Archive for February 5th, 2009

Growing Up In the Garden

Sharon February 5th, 2009

The Jewish Holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees (yup, Jews have a special holiday for trees – it is their birthday!) is coming up, and in homeschool this week, we read  _Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai_.  It tells the story of Maathai’s Green Belt movement, and its role in reclaim land from desertification in Kenya. 

When we finished the story, Isaiah said, “I don’t want us to cut down too many trees for our stoves, because then the soil would wash away like it did in Kenya.”  I assured him that we have enough firewood without taking down healthy trees, and that protecting our forest is very important to us. But I was secretly pleased that he grasped the reality of the role of trees not just in “the world” but was able to understand how it affected *his* world. 

In _Depletion and Abundance_ I wrote about the acute need to get our children into relationship with nature – but not nature out somewhere in the distance, but the complex, sometimes damaged and grubby but very real nature that they are embedded in:

“…we have to preserve nature in our man-made landscapes.  We must, in some literal and metaphorical way open up the boundaries of the enclosures and let our children out into their own world.  We cannot expect our children to be attached to a nature that is majestic, transcendent, and “over there somewhere.”  If they are to be invested in the preservation of their future, they must grasp that nature is them – it is their world, their lawn, their garden, their park, their food, their soulds.  And they must get to know it in concrete, direct and real ways – both knowing about it and knowing it with hands and mouth and nose and body.”

For most of us, particularly those who don’t live as I do in rural settings, getting our kids out into our gardens may be one of the most urgent projects we can do.  Gene Logsdon wrote about gardening in _The Contrary Farmer_ that the garden is the “proving ground” for the farm.  He meant that gardeners try out many techniques that can be adapted to farm scale.  But it is also the proving ground for the new generation of farmers – if we are to scale up from 2% of the population involved in food production to the 10 or 20 or 30 percent we will need in the future, those farmers will come first from the garden.  Maybe even your garden.  And if we are to produce a world full of people concerned with a sustainable ecology, they will come from the garden ecology. 

I want my children to live in the garden – and that means welcoming them into it, making it accessible to them, setting them to work in it, helping them play there beside us while we dig or hoe.  I want them to dream in the garden, and of the garden, so even though it is twice as much work to plant with Asher’s help, we want him to help plant.  Last year when he was two, it was his job to take care of all the “baby” earthworms we uncovered – he would cover them up with a little bit of soil very carefully when the dirt turned them up. 

A child accessible garden starts at the dreaming stage, in winter.  Some books I really like about making children’s gardens and children’s playspaces are these:

_Great Gardens for Kids_ by Chris Matthews – A beautiful book with tons of great ideas for incorporating kids activities into the garden.  My older boys were immediately taken by the idea of a carnivorous bog garden, a daffodil maze, and the catmint cat basket. 

Sharon Lovejoy’s two books _Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots_ and _Sunflower Houses_ are terrific, filled with kid friendly ideas for gardening.  My kids loved the year we made a Pizza patch – a circular garden in the shape of a pie, with pizza topping plantings (including calendulas and marigolds for “cheese” along with the tomatoes, basil, eggplant and peppers).  My friend Alexandra has made a playhouse for her children out of sunflowers with morning glories trained across for the roof.  And this year, we’re planning a butterfly flower garden in the shape of a butterfly.

What about books for kids about gardens?  This time of year, storytime often features garden stories.  Here are some of our favorites:

_Weslandia_ by Paul Fleischman.  Wesley doesn’t fit into his mainstream culture, but he does pay attention at school and one summer, he decides that his summer project will be “to grow his own staple food crop – and found his own civilization.”  And believe it or not, he does – the strange weeds that show up in his garden plot turn out to have a myriad of uses.  This is just a flat out great book!

_A Kid’s Herb Book: For Children of All Ages_ by Lesley Tierra is one of my own favorite herb books, and a big hit with my kids.  While I admit, the stories are a little boring (12 variations on “finding the magic herb”), the book is generally very good.

_Eddie’s Garden and How to Make Things Grow_ by Sarah Garland is cute – my kids think the little sister who eats worms is hysterical.  Very good garden book.

_How Groundhog’s Garden Grew_ by Lynne Cherry is perhaps my single favorite children’s gardening book – lovely, lovely illustrations, and a great book.  Every kid could use this!

_A Gardener’s Alphabet_ by Mary Azarian – wonderful woodcut illustrations covering real things like “prune” and “arbor.”

_Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden_ by George Levenson.  Lovely, rhyming slightly mysterious introduction to the lifecycle of a pumpkin, that uber-kid plant. 

This is just a small selection of children’s garden books – there are many others and on my long to-do list is a full list of them. 

Ok, onto strategies for bringing kids into the garden.

 1. Start ‘em early.  I was running a CSA when the kids were babies, so we *had* to spend time out there – a lot of it.  They could play on the grass or in the playpen or in the dirt, but they had to get used to being out in the garden with us.  Just like you have to go to work, or do the dishes, the garden should be treated as fun, but essential from as early as possible.

 2. Make it kid friendly – this can be a pile of dirt and a spoon, or it can be elaborate play structures for their entertainment.  But think about how to make it friendly – can you draw hopscotch or foursquare on the sidewalk next to your garden beds?  Can you give them a garden of their own, or a section of yours?  What about a little fountain to give them water to play in?

3. Get them involved from the beginning – my kids love to look at seed catalogs with me, and have strong opinions about what flowers and herbs we should be growing.  We plan kid projects – we’ve done our pizza garden, an alphabet garden (a plant for every letter) and a three sisters garden, as well as other projects.

4. Assign garden chores.  Yes, I know some people will say “I came to hate the garden because my Mom made me hoe.”  So what?  I hated doing dishes when my Mom made me do them, but since they need doing, I went on to do dishes without whining.  Chores are a fact of life, and if you are getting your family’s food from the garden, they should be helping.  Little kids will love helping, while bigger kids may whine, they can still do their share.  Treating the garden as optional trivializes it.

5. Be out there together.  Make your garden space, however big or small, a place you live in.  That way, when the hummingbird comes to the feeder for the first time, or you see the first monarch, when the cherry tomatoes come ripe or the melons are ready for thumping, well, you’ll be together. 

6. Let them eat – encourage your kids to scavenge, plant lots of snackable things – this is what everbearing and alpine strawberries and cherry tomatoes are for.  But don’t underestimate your kids – when they are in the garden, they’ll try things they’d never touch on a plate.  So plant greens, edible flowers, anything and everything.  And when the peas all get devoured by the kids shrug and accept that it is a good thing.


Maximizing My Courtyard

Sharon February 5th, 2009

Wanna see a sketch of my place? Or part of it, anyway? #2009/02/creating-base-plan.html

 This is the courtyard of our property that I’ve been turning into a combination food forest and potted garden – Aaron made a sketch of it as an example of how to draw a useful base plan for your own garden.  One of my goals for this class is to really optimize our use of the space, which has several advantages:

1. It is much warmer than the rest of the property – it is a south facing space sheltered on three sides. In addition, the walkway and the cement slab porch soak up heat pretty nicely. 

2. It has the best soil on the property – it was trucked in for my husband’s grandparents garden, something I’ve written about here in this essay (“Sure as G-d Made Little Green Apricots”).  Not sure where they got it, but that stuff kicks ass compared to the heavier, wetter soil that came with the house.

3. It is right outside the kitchen door – and thus is is zone 1 in permaculture terms – the perfect space to put the things we need most.  There are glass doors (which I forgot to indicate to Aaron, thus screwing up his design) off the kitchen that go straight onto the slab porch.

 Here’s what I do with it so far, but I’ll gladly take suggestions.  Most of the large beds inside the enclosure now have tender fruit trees – two apricots, two dwarf peaches and two quinces.  Along with a bunch of Hansen’s Bush Cherries, a couple of hazels and a grapevine, (oh, and a spirea I can’t get out from the narrow space between the slab and the walkway, so its staying – very pretty) that pretty much takes up all the space I’ve got for larger plants.  But other than a lot of comfrey (underplanting the trees) , some bulbs and galliardas for pretty and pennyroyal run rampant (along with some ivy), my low plantings are more limited than they should be.

I run containers along the walkway and cover much of the slab with them.  The slab is also where indoor flats move in and out in springtime and where potted plants are put out in fall and then back in at night as the temps fluctuate.  Oh, and there’s a grill and a picnic table out there.

The two beds on the side are herb beds, made with cement blocks, one for herb teas and the other for culinary herbs.  I really love the cement block beds, because they’ll never rot (unlike the wooden ones we’ve got) and the little holes are great for planting pretty small plants – dianthus, johnny jump up, curly parsley, etc….

My goals are to organize the space better, especially the slab, which gets cluttered with my pots, to underplant more useful things (wild ginger, sweet woodruff and ramps underneath the shady apricots, alpine strawberries along the edges, and….?  And to do more vertical stuff – besides my grapevine I want another maypop and to make the cinnamon vine I have stop crawling over the slab ;-) .

In the long term, I’ve thought about insulating the slab and putting a greenhouse on it – but so far no money for that.

 Suggestions? Ideas?  What are you doing with your smaller spaces?


The Joys of the Container, or Why Lack of Soil Is No Barrier

Sharon February 5th, 2009

I’m an avid container gardener.  This may seem weird, given that I have literally acres of dirt on my farm, and yet, there are simply things that do better in containers for me than they do in the ground.  Containers provide a way of dealing with a host of garden problems, and, IMHO, are useful to all gardeners, whether you’ve got a balcony and stone stoop or a vast farm. 

Among the reasons I use containers:

1. To mimic soil conditions I don’t have – for example, I have a tough time growing any long carrots in my heavy soil – so I grow my carrots in containers which have just the perfect carrot soil.  This would also work for those who don’t have acidic enough soil to grow blueberries or who need other specific conditions.

2.  To heat up my plants more.  Where I live, in upstate NY in the hills, overnight temperatures often fall into the 50s (and sometimes 40s) in the summer. Peppers, eggplant and melons just plain don’t like cool nights.  Since containers heat up more in general, I find that I get better production from these plants.  The heat stress also gives me hotter peppers.  For those who don’t need more heat may not find this useful – at least in the summer.  On the other hand, a sunny, warm spot might be just what you need to overwinter an especially tender plant.

3. Beause I can put plants in places I couldn’t.  That means I can have morning glories twining up my mailbox (surrounded on three sides by concrete) and can pretty up my water barrels with snapdragons.  You can take advantage of your best sun exposure, even if there’s no dirt there, or make a place that would be unproductive fertile.  I also use containers to bring plants to my kids – putting cherry tomatoes and lambs ears where they play so they can nibble or pet.  And scent – well that’s still another reason – really fragrant plants deserve to be where we’re most likely to get the benefit from them.  And think about what could be done with all those city rooftops using containers?

4. To extend my season.  In pots on a glassed in porch, parsley, arugula, winter lettuce, scallions and bok choy will begin producing in March.  Nasturtiums seeded now on a sunny windowsill will start blooming by May, feeding both my need for color and my desire for peppery salads.  On the other end, the potted peppers, cherry tomatoes and eggplants I bring in will produce into December.  Sage, thyme, basil and mint will last all winter.  For those in hot climates, greens can be moved from warm spots to shadier and cooler ones, making the salad season longer.

5. To allow me to plant tender plants.  I have figs, bay and citrus trees and am mulling over a dwarf banana.  Lemon Verbena, scented geraniums, aloe, gotu kola, bacopa, zaatar, and Vietnamese coriander fill my windowsills.  And right now, my albutilon and begonias are flowering, brightening winter gloriously.   I’ve promised the boys a garden of carnivorous plants to be overwintered indoors as well.

I also find container gardening psychologically so *manageable* – that is, when the garden is full of weeds and merely facing it seems overwhelming, well, there’s no reason you can’t attend to one pot.  Deadheading one pot of flowers or planting herbs in a pot is a garden chore most of us can face, even on the hottest day.

Now what kills a lot of container gardening attempts is the problem of water – and on hot days, a plant might well need to be watered several times.  The best solution to this is the self-watering container, also known as an “earthbox.”  You can buy them or make them.  The definitive book on the subject is Ed Smith’s _Incredible Vegetables From Self-Watering Containers_.  It is worth looking at, because there are some specific strategies to be used.

Self-watering containers are essentially a pot within a reservoir pot, arranged so that nothing sits in water.  They can be made or purchased, but since my friend Pat Meadows has written a very clear and useful post on the subject here: #2008/02/growing-vegetables-in-self-watering.html I won’t duplicate the information.  The pots are not difficult to make at all, and you can play with the techniques a little.

Pat is one of the most knowledgeable people out there on the subject of container gardening – she used to sell seeds for container gardens, and she now moderates the Edible Container Gardening list, which has almost 2000 people on it.  If you are interested in subscribing, you can do so by sending an email to:[email protected]  The group is an amazing resource.

If you live in a cooler place, or are prepared to water often, regular containers are great – in fact, some things do better in regular containers than the SWCs - herbs like thyme and oregano, nasturtiums and hot peppers (Smith says hot peppers do fine, but he doesn’t actually seem to like to eat them – since water stress makes peppers hotter, if you are an actual chile head, you won’t want to use SWCs).  You can use anything that hasn’t been used for something toxic as a container – we grow plants in old boots, in cooking pots with holes – after a while, everything is a potential garden pot.   

Here are some recipes for potting mixes:  If you buy peat, make sure it is harvested from an area that is not under ecological stress.  I don’t recommend vermiculite at all – breathing it in isn’t good for you.

For fertility, if you are using regular containers, you should remember that you’ll be washing out a lot more fertility than you would be with other plants, and fertilize often.  My own personal fertility plan is to add plenty of worm compost, greensand and a good organic fertilizer mix (make your own or purchase – more on fertilizers later in the class), and to fertilize alternately with compost tea, and human urine diluted 1/10.  To be safe, I don’t use urine within a week of harvest – although there’s very little risk unless you have leptospriosis (at which point you’ve got other problems: see my post “Free Nitrogen – Comes With Handy Dispenser!).

What can you grow in containers?  Almost anything, if you have a big enough container, up to and including small trees.  Realistically, smaller varieties are generally easier to grow.  I’m a big fan of “Red Robin” tomatoes, “Fish” hot peppers and “Little Fingers” Eggplant in containers, but really you’d be stunned at what you can grow in a pot.  I love to mix herbs and flowers and vegetables together – there is nothing like “bright lights” chard mixed with parsley and dianthus, or an artichoke underplanted with purple vining petunias spilling over the sides.  The art of edible container gardening makes it a delight.

I’d encourage everyone to expand their growing space with containers whenever possible.  It is easy to think that pots can only grow a little – but that little bit adds up.