10 Simple Steps to a Brand New Garden

Garden alongside my sister's house. Yes, stuff is growing, f'real!

Garden alongside my sister’s house. Yes, stuff is growing, f’real!

Starting a new garden is an exciting challenge, but you can make that challenge an easy one by following a simple set of steps. Whether it’s your first garden or your twentieth, the steps are the same.

1 – Pick a size
A smaller garden is easier to start, easier to manage, less expensive to maintain. If you enjoy your small garden, you can always start a larger one next time. However, if you find you don’t enjoy gardening as much as you hoped, it’s easier to return a small garden to lawn than a large one.
2 – Pick a location
Find a space that gets 6 to 10 hours of sun a day. Choose a spot that is near a water source – faucet, easy reach of hose – and near the house if you’re planting vegetables.
3 – Check your soil
Test for pH and texture. Most plants like a neutral pH, but you may need to amend a highly acidic or alkaline soil. If your soil is dense, clay-based, or full of gravel and rocks, you will need to amend it so you have a soil that plants will like to grow in.
4 – Clear your area
Remove sod if soil is poor or very weedy.  Add several layers of newspaper and top with good soil. The newspaper helps to block weeds.
5 – Decide what to grow
Choose five or fewer types of plants that will like your sun and soil. Consult with a local garden center to ensure you’ll find plants that will grow in your USDA hardiness zone.
6 – Plant!
Water plants and garden area a day in advance, then place plants one at a time, following any included instructions. Water afterward.
7 – Layer on mulch
In the next few days, add four inches mulch organics like bark, compost, shredded leaves to conserve water and keep weeds under control. Keep mulch away from plant stems.
8 – Keep a log
Write down what you planted and where, and label your plants with markers. Take some before and after pictures for your log; this will help when you plan your next garden!
9 – Maintain and grow
Now comes the repetitive part: Watering, weeding, fertilizing, trimming, staking – even harvesting. But the repetition means you’ll see your garden make progress as it changes every few days.
10 – Start planning your next garden!

To your garden success!
Casey – the Garden Lass

Cardboard Palm Fate in Hands of the Saints

The now-famous Cardboard Palm Project almost came to a halt earlier this month after “meeting” Mia Myers of SmartSeeds by email. I got some straight scoop about cardboard palms from her, without boot-piss.

Cycad, cardboard palm

At the rate mine are germinating, this cycad must be ancient!

Cardboard Palms without Boot-Piss?

Let me take a side road a moment. A dear friend of mine from New Jersey mentioned that she appreciated my candor about a topic we were discussing recently, because (as she put it), I would not “piss on my boots and tell me it’s raining.” When she said that, I had to laugh. Her comment reminded me how much I also appreciate people who don’t piss on my boots – and Mia is no boot-pisser.

Cardboard Palm / Cycads are Old-Man Slow

I should have gotten a clue when comment after comment lamented that cardboard palm are “slow to grow.” If you have a Gardener Decoder Ring, you’ll find this means “a rock will germinate faster.”  One group of forum posters over at PlantSwap.net was encouraging each other along as they waited for their cardboard palms to germinate. I stopped reading after a year – and no germination.

(I went back today and read further – one cardboard palm did sprout after a year and a half, on page 6 of the forum posts!)

Cardboard Palms May or May Not Germinate in my Lifetime

Somewhere up there in my family tree is a very strong branch of Scottish blood, complete with never-say-die mentality and the ability to withstand properly hideous moor weather. This Scottish backbone got itself in a twist when it came time to drop the wee darlin’s on the trash heap. Well – ah cannae do aet, lass. I paid good coin for that batch of seed and by Saint Jude, Saint Andrew and Saint Maud (Queen Margaret of Scotland), I will get $9 worth of gardening entertainment out of ’em if it’s the last thing I do.

Bottom Line

Well, we’ll just see about that, won’t we? I kicked the planter full of procrastinating palms under the supplies shelf in the planting room, not so close I can trip over it, but not so far that I can’t imperiously toss a jug of water its direction when I so choose. We’ll see.


Care ‘n Encouragement for your Tomato Plants [Video]

Reagenite71 talks about tomato care

Reaganite71 talks about tomato care

I am not a fan of tomatoes in solid form. I confess. In earlier posts I may have alluded to this distaste, and surely some have wondered why I bothered trying to grow them (but not as much as I have, I assure you). But if you’re going to make pasta sauce, some form of tomatoes is pretty much inescapable.

Tomato Plants Come with Excuses

I could say I’m growing them for humanitarian purposes. Growing tomatoes teaches me the humility of growing ones own food, the patience to wait longer than it takes to roll a cart to the produce department at the local grocery, the joy of seeing early and repeatable results in the gardening venture. Given enough time, I could fish out a dozen rationalizations. But wouldn’t it be more fun to watch someone who really enjoys them?

So, without further ado, here’s Reaganite17 via YouTube, talking about spanking your tomato plants, how to prune suckers and get more energy to your productive tomato vines, and how to use apple juice for more than breakfast sippy cups:

Reaganite71 Teaches Tomato Care

Bottom Line

Now that I know more about how the blossoming is supposed to work, maybe I won’t be nearly as discouraged next time I try to grow tomatoes – assuming there IS a next time. I’ll know to spank, blossom set, plant outdoors, prune, stake and (most importantly) keep laughing.


Confessions of a Befuddled Beginning Gardener

Beginning Gardeners go into gardening without much of a plan on their side. We approach gardening with open arms, brand new garden gloves still stapled together at the cuff, price tag still on our trowels, and go “HI, THERE!”

We overwater and underthink.

This means whatever good happens is a happy problem, and whatever bad happens is a complete and utter mystery.

Flowers are not where the seeds are found

The seeds will eventually grow in pods at the end of the stems once the flowers are spent. The seeds are not the dark thingies found inside the flowers. Don’t ask why I did not know this.

Beginning Gardener Optimism is Contagious

In March, when I started gardening (practically by accident), I was completely wide-eyed and optimistic, with not a lot of fact to back me up. Of course I could grow a winter’s worth of vegetables in my dining room. Naturally I would be able to stock the neighborhood with yellow squash by July. Bugs will not take over my zucchini if I grow it indoors.

Beginning Gardener Mythology is Believable

Add to this the fact that the Beginning Gardener may not have a host of resources to fall back on, beyond old wives’ tales and gardening mythology:

Plant two orange-colored marigolds next to each beanstalk, under the full moon, on a Wednesday in  March, May or Movember, and any passing deer will avoid the four-way intersection near the grocery store.

And we Beginning Gardeners believe this stuff like Moses himself brought it down off the mount.

Beginning Gardener Faith is Unshakeable (until it isn’t)

We Beginning Gardeners just KNOW that if we plant something in dirt, something will grow. It says so on the package, on the seed pack, on the Internet (and you know everything is true on the Internet). My new acquaintance, Master Gardener Mia Myers at SmartSeeds, was so wonderfully polite yesterday on the phone when she did NOT laugh at me for trying to grow cardboard palms in my patio room.

But the Internetpeople SAID… and I saw PICTURES… and … and …

Beginning Gardener Hope is Unlimited

Later I’ll tell you about my Peruvian lilies venture. Maybe tomorrow. I’m still feeling pretty stupid about …Oh, what the heck. I’ll tell you now.

I decided to try my hand at harvesting some Peruvian lily seeds from the remains of the bouquet I bought a couple of weeks or so, “just because I can.” The thingies in the blossom looked just like the thingies in the seed pack I bought.

I very carefully removed each “seed” that I found in each blossom and very carefully stored about a hundred of various sizes and colors away in preparation for planting them.

I very carefully placed them in warm water to soak for a few days, per the instructions I found on the Interwebnetwww thing.

An hour later I peeked in on the hundred or more very carefully soaking “seeds,” and found that most of them had basically dissolved, leaving a thin yellow scum of what I think was pollen on the surface of the warm bath.

I’d harvested dozens of stamens full of Alstroemeria Ligtu pollen.

I can just hear Mia giggling with delight.

Bottom Line

As much fun as it may be to act all Gregor Mendel and pretend I know what I’m doing whilst dissecting decrepit wilted Peruvian lilies for seeds, from here on out, I’m going to buy my Peruvian Lily seeds from SmartSeeds – and I highly recommend that you do the same.

A note about SmartSeeds: Mia Myers is an internationally respected garden and landscape expert – a Master Gardener and Landscape Designer. SmartSeeds is not for the faint of heart. Don’t order and expect your seeds to come with operating instructions. You need to do the appropriate research, reading, Googling, Binging, studying, thinking. I’m in WAY over my head at the SmartSeeds site, but in a good way – I love getting lost and confused, and digging my way out if at all possible. If you’re the same, you’ll love SmartSeeds as well. I love her quote from the front page of the site:  “These are plants for experienced gardeners and they may try your patience. But if they were easy, they’d be in Home Depot.”

YARGH! Put THAT in your pipe and smoke ’em.

P.S. I Missed You

Yes, I missed you, too. I’m back, well into the middle of the third quarter of my freshman year of Seat Of The Pants Gardening 101. I am learning just how little I know about this magic called “gardening.” I’m still an incurable optimist, although the months of August and September kicked the slats out from under several of my closely held assumptions – and the Cardboard Palm Project is on its way to becoming something I can chuckle about.

Stay tuned. I may be too late to plant pumpkins (for this year), but I’ve still got my arms wide open, shouting “HI, THERE!”

Plant Names Decoded from Latin to Gardener

I am one of those new gardeners whose eyes squint in panic whenever a Latin plant name comes into view. My brain shuts down and my fingers itch to dig something up.

Echeveria shaviana

Echeveria shaviana in bloom
or is this Cousin Bob?

Latin Plant Names Deciphered

Thankfully there are people like Melody Rose, whose article on the topic of Latin plant names deciphers the mystery and sheds some much needed light on the subject.

Even though Latin is used around the world for scientific names and having a basic understanding isn’t all that difficult, many gardeners’ eyes tend to glaze over when Latin terms are mentioned. Without this universally accepted system, scientists wouldn’t be able to communicate and even your local garden center would have confusing situations. Read the rest here.

In the spirit of Ms. Rose’s contribution, I’m going through my garden and done my level best to determine the Latin plant name of every green thing I can find.Except weeds. The Latin plant name for weeds should be Weedus pullem, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t.

Plant Name Sources

Part of the problem of providing Latin plant names is that some seed packets don’t include them. For instance, there’s nothing Latin on this packet of onion seeds.  Luckily a right-click on the word ONION here comes up with Allium cepa.

(I use Safari on Mac. If you want something similar in FireFox, I believe you can install a dictionary add-on. I tried one called Life Sciences Dictionary Tool 1.0.12041100, but it gives results in Japanese, I think. I’d need a dictionary to translate the dictionary!)

Bottom Line

Latin plant names aren’t for everyone, apparently. I am tempted to call a nurseryman who’s been in business over 30 years and ask him if he has any Cycas furfuracea (cardboard palm seeds as labeled from an online source). But I’m afraid he’ll probably tell me no, but that he has plenty of Zamia furfuracea (the CORRECT name for cardboard palm).

Garden Experiment Journal of Oddball Plantings #1

An oddball assortment of grand garden experiment plantings took place yesterday. It was a day for throwing caution to the wind and throwing stuff into dirt. I have NO idea if any of this will work, but if it does, what fun we’ll have with our garden!

Grand Garden Experiment #1: Ginger

Ginger from grocery store root

Ginger growing from grocery store ginger root

The ginger root that Erik got from the grocery store is doing beautifully. Still an experiment, and though since it’s been planted for awhile, I decided to include it in our garden experiment journal.

I recall reading that I will need to be extra patient while waiting for this picky perennial to get a visible sprout. Instead, the dang thing is flourishing – first in the garage (dark, hot), now in the patio room (light, hot). I couldn’t follow all the instructions I found since some conflicted pretty radically, so I settled on this one from How To Grow Stuff.

It didn’t take long for it to sprout, and once it did that, it’s been growing like the ginger equivalent of wildfire. It’d be faster, I’m sure, if I could provide a nice tropical climate like Hawaii. But I see nothing but trouble if I try to raise the rainfall rate inside the house.

Grand Garden Experiment #2: Tomatillo

The second grand garden experiment is the store-bought tomatillo. No, I don’t mean store-bought seeds. I bought a dozen or so tomatillo with an eye toward making green chili salsa. I forgot to get green chilis and cilantro and the other essential ingredients. So yesterday I roasted 90% of them, and stuck 10% in the ground. Well, dirt. A cut-in-half tomatillo revealed a cascade of nifty little seeds. So instead of trying to dig the seeds out of the pulp, I just buried the whole durn thing in well-watered potting soil.

Grand Garden Experiment #3: Key Lime

I know, I know. It’s a bit weird to be planting everything in sight, but I just couldn’t resist.

key limes and tomatillos awaiting sprouting

Key Lime (left) and tomatillo plants (right in white) just waiting to arrive

I hate drinking plain water. So I take a key lime, cut it in half, squeeze it into a drinking glass, add ice to the top and water to the ice. On days where I need a boost, I add two or three paper thin slices of ginger root (see above).

Usually I’d drop the remnants of the key lime into the garbage disposal and give it a whirl – a great way to give the disposal a nice tropical aroma that does nicely in countering the garlic and onion. But I’d just done that, so I was going to toss the key lime into the compost bin. But a freshly emptied planter pot caught my eye and I decided instead to bury the key lime halves in some well-watered dirt.  So I guess we’ll see!


Pest Control Choices for the New Gardener

tomato worm

Pest. Send in the bears!

Every gardener has her limits, beyond which she cannot be bribed, cajoled, pleaded, mandated or lured by fat-free slow churned chocolate mint ice cream. Mine is pest control.

A pest can be a spider, snake, bug, beetle, tarantula, bee, wasp, termite, ant, grub, snail — you get the drift. If it’s smaller than one of our cats and doesn’t purr when I approach, it’s a pest.

Birds aren’t pests, though they can easily damage a budding garden. They’re great at picking up the seeds you just planted, leaving you to wonder why not everything sprouts. However, robins and thrushes are great about taking care of slugs and caterpillars. So it’s a tradeoff.

Lizards are snakes with feet. This doesn’t mean some can’t learn to be pests, but it’s possible to think ‘Oh how cute!” when one skitters by, instead of thinking “OMG I’m gonna die if I can’t get on the roof before that reaches me.”

Pest control boils down to organic, physical and chemical. Without getting all political or green, here’s the very basic basics:

Organic Pest Control

Organic pest control is not just for the organic tomato growers that produce the pretty (and often expensive) produce at your local supermarket. Organic methods aren’t exactly cheap – it turns out it can cost some real money to go organic.  For instance, the Idaho OnePlan site lists organic insect pest control materials and practices designed to support operations from the gardener up to large-scale farming operations.  This approved methods and practices list includes vertebrate pest control methods—repellents, predators, traps, approved poisons and baits.

The advantage: Organic pest control can often be accomplished with household items. Garlic, onion, cayenne pepper, jalapenos, even flour gets called into action by several organic pest control methods. Beats the heck out of spraying the neighborhood with pesticides that may contaminate the groundwater before their half-life expires.

The disadvantage: Planting marigolds to repel rabbits, deer, squirrels should sound like an advantage – unless you can’t stand the smell of marigolds (*raises hand vigorously*). Choose your solutions carefully, lest the cure be worse than the cause.

Physical Pest Control

Sure, you can chase a raccoon with a trash can lid and a triangle, making noise as you dance threateningly around the garden perimeter. You can encourage the lizards to eat the ants, crickets, beetles, flies and grasshoppers.  You can introduce vipers to hunt down the lizards.  And badgers to slay the vipers. And bears to slay the badgers. But then you’re going to have a pack of wild bears tromping through your strawberries. Bears are considered apex predators, so unless you’re best buddies with a BLM wildlife relocation specialist or live next to Yellowstone National Park, this may not be the best path to take. So try bunny fencing – also known as hardware cloth.

The advantage: Barrier pest control can work well against a variety of pests. Bunny fence also slows down roadrunners.

The disadvantage: Predator chain pest control solutions can be worse than the original problem, unless you really want 35 ravenous black bears living on your back lot.

Chemical Pest Control

Those of us who grew up riding our bikes through the Malathion mosquito fogger trailer’s haze may not be the best of poster children for chemical pest control. 1,1,1-trichloro-2,2-di(4-chlorophenyl)ethane, or DDT, was banned in the United States on December 31, 1972 (although some state bans took place far earlier, thanks to efforts of the Environmental Defense Fund).

The advantage: Pesticides are fast acting and highly effective against a specific type of pest.

The disadvantage: Pesticides can also be toxic to humans. If you’re human, this should concern you.

 Bottom Line

Chatterbox the Cat

This is a pet, not a pest.

At some point in your lifespan as a gardener, you’re going to need to deal with pests and figure out which pest control solutions work for you. Whether you go organic or physical or chemical – or some mix of these methods – do your homework early, before you find yourself with 35 ravenous black bears in the back yard and still no cure in sight for those pesky tomato worms.

Anchor Hanging Planters for High Wind Gardening

escaping planters

Escaping Topsy Turvy planters. One’s almost gotten away!

Not everyone lives and gardens in a wind tunnel. But for those of you who do, and for those who are planning on giving the Topsy Turvy® Tomato Planter a shot… well, you’re gonna get a snort-laugh-giggle out of this. And then you’re going to be going to be running to Ace Hardware to buy a cinder block and a goodly hank of rope, and learn to anchor hanging planters with ease.

First. If you’ve rigged your tomato plant planters way high up in the air: Stop. Go rig them lower so you can get the water into them without dislocating your shoulder. I didn’t do the math on the weight of water in a gallon milk jug. Trust me. Lower the whole contraption while you still can. Your shoulder will thank me and your right arm won’t end up looking like Popeye’s.

Besides, it’s going to be easier to bend over to check for tomatoes than it is to fly up in the air to check for tomatoes – especially in a high wind.

Attach rope to top of planter

Fig. A. Attach rope at red. Loop rope through cinder block. Attach rope at green circle.

Second. Once you have the plants lowered, tie one end of a length (*) of sturdy rope around one of the top supports of the planter.  See the red circle? Tie it there. Securely.

Third. Push the whole length of rope through the open part of a cinder block.

Fourth. Tie the other end LOOSELY to the place where the green circle is, but make a knot you can undo. Leave extra rope so you can adjust the height of the planter as needed – I left six feet extra just in case. You’ll tighten this in a moment.

Lastly. Pull the cinder block toward the wind. Voila. Plant anchor! When you anchor hanging planters, you want to make sure they’re not going to swing and hit walls, supports, barbecue pits and other obstacles. Use the cinder block to create the tension so that the planter can’t hit things if it does move.

Adjust the rope length so the block doesn’t have to be TOO far away from the plant to keep it from moving, but so that the block is not directly beneath the plant. You don’t want to be tripping over this thing every morning when you water, or my name will become your swear word of choice.

If it works, it works. If the neighbors start laughing and pointing, tell ’em you’re building an ark.

(*) How long is a length of sturdy rope, you ask? Well, it’s from the top of one side of the planter, down and through a cinder block on the ground, with a foot or so slack to adjust the block placement, and then up to the other side of the planter. THIS is why I suggest lowering the planter before you begin anchoring it – well, this and the Popeye arm thing.

Wind anchor for planter complete

Fig. B – Anchor in yellow circle is final result

See the yellow circle on the third picture, marked Fig. B? That’s the end result. The planter doesn’t whip in the wind or slam itself against the patio roof supports, which means the plants don’t get as wind-beaten as before. Which means the tomatoes won’t get beat up either, which means you can use that spiffy new food processor to make them into homemade pasta sauce, instead of waiting for the patio roof support to squish them for you.

Oh, since you’re gardening in a high wind area, once in a while, take a look at the rope where it’s going through the cinder block, to make sure it’s not sawing itself in half. Nasty surprise that’d be!

Topsy Turvy® Tomato Planters is a registered trademark of Felknor Ventures, LLC. Photo of front of Topsy Turvy® Tomato Planters product box may contain portions of copyrighted images.

Planting pots and how to reuse them

old planting pots awaiting reuse

Old planting pots just waiting to be reused

Old planting pots congregate in our patio room like old men around a chess board in the park. I think they visit from other houses in our neighborhood, too; there are used pots I don’t recognize and a few I would have thrown out on sight.

I’ve also got a great stack of yogurt and cottage cheese containers. With a few drainage holes they’ll do the trick. Just don’t forget which ones you’ve poked holes in. After that, they make terrible water glasses.

Don’t pick up a used planting pot from the floor and just start planting in it. Old pots can host a variety of stuff you don’t want lurking around your veggies. Bacteria, disease, debris, mineral salts, and layers of crud in general — nothing you want, trust me.

Bleach Your Planting Pots

Start by whipping up a solution of one part household bleach in nine parts water. Make enough that you can submerge your biggest planting pot – you’ll need to soak each pot for at least ten minutes. Put your pots into this and walk away for awhile.

Soap Soak

Once your used pots have soaked for ten minutes or more, submerge them in warm soapy water. Scrub or scrape off any mineral deposits and built-up gunk. Use steel wool on clay pots and a scouring pad on plastic pots.

Rinse Well

Rinse well and submerge in clean water until you’re ready to use them.

On that note, it’s important to keep clay planting pots wet so they don’t leach the moisture out of your potting soil and away from your plants!

With just a little care, you’ll be able to reuse your planting pots through many growing seasons.

The end of Squash formerly known as Lunch

Lunch, aka our very first yellow squash harvest of one squash, was delicious — for dinner. This brings us to the very first recipe chosen for its healthy approach and use of our own garden results.

(… which has been deleted. What made me think I would be publishing a cookbook full of recipes?)

Now I’m watching for more girl blossoms so we can do this again soon – and I saw three this morning, hovering within leaves the size of carports. Soon soon!