Tag Archives: Gardens

Grow So Easy Organic – Knowing What YOU Can Grow

This might seem like putting the cart before the horse….but before you buy seeds and lay out your fantastic garden, you might want to give a bit of thought to what you want to put in the ground.

This isn’t about zone or space, this is about time, money and actually enjoying what you grow instead of doing battle with it.

Plants or Seeds
The most basic question is do you want to put plants in the ground or raise your own plants from seed?  The most basic answer is how much time do you have?

If you’re like me and you’ve been gardening for a while (or you have a friend who is a hard core gardener), you probably do both.  But if you’re new to the gardening game, you may want to start with plants.

Buying plants gives you a chance to see if you really do like this gardening thing before you invest time and a bit of money in raising your own plants from seed.  I tend to do both.  I buy plants from the Amish farmers but I also raise vegetables from seed.

Growing from seed has some advantages, for example, you can plant heirlooms that you just can’t buy anywhere.  And you can condition your seed, by planting and harvesting for a couple of years which makes them even more suited to your soil.

I love growing from seed but there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  1. It does add a bit of time to your schedule because you have to start them indoors, in February and March (if you live in Zone 6b as I do).
  2. The seeds may not sprout so you would have to buy plants, anyway.
  3. You need a controlled environment – temperature and air movement – when the seeds are sprouting and until they get their second, true set of leaves.
  4. You will have to pay attention to the seeds – keep them moist but don’t drown them.  (Here’s where an osmotic planting system like the one sold by Gardens Alive comes in handy.)

Heirloom or Hybrid
By the way, if you want to save seeds from your plants this coming year and use them in the garden the following year, make sure you don’t buy hybridized seeds.  Why?

The simplest explanation is hybrid seeds are produced through cross-pollination, the mixing of plants of two different types for a specific reason, such as bigger fruit, disease resistance, a different look, etc. But the problem with hybrid seeds is you won’t be able to harvest further seeds from the fruit they produce.

Buy some tomato seeds of a specific variety, grow them and then harvest the fruit. Save the seeds, and you may get the same sort of tomatoes…or you may wind up with a different variety altogether. Or worse still, the seeds may be sterile.

Heirloom seeds, on the other hand, will produce the exact same type of fruit year after year, generation after generation.

Playing With Plants
I’m aces with tomatoes — all heirloom or organic seed — from Grow Italian or Territorial Seeds.  My blueberries yield over 60 quarts every year and my Montmorency cherries are a close second with 50 plus quarts.  Pear trees are just starting to bear fruit and the pluots are eagerly anticipated every summer.

But my fig trees are good one year and not so good the next.  And the peach and apple trees bear really bad fruit – spotty and buggy.  Cantelope grow beautifully in my soil but taste like dirt.  Broccoli Rabe comes up fast and easy but flowers before I can harvest it.

Potatoes love the soil but always fall prey to Colorado Potato Beetles and wire worms.

Knowing what I can’t grow upset me when I was a younger gardener but this old girl understands that knowing what she can’t grow is even more important than knowing what she can.  Why?

I no longer waste time or space on those veggies and fruits that just are not going to produce.  I spend that time honing my skills at growing and harvesting the myriad of foods that like my soil, my weather, my temperatures, wind and rain.

This is where I really experimented and where some of the worst carnage of my early gardening days happened.  But here’s a bit of advice that I got from my mom.

Mom Really Does Know Best
My mother’s garden in Virginia was 5 times the size of mine, literally.  At the age of 82, she was still out there in the early morning mist, hoeing her rows, weeding, watering and talking (yes, talking) to her beans, tomatoes, cabbage and corn.

While visiting one day, after a particularly large potato disaster in my garden – death by Colorado Potato Beetle – I whined that I would never be as good a gardener as she was.  Nothing ever died in her garden.

Mom laughed, leaned on her hoe and said, “Of course things die in my garden: I just turn them under and plant something else.”

Mom had to close my mouth because my jaw dropped about a foot.  It was like an epiphany – Mom killed plants too!  There was hope for me.  And there is hope for you, too.

So let’s dive into what I learned while wiping out whole populations of plants!  Maybe what I share will help decrease the number of “interments” in your fruit and veg plots.

Next week, an organic gardening favorite, tomatoes — how to start them, raise them, feed them, protect them and oh, yes, eat them!

Grow So Easy Organic – Best Gardening Books

Anybody whose gardened for even a year has favorite books and favorite web sites.  As a 30 year, veteran organic gardener, I have my share of favorites, too.

There used to be dozens of books on my garden shelf.  Today, there are only about 10 of them.  What happened to the rest?

I realized that although I had a ton of books to choose from, I always chose the same, select few when I had a question or needed help.  So I decided to do a bit of clearing up.  When the dust settled, there were a lot more books in the back of the car than on my shelf.

I took the rejects to a used book store where all profits are used to support senior citizens and headed home, having done my good deed for the day.  So, on to the survivors, my favorite gardening books…starting with two books I have and treasure.

The Victory Garden
My life in the dirt began when I tripped over one small book one Saturday morning about 35 years ago. Crockett’s Victory Garden.  I guess I can blame Jim Crockett for all of my gardening crimes.

More than 3 decades old, Crockett’s book is still hailed as one of the best for beginning gardeners and it still has pride of place on my gardening book shelf.

Crockett was a gardener’s gardener.  He didn’t need fancy tools or high-end gadgets.  All this man needed was some soil, some seeds, some sun and rain and he had a garden full of the bounty of nature.

And he was always so easy to listen to and learn from.  No rush, no worries, just good, old-fashioned gardening advice, that’s what you got from Crockett every week on your local PBS station.  And that’s what you’ll get if you can find one of these vintage books for your shelf.

Seed Starters Handbook
The idea of seed starting used to terrify me.  I was beset with questions.  What if I saved the seeds incorrectly and none of them sprouted?  What if the seeds I saved changed from the original plant to a Frankenplant…born out of a cross I didn’t know about?  What if I got great plants and little, tiny fruits?

Saving my own seeds and using them in my garden the next year just wasn’t something I wanted to try.  But I did, with the help of a friend I’ve never met —  Nancy Bubel.

Published in 1988, Bubel’s The New Seed Starter’s Handbook taught me how to save seeds of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and peppers and use them the following spring.  Getting started was so easy that today, almost 25 years later,  I raise all my own seeds.

In fact, this past summer every plant in my garden — 5 varieties of tomato, 2 types of pepper, 2 of cucumbers and 2 of eggplant and 2 of zucchini – were all started in my basement along with butternut squash, lettuce, spinach, basil and parsley.

Bubel’s techniques are easy.  No special equipment is needed and success is practically guaranteed.  In fact, seed saving is so…natural…I’m surprised everyone isn’t doing it.

Garden Insects of North America; Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs
If you grow them (vegetables and fruit), they will come.  Bugs you never imagined in your wildest nightmares will show up one afternoon and you won’t have a clue whether they’re good or bad.

WARNING:  Don’t do what I did.  I wiped out a whole generation of monarch butterflies because I thought the caterpillars on my dill and parsley were “bad.”  So, look before crushing.

It’s really important to, “Know thy enemy.”  Garden Insect of North America Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs (Princeton Field Guides)  makes it possible to learn about every kind of bug you never thought you wanted to know existed.  Literally.

The images in this book are so good that I turn the pages with my fingertips and only touch the lower corners.  And the images and descriptions will help you identify what’s chewing its way through your garden and give you a flying chance at handling the critter.

Lasagna Gardening
Patricia Lanza’s book entitled Lasagna Gardening, helped me expand my knowledge and increase the size of my garden 5 fold.  There are nooks and crannies in my backyard that were wasted space before I met her and read her book.

Now, every patch of dirt is real estate to grow in.  The inside line of the fence becomes a foot wide bed where beans can be planted and trailed up the fencing.

What’s really great about Lanza’s technique is there is no expensive equipment, no digging, no ploughing, no tilling.  All you have to do is find the space gather materials like shredded leaves, manure, grass clippings, coffee grounds, newspaper and compost and start layering.

Lanza made it easy to do but what she really gave me was the vision to see where I could plant and the freedom to “dig in” without digging at all.

Grow Fruit Naturally
This is my newest book but it is also a book I reach for frequently.  If you decide to grow fruit, Lee Reich is the guy to have in your hip pocket.  Why Reich?

For one thing, the man knows what he’s talking about.  With a doctorate in Horticulture, Reich taught for a while then moved from academic to author, writing books for the everyday gardener and farmer. All of his experience shows in his new book, Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit.

Reich’s knowledge comes from books but it also comes from experience.  He lives on what he calls his “farmden” so named because it’s “…more than a garden, less than a farm.”   And he really, really knows his stuff.

His latest book, Grow Fruit Naturally, could not have come at a better time for me and my backyard orchard.  I especially love his advice on blueberries.

I started growing blueberries without knowing that they are one of the easiest fruits to raise.  In fact, 6 of my bushes are mini-miracles in themselves.  But that’s a story for a later date which I promise to tell in this eBook.

Let’s just say, I planted 12 blueberry bushes in the corner of my back yard instead of 6 and I’ve been harvesting 60 quarts of blueberries every summer…until the summer of 2012.

Weather had something to do with it – 90 degree days in April and 40 degree nights in May.  But somehow, I knew weather was not the only problem.  I was very lucky because, in 2012, one of the best experts on planting and raising bushes and trees shared the fact that blueberry bushes have to be pruned.  Who knew?

Because of this book, I will be heading out into the blueberries in October to do my first pruning, ever!

The Pruning Book
Also by Lee Reich, The Pruning Book: Completely Revised and Updated. The Pruning Book is one I’ve had on my shelf for 15 years.  I bought mine used and have read it a couple of times.  Like his book on growing fruit, Reich shares tons of photographs and drawings that make it easier to learn how to prune any plant.

Reich also shares pruning basics using a step-by-step approach.  He tells you how to prune ornamentals, vines, fruit trees and even house plants.  And Reich offers a special section on pruning techniques for espalier, topiary, bonsai, and pollarding.

By the way, if you like what you read in these Reich books, check out the others he has on sale.  I loved Weedless Gardening and still use the techniques I read in this book in my garden, today.   This wonderful writer and gardener has published many good books.  The books are easy to read, enjoyable and can teach you so much about how to grow and care for plants, vines, shrubs, bushes and trees!

4 Season Gardening
When you are ready to extend your growing season, I can think of no one more helpful than Eliot Coleman and his book, Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.  Coleman lives in Maine…so if he can grow vegetables year round, the rest of us should be able to do it, standing on our heads!

As it says in the new edition of this book, “It’s hard to achieve anything new in an endeavor as old as gardening, but Eliot Coleman has done it.”

In this book, Coleman shares every bit of his knowledge, his tools, his advice and his finely honed sense of the cycle of life over the course of a year.  He does so because he wants all of us to benefit from what it has taken him, literally a lifetime to learn.

Clearly written, beautifully illustrated and loaded with photographs, this book is a slow, steady path to move from just gardening in the summer to gardening all year round.  I love the fact that you don’t have to dive in and do it all, all at the same time.

Thanks to Coleman, I now use a small cold frame (made from recycled windows and wood) and have some small plastic tunnels for extending my lettuce crop.  I saved old sheer curtains and sheets and use them to provide protection from frost and I am constantly on the lookout for an old green house that I can buy or move and start growing from November to February.

I love this book and this author because of his generosity of spirit.  And I love Coleman because, as much as any other gardening guru and maybe even a little more, he has given me hope that comes from growing living things.  We don’t have to wait for spring.  We can grow despite the howling wind and falling snow.

Spring will come again but we don’t have to wait for it anymore.

Next week, web sites that I visit on a regular basis for help, advice, information and sometimes, just a little sympathy!

Grow So Easy Organic – Best Resources for Seeds

Fall is always a bittersweet time for most gardeners.

The bitter is the end of the season, the death of all the plants we nurtured from embryo and childhood to full blow adult.  The end of gazing at green dotted with red tomatoes, deep purple eggplant, multi-colored peppers and the deep blue and black of berries on the bush.

The sweet is all in the future – picking out next year’s crops and planning where these special additions will live in your garden.

Which Comes First – Picking or Planning?
This used to be a real conundrum for me so, sometimes I’d pick – sometimes I’d plan and sometimes. I do the exact opposite.  It doesn’t matter to me because I am a lot more relaxed about my garden than I used to be.  And frankly, I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter…except when it comes to buying your seeds.

There are a whole lot of places you can find and buy seeds.  The market place gets a little narrower if you only want to plant organic seeds and narrower still if you are only going for heirloom seeds.

As an organic gardener, I really do work hard to avoid buying seed from companies that have anything to do with GMO.  I also don’t want my seeds coated with anything or doctored in any way.  Sure, some of the seeds won’t sprout but here’s my philosophy.  If it was meant to grow in my soil, it will.

So when it comes to acquiring seeds, I shop for organic and heirloom.  And I have a few favorite places to buy them.  Since I’ve been buying seeds for many, many, many years, my criteria haven’t changed but some of my sources have, thanks to the Internet and my gardening friends around the world.

Nonetheless, I love opening my mailbox and finding the first seed catalogue in it.  It’s the signal to start browsing all the possibilities and putting in my order.  NOTE:  I know it’s fall.  I know you won’t be planting until February or March (especially if you are a seed starter).  But don’t wait to order. This is especially true if you are buying organic and heirloom seeds.

If you wait to place your order, you may be disappointed.  The latest data indicates that about 50% — half of the population – are doing some back yard gardening.  Ordering seeds now means that you will get the ones you want.

Seed Resources
The internet has opened up a whole new world of where to get the best organic and heirloom seeds.  Here are some of my favorite places to shop and a bit of a reason on why I like them.

High Mowing Organic Seeds
High Mowing Organic Seeds started as a hobby in one man’s backyard garden.  In 1996, founder Tom Stearns planted just 28 varieties of veggies. Converting his tool shed into a seed packing area, he had no trouble selling the seed he grew that first year. The unmet demand for organic seed helped Stearns expand his business, first by renting parcels of land to produce the seed he was selling through a hand-made catalog then by working with select commercial growers.  High Mowing Organic Seeds offers over 600 heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid varieties of vegetable, fruit, herb and flower seed.

An Aside:  there is another reason that I just love this small and “growing” company.  They share all of their knowledge, including their mistakes and their solutions, freely, literally.  Here’s a good example of the caliber of information High Mowing Organic Seeds posts for everyone to read and learn from.  This article is on growing spinach.  http://www.highmowingseeds.com/blog/spinach-for-winter-production/

So I buy their seeds and subscribe to their newsletter.  A win for me.

Hudson Valley Seed Library
I also buy from a small but growing farm network — Hudson Valley Seed Library.

Like High Mowing Organic Seeds, Hudson Valley offers only organic seed.  Like High Mowing, Hudson Valley started small.  But this is where the comparisons stop.  Hudson Valley offers an online seed library for all gardeners…but it also offers an online seed catalog that is focused on the Northeast.   The idea that was hatched in the town library has grown to a full-blown seed farm where open-pollinated seeds are grown, saved, and packed by hand.

High Mowing has close to one thousand seed library members and it has offers a surprise with every seed packet – heirloom seeds in unique Art Packs designed and created by artists who submit art work for consideration and inclusion in this unique living art gallery.

The farms that make up this group  raise seed you can trust, that’s a given.  But the partners who started this business, Ken Greene and Doug Muller, also use artists to create seed pack covers and donate free seeds to a school garden, community garden, or garden organization  in need.

I love the seeds and I love what the company stands for so I will spend some of my hard-earned dollars with Hudson Valley to get great seeds and support a worthy cause.

Grow Italian
When I want to raise tomatoes and peppers that grace Italian kitchen gardens and enrich the already luscious cuisine of Italy, I only buy Franchi seeds.

This is a U.S.-based business but the seeds only come from Italy.  And what wonderful varieties you can find on their website and

You can get a catalogue, too, but don’t expect a glossy 5 color magazine with gorgeous photography and elegant descriptions.  Grow Italian is mostly a one man operation.

Territorial Seeds
Territorials Seeds is sometimes considered the “granddaddy” of organic and heirloom seeds.

This company started when organic was in its infancy way back in the late 1970’s.  Today, it is still owned by Tom and Julie Johns. They bought the small enterprise in 1985 from its founder Steve Solomon.  Although the business has grown over the last 20 plus years, Tom and Julie have not strayed far from the original course set by Steve.

And Territorial Seeds doesn’t just sell veggie seeds, they share information including a garden planter guide and growing guides that I still use after years of gardening, myself.

Next week, I will be sharing some of my favorite books and web sites for organic gardeners.  Also, beginning next week, Grow So Easy Organic will be published on Saturdays…now that I have a full-time job!