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Eat Your Garden

Gardening Outside the Box

Is your veggie garden trapped in a box? Do you have 4’x8’ raised beds all lined up on your lawn or perhaps the Peter Rabbit style garden with each vegetable laid out in its own row in a big rectangular plot? I can’t say these kinds of gardens are wrong, but I will encourage you to think outside the box.

While it’s true that raised beds are warmer than ground-level beds, the soil does not actually need to be held up by sides. You can simply have a pile of soil on the ground. When you keep your soil covered with mulch, it will hold together and will not wash away.

Making raised beds is expensive and time consuming. By cutting out this step, you can make more economical garden beds. 

When you take away the constraints of lumber dimensions, you can make beds any shape you want. Curved beds and wavy borders look more natural than straight sides. You can make “borders” of vegetables just like you would flowers. Keyhole gardens are circular gardens with a path into the center where you can tend the whole garden from one spot. An herb spiral is a garden that spirals up a mound, creating microclimates for herbs which prefer different types of conditions; wet, dry, shady, sunny.

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Peter Rabbit gardens are modeled after farms, which generally use tractors to plant and cultivate so they need room for the tractor to drive between the rows. But you don’t have a tractor so why do you leave all the space between the rows? If you are walking in between the rows you are crushing the roots of your plants and making it difficult for soil life to proliferate.

Another way is to push the rows together and only put a path every four feet. You can plant in blocks using triangle spacing to get the most productivity out of your garden. You can tend the bed from each side while allowing space for the soil life to grow. There will also be less room for weeds to grow, making your life easier.

Whichever style you choose, you want to ensure that you can reach into your garden comfortably from all sides so that you aren’t stepping into it to tend your garden, so make sure that no part of your garden is more than 2 feet from a pathway. By staying out of your garden beds, you avoid compacting the soil so you no longer have to turn it or till it up in the spring. Just put a heavy dose of mulch on it in the fall and plant through the mulch in the spring for best results.

Experiment with inter-planting different kinds of veggies and flowers to increase productivity and beauty. Mix fast-growing veggies like radish with slow-growing veggies like carrots. As you harvest the radish there is more room for the carrots to grow.

You can also intermix veggies and flowers together! They do not have to stay separate! They can actually help each other out, attracting pollinators and confusing pests. If you use edible flowers, you may even remember to include them in your salads and other dishes. I also love to sneak veggies into my flower beds for visual interest and productivity.

Liberating your veggies from their boxes and rows can make vegetable gardening more creative, fun, beautiful, and productive. Are you willing to let go of your idea of what a vegetable garden “should” look like and experiment with something different?

Liberate Your Veggies

Dreaming My Garden

In the depths of winter, when the snow is still piled high on the ground, I close my eyes and dream of my garden. I see a riot of colors and plants peeking through the window frames that form my fence, as if they are eager to see what is going on in the street. I pluck a small ripe cherry from a bush and pop it into my mouth. It is an explosion of sour and sweet that makes my mouth pucker and salivate and ask for more.

I walk up a few stone steps, and turn to look at the sterile yard across the street. The owner is mowing his yard too short, sweating profusely, and yelling at his lawnmower. I cross under the pergola and through the gate, pausing for a moment to smell the intoxicating perfume of sweet cicely and grab a cucumber from above to munch on. I close the gate behind me, thankful to be in my oasis. This is my happy place.

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I can see my door and the herb garden just outside of it, welcoming last-minute culinary inspirations. But I head instead along a path, deeper into my garden. I am hungry but there is plenty to snack on… big red gooseberries, fresh sugar-snap peas, and cherry tomatoes. I pull a bright orange carrot out of the ground and rub off the dirt. It is crisp and sweet.

The path into the garden draws me in with its beautiful colors and smells. It is full of life with bees and butterflies buzzing everywhere, birds singing in the trees, and my fat cat creeping along. Flowers intermingle with vegetables and herbs. They grow half-wild under the fruit trees, inviting pollinators while providing beauty, food, and tea. 

I notice a weed or two and pull them out as I go by, handing them to the chickens. They are super excited and greet me with happy clucks. They are busily scratching the pile of leaves, straw, weeds and kitchen scraps we throw to them daily, turning it into rich compost. I watch them for a while and think about how efficient they are at digging. I may try using them to turn the compost pile.

Everywhere I look I see food and flowers and medicine. The cabbages are big and round, the beans growing in front of the greenhouse are off the hook. I eat a borage flower that tastes like cucumber. I check my hardy kiwi for fruit.

Suddenly, I have to go inside and get some bowls to start harvesting this wonderful abundance. I make a plan for what I will cook for dinner and what I will preserve on the way. A huge veggie stir-fry sounds delicious and while it’s cooking I can freeze some broccoli and jar some green beans to ferment.

I come out of my daydream and return to my cozy chair beside the fire. I had several great ideas while I was enjoying my garden. I can’t wait to write them down on this year’s garden plan! When the snow is melted and the ground is thawed, I will know exactly what to do to create my dreamy garden! 

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Saskia Esslinger is passionate about food gardens and helps people start their own garden education business at teachgardening.com.

7 Reasons You Should Teach Gardening

I didn’t really want to teach gardening at first. But I did want to make a difference in the world and I wanted more local food. I could grow food for other people, or I could teach them to grow it themselves. Ultimately, teaching made the biggest difference, and despite my reluctance to put myself out there, I had to just do it.

What began with a poorly attended “lecture” evolved over the years to be a 6-month gardening course. I was teaching 30 people each summer how to grow food and earning a decent part-time income. It was better than I ever thought it could be. And I thought to myself, why aren’t more people doing this?

Well, maybe you should? Here are my top 6 reasons why I think you should teach gardening.

  1. Become a Better Gardener - You don’t have to know everything to teach gardening, (can you ever really know everything?) but it certainly challenges you to learn more. When you are preparing lessons you might look up something that is confusing to you, or people might ask you questions you had never considered. Looking the answers up helps everyone learn together.

 Become a Better Gardener

  1. Your Experience is Valuable – If you’ve been growing 2 seasons or 20, you have learned a thing or two about growing in your area. This hands-on experience is something that can’t be learned in a book or online.
  2. Help the Environment - Organic food grown at home has a very low ecological footprint. The more people grow at home the less they need to buy from factory farms which are very detrimental to the environment.
  3. Make New Friends - By teaching people to garden in your own community, you will meet many like-minded people. You may not become best friends with everyone, but you will get to meet and know many new people, and that is what community is all about!
  4. Help People - The act of gardening improves mental and physical health by getting people outside and connecting them with nature. People can save money on groceries while eating healthier food. Growing your own food is empowering and can lead people to making healthier choices in life. My students have been extremely grateful for my classes and that alone makes it worth it to teach.

Help People

  1. Have Fun – Teaching people to garden is really fun! In our classes we share food and drinks, we make jokes, and we work together.
  2. Make Money - You may not get rich teaching gardens, but you can definitely make it worth your while. I charge about $10 per class hour per person. If you have 10 people, that’s $100 per class hour. Of course you also have to take into consideration planning and preparation and marketing time. Check out my Green Thumb Teacher’s Manual to substantially cut down on this time.

If you decide to teach gardening or are interested in exploring the idea, you can join my free Facebook group, Teach Gardening. You can also check out the resources available on my website, TeachGardening.com.

I firmly believe teaching people how to grow their own food is an important, proactive step in helping create the kind, just and sustainable world that we want to live in. And it really helps that it is fun and rewarding too!

Be the Change You Wish to See

6 Ways to Cut Seed Costs

Are you getting ready to purchase seeds for your garden? I’m always amazed at how fast those little packets add up. When I go to check out I can hardly believe how much I’ve spent! Here are some ideas on how to save money this year and in the future!

Don’t Throw Out Your Old Seed

You probably already know this, but seed doesn’t usually go bad after one year. The germination rate may go down, but you can still use it. To maintain the best germination rate, store your seeds in a dark, dry, cool place. Put them in an air-tight container and then find a cool place in your home. A root cellar is ideal because it maintains a consistent temperature year-round.

If you aren’t sure if your seed is still good or not, put 10 seeds in damp paper towel and put in a plastic bag. Check them after a week or two and count how many have germinated. Multiply by 10 and this will be your germination rate. For example, if 7 seeds germinated, you have a germination rate of 70%. If your germination rate is low, plant more seeds.

Split Packets with Friends

Arrange a get-together with some friends and put in a seed order together. Many seeds come in packets that are way more than a home gardener can use in one year and larger quantities are a better value than small quantities. Be sure to make good notes about what everyone wants so you can split the seeds up fairly when they arrive. Even better is when everyone agrees to order the same things so sorting out who gets what is easy. I like to use small paper coin envelopes for small quantities of seeds. They are easy to write on and contain the seed well.

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Attend a Seed Exchange

Many communities host seed exchanges, where you can bring your excess seeds and exchange them for something you can use. If your community doesn’t have one, you can organize one! It is a great time for gardeners to meet and exchange experiences, ideas, and build energy for the coming season! At our seed exchange, we provided drinks and encouraged people to bring snacks to share. We had one table for each category of seeds so people could put they seeds they brought on the appropriate table and then select whichever seeds interested them. We provided coin envelopes for people to take their seeds home in. We also arranged some free workshops to make the evening more robust.

Grow Perennials

Perennial crops only have to be planted once and you can reap the benefits for years to come. Fruit or nut trees, and berry bushes are a good place to start, but there are also many perennial vegetables. Rhubarb, sorrel, good king henry, asparagus, lovage, Jerusalem artichoke, and ostrich ferns all grow as far north as Alaska!

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Grow Things That Self Seed

You can save both money and time with annuals that sow their own seed. By just letting a few plants go to seed, you can have a patch of veggies come up first thing in the spring without even lifting a finger. Then all you have to do is thin them out to the proper spacing. My favorite self-seeded plants are orach (a leafy green related to spinach), parsnip, arugula, cilantro, dill, borage, and chamomile.

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Save Your Own Seeds

Although seed saving may seem daunting at first, many things are quite easy to save. As you gain experience you can move onto the more complex and interesting plants. You often get gobs of seed from just one plant, which you can share or trade with others and use for years to come.

Fruits of the World

I am flying down a road on the back of a 1960’s motorcycle. The rush of air feels glorious in the stifling Guatemalan lowland heat. We zigzag around many potholes while semi-trucks from the mines in El Estor roar past us.

My friend, Scott, is taking me to visit Fruits of the World, an experimental farm and nursery. Scott lives on a tugboat on the Rio Dulce, but, like me, he is deeply connected to the earth. He works with biochar and worms to improve the fertility of tropical soils.

Finally, we pull off the main road into a little town. Dodging people and dogs, we weave our way through town. We stop briefly to chat with a man tending a garden, something you don’t often see in these parts. He is growing corn, squash, bananas, some sort of a starchy tropical root, and other things.

We pass through town and continue down a dirt road lined with thin, regularly planted rubber trees. Scott tells me that the price of rubber was high a few years back so many people planted rubber trees, but now the price has fallen again. Before the rubber they grew a type of tree used to make pulp, and before that they ran cattle. 

We dip down into a valley and cross a large river with a collapsed concrete bridge, and finally we arrive at Fruits of the World. As we pull in we see that Dwight is busy with some customers so Scott begins to show me around.

We step among the trees, some of them heavily laden with fruit. The air is heavy with the scent of ylang-ylang. We recognize some of fruit like starfruit, zapote, cacoa, and rambutan, but others are a mystery.

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We cross a rickety suspension bridge and see bright red bamboo next to some guest houses. We find the head worker in a nursery area, tending thousands of tiny seedlings, and ask him about some of the trees. He shows us a little nut that he cracks out of the shell.

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We continue on and find a grapefruit tree. They are all green but we find one that is soft and open it. The pale yellow pulp is sweet and juicy and it runs down our elbows. It is easily the best grapefruit I have ever eaten.

Exploring further we see fish ponds, giant bamboo stands, and goats. Does this guy ever rest? We walk back across a ford in the creek and find Dwight, still talking to his customers who have come 5 hours from Guatemala City with the whole extended family to buy some of his special plants. Scott snags a mangosteen, peels open the thick skin, and lets me try the white, segmented fruit. It has a sweet and sour flavor that tastes like nothing I’ve ever had before.

We go as a group to look at some trees so the customers have some idea of what these plants will grow into. I follow along the best I can in Spanish, and Scott translates some of it for me. We see giant jackfruit and little palms with mean-looking thorns that bear dragonfruit. He tells us about another fruit that tastes like white-chocolate, but I don’t catch the name.

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Back at the sales hut, Dwight gives us a taste of some dried fruit, seed, and chocolate bars that he is making in a solar dryer. Amazing! He dries a lot of his fruit since he is so far from a market.

Dwight finishes up with his customers and they drive away, loaded up with many different kinds of fruit trees and shrubs. Dwight tells me about how he came here in the Peace Corps and he was thinking of growing blueberries in the highlands, but he met another couple from the Peace Corps who wanted to do rambutans and other tropical fruit, so they ended up down here. They worked at it together for a while until the woman became pregnant, and wanted to head back to the states.  His other partner tried to come back and help out a few times, but eventually became too busy with life, and since then, Dwight has been alone down here.

It seems like people are finally starting to hear about Dwight and his plants are being sought out, but I can tell it is a labor of love. In town I have seen a lot of rambutans for sale, most certainly the trees originated from his farm and the popularity of the fruit here has grown.

As for the grapefruit, Dwight says, “Take all you want. I can’t sell them because they are too sour for the locals.”

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Homegrown Traditions

At the Williams Street Farmhouse we had a tradition of serving a Thanksgiving meal made entirely of ingredients we grew, foraged, or made ourselves. Of course exceptions would be made for things like olive oil and spices, but the bulk of the food was our own.

For our urban homestead, this meant that we did not have turkey. One year we had chickens a dog had harvested for us, one of them missing a leg and part of a breast. Another year we had a caribou roast. And one time it was wild-caught salmon. It was always delicious and we didn’t miss the turkey.

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Appetizers might be smoked salmon spread, homemade goat cheese with herbs, or charcuterie my husband made from a local pig. Accompaniments most certainly included roasted root vegetables. Purple and white potatoes, bright orange carrots, and ruby red beets added to the festiveness of the table. I would forgo the green jello salad of my youth and instead have a green kale and barley gratin.

One year we even made cranberry sauce from our wild harvested low bush cranberries (and lots of our honey!) Another year we had crabapple sauce, a sweet, tart alternative. Home-made sourdough bread and a ferment like sauerkraut or dilly beans would round out the meal. Dessert was still fairly traditional with pumpkin pie and/or apple pie once our apple trees started producing.

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We would invite our friends to share our abundance that we had worked so hard for over the previous year. It made me so proud and happy to nourish them with quality homegrown food. They appreciated all the time and love that went into the meal, making it so much more special than a butterball turkey. Together we celebrated the harvest in the original spirit of Thanksgiving.

This year we are on a sailboat in Guatemala and I truly miss our homegrown feast. We can go to one of the marinas and have turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes but that is not Thanksgiving to me anymore. Without homegrown food and our friends to share it with I can’t quite stomach it. We will stay on the boat and make a special meal with the best local ingredients we can find. I will be thankful to be here, and to be able to spend so much quality time with my husband and beautiful children.

This year, how are you incorporating the abundance of your garden into your Thanksgiving meal? Use what you have available to prepare something unique and truly special instead of running to the store to buy what you feel like you need to serve. Create new traditions based on your location and what the sun, soil and rain give to you in abundance. And be sure to give thanks for that abundance and the friends to share it with!

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Don't Head Into Winter Without Putting Your Garden to Bed

Do you like to weed? No, I don’t either! But by leaving weeds in your garden now, you are creating even bigger problems for yourself next year. As winter approaches, many annual weeds are making their last effort to spread their seeds before they die. Don’t let them!!  Each plant can yield thousands of seeds which remain viable in your soil for up to 7 years. That can mean a lot of weeding in your future! Save yourself some effort and pull them now, before they go to seed.

While you’re at it, pull out perennial weeds as well, especially grass. These will only get stronger over the winter and make your life difficult in spring when it is time to plant. It can take months for your soil to freeze completely (if it does) and for your perennial weeds to go dormant for the winter. During this time they are taking advantage of your empty garden to spread.

The only perennial weed I don’t pull is dandelion because I love to eat the mild greens in the spring. Dandelion leaves are extremely nutritious, particularly vitamins A, C, K, and calcium, iron, potassium and manganese. They are very fortifying and cleansing for your body after a winter of heavy eating. I love to eat them in salad or cook them like spinach.

Although it may seem like nothing is happening in your garden over the winter, all kinds of things are happening beneath the soil. Soil life slows down as the temperature dips down, but it does remain somewhat active. These microbes process organic matter, turning it into rich soil for next year’s garden. When the soil finally freezes, they go dormant, waiting for thaw to start working again.

But if there is no organic matter, there is nothing for them to eat and you won’t have as many. Your soil will not be as biologically active and your garden next year will suffer. So be kind to your microbes and feed them. They love green things and non-diseased garden waste is ideal because it is already in your garden. Diseased plant material should be thrown away outside of your garden to prevent it from coming back next year.

Chop up the plant material so it is more available for the microbes to work on. I love to use a machete for this. I go to town, chopping and whacking, getting out all my frustrations and working up a nice sweat. It feels great in the cool autumn air and afterwards I feel more peaceful and centered. You can also use a sharp shovel or pruning shears, but you might not get the same psychological benefits.

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Once you have an inch or two of green material on your garden, think about giving your microbes a boost with some compost tea. Compost tea is an infusion of compost and when it is done right, contains a profusion of beneficial microbes. Put compost tea in a watering can and pour it over the green material in your beds. You can also just spread a thin layer of compost on top if you don’t have time to make the tea. Either way, adding extra microbes will speed up the decomposition process, giving you a boost of organic matter as well as microbes in the spring.

Now that you have your microbes going to town, protect them with a thick blanket of leaves. This will insulate the ground and keep it from freezing for a little while longer so your microbes can really make some progress. It will also protect your ground from the freeze-thaw cycle in case you have any bulbs like garlic planted, as well as keep winter rains from washing your soil away. Never leave bare soil in your garden over winter!

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If you think about it, this is the same process nature uses in a forest in the fall. Herbaceous plants die back to the ground and get covered with a blanket of leaves. During winter the microbes decompose the plants, returning the nutrients to the soil. In the spring there is little to no trace of the plant left. In our garden, we are simply mimicking that process to keep our garden nutrient-rich and productive.

So before the snow flies, get out there and put your garden to bed, and you can rest easy all winter knowing that the hard work is being done for you!