Archive: May 2017

  1. Hugelkultur Layered Vegetable Gardens

    Garlic, herbs and squash have been planted in this newly planted garden hugel. (Garden by Annalisa Vapaa)

    Looking to create truly sustainable vegetable gardens? Try a layered hugelkultur garden! These raised gardens layer in organic material to create deep reserves of truly rich soil for vegetables. They also allow gardeners to use yard waste, such as leaves, grass clippings, logs, and branches, for no-waste vegetable growing.

    Hugelkultur

    Over time, hugel gardens naturally develop deep layers of organic-rich soil.

    Hugelkultur (meaning “hill culture” in German) is a European planting style that uses permaculture methods to create fertile planting beds rich in organic matter and microorganisms. Designed for food production, the raised “hugel” gardens rely on a base of hardwood logs, branches, compost, and topsoil which, as they slowly decompose, increase fertility and water retention.

    Hugels can be as small or large as desired and should be sited in sunny spot that’s flat and spacious. They can be built from reclaimed materials from your own property or a friend’s yard. This will help you save money and increase the garden’s sustainability. Here are the materials and directions for making one.

    Materials:

    1. Hardwood Logs (Decomposing logs hold more water and break down faster.)
    2. Trimmed Branches
    3. Grass Clippings, Leaves, or Leaf Mulch
    4. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend
    5. Fafard Premium Topsoil
    6. Straw
    7. Vegetable and Herb starts

    Directions:

    Outline the Bed: Create the hugel base by lining up your hardwood logs. Place larger logs along the outside and smaller logs along the inside. (You can also dig out a furrow to deeply set your logs, but this is not necessary. Large logs can create substantial outer supports for hugel beds. Some hugels are even outlined with rocks, logs, or even woven willow wattle for extra support.)

    Layer in Branches and Smaller Logs: Line up smaller branches within the log frame—trim large or unwieldy branches for a tight fit. A 2-foot layer is recommended.

    Compress Branches: Press and stomp down branches to reduce air pockets.

    Layer in Leaves and/or Grass Clippings: Layer in your leaves, leaf mulch, and/or grass clippings, being sure to pack everything between the branch layers.

    Add Compost: Add in a thick layer of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Poke the compost down into any remaining pockets. Good soil-to-wood contact will help your branch layer break down faster.

    Add Topsoil: Add a final layer of Fafard Premium Topsoil and rake and shape your hugel to form an attractive mound. (Some hugelkulture guides recommend pyramidal hugel beds, but these are prone to erosion and difficult to plant. A rounded mound with a flatter top is better.)

    Water: Gently water in your hugel for at least an hour to allow moisture to seep deep down. This also encourages settling and will reveal any areas that might need extra topsoil. Let the hugel settle for a day or two before planting.

    Add Straw Layer and Plant: Cover the hugel with a 2- to 3-inch layer of straw, leaves or grass clippings to hold down the soil and reduce weeds. Simply move areas of straw aside to plant in your vegetables and herbs.

    Hugel beds will slowly break down over several years as the wood layers decompose, and as they break down, they will lose loft. Each year it helps to add a new layer of compost and straw to further enrich the beds and keep them weed free. In time, they will take on the appearance of more traditional bermed garden beds with the added benefit of very deep organic matter.

    Extra wood and rocks can be placed outside the hugel for added side support.

     

    Over time, hugels break down and take on the appearance of standard bermed beds.

  2. Creative Upcycled Planting Containers

    A pair of old boots make campy and unusual strawberry planters.

    If gardening is the great equalizer, enabling people of all ages and conditions to grow food, flowers, herbs and other plants; then container gardening is a super equalizer.  Making a “portable garden” means that you don’t need to own land, large tools or even significant space.  And, you don’t have to buy fancy containers to make your plants happy; just “upcycle” something you already have.  The only limits are your imagination and foraging abilities.

    An old shoe makes a fun, unexpected container for New Guinea Impatiens.

    Upcycled planting containers make gardening more fun, and they cost nothing. All you need, in fact, is something that holds soil, good potting mix, seeds or plants, sunshine, water, and you have an instant container.  Plant some zinnias in an old dishpan or grow a mess of tomatoes in a repurposed bathtub.  One restaurant reuses commercial-size olive oil cans to house billowing basil plants whose leaves are ultimately harvested and used in various dishes.  Irish gardener/garden writer Helen Dillon uses dustbins—trash cans—to hold plants in her Dublin garden.  Spackle buckets work well, and more than one gardener has pressed an old pair of boots into service as a sturdy container.  The list of recycling opportunities is endless.  In fact, almost anything that will hold soil can be converted to a planter.  People have been recycling old tires and wine barrels to make planters/raised beds for decades.

    Upcycled Container Rules

    An old sink gets painted and planted into a fun container garden.

    There are only a few rules when it comes to recycled containers.  The first is fitting the container to the plant.  A large hibiscus might need the ample space provided by an old wicker laundry basket, while a small herb plant or a succulent can grow well in a cut-off plastic detergent bottle.  When choosing a container to recycle, think about the amount of space the chosen plant might take up if it were in a garden bed.  Make sure the container is deep enough to accommodate the plant’s root system and as wide as the plant’s mature diameter.  Plant tags should provide you with this information.

    The recycled container should be clean, since residue from its original contents might be harmful to plants.  A thorough cleaning with a 10% (1:10) solution of household bleach and water, plus a good rinse should be fine for most would-be planters.

    Container Care

    A weathered trough gets a face lift when filled with beautiful mixed bedding plants.

    Container-grown plants also have some specialized nutritional, water, and drainage needs.  Make sure your repurposed containers have drainage holes at the bottom.  If making holes is impossible, fill the bottom quarter of the container with coarse pebbles topped by a layer of charcoal (available in garden centers).  Provide good nutrition from the beginning by investing in high-quality potting media, like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed or Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed.

    Pay attention to your chosen plants’ light requirements and position the containers accordingly.  Remember that “full sun” means six or more hours per day of direct sunlight, and even plants labeled as “good for shade” need a continuous supply of indirect or filtered light.

    Mixed petunias and bright lavender paint add charm to an old claw foot tub. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Overwatering is the number one cause of container-grown plant death.  Check plant tags or internet resources for water requirements.  Many plants only need water when the soil is dry an inch or two below the surface, but some, like primroses or hydrangeas, prefer evenly moist soil at all times, especially when weather is hot and dry.  Plants that are outdoors during drought periods may need water every day and should be checked frequently.

    Check Recycling Day

    Clever gardener/recyclers are always on the lookout for potential planters.  If your town has a “bulk pick-up day”, when larger discarded items are picked up for disposal, the perfect plant container may be waiting on a curb in your neighborhood.  Check your garage and attic.  A forgotten corner may harbor a perfect plant container.  The supermarket is also full of future plant pots, especially if you buy items like oil, condiments or canned goods in large sizes.  Look for promising shapes and sizes first, as many recyclable containers can be painted or embellished to suit your indoor or outdoor décor.

    Most of all, have fun.  The perfect recycled planter is probably closer than you think!

    An out-of-service toilet can make a humorous but effective planting “pot”. (image by Jessie Keith)

  3. “Cannatainers” or Cannas for Container Gardening

    Canna ‘Striata’ graces the center of an impressive patio pot. (Image by Mike Darcy)

    Cannas emerge from dormancy and hit the horticultural market in late winter and spring, so now is the time to get the show started. Numerous varieties are available from on line and local nurseries, either as potted plants or as bare-root rhizomes (the technical name for the thickened underground stems that give rise to all that splendiferous summer growth).

    Newly purchased plants should be grown indoors in a suitable potting mix until danger of frost has passed, such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix.  Ten- to twelve-inch plastic pots and a two-inch planting depth work well for this initial, indoor growth phase.  For their outdoor, summer home, cannas need containers of a grander and more massive order planted in a water-holding mix, such as Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix.  An 18-inch-plus clay or ceramic pot (or something in the way of a cast iron urn) is ideal.  Large wooden or terra cotta planters also work well.  Simply knock the plants out of their temporary, indoor containers and place them at the same depth in their outdoor quarters.  Then stand back and watch the fireworks happen (making sure to water liberally and fertilize regularly through summer).

    Although spectacular on their own, containerized cannas make an even more extravagant statement if combined with other heat-loving plants.  For example, the flowers and foliage of gold- and red-hued Coleus provide a striking foil for the sunset foliar tones of Canna ‘Phaison’ (right).  The possibilities are practically limitless, given cannas’ wide range of floral and foliage colors.

    When choosing cannas for container gardening, the sky’s the limit. For a lavish summer display on a less colossal scale, use a “dwarf” canna cultivar such as ‘Pink Sunset’, which offers dazzlingly variegated leaves and soft pink flowers on 3-foot (rather than the usual 5- to 10-foot) plants.  Or you can go the other direction and opt for something outrageously gargantuan such as the banana canna, ‘Musaefolia’, a Victorian-age behemoth that towers to 14 feet.  A bathtub of a container (and lots of water) is recommended.

    Cannas slow their pace in fall, requiring reduced water as they gradually die back to their rhizomes.  Dormant plants can be moved indoors, pot and all, for the winter, or the rhizomes can be lifted and stored in paper bags in a well-ventilated location.  Either way, cool temperatures (below 60 degrees F) are best for storage.

    In early spring, move containerized cannas to a warmer niche and water sparingly until growth resumes.  Split overwintered bare-root rhizomes into divisions of 3 or more “eyes” (the red, swollen growth points spaced along the rhizomes), and plant them in containers (as described above).   And start planning this year’s summer spectacular.

    An orange-flowered ‘Wyoming’ Canna looks in the back of a pot of tall red cannas and elephant ear. (Image by Pam Beck)

  4. The Best Vegetables to Grow with Your Kids

    My daughter after picking her first carrot from the garden!

    I remember the first time I pulled a carrot from the ground as a child. It was like magic. A simple carrot became a hidden golden-orange gem in the Earth that I could pull and eat! I’d wander the garden, plucking a cherry tomato here, a lettuce leaf there, or snapping off a bean to nibble. It was enjoyable, and I learned to love vegetables in the process. This is why I grow delicious, interesting vegetables with my own children. I’m spreading the garden fun and veggie appreciation.

    There were two things I cared about with vegetables as a child: 1. Is it fun to eat? 2. Is it fun to harvest? These are the criteria used for this list. As an added bonus for parents, these vegetables are also easy to grow.

     

    Fun, Yummy Vegetables to Eat and Pick

    Cherry Tomatoes:  There are so many cool cherry tomatoes to try now, and the smaller, sweeter, and more colorful, the better. I recommend ‘Minibel’, which produces sweet red tomatoes on tiny plants, ‘Sun Gold’, which produces loads of super sweet, golden-orange cherry tomatoes, the unusual ‘Blue Cream Berries’ with its pale yellow and blue fruits, and the classic ‘Sweet Million’ which literally produces hundreds of sweet red cherry tomatoes on large vines. Kids also love super tiny ‘Sweet Pea‘ currant tomatoes and ‘Gold Rush’ currant tomatoes, which literally pop with flavor in the mouth. Caging your plants makes harvesting easier—especially for little ones

    French Bush Beans: My children love French haricot vert bush beans because they are super thin, stringless, and sweet. The best varieties for kids are produced on small, bushy plants. Try the classic green ‘Rolande’ or the golden yellow ‘Pauldor’.

    Asian Long Beans: These beans look like spaghetti noodles! They are vining, so trellising is required, but they love hot summer weather, and kids love to pick and eat them. ‘Thai Red-Seeded’ is a great Asian long bean for kids because it grows so well, and the super long beans double as green hair or green bean rope.

    Beit Alpha Cucumbers: These crisp, sweet cucumbers are skinless, practically seedless, and taste great right from the vine. Bring a little water for rinsing, and a little ranch dressing for dipping, and they have an instant garden snack. The new AAS-Winning variety ‘Diva’ is my favorite because it is disease resistant and produces lots of cucumbers.

    Miniature Carrots: Mini carrots are easier for kids to pull from the ground, so they get all the fun with no root breakage. Tiny round ‘Romeo’ carrots and the small conical ‘Short Stuff’ are great selections for a kid’s vegetable garden. Both also grow well in containers.

    Yum Yum Mini Bell Peppers: The name says it all! These yummy, sweet, mini bell peppers look like Christmas lights and come in shades of red, yellow, and orange! The peppers are high in vitamin C and fun to pick. Just be sure to plant your Yum Yum mini bell peppers away from any hot peppers you may be growing!

    Small Pumpkins: Kids love to harvest and decorate their very own pumpkins in fall! The little guys, like ‘Baby Bear‘ and ‘Baby Pam‘ are just the right size for kids. Extras can be processed to make Thanksgiving pumpkin pies. Be sure to give the vines plenty of sun and space and you will be rewarded with lots of fall pumpkins.

    Strawberry Popcorn: Kids can believe these cute, deep red ears actually pop up to make tasty popcorn! Strawberry popcorn is produced on smaller 4-foot plants and the ears are small too. They are decorative when dry and can be popped up in winter as a happy reminder of warmer summer days.

    Growing Your Vegetables

    Organic gardening is a must, especially when growing vegetables for children. Successful vegetables start with good bed prep and summer-long care. Choose a sunny spot, work up your garden soil, and add a healthy amount of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and Fafard Garden Manure Blend before planting. Keep your vegetable watered and watch them do their summer magic!

    When children grow their own vegetables, they eat their vegetables. They look forward to the harvest, and enjoy preparing what they have picked. Let them help snap the beans for a salad or clean the carrots before trimming and peeling them for snacking. There’s no better way to enjoy time with your kids while instilling good lifelong habits in the process.

    Picking and eating sweet ‘Sun Gold’ cherry tomatoes is always fun for kids!