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planting

If you have four- to six-months’ lead time to start a new planting bed in your lawn, don’t cut sod! Rather, lay out cardboard in the shape of the bed, cover it with at least six inches of manure or compost, and let it cook.

Great news: You’re going to add a home kitchen garden to your yard next year! Wait: you’re adding to an existing home kitchen garden? That’s also great news! But I’m pretty sure I heard you mention that you plan to cut sod in the spring. Don’t do it!

I mean, don’t cut sod. Cutting sod to create a planting bed in the lawn is a time-honored ritual. So many people figure that to find soil they must remove the grass. But cutting and removing sod is back-breaking work, and the science of gardening is ever-changing. Coming into vogue is a method of creating new planting beds in lawns without ever cutting sod!

Lazy Garden your way to Next Year’s Planting Bed

Because you started planning now for next spring, you can take the lazy path and slow-cook a planting bed into your lawn. Then you won’t have to cut and remove sod in the spring. Slow-cooking is relatively easy. I learned about it from the Penn State University Cooperative Extension office, though I don’t think they called it slow-cooking. In fact, I don’t think they gave a name for it.

Slow-Cook a Planting Bed

Begin, of course, by selecting the location and dimensions for your new planting bed. I hope you’ve already thought this through carefully and have resolved concerns about sunlight, exposure to wind, drainage, and accessibility. My earlier post, Your First Small Kitchen Garden explores these concerns further. When choosing dimensions for a planting bed, consider whether you’ll need to walk in the bed; my blog post, Small Kitchen Garden Design Layout can help with this decision.

Lay corrugated cardboard on the lawn in the shape of the new planting bed. Cover the grass completely, overlapping pieces of cardboard to close all gaps between them. Cover the cardboard with six inches of compost or manure and wait until spring. A lot of good things should happen in the six months to come.

  • The weighted-down cardboard deprives the grass of oxygen, the grass dies (and the weeds in the grass), and the leaves and roots decompose into a mat of humus-rich soil.
  • Bugs and grubs in the lawn die or move out from under the cardboard.
  • Moisture from the grass, and from dew, rain, and snow break down the cardboard.
  • The compost or manure continues to decay, reducing in depth while it leaches nutrients into the cardboard and the soil under it.

You can use raw manure when you set up a slow-cooked planting bed. If you apply the manure in August or September, it has plenty of time to leach out salt and nutrients into the soil; it will be ready for planting in the spring.

By the time things thaw in the spring, you can dig right through the compost or manure and the cardboard into what used to be lawn. Typically, there will be virtually no evidence of cardboard by this time and what used to be lawn will be relatively soft and easy to work.

Turn Down the Bed

When you plant in a cooked-in bed, your life is easiest if you’re dealing with seedlings or potted plants. You can simply dig a hole for each seedling, set the seedling in the hole, and back-fill with the rich mix of soil and compost that developed over the winter.

If you’re sowing seeds, it’s a good idea to turn the soil within the row in which you plan to sow. Then rake out the soil, create a furrow, and set the seeds. Of course, you can till the entire planting bed: use a power tiller or a shovel to cut deep and turn over six-to-eight inches of soil. Then rake it smooth and lay out your planting zones.

 

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Most of the leaves in this photo belong to young, volunteer cilantro plants in my home kitchen garden. These sprouted about where last year’s main cilantro patch stood, but there are cilantro volunteers scattered through about two-thirds of my vegetable bed.

My home kitchen garden likes to give me surprise gifts. Most of those, I’d rather not receive; my garden isn’t very imaginative and it tends to give me the same presents year-after-year: dandelions, thistle, and a host of other plants I can’t name and I don’t want. I call them weeds.

But other surprise gifts my garden gives me provide a lot of pleasure. These are plants that grow from seeds left behind by last year’s vegetable crop: volunteers. There is only one significant difference between a volunteer and a weed: You would never intentionally try to grow a plant you think of as a weed in your garden. A volunteer is a plant you would grow intentionally, but it’s growing in a place of its own choosing rather than where you planted it.

I’ve spotted dozens of volunteer tomato plants in my home kitchen garden. While they’re likely to produce mediocre tomatoes at best, I’ll let them grow as long as they don’t interfere with the goodies I planted this season.

Stand up to Volunteer

In past years, I’ve had decorative gourds and pumpkins grow as volunteers in my home kitchen garden. I’ve also had tomatoes, peas, beans, cilantro, and dill weed start unexpectedly from seeds left by the previous seasons’ plants. In fact, I planted cherry tomatoes one year, and harvested little red gems three years in a row—the last two years from volunteer plants.

Volunteers start where seeds fall, or where they end up after spring tilling. For me, these locations are rarely convenient. On the other hand, volunteers amuse me enough that I try to work around them. If I weed my garden, I avoid the volunteers. And, if they don’t overshadow or crowd this year’s crops, I let them grow to maturity.

So far this year, I’ve identified volunteer cilantro, dill weed, and tomatoes scattered among my peas, lettuce, spinach, and onions. The dill weed and some cilantro are in particularly convenient places. The tomatoes aren’t so convenient.

I’ll let most volunteers grow, but I don’t have much enthusiasm for the tomatoes. Last year, I planted from flats bought at a garden store. All the varieties were hybrids meaning they’re crosses between two other varieties of plants.

This is not a stand of volunteer dill weed plants. However, I harvested seeds from a volunteer dill plant two seasons ago and planted them last season. The resulting plants were dramatically more robust than the original dill I’d grown from commercial seeds four seasons earier. This year’s volunteer dill sprouts represent a fourth season of dill grown entirely from descendants of those commercial seeds.

Seeds from hybrid plants may not grow at all. When they do grow, they may not produce fruit. If they do produce fruit, it most certainly won’t be the same quality as the hybrid fruit from which the seeds came. But you never know until you try. So, I’ll let the volunteer tomatoes grow and, unless they become a major inconvenience, I’ll see whether they produce decent fruit.

Volunteers Outside My Kitchen Garden

If volunteers in my garden’s planting bed don’t provide enough entertainment, I have a convenient fallback: my compost heap. Through the growing season, it receives damaged and rotting tomatoes, dead and drying herbs and pea plants, and a gallon or so of pumpkin guts. Usually, some of the seeds in all of that take root and I work around the plants. One season, the heap disappeared under the leaves of some large pumpkin vines and I eventually harvested several carving pumpkins.

Garden and compost volunteers are amusing, and sometimes rewarding. I look forward to seeing what pops up in my garden; it’s a little bit like having Christmas morning in mid-spring.

 

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These pepper plants started from seeds some six weeks ago. However, for nearly three weeks they’ve lived outdoors where cool spring days have slowed their growth.

In the 14 years I’ve grown my own home kitchen garden, I had never started seeds indoors. It’s so convenient to buy plants that someone else has started from seeds and set them in the garden the day the frost stops. For most kitchen gardeners, this is an excellent approach. Who has the time, space, and appropriate gear to plant seeds and maintain them for four-to-six weeks before finally setting them in a garden bed?

The down-side of buying flats (packages of four or six seedlings) is that you have a very limited selection. Most local garden stores offer excellent plants but of no more than five to ten varieties. When it comes to tomatoes, you’re likely to find several of the beefsteak plants. Things labeled Big Boy, Better Boy, Bigger Better Boy (I made up that one), Better Girl, Early Girl, Beefsteak, Beefsteak Hybrid, and Big Steak are common. You might find Roma, and some type of cherry tomato… and maybe one uncommon heirloom variety such as Dwarf Grandma Black Vein Pall-Bearer (I made that up as well).

For broccoli and cauliflower, good luck finding more than one variety of each. And, if you want winter squash other than butternut and acorn, you’re simply out of luck.

So… if you want to choose what you plant from a broad selection of varieties, you need to buy seeds and start them yourself. For many plants in many hardiness zones, it’s best to start indoors four-to-six weeks before your last frost. This head start extends the growing season so you can harvest a bigger crop from your home kitchen garden.

My Indoor Starts

I decided to start my own seeds this year. For me it’s not about variety. We’re broke. OK, we’re not broke, but we’re trying to be financially conservative and seeds cost way less than flats of growing plants. There’s that, and I started writing lots of how-to articles about gardening; I coudn’t write about starting seeds without providing at least one example. No wait. There’s one more reason: a neighbor gave me tomatoes of a variety I’ve never seen anywhere else; I wanted to grow them, and that meant starting the seeds myself.

These pepper plants started indoors six weeks ago, but remained there until yesterday. They are many times the size of the outdoor plants, and already have flower buds about to open. The plants that remained inside are weeks ahead of their wilderness survival counterparts. Don’t rush to get your seedlings planted in the garden.

So, I set up low-hanging lights, bought peat pellets and planting soil, and bought seeds months earlier than ever before. I’ve had reasonable success, though some seeds started way faster than I expected while other seeds have taken as many as twenty days to send sprouts above the soil. The most interesting of these (to me) have been the pepper seeds.

A Tale of Two Peppers

I hate that subthitle; please forgive me for it. I filled a windowsill planter and two sawed-off gallon milk jugs with potting soil. I planted bell pepper seeds in both containers indoors under lights. After sprouts emerged, I moved the milk jugs outside to get the plants used to wind and changes in temperature. The window planter stayed inside under lights because some seeds in it didn’t sprout and I wanted to start more (peppers sprout best when the temperature is above 70F degrees).

For the three weeks I’ve had the milk jug peppers outdoors, it has been cold and rainy. The peppers have acclimated, but they’ve nearly stopped growing. In contrast the windowsill planter peppers have charged ahead. There are multiple branches on these plants, and flower buds have formed.

This brings me back to an observation I’ve offered repeatedly: Don’t hurry your garden in the spring. You can plant cold weather crops when the soil thaws, but if the temperature remains low, seeds you plant three weeks later may catch up quickly. Also, no matter how warm it gets in March and April, you could still have frost in mid May. Don’t risk your plant babies by getting started too early.

 

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I built a sandbox when my oldest child was three-and-a-half years old. He’s now 16, and no one has played in the sandbox for at least five years. While it’s close to the playset, it gets plenty of sunlight and will make a terrific planting bed for tomatoes.

When I was young, my dad managed our family’s home kitchen garden. It consisted of four rhubarb plants in the back corner of the yard, a small stand of chives near the outside stairway to the basement, and a bed of strawberries along the driveway. Everything else my parents gardened was ornamental: perennial tulips, peonies, roses, and lilacs, and annual marigolds, pansies, and whatever struck my mother’s fancy.

Then my brothers and I outgrew the sandbox and we discovered my dad’s passion for tomatoes. He carted garbage cans full of horse manure to the sandbox, mixed the manure with the sand, and planted tomatoes. High on horse manure, the plants grew tall, tomatoes grew large, and I staged many rebellions against the disgusting fruits my father harvested. (I genuinely despised tomatoes.)

My Kids’ Sandbox

Fourteen years after leaving home, I settled in central Pennsylvania. Being on the road nearly constantly, I knew I wouldn’t have time to tend a garden, but regardless, I bought a flat of tomato plants and set them in the existing garden bed. I’ve grown tomatoes every season since. In those years, I doubled the size of the garden, and squeezed many vegetables in around the obligatory tomato plants.

I also built a sandbox. For years, my kids made towers and tunnels in the sand, but eventually they abandoned it for other pursuits. Soon, weeds grew and the box itself rotted and collapsed. Now it sits next to the play set, gradually evolving into a climax community forest.

Sandbox Tomatoes

It’s my turn to repurpose a sandbox, echoing my dad’s project of some 40 years ago. I had hoped to do this last weekend, but the weather didn’t cooperate. So, at my first opportunity, I’ll take on the job. Here’s what I’m planning to do:

These tomato plant babies started about three weeks ago from seeds in my basement. They’ll soon be residents of the sandbox.

  • Remove the rotted box and the kids’ debris from the sandbox. There are toys lying on the sand, and probably several buried in it. I’ll extricate whatever I can find.
  • Pull (or excavate) the weeds, trees, and other plants that have moved into the sandbox.
  • Cover the sand with about six inches of horse manure. My daughter takes riding lessons and the stable owners are amenable to me carting away garbage cans full of manure.
  • Turn the manure over into the sand. I’ll try to mix the sand and manure well, but the most I’m willing to work is to jam a shovel deep through the manure into the sand, leverage out a shovel-full, and turn the shovel over so manure ends up under sand.
  • Rake the planting bed smooth.
  • Plant tomatoes
  • Set stakes to which I can tie plants as they grow.

Repurpose Your Sandbox

If you have an old sandbox that you want to incorporate into your home kitchen garden, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • A molded plastic sandbox will become a mud-pit in times of heavy rain. Tomatoes don’t want to live in mud. So, drill holes through the bottom if your sandbox doesn’t have drainage holes.
  • Tomatoes grow deep roots, so top up the sand in the box, but leave room to add lots of humus. Combined sand and humus should be **at least** 12 inches deep—or as close to it as your sandbox allows.
  • If your sandbox has rotted away as mine has, consider building a new retaining wall around the sand when you remove the rotted wood. Working the sand and added humus with a shovel and rake will encourage it to spread if there’s no barrier to hold it in place.
  • You don’t have to grow tomatoes. A repurposed sandbox is fine for any vegetables.
  • Monitor moisture in your converted sandbox. Chances are the sandy planting mixture will drain more quickly than other garden beds, and you may need to water it more frequently.

 

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In various seasons, I’ve gathered peas, beans, tomato seeds, dill seeds, and corriander to plant in the succeeding season. This can be a mistake: Often, a commercial variety of vegetable produces seeds whose resulting plants are nothing like the originals… and usually not nearly as appealing.

In my last post, I shared some videos of a home kitchen gardener who used a six foot space along the windows in her sun room to grow salad greens and herbs during the winter. If you’re in a temperate hardiness zone 8, 7, 6, 5, or 4 and you have a sun room to spare, you can have at least a modest kitchen garden all year.

But if you have garden space in your yard, don’t squander all your indoor growing space to produce off-season salad greens. Do some planning now, order up some unusual seeds, and jumpstart next spring’s home kitchen garden inside.

Seeds and Flats

If you’re a novice gardener, your life will be easiest if you take the obvious path: shop locally for seeds and flats (sets of young plants started for you at a nursery) as they become available in the spring. Why flats? Once reason: some seeds are a bit finicky and a nursery might have more luck starting them than you will… by the time they’re on sale in flats, you know they’ve sprout and are healthy.

But there’s another reason that may be more compelling: starting seeds indoors and transplanting them to your home kitchen garden in the spring stretches out your growing season. Plant lettuce seeds in late March, and you may be eating lettuce by early May. But if you plant baby lettuce plants in March, you could have a robust lettuce garden in April.

If you plan to grow cillantro, buy enough seeds to plant every three or four weeks through the season. Unless you’re addicted, only a half dozen plants will supply plenty of seasoning. Seeds you plant in the spring can mature and re-seed themselves by mid-season, and plants that haven’t gone to seed might winter over, depending on how low the temperature goes.

There are plants that might require more than a hundred days to produce their first fruits, but would continue fruiting for another hundred if given the opportunity. At the same time, some plants mature very quickly, and if given a head start they can feed you well and then get out of the way for a second, and even a third planting.

Variety in a Home Kitchen Garden

So, if you buy locally and plant according to directions on the seed packets and the information tabs sticking in the soil of your flats, you should do fine. In fact, if you follow this path for all your years of gardening, you’ll enjoy a lot of great fresh produce with little hassle.

Here’s the rub: most gardening stores and nurseries have somewhat limited offerings. At my local garden store, for example, I find several beefsteak varieties of tomatoes, an Italian plum tomato, a few early varieties, and two or three off-color varieties. When I tour gardening-related web sites, I see dozens of varieties of tomatoes I’d never have guessed existed.

You can do this too. Get your hands on a seed catalogue or two or three and visit some on-line seed suppliers. It’s amazing how desperate you can become to grow something different from the local offerings.

If you’re going to diversify your home kitchen garden, you will quite likely need to start seeds indoors before the growing season begins. The three videos I’ve included with this post provide encouragement and insights that can help you develop a plant nursery in your home. In most cases, you start seeds from three to six weeks before you’ll be able to plant them outside. So, if you live in zones 5 and 6, you need to be ready to plant indoors by late February and into March. You may not be able to order seeds yet—or you might not see them until later if you do order—but if you need to move furniture and build shelves before you can plant indoors, get a little head start in the cold winter months.

Please enjoy the videos:

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