Sunday, April 26, 2009


Please bear with us while we search for a new home. In the meantime, take a gander at these pretty garden photos.

Broccoli and greens peacefully coexisting under row covers.
We took them off this weekend to beat the heat.

Broccoli with droplet.

The tomatoes are huge! It'll be a challenge
to keep them inside for another two weeks.

The coy and attractively draped pistou basil.

Rhubarb-ginger jam is just a few short weeks away!

The peas' first curious tendrils.

Black violets, Kate's favorite.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Let's Get Potted

4. Where and How To Plant
Alright, tired of facts and figures? Ready to shake off the winter doldrums and get started? Put down that laptop and get dressed! OK, let's consider your situation. Maybe you're working with a few square feet of balcony space in your apartment. Or perhaps you've got a little patch of dirt in your yard that could use some livening up. Let's first take a look at the container garden.

As long as your deck or balcony gets at least 6 hours of full sun daily, you'll be able to grow some fine vegetables in pots. If not, don't despair; you can still grow some of the shade tolerant plants we mentioned earlier. The first thing you'll need is some nice, big plastic pots. Plastic pots are our my (mark's) containers of choice for several reasons; they are light, they don't crack or break, and they don't absorb water. Terra-cotta pots my be more attractive but they can be cumbersome to move around. They also leech water from the soil, water which is then lost to the air through evaporation. If you're growing tomatoes, you'll need to use a 16" diameter pot or larger. This may seem excessive but it's essential for good fruit yield. We've grown cherokee purple tomatoes in 12" pots on our deck with disappointing results. Bell peppers and eggplants will also appreciate the extra space in a 16" pot. 12" pots are fine for plants like hot peppers, basil, lettuce, and flowers.

Along with the pots, you'll also need a high quality potting mix. There is a dizzying array of bagged 'soil' available commercially, how do you make a decision? In our experience, the best potting medium is light when lifted and does not clump together when dry. This is essential for good drainage, a must for all potted plants. Our personal favorite bagged product is ProMix, although you may have to visit a professional garden or nursery supply to find this. We've also had good results with Miracle-Gro Organic Choice which is more widely available. Any product that feels light in the bag and does not contain artificial fertilizer should work well; some of these are even labeled as 'container mixes'.

Now that you've got some potting soil and containers, the next consideration is what to feed the plants. Here is one important rule we have to insist on: avoid chemical fertilizers, i.e. Miracle-Gro, like the plague! You're probably familiar with these unnatural-looking, shockingly blue crystals that are supposed to be dissolved in water and dumped on unsuspecting plants. These products are a lot like fad diets; they induce rapid, unhealthy green growth in the beginning but ultimately provide no real nutrients required for flowering and fruit production. The limited amount of available growing medium to a potted plant can quickly become over-saturated with these fertilizers, which can become toxic in large doses. The best (and usually only required) food for all plants is compost. Compost is the organic product of natural decomposition of plant matter. We make our own compost from shredded leaves and kitchen scraps but often need to supplement with more from our local source, Ag-Choice. If you can't find local compost from a garden center, check to see if your county offers compost made from fall leaf collection as ours does. If all else fails, there are a number of commercially available organic fish- or seaweed-based product that will do the trick. Just stay away from the blue crystals! Your vegetables aren't ravers, after all.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

How To Get Started, Part Deux

3. Water
Watering plants seems like a compulsion for humans, often with total disregard as to whether or not the plants actually need water. To paraphrase Mike McGrath, many more plants have been killed by overwatering than by drought. Once a seedling has sprouted, it is usually beneficial to allow the plant's soil to dry out between watering. This stimulates root growth as the plant reaches out for every last drop of available water. Another good reason to allow roots to dry out is to avoid root rot. Most vegetable plant roots will eventually rot if constantly immersed in water, especially in poorly drained pots or soil. It helps that seedlings you buy from a professional nursery live in a well-drained plastic pot of adequate size with the right sort of potting soil for that variety--chalk one up for starting with seedlings your first year of gardening.

So the question remains: When to water? In our experience, the best way to judge a potted plant's soil moisture is by weight. Obviously, wet soil is a lot heavier than dry soil. A good way to observe this is to fill up two small pots with soil and give one of them a good drenching. When your plant weighs about the same as the pot of dry soil, it's time to water. Another good indication of water deficiency in plants is wilting. While it may seem like a drastic decline in health, wilting is simply a natural process that plants employ to pull water out of the leaves and stems and store it down in the roots during drought periods. While I usually try to get my seedlings watered before wilting occurs, I've found that it's not a big deal at all for well-established seedlings to wilt a bit.

Contrary to popular belief, the watering can is not the best watering method. The best way to get water to the plant roots is to use a bottom-up technique. We put seedling pots in a tray filled with a couple inches of water, then the water is pulled through the holes in the pots (your pots do have holes, right?). Don't worry if the surface of the soil never gets all that damp; the soil will be thoroughly and evenly wet where the plants need it most. Bottom-watering is a good habit because it's essential when starting plants from seed. It's also a good way to keep your plants' leaves dry; wet leaves are an open invitation to all kinds of airborne fungus and mold spores. While it's fine for the leaves to get wet, standing moisture at the soil is an invitation for fungus colonies, especially for crowded plants.

For outdoor plants, the watering can is actually more effective than a hose, since you can direct the water to the base of the plant's stem. While a garden hose may take less time, it really doesn't do a very good job of getting the water where it needs to go.

Don't go throwing all those plants in the ground just yet. Up next are Timing and Supplies, and then you can fly free. In the meantime, ask your questions, people! We know you're itching to.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Jersey Girl (& Boy)

We spent almost a decade away from New Jersey, where both of us were born and raised. There was a lot we came to love about the Baltimore-DC area, and we really do miss it, but as our 20s waned, we really found ourselves missing our home state. Where else can you can ski, swim in the ocean, and visit farm country, all just an hour away from New York City? There's the literary legacy of Paterson, the pomp and circumstance of Princeton, the colorful populism of underdog Newark, and the Appalachian enclaves of Sussex County's cow country, not to mention the nation's largest poetry festival. Of course, a trip down the Turnpike illustrates where Jersey gets its negative stereotype, but what many don't realize is that Manhattan's finest restaurants would be lost without the excellent products from our favorite local creameries and farms.

When we returned to NJ in 2005, it took us a year or two to hit our stride, seeking out the wine makers, mushroom lovers, biodynamic farms, renowned herbalists, and the best mozzarella in the world (better than Blue Ridge, even!). But now we're firmly entrenched, happy to live in a place where we've found such a diverse wealth of wise, friendly people happy to impart their gardening and artisanal knowledge.

We're sure that other folks are as passionate about their regions as we are about NJ. What are you grateful for in your area? Or for that matter, what do you like best about Jersey?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Contagious: How To Get Started

Spring is upon us. March is a now a veal cutlet and April has afforded us a soggy embrace. What the hell does this mean? It's time to get planting: I'm talking to you! A few of our friends have asked us how to get started with a garden, and we want to encourage them. Even though we've chosen to overthink every part of the process doesn't mean you have to.

Many people claim to be no good at growing plants, but anyone outfitted with some basic tools and information can be a successful gardener. Unfortunately, there is a ton of advice available to the newbie plant-wrangler, much of which is contradictory or questionable. My aim here is to embolden the botanically curious--it doesn't have to be expensive or intimidating. There's no excuse not to have a little garden; if you've got a sunny windowsill or a balcony you can grow your favorite herbs, some lettuce, or a pot of tomatoes. Growing your own food, no matter how little, is intensely satisfying.

If you want to go to the experts, here are two that we have learned a great deal from. All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew is a terrific book that helps you get the most harvest out of a small space, but it's easy to read and is great for the beginning gardener. Another invaluable source is Mike McGrath's weekly radio show You Bet Your Garden. Mike was previously the editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine and has and extensive backlog of his radio show available for free online. However, as great as these sources may be, the freshman gardener is still faced with the dilemma: Where do I start? Although we still consider ourselves to be novices, we're going to give you a quick primer on what we've learned in the five or so years we've been at it

1. Plant Choices
In the beginning, keep it simple. We started about six years ago with some tomatoes, herbs and a couple of hot peppers. As with any new endeavor, success is the primary goal. Your first season will be your last if you choose obscure and challenging plants exclusively. Fortunately, there are many well-organized, informative seed and plant catalogs; on Johnny's website you can search for varieties that are easy to grow like Diplomat broccoli and Juliet tomatoes. Other seed companies like Southern Exposure specialize in seeds that thrive in a specific area.

One thing the novice should initially shy away from is indoor seed starting. While outdoor direct seed plantings of crops like peas, beans, corn, melons, and squash are usually rewarding to grow if you've got the right conditions (more on this later), some of the heirloom and hybrid vegetables that lasciviously beckon from the glossy pages of certain 'veggie porn' (I'm looking at you, Seed Savers!) are just not worth the trouble when you're just starting out. But many heirloom seed providers, including Seed Savers, offer a selection of live plants that will arrive at the right time for planting in your growing zone. Local nurseries also provide a range of plants to choose from. Keep an eye out for specialty local growers; unique local suppliers are especially useful in selecting varieties that will grow well in your region. Two notable North Jersey examples are Catalpa Ridge and Well-Sweep Herb Farm.

2. Light
We learn in grade school that plants need lots of sun and water. It's pretty basic, but when it comes to plant sustenance, one size does not fit all. For example, our favorite varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers often require full sun. One of our recurring mistakes is attempting to grow full-sun plants like melon and squash in partial shade. We love those foods, so we plant them every year, and every year they fail, which means we've wasted that garden space that could have been devoted to something more appropriate. So consider your gardening space when deciding what to grow.

If you have a lot of sun, you're in luck. It's easier to create shade for cool-weather plants like spinach and lettuce than it is to manufacture sunlight where it doesn't exist. If sunlight is at a premium in your garden, you may have to scale your expectations back a little. This doesn't mean you have to content yourself with collards and hostas exclusively; you will probably still be able to raise beautiful tomatoes and peppers. You just may have lower yields. One of the lessons we've learned is that if we can't bring the sun to our plants, we can bring the plants to the sun by putting some in large pots or planters and strategically positioning them around the yard.
  • Full sun: Winter and summer squash, melons, eggplant, fruit
  • Good sun: Tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, carrots, onions, potatoes, herbs, raspberries
  • Part shade: Lettuce, chard, kale, spinach, cilantro
More action-packed info to follow soon. Look for updates about watering and basic gardening equipment. Tell a friend!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

MacGyver Rides Again

We were busy little bees this weekend, seeding and transplanting and improvising hoop houses with clothespins and old fencing. Mark likes to channel MacGyver, and he's got the hockey hair to prove it.

The weather was delightfully cooperative on Saturday, lulling us into a sense of security. Even Sunday afternoon was cool and overcast, perfect for transplanting greens, so we put out the chard, lettuce, broccoli, spinach, and arugula. However, Sunday evening brought hail and thunderstorms. Most of the broccoli and lettuce we'd planted outside was under row covers, but there were a few extras we planted in boxes along the driveway. They got pummeled pretty hard, but it looks like the broccoli and arugula are recovering. The jury's still out on the lettuce. We're fully anticipating an infestation of squirrels next, closely followed by a plague of locusts.

Radishes, spinach, sweet peas, and fennel seeds are all in the ground, and from the safety of our home we started marigolds, calendula, and okra. Mark raised the roof (literally) on the hoop houses, using PVC pipe to get another 18 inches out of our row covers. Last year, the plants outgrew the row covers long before the last frost date of May 15, so this solution should buy us some time.

We are very excited about the tomatoes, which are fast becoming behemoths at 4-6 inches tall, nice and bushy and not leggy at all. They're starting to fill the room with that earthy tomato-plant scent, which has been one of Kate's all-time favorite aromas ever since her very first job in a greenhouse at age 15.

And now Kate will leave you with one final image: Mark, crouched on the floor of the bathroom, with the door locked to keep the mewling cats out while he cuts the bottoms out of a dozen cat-food cans. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. And a lot more hilarious, although I shouldn't have laughed at the bloodshed. All this to keep the cutworms off the broccoli this year, which is critical--I understand that--but this seems more painful and complicated than necessary.