How to Harvest Lettuce

One of the common mistakes home gardeners make with their vegetable beds revolves around when to harvest. People tend to let things go too long without picking or harvesting from the plant. My personal theory is that you're all waiting for what you're growing at home to look like what you buy at the store, but that's the wrong way to approach it! The beauty of growing your own food at home is that it really shouldn't look like you bought it from the grocery. Homegrown food is far more 'rustic' than anything you will find commercially grown. Embrace it! harvesting lettuceWith that, I am often asked by clients and friends, "When is the right time to harvest lettuce?" More often than not, I will simply say, "Harvest the lettuce when you want to eat the lettuce." A typically infuriating answer, no doubt! I don't intend to be entirely blasé about it, but rather it truly is a matter of taste. Some people prefer small tender baby leaves. Some people prefer something hardier with heavy veins and a cripsy bite. Either way, experiment at various times throught the plants lifecyle. As a plant grows, it's leaves and fruits develop flavor and the flavor profile will change. Young greens tend to be sweet and mild. Older greens tend to get bitter and tough. As with most things in life, timing is everything and it's up to you to decide.


To harvest lettuce, try to remove the larger, outer leaves of the plant first. Using a small scissor, cut the stem as close to the base of the plant as possible, leaving the small interior leaves behind. These leaves will soon fill in and become outer leaves, and thus you're creating a cycle of lettuces to harvest. If you prefer to harvest full heads of lettuce, do so when the heads are full and the outer leaves are starting to yellow and wilt, but know that if you cut the entire plant, the odds of it being regenerative are diminished.

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The Pantry Garden

Check outthis article for great garden books in today's Seattle Time's Magazine from garden & plant guru, Val Easton. She gives a little shout to Urban Pantry that rocks! may_8

The last chapter of my book is titled "The Pantry Garden" and I have to admit to thinking I had a stroke of genius with that title. That's exactly what it is - a section on how to establish a garden that supplies your pantry. You don't need a lot of space and a pantry garden doesn't take much care (as its full of perennials and self-seeding plants). don't even need a yard! Here is a pic of my pantry garden, as it exists right this moment. The anise hyssop from last year re-seeded itself into several pots and is flourishing and the other plants popped last week and put on a ton of growth.

Vegetable Seed Sources

seed storage recipe boxThere are a few great sources for buying seed, and a few I steer clear from. Last year, I posted something on seed ownership, and it's a great link to check out. Seeds of Change is a west coast company with testing fields in Oregon and beyond (I believe, but don't quote me on it!) and they have an awesome website with lots of great information. You still have to do your homework, as even though they are located in the Pacific NW, they sell varieties that won't do well here. Pay attention to the growing cycle of eat plant and make sure they don't require a long hot season is you're in a Maritime climate. If, like my family, you're in hot hot NY - plant some corn!

Seed Savers Exchange - oh my god, these folks have the bomb seeds. They are more costly than others, for sure. That kills me a little but, but it's a great great organization dedicated to saving and sharing rare and heirloom seeds. I just picked up a packet of "Crisp Mint Lettuce" when I was at Kettle Falls Meyers Market (as if I needed more seeds) last week for a book signing. It's a Romaine like lettuce with frilly leaves. Can't wait.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds - this company is totally rad, but they carry a lot of hot varieities that would just not do well in the Pacific NW. Check them out for inspiration and rare seeds. They are small and wonderful.

Osborne Seeds - a local seed company that sells varieities just right for our climate. Sorry, east coasters, but HURRAH for us!




Container Gardening

In urban environments, many gardeners (me, included!) have to rely on container gardening for edibles. Buildings that block the sun, trees that dapple the light and backyards that are shady or hard to landscape force some gardeners to rely on gardens-to-go. I had a consultation with a brilliant astrologer a few weeks back about her garden. She is gardening mostly in pots and containers, and using a small patch in her front yard. We met for two hours and she took no time at all to get her garden up and running. I'm always so proud when people just hop-to-it and get their hands dirty. One more happy gardener giving it a go! It was also really inspiring to work with someone who has dedicated their life to wellness. I so want her garden to bloom, and bloom BIG.

With that, she sent this thoughtful note and a picture. She also noted that her pots were likely overcrowded, and she is spot on about that. These pots are a great place to start, but for continued growth and health of some plants, she is planning on transplanting to larger pots a bit later in the season. I think she did a great job mixing and matching, too - it's gorgeous.

Thanks for sharing, Stephanie!

stephanie_gailings_gardenI wanted to send you a photo of the deck garden at the moment. I"ve been so excited by the whole prospect. I also planted out front and it looks great. Re: containers, I know that I put too  many plants in some containers but I worked with what I had at the moment and will adjust when things start growing and I get more pots/soil. I love gardening! Thanks so much for your inspiration.


Mulch in the Garden

cocoa chaff mulchRemember when I told you all about mulch? Mulch is your garden-friend and can really help you in the heat of summer to aid in water retention and weed supression. However, mulch in the spring is another issue entirely. As I stood in line at my coffee shop and read the encouraging sign "Free Garden Mulch - Take Some Grounds Home!" ………... on a pile of bagged and spend coffee beans, I thought of some issues mulch may actually create.

When you use decaying 'greens' for mulch (coffee grinds, grass clippings, etc), not only are you inviting crucial microorganisms to your garden, you're inviting pests. That decaying mass of green or hay or torn paper strips is also an uber-hospitable environment for snails and slugs. If there is anything I truly despise of in my gardens, it's slugs. They have the ability to mow down entire rows of lettuce and chew off entire fennel bulb starts in the course of an evening. Breaks my heart to see.

So.............should you mulch in the spring time? It's really up to you. Try experimenting and mulching only half of your garden and see what happens. In my apartment garden (containers) I mulch with spent cocoa chaff that I pick up from Theo Chocolate - an organic chocolate roastery right by my house. (Cocoa will not work for anyone with dogs!) Or mulch when it's dry, but turn it in when it's gray and rainy for days on end. Whatever you decide, just be on the lookout for snails and keep in mind gardening is a delicate balance between benefit and detriment at times.

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.