A Journey to Grow a Little Food Close to Home

Friday, January 28, 2011

Seedlings Popping Up!!!

Well...it hasn't even been a week and the seelings are already popping up. Here are some pics:

One of three lettuces

and one of 15 peas

In a few weeks, these will be ready to move into the cold frames and then I'll start the next round!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Winter Pics

Here are some pics of the recent winter weather (first 6 inches of snow...then -8 for a low) and the still-flourishing coldframes.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Seeds are started

I was planning on starting seeds about a week ago but I got it done this weekend!!

You might remember this thing from a past post...

It's a hydroponic micro-garden that grew some GREAT lettuce. I could have reseeded it but I decided instead to use its growlight to start my seeds. While I don't like using electricity to grow my garden, growlights are almost a neccessity in the northern lattitudes.

I found a neat little toy that helped out with the seed starting.

I got mine from Bountiful Gardens but the device can be found all over the internet. Here's how it works:

- Rip newspaper into long strips, but only about 3 inches wide
- Wrap a strip around the shaft of the device
- Fold the extra paper under (yes...you want to have extra)
- Press the newspaper-wrapped shaft into the base as hard as you can

Once those steps are complete and you've removed the pot drom the tool, it'll look like this:

And from the top

Once done (I made 18), I filled the pots with potting soil

Planted seeds (you can see a pea right in the middle)

and lined up all 18 pots under the growlight.

With this tool, you'll never need throw-away plastic pots again!

Based on some of my recent posts, it might seem a little early for me to be starting seeds. I pushed up the recommended date by two weeks because of the coldframe protection that I use. The earliest plants that can be started are peas. The 15 that I have in the pots are dwarf peas called Tom Thumb here in America and are based on an English pea called Early English Frame (because they were cultivated to be small enough to start very early in coldframes).

Basically, they are simply very small plants - last year, mine got 14 inches tall, which is actually quite large for these plants. Also last year, the peas weren't ready 'til the middle of June. My hope is that if I start them earlier and keep them covered with the frame longer, I'll have some peas at least in May, if not earlier!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Really cool planning software #1

As I've been scouring countless resources, I've come across a really neat garden planning tool. It's offered through Gardener's Supply. They call it the Online Kitchen Garden Planner (hoe pwefect, right) and the site offers 12 pre-planned gardens as well as a small program that enables the user to custom plan a garden by choosing from over 45 plant varieties as well as a number of garden sizes. It took a bit of cutting and pasting but here is a sample layout of one portion of my kitchen garden:

This plan is actually so promising that I might just go with it!

One drawback of this planning software is that it doesn't allow for (or offer suggestions for) succession planting (planting a different crop later in the season after an earlier crop is done producing - i.e radishes in early spring followwed by tomatoes in summer followed by spinach in fall). You'd have to know what plants could be planted in succession and make several grid plans. Not impossible but a little more work.

Have fun planning and look for more soon...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Did you order your seeds yet?

Winter is the perfect time to plan for this year's garden because...really...what is going on in the garden when it's covered in snow and ice?

Over the past few days we've looked at the coldest and warmest that a location will be. We've looked at frost dates. We explored seed starting techniques and, when rolling all of those together, we can see that in come parts of the country, starting some seeds as early as the end of January/beginning of February is a good idea.

So...did you buy your seeds yet?

I recommend Seed Saver's Exchange, Johnny's Seeds, Territorial Seeds, and Burpees.

I bought everything that I'll need earlier this week and I'll have all of the veggies I can eat for most of the year for under $100!! What a savings the garden can be!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Start those Seeds!!!

You've figured out what will grow in your area. You've calculated when to plant and when to start seeds. Now, how do you actually go about starting them?

I subscribe to several e-mail lists and I get two very timely articles the other day. Both deal with seed starting - let's take a look.

Johnny's Seeds starts out its article by stating that "seeds don't care where they are started, as long as three conditions are provided: appropriate temperature, light or darkness, and moisture." They go on to say that "or most vegetables, the optimum temperature is quite warm, 75-90˚F. This is the temperature of the growing medium, not the air temperature."

So...if you make sure that the temp of the soil is correct, you'll be off to a good start. Next, as the experts at Johnny's Seeds pointed out, it's important to think about light. "As soon as the seeds germinate, they should be exposed to light. If growing them under lights, keep the lights just an inch or two above the seedlings and raise them as the plants grow. Leave the lights turned on 16 hours a day. Seedlings get leggy and if they are grown without enough light."

If you've ever tried to grow a seedling on a window sill in winter, you know what 'leggy' means - the plant gets very tall very quickly but remains very thin. It will fall over under its own weight and no matter how hard you try, it will never stand up straight and will most likely die. Grow lights help combat this. They're not too expensive to run and can really give you a leg up on the season.

Finally, Johnny's talks about moisture. They say that "moisture is essential to all germination. The seed-starting medium must be thoroughly wetted before you plant, and you should cover the germinating flat with a plastic dome or piece of row cover to maintain humidity at the soil surface. However, the germinating medium needs to be well-drained, and the flats should be vented daily to prevent excessive moisture. If mold starts to develop on the soil surface, remove the cover."

Take care of those three things and you should be well on your way to seed starting!

The other article that I received was from Gardener's Supply. This one talks about some other aspects of seed starting. "For some kinds of plants, success in the garden requires a head start indoors. Though beans, carrots, corn, and sunflowers can (and should) be planted as seeds directly into the garden, the seeds of lots of other plants like parsley, tomatoes, peppers, and broccoli are usually sown in pots indoors and the young plants get set out into the garden several weeks later."

Also, pot size was talked about. "Slow-growing seedlings such as onions, peppers, snapdragons and perennial herbs may be happy for many weeks, growing in a small pot. Fast-growing seedlings, such as melons, tomatoes and zinnias, will outgrow a pot much more quickly."

So much to think about when gardening, no?

The thing is, just take it slow and one step at a time. Don't run out and buy a full-blown grow light system. Rather, try starting just one type of plant this year and buy the rest ready to go from your local garden center. As with all things, there is a learning curve here.

Simply making the transition to growing your own food is a huge step.

Like the article said, beans and carrots grow great by just planting some seed in the garden. To that, why not try to add perhaps some herbs started from seed. They are usually pretty forgiving :)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Planning Tool Number 2

Yesterday we explored USDA Hardiness Zones, American Horticultural Society Heat Zones, and Freeze/Frost dates. Picking up where those tools leave off, today we'll take a look at another important tool - the Seed Starting Calculator.

After we all found our freeze/frost dates yesterday, we'll actualy be able to put them to use today. Know that for this post, I'm going to use my own area's info to keep things consistent.

In my area, my last frost date is April 27th. This is the 50% probability for 32 degrees. Because the 10% probability for 32 degrees and the 50 probability for 36 degrees are on May 10th and 11th and because I use cold frames, I'm going to simply even out the date to May 1st. This is pretty consistent with what I've seen personally anyway.

Now that I know the date, I can begin to count backwards for all of my plants to know when to set them out into the garden and, even further back, when to start the seeds indoors (either in the house or in a greenhouse).

Every seed packet has some similar info printed on it. Typically, instructions are given for how far apart to space rows, how much room to leave between plants and how long it takes the plant to mature. Also, though, and quite important for today, a guideline is given specifying how long before or after the last spring frost plants should be set out into the garden. Some plants are quite cold tolerant and can be planted outisde even if another frost or two will hit them (like peas). Other plants need all danger of frost to be long gone or else they will will die (like tomatoes).

Knowing how long before or after the last pring frost plants can be set out tells us something else important - when seeds should be started. Depending on the plant, seeds need 3 to 8 weeks of start time (unless you are planting the seed straight into the garden) before they are set out into the garden.

Now...all of this sounds like a lot of math, a lot of figuring, a lot of counting, and a lot of charting.

It used to be...

Check this out!!!

Johnny's Seeds is one of several seed saving and propogating firms in the U.S. It focuses on heirloom seeds and plants and, like the others (Seed Savers Exchange, Territorial Seeds, etc), provides many useful tools for gardeners. The one that is linked above is a seed starting calculator - it does the figuring and charting for you!!!

All you need to know is your all-important last frost date!! (This is why the date is so important - everything revolves around it)

So...using my personal example of May 1st, I get this:

It's not the easiest to read but what it outlines is, for example, that peas, while normally started directly in the garden (indicated by the asterisk), they can be started indoors 3-4 weeks before setting outside and they should be set outside 6-8 weeks before the last frost. More importnantly, actual dates are supplied!!! Peas, according to the chart, then, should be started in my area between February 6th and February 27th and should be set out between March 6th and March 27th.

Knowing these dates makes the seed starting process soooooo much easier.

Take a look at Johnny's Seed's Seed Starting Calculator for yourself so that you too can get started soon!

Tomorrow, we'll start to look at other planning software for the garden itself.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Let the planning begin...

(but don't order your seed just yet - wait for the other categories to be discussed first)
So...last week we took a quick look at companion planting so that we could get an idea of how to begin to think about garden layout. With that floating in the back of our heads, let's dive into something else crucial - when to plant!

For some of us, it's getting to be about the time to buy seeds so that we'll be ready to start them. How do I know this?

Every area in the U.S. falls into several categories whaich are important for growing. All of them revolve around climate and they are:

USDA Hardiness Zone
American Horticultureal Society Heat Zone
Freeze/Frost Dates

The three work in tandem to determine what will grow where and when optimum growing times are.

The Hardiness Zones refer to the coldest temperature that an area will experience in winter. The zones range from 0a (-65 degrees) to 12b (55 degrees). The zone map

was released in 1990 and was based on 12 years of data ranging from 1974 to 1986. It represented a vast improvement over the original 1960 map because it was based on about twice as much data and divided each zone in half (i.e. a + b) for a more accurate representation.

In 2003, the American Horticultural Society, after collecting data for another 16 years, relaesed an update to the USDA map. This map relects increases or decreases in the zone assignments (and might show a bit of global warming...)

So...why not take a look here and find your zone! (Mine happens to be Zone 6 after the AHS adjustment is calculated in)

Ok - on to the next category - the Heat Zone. The Heat Zone map indicates just the opposite of the USDA Hardiness Zone. It tells the number of days in a year that are above 86 degrees (the temp at which most plants start to cook). This scale ranges from Zone 1 (1 day or less) to Zone 12 (more than 210 days) Where do you fall?? (I'm between 3 and 4)

Now that we have the extremes covered, what can we do with this info? Knowing how cold and hot it can get in your area will determine what types of plants you will be able to grow. For instance, if you love peas but you live in southern Florida, you'll have to really work your window of opportunity because peas like it cold. Just the same, if you love hot peppers and you live in northern Minnesota, you might need a greenhouse to heat things up.

To restate, the Hardiness and Heat Zones tell what we can grow.

There is another crucial component, however...when we can grow.

This is where the freeze/frost dates come into play. Since most of the U.S. gets cold to some extent, knowing when that cold happens is critical so that freshly set-out seedlings won't freeze. This is where the Freeze/Frost data comes in handy.

If you take a look here, you'll you'll be able to simply enter your state and retrieve a chart compiled with several years of data. Scroll to find your city/town and you'll see both the Spring and Fall dates (i.e. last frost of the winter and first of the fall) as well as the probabilities of occurance.

The reason that three temps are given (36, 32, and 28 degrees) is to reflect frosts, freezes, and hard freezes because some plants can tolerate frosts but not freezes, etc.

Take a look at your state and town and see where you fall (my date is about May 1st for 50% probability of 32 degrees). The probabilities are important when looking at the sensitivity of plants. Eggplant LOVES heat. One would want to be absolutely sure that any threat of late spring frost is over befor setting these plants out, so following the 10% probability would be a good idea. Lettuce is a little tougher so one could risk the 50% date outside or even the 90% date under a coldframe or row cover.

So...now you've got some info to help you get started. Here's how to think about your planning -

Step 1. What do you like to eat?

Step 2. How cold/warm does it get in your area? Check the Hardiness and Heat Zones.

Choose plants that you like to eat and that are listed as suitable for your zones.

Step 3. When is your last frost? Check the Freeze/Frost dates.

Tomorrow, we'll take the freeze/frost dates and figure out when to start seeds to make sure that they are good and strong when you set them out into the garden.

Friday, January 7, 2011


So... I think that my gardening heros in California have completely figured out the companion planting and intensive gardening methods that I talked about for the past few days.

Get ready for this:

From 1/10 of an acre (4350 sqft), the Dervaes family was able to, in 2010, harvest

7,030 lbs of produce (fruits, vegetables and herbs)!!!

Like I've said before, I can only dream...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Thoughts on the Intensive Garden

Yesterday we looked at intensive vs extensive growing. After that comparison, diving deeper into intensive gardening would seem like the next step.

Basically, intensive gardening seeks to create as close to a closed-loop system as possible. In other words, add as little outside material to the garden as possible. Some would prefer to do this with a 'set it-and-forget it' approach, like this one:

Food Forests, by the way, work like this.

While this approach has its merits (like very little work once established), it can also have drawbacks (time to establish, to some, a messy look, lack of control over harvests).

For those who would like a more 'traditional' looking garden, more management is going to be neccessary and may involve thinking like a plant...

While this gentleman might seem a bit, er, 'liberal,' what he is saying is extremely relevant - to effectively plan gardens for small spaces (i.e. kitchen gardens), growers have to think about which plants benefit each other and which harm each other. Harmful and beneficial insects need to be considered as well.

One place to start is here:

This book has been a gardener's staple for years. It outlines more helpful and harmful combinations than many would care to try to remember. By understanding these techniques (or at least being able to look them up), we can better plan for highly productive small spaces.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Happy New Year!!! Let's plan...

I have to appologise for the delay - I meant to do this on Monday of this week but...HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Ok - now that that is out of the way - time to begin planning for this year's garden.

I though that a god place to begin would be to compare horticulture and agriculture. Wrapping our heads around what it is thta we are trying to do with gardening will help the planning process.

One way to look at horticulture and agriculture is to look at scale. Typically, agriculture does things on a very large scale while horticulture is much smaller. That is not to say that a horticultural installation, like Busch Gardens, for instance, need be small in size. Rather, horticulture looks at intricacies as opposed to agricultures look at the bigger picture. While a 1 inch placement variation of a single plant on a million acre Iowa corn farm probably won't matter much, a 1 inch placement variation in a 20 sqft interplanted balcony garden might.

Another way to look at horticulture and agriculture has to do with crop diversity. Agriculture typically plants (or raises) a large amount of a single or perhaps two crops and rotates those over a several year period (called monocropping w/ rotation)while horticulture generally mixes many crops together and rotates them several times each year.

A third way to compare the two growing styles (and the one that I'll focus on) uses the idea of intensive vs extensive growing. In their simplest forms, intensive growing draws a wide variety of nutrients from the soil but puts a lot back (i.e. 'in') as well whereas extensive growing might only draw one or two nutrients from the soil (albeit in large amounts) but does not put any back in (i.e. 'ex' meaning to remove).

In the kitchen garden, things tend to fall more into the intensive category because we are trying to get as much out of a small space as possible while keeping the production going season after season, year after year. We want to try to create a closed loop by composting dead plant material back into the garden, by rotating plants withing the garden to keep the soil healthy, by planting friendly plants close to each other to keep them healthy, and by encouraging good bugs so the bad one stay away.

Know this - this is NOT easy. Many people spend their lives studying how to best do this. Books have been written. Classes have been taught. Over the next few weeks we'll look at some techniques as we plan for spring planting.