NC Planting Calendar & What to Plant This Week

For those of you who are growing in NC (zone 7B), this planting calendar from NC State Extension is the bomb dot com. I’ve printed mine out to keep with my seed packets for a quick reference on what to plant and when.

Based on the calendar, here’s what you can start planting this week!

Sow outdoors:

  • Arugula
  • Carrots
  • Cilantro
  • Lettuce – wave 1
  • Green onions
  • Peas
  • Radishes
  • Rutabaga
  • Turnips

Sow indoors for later transplant:

  • Eggplant
  • Peppers

Get out there and plant those spring crops! Happy planting!

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Seed Starting 2022

As I write this, I’m sitting on my couch, surrounded by seeds, garden books, a vomit-inducing amount of kids toys, while watching “Gardener’s World” on Amazon Prime. 

Hi from the wasteland!

Can I just say the Brits really know their gardening? Monty Don is my garden hero, and if you haven’t read his book, “The Complete Gardener“, you should. It’s chock full of great gardening info and beautiful pictures – pretty much his gift to all mankind.

The King himself, Sir Monty Don.

Why isn’t it spring yet???

This is the time of year for daydreaming, planning, and watching/reading all about gardening. It’s also the time of year for starting your first seeds! 

I’ve got the bug, so I rearranged all my seed packets and started my first four seeds – Chinese String Eggplant. Here are the steps for starting your seeds indoors:

Determine if you ACTUALLY need to start your seeds indoors. 

    • Rule of thumb is to start brassicas (cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts) and anything in the nightshade family (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers) indoors. Why?
      • 1) brassicas are frost hardy, but they’ll bolt once it warms up, so you want to give them a head start indoors to optimize your short growing window before the heat gets here
      • 2) nightshades are slow to grow and they’re frost tender. If you wait until after the last frost to sow outdoors, they’ll do just fine, but you won’t get a harvest until much later
    • You can check this nifty list for more recommendations on what should be direct sown vs. started indoors.

Sort your seeds by sowing date and mark your calendar.

  • First, know your last frost date. Here in Zone 7B, it’s April 15th. You can do a quick google search for this by your zip code.
    • Look at seed packets for sowing dates (i.e. 8 weeks before last frost). Do a google search to determine what date that equates to in your zone. Then mark your calendar and sort your seeds accordingly!

Google tells me that 12 weeks before April 15th is January 21st. Because I **cannot** count. Also, tea boxes make great seed packet storage.

Make your seed-starting mix.

    • I use coconut coir with perlite mixed in. Nothing scientific here, just make it so that there are some specks of the perlite in there. The coir holds moisture and the perlite prevents compaction and keeps everything light and fluffy.
    • Pro tip: get your coconut coir in small bricks. Chiseling into a rock hard, 10 lb slab is NOT fun.
    • NOTE: You don’t need compost or anything with nutrition in it yet… seeds have enough energy in them to carry them along until they start making true leaves. Once you see true leaves, you can add a little dusting of compost on top.

One pound block of coconut coir, rehydrated + itty bitty bit of perlite + old nursery pot (scrubbed clean)

      • Mix it real good
    • Get your seed starting mix damp like a wet sponge, fill up a container that has drainage (old nursery pots, yogurt cups with holes in the bottom, etc), put your seeds on top, and dust with more of your mix. Since you’ve pre-dampened the mix, you don’t need to water.

Itty bitty eggplant seeds

Here are the seeds.

Rather than poking the seeds down into the mix, lightly dust some mix over top.

Label and Put your plants in a clear bin (AKA mini greenhouse).

  • Keep the lid on to encourage germination. Most seeds don’t  need light until after they’ve germinated, so as long as it’s relatively warm, you’re good for now.

The Germination Station

Check your seeds for germination. 

  • Once they’ve germinated, take them out of the bin and give them lots of good, strong light (grow light or shop light with broad spectrum output). Water them as needed (bottom watering – submerging the container in a tray of water- is best to prevent fungal problems)

January brings a lot of cold and icky-ness, but I hope this has brought you a little ray of sunshine. Spring will be here soon!

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Seed Comparison Shopping

I was raised by a shopaholic mom. No joke. We would drive all the way from our house in Cary to as far as Greensboro just to get a deal. It was pretty fun as a pre-teen… my sister and mom and I would make a day of it and go all day on a Saturday. Our poor dad probably needed to eat an entire bottle of Tums when he heard mom say we were going shopping. I’m glad I never had to see those bills :-/.

Even though I’ve slowed down a bit now that I’m paying the bills myself, the thrill of the hunt runs strong in our family. Put my sister, mom, and I in a TJ Maxx and we can do some serious damage, unearthing amazing finds hidden in racks and behind throw rugs for dirt cheap. 

So, when it comes to buying seeds, it should come as no surprise that momma didn’t raise no fool. I look for the deals y’all. 

I am going to go big or go home this year in the garden, and a cut flower bed is GOING TO HAPPEN. See? I already laid out the bed shape! 

New L-shaped flower bed is happening!

Here are some thoughts as you’re doing your seed shopping:

Consider Free Seeds First

  • Did you know your local library *probably* has free seeds? They do! At our library, we can get up to 4 packets of free seeds from the “seed library” per season. They may not be the sexiest varieties, but hey, they’re free!
  • Also, ask other gardeners if they’d like to split seed packets or have any old seeds they didn’t like or don’t want to plant. 
  • Sometimes seed companies will give you a free packet of seeds if you spend over X amount of dollars with them. It’s a crap shoot, but you might get something for free. At Baker Creek, you get a free packet for every $35 you spend on seeds.
  • Now is a great time to look for free seeds in nature/your garden/public gardens! Spent seed heads may still have seeds in them at this time of year (my fennel certainly does!). If you know what grew there, it might be worth taking a gamble. 

Consider Unit Price

I’m finding that sunflower seeds are cheaper from Seed Saver’s Exchange. Though the price per packet is a bit higher, each packet contains more seeds. Take these identical varieties of Torch Sunflower from Seed Saver’s Exchange and Baker Creek, for example:

Torch Sunflower from Seed Saver's Exchange

VERSUS…

Initially the Baker Creek one looks like the better deal because it’s cheaper per pack. But look at the fine print… you’re only getting 35 seeds. Seed Saver’s Exchange gives you almost triple that amount for only slightly more money. Let’s so some math…yes, math.

$3.75/100 seeds = $0.04 per seed @ Seed Saver’s Exchange. Whereas $3.00/35 seeds = $0.09 per seed @ Baker Creek.

Math Memes | Memes

Now, does that price difference really matter all that much? No, it’s not a huge deal if you’re only buying a few seed packets. But me? I’m about to buy A LOT of seeds and sow A LOT of seeds at once (see shopping cart – Lord help me).

I’m not done here… this will get whittled down (likely by Jonah)

Jim Carrey The Mask - Imgflip

Please. This is my cry for help!!!

Generally speaking, I’d rather buy a greater quantity of seeds AND Fewer varieties than A Smaller QUANTITY of seeds AND MORE varieties.

Why? Because it’s better to plant SWATHS of plants than a bunch of individual plants.

Frankly, an individual plant looks kind of dumb all on its own, and it’s also more likely to get overlooked by pollinators and YOU, the gardener. Give it a friend! Or maybe 10 friends! When it comes to something like sunflowers, it’s also good to hedge your bets with more seeds because birds, squirrels, bunnies, and e’erybody else WILL go to town munching those newly planted seeds and seedlings. When you plant more of the same, you can afford to lose some to predation and bad weather

An exception to shopping by the unit price rule would be if you’re buying something kind of experimental. Like you aren’t sure it’s going to work in your zone or you’re not sure if you’ll love it or not. In that case, get the cheaper seed packet, even if there are fewer seeds. That way, you’re not wasting seeds if you decide not to grow it in future years and you’re not out a lot of money on seeds you hate.

Consider Varieties Available

Baker Creek and Johnny’s have WAY more varieties to choose from, so if you’re looking for a specific color or growth habit (i.e. for containers), you’re more likely to find it there than SSE. Take Hollyhocks, for example:

Baker Creek’s options don’t wow me… they don’t offer a packet that has a mix of colors:

But I’d LOVE the Outhouse variety from SSE for the combo of colors:

 

Consider Shipping Costs

Unless you’re buying seeds in person, rather than online, that is. Free shipping covers a multitude of sins. If you only want a few seed packs and the company does not offer free shipping, it might be best to find them at a local nursery instead.

Consider Hybrids

These will cost you a pretty penny, but they might be worth it for some plants. For instance, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to grow zucchini or yellow squash ever again (squash bugs and squash vine borers have gotten them almost every year), but if I did, I would DEFINITELY pay for an F1 that is resistant to powdery mildew and that pests might not like as much.

Hybrid vigor is a thing (hybrids produce more than open pollinated), but any seeds you save won’t be like the parent plant.

Here’s an example comparing zucchini varieties (not exactly apples to apples, since it’s different companies, but you get the picture):

An F1 from Johnny’s:

VERSUS

An open-pollinated from SSE:

I hope these tips help as you’re thinking about seeds for this year! For more on this subject, check out my entries from last year. Happy shopping!

 

Where to Start? Nursery Transplants vs Direct Sowing vs Indoor Seed Starting

All About Seeds – Part 1! Deciphering Seed Packets

All About Seeds – Part 2! Seed Lingo Decoded

All About Seeds – Part 3! Selecting Varieties for Planting

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Tips on Planting Fruit Bushes & Notes on Leaf Hoarding

FRUIT!!!!!

My idea for adding fruit to our garden has come to fruition! Since my last post, the Jubilee Garden has grown by 144 square feet for a 4 ft x 36 ft blackberry and blueberry bed! There are 4 Osage Blackberries and one each of these blueberry varieties: Blueberry Buckle (a self-pollinating, dwarf hybrid), and Brightwell and Powder Blue (rabbiteye types that need another variety to cross-pollinate and produce fruit – does best in the south). This is my pipe dream of what I’ll be snacking on in about a year and a half…

Vaccinium Ashei Brightwell Rabbiteye Blueberry | SiteOne

Here are some things to consider if you’re planning on adding fruit to your landscape!

  1. Choose Fruits that are Suitable for Your Climate
    1. I love raspberries, but they don’t do well in NC. Blackberries do better, and I happen to like them, too.
    2. A garden retailer at my local farmer’s market told me that for my area, Apples and Peaches should be left to the professionals because we don’t get enough chill hours for most apple varieties here (do better in the NC mountains) and peaches have A LOT of problems that need to be heavily managed to yield a good crop (spraying). She probably shouldn’t have told me that, because now I sort of consider that a challenge (I’ll show you, farmers market lady!), but I’m going to prioritize the easier fruits over these.
    3. I’d love a grapevine, but bunch grapes require a lot of work, while muscadines are native to this area and basically don’t need any help.
  2. Pick the Best Varieties
    1. NC State has done all the hard work and figured out what works best and what’s most disease- and pest-resistant. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of planting, hedge your bets and listen to the experts! 
  3. Research the Best Time of Year to Plant
    1. Usually it’s fall/spring, but check your state’s cooperative extension website to see what they recommend for your area. Here in NC, either one works, but preference is usually for fall plantings for perennials and trees since our winters are mild. In areas with harsh winters (lots of sub-freezing temps), it may be better to wait until spring so the plants have a better chance of surviving.
  4. Consider Your Soil
    1. Blueberries need acidic soil, other fruits prefer neutral. You might need a soil test (link to my county’s testing site) to determine what you’re starting off with. I’ve never done a soil test, but I’ll probably do one this year because I learned it COSTS A MEASLEY $4 (I mean c’mon, so cheap!). AND if you do it during the growing season (April-Nov) it’s FREE!
    2. Free? free? free? free? - Nemo Seagulls | Meme Generator

      YUPPPP

  5. Determine the Right Planting Location
    1. Most fruits want full sun (6-8 hrs+ unfiltered light). LET THE SUNSHINE IN! They also need water, especially in the first year to get their roots established.
  6. Resist the Temptation
    1. The first year or two, you probably want to pick off any flowers you see on your plants, thus eliminating any fruit from being produced. This forces the plant to focus on root and vegetative growth. Sacrifice now means bigger, healthier plants and larger harvests later! I hate this so much, though! 
Cry Sad GIF - Cry Sad Meme - Discover & Share GIFs

My feelings about not eating fruit the first year after planting…

ALL THE LEAVES

Now a note on leaf hoarding. Initially, I started digging out a bed, but realized quickly that was a HORRIBLE idea. It’s labor intensive, time consuming, and completely unnecessary. Enter: SHEET MULCHING.

What is it? Essentially, you lay down something biodegradable to smother your grass and any weeds (I chose cardboard) and HEAP on the mulch (like 8+ inches worth).

In my case, I chose leaves because they’re plentiful AND FREE (can you see a theme here?). AND at this time of year, my wonderful neighbors have handily raked and packaged them for yard waste pickup – saving me labor and dolla dolla bills, ya’ll. So, yes, I creepily took rescued bags of leaves from my neighbors and family (most of the time, I asked first ;)). I definitely got some weird looks from people walking in the neighborhood as I fished leaves out of yard waste bins and hauled bags of leaves into the back of my SUV (sort of like a yard-waste hobo).

Leaves are worth their weight in gold as compost fodder and mulch. DO NOT LET THEM LEAF (ha!) your property! In fact, we got rid of your yard waste altogether and have never been happier!

Precious rescued cargo from my neighbor Brittany! Thanks girl!

For the new bed, you could use compost, leaf mold (composted leaves), or wood chips. Just don’t use something gross that could leach chemicals into your soil (dyed mulch, shredded rubber mulch). You could even build your beds using Hugelkultur (mounding sticks and other yard debris as the base of your bed as filler, leaving them to decompose over time… you’d still want to add some sort of finer mulch over top). 

Ideally, prepping beds should be done before planting, BUTTTTTTTTTTTTT…I was in a hurry, so I made do.

First, I figured out my spacing based on the mature size of the plants. It looks sparse now, but there’s room for them to grow. I can also plant annuals in the beds (flowers or veggies) these first few years to fill in the gaps.

Here are the steps for planting a new small fruits bed (if you haven’t prepped the bed in advance):

Measure how far you want your bed from existing plantings

Use stakes and string to define the bed area

Place plants with their full-grown size in mind

Dig holes 2x as wide and just as deep as the root ball of your bush. Plant away!

Check out that beautiful blueberry! And the great photography skills (sorry for the finger in the image!)

If planting in spring, you can add soil amendments if needed (acidifier for blueberries, for example). If your climate allows for fall or winter planting, don’t add anything that would spur new growth or bring the plant out of dormancy (fertilizer) until springtime.

add cardboard and your mulch of choice around the plantings

Here’s the final product!

Happy planting!

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23 Heads of Garlic

23 Heads of Garlic

Fall plantings for the win! This week, I harvested 23 heads of garlic from our herb garden. All of these came from individual cloves of grocery store garlic that I planted last fall. They’re finally ready – YES!!!

Since this was my first time growing garlic, I had to do some reading online about how to go about harvesting. Here are a few things I didn’t know until now that I thought might be helpful to you as well:

  1. Wait for the foliage to die back a bit before harvesting your garlic. The majority of the leaves should be be yellowish and bending over (similar to when your flower bulbs die back after flowering… garlic is a bulb after all!)
  2. Dig them out with a trowel – don’t pull them by their stems!
  3. Do NOT wash them after you pull them out of the ground. Just shake off as much dirt as you can.
  4. Let them cure in a dark, dry place for 3-4 weeks before use. I used an old window screen in our garage (vampires beware!).
  5. After curing, you can braid them together real fancy-like or just store them as they are in a cool, dark place. 
  6. Go make some garlic bread!

I’ll definitely be planting garlic again this fall! What a huge success they were this year!

 

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Weedling vs. Seedling – How to Tell the Difference

There comes a point in every gardener’s life when he or she is faced with one of life’s toughest questions: “Is that a weed or something I planted and forgot about?”

I forgot what i forgot - Dory | Meme Generator

If you’re like me, that question comes up more times than you care to admit. 

Spring is a tough season for plant identification because there are a lot of tiny plants growing and you usually only have a few seed leaves to base your ID on. But today, we’re going to attempt to sort out what’s a weed and what’s a seed.

 

The Importance of Weedling vs. Seedling Identification

I’ve heard it said that a weed is just a plant out of place. Before you bust out the Round-Up on what you think might be a weed, think about what role that weed might be performing for you in your home landscape. 

Weeds can be beautiful, functional, and do many of the things that purposely sown plants do. For instance, they can attract pollinators with their blooms, mine nutrients trapped in deeper levels of the soil (tap roots of dandelions), and sometimes even be eaten!

Henbit

Henbit – A beautiful, flowering weed! (Source: Wikipedia)

 

Weeds only become problematic when they are invasive, out-compete the things we intend to grow, or have a noxious or negative attribute (poisonous, attract pests, ugly). 

Giant Hogweed

Giant Hogweed – phototoxic (its sap prevents skin from being able to protect itself from sunlight, resulting in scarring and skin inflammation). Ironically, a member of the same family of plants as Carrots and Queen Anne’s Lace (Source: NY Times)

If a plant’s negative attributes outweigh the positive, I’m all for getting rid of it! In fact, if a plant is harmful to children or pets or can be easily confused with an edible plant, it’s best to get it out of there as early as possible so the weed doesn’t bear seed and breed a whole new generation of weeds. That’s where weedling vs. seedling identification comes in.

 

Questions to Ask

Here are a few things you can ask as you’re trying to determine if something is a weedling or seedling:

  1. LOCATION: Do you remember or have a record (planting diagram) of planting something in this space? Is it coming up in a uniform pattern (i.e. you spaced them 2 inches apart, etc) or is it random? Unless you scattered your seeds or a heavy rain washed the seeds away, random patterns usually indicate a weed.
  2. TIMING: When did you plant your seeds? How long is the germination period for those seeds? Germination typically takes a few days to a few weeks for things we intentionally plant. If it’s outside of that window, it could be a weed.
  3. SPREAD: How contained is this plant? Does it seem to be spreading? Choking out other plants? Those are usually signs that a plant is a weed.
  4. IDENTIFIABLE PLANT PARTS: Are there any true leaves on the plant? Is it flowering? Producing seeds? The larger a plant grows, the easier it is to identify.

 

Resources for Weedling vs. Seedling IDs

These days, it’s pretty easy to hop online and figure out what’s a weed and what’s a seed. 

My go-to resource is our State Extension’s website. One of the best pages I’ve found in their plethora of weed-related content is this one on turf weeds, since a lot of the weeds I encounter are probably blowing in from our lawn or other lawns in our neighborhood. Just like intentional plantings, weeds vary by location, so if you’re outside of North Carolina, check your own state’s extension website for what’s endemic to your area. 

There are also plant ID apps available. A friend just recommended LeafSnap to me, but I haven’t given it a good test run yet. I’ll report back in a future post once I’ve had time to review it.

LeafSnap

Your neighbors who garden are also a great resource, since they’re likely dealing with the same things you are. Everyone has that one neighbor who loves to complain about their crabgrass!

Another resource, though less convenient and accessible, are reference gardening books from your local library.

 

Examples

Let’s look at some weedling and seedling pictures from my garden to get a feel for what’s what!

 

ChickweedSwiss ChardLambs QuartersField Milk Thistle - Field Sow ThistleBeansRutabagaRedrooted PigweedTomato SeedlingBroadleaf Plantain & MaplePokeweedCorn

 

Have you been able to identify weeds and seeds in your garden this year? What are some of your favorite tips/tricks/apps for weedling vs. seedling IDs? I’d love to hear what has worked best for you – share in the comments below!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: 2021 Goal Check-In

Next Wednesday: Garden Update – The Bolt & The Beautiful

 

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How to Make a Herb Spiral

Herb spirals are a fun and easy way to fit your favorite herbs into a small planting area. I learned about this technique from a book on Permaculture called Gaia’s Garden. Check it out from your local library or get your own copy using my Amazon Affiliate link below:

The idea behind a herb spiral is that circular patterns in nature are innately space-conserving. You can minimize how much pathway vs. planting area you’ll need by organizing your herbs into a spiral pattern and also utilizing vertical space. Here are a few examples of what they can look like:

Herb Spiral Example 1

https://www.reddit.com/r/gardening/comments/8iho24/my_husband_built_an_herb_spiral_i_cant_wait_to/

Herb Spiral Example 2

https://www.buildwithrise.com/stories/herb-spirals

Herb Spiral Example 3

https://www.permaculturenorthernbeaches.org.au/how-to-build-a-herb-spiral

 

So you want to make one? Great! Here are the steps to build your very own herb spiral:

 

1. Pick Your Planting Location

Your herb spiral should be as close to your home as possible. In Permaculture, this is called Zone 0 or Zone 1. You can think of zones as a bulls-eye mapped over your property, where Zone 0 is your home and larger number Zones radiate out from that center point). The closer your herbs are to where you’ll be preparing food, the more likely you are to actually use them!

 

2. Add Some Rocks or Pavers in a Spiral Pattern

Add football to fist sized rocks or pavers, creating a spiral pattern from the base upwards. Essentially you’re delineating the planting area for each layer. If you’ve got leftover pavers, bricks or something similar, that will work fine, too. The goal is to make it ~3ft tall and 5ft wide. In the Northern Hemisphere, build it clockwise, with the opening on the North side.

 

3. Fill with Soil/Compost

Pile up some good garden soil/compost into the open gaps between your pavers/stones.  You can save some money by making this a hugelkultur bed (using sticks and twigs at the base, then filling in with soil – the twigs will eventually break down into compost).

 

4. Plant Some Herbs (and Other Garden Goodies)!

You’ve created a garden structure that has microclimates! Lay out your herbs on the spiral, taking advantage of each herb’s preferred growing conditions. You don’t have to limit it to just herbs, either. Here are some general ideas of where to put things based on whether they like more or less sun and drier or wetter conditions:

 

Plant on North (cool) / East (morning sun) Side near Bottom (wetter)

  • Lettuces
  • Parsley
  • Mint (in a sunken container so it doesn’t escape into the rest of the spiral)

Plant in the Middle (East or West side)

  • Chives

Plant Middle, East side

  • Cilantro

Plant on South (hot) / West Side (afternoon sun) near bottom (wetter)

  • Basil

Plant on South (hot) / West Side (afternoon sun) near top (drier)

  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme

Plant on North (cool) / East (morning sun) Side near Top (drier)

  • Dill (likes the heat, but gets pretty tall so you don’t want it to block sunlight for other herbs)
  • Sage

 

Here’s an example of a layout that could work for most gardens in the Northern Hemisphere:

Herb Spiral Layout

 

5. Water!

Water your herb spiral or install irrigation tubing for automatic watering.

 


 

Here are a few additional resources explaining how to construct the spiral and where to place your favorite herbs and plants:

ARTICLE: The Magic and Mystery of Constructing a Herb Spiral and Why Every Suburban Lawn Should Have One

 

 

 

If you don’t already have a permanent solution for your herbs, I hope you’ll give this a try! Do you have a herb spiral in your garden? What do you like/dislike about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Why so much garden imagery in the Bible?

Next Wednesday: Weedling vs. Seedling – How to Tell the Difference

 

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Top 5 Herbs You Should Be Growing This Year

Herbs are MY FAVORITE thing to grow in the garden. Why? 

  1. They’re the most useful of any garden edible, since they can go into a variety of dishes
  2. They’re super simple to maintain
  3. Many are perennials or self-sowing annuals, so you only have to plant once
  4. You don’t have to waste money on cut herbs at the grocery store – they always give you way too much and they go bad before you can use them
  5. You can divide plants and share them with friends!

If you’re not growing herbs, go out TODAY and get some! Here are my top 5 herbs you should be growing this year.

 

Number 5 – Cilantro / Coriander (Annual)

Cilantro

https://www.almanac.com/plant/coriander-and-cilantro

I’m officially a cilantro convert. I know some people hate the taste of cilantro (which is actually a heritable genetic trait, believe it or not!), so if that’s you, just skip on over to #4…but for those of you who love a little something fresh in your salsa, read on.

I failed with growing cilantro for several years until a neighbor told me that she talked to a farmer who said the trick here in NC is to plant it IN THE FALL, not the spring, since it doesn’t love the heat. Fall planting DEFINITELY worked this year, and I’m so pleased! I’ve used our fall-planted cilantro more times than I can count this winter – in salsas, Mexican dishes, vegetarian dishes, and Thai/Asian dishes. Plus, if you let it go to seed, you can actually use the seeds as a spice (it’s ground coriander!). 

 

Number 4 – Oregano (Perennial)

Oregano

https://www.almanac.com/plant/oregano

It’s a perennial and it goes in so many dishes! If you haven’t used fresh oregano in a dish, you haven’t lived. The dried stuff is good, but fresh is just so different and delicious. It comes back year after year and makes a great ground cover, too.

 

Number 3 – Basil (Annual)

Basil

https://www.almanac.com/plant/basil

There’s nothing like basil in the summertime! It’s a great companion plant to most garden vegetables and can even deter some insect pests. There are a ton of varieties to choose from (Thai, Cinnamon, Lemon, Lime, Purple, Holy, African Blue…), though I usually just go with the standard Genovese. We use fresh basil on homemade pizzas and Italian dishes, and I love to make my own pesto (I leave out the pine nuts) and freeze it to use throughout the year. Pollinators (especially bees) love this stuff when it’s flowering. After flowering, save the seeds for next year’s planting (or let it self-sow)!

 

Number 2 – Chives (Perennial)

Chives

https://www.almanac.com/plant/chives

Ya’ll. I don’t ever buy green onions anymore. Chives can substitute for almost any onion-y ingredient in recipes. Chives are harvestable most of the year here in NC, so I always have a fresh supply. My clump of chives gets larger every year, so I get to share transplants with neighbors and friends. They’re a great deterrent for animals that like to browse (read: eat all your garden goods), so they make a great border plant. Plus, they have beautiful purple blooms in the spring! Want some from my garden? Please let me know!

 

Number 1 – Parsley (Biennial)

Parsley

https://www.almanac.com/plant/parsley

Parsley goes in EVERYTHING. Do a quick inventory of your favorite recipes, and tell me, how many of them add parsley as the finishing touch? It’s like ALL of them, right?! Having a little stand of parsley has saved me so many grocery trips. Plus, I can make tabbouleh anytime I want! Parsley is a biennial (focuses on foliage growth in year 1, then flowering/seed production in year 2), so start a few transplants (or seeds) in 2 consecutive years and then you can just let it grow on its own. You’ll always have some available!

 

Honorable Mention:

  • Dill – I love that you can eat multiple parts of the plant – the foliage and the seeds! I use the seeds for pickling my cucumbers. Also has beautiful yellow flowers in the summer that pollinators love. 
  • Peppermint & Spearmint – Mojitos. Homemade mint ice cream. Need I say more? Grow it in a container though, so it doesn’t spread around your garden like wildfire!
  • Thyme – my small stand of thyme has gotten overrun with other plants, so I need to re-plant this, but I LOVE some fresh thyme! Perfect for my favorite roast chicken recipe!

 

What are your favorite herbs to grow at home? Let me know in the comments!

 

Coming up:

 

Sunday: What does it mean to be an Easter People?

Next Wednesday: How to Make a Herb Spiral

 

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Square Foot Gardening Techniques

Have you heard of Square Foot Gardening before? No, it’s not about people who have really angular feet gardening. But for a minute, let’s just imagine someone with cartoonish, block-like feet attempting to garden – the mental picture is hilarious!

 

What is Square Foot Gardening?

Square Foot Gardening (SFG) is all about maxing out what you can grow in a square foot (12” x 12”) planting area. Most SFGs are no more than 4 ft wide (to allow for easy reaching into the bed without stepping into the planting area) and can be any length. If you don’t have a copy already, I highly recommend purchasing the creator, Mel Bartholmew’s, book. I use it as a reference every single growing season. This book never collects dust at my house.

(This is an Amazon Affiliate link. If you choose to purchase using this link, I’ll get the world’s tiniest commission ever). 

 

SFG: AN Answer to Inefficiency

SFG eliminates gardening inefficiencies that are carryovers from traditional row farming. Here are some of the issues with traditional row gardening/farming that SFG solves:

  1. Eliminates wasted space (i.e.  huge aisles and footpaths in farming or traditional row growing methods)
  2. Reduces weed competition by growing densely and shading out weeds
  3. Conserves water by utilizing a smaller planting area
  4. Reduces seed waste (no thinning seedlings)
  5. Spaces out harvests through succession planting and planting reasonable numbers of plants
  6. Starts with healthy soil – a soil recipe so light, airy, and nutrient-dense that plants have a healthy start from day 1

 

The late, great Mel Bartholomew invented this method of gardening in 1976, and with it, revolutionized home gardening. With the common-sense ideas listed above, can you guess what Mel’s background was prior to developing SFG? If you guessed engineer, you’re a winner! Mel was a civil engineer, specializing in eliminating inefficiencies in construction and manufacturing prior to his foray into gardening.

5 second T.O. (Time Out): Isn’t it amazing how our God-given gifts and talents can be utilized in such different and cool ways? I find that fascinating. Anyway, I digress.

Back on topic now. 

 

Here’s what I love about SFG:

  1. It’s accessible. The small size of square foot gardens (as small as 3×3 or 4×4 ft), makes it an approachable start for beginning gardeners. 
  2. It’s easy and efficient. Less weeding (plants in SFG grow so closely together that they effectively shade out most weeds), few tools needed, less hauling hoses around a gigantic garden, no digging, no fooling with trying to improve your native soil.
  3. It’s tidy and compact. You can fit a SFG just about anywhere. If you only have a tiny bit of land, you can still probably fit a 4×4 ft bed. Heck, you can even make SFG raised bed tables that can go on a deck or patio. 
  4. It’s adaptable. Building the beds can be a pain if you’re not confident with tools, but I’ve learned that you really don’t have to make a border if you don’t want to or it’s not in your budget. You could make a 4×4 ft patch of soil with no border (just watch out for erosion) or you could make a border out of large tree branches (hello pruning upcycling!), bricks, pavers, large rocks, cinder blocks, or whatever other random things you have lying around. You can also make the SFG any size you want, for any types of plants you want to grow. You can do all vegetables, all herbs, all flowers, all perennials, or a combination of any of those. The world is your oyster!
  5. It doesn’t require a ton of maintenance. Unlike row gardening, you don’t have to till the soil every year. You just top up the beds with a little bit of compost in the fall, and you’re good to go in the spring!

 

So how do you make a square foot garden?

 

Step 1: Decide on where you want your SFG to go.

Consider what areas of your property get the most light during the day (best for most vegetables) and how far you’ll have to haul water. Don’t forget to think about things that might cast a shadow on your planting area or cause a microclimate where things get too hot or cold (buildings, trees, fences).

 

Step 2: Determine the size of your SFG.

Start small! For your first year, I recommend going with one 4×4 ft bed or 4×8 ft bed if you’re feeling ambitious. 

Our first SFG bed

This was our first SFG bed, back in 2017. We made 2- 4×4 beds and put them side-by-side to make it 4×8. I ultimately didn’t like having a bed that long and 4 ft across was too wide for me. I’m glad we only made one bed that year so I could easily make changes to the layout.

 You can supplement with container gardening (pots) if you think you need more space, but it’s best to start small when you’re building any sort of garden structure. It gives you a growing season or two to decide if you like the orientation, make changes, and decide how you might like to expand (or if you even need to expand).

If you’re short like me, having one of the sides be 3 ft instead of 4 is helpful – it can be hard to reach all the way across a 4 ft bed without stepping in it if you’re small (and stepping in a SFG is a big no-no!).

SFG bed layout

An example of how you might lay out your SFG beds. This was back in 2019 when we added 2- 3×4 ft beds to our SFG setup.

 

Step 3: Choose your material.

You’ve got some options here:

      • Sloping edges on a mound of soil can work as an SFG! You’ll need to stay on top of weeding, but it can work. Check out Charles Dowding’s method.
      • If you’re using lumber, untreated or heat-treated pine is fine and cheap! Thicker stock is better (1 in is great). Some sites will say you need to use cedar, but it can get cost-prohibitive. We initially got 1/2in cedar boards and they warped and fell apart at the joints within 3 years, probably due to the thinness of the wood and the way we fastened the edges together. Thick pine should last you at least 5 years. Cedar has longevity (some claim 20 years), but think about the reality of whether you’ll even be living in the same place then. Thick cedar boards can also be difficult to source – the Home Depot and Lowes near us don’t carry them.
        • A note about wood/logs/natural edging for SFG beds: they attract roly polies, slugs, and other detrivore pests that make their living decomposing things for us. They’re just trying to do their job, but here’s your warning that using this material could introduce some pests to your garden that you weren’t counting on.
      • Bricks, pavers, and cinder blocks have the best longevity, but can be expensive and require some heavy-duty labor at the outset to move everything to the site and get things level. 
      • Pre-made SFG kits are available, but they’re mostly a rip-off.
      • Materials to avoid: rubber tires, railroad ties, chemically treated lumber, some types of cinder blocks that contain fly ash. Basically, avoid anything that could possibly leach harmful chemicals or heavy metals into the soil.

 

Step 4: Lay down plain cardboard to kill grass and weeds and assemble your bed edges.

 

Step 5: Add soil.

You want ⅓ certified organic compost (bulk or bagged), ⅓ perlite or vermiculite, and ⅓ peat moss or coconut coir. Don’t use your native garden soil for this.

Optional: Mark your beds so you have a square foot grid. You can use nails to hold some twine in place or create your own grid from rocks, bamboo canes, or anything that makes a straight line.

 

Step 6: Plant your seeds or transplants using the guide below.

  1.  

Here’s a list of the most common vegetables and their spacing in SFG method. If you’re planting something that isn’t listed here, use the “thin to” instructions on your seed packet as a guide and follow the simple calculation I outlined in All About Seeds Part 1: Deciphering Seed Packets.

Have you used the SFG method? What’s your experience been like? What thoughts or recommendations do you have for beginners trying out SFG? Share your wisdom in the comments below!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Palm-Waving Groupies

Next Wednesday: Update and Pictures from Our Jubilee Garden

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Nitty Gritty – How to Prune

Pruning is both science and art. Last week we looked at the why, when, and what of pruning. Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty – how to prune. Here are some thoughts that can help guide your cutting.

 

Immediately Remove:

  • Anything diseased or damaged.
  • Adventitious growth. Look like suckers but are coming from an area that was improperly cut or damaged in a previous pruning session or storm.
  • Limbs that are criss-crossing or growing towards the center of the plant. The goal is for limbs to go OUT and AWAY from the center so the foliage can get more light for photosynthesis.
  • Suckers. These are shoots that come up from the base of the plant, trying to be new leaders (primary limbs). 

Suckers at the base of a shrub There's a sucker born every minute (PT Barnum)
All of these tiny shoots coming up near the base of the plant are suckers. PT Barnum would welcome them, but he’s no gardener.

 

Determine Desired Height

How tall do you want this to be once you’re done pruning? Choose a height to guide your cuts (ex. I aim for waist- or chest-high for shrubs since that’s easy to approximate). 

 

Shaping 

Look for little buds (AKA lateral meristem/axillary bud) on the limb in question. They might be clearly visible on a naked branch or they might be hidden right where a leaf attaches to the limb. The way these nodes are pointing indicates which way the plant could grow if you chopped right above that point. (Obviously if you chop below, the bud would be gone and couldn’t direct the growth).

Fun with Biology:

A meristem is a plant’s version of stem cells. Stem cells can differentiate into any type of cell that’s needed (sort of like our bone marrow and umbilical cord blood). An apical meristem is just plant stem cell tissue found at the apex, or top, of the plant. 

Lateral meristems are stem cells found near a bud or side shoot

Plant hormones from the apical meristem called auxins send chemical signals to the lateral meristems that inhibit lateral growth. Cytokinins (another plant hormone) allow for some lateral growth. For more on this, check out this cool article

Here’s the REALLY cool part: if you chop off the apical meristem (AKA  pruning), auxins can’t be delivered and whatever lateral meristem is closest to the top becomes the new apical meristem through cell differentiation. It’s crazy-amazing! Check it out:

Apical meristem is at the top of the limb, lateral meristems/buds are on the sides of the limb. Each bud shows the direction a new limb could grow if the top of the limb were pruned.Cutting above a lateral meristem/bud will turn that bud into the new apical meristem and the limb will grow in the direction of that bud.Here's what the new limb would look like if pruned (new growth going in the direction of the new bud with foliage at each lateral meristem/axillary bud.

 

Science and pruning are so cool!

 

Here’s an example of my pruning before & after, using the tips above. Subtle, but effective!

Shrub after pruning

 

Tree Limbs: 3-Cut Method

Growing a Greener World, one of my favorite gardening shows, has a great episode on pruning. I recommend watching the entire episode. If you just need to know how to best remove a tree limb, check this out:

 

A Note About Tree-Topping/Crape Murder

Ugh. I hate this so much. I hate that I have to tell people this AND I hate that tree service companies actually suggest this to their customers. Trees SHOULD NOT have their canopies removed. It’s atrociously ugly and it is usually fatal to the tree. At the very minimum it’s extremely damaging (to the tree’s health and to your property when the tree eventually fails and falls on something). Crape Myrtles are frequent victims of this treatment, hence the term “Crape Murder”. If a tree is overgrown, here are your best options:

  • Remove an entire limb from where it joins up with the trunk or a large branch using the 3-cut method
  • Cut down the entire tree – it will look better than topping AND prevent you from having a huge insurance claim after it falls down on your or your neighbor’s property
    • Bonus: this frees up space to plant something better (more appropriate size or native species)

A tree that's had it's canopy removed improperly using a topping method.

An improperly pruned tree. Tree topping is murder!

Results of tree topping - scraggly limbs, knots, and decay

For the love of Pete, don’t do this!!!! See how sickly the new growth is? The knots? The decay? It’s awful!

 

Additional Resources

Here are a few other resources if you have more questions about how to prune:

Now you know the why, what, when, and how of pruning! It’s not that hard once you understand the biology going on behind the scenes. 

I’d love to hear your stories about pruning (horror or otherwise)! Did you inadvertently kill a plant by pruning at the wrong time (guilty here!)? Have a bumper crop of flowers or fruits after a hard prune? What did you do with the harvest? Let me know in the comments!

Coming up:

Sunday: Good Soil

Next Wednesday: Square Foot Gardening Techniques

 

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