Defining Garden Terms - Loam

heavy clayLoam refers to the texture of soil and further, an even mix of sand, silt and clay. A soil with a nice loam will retain moisture and nutrients whilst also draining properly. Soils with heavy clay, for instance like the one pictured here, tend to be a heavier loam that hold on to water. If a soil is predominantly sandy, water will drain too quickly, as the particles are larger. A soil with a perfect loam can be achieved over several years with the addition of compost and the consistent working and tilling of the soil. You should also work to steer clear of a compacted loam by refraining from walking on any garden beds.

Do Seeds Expire?

seed storageI received a great email today from a gardener I helped mentor last year. We met for three hours, mapped out her year garden plan and she took off running! Her garden prospered last year, and I'm happy to hear she is ready to dig in for 2010. Here is her question, along with my answer: My question for you is about the dates on seed packets.  Are seeds only good for one year?  Should I not be using any of my leftover seeds from last year?  My Fedco seeds from last year are specifically stamped “09”.  Many of my Seeds of Change seeds from last year have 2010, or even 2011!  I’d love to use up these seeds, but wanted to see if “09” seeds were done for....I even have seeds that have a “sell by” date of 12/09.  Would they be OK to plant?

PLANT THOSE SEEDS! Certain families of plants have longer seed lifes than others, but definitely plant them and see if they germinate. If nothing sprouts in 2 weeks, they are 'bad' seeds. But the odds of that happening are 50-50, so definitely give them a go. I planted seeds from 2007 last year with success.

Also good to note......any left over seeds should be kept in glass jars with lids, sealed and held in a cool dark cupboard. This will extend their life from year to year!

Seed Cultivation

calendula seedSeed saving is a front runner for one of my most favorite things about gardening and growing food. I love to let plants linger to the point where they produce seed - a complete lifecycle that is fascinating. Typically, I'm forcing fast rotations to maximize food production, however, so I seldom get to enjoy the process first hand. Someday........when I have gobs of space and I find my very own urban garden share, I will have a seed garden. Dreamy. Until then, I'll forever be a groupie to the seed growers of the world. Check out this video of the well-versed Frank Morton - a seed breeder in Oregon and a fellow member of the Organic Seed Growers And Trade Association (OSGATA ).

Planting Calendar

Seems like everyone is running out to their yards digging up dirt and tossing in seeds. While I fully embrace people gettin' down n dirty and giving gardening a go this year, it is a bit premature for most crops. gaden wishlist2Night temps are still a bit cool and when we have crystal clear nights, frost often forms. With that, now is a great time for ordering seeds and mapping out a plan. Don't go tossing seeds in at random - sit down instead and spend that time mapping out your garden. Here is a resource on what to plant, when . It doesn't have every edible, but it is a reasonable guide for the basics most people crave.

Soil Building

killing grass and mulchingIt’s been warm in the Pacific NW and everyone wants to run out to their gardens and plant, I know.  Instead of shoving pea seeds in the ground though, take this time to do something crucial in your garden – soil building. When you ‘build’ your soil, the end goal is to create a healthy and productive soil that is healthy and nurtures plant growth. Healthy soil is made up of a complex ‘web’ of bacteria, microorganisms and more.  Healthy soil teams with worms, bugs, insects and microscopic matter that we can’t see.  Worms channel down and create air pockets – important for the flow of oxygen to plant roots and to facilitate water flow and absorption.  Plant roots do this, as well. Compacted soil halts both of these necessary processes. (A great reason to NOT walk on your veg beds, btw.)

So, how to set out soil building?  In a word, MULCH.  Mulch is officially a protective cover for your soil. Mulch can be one of many materials – compost, paper, hay, cover crop, black plastic and more.  It is meant to reduce evaporation and insulate the soil as well as aid in erosion prevention and weed suppression. All that from one little step.  Dude…….mulch is important, trust me.

If you do not currently have a cover crop in your vegetable beds, no need to fret but plan on planting some next fall.  For now, you can mulch your garden with grass clippings and compost.  Grass clippings work well, as they will start to decay rapidly.  This decaying process invites decomposers and microorganisms to your soil.  We want this to happen.  Pending the lack of grass clippings this year, add a 1-inch layer of compost.  If you have homemade compost, GREAT – if not, buy a few bags from the local nursery or have a yard delivered for big areas.  (It’s smart to share a yard of compost with neighbors and share in the cost – cheaper that way!) Once you have the compost evenly distributed, cover this with a layer of brown leaves.  This layer will invite decomposition (though browns decompose much slower than a green, like grass clippings) and help build your soil.

Here is a great step-by-step to sheet mulching , a process started by Jon Rowley at the Interbay P-Patch.  While it’s best to start late fall, it’s a great read to help understand the process.


Soil Disease - Rotate Your Veg!

CompostSoilThermometer_1 It is widely accepted that moving members of the nightshade family through your garden and following crop rotation is a must.  Typically, it is recommended that tomatoes (and other nightshades like potatoes or eggplant) should only be planted every sixth growing cycle - that's about every year and a half if you grow intensively.

With that I received an email recently from an urban gardener planting in her parking strip.  She has been planting tomatoes in the same spot for 3 years and just this year encountered a problem.

"We converted our planting strip into a vegetable garden with the neighbor and have in the past had great success with fruit and veggies.  Last year our tomato crop got a disease where they would come in and the tops would turn brown.  We were told it was a soil issue and we’d have to replace all the soil before planting tomatoes again, which is fine.  I also think despite planting clover, we didn’t do enough to prepare our soil this year.  Do you have a tips sheet for winter garden prep that you could share or a link to a legitimate and locally appropriate site that might be able to offer guidance?"

It is hard to diagnose a plants diseases without actually looking at the plant or watching the disease advance, but there are alot of resources online.  Read here and here to check out some information and make assessments if you've experienced a similar problem.  Hopefully these will inspire you and educate you as to why rotating crops is so important, particularly in our small urban gardens.

Here is a breakdown of how and why to avoid soil borne disease, from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.  It's a great site to bookmark for the future!

Tomato Blight

This is an excellent account from a farmer about the problems with Tomato Blight and commercial agriculture.  A must read.  It speaks to the spread of disease, but like we have witnessed the spread of health crisis in the past.  The question is - do we ban all shipment of plants and thrwat commercial agriculture?  Do we set up subsidies for farmers at risk of losing a big percentage of their annual income?  What is the solution to this?  Email me here, if you have some thoughts -  



Organic Tomatoes

sliced tomatoUC Davis, those smarties down in California, just released a 10-year study comparing the "Influence of Organic and Conventional Crop Management Practices on the Content of Flavonoids in Tomatoes".  Flavonoids are "plant secondary metabolites" and are commonly known for their antioxidant qualities. They also help the plant produce pigment which in turn attracts polliantors. You know, all the good stuff. You can read the study here, but in essence organic tomatoes contain higher levels of minerals.  The study compared conventionally grown fruits to those grown on organic plots over the course of 10 (!) years, and noted the nutritent content.  If you take the time to read, you will note that they attribute this to increased amounts of organic matter in the soil, and the decreased need to add manures (ie fertilizer) to the gardens.

This is exactly what I encourage urban gardeners to do at home - practice crop rotation!! And build up your soil.  It really does pay in the long run. Even those fancy scientists agree.


How & Why to Prune Tomatoes

Pruned tomato vineCome summertime, when the air is hot and the sun is high, everyone comes down with a little case of tomato-fever. I'm not sure how this plant entered such epochal proportions as to measure the success of a home gardener, but it has. It seems if you can grow a good tomato, you'll be awarded with some stamp-of-approval from the tomato gods. With that, here is one more demystified trick for you to consider. TOMATO SUCKERS are the small sets of leaves that grow between the main stem, and a leafy branch of tomato plants. These suckers, if left to grow, will be one more flowering & fruiting stem for the plant. These additional fruits will ultimately compete for nutrients from the plant, and over time lessen the chances of all fruit coming to delicious maturity. Our NW season, in particular, can not support such prolific tomato production. Our summers are not uber-hot or long, and so tomatoes do well with a little pruning.

Pruning tomatoes, in this case, refers to snapping off those little suckers.  When the leaves are still small (say, 3-4 inches) you can snap them off with your fingers. If you let them get much larger, it's best to use a set of sheers. Typically, starting mid-July after the plants have some good strong growth and the weather is consistently warm, I snap off suckers without pause from the top half (*) of the plant. Any new suckers coming up from mid-July on will likely not develop in to ripe tomatoes, anyway. (Remember - too short a season!) Additionally, I prune about 30% of the green leaves off the tomato vine, allowing for air to pass through, sun to shine on the fruit (helps with sweetness) and allows me to clearly see when tomatoes are ripe.  This has never caused damage to the plant or overall tomato production.

If this is your first year pruning, start small and be cautious. You'll get the hang of it once you observe how and when different plants set fruit. Our 'job' as home cooks and gardeners, is to produce the most luscious tomato for our table. Keep that in mind, and you won't have a problem getting rid of suckers and excess leaves. I'll post more soon about different tomato varieties and why/how some can be pruned more than others. For now, this is a great start.

One last note -some people (like me) find the leaves of tomato plants highly irritable to their skin. For this reason, I always, always wear gloves when dealing with tomato plants.

* I leave some suckers on the bottom portion of all my small tomato and cherry tomato plants. Because cherry tomatoes are smaller, they ripen faster and therefore, the plant can support more production.



Are GMO's Organic?

The GMO debate is a big one. BIG.

And I'm not sure what all the answers are (yet), so on this BIG debate I'm going with my gut and urging my politicians, peers, colleagues, family - anyone who will listen - to have a voice in the BIG debate that will change the future of our food supply.  Monsanto owns a lot of this worlds seed.  Gates Foundation does work in Africa in support of GMOs, because they think it's going to solve the hunger crisis. I don't know if these things are ultimately good or bad, but I don't think that creating plants that are immune to bugs seems wise, nor do I think that feeding a world that is overpopulated is the answer to th global food shortage.  What I do know, however, is that I don't want people playing with the genetics of anything I take into my body as nourishment.  As food to fuel me. Period.

Let's consider a scientific fascination of mine, natural selection. I'm giving a good ol' hey-I-can-relate-to-this-example. We humans acclimate to various climatic conditions based on where we live.  People in Florida get more cold in the NY chill than NYers.  People in Arizona wear long sleeves when it's 78 degrees in Seattle and so on and so forth.  I've noticed my own 'natural selection' of sorts in the past three years that I've been gardening.  Used to be that I'd get hot in minutes, and I could often be found in a tank top and skirt in my gardens.  This year, I work in a long sleeve button down shirt with long pants.  Not because I'm cold, necessarily, but because I've acclimated.  My body has adjusted to my conditions.  I am learning how to survive successfully given my environment.

When you remove that natural environmental selection and instead manually and intentionally manipulate an organism to fit an environment, I believe there is a problem.  Nature will always take it's course. Molten rock finds it's way out of a volcano by cracking the earths crust. That is a natural circle and one we've come to accept. No one goes around trying to 'cap' mountains. Nature has it's way. When you start experimenting with genetics of anything, the word "natural" gets removed from the equation. It's no longer a natural selection.  It's just "selection".A selection of which I want no part, thankyouverymuch.


Tell the USDA that GMO contamination of ORGANICS is not acceptable!



What to Grow in Your Urban Garden NOW, May

BeanHarvest1May is suuuuuuuch a busy month in the garden.  So busy, in fact, that I barely have time to write this and you likely have no time to read it.  So, a few bullet points for us urbanites on the gogo............ - Do not set tomato plants out until Memorial Day weekend at earliest (and do feel free to send me a bday gift this same weekend.  I like champagne & anything blue.)

- Continue to sow lettuces this month - just a few seeds at a time.  And by "a few", I mean four or five.  That's four or five heading lettuce seed (not loose leaf).  Wait three weeks and repeat.

- Potatoes go in this month! Fun! I only reco' potatoes if you have a lot of space and an entire bed (at least 3'x2') that you can dedicate them to. Otherwise, buy at the farmers market from Olsen Farms b/c potatoes are cheap AND they grow more varieties than you can ever hope for.

- May is the month for dry beans!  Get some RAFT beans and do something fun this year.  Dry them out for winter goodies - how's that for garden goodness all year?

- Sow a fun herb by seed.  Don't bother spending all your money on starts - plant Anise Hyssop, Marjoram & Lemon Balm




Building & Keeping a Worm Bin at Home

worm bin illustrationWith the threat of charging to haul away household kitchen waste in King County, it's time to get serious about worm bins.  Worm bins are the new compost pile, people. I promise. Nine out of 10 clients ask me about setting up a system for home composting.  The biggest issue with composting on a small(ish) city lot is that we often don't have enough 'browns' and 'greens' to make up a successful hot compost.  And cold compost just takes so long!   The quick fix solution?  A worm bin.  It's cheap to set up, easy to store outdoors and will pepper your beds with nutrient rich worm casings.  Turn your trash into something useful!

Vermiculture is another great resource for making compost at home in a very small space. Vermiculture uses worms in a worm bin to break down food waste and bedding into compost. Worms produce castings: worm manure, also called vermicompost. These castings are then collected and used on plants and in gardens as lush, nitrogen- dense fertilizer.

A worm bin has the added benefit of being small; it can be stored inside or outside. So it’s an excellent option for apartment and condo dwellers who want to compost at home.

Worms can eat half their weight in food waste every day. If you start off with one pound of worms, count on their handling about a half a pound of kitchen scraps each day. There are a number of options for worm bins, from pricey commercial bins with multiple trays to plastic storage bins or homemade bins. (For instructions on building a worm bin and filling it with proper bedding, see Chapter 7, Do-It-Yourself Garden.) All systems need some method of drain- age, because worms generate liquid waste, and if conditions get too mucky, the worms will not be happy. The worms used in worm bins are not your garden earthworms, but a particular species—commonly called red worms or red wigglers—that would not survive for long in outdoor conditions. You can buy them locally or by mail order, but the cheapest (free!) source is from a gardener who already has a worm bin going.

It is important to note that a new worm bin starts off slowly, so you should add food waste in small amounts at first and monitor how quickly the worms are able to process them. They may ignore foods they don’t like; if so, remove these scraps from the bin so they don’t rot and give off odors. When you add food to the bin, lift some bed- ding and put food scraps underneath. This will help minimize odors. Additionally, when adding scraps you should utilize a different part of the bin than the last time, so the worms have a chance to process the older scraps before more waste is piled over them. Plan to follow a pattern, moving from left to right and then right to left, back and forth through the bin.

Worms can get finicky about what they will or won’t eat. A few finely crushed eggshells provide grit to help them digest, as worms do not have teeth. Do not give the worms proteins, dairy, oil, or oily products like vegetables cooked in oil or fried potato chips. Instead, include only plant-based organic matter like vegetable and fruit scraps. I have seen many a worm ignore citrus peels, but you can try them. Worms also love coffee grounds, and you can include the paper filters. Grains (stale bread, tortillas, and so on) are OK too.

Keep your worms in a temperate location, ranging from 55 ̊F to 75 ̊F; this means you may need to bring an outdoor bin inside during cold winter months.

After a few months, the worm compost will likely appear dark brown, like finely crushed cookie crumbs. This can take up to six months. To harvest your compost and re-bed the bin, move the entire contents of the bin over to one side. On the other side, refill the area with a mound of fresh bedding. Add some new kitchen waste to the new bedding side and wait for the worms to migrate over. This can take anywhere from two weeks to the better part of a month. Worm compost can be used on all potted plants and even indoor plants.

Top-dress your pots with a sprinkling of worm compost every six weeks or so. As worm castings are quite nutrient rich, you want to be sure not to add too much too often or you run the risk of plant burn from overfertilization.

As mentioned earlier, worms also expel liquid as they work to break down your kitchen scraps. You can collect that liquid and add it directly to plants along with the vermicompost. Or add equal parts water to the worm “tea” and spray or water your plants with this solu- tion. This also makes a great gift for any gardeners in your life.

Pruning in March - How To Correctly Trim Your Trees

rhodieMichelle Meyer is my garden co-hort, and she's got GREAT tips for pruning here and below. Pruning

I get lots and lots of questions about pruning trees and shrubs. There is no single rule for what should be pruned and when, but I just want to remind you that, in general, there are very few reasons to prune. There are so many more useful ways to spend time in the garden, so let’s talk about why you shouldn’t be spending a lot of time pruning.

First: Right plant, right place. Before you plant, carefully consider what the full size of the plant you’ve chosen will be. Plants in our area can grow to their full size in just a few years. If you already have a plant in the ground that is too big for its spot, take it out. There are so many lovely plants to choose from, there is no reason to wrestle with one that is too big for the space.

Next: When you prune a plant by topping or shaping it, what you’re really doing is stimulating its growth. Prune the top of a plant that naturally wants to grow tall and it will end up growing wide, wide, wide and thick with water shoots/suckers. It does not honor the plant and its natural beauty to try to make it conform to artificial dimensions.....READ MORE

You Say Tomato...

yellow tomatoI'm stealing this post from Shelley Lance over at Tom Douglas Restuarants because she is one of the most well-written voices in Seattle. An article by Barry Estabrook, about the way many of the field hands who pick tomatoes in South Florida are treated, published in the March issue of Gourmet magazine, is a real eye-opener.  The subtitle, ” if you have eaten a tomato this winter, it might well have been picked by a person who lives in virtual slavery,” will make you think twice if you’re tempted by those firm and tasteless globes sold in the supermarkets this time of year.  Even more horrifying is the thought that this virtual slave is laboring in the United States of America. Ninety percent of the fresh, domestic tomatoes we eat come from South Florida, and the largest community of farmworkers live in Immokalee, which, according to Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant US attorney based in Fort Myers, has become ground zero for modern slavery. In Immokalee, frightened, often undocumented field hands from Mexico and South America are grimly exploited by “independent contractors called crew bosses.”  Continue reading here......

Soil Savers

This weekend, I drove three hours out to apple country (which is now more of a peach country) for a last-of-the-season swim in Lake Chelan and first-of-the-season green apples for making green apple pectin. On the road through Blewitt Pass and the farm country just east of there, I couldn't help but think about big agriculture. Amidst green vineyards and irrigated fields, it leaves a lot to ponder for a lil' urban gardener, like me (and you!). rich soilAs if the universe knew I was pondering, the next day I found an old National Geographic magazine sitting in the main cabin where I stayed. Drawn to the cover "Where our Food Comes From", I picked it up for some lakeside reading. What I found was a fascinating article on soil that everyone should read. Now, I know soil doesn't sound super important, but it is. Topsoil is not a dime a dozen, as we're often inclined to think. We shovel it up, push it around, bulldoze it for housing developments, but much like seemingly free-flowing fresh water, it's a precious resource everyone can do to learn more about. Read it - let me know what you think.

While our urban gardens don't necessarily bare as large a global impact, soil is the number one factor to the success of a home veggie garden. (ok, ok - water and sun are pretty darn important, too) Whether you've just paid $200 to have a bunch of topsoil delivered this season, or you're fortunate enough to have a backyard full of the stuff, it's our job as land owners to protect the soil, so it keeps giving back. Why go through all the trouble of conditioning our gardens in Spring and Summer only to let them falter over Fall and Winter?

This fall, make sure to do right by the soil we grow food in and plant a cover crop or winter garden. Bare soil tends to wash away - both nutrients and general mass. Soil filled with plants will hold tight, the plant roots anchoring soil down and helping prevent run off. There are lots of choices for cover crop - clover, arugula and even your winter plants (think kale, chard or chicories). Whatever you choose, choose NOW and get it planted! The fall season is waning and what with cooler temps, it's best not to hesitate. Walts Organic is a great resource for bulk cover crop seeds, as is City Peoples in Madison. For more information on what your choices are, check out this site by WSU.

Now get planting!

Life of a Tomato

tomatoesIt's happening. Days are getting noticeably shorter and cooler. Tank tops in the garden have been replaced by long sleeve shirts and there is a certain chill to the air - the seasons are changing. In the garden, especially given this summer's cooler temps and late start, you've likely been staring at branches of green tomatoes with hopeful eyes and fingers crossed. While we can't control the sun, we can control the plant, and there are some late-season tips for getting the ripest tomatoes in the last few weeks of warm(ish) weather.

If you haven't been trimming suckers off your plant all summer, now is the time. Essentially the branches on the main stem, suckers can be snipped off without affecting the fruit. By doing so, you are in essence re-routing the plant's energy to making a full ripe fruit, not new leaves and branches. (That is a really simplified way of looking at it, by the way, but it works.)

To further encourage ripening, now is a great time to remove all the flower clusters on the plant, as well, and even the little green tomatoes. They really won't have enough time to mature, so you're not losing anything in the process.

My last tip is a tricky one that really depends on weather, so sometimes I use this, and other times I don't. You can try and kill the vines by cutting off their water supply. This stress to the plant causes them to ripen fruit (fascinating that plants can register when they die, so they hurry to get seeds made). Trouble is.....if it rains you run the risk of disease to the plant. It's a gamble, but in a cold year like this, it could be worth it.

If anyone has any other great tips, please feel free to comment. Be on the lookout in late September for green-tomato recipes. I'm certain that will be an upcoming post!