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Archive for the ‘Garden’ Category

Our Urban Garden

Living in a fourth floor apartment with no yard space and a very shaded fire-escape presents some unique challenges for a would-be gardener like myself. Fortunately, my beloved Lakewood hosts five or six community garden sites. Ours is about two miles away, a nice walk when the weather is decent. The plots are roughly 10’x10′, and we rented a tiller on Friday to loosen the soil and work in some (purchased) compost. I apologize to all the permaculturists out there; someday, I’ll have my own garden and will nurture its tender ecosystem with more care. For now, I’m content to make some compromises (such as purchasing compost). I will admit, though, that there is something strangely heartbreaking about cutting a worm in half with my shovel.

Tilling the plots meant I could finally get my onion starts out. I hope they survive. It’s my first year trying onions, and these got a little moldy in their pots (too little airflow?). We’ll see how they do. We also planted some carrots, chicories, and purple mizuna, a frilly mustard relative. Tomorrow morning will be another big planting day (fingers crossed). I want to get going on my beets, turnips, lettuces, radishes, and other greens. My broccoli and cabbage starts bit the dust, so I’m going to try starting some broccoli directly in the garden. It may be too late, but it’s worth a try.

Our inside set-up is a little more complicated. I bought a cheap wire shelf from Home Depot and rigged some grow lights to it with electrical tape. It has three shelves that my plastic trays from Walmart fit perfectly. Currently, it houses some beautiful pepper plants, a handful of greens (that will also go out tomorrow), and some yet-ungerminated tomatoes, ground cherries, and marigolds. I leave the lights on during waking hours and check the soil for dampness every day. They usually need water every three days or so. Too much water and too little airflow yields the mold I mentioned above.

The fourth grow light is attractively hanging from some twine tied around a curtain rod. I’ve suspended it above our windowsill pots to give them a little extra light. I had very low expectations from my windowsill garden, and I have to say it’s surprised me. It’s currently hosting a healthy supply of mache, claytonia (or miner’s lettuce, a winter green that grows tiny white flowers that are also edible), arugula, and endive. I tried radishes, which yielded some nice greens and one minuscule radish. I think I’ll leave the windowsill to the greens from now on. Plants whose edible parts are roots (underground starch storage systems) or fruits (like tomatoes) need lots of energy to form them, and windowsill lighting is not up to snuff. I have a bunch of tiny little sprouts to supply the next round of greens when we harvest our current plants.

When the weather warms up, I’m going to try to put a few plants out on the balcony. As I mentioned, it doesn’t get much sun, so I’m not sure it’ll work. I have high hopes for one particular pepper plant (red rocoto), which is listed as loving shade.

Every situation presents unique difficulties for gardeners; how do you work around yours?

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On Monday, I was chatting with my sister-in-law (who is angelically patient with my gardening obsession), and she asked me what I had learned last year from my garden. I hardly knew how to answer. Um, everything? I remain an absolute gardening novice, and I know that, but when I compare what I know now to what I knew then, I feel positively brilliant. So I thought I’d share some of what I learned from my very first garden and hope that maybe you all will share what you’ve learned, too.

1. Be aware of your own limitations. This is one of the few things I think I did well last year. Looking at seed catalogs, I want to grow everything. Red okra? I must have it. Who cares that I don’t like okra. But I knew that if I tried to do too much, I’d get overwhelmed and likely fail (I was also due to have a baby in July, so there’s that). So I stuck with tomatoes, greens, and herbs, each a mystery to me, but none of them terribly difficult in their own right (Yes, tomatoes are easy to grow. The preponderance of detailed, contradictory tomato-growing advice you can find online will convince you otherwise. They may be difficult to grow perfectly, but not to grow or even grow well, especially if you stick with cherry tomatoes.) This year, I’ve got some eighty plus seed packets in my little container, so obviously I’m having a harder time following this advice.

2. Don’t be too afraid of your own limitations. Maybe that sounds contradictory, but it’s true. I killed many plants last year, but more things worked than I could have imagined. Go ahead and try.

More practically,

3 Go buy some seeds. Seriously. Just a couple packets of things you like. Once you have the seeds and some potting soil, you can salvage all sorts of containers from your recycling bin and just see what works.

4. Wait until your soil is ready to work it. It should be unfrozen, obviously, but also not too wet. You don’t want to be able to squeeze it into a ball that sticks together.

5. Learn how to harden off your seedlings! I got amazingly lucky with this last year. I didn’t harden off anything, but the seedlings survived, I think perhaps because I had kept them in an open window and they’d had some experience with wind and direct sun. But don’t risk it. How sad would it be to nurture a bunch of little tomatoes and peppers only to have them die because you forgot to get them used to the outside world?

6. Some herbs are hard to start from seed. It’s way easier to get plants from the farmers’ market or garden center. Thyme, oregano, rosemary, and tarragon are among these. It’s not even that expensive, considering that these are all perennials. Some varieties are said to survive northern winters, but I think I’ll just take cuttings next fall and root them inside.

7. Set up your tomato support system at planting time. I waited until they needed staking, and I think I damaged the roots. Also, invest in something decent for them. Tomatoes take a long time to grow, and they deserve some quality support. Last year, I stuck some green garden stakes by the plants and tied them up with twine, over and over, all summer long. This resulted in bruised stems and poor plant growth. I don’t recommend it.

8. Big beefsteak tomatoes, like Brandywines, have a very limited shelf-life once fully ripe. It is not difficult to miss their window of ripeness and let them rot on the vine. This is even more frustrating with these types of plants that give you so few fruit anyway. Go ahead and pick them a couple days early and let them ripen inside. I had two beefsteak plants last year, a Brandywine and a Cherokee Purple, and I got harvested exactly one not-rotten fruit between them.

9. Tomatoes don’t need as much water as you’d think. (Remember this, Sarah. Don’t over-water the tomatoes this year). Too much water when the fruit is ripening can make them mealy. They do, however, like calcium, so give them a crushed eggshell or two at planting time. I tried this last year on my mom’s recommendation, and I had absolutely no problems with blossom end rot, which is supposed to plague tomato-growers.

10. Learn about succession planting (but don’t obsess too much). I let the same kale plants grow all season last year, and while they produced just fine, they were crawling with mealybugs by the end of summer. I think younger, healthier plants would have held up better. This year, I’m going to plant three separate crops, pulling out the previous when the new ones are ready. The same holds true for lettuce. Flowering lettuce is an amazing, otherworldly sight, but there’s no reason to let it happen unless you want to save seeds. Plant another crop a couple weeks after the first, and you’ll have no gaps in your delicious lettuce consumption. I add the last bit about not obsessing as a reminder for myself this year, ha.

11. Cilantro bolts like crazy, which is great if you want the seeds (coriander), but not if you’re going for fresh cilantro. Succession plant, succession plant, succession plant.

12. You can use more basil than you ever thought possible.

13. READ. Seriously, nothing (except maybe experience) beats reading for gaining skill and information. Obvious, yes. But oh so important. Square Foot Gardening taught me I was right to question the notion of “row spacing.” Grow Great Grub said I could grow more indoors than I thought possible (I’m experimenting with some of this right now). Northwest Edibles (I know I mention this blog in every post, and I’m sorry, but I love it and I can’t help it) explained the differences among hybrid, open-pollinated, and heirloom seeds, and taught me that you plant garlic in the fall (who knew?). The internet (and the public library) are your friend.

13. Plants want to grow. They’re on your side, so long as you don’t kill them. I didn’t do anything right last year, not really. I turned our soil when it was way too wet (Turning is too generous a word, really. What I did was move it around a bit and break up the bigger clumps). I didn’t fertilize much at all, except what the community garden provided, which was fortunately a giant heap of leaf humus – a great soil amendment. I treated my tomatoes terribly and got my garlic in too late. But nature can be very forgiving, and I enjoyed my delicious tomatoes, herbs, and greens all season long, and my trip to the plot yesterday revealed little garlic stalks poking up above the soil.

All of this will be obvious to anyone with vegetable growing experience. But it was all new to me, and it’s the sort of thing experienced gardeners don’t share because they forget that they ever had to learn it. Have you had any similar garden-related revelations?

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A typical trip to our farmers’ market in the summer used to involve me planning to spend twenty dollars and leaving sixty dollars poorer. I brought home giant, reusable totes full of summer’s bounty: juicy tomatoes, other-worldy cucumbers, huge bunches of purple kale, cauliflower in every color. Throw in the odd half-pound of locally-made cheese and a grass-fed steak for dinner and it wasn’t hard to go over budget. If I did all my shopping at the farmers’ market we would never have any money. (It doesn’t help that Trader Joe’s and Baby Gap are a stone’s-throw from the market).

We try to be pretty careful with our money. Neither of us want Stephen to work more than necessary, and we would both prefer that I stay home with the babies for the time being. I’d like to teach music lessons once we’re a little more settled in a particular location, and maybe join a local orchestra, but in general, unless you live near a family member willing to babysit, there aren’t many jobs that allow a parent to work part-time without paying more than they earn in childcare.

And anyway, who wants to? Ok, ok, I am aware that some money is generally necessary to function in our country. I’m not sitting here wishing we lived in a log-cabin in Wisconsin on zero-income. But we have got to get away from the idea that the only work that matters is paid work. We all acknowledge that spending money doesn’t make us happy, yet we tend to still define ourselves by our money-making pursuits.

Erica over at Northwest Edibles (one of my favorite blogs) coined the term “negabucks” as a way to quantify the value of work done to improve life quality without spending money. I think this is a brilliant idea. I don’t (currently) work, but I can do a lot to reduce our spending while bettering our lives.

And so we come back to those juicy tomatoes. They are the biggest reason I decided to garden last year. I cannot resist a fresh summer tomato. They are hardly the same creature as the hard, orange, Florida-grown supermarket offerings. And they are EXPENSIVE at the farmers’ market. So I grew tomatoes. Did it save me money? Probably not really, if you figure you can buy canned tomatoes for fifty cents a pound. But man, were my tomatoes delicious.

Gardening had other rewards as well. I spent time outdoors. I lost a ton of weight walking the two miles to my garden every couple days. I learned the joy of nurturing a tiny seed into something dinner-worthy. Laila ate pounds of cherry tomatoes weekly, often plucking them from the vine herself. She got to see nature in action. The bowls of tomatoes beautified our home and, yes, improved our meals. I could go on and on.

We do a lot of things ourselves around here (though we’re not homesteaders by any stretch). I bake most of our bread (and because I am lazy, this has resulted in us eating much less bread than we normally would, which is supposed to be better for one’s health anyway). Stephen cures bacon and changes the oil in our cars. We look around for opportunities to learn new skills and save money at the same time.

We are lucky in this country, because we don’t have to live this way. I am grateful that life doesn’t demand I spend my days hoeing corn, scrubbing clothes, and chopping firewood. I can focus on the things I like to do, because I like to do them and because they make our lives better. This isn’t any kind of moral, everyone-should-do-things-this-way argument. But it is fun and rewarding to try your hand at new things and to find your work of better quality than you could afford at the store anyway.

What ways do you have to avoid outsourcing your work to more costly and less capable hands? Does your family have any good ideas for saving money while living better? I would love to hear about them.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go clean the raisins I bought Laila’s cooperation with out of my bed.

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End of February Garden Update

Ok, so not really a garden update. Nothing much is happening outside yet (at least nothing orchestrated by me; I’m sure my little garden bugs are hard at work).

But inside! The endive and arugula have sprouted, and one of the radishes, too. All of these things are destined to live on my windowsill. We also have cippolini onions, shallots, lettuce, peppers, and one little basil plant waiting to germinate. Oh, and a couple more chicories. The broccoli I’ll start today. Seeing as how I’ve only ever successfully grown tomatoes, basil, and a handful of greens from seed, I may be getting a little over-ambitious.

The most exciting thing about the arugula is that I saved the seeds myself last year, without knowing what I was doing, and they appear to be working! I’m growing them along side the same variety purchased from Johnny’s Seeds for comparison.

I do love arugula.

I’m also getting really excited about reusing containers instead of buying pots. The little radish is growing inside an old Folgers plastic coffee can.

Someday I’ll figure out a way to hook my camera up to the computer so I can share pictures.

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