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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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The First Five Steps To Starting A Vegetable Garden

We have a lot of new readers, and several new gardeners signed up for the Growing Challenge Evangelist Edition, so I thought I’d make it easier for you new gardeners to begin!

The First 5 Steps to Starting A Fruit and Vegetable Garden

1.  Liberate yourself from what you think you’re supposed to do. This is your garden.  Yours! So rule number one in planting your garden is to forget what you’re supposed to do and do what you want to do.

2.  Make a list of the things you and your family love to eat fresh. Don’t limit yourself for this task, just write them down.  First on my list is actually fresh fruits like raspberries and peaches, followed by tomatoes, carrots, salad greens, and peppers.  So write down what you really enjoy eating when you buy it fresh from the market.  And also add fresh foods that you love to eat that are often too expensive for your budget.  I’d add blueberries, basil, and maybe fennel bulbs or saffron.

3.  Research the things on your list. A little knowledge now will make a HUGE difference later.  Look up:

  • Can you grow it in your area?  If so, is it easy to grow or really temperamental?
  • Can you buy the seeds, bulbs, or starts of the plant?  If not, maybe you can find an open pollinated variety at the farmer’s market or a local farm?
  • How much space does it take up?  If you have a limited space, are there smaller varieties or dwarf options available?

Let yourself cross off things that just seem too difficult, temperamental, or require too much time, space, or money to grow well.  You can spend some time at your local library, look everything up online, or buy a good gardening book or two.

4.  Plan your garden. First take your refined list and divide it into when you need to plant each crop:  research whether you plant it in the fall, winter, spring, or summer.  Many plants can be planted in several seasons, but some have a specific need for lots of warm days, or lots of cool days. Here’s a very fancy version:

Last Frost Date

You’ll likely find that most seed catalogs and gardening books will tell you to plant a certain number of days after the threat of last frost.  If you’re in North America, you can find your last frost by visiting Victory Seeds, Farmer’s Almanac (here for Canada), the National Climatic Data Center, calling your local master gardeners, or perusing your local newspaper archives.

Sketch Your Garden

Then draw a sketch of your garden.  It can be quite simple – you just need to know how much space you have, so you can fairly accurately plot out what will fit in your space.  And then start plotting!

Take into account size and how much light it needs when you’re deciding where to plot things. Again, here is a very fancy version which I created last year with some online software:

But really all you need is a pencil and a piece of paper.  It’s possible you’ll not be able to fit everything on your list, and that’s ok.  You will have to prioritize this year – you can always try it next year!!

5.  Begin to Buy Your Seeds and Plants! The more local you can source your seeds and plants, the better adapted they will be to your specific soil and weather.  I’ve created a list of my ten favorite catalogs (be sure to look at the recommendations in the comments as well), or you can visit your local nursery, farm, or farmer’s market.

Challenge Yourself!

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

Don't Forget To Water In The Winter!

We had a horrible cold spell  earlier this winter, with nearly unheard of lows. However, as I walked to work each morning, and visited our community garden, the biggest killer during that time was not frost nor freeze.  It was drought.

Lack of water combined with extreme temperatures is a sure way to kill even hardy perennials!  Whether dormant or not, plants need some water to survive the winter.  Plants spend the winter protecting themselves from the cold, and getting ready for spring.  (Even bulbs and root crops do this.)  They are still alive!

When You Need  To Water

There are several methods for measuring how much water your plants have received.

  1. Calendar Method. Keep a calendar of when it rains.  If it hasn’t rained or snowed in 3 weeks, or in 1 week that includes high winds, water!  Did I say snow? I did.  The rule of thumb is that one foot of snow has 1 inch of moisture.  1 inch in the winter will usually last about 3 weeks, or 1 week if the air is really dry from wind.
  2. Water Gauge Method. Measure the moisture.  You can buy a cheap water gauge in your local hardware store.  Stick it in the soil, and it will tell you how wet the soil is.  It should read moist but not wet.  If it reads dry, water.
  3. Soil Grab Method. If you hate calendars, and you hate gauges, dig down 8 inches or so.  Then grab a handful of soil, and press it together in your palm.  If it sticks together, it’s fine.  If water drips out, it’s definitely wet.  But if it doesn’t stick together, it’s too dry and you need to water.

If you live in an area where the ground freezes solid for months at a time (so frozen that it never thaws during the day), you may not need to water.  But be ready as soon as the soil begins to unfreeze during the day.  Frozen soil will still absorb water and dissolve the ice, which can help aerate the soil and make sure your plants are receiving enough water.  You’ll have to judge how frozen your soil really is.

If you have potted plants, be particularly watchful as they are more prone to freezing and more prone to drought.  They will dry out faster than plants in the ground, so if you use the calendar method, they should be watered once a week between rains.

What Time of Day to Water

Water in the late morning to early afternoon, preferably when the soil is nearing its warmest point of the day, so the soil has time to warm before the cool or freezing night temperatures.  It also helps to mix a bit of hot water with the tap water, so that the water is tepid rather than ice cold.

How To Water

A general rule for winter is to water when the soil is dry, and only water until the soil is moist, not wet.

Do not water leaves, stem, or trunk! Water the soil not the plant.  In other words, water where the roots are:  find the distance halfway between the stem or trunk and the outer reach of its branches.  Start watering from that point, and water in a circle all the way to the outer stretch of the branches.

Water when soil is dry and only water until soil is moist, not wet.  If you have drip irrigation, this is a good method.  Otherwise, a hose is fine.

Special Circumstances:  Dangers of Frost

There are a few other times when you might want to water.  If it is nearing your first frost, and you are trying to protect your tomatoes or other crops through the last few days before a hard frost kills them, water toward the end of the day.  The reason is this:  water evaporates at night, and as it evaporates it will slightly warm the air.  This might be just enough to keep your plants from frost late in the season.

The same circumstance might occur early in the season, when you’ve transplanted your seedlings thinking your last frost has come and gone.  But whoa, at the last minute you hear a frost warning coming your way.  Go water (unless the soil is already wet).  Avoid the stems, but go water.  Just a bit, to make the soil moist.  I find that watering with water that is slightly warm (just above tepid) helps quite a bit.

Houseplants, Too!

A dear reader wrote me recently to remind me to take care of my house plants.  She’d seen a photo of my apartment, and was saddened to see a bit of plant neglect (it’s true – when I get busy, I do forget them).  So same goes for your houseplants:  particularly in winter, when the insides are dry due to the heat being on, don’t forget to water your plants!

Any Other Tips, Tenured Gardeners?

Please add to this!

Amaranth, The Wonder Crop: Beautiful and Edible in Multiple Forms!

Amaranth in Mid-Season

Amaranth in Early Summer


This year I grew amaranth, a crop I’ve never grown nor seen grown before, in the hopes of planting it from seed and harvesting the seed to plant next year.  I’ll let you know how that went in a moment.  First…


Why Grow Amaranth


I received the seeds back in the spring, in a beautiful care package from Botanical Interests – they asked me to try out some of their new organic seeds and write about it.  This particular variety is Burgandy Amaranth, Amaranthus hypochondriacus.  As many of you know, I am incredibly busy starting my new business, so I’m always looking for low-maintenance things to grow and cook.  Ah, amaranth, I love you so!


  1. Salad Green: When it’s young, and the leaves are just a few inches long, it adds a wonderful color and flavor to salads.

  2. Cooking Green: When the leaves are more mature, they are a very nutritious spinach, often used in Indian, Chinese, Indonesian, Laotian, Malaysian, and Thai cuisines.  I’ve seen them called “Chinese Spinach” in our farmer’s markets here.  The leaves are a good source of including vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin B6, vitamin C, riboflavin, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese.

  3. Whole Protein Grain: When the plants are allowed to go to seed, the seeds themselves are one of the most complete proteins you can find.  And they’re free of gluten.  The seeds are 13-18% protein, according to Seeds of Change, with a high level of the amino acid lysine, an essential amino acid that is usually deficient in plant protein. Amaranth is also a good source of calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, vitamin E, and B vitamins.  You prepare it much as you would quinoa.

  4. Popping Grain: According to Botanical Interests, you can also pop the grain like popcorn.

  5. Dye: Apparently the leaves are also a good red dye, used by the Hopi Native Americans.
  6.  

How To Grow Amaranth


Did I mention it was easy?


  • Sow the seeds 1/4″ deep, 4-6″ apart in well-aged compost.  You can plant them directly in the soil after danger of frost has passed, or plant them indoors 4-6 weeks before your average last day of frost. Germination is best when soil temperatures are 65 to 75 degrees.
  • The seeds will germinate in as little as 3 days if your soil is warm and moist but not wet.  Every single one of my seeds grew, and grew fast!
  • Plants should be thinned 6-18″ apart eventually, before they start to compete with one another for light. (Eat the thinnings in a salad!)
  • This particular variety reaches 5-8 feet tall, no kidding.  You can interplant small greens or other shade-loving crops beneath them.
  • Amaranth is drought-tolerant, heat-tolerant, and disease-resistant.  You don’t need to water them more than about twice a week, even in high summer heat.


Seeds Forming in July

Seeds Forming in July


How To Harvest Amaranth Seed


Each head of amaranth holds tens of thousands of seeds, and will yield anywhere from 1 to 8 ounces of harvested seeds.  In warm, dry climates, harvesting amaranth is very easy.


Instructions from Seeds of Change:


Cut the seedheads just before they become dry and brittle. Lay the seedheads on a cloth or place them inside paper or cloth bags with heads down and leave in the shade to finish drying. When the seedheads are dry, the seeds can be removed in several ways: by rubbing gently with your hands, by enclosing the seedheads between two cloths and treading on top without shoes on, by beating the seedheads inside of a bag, or by beating seedheads together over a cloth.


Instructions from Salt Spring Seeds:


Amaranth keeps on flowering until hit by the first hard frost. Seed will often ripen many weeks before that, usually after about three months. The best way to determine if seed is harvestable is to gently but briskly shake or rub the flower heads between your hands and see if the seeds fall readily. (Numerous small and appreciative birds may give hints as to when to start doing this.) An easy way to gather ripe grain is, in dry weather, to bend the plants over a bucket and rub the seedheads between your hands.


Unfortunately for me, harvesting in wet climates is not as easy.


According to Salt Spring Seeds, “the best time to harvest amaranth commercially is in dry weather three to seven days after first frost.”  Since our amaranth fell over in the wind and rain of a typical Seattle fall, my mother and I harvested the seed long before it was dry, and hung it in the basement to dry.  I wish I had read the Salt Spring Seeds article before we did this: “Cutting and hanging plants to dry indoors does not work very well: the plants become extremely bristly and it is difficult to separate the seed from the chaff.”  Ooops.  We can verify that this is true.  Apparently until a killing frost, the plants have too high of a moisture content to be able to dry them before they become moldy.


Next year I think we’ll need to stake up the amaranth and continue to let it dry, and then hope for a drier fall!


Fallen Amaranth in November

Fallen Amaranth in November


Threshing The Seeds


The hulls of the seeds are in no way poisonous, and they are a fine source of fiber in your diet, so there is no need to get every last bit of hull out of our seeds.  We did save one head of amaranth in the ground, that is still waiting for the killing frost.  So there is hope for us yet.  Since we haven’t successfully harvested the seeds yet, I’ll thank Seeds of Change and Salt Spring Seeds for providing the following excellent instructions.


Instructions from Seeds of Change:


Once the dry seeds are removed they can be placed into a shallow bowl and swirled around until the large pieces of flowers rise to the top where they are easy to remove. By tipping the bowl you can rake out much of the chaff that is left. Any small particles of flowers, chaff, or dirt that remain can be removed by shaking the seed through a small mess screen about the size of window screen. Winnowing the seed in a light breeze will also remove the flower and chaff effectively. The seeds are very light so it is important to winnow carefully in light breeze only.


Instructions from Salt Spring Seeds:


My own preferred threshing method is to rub the flowerheads through screening into a wheelbarrow and then to blow away the finer chaff using my air compressor. Cutting and hanging plants to dry indoors does not work very well: the plants become extremely bristly and it is difficult to separate the seed from the chaff…


Here are two short videos that help show what this looks like:



Storing The Seeds


Instructions from Seeds of Change:


Once the seeds are dried and cleaned, it is a good idea to keep the seeds for several days at the temperature at which they will be stored, before putting them into a storage container. If the seeds do not feel damp and do not stick to each other during this time they are probably dry enough for storage. The length of time to dry seeds varies greatly depending on the air humidity, drying conditions, seed size, and how clean the seeds are. Store quinoa and amaranth as you would any type of cereal or grain in a sealed, airtight container out of direct sunlight and away from sources of heat.


Instructions from Salt Spring Seeds:


After harvesting, it is important to further dry your crop to ensure it won’t mold in storage. It can be left on trays in the hot sun or placed near an indoor heat source.  Stir occasionally until it is as dry as possible. Store seed in air-tight containers in a cool dry place.


Will I Grow It Again?


Yes!  Not only is it low-maintenance, nutritious, and tasty, but it is the best community-builder in the garden!  Almost every gardener wants to know what that gorgeous plant is, so it was a great conversation starter in our community garden.  Plus the Asian gardeners were excited to see us growing, and told us when to start harvesting the leaves for cooking greens.


Thanks, Botanical Interests, for pushing me to grow this fabulous plant.  There are 70 varieties of amaranth, so there are lots of varieties to try!


How To Plant, Grow, and Harvest Garlic

Garlic by robynejay on Flickr


When To Plant Garlic


You can plant from September through mid-January, as long as the soil is not frozen.  Fall planting, when the soil is around 60F, will yield the highest quality bulbs; and generally speaking, the later you plant the smaller the heads will be.  However, don’t worry too much if you plant it late – you can even plant it in late winter/early spring and still get a nice fall crop.


Types of Garlic


There are two types of garlic:  hardneck and softneck.


  • Hardneck Garlic tends to have dramatic and distinct flavors, is easy to peel, and has generally bigger cloves. These also produce edible garlic scapes at the beginning of the summer.  These are my favorite, but they generally don’t store for as long as softneck garlic.  Can be stored 3-6 months.


  • Softneck garlic is what you’ll find in most supermarkets – it generally has a milder flavor and smaller cloves.  However, it can be braided, and generally stores for much longer.  Can be stored for a year or more.

  • Elephant Garlic is actually a member of the leek family so it’s not really garlic, but tastes similarly.  It has much larger cloves, with a milder taste than garlic, and it keeps well.  Elephant Garlic is wonderful baked:  slice off the very top of the head so that you can see the tops of the cloves, pour a bit of olive oil on top, and bake until soft and browned.  Then you can eat it by scooping the cloves with a spoon, or adding the cloves to other dishes.

 

Soil

 

The looser the soil, the larger the garlic.  It will grow in most soils, but garlic prefers sandy loam (as most plants do).  Make sure any compost you use is well aged.

 

How To Plant & Grow Garlic


Simple, simple, simple, and so low maintenance!

 

  1. Separate the cloves (but you can leave the skin on, it doesn’t matter).
  2. Plant the cloves 1-2″ deep, 4-6″ apart.
  3. Water, and don’t water again until spring.
  4. Mulch – in warm winter areas, a light layer of mulch is enough; in colder winter areas, mulch with 8″ or more.  We mulch with straw, you can also mulch with leaves.
  5. Remove the mulch in spring, once danger of frost has passed.
  6. Water.  Continue to water whenever soil is dry.
  7. When the leaves begin to turn yellow (in the summer), stop watering for 2 weeks.
  8. Pull up the plant.
  9. Place the plant in a warm, shady spot to cure for 2-3 weeks (4 weeks for elephant garlic); if you have soft neck garlic, you can braid it and hang it in a dark place with good circulation.  (Ideal curing temperature is 70-75F.)
  10. Store in a cool, dark place (50F is ideal, with less than 60% humidity).

 

Where To Purchase Garlic Bulbs

 

You can grow organic garlic bought in a Farmer’s Market or natural foods store – anywhere that has well-stored, organic garlic.  Try to find out as much as you can about the garlic when you buy it, so you know how to store it the following year.  You can also buy certified disease-free garlic at an organic seed supply like Seeds of Change, Peaceful Valley, or Territorial Seed.  Generally these portions are large, so I highly recommend getting a few to try, and sharing them with a friend.


More Garlic Planting Tips?  Please Share!



Why Are Some Plants Killed By Frost But Not Others?

Broccoli in Frost

 

Every fall since I began gardening, I work to dispel the myth that the growing season is over, and that frosts will kill anything remaining in the garden.


Not all plants are the same.  Tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn, and other crops that thrive on hot temperatures are from hot climates.  They didn’t need to survive the cold – instead, they needed to protect from heat.  However, broccoli, carrots, garlic, rhubarb, and many other crops came from cool climates.  Their systems work differently in the cold – not only do they survive cold temperatures, but they taste better when they get cool in the fall and winter!


It’s Not Frost That Kills, It’s Freeze


The night the first frost comes around in the fall, many people rush out to yank their tomato plants and bring them inside.  After that night, it often gets warmer and sometimes there isn’t another frost for several weeks!  It’s highly likely all those tomatoes hanging from rafters after that first frost would have been just fine outside through the first frost.  The reason is that the first frost is often not a killing frost.


What kills the plants is not frost specifically, but is the internal temperature of plant tissue – once it freezes, the plant dies.  Have you ever put a bottle of beer or soda in the freezer to cool it down quickly, and then forgot about it, until you heard a loud crash in the freezer several hours later?  The loud crash is the glass breaking because the liquid inside the bottle expanded as it cooled.  This is essentially what happens to the cells in a tomato plant when it gets cold.


Generally the first frost doesn’t quite freeze the plant because it happens at just barely 32F, and doesn’t stay long.  However, the first freeze – or hard frost – often rolls in with much lower temperatures and stays cold much longer, usually killing the cells of tropical plants.

 

However, many plants do not have the fragile cellular structure of these tropical plants.


Frost-Tolerant Plants

 

Deciduous trees, bushes, and vines go dormant in the winter by losing their soft tissue (leaves), and waiting until spring before producing them again. 


Root crops (beets, carrots, radishes, parsnips, daikon, rutabagas) store all of the energy from their leaves into their roots as it gets cooler, and the ground gives them protection against the freezes.


Cole crops (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustards, turnips, watercress) can often survive temperatures below 20F.  That means those of us in temperate climates can generally grow them throughout the winter (they don’t grow a whole lot in the winter, but they don’t die and you can continue to pick fresh crop), where others can often grow them with a row cover for protection.  These biennial plants are made to last through the winter, so that they can bloom and produce seed in the spring.


Alliums (leeks, onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, chives) can survive very low temperatures (-30F).  These perennials are generally planted 2-3 weeks before first frost, and rely on the spring warmth to start putting their energy into bulbs.  Garlic in particular can benefit from a layer of mulch over the winter, to keep them protected through cooler temperatures.


Other perennials (asparagus, rhubarb, oregano, rosemary, sage, jerusalem artichokes, citrus) – there are many perennials that either continue to produce over the winter, or that go dormant over the winter to produce in early spring.  I highly recommend checking out some of these, as they are incredibly rewarding when the rest of the garden is sparse.

 

Other crops I’ve had success growing in winter (parsley, cilantro, dill, spinach, endive, sorrel, lettuces, fennel, fava beans) – the key for many of these is to get them growing before it gets cold, as most plants don’t grow very much in cold weather.  Thus, plant them 4-6 weeks before frost, and then harvest throughout the winter.

 

For More Information

 

There are many other plants you can continue to grow or store in the garden with often just a bit of protection.  Check out “How To Grow A Four-Season Garden” for many tips on how to do this effectively!

 

Anything To Add?

 

Avid gardeners, what else would you add here?  Other crops you’ve had success growing in winter?

 

How To Grow Sweet Potatoes

Sweet Potato Vines

 

They’re truly gorgeous plants, don’t you think?  I’m so happy we tried growing them!  And it’s incredibly easy.

 

1.  Buy Slips or Grow Them At Home:

 

 

2.  Plant The Slips.

 

The slips are basically mini plants.  Plant them after the last frost, in rich soil with some well-aged compost, 12-18″ apart (we planted them far closer, but some of our potatoes were pretty small).

 

3.  Do Virtually Nothing.

 

Water regularly, but otherwise they need almost zero weeding, and we didn’t have any bugs or disease.  You can stop watering them during the last 3 weeks before harvest, so the roots are dry when you pull them out, and so that they don’t develop any molds.

 

To those of us in the northwest US, note that they are related to morning glories, so we can be assured they’ll grow very well!

 

Ready to be Pulled

 

4.  Pull Them Up!

 

They’re basically on the same schedule as Irish potatoes:  when they start to yellow in the fall, it’s about time to pull them. You can also feel them beneath the soil and get a sense of how big they are.

 

Mom Shows Off Sweet Potato Plant

 

Seriously, that’s it.  No excuses now – if you like them, grow them!

 

Our Sweet Potato Loot

 

Any Questions or Tips?

 

Organic Ant Control

"Go to the ant and be wise" by Pandlyan on Flickr

 

I have lived in the north, south, east, and west – and ants find you know matter where you live!  I have tried all sorts of different organic sprays and urban legend tinctures.  Most things work a little bit and then the ants come back.

 

So how do you get rid of ants?  Here’s what I’ve found that works best:

 

In The Home

 

First off, you have to trace your ant trail as far as you can trace it.  That means across the windowsill or the floor, through the window or door, and outside.  If they are coming through a crack in the wall or ceiling, you may not be able to do this, but at least follow it to the crack.  If they’re coming through a wall, you may be able to go around to the outside of your house and find where they’re coming in.

 

Then you’ll need to get rid of the trail.  If you only kill the ants you see, more ants will return in their place, following an ant trail established by scent.  The best way I have found to get rid of the ant trail is to spray it with orange oil cleaner (which you can find in any health food store – try to find one that isn’t dyed orange, and is a natural color).  I spray the entire trail inside with a hefty dose of orange oil cleaner, and leave it there for several minutes.  Then I wipe it clean, go outside, and do the same.

 

After I’ve gotten rid of the trail, I spray the orange oil cleaner into the entry point on the outside of the house (if I can find it).  That means every crack, crevice, window, or doorway where they are coming in.  Don’t wipe the spray clean – just leave it.


In a pinch, you can also use straight vinegar in a spray bottle.  In my experience this does not last as long – the ants find their way back a day or two later.  But if you need to take immediate action, this will help.  You can also combine it with shaking some ground cinnamon into the corner or crevice where the ants are coming into the house.  It may look a little weird, but the ants will not cross the cinnamon.  Baking soda can work as well, though again, not as well as the orange oil.

 

In The Garden

 

In the garden, I leave ants alone because they help break down the nutrients for plants – they’re a natural part of the garden ecosystem.  However, if you have a serious infestation (sometimes ants will bring in aphids), or if you want to get rid of fire ants, you can deter them.  Try scattering ground cinnamon, wood ash, and/or diatomaceous earth around the perimeter of your beds.


Anyone else have any organic ant deterrent tricks?


This post was inspired by a comment from Charlene – thanks for asking, Charlene!