Grow What You Need (And What You Can)

 

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My latest order of seeds.

If you’re just starting to flex your green thumb, it can be daunting to pick just one or two vegetable plants to grow. The information I’m about to provide is applicable no matter what size yard (or bright apartment window) you have at your disposal.

Plant things you will actually use/eat/cook!

I cannot say this enough. Yes, it’s very exciting if you decide that you are going to grow horseradish root because none of your friends grow it and you want to stand out. But ask yourself: do you like horseradish? Do you like it enough to put in the time and energy to grow it and then have far more horseradish than you know what to do with?

Or you might decide to grow some cilantro on your windowsill. Do you use cilantro? Are you one of those people (like my husband) who thinks cilantro tastes like soap?

I imagine you will feel rather silly as you are trying to give away horseradish root to everyone you meet. Just as silly as trying to “like” cilantro if all you can do is think of handsoap when it touches your tongue. Do yourself a favor and pick something you like and will eat. My very first days of growing things in my Aerogarden consisted of nothing but herbs: basil and chives. And I cooked with them! Or sometimes just ate them by themselves…

This year will be the first fall and winter that we are in our house. We bought our home last October and then were gone for the first month of 2017 so I didn’t have much of a chance to grow any fall/winter crops. In addition to the lettuce and arugula, I plan on growing some red kale (!), as well as broccoli, and brussel sprouts! I opted for non-traditional varieties of each to bring a little more color to the drab landscape that is the Pacific Northwest during our lengthy rainy season. As I said before, the kale is a deep reddish burgundy and both the broccoli and brussel sprouts should have a purple-ish hue to them. All three of these are things that we already eat in our day-to-day lives and I am looking forward to being able to put a bit more on the table during the colder months when my tomatoes and peppers will be just a memory.

If you live in an apartment or condo without any outdoor space, your best bet would be to grow herbs in a sunny window because they don’t require a lot of space and you can fit quite a few in a relatively narrow pot (perfect for the depth of a windowsill). You might even be able to grow a small pot of lettuce if the space gets enough sun. If you have a deck or patio, you have even more options as many seed companies are now carrying varieties of vegetables that are well-suited for containers! You might have noticed in the picture above that I ALSO got seeds for eggplant and two varieties of squash. These three are all summer plants as they require a lot of heat. I may already be a little late in starting them (planted seeds this past weekend) but I’ll give it a shot. I chose all three of these varieties because they were tolerant of being planted in containers and their vines don’t get super long. The fruits are smaller but when it is just my and my husband we probably don’t require plants that produce high yields of very large fruits. I tried to find some or all of the seeds pictured above in my local garden store but unfortunately their selection only covers the basics and not the more unusual or specialty varieties. That was also part of the reason I ended up ordering some summer-planting seeds; the shipping is flat rate so I figured it wise (and cost-effective) if I just bought more seeds now instead of deciding in a few months that I would like to order something else. I want to believe that this will be my last order for many months. I do think that I will try growing potatoes in a large pot but I can get seed potatoes from my local garden store when the season for that gets closer.

I would love to be able to grow some citrus trees (oranges or perhaps lemons) but sadly it comes back to my point of growing “what you can.” Our climate up here just isn’t suited for keeping citrus outside all year round. At some point in the fall or winter, one has to bring the small varieties indoors and that doesn’t appeal to me.

There are all kinds of setups, gadgets, and gizmos to help you grow things indoors and out but prices can vary and these things may not be practical. I don’t focus on these things because I would rather gear my posts to a wider audience instead of just those who can buy the fancy things. If you grow some herbs on your windowsill and decide you love this kind of thing, it’s 100% okay to splurge on a hydroponic kit to help you grow more things. Start small and start smart!

Fruits of Your Labor

Believe it or not, the weather did eventually warm up enough to start growing my cool weather plants outside. I direct sowed spinach seeds and planted lettuce arugula that I started inside. It’s always a little traumatizing when you first plant seedlings outside. It’s best to acclimate them to the wind and temperatures by placing their pots outside for a few hours and then bringing them in (or covering them) at night. Gradually you can work up to keep them outside 24/7 and then it’s safe to plant them in the ground/raised bed. It took mine a little time to get going but then it seemed like they visibly grew every day.

I would check on them every day to observe their progress. I had purchased a plant cover online to keep them warm as it was still a little chilly in the evenings. It was made of a special “fabric” that let in light and water (rain) but maintained temperatures better than if they were exposed to the elements without any protection. This plant cover also made the surprise even better as I would throw back the cover to see the little plants growing. I think the spinach was the cutest to watch. It developed the sweetest baby spinach leaves that filled me with so much pride!

In what seemed like a matter of days (but was really more like weeks) there were viable greens for harvesting. And harvest is exactly what I did!

The first harvest of greens was a modest one. I picked these on May 3. This pile is a mix of kale, arugula, and lettuce. I don’t think I had picked any spinach yet at this point.20170503_181722

Just take a look at those colors! So many great hues of green, way better than when we buy lettuce at the store and the flavor of these is second to none.

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This pile (above) was picked five days later on May 7. Slightly more bulk to this one as you can see the gorgeous spinach leaves on top. I also like this photo because of the well-placed ray of sunshine. This is the first year that I have grown spinach (this variety is Olympia) and I don’t think I’ll ever omit it from the garden again. It grew at a quick pace and it has been a great producer. I tend to avoid store-bought bunches of spinach

because they are always so dirty (mud/grit) that it becomes quite the production to get it clean. But homegrown spinach is nearly immaculate straight from the garden and much, much larger…

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For your information, I have normal-sized hands for a woman who is 5’9ish. This beautiful and vibrant spinach leaf was the size of my hand! You can’t find something like this in your average grocery store! And it tasted sooo good! We’ve had some of the best salads this last month or so when the greens were at their peak production levels.

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I picked this batch at the end of May. I believe this was my largest haul to date. I never completely strip ALL of the leaves off of my plants because I like to let them keep going for as long as possible. There’s a little bit of everything here; from left to right: arugula, kale, spinach, lettuce. My husband and I just recently started eating arugula and it’s made for a nice addition to our salads. If you’ve never had arugula, it has a slightly bitter/tart flavor compared to traditional lettuce but it is very nice (in my opinion) if you mix it in with other greens. I used a variety of arugula (Speedy Salad) that matured in about a month. It grew like a weed once it got going but was definitely prone to bolting (growing quickly and then producing flowers which shortens the lifespan).

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Oh the humble radish. This was the best of my radish crop, I am sorry to say. I planted nice of them in a space of about 12 inches square but they struggled. They grew lovely, lush greens but the bulbs failed to develop on most of them. I was very disappointed so I did some sleuthing online recently and I believe I identified the problem. Apparently, if you do not provide a regular source of water to keep the soil damp, radish will grow super long roots (in search of water) without developing the tasty bulbs that I wanted so badly. This sounds like it could be the root of my troubles (Get it? “Root”?) Radishes also grow like weeks so I will continue to experiment with these in my garden until I can master this basic crop.

Recently my peas have started to bloom and just this week I began to see quite a few pods!

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Thus far, we’ve eaten about a dozen of the largest ones. I didn’t use a proper pea trellist this year because I didn’t want to spend them money. I used an extra tomato cage I had lying around and tied some twine around the bottom so the peas could start to make their way up it. It was a satisfactory alternative considering I didn’t want to spend the money on a pea trellis. The tomato cage would certainly be enough if money is a limiting factor or if you don’t have the time to make or buy a pea trellis. The only downside I have found to using the tomato cage is that the peas became very bushy and only developed flowers on the outermost vines.

 

I plan on focusing on summer vegetables in upcoming posts as well as how to choose the right vegetables to grow for your family!

Getting a Head Start

I love to be over-prepared. I love to plan ahead. Ask my husband and he will tell you that we had the major components of our wedding planned when we still had the better part of a year until our actual nuptials. There is no such thing as too much planning and I adamantly believe in planning ahead when you want to start planting for Spring (or any season when you will be working with plants from seed). After reading one of my previous posts you will know that the weather has put a major damper on outside work. This is just another reason why you’ll want to start your vegetables inside well in advance. This year I have expanded my plans (hello real backyard) and these are the my plants:

  • bush beans
  • peas
  • tomatoes (cherry and beefsteak) [started indoors]
  • sweet mini peppers [started indoors]
  • radishes
  • carrots
  • lettuce [started indoors]
  • arugula [started indoors]
  • spinach
  • asparagus (tentative, depending on the success with crowns)
  • assorted herbs

It’s important to know which of these are suitable for starting indoors and which should be direct sown in the ground when the weather is hospitable. Most respectable seed brands will give you all of this info on the seed packets. I am a huge fan of Territorial Seed Company out of Oregon because they have a huge variety and, with similar climates, I feel safe in assuming that their advice will work in my neck of the woods.

I start out by tossing some seeds into a small pot (just a few inches in diameter) to see how many of the seeds will be viable. I start with a special seed starting potting mix. It’s finer than typical soil which is good for little seeds when they first start.

It’s very likely that you will get more sprouts than you need so it’s recommended to snip some to make room for the one you will keep. Seedlings don’t like to be crowded! If you can’t bring yourself to snip seedlings then your 20170309_122303little pot will look like this in no time! These were my tomato seedlings from earlier this year. Quite the crop! They grew like weeds so I ended up giving away quite a few to my neighbors. Something to note about this photo (and something I learned) is that these got a bit too leggy. They are literally reaching for the plant light! If your seedlings start to look like this then you need to move your light closer or invest in another plant light.

When seedlings get to be about the size in the picture (have a couple of sets of true leaves) it’s time to pot them up and give them their own space!

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You won’t need much when you pot up your seedlings.

  • Pots of some kind (pictured above). I used the same size as the one that I start the seeds in. You don’t want to put your tiny seedling in a pot that is too large.
  • A shovel
  • Potting mix. Now is the time to use real potting mix! The seed starting mix isn’t super rich in nutrients and your seedlings are hungry.

Gently pour out the contents of your pot with all seedlings and separate them. You’ll be able to get a good sense of how developed the root systems are. Put some soil in your new pots and gently place each seedling (those that you are keeping) into its own pot and fill in with soil. This is a good opportunity to plant your seedlings a little deeper in the soil if their stems are flimsy (i.e. leggy). This also helps to strengthen the roots.

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When you are done your seedlings should look something like this! Hooray, you did it! Now they have room to stretch out and grow. At this point they will still need to stay inside under a plant light for a while. If your weather is anything like ours, you might need to pot them up AGAIN before it is warm enough for them to be placed outside.

Here are my seedlings hanging out in the laundry room under their plant light. Some of them haven’t been separated yet so you can see different stages of starting seeds inside.

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Mission Statement

There are many reasons why we can and should grow fruits and vegetables for ourselves. Depending on who you are and the life you lead, the list is long or short but definitely varies from person to person. 

Here are a couple of the reasons I have become so passionate about gardening edible plants.

  1. Better quality! I have no problem admitting that, before I grew my first head of lettuce, I wasn’t aware of how mediocre store-bought lettuce can be. I just didn’t know what freshly picked lettuce was capable of looking like. Now that I know, it’s a disheartening experience when I buy produce from the store to supplement what is homegrown or to fill in when we’re between growing seasons. I want to be clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying vegetables from the store; I am not here to food shame anyone. But it’s vitally important to realize that the food reaching people who shop at grocery stores is not the best it could be. We could get into a whole set of discussions on food insecurity, food deserts, organic vs. non-organic, and the cost of quality produce BUT we won’t because this is not the place. Just be aware of the need for improvement.
  2. Cheaper* Now I have used an asterisk here because one should consider the other non-monetary costs of growing your own vegetables, mainly time. However, here is a very quick example to put things in perspective. Organic romaine lettuce costs between $3 and $5 at my local grocery store (depending on how many heads you get). Yes, non-organic is less than that; I haven’t bought non-organic lettuce in awhile but let’s assume it is $2-$3 (not necessarily a large difference but when you are on a very fixed income it can be HUGE). Okay so I go to the store and I get my organic lettuce and after tax I have just spent roughly $5. I go home, wash it off, tear it up, and we eat all of it in salads over the course of a few days (we are big salad eaters FYI). Alternatively, you could spend roughly the same amount of money on a packet of seeds (http://www.territorialseed.com/product/Buttercrunch_Conventional_and_Pelleted_Lettuce_Seed) that will last you years. I currently have 6 heads of lettuce growing in my back yard. So 6 seeds were used (+ maybe another 6-12 depending on how many you plant per hole in the soil). And we have gotten 3+ harvests out of these cute little heads of lettuce when supplementing with our kale and arugula. Here in the PNW, there isn’t much need to water during most of the growing season for lettuce and they are pretty self-sufficient as long as you keep the pests away. I personally do not make a lot in my current job and I am very fortunate that my husband is able to support the two of us in many ways. So I get a great deal of satisfaction when I can go out into my yard and literally put food on the table for us.
  3. Rewarding! Now this reason is a bit more arbitrary but few things give me quite as much satisfaction as knowing that I have raised a plant from a little seed all the way to adulthood. Not immediate gratification but well-worth the wait. And between you and me, it keeps me sane and out of the house for my husband’s sake.

Why do you like to garden? Or, if you don’t, why not? Does your list include something that mine doesn’t?

Let there be Light?

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The end of February

I was very spoiled last year with a mild winter and spring. Sure, we had some bitterly cold days but it didn’t seem to last very long and then the weather was warm enough to start getting stuff growing outside.

But this year is a different story. We’ve had a bit more snow (and dustings) than we usually get and some of my already existing plants have suffered. I quickly learned that there is much more work required if your garden is going to survive a typical winter in the Greater Seattle Area. Who knew? I’m not in San Diego anymore!

The only plant I lost that I was really bummed about was our jalapeno plant and, quite frankly, that had already beaten the odds when it produced a second meager harvest last year. But it didn’t look well then and it certainly doesn’t look well now.

In future posts when the weather starts to turn cold again I will go over mulching and how I am protecting my plants. Now, however, is when I can finally start to work the soil and get things growing…if it would ever stop raining. Our ground is super-saturated right now. I believe there was a statistic being thrown about recently that, since October, we have only had 13 or so days of sunshine. Make it 14 because it is a beautiful day as I write this. I can’t be sure how much good this will do because we have 2 more days of rain ahead of us before we get a few dry days.

A fell0w gardener has offered to let me use her tiller but I can’t do that until the soil dries out a bit. Tip: tilling in soil that is muddy/too wet does absolutely nothing. The soil just stays compacted from all of the water so don’t bother. The sad thing is, my soil really needs to be tilled. The previous owners put down some mulch before we bought our house but when I’ve been weeding or moving already established plants I’ve noticed how much clay there is just a few inches down. Hopefully, with the arrival of Spring in a few days, the weather will start to improve and we can really get going.

In my next post, I will talk about potting up some seedlings that I started indoors!

No Excuses

I have no excuse for why I dropped off after first starting to write here. Things got so crazy with work, classes, wedding planning, and house hunting that I certainly continued to raise a modest crop of vegetables last spring/summer but I failed to document it. What can I say, I like to stay busy! But this year is different because I have a backyard that I have more or less kicked my husband out of (unless he feels like digging up blackberry brambles) and I don’t think it’s possible to spend enough time tending to my plants.

First I will share some photos from last year’s harvest and any lessons I learned along the way.

13173181_10208559894652846_4257875692323519919_oThis was the first radish that I harvested in early May of last year. I bought a variety that was intended to come out purple, partly because you don’t see purple radishes everyday and partly because purple is my favorite color. The lighting in my kitchen at the time of this photo was a little dark so the radish looks more reddish. In truth, my harvests tended to be a magenta color but this one sure was beautiful!13122923_10208573389390206_976181877821921917_o

Now here are some more radishes from the same crop. I harvested them just a few days later and learned 2 valuable lessons about radishes. First, I picked these way too early and they were not nearly as impressive as the first one (above). Second, it is very important to provide each radish with adequate spacing. Otherwise they don’t develop properly and are way to root-y. As you might notice, there is one radish in this bunch that was really more of the traditional red. I found that it wasn’t uncommon for some of these radishes to come out less purple and more red (or even white)! It didn’t bother me though and I certainly hope it wouldn’t bother you.

Now on to the peas! I planted two sets of peas (two pots each) and started the second set 4.5 w13304986_10208740984699984_9156624555821188424_oeeks after the first. Here are the first peas that I harvested. They sure were crisp and tasty. Now it is worth mentioning that the first set of peas were not coated with an inoculant to help them fix nitrogen. I coated the second set of pea seeds with an inoculant before planting and I want you to see the difference and understand the importance of using an inoculant if your soil isn’t ideal.

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Peas on the right: planted without inoculant on 3/5

Peas on the left: planted with inoculant on 4/5

These photos were taken on the same day and you can see that the peas with inoculant were twice the size in less time! I regret planting the peas in such shall pots (less than 12 inches deep) because they quickly filled the pots and water would run right through. I encountered a bit of mildew on the pea plants but it fortunately didn’t become too extreme until the end of the season, by which point there weren’t too many peas lost to the fungus.

I am not sure why but carrots were one of the things that I was most excited about growing. May13323555_10208799474482192_6035441367650220491_obe it’s because it didn’t seem like something that would grow well in a pot but mine turned out halfway decent. If you’re going to try your hand at growing carrots in containers then you should try and get varieties that are shorter than traditional varieties. As you can see, my carrots still outgrew their container and got a jaunty little curve at the ends of their roots. I harvest this first one in June but, because of my excitement, it probably would have grown bigger if I had left it alone. When I took a bite of this, I was shocked at the flavor. It was so much stronger than anything you would find in the store that at first I wondered if there was something wrong with it. I realized later that this is what real carrots are supposed to taste like!

13411949_10208799499202810_2901369579942035916_oWhen the season really got going it wasn’t uncommon to come home from work and find that there were more veggies to harvest! Here’s a small bounty that I collected on a Monday afternoon. I feel so much joy and accomplishment when I can put stuff like this on the table for dinner. My husband enjoys it too, but not as much as I do!

Summers in the Pacific Northwest are beautiful but they lack the heat and duration that Southern California gets. Last year, my mother planted a beefsteak tomato plant that she bought in a store and, as you can see, it became a small tree! And this photo was ta13221115_10208604817415887_4740968134287348544_nken in May! It got progressively larger (she ended up putting a tomato cage around it and it still outgrew that). It was a great producer of medium-sized tomatoes and the only problem was that nearby wildlife enjoyed the tomatoes too. We didn’t have space for a large plant like this so I opted for planting golden cherry tomato plants. Thankfully tomato seedlings grow like weeds and they did well in pots on our balcony. I suspect that I inadvertently gave them too much nitrogen as they grew incredibly leafy. They still produced well and there are few things as delicious as eating a freshly picked, homegrown tomato!13754092_10209190318173040_2536098180814065082_n

Here are the first few that I picked. The color was great and a nice change from the traditional red varieties. Once the summer was well underway I discovered that, perhaps, I planted a few more tomato plants than I needed. I think we had 6 or 7. Ooops! This photo below does13932823_10209343598284947_3943388184458125304_nn’t even come close to capturing how many I could harvest at a time. I believe there were several occasions where that dish in the picture was overflowing with little cherry tomatoes. They became a staple of our diet for several months and it was wonderful. No need to buy tomatoes from the store! And when the season was over and I finally had to say goodbye to my tomato plants, the store-bought tomatoes were very disappointing.

I believe that I have now summed up the harvest from last spring and summer to the best of my abilities. In my next post I will share some things I learned about having a garden in the Pacific Northwest and how I am jonesing for warmer weather!

First Harvest

Since some of you may be wondering if you’re capable of growing something successfully I would like to use my inaugural post to show you what is possible. I had taken a class entitled Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors at the Bellevue Botanical Garden near the end of 2015. As someone who hails from a part of the country where the sun is (nearly) always shining, I found it difficult to grown plants with the same degree of success up here in Western Washington. My tomatoes and jalapeño plant did fairly well last summer but by the time late fall arrived I was missing my leafy friends. As you can imagine, when I heard that is was possible to begin vegetables from seed indoors long before the climate outside was hospitable I was ecstatic. I was enthralled by every minute of the 2 hour long class and at the end of it we were allowed to plant some seeds and take them home with us. As we speak my Lacinto kale from that class is coming along nicely and is nearly ready for it’s first harvest. As I walked out the doors that day, I felt that something had awakened inside of me. I wanted to share what I had learned with everyone I talked to. I probably sounded like a crazy woman. It wouldn’t be the first time my fiancé had that thought…

There are many things to consider when starting vegetable seeds indoors. I will plan on addressing each of these in a stand alone blog post in the future but here are 2 important things to keep in mind:

  • cool vs. warm weather crops
  • ability to transplant

Being that it was January when I began to get the ball rolling, I opted for cool weather crops (i.e. lettuce). It was easy enough to find lettuce seeds at my local garden store (the hard part was selecting a variety) and then the next decision was how to start them.

I made small “pots” out of newspaper (you can find an easy guide here) and sprinkled some lettuce seeds in each one. Now I learned something rather quickly after doing this – I sprinkled more than 2 seeds in each pot under the assumption that not all of the seeds would germinate and I wanted to give myself the best chance for success. In truth, I probably could have gotten away with just 2 or 3 seeds in each because the seeds were from a reputable company and they hadn’t been sitting around. In the span of one month I had A LOT of lettuce seedlings. A sure-fire way to tell the quality of the seed company you’re dealing with is how much information they provide on each seed packet. Mine provided the timeline for starting seeds indoors (x weeks before last frost, etc) as well as when to transplant them outside. I have no problem admitting that I was very nervous when the time came to transplant my lettuce seedlings from their newspaper to real, adult planters. They were so flimsy and wobbly from living a cushy life indoors. Now they were dwarfed by their planters, blowing every which way whenever their was a slight breeze. I made sure to bring them in when the evenings were cold as they were still very fragile during their first weeks outside. We had the occasional hailstorm and it was a mad dash to bring them inside before they sustained any serious damage.

It’s very easy to forget the hardiness of plants. I suspect that they would have been okay had I not fawned over them like newborns but it’s best to use your own judgement when tending your garden. Baby them or don’t, it’s your choice. It seemed like for the longest time, the seedlings were just hanging out, not doing much, certainly not dying but they surely didn’t look like anything resembling lettuce. And then, one day I started to notice the edges of the leaves were starting to develop texture. That’s when they really exploded, seemingly overnight, into full-fledged baby heads of lettuce. Their roots had obviously expanded and now each plant was doing what it did best: GROW. Lettuce is a relatively low-maintenance crop. Make sure it doesn’t try out and that it has good soil to grow in and you won’t be disappointed.

Three months later I am proud to say that I harvested my first crop (with hopefully many more to come this season) and I’m very pleased with the results:13043574_10208496063857116_2233353355250755488_n

There was enough lettuce for several helpings of salad and I made sure to leave many of the smaller leaves on the plant to continuing growing. A trick with lettuce: just pull/cut of the outermost leaves and the plant will continue to produce new growth from the center.

I felt such an enormous amount of pride as my fiancé and I sat down for dinner. I grew that! That delicious, beautifully green lettuce in front of me was the fruit of my labor and it was one of the best feelings! And it wasn’t even that hard. It was slow going at first, watching the little seeds germinate into delicate seedlings, and intimidating to separate the plants and place them in proper planters. But after that, Mother Nature did 95% of the job and She certainly did it well.

So friends, won’t you join me? Shall we work towards becoming more self-sustaining, even just one head of lettuce at a time?