winter. The layer of ice was thick, and the severe cold spells were spaced just far enough apart that it never thawed. I remember reading something that said not to break up ice on a pond, as the vibrations harm the fish more than the cold weather, so I just left them alone and hoped for the best. Upon discovering they’d survived, I promptly named them Ted Williams and General Skaldak, in honor of two other guys who were famously frozen.

I’ll get the rest of the garden in the ground sometime this weekend.

Hope your Earth Day was good and you found something kind to do for the planet.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Grow your own vegetables

Note to subscribers: You may have gotten a notice early this morning about a password-protected post. Ignore it; I’m just using that post as a parking place for materials related to a mural project I’m doing this spring.

I’d grow a garden even if I didn’t care about the environment, because storebought tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs simply don’t taste as good as heirloom varieties harvested half an hour before the salad goes on the table. The fact that organic gardening is better for the planet is just a bonus.

From an environmental standpoint, homegrown vegetables eliminate three sources of waste: transportation, packaging and pesticides. From an economic standpoint, they also conserve cash, as produce from the grocery store tends to get rather expensive.

Thanks to a little advance planning, all I had to buy for this year's garden was a couple of bags of potting soil and some heirloom seeds I wanted to try.
Thanks to a little advance planning, all I had to buy for this year’s garden was a couple of bags of potting soil and some heirloom seeds I wanted to try.

If you’re planning to grow tomatoes, peppers or other plants that require a little coddling to germinate, now is the time to start them. A few tips:

1. Use decent-sized pots. Peat pellets are convenient, but they’re also worthless; your plants will get rootbound and require repotting within a couple of weeks. Save yourself the hassle by starting the seeds in bigger containers to start with. Tin cans, yogurt cups and old disposable coffee cups all work well for this purpose, or you can recycle newspaper into biodegradable seed-starting cups.

2. Give them plenty of light. If you don’t have big south-facing windows, invest in a mini-greenhouse and as many growlights as you can afford. I gave $16 for a mini-greenhouse last year, and I spent another $75 or so on six small growlight fixtures, which I connected to a power strip and plugged into a timer to simulate night and day for the plants.

Less than $100 gave me a nice planting shelf that provides light, warmth and humidity for seedlings. If I were starting peppers, I'd add a heat mat to one of the shelves..
Less than $100 gave me a nice planting shelf that provides light, warmth and humidity for seedlings. If I were starting peppers, I’d add a heat mat to one of the shelves.

3. Don’t drown them. The soil should feel damp but not wet. Too much moisture can rot young plants at the root.

I recycled a plastic shoebox into a worm bin. When the worms outgrew it, I used it to corral old malt syrup cans full of potting soil.
I recycled a plastic shoebox into a worm bin. When the worms outgrew it, I used it to corral old malt syrup cans full of potting soil.

4. Find your planting zone, and DO NOT plant vegetables outside before the last frost date, or you’ll regret it.

5. Buy interesting heirloom varieties that are suited to your area. My favorite sources for heirloom seeds are Baker Creek and Seed Savers Exchange. Save seeds from the plants that grow well, and you can replant next year without having to buy more.

What are you planting this year?

Emily

P.S.: Here’s Day 11 of my Lent project:

I like bajas, but I have way more of them than I need, and for some reason, this one makes me itchy.
I like bajas, but I have way more of them than I need, and for some reason, this one makes me itchy.

Eco-Saturday: Newspaper seed-starting pots

Last year, I showed you how to recycle Ro-Tel or enchilada sauce cans into planters for starting seeds. I’ve saved cans all year and have about three dozen to start the season — not bad, but not as many as I’d like. (I try to start at least a dozen of each tomato variety I intend to grow so I’ve got a good selection when it’s time to decide which plants go in the garden.)

To make up the slack, I’m recycling newspaper into biodegradable seed-starting cups.

I could do a step-by-step photo tutorial or a series of diagrams or some such, but the video embedded above is way better than anything I’m likely to come up with. What I particularly like is the simplicity of the design — you don’t need a background in origami to turn a sheet of newsprint into a neat little square planter. The size is also good; peat pellets and a lot of the commercially available planting flats are so small that your plants won’t have room to grow, and you’ll end up having to transplant them to keep them from getting leggy and rootbound long before the last frost date. These are big enough that your tomatoes shouldn’t outgrow them before Planting Day.

I’ll probably use two sheets of newsprint rather than one on mine to ensure they’re sturdy enough to hold up until April 15.

And yes, I know there have been some concerns about whether newsprint is safe to use in the garden, but Cornell University reports most newspapers have switched to soy- or water-based inks that won’t hurt your soil, your plants or you. I feel quite confident in saying heirloom tomatoes started in recycled newspaper pages and planted in your backyard are far better for the planet (and you) than Frankenfood grown on a factory farm 1,500 miles away and trucked all over creation.

In other news, here’s Day 4 of my giving-things-up-for-Lent project:

lent4

I love this skirt, but the “one size fits all” label in it is and always has been a lie. That drawstring is purely decorative; a wide elastic band holds up the top, and it’s much too tight for comfort. Too bad, because a solid black broomstick skirt is a handy thing to have. Maybe someday I’ll find one in my size. In the meantime, I’ll toss this one in the thrift-store box for a thinner person to enjoy.

Emily