Posts tagged with Gardening

Oh, how does the garden grow

The kiddo with our two new garden beds. The wood one is for grapes, the stone one is for elderberries.

The kiddo with our two new garden beds. The wood one is for grapes, the stone one is for elderberries. by Sarah Henning

In addition to our CSA share from Rolling Prairie and our trips to the Lawrence Farmers’ Market, my family always has another source of local produce in the spring and summer: our garden.

I’ve mentioned before that I’d looked forward to having a garden since before buying our house. I’d wanted one back when we owned a little Key West-style place in South Florida, but the “soil” (sand?) wasn’t really conducive to growing anything besides grass, and it barely did that. Therefore, moving to Lawrence was big.

From a single raised bed, our garden has grown to include (as of this year), three vegetable beds, three fruit beds (blackberries and strawberries in one, elderberries in another, and grapes in yet another), plus a bunch of herbs in our container garden and three fruit trees: cherry, peach and pear.

We don’t have an “urban” farm yet, and we probably never will, but I’m really happy with the how much our little garden has grown in the past few years. Really, it started out with just a hope to grow our own tomatoes. But once I really took a look at all the items we could grow ourselves in Kansas, the garden just — poof — exploded.

Have we gotten much of a return on all the time we’ve put in, planting, watering and weeding? Well, yes and no.

No in that we are probably candidates to write the sequel to that book, "The $64 Tomato". I keep track of what we spend on the garden each year, but I’ve never really plugged in what we’ve gotten for all that money. All I know is that some summers — the ones where we had consistent temps in the 100s — we didn’t get much at all.

But yes in that we’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment from the possibilities. We never know if we’ll get 100 tomatoes or one. If our blackberries will survive or die like the blueberries and raspberries before them. And when we have successes (you should see the blackberries!) it’s a pleasant surprise. Even more than that, it’s not just educational for me, it’s educational for my 5-year-old, who already knows so much more than I did about growing produce when I was double his age.

Happy gardening.


Take advantage of a low-maintenance workhorse: How to grow your own potatoes

In the realm of potatoes, a little work goes a long way.

In the realm of potatoes, a little work goes a long way. by Sarah Henning

A few weeks ago, I wrote about why I garden. Basically, the takeaway is this: I do it because it's important to be connected to our food.

And though the last two growing seasons have been horrible for farmers and home gardeners alike, I still believe it's crucial to try if you can.

This weekend, I put my time and effort where my mouth is and worked in the garden with the kiddo to plant for the first time this season. We'd readied our three garden beds the week before, giving me the perfect canvas to plant my two garden workhorses: potatoes and onions.

Last year, I didn't get a chance to do potatoes or onions because of some scheduling issues with my time and Mother Nature, and we really felt it. Because of the heat, almost all of our other crops barely yielded a thing and because of timing, we didn't have either of our high producers to fall back on. Not cool at all.

This year I wanted to have a potato crop, even if I was going to be out of town on St. Patrick's Day. Though old farmers' tales say you should plant potatoes on St. Paddy's, I knew I wouldn't be able to do it. But I really do believe you can be late with potatoes and be perfectly fine. I've had two great potato crops — one planted right around St. Paddy's and one planted late, and they've both been terrific.

And by "terrific," I mean not only in the sense that you get a lot for very little time and effort. You also are growing one of the most no-nonsense plants available and if you have kids, they will love digging for the final product.

Our first potato haul a few years ago was pretty great, even the toddler can see that.

Our first potato haul a few years ago was pretty great, even the toddler can see that. by Sarah Henning

If you're up for it, I'll share my method for growing them. It will take you about two hours the whole week and you'll be good until late summer.

First, I grow mine in a raised 4x8 bed, under straw. I believe this method works if you're tilling straight into the ground, but you might want to check around to make sure there's not a better method for you.

What you'll need are some seed potatoes (available at pretty much any farm or garden store, plus some grocery stores). Look for ones that have several eyes. Take them home and cut them into smaller chunks, 1 to 2 inches across. Each chunk needs to have a couple of good-looking eyes.

Next, let them "cure" by placing them on cookie cooling racks for a day or two (up to a week).

My potatoes, curing.

My potatoes, curing. by Sarah Henning

When you're ready to plant, buy a bail of hay/straw, get out your gloves and trowel and get to work. I like to keep my potatoes in a single bed because it's easiest. You will want to dig holes at least six inches deep, and about a foot apart. Place the potatoes, eyes up, in each hole.

Eyes up to the sky.

Eyes up to the sky. by Sarah Henning

If you think you have more potato chunks than holes, just get picky about which ones you put in first. Ones with eyes that are already sprouting are the best, so they should get top priority.

Next, cover the potatoes with dirt, and then cover with as much hay as you can mound on. You're going to want to go for eight to 12 inches, on top.

The finished product, for now.

The finished product, for now. by Sarah Henning

Then, water them a bit (not too much!) and let them be. The only thing I do is add a bit more straw once it starts to get matted down, because you want to make sure your potatoes are completely hidden from the sun at all times.

Other than the straw, your only job is to watch the vines poke up. They'll grow, get tall and flowery and then they'll start to wilt and die. When the vines are dead, you can start digging for treasure right around the base of each dead vine. You should have a bunch of potatoes of varying sizes with each vine.

It really is that easy.

I'm not a garden expert by any means, but this is what works for me. You might Google around and find people who do something similar, or people who don't do it this way at all.

No matter how you do it, it's worth a shot. High yield for low investment. Plus you grew it.


The case for gardening, even if Mother Nature doesn’t always agree

Our cherry tomatoes did great even with the bad weather the past two years. Good thing, too, because they are the only tomatoes the kid will eat.

Our cherry tomatoes did great even with the bad weather the past two years. Good thing, too, because they are the only tomatoes the kid will eat. by Sarah Henning

I might not get to celebrate spring break, you know, being old and all, but that doesn’t mean I’m not excited about it.

Not only does it mean the unofficial start of warm weather (hear that, snow!?) and March Madness but also means that spring is here. Or almost here. Or close enough that we can all start thinking about gardening.

For months, I’ve been talking with a part-time farmer friend who is growing several types of kale this year. With each little update on this process (picking seeds, ordering seeds, starting seeds indoors), I’ve gotten more excited about the coming growing season. I’ve had a garden for three years — three raised beds plus a pretty good-sized container garden on my deck — and it’s been fun, though not necessarily highly productive.

If I’m being honest, the last two summers have been a kick in the teeth as a gardener. Plants bolted. The bugs hit. Blossom end rot did in many tomatoes. Poor planning left some plants gasping for nutrients. My blueberries and raspberries were crushed by the heat, as were many of my container herbs — I’ve been able to kill three “unkillable” mint plants every single year (yes, the body count is at nine). Melons have never, ever thrived for me. Oh, and it turns out I hate weeding.

That entire paragraph probably makes you wonder if I have a black thumb or why I’d ever want a garden in the first place, especially since I apparently suck at it.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think I suck at it (the weather had a lot to do with my kill rate) and I actually do find it fun.

There’s something downright enjoyable about being able to go out and harvest what you put into the ground/raised bed/pot. And 100-degree temps, a hatred of weeding and bad luck aren’t going to change that.

Because, here’s the thing: I think it’s incredibly important to get reconnected with where our food comes from.

On the hunt for tiny strawberries.

On the hunt for tiny strawberries. by Sarah Henning

Growing up, we had a garden, but I only really remember harvesting tomatoes. And at the time, I don’t think I totally “got” how good a fresh tomato was. It was just a tomato that appeared in our backyard after way too frickin’ long.

In fact, not only do I think I didn’t get it but I also think I didn’t really appreciate that homegrown food at all. It was a novelty, and the big, smooth vegetables sans imperfections from the grocery store seemed more like “actual” food to me.

It’s silly to think about now, but I don’t know how I could’ve been so disconnected. And I don’t want my son to ever feel that out of touch with what he puts in his mouth.

It’s not that my parents didn’t try to interest me in our family garden, it’s more that the food culture was very different back then. We were in the middle of a shift from agricultural awareness to total blindness and back again — at least in my opinion and experience as a child of the ’80s.

Today, we have the advantage of a resurgence in restoring some awareness of our food chain, not only where we buy it from, but where food comes from in general.

And I want to keep that earth-to-table connection as plain as possible in my own kitchen, for my benefit and my family’s.

My son knows more about how foods grow and come to be than I ever did at his age, and I’d like to make sure that knowledge stays with him. Because he helps in the garden, he tends to try new things just because he helped pick them. He doesn’t like everything, but there’s a better chance he’ll try something if he gets to harvest it himself than if he helps me pick it out at the store.

He's got his picking tub and he's not going to let go.

He's got his picking tub and he's not going to let go. by Sarah Henning

So, I’m planning my three-season garden for a fourth straight year. I’ve learned I grow some foods rather well (potatoes, Swiss chard, cherry tomatoes) and some plants rather poorly (see my litany of murdered plants above), but I grow them, and that’s what matters.

My planned plants for spring, summer and fall are as follows. As for which will survive, your guess is as good as mine.

Potatoes (several types)

Onion sets (white, yellow, red)


Shelling peas

Bush and pole beans

Strawberries (on their third year)

Blackberries (to replace my murdered berries)

Kale (black and curly)

Swiss chard



Tomatoes (black krim, Cherokee purple, sungold and sun sugar)

Peppers (Italian and various bell)

Herbs: basil (various), mint (various), sage (various), rosemary (various), thyme, parsley, marjoram, dill, garlic chives, cilantro (which I hate, but comes in handy)

And anything else that ends up looking intriguing (which always happens)


Don’t panic: Spring’s about sprung — time to start thinking about your vegetable garden

It seems like yesterday that the kiddo and I were on the deck, harvesting mint before bringing our pots in for the summer.

And you know why it doesn't seem that long ago?

Because we did it during a September cold snap that was cooler than pretty much any day in the past month. Or so it seemed. Honestly, if it weren't for the fact that that hoodie doesn't fit him anymore (so sad) that pic at the top of the blog could've been taken Saturday — at least weather-wise.

In fact, until Saturday, I hadn't thought about my 2012 vegetable and herb garden AT ALL. I feel late, late, late for an important date, and I totally blame the sunshine. And warm temps. And all the beautiful days we've had during this non-winter winter.

I'm pretty sure this has been the nicest winter of my life (save for the three winters I spent in West Palm Beach, Fla.) and, admittedly, the last thing I've wanted to do is sit inside. For anything. Even planning my yearly garden.

But you know what? That's absolutely fine. We've got time, people, even if you (like me) want spring greens.

Now's the time to start, and as long as you've got some greens going by April, you should be good. And if it's just tomatoes and herbs you want? Psssh, you have until May.

See, we're fine.

Though, it is true that March is the month when we should at least be thinking about are gardens, even if we're not actually planting anything.

So, with that in mind, here's a little primer on what I'm planning on doing with my garden this spring. Use it as inspiration, a template or just a kick in the pants (if, like me, you're kind of shocked winter is nearly "over").

Get your greens going: Start them inside, under a grow light (I use a basic fluorescent light, hung very low on chains), or, be brave and put them outside, with row cover or a white sheet handy for those inevitable cold snaps.

As far as greens go, I've had some real luck with spinach, chard and bok choy (as you can see below).

What I want to do better this year? Kale. I love the stuff, but I can't seem to grow it to save my life. I'm not really sure why, but I want to give it another go this year.

I also plan to start early with shelling peas, potatoes (planted alone in a single bed) and onions.

Check on last year's plants: After harvesting (above), the kiddo and I brought in several plants that should spring back once the mercury rises. Included: mint, basil (according to the interview I did with Jennifer Smith in the fall), rosemary, lavender, majoram and thyme (though my cat chewed the heck out of it, so I'm not sure it'll make it).

I plan on reintroducing these guys to the great outdoors slowly, to make sure they aren't stunned by the breeze or temperatures.

Decide what else you'll want to grow: I have three 8x4 raised beds, a small raspberry patch and a small blueberry patch (each have three plants), plus a deck on which I squeeze 15 to 20 potted plants, including everything from herbs to peppers to eggplant.

Generally, I break up the space based on what how best I can shoe-horn in a spring, summer and fall harvest. It tends to end up looking like this:

Bed No. 1: Potatoes. Gold, red and purple, all covered in the straw method. Both the hubby and the kiddo love digging for potatoes and they're pretty hard to screw up, so we tend to get a really good yield off them.

Bed No. 2: Greens, onions, beets, peas and carrots (spring and fall), peppers, herbs and greens (summer). In this bed, I'll line one end with onions, one end with climbing peas and fill in with alternating rows of beets, carrots and greens, including kale, chard, spinach and bok choy. Come may, I'll put in bell pepper transplants (orange, yellow, purple and red) and plant basil and parsley seeds. Then, I'll switch it out again in the fall for one last crop.

Bed No. 3: Garlic, greens and beans (spring and fall), tomatoes and herbs (summer). I already planted garlic in the fall in this bed, so that garlic should be getting there this spring. The rest of the early bed will be a mix of short-growth greens, bush beans and three strawberry plants (if they're still thriving). Then come May, I'll put in tomato plants — usually a pair each of Sungold and Sun Sugar, plus at least four Cherokee Purple and maybe one each of Black Krim and pink Brandywine. We love the little Sungold and Sun Sugars the best for picking, because that's the only way we can get the kiddo to eat fresh tomatoes (straight off the plant), but I have a special love of Cherokee Purples, so I like to have the majority of my tomato space go to them.

On the deck: We'll have tons of pots, including: mint (three types), pineapple sage, majoram, thyme, lavender, rosemary (two types), catnip, lemongrass, lemon balm, parsley, basil (two types), jalapeños, Japanese eggplant, dill, chives, cilantro and whatever else strikes my fancy.

All lined up like that, all this sounds like a lot of work, but I promise it's not. Set up a rain barrel, and watering isn't nearly the problem it tends to be, make sure to mulch well, and just go out there every night after work to check on things.

With a little maintenance and time spent hashing out your space before going wild at the gardening store, you'll be set — very little "inside time" needed.


The time is right to plant garlic

Are you one of those people who could slay a vampire with a single exhale?

If you are, it might be wise to spend a bit of time outside in the wind tonight planting garlic before the temperature plummets.

Basically, plant a clove and get a whole bulb back in the spring. Pretty economical, right?

Even better, you don't have to buy any specific type of garlic. Just get a few bulbs of local organic or chemical-free garlic, pop them open and plant away the cloves. It'll overwinter, and in the spring, you'll have a fabulous crop to eat with your spring greens.

Last night, I had been planning to clear out one of my garden beds and plant garlic I bought from Barbara Clark of Maggie's Farm at the Lawrence Farmers' Market, but honestly, the kiddo wanted to go for a walk, and what am I going to do, turn him down? I'm hoping I won't lose out on my chance to clear out my pepper plants and plop in some garlic cloves, though I might resort to putting them in pots in the interest of just getting some in before it's too cold.

I just don't want to miss out on the chance to have our own crop. Because though we love cooking with garlic in our house, I have to admit, that as a person who can be sort of nutty about nutrition, what I love the most about garlic is its potential health benefits. Healthy and tasty? Can't beat that combination.

Are you planting garlic this year?


When life gives you green tomatoes, you make chutney

I picked about 20 green tomatoes on Monday ahead of Wednesday's possible freeze.

I picked about 20 green tomatoes on Monday ahead of Wednesday's possible freeze. by Sarah Henning

Wednesday's low is supposed to be 26 degrees. I feel like that's a pretty cruel way to end the true growing season in Kansas.

I'm sure several local farmers are going to be fine with some row cover and hoop houses, but because I have neither of those things, I decided to pick a good chunk of my green tomatoes Monday night. Plus four little jalapeños. I did have a few bell peppers that were sitting there all hulk-like on their plants, but I decided not to rescue them. I absolutely hate green peppers and I'm pretty sure they'd do nothing but go wrinkly on my window sill. Ick.

But the tomatoes were another deal all together. I wanted to save those. And I picked off about 20, so saving them is probably worth their weight in gold (organic heirloom tomatoes like mine aren't cheap, green or not) and the five minutes in a cool mist I spent doing it.

Now, what to do with them? You know I'm not a girl who reaches for the fryer by nature, so I was happy to see this post from Gayla Trail, who's written a couple of great gardening books, both of which I own (I want the third one when it comes out!). Gayla runs the very informative website, and knows her stuff. So, I'm totally sure the green tomato chutney she mentions will taste awesome!

What are you doing with your green tomatoes?