Gardening to Save Your Life

Growing Food in Hard Times

by Sandy Swegel

My heart is breaking this week with the stories coming out of Venezuela of severe food shortages and 5000 ordinary people looting food warehouses on Wednesday because they and their families were starving. They are right to be desperate. At the end of April, the government announced it only had a 15-day inventory of food left. The president has suggested people should grow their own food and maybe keep some chickens. That’s not very likely in the ultra-urban capital city of 5.4 million people in Caracas.

Venezuela’s problems are mostly political and socioeconomic, exacerbated by the fact that they import most (65-80% depending on who is counting) of their food. Once an agricultural nation, they shifted most land to the easy money of oil production. Now as oil prices have dropped significantly, there’s no money left to pay to import food.

 

Which all led me to some serious questions.

Could I grow enough food to save my life if our groceries shelves went empty?

Do I know enough about growing food that I could teach desperate neighbors to grow their own food in small urban areas?

Assuming I couldn’t purchase seeds or fertilizer, could I really grow a zero import garden?

It is frustrating when there is news of famine and human beings starving in the world. Most of the time it’s political. Increasingly, climate change has brought on severe drought. We have all come to hate the evening news with the latest story of suffering in the world. What can we do?

 

We can educate ourselves more. We can learn to grow food really well. For me this year, I’m going to focus on learning more about growing high calorie and high protein foods. I’ve grown potatoes and onions a couple of times with mediocre production and figure it’s cheaper to buy those and use my garden for more kale. But a hungry community needs calories and needs protein.

My goals this year are to get better at growing potatoes and dry beans…foods for survival.

What can you learn this year in case one day you had to feed yourself and teach others?

If you need a place to start to learn, this book is a great way to start:

Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times

Photocredits
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/09/on-urban-farms-a-sense-of-place/26675/

 

Growing for Chickens

What to grow for your chickens

By Sandy Swegel

Reading our Facebook posts lately on how yummy eggs from backyard chickens are got me thinking about what makes homegrown eggs taste so much better than store eggs.

A varied diet helps a lot. Commercial chickens pretty much get a straight corn-based diet with vitamins and minerals added in. Happy home chickens can still eat commercial food, but they usually get lots of food scraps too. That’s when the eggs start tasting better. When the chickens get lots of protein like bugs and worms, that’s when the eggs get really good.

Here’s what my chickens love:

Kitchen Scraps

Any and all scraps go to the chicken. Even meat if it is cooked. (The shocking secret I learned about chickens is that their favorite food is chicken….especially the scraps from fried chicken.) Chickens aren’t terribly smart in general, but they are savvy about food. If something is moldy or too full of pungent foods like onions, they just scratch it aside looking for bits of fruit or tomatoes or meat. Their favorite foods are things kids like. Noodles are a big hit. So are cherry tomatoes.

Weeds and Garden Waste

All the crab grass, dandelions, seed heads, dock leaves, grass clippings, etc go into the chicken run. They go for the greens and seeds first and push the other stuff around. Grass is apparently yummier in the Spring than in mid-summer when they just look at me and say “Meh.”

Bugs

This is the best secret to having delicious eggs….lots of proteins especially from living crawling things. All those kitchen scraps and weeds that don’t get eaten get raked into the corner and turn into compost with lots of earthworms. At some point in their random scratching, the chickens figure this out and turn the compost pile with great delight. Somehow plenty of earthworms manage to survive. I throw in extra bugs too: slugs, cabbage worms, box elder bugs, maggots, anything I don’t want in the garden. One other icky-to-think-about critter they really love to eat are mice.

Spent beer grains

Our local breweries put out their spent grains and hops for farmers and gardeners to recycle. These grains are usually a bit fermented which makes the chickens very very happy. The fermentation adds extra nutrition, happy, slightly drunken chickens make delicious eggs.

More greens

My chickens have to stay in a fenced run because of the large number of foxes and coyotes in our area. So I plant food all around the edges of the run so they can reach their heads through the fence to nibble but not actually destroy the plants by pulling them up. Currently growing are comfrey, chard (their favorite, I think they like the salt), kale, and wild grasses and dandelions (they like the flowers).

So plant for your chickens and they will reward you with the best-tasting eggs and lots of entertainment.

Photo credits:
http://www.urbanfoodgarden.org/main/composting/composting—compost-bins-in-chicken-run.htm

Kelp: A Gardener’s Best Friend

Why to Use Kelp in Your Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Our local garden club invited a rose expert from Jackson and Perkins to give us some winter inspiration this week. Rose growers are like tomato growers….they have their own little secrets and rituals to make their roses the best and the biggest. Our expert showed us pictures from his own garden that made me a believer in kelp. His plants treated with kelp and fertilizer were bigger and more robust than plants treated with just fertilizer If you are going to use soil amendments in your garden, kelp should be at the top of the list right after organic fertilizer.

So what does kelp offer?

Sea Minerals.
Kelp and other seaweeds are good sources of trace minerals that are often deficient in ordinary garden soil. So kelp is a good ingredient as a fertilizer…but not a substitute for your regular fertilizer.

Plant Growth Hormones.
OK, this is the real reason gardeners love kelp. Its natural plant growth hormones (cytokinins) stimulate extra growth in our plants and in our soil microbes. This is the “secret weapon” part of using kelp in your garden. Kelp stimulates roots, plant growth, flower production by virtue of the hormones even more than because of the vitamins and minerals.

Plant Health and Resilience.
Plants treated with kelp showed more drought resistance and bug resistance. Aphids, in particular, don’t like the taste of kelp and avoided kelp sprayed leaves. Anecdotally, I have found that a kelp foliage spray reduces powdery mildew.

How to Use Kelp

Kelp comes as kelp meal and as a liquid. An interesting thing about kelp is that when you apply kelp changes what kelp does for your plant. If you want sturdier roots, add kelp meal when planting to stimulate root growth. If you want more flowers on roses or tomatoes, apply it as a spray when your plants were budding. (Thanks researchers from the marijuana industry for these studies.) Some tomato growers use kelp weekly once tomatoes start to flower. If you are trying to improve your soil, apply meal or liquid to the soil once soil temperatures are above 60 or so when soil microbes are active. I like to use a weak kelp liquid spray weekly during hot spells in summer and spray all over the tops and undersides of leaves. It perks the plants up and gives the garden a lovely ocean smell. Plants absorb kelp better through leaves than through roots.

How Not to Use Kelp

More kelp isn’t better than small amounts of kelp. Don’t just throw it on your garden thinking more is better. Think about what effect you want. Do you want more tomatoes? Then applying kelp when the tomato is growing leaves but not making flowers yet will give you more leafy growth, not more tomatoes. On the other hand, a little kelp spray on your greens will increase the number and vitality of leaves.

Do Your Own Experiment
If you are going to add kelp to your repertoire, try a science experiment. Select a plant that you give kelp to and one a little further away that doesn’t get kelp. Do they behave differently?

Cabbage and Clover Husbandry

Cover Crop Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

St Patrick’s Day is this week…a traditional day for planting peas. But you know that….so get ready to plant your peas. This year I’m thinking about Ireland and two plants usually associated with Ireland: cabbage and clover (not necessarily the four-leaf variety.) A little internet browsing led to an interesting connection to these two plants. One…they both like to grow in cool humidity like Spring and Fall. Cabbage is a cool season crop. Two… old country wisdom and modern science show that cabbage and clover are excellent companion crops.

Books in England dating back to the 1700s recommend cabbage “Husbandry” the old word for farming. Cabbage was highly regarded because it lasted well as a stored food for winter and because cows and sheep that ate cabbage in the winter made sweeter milk than those that ate turnips. Standard practice in England in the olden days was to plant a clover cover crop and follow that with cabbage or potatoes. Turns out that cabbage that grows in clover or where clover had been grown and tilled under are larger and have significantly fewer pests included the cabbage looper. Cabbage moths are still the bane of cabbage growers. Modern no-till farmers have adopted this centuries-old wisdom to plant cabbage right into a field of clover.

 

Besides being good for cows and sheep, cabbage is healthy for us and a staple in many cuisines. I am particularly fond of the red cabbages because they are pretty! Here are a few tips to grow cabbage:

It’s a cool season crop.
That means you have to get it in early. Or plant it in mid-summer for fall harvest.

They do well from transplants.
Start seeds indoors or in a cold frame 8 weeks before last Spring frost. Then transplant it about 2-4 weeks before last Spring frost. Cabbage is a “heavy feeder” so you need good soil or extra fertilization and regular irrigation.

Watch out for pests.
Cutworms and cabbage loopers love cabbage too…but they are pretty easy to pick off if you stay after them. Little paper collars protect transplants from the cutworms. If you don’t like to pick off the worms, it is good organic control.

Cabbage makes great microgreens.

Cabbage germinates in about two days in your warm kitchen. Another superfood from the brassica family.

 

For more on the science of winter-sowing clover and cabbage and other brassicas
http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/IP-27.pdf
http://www.modernvictorygarden.com/apps/blog/show/2015631-in-praise-of-cabbages
http://microgardening.newearthmicrogreens.com/red-cabbage-microgreens-vitamins/

Mini EZ Hoop House

Gardening Tips

by Sandy Swegel

 

Do you have little hoop houses in your garden? If no, Why Not?

They are super easy and there are hundreds of DIY plans on the internet.

Judging from the number of articles in garden magazines on DIY hoop houses, everyone is very interested in these. But looking at gardens around town, no many people get around to using them.

 

You can be different.

Mini Hoop houses or low tunnels will give you an extra month of growing right now.

Your seeds will germinate better.

You’ll have fewer flea beetles and other pests.

You’ll worry less about watering.

Here’s my five-minute hoop house:
6 pieces of 2 ft rebar
¾ “ irrigation hosing cut into 5 foot sections.
Plastic cover. (I get leftover scraps from a nearby market farmer, but painter’s plastic will work for a year or two.) Simple row cover works too. Or plastic wrapping from a mattress. It doesn’t take much to keep all that heat from escaping.
Old bricks or rocks to hold down the plastic.

 

 

 

Here are some super simple designs to inspire you.

http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/low-tunnel-construction-mini-hoop-house.aspx

The best part about the popularity of mini hoop houses or low tunnels is that you can now buy pre-made, fold up tunnels for less than $25 at garden centers, hardware stores or online

Really, the garden wants you to come out and grow your own food. It’s really easy to get a head start!

Jumpstart your Lettuce Garden

Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

Our new tricolor blend of romaine lettuces has me itching to get my salad garden started. I like Romaines because they are especially nutritious, comparable to kale. And I like this blend because it’s shiny and colorful. There’s a lovely gloss to the colorful Romaines that looks beautiful in the garden and on the plate. I want my food pretty!

OrgLettuceRoamaineTri_BBB

It’s pretty easy to get lettuce ready to eat earlier than your standard growing season. If you’re either busy or lazy (or both as I often am) there are some almost no work ways to get your salad growing.

Almost No Extra Work: Row Cover

Direct seed as usual into your garden. Put a layer of row cover loosely over the area. Secure with anchors or with heavy rocks which will also capture a tiny bit of extra heat. The row cover alone will speed germinate the seeds if you have a spell of warmer weather. The row cover then will protect it if the warm weather is followed by frigid temps.

A Little Bit of Extra Work: Pots

Want to have lettuce even sooner? My friend Cathy seeds her lettuce in lightweight pots and brings them inside at night or when the weather is extreme. It’s easy for her because she has a south-facing sliding glass door and moving the pots in means sliding open the door and moving the pots two feet in or out. She has the extra satisfaction of going to the Farmer’s Market in April where market farmers are selling similar pots for $25.

Invest Work for the Future: Cold Frames

Cold frames are an awesome way of having more of your own fresh food. They do take some time and money….but you will quickly make up that investment with what you save on fresh greens.

Work like a Farmer for Lots of Lettuce: Plugs

Growing your own lettuce plugs is one way to get a garden of lettuce without thinning or empty spots. Start your seeds under lights in plug trays that you can plant out when it’s a bit warmer. Very satisfying to have a full evenly-space plot of lettuce plants in the hour or so it will take you to plant out the entire plug tray (100-200 plants).

http://wcfcourier.com/lifestyles/home-and-garden/gardening/lettuce-plant-some-frilly-fun-veggie-can-be-grown-in/article_2a856188-c725-5af2-960d-9fd1d89f4896.html

http://thefoxplot.com/tag/beekeeping/

Grow Watercress Indoors

Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

Watercress is another one of those unassuming plants, almost weedy, that is a superfood for humans. In the brassica family, watercress (Nasturtium officianale) is rich in vitamins, minerals (especially calcium) and sulfides. It’s not just for watercress sandwiches and tea. It is a great addition to salads as either sprouts or leaves, excellent juiced or added to juices and makes a lovely pureed spring soup. And pretty yummy just for nibbling.

Watercress is one of our new seeds for 2016 and it’s a great plant to start the growing season.Grow Watercress Indoors

 

How to grow Watercress indoors:

Sprouts
Watercress sprouts easily and you can grow it in a jar just like you do alfalfa seeds. Its spicy kick is great on sandwiches and salads.

Plants
Seeds are pretty easy to germinate…The biggest challenge in growing watercress indoors is that it needs to always be moist, especially during germination. You can accomplish this by starting the seeds in a small pot of clean potting mix and then setting the pot in a saucer of water. Misting is great or put a plastic cover over the seed mix if your air is dry. Someplace slightly warm like the top of the frig is a great germination spot. They don’t need light to germinate.

 

Once the seeds are going, you just need to be sure the plants are moist with fresh water. Think about their ideal natural habitat in Europe: slow-moving creek edges in bright shade. Some people grow them in water tanks with aerators if you want to get fancy.

One secret to tasty watercress is to keep the growing plant cool and out of hot sun and to harvest it before it flowers. After flowering, the leaves become more bitter.

 

Grow Watercress Indoors in late winter it is such a promise of Spring. But it doesn’t need to be an indoor plant. After your weather warms to above freezing, you can plant your watercress outside if you have a place that stays pretty moist. If you have a pond or fountain the watercress is thrilled living in a pot in about an inch or two of water along the edge. I’ve seen it in a shade pot with impatiens and it was pretty happy.

And once you have nice succulent leaves, watercress, slivers of cold cucumber and butter on thin white bread is actually pretty awesome.

 

Photo Credits
http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/watercress/growing-watercress-in-pots.htm

http://eathealthylivefit.com/2014/09/the-health-benefits-of-watercress/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_Chess

 

 

Best Wildflower Seed Mixes

Organic Heirloom Vegetable Seed

Wildflower and Grass Mixes

Plant Some Mustards

Certified Organic Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

Did you have fungus problems in your garden this year? Maybe powdery mildew on the squash? Or fungal blight on the tomatoes? One very natural way to treat your soil (rather than try to kill the fungus once it’s on next years’ leaves) is to plant some mustards. Mustard planted now or in early spring, and then cut up and turned into the soil, acts as a “biofumigant” that can kill the unhealthy fungus that has made a home in your soil.

A big plus of planting it now is that you might get cute little plants now that will be a lush cover crop for winter. Some mustards turn a pretty purple once it gets cold. Some plants will die if you are in a very cold or dry area, but often mustards manage to survive and put out yellow flowers in Spring that are excellent first foods for bees.

Another excellent reason to plant mustards now is that just a few spicy leaves go a long way to making a salad interesting. I especially like the curls of the Japanese mustard mizuna. Mizuna pairs beautifully with the richness of feta cheese, some red onions, and a sweeter vegetable like cucumber. Yesterday a friend served a wonderful mustard salad with the last red raspberries of the year.

 

 

Photo credit: foodandstyle.com/mizuna-and-cucumber-salad-with-red-onions-feta-tarragon-and-champagne-vinaigrette/
http://www.megaminifarm.com/gardening/growing-mustard-greens/

Fall Equinox

What Fall Equinox Means for your Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Fall Equinox is upon us which suddenly spurs me to lament all the gardening I didn’t get done this year. In particular, I don’t have much of a winter garden growing. Am I going to have to start buying store-bought greens? I thought maybe I could outsmart Mother Nature by using row cover and soil heating cables to get some lettuces and kales going, but a farmer friend broke the bad news to me. Can’t be done. Sure I can get some growth. But lettuce and other greens are affected more by photoperiodism, than heat. Huh? I asked. She said Farmers know to get all their Fall and Winter plants going well before Fall Equinox because once the days start getting shorter, plants don’t grow as vigorously. (This, of course, doesn’t apply if you are further South where your days stay longer.) The farmer said I can get the lettuce to grow, but I won’t have the vigor and growth I need to provide myself with enough food for Fall into Winter. Lettuce is what they call a “long-day” plant. This is also the reason, more so than heat, that lettuce goes to seed in the middle of summer….because the days are long.

Who knew? Well, farmers and people who live off the land know. They start their winter lettuce in late summer.

Besides me, there’s another group of people who want to outsmart Mother Nature. Astronauts. One of the obstacles to living in space and inhabiting other planets is food. NASA has run food experiments on the Space Station for years, but now for the first time, astronauts are growing their own lettuces to eat instead of just to experiment on. What a treat for them instead of all those dried space foods.

Photo credit
http://collectspace.com/
http://gardenofeaden.blogspot.co.uk/2009/09/how-to-grow-winter-lettuce-from-seed.html

 

 

BBB Seed

Best organic heirloom vegetable seed

Wildflower Seed

Grass and Wildflower Mixes

Start your Seeds…Again.

Why You Need to Restart Your Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

This time it’s going to be a lot easier. You don’t need lights and cold frames. You don’t even have to use trays and little pots. You can start your seeds again and put the seeds directly into the earth.  You don’t need much time.  Seeds germinate in warm soil really fast. All you really do need this time of year is water.  Seeds you start mid-summer are at risk of germinating and then drying out, so you have to remember to sprinkle them daily and keep the soil moist.  But that’s about it.

  1. Why Start Seeds Now?

The least romantic reason is to Save Money.
The second least romantic reason is to Save Time.
The romantic reason is Beauty and Abundance.

Veggies


Lettuces. In most gardens, your lettuces and even spinach have bolted and gone to seed.  You’re probably trying to salvage individual leaves here and there, but they are pretty bitter because of the heat.  Seeding new beds will give you young sweet leaves and plants that will feed you well into Fall and even Early Winter.

Cold Hardy Greens.

The key to being able to eat out of the winter garden is to have big plants with enough leaves to feed you all winter.  Chards and Kale and Spinach seeded now will be big enough come to Fall that even in cold climates you can pile leaves on them and harvest from under the snow.  But you need big plants because come October and November the plants aren’t going to be re-growing much.

Peas.

Peas germinate and grow easily this time of year.  By the time they reach maturity, the chill of Fall nights will make them sweet and yummy.  In Colorado we kind of got cheated out of our peas this year because it became so hot so fast, the peas dried up.  But we have a second chance.

Root crops.

Carrots and beets planted in summer have time to grow to maturity and wait in the soil until cooling Fall weather turns them into sugar. As long as the ground isn’t frozen solid, you can continue to harvest delectable root veggies that taste much better than the spring and summer harvests.

Herbs.

Parsley and thyme are among the many herbs you can harvest all year.  Thyme can be frozen solid.  Even parsley that has frozen will plump and be bright green on warm sunny winter days.

Perennials

You know the adage about perennials. First, they sleep, then they creep, then they leap.  Perennials need their first year to establish roots and many don’t even make flowers until the second year.  Perennials that you seed now will still consider this their first year and then be ready to bloom next year.  If you wait until next Spring to plant perennial seed….you won’t get flowers until 2016.  Planting perennials is one of the most thrifty things you can do in your gardens.  Foxglove and lupines are both underused magnificent bloomers in gardens.  And they can easily cost $8 each in garden centers. You can have dozens and dozens of them blooming next year if you seed now.  All those flowers for cutting you’ve always wanted — daisies and echinacea and rudbeckia – they are simple from seed. One packet of seed will give you dozens and dozens of flowers next year.

So save an entire year of time by planting perennial seeds now. And save a bundle of money by growing your own perennials and by having greens you can pick from for the next six months.

 

Photo credit:  www.modernfarmer.com

 

 

 

Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

Wildflower Seed Mixes

Grass Seed Mixes