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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!

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Great Reading

Back In Time: 3 Spring Gardening Posts

As I take a step away to rejuvenate at a retreat called “Media That Matters”, I thought I would revisit some old posts that some of you may have missed.

Since there are some brand new gardeners to The Growing Challenge, I thought I’d start with basic gardening.

Tomato Seedlings On WindowsillScarlet Runner Beans

My Top 12 Easy Vegetables To Grow From Seed

Learn what “in situ” vs. “ex situ” are, and why one might be easier to grow than the other!  Plus beautiful photos of my top 12 favorites to grow.  AND see a beet as big as my mother’s head – can’t beat that!   My Top 12 Easy Vegetables To Grow From Seed

Baby Lettuce

Gardening 101: Seed Starting For Beginners

I go over a few different ways you can start seeds, and try to make it as easy as possible for new gardeners.  Let me know if you have any questions via email or comment!  Seed Starting For Beginners

    The First 5 Steps To Growing a Vegetable Garden

    How I make choices about what to plant where, and when.  Planning Your Garden Your Own Way

      Please Share Gardening Resources for Those Of Us Just Beginning!

      Where did you first turn for gardening information?  What was most helpful for you?

       

      How To Plant, Grow, and Prune Blueberries

      I just planted two blueberry bushes in my community garden plot. When I was researching how to care for them, I found this fabulous video I thought some of you all would enjoy.

      More Blueberry Information

      Blueberries are rich in antioxidants, fabulously tasty, and the plants beautiful in summer and winter (look for varieties whose leaves and/or turn yellow or red wood in the winter). Here is a blueberry growing guide (PDF) for additional information, a great post on how to prune blueberries, and more detailed instructions for pruning (PDF).

      Where To Find Your Last Frost Date

      It’s about time to plant your garden for summer crops!!  Well, in most places in North America, that is…

      If you’re planting seeds or starts, you’ll need to know around when your last frost might be. Planting out too early can mean a disappointing beginning of the season.

      There are things you can do to protect hardy seedlings and plants from frost.  However, if you plant seeds too early your seeds and/or seedlings likely to rot from cold and wet, die in a frost or freeze, or at the least take a very long time to germinate – and with low rates of germination.

      Where Do You Find Last Frost Information?

      United States

      For the United States, the most comprehensive information comes from the National Climatic Data Center. There, you’ll be able to download a PDF showing many cities in your state, and the probability of light frost, heavy frost, or freeze (36, 32, and 28 °F).

      They also have the same information in map form, if that is more helpful.

      Other resources:

      Weighing The Risks

      Each of these resources will have different dates (as the Cheap Vegetable Gardener points out), plus this is the average last frost date – which means sometimes it happens earlier and sometimes it happens later, and there are always outlying years.

      As a result, you’ll have to weigh the risks and decide for yourself.  But at least these will give you more information upon which to measure those risks!

      If you’ve taken a chance and planted a bit early, you can monitor any frost/freeze advisories on Weather.com or your local news station.

      Other Areas Of The World

      I had a tough time finding information for other areas, so if you have a resource please let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to the list!

      Do You Have Other Resources?

      Please share – thanks!

      What Fertilizer Do You Use for Tomatoes and Peppers?

      Kevin’s Question…

      Hi Melinda,

      I appreciate the information you provided on your website about how to pollinate tomatoes and peppers.  Thank you.

      Currently I am using Miracle Grow as a fertilizer… (I know…BOOOO!  HIIISSS!)…but I am hoping to move away from that once I feel more comfortable with my abilities as a gardener.

      What is a more natural substitute and does this subsititute provide similar results to Miracle Grow?

      I would appreciate your thoughts on this matter.  Thank you.  :)

      Take care,
      Kevin

      I just received this email this morning, and thought I could throw it out to all of us to answer:  As you’re planning your gardens for Spring in the Northern Hemisphere (or putting them to bed in the Southern Hemisphere)…

      What Do YOU Use to Feed Tomatoes and Peppers??

       

      How To Amend The Soil In Your Whole Garden For $20 Or Less

      There are five very cheap ways to amend your garden soil.

      1.  Create Your Own Compost Bin

      If you have the space in your garden, for very little money you can compost your own kitchen waste, grass and garden clippings, and leaves.  In a 4′x4′x4′ container, include half “brown” materials – straw, leaves, newspaper and other dry things – and half “green” materials -  grass, food waste and other new materials.

      Compost Bin

      Add lots of water, turn occasionally (every 3 days to 3 weeks, depending on how fast you want it to decompose), and wait (2 weeks to 4 months, depending on the weather, how often you turn it, and what you’ve included in the pile).

      2.  Create Your Own Worm Bin

      A friend of mine is going to show me how to do this soon, so I’ll post about this soon.  But in the meantime, if you looking for a smaller-scale way to recycle your kitchen scraps into luscious soil-amending goodness, check out Patti’s video:

      3.  Lasagna or In Situ Composting

      In Situ Composting. This is the lazy gardener’s compost method.  Here’s what I do:  I line my garden paths with straw.  As I’m weeding and cleaning up the garden, I throw everything into the path, on top of the straw.  You can also add food scraps, but be aware that animals might come find them so choose cautiously.  The paths will begin to decompose, rain and excess water from watering will keep it moist.

      By next year, the paths will decompose and you can turn in the soil a bit and move your path to a new spot.  Keep in mind that you can only use weeds that haven’t gone to seed, because this method doesn’t get compost hot enough to kill the seeds.

      Lasagna/Sheet Mulch Gardening. Another lazy gardener’s compost method, essentially you create a 2′ tall compost pile all over your garden, alternating green and brown in each lasagna layer.  If you do this in the fall, by spring you should be able to plant in rich soil!  I looked for a good video to show you, but the above is the best I could find – it helps, anyway!

      4.  Plant Cover Crops

      Fall or spring, you can plant cover crops – there are a plethora of options.  Crimson clover (above) is one of my favorites, because it’s beautiful and brings a lot of nitrogen and organic matter into your soil.  Peaceful Valley has some of the best resources – their Fall catalog has an amazing grid listing all their compost crops with each one’s benefits.  However, if you find cover crops locally, you’re likely to happen upon ones that work best in your area.

      5.  Let Your City Do It For You

      Big Truck, Little Truck

      A good portion of local municipalities now have compost programs that work with your regular garbage pick-ups.  Every Spring, we go get a truckload full for $10-20, depending on how big a load we want.

      It is a lot of exercise to bring in a whole truck load of compost at a time – but with two people, a shovel and a wheelbarrow, you can unload it and mix it into your soil in 2-3 hours.  And you feel really strong and well-exercised the next day!

      Which Method Do You Use?

      How have you amended your soil in the past?  Will you try something new this year?

      Hay Is For Horses, Straw Is For Mulch

      I love using straw for mulch – it’s cheap, breaks down easily, provides a nice cushion along garden paths, and extra bales are wonderful seats in the garden.

      Most feed stores will sell both hay and straw, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the feed store and questioned myself about whether or not I was getting the right one.  I’ve noticed that many garden blogs use the two terms interchangeably, but they are ABSOLUTELY AND UTTERLY NOT THE SAME.  Gardeners beware!

      Hay Is For Horses by Montanabw on Wikipedia

      Hay? No Way! Hay Is For Horses!

      Hay.  Hay is for horses… and pigs and cows and goats.  In the store it’s often a bit greener than straw.  Hay has SEEDS in it.  So unless you want to grow hay all over your garden, don’t buy hay for mulch.  Hay?  No Way!

      Straw by Adamantios on Wikipedia

      Straw Is For Mulch

      Straw is a by-product of the wheat, oat, rye, or barley industries.  After the seeds have been threshed and sold, the dry husks are bundled up and sold as straw.  Straw, therefore, is without seeds.  Straw saves seedlings.  Straw is for mulch!

      Any Questions?

      Have you made the mistake of using hay?

      How To Save Vegetable Seeds - Part 1

      Alright, I’m flat out admitting it:  I took on a bit too much the past few days!  So in light of our new Growing Challenge Evangelist Edition, I thought I would syndicate an oldie but goodie here.  Which reminds me that I never did write a How To Save Vegetable Seeds – Part 2.  I’m on it… Next week!


      Magic Beans:  Runner beans and lima bean

      Since those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are beginning to order our seeds and plan our gardens, here is a list of things you need to know about each of your crops if you’re planning to save seeds this year.

      Species

      This is probably the most important bit of information you need to know when seed saving. Generally speaking, cross-pollination can occur between different plants from the same species.

      What confused me in the past was that within a Family, there may be several species. For instance, in the Leguminosae (ie, Legume) Family, there are 12,000 different species. So I can simultaneously grow pigeon peas, runner beans, and lima beans, for example, and save seeds from each of them – they will not cross-pollinate because they are different species! As you can imagine, learning can considerably widen the breadth of what you can plant at the same time.

      Pollination Method

      1. Insect-pollinated plants are generally plants that have male and female flowers on the same plant. Squash plants are easy illustrations of this: you have the female flowers that have a mini-squash (“ovary”) at their base, and male flowers that do not. Depending on the species, these crops can be pollinated by honeybees, bumblebees, other bees, moths, butterflies, wasps, flies, and/or hummingbirds.
      2. Self-pollinating plants have male and female flower parts within the same flower – these are called “perfect” flowers (ha, if only we were all so perfect!). Generally you only need one plant to create seeds from these plants. However, some of these are self-incompatible, which means they can only be pollenized by an insect or wind that carries pollen from another plant. And some of these, such as tomatoes and peppers, are greatly aided by wind- and insect-pollination.
      3. Wind-pollinated plants are plants that rely on wind for pollination, such as corn, spinach, and many grains.

      All three of these have the potential for cross-pollination. This means if you want to save seeds from these plants, you must isolate them from other plants in the same species.

      Isolation

      1. Physical isolation. Isolation distance is the distance a plant needs to be away from another plant of the same species in order to keep from cross-pollinating. However, in many instances you can isolate plants artificially by putting one plant in a greenhouse or wire cage, or covering the flowers with plastic, cloth, or wire mesh. In this case you must hand-pollinate any wind- or insect-pollinating plants.
      2. Temporal isolation. If you want to grow more than one variety, plant the first one as early as you possibly can. When that plant starts to flower, you can sow seeds for the second variety. This works only if the second crop reaches its flowering stage after the first crop has already set its seeds and stopped shedding pollen.

      Population Size

      Always attempt to grow as many plants as you can in your garden, in order to preserve a wide range of genetic diversity within each crop. If you can only plant a few plants, you can hand-pollinate between your most vigorous plants in order to maintain maximum diversity within your crop. Make sure that when you are saving seeds, you save seeds from several different fruits.

      Even if you are selecting for certain characteristics that you’d like to bring out within your next crop, a good rule of thumb is to focus on the plant, not the fruit.

      Annual, Biennial, or Perennial

      1. Annuals produce seed within the same year that they are germinated. Once the seed is produced, the mother plant dies.
      2. Biennials produce seed the year after they are germinated. Once the seed is produced, the mother plant dies. These can be the most difficult seeds to save – particularly in the North, as the plants have to be overwintered. Mulch can protect them, but if your area is particularly cold you may have to bring your plant indoors, cover it in a cold frame, or dig, store, and then replant the roots in the spring.
      3. Perennials generally produce seed every year, and live several years before the mother plant dies.

      Important Books

      How do you learn all of these qualities of your seeds? Read. Read the packets of seeds, read nursery websites, read Master Gardener information, read blogs and forums, read your gardening books, and read seed saving books. It’s an incredible experience to save seeds and grow them the following year, but it’s only incredible if you do it with the knowledge you need!!

      Other Great Resources

      Please, if you know of other resources, add them in the comments below!

      Where To Buy Seeds

      Lots of information here:

      Challenge Yourself:

      The Growing Challenge New! The Growing Challenge Advanced Edition – From Seed To Seed! The Growing Challenge: Evangelist Edition

      Please share any additional knowledge you have in the comments below!!