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Posts Tagged ‘general care’

Critical Information for a Home Kitchen Garden

If you’re constantly scouring the internet for information useful to your small kitchen garden, then you might already have found the videos I’m posting today. For any home kitchen gardener–whether with years of experience, or just starting out–these are well worth the two hours to review. Two hours? Well, yes. Each video is an hour with Professor Robert Norris from UC Davis. He obviously knows his stuff, and has a decent sense of humor.

Professor Norris’s home kitchen garden is in California, so his talks should be especially useful to you west coast gardeners who are deciding what (and whether) to grow over the coming winter. I like Professor Norris’s attitude: don’t garden if you don’t enjoy it. There are many, many gems in his talks, so please find a couple of hours on your calendar over the next few weeks–or just wait for the next rainy day–and treat yourself to these presentations.

Home Vegetable Gardening Part I


Home Vegetable Gardening Part II

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Compost for My Small Kitchen Garden

In my last post, I suggested three advantages of compost, and mentioned different composting strategies to fit both your space and your intensity of involvement with your small kitchen garden. I also promised to tell you what I, in my lazy garden manner, do about compost. But first, I want to expand on the three advantages of composting:

I mentioned that composting reduces the amount of garbage you pay to get rid of, and that it produces nutrition and humus for your small kitchen garden. What I want to emphasize is that if you don’t continually add nutrition and humus to your garden soil, the soil will eventually cease to support worthwhile food crops. So, while composting saves money by reducing the amount of stuff you throw out, it also saves by reducing or eliminating the need to buy amendments for your soil. Here’s my lazy garden approach to compost:

Compost for a lazy garden

You can do better than what I’m about to tell you, and we’ll explore better in later blog posts… but you don’t need to do better. I promise, this works, and I can’t imagine spending any more time at it than I already do.

My Small Kitchen Garden Compost Heap

I have a compost heap—no container, no bin, no phased plasma inverter. The heap is right at the end of my garden. It used to be under a gorgeous blue spruce tree, but the tree blew down in a thunderstorm about five years ago, so my neighbors and visitors can clearly see my compost heap.

Here’s how my heap works: I picked a spot and started heaping stuff there. At first, it was lawn clippings, raked leaves, and weeds. As my yard maintenance generated these waste products, I collected them and threw them on the heap. During the growing season, I also threw peelings, pits, and mash from the kitchen onto the heap. These included cherry and peach pits, apple cores and skins, strawberry caps, the mutilated raspberries and other fruits I’d juiced to make jellies, and random vegetable parts that we didn’t want to eat (those outer leaves of lettuce heads and the thickest parts of broccoli stems, for example).

Occasionally (and I mean, maybe, twice a year), I tossed a few shovels full of soil from the garden onto the heap. When I did pull weeds (almost never), I didn’t knock soil off the roots—I tossed the weeds on the heap along with any attached soil.

My Compost Scorecard

Throughout the summer, the heap would grow until is was four feet above the soil… and immediately after rain, it put out a very strong odor of decaying grass—especially if it rained within a day or so of mowing. Over winter I added a lot of ash from my wood furnace, but by spring the heap would subside three feet or more.

Superficially, the heap looked like dead, dried grass and leaves. However, when I turned up the edge with a pitchfork in hopes of finding nutrient-rich humus, that’s what I found! Depending on rainfall in the preceding season, the compost wasn’t always fully-reduced; after a dry summer I could still recognize the shapes of grass and other items at the bottom of the heap. Knowing I could have better compost, I still used whatever came out from under the dry cap on my heap.

Today’s Compost is Easier

I’ve gotten lazier with age, and my compost heap has gotten more unruly. Here’s why: I no longer compost the “light” stuff on the heap. By light stuff, I mean grass clippings and fallen leaves—they break down very quickly, and here’s how I use them:

I use grass clippings as mulch throughout my small kitchen garden… and at the end of the growing season, I cover my planting beds with leaves we rake off the lawn. By spring, the semi-decomposed grass clippings and leaves form a scant one-eighth-inch layer on the soil, and they nearly vanish when I turn the soil over in preparation for planting.

The other stuff—weeds, expended vegetable plants, kitchen waste—still goes into the compost heap. When I think of it, I toss some soil on the heap, but otherwise, I ignore it… until I need some extra humus in the spring. Then, at the very bottom of that heap, I find beautiful, dark-brown compost for the job.

But Wait, There’s More

I can hear the purists pointing out the flaws with my composting scheme: I’m dumping weed seeds on my vegetable garden. I’m not cooking the compost hot enough. I’m not stirring it around enough. I’m putting stuff in my heap that shouldn’t be there. In my next blog entry, I’ll explain more about how I use compost in my lazy garden, and highlight factors to help you decide which composting strategies you should apply.

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As Autumn Arrives, Plant Fruit Trees!

As Autumn Arrives, Plant Fruit Trees!

We’re about to roll into September, so it’s hard to think clearly about next spring’s small kitchen garden. But this is an important time to do just that—especially if you want to grow fruit. You don’t need to rush out immediately, but if you want to plant perennial fruit-producers, autumn is the best time to do it. Thinking about it now can save some energy in autumn… and if you need to order plants through the mail because you can’t find them locally, it’s good to get a head start.

Fruit for Your Small Kitchen Garden

OK, not all perennial fruit plants want to be planted in the fall. Forget about brambles: raspberries, blackberries, and loganberries. They prefer spring planting. However, blueberries, grapes, apples, cherries, pears, peaches, and plums will all do best when you plant them in the fall. You can also plant strawberries, but as October approaches, select ever-bearing plants; summer-bearing plants should be in by the end of September. (My summer-bearing plants have sprouted new stolons—runners—in the past two weeks; they know when they like to be planted.)

Don’t you Plant Fruit Trees in Spring?

There’s a serious culture of people who plant fruit trees in the spring. That’s OK, but it creates challenges for the owner of a small kitchen garden. When you start in the spring, you introduce young, tender plants that are emerging from sleep. These plants are going to need a lot of water to get established, and in only two or three months, water could be scarce. Equally challenging: summer heat puts extra stress on plants. You might soon be pumping even more water to keep the tree perky.

Planting in the fall provides several advantages:

  • Even as the air temperature plummets, soil cools down more slowly; roots will continue to grow into November or even December.
  • With autumn comes the rain. It’s not a rule, but even if rainfall doesn’t increase in autumn, your new plantings are going dormant so they simply don’t need as much water.
  • Perennials don’t need so much fertilizer when they’re going dormant. If you plant in the fall, you can leave off the fertilizer until the ground starts to thaw in March.

A perennial that you plant in the fall will most likely be much happier in the spring than one that you plant in the spring. By planting in the fall, you leave more time in the spring that you can use to plant spring vegetables… or sit in your easy chair.

Plant Fruit Trees for a Small Kitchen Garden?

It seems I’m often encouraging you to depart from the basic premise of this blog: a small kitchen garden is one that provides food you consume throughout the growing season… with little left to store or give away. It’s hard to grow fruit trees that provide such a modest amount of fruit without serious human intervention early in the season.

But what if you want to have fruit growing in your yard? In fact, your entire small kitchen garden could be a single fruit tree. (I hope we can still be friends.) Clever nursery operators have designed dwarf varieties of apple, pear, and peach trees that produce full-sized fruit. For those who have, perhaps, only a patio, deck, or balcony, there are even trees that will thrive in containers. Sadly, for some types of fruit trees, there are no dwarf varieties. For example, a sour cherry tree grows a crown out to 15 feet or more, and a sweet cherry tree is going to be twice that diameter! Plums have the same problem. Make it clear to the salesperson (or sales web site) when you buy your plants exactly how much space the tree(s) will have. And ask whether the trees are self-pollinating. In some cases, if you buy one tree, you’re going to need a second or you won’t get any fruit.

While dwarf trees might fit in your small kitchen garden, look around for trees that have several varieties of fruit grafted onto a single plant. These may require more space, but they solve pollination challenges, and they provide variety in limited space. My dad once planted an apple tree that produced five types of apples. I’m sure you can find similar chimeras at your local garden store.

To Be Continued…

Please don’t dive into fruit-growing without considerable thought. As a truly lazy gardener, I can assure you: it’s much more of a pain to care for perennial fruit trees than it is to care for annual vegetables. With vegetables, you plant in the spring, harvest through the summer, and put it all to bed for the winter. Even a single fruit tree can provide year-round chores: mulching, fertilizing, pruning, culling, spraying, watering… to get the best production, all these things matter.

I grow fruit because the trees came with my yard. I’d miss them if they weren’t here, but I sometimes resent their demands for attention. Worse: when I neglect them, I’m annoyed that they don’t shrug their shoulders and produce good fruit anyway.

My next post will continue this topic about planting fruit in the fall—with even greater emphasis on the small kitchen garden. Please check back and I’ll encourage you to plant fruits that are best suited for gardeners with very limited space.

Here’s another article with further thoughts about planitng fruit:

  • Fruit Trees – If you select a fruit tree which needs a mate in order to produce fruits, you’ll also need to make sure you plant the two trees close enough together. Putting them at opposite ends of your large yard may cause you to never have any …


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It’s Nearly Autumn: Plant Vegetables!

The good news is: It’s not too late to plant vegetables in your small kitchen garden. On the other hand, if you live in zone 5 or farther north, you’re pushing your luck. Zone 5, is the hardiness zone that cuts diagonally south-west from Maine, across New York and northern Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, and most of the central states from central North Dakota down to central Kansas.

If you’re in that huge swath of the United States, you have a reasonable shot at growing some decent lettuce and spinach, maybe some small onions and radishes, turnip and collard greens, and annual herbs such as basil, cilantro, and dill. Late August is a little late to start, but if you plant vegetables that you can eat at any growth stage (leaf crops are the safest bet), you’ll probably get a few weeks’ harvest from them.

Southerners: Plant Vegetables!

The better news is for people who live in zone 6 and farther south. That’s a whole bunch of United States, and you likely have a decent stretch ahead in which cold weather crops can mature. Plant vegetables this week.

I straddle zones 5 and 6—they call it zone 5b—and I just planted a single nine-foot row in my garden with four feet of leaf lettuces, two feet of spinach, and two feet of cilantro. I’m not expecting large mature lettuce and spinach plants before a deep October freeze, but I’m confident I’ll have some fresh greens to go along with the last tomatoes of the growing season.

Take a Lazy Garden Approach

A cautious planting in my small kitchen garden

Because I’m flirting with the possibility of losing my young crops to an early freeze, I wasn’t willing to expend a lot of energy with the planting. To minimize the work, I turned over the soil only within the space I intended to plant. Then I broke up the chunks with a hoe, and raked it out leaving a rake-wide depression about two inches below the surrounding soil and centered on the row. I planted seeds by sprinkling them across the raked area as I might season my food—spreading a generous amount of seed in each section. Finally, I sprinkled soil over the row to put the seed an eighth- to a quarter-inch underground.

Hazards of Late Season Plantings

There are challenges with growing crops for a late harvest. For example, in a very dry summer, you need to water aggressively to get seeds started; in direct, hot sun, the soil dries out quickly to typical planting depths for smaller seeds. You must keep the soil damp until sprouts appear, and then water enough to protect the young roots from drying out. You may need to water daily… or even twice daily for three or four weeks as your new plants get established.


Insects and caterpillars are another important concern: summer vegetable-eaters weren’t around to damage your spring crops, but they’re ready and happy to forage in a second planting of cold-weather vegetables. I hate putting anything on my small kitchen garden other than water, mulch, and compost. But it’s dispiriting to plant a fall crop and see it decimated by aggressive pests. A general-purpose insecticide such as Sevin can keep down just about all the bugs, but if you object to the chemicals, the biological insecticide DiPel might do a good job—especially for caterpillars.

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Watering Your Small Kitchen Garden

There may be as many opinions about watering a small kitchen garden as there are gardens in the world. Of course, plants need water to grow. Many articles make specific and even forceful statements about a kitchen garden’s actual needs. But don’t let these articles scare you into working harder than you need to, or running your tap water into the ground.

An article written by Carly Romalino that appeared yesterday in a blog called South Jersey Life, provides some useful insights into the small kitchen garden. It suggests, for example, that beginners might start with tomatoes, and then add herbs and peppers as they gain experience. I’m all for tomatoes. In the words of at least one garden store operator: Tomatoes are weeds. When I first settled in rural Pennsylvania, I landed work in Connecticut and realized I’d be home only one weekend a month through the first growing season. I planted tomatoes—if any garden plant would produce with near total neglect, it would be a tomato plant.

Romalino goes on to encourage gardeners to plant vegetables now, listing spinach, broccoli, rabe, squash, and raspberries as good candidates. I add lettuce, peas, beans, and carrots to that list, but suggest caution if you’re much farther north than Pennsylvania. Our gardens will continue to grow into October, but gardens farther north may get frost-kill several weeks earlier. The most cold-resistant common vegetables are lettuce, spinach, peas, and some members of the cabbage family (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts). Of course, the edible portions of root crops handle cold well, though the tops may die off with an early frost.

But, How Much to Water?

Romalino quotes Lorraine Kiefer, a professional horticulturist who tells us, “’Don’t even think about planting if you aren’t going to water at least twice a week with a soaker hose.’” The article goes on to say, “Overhead irrigation causes fungus and rot, but can be avoided with soaker hoses that lay on the ground and have holes that allow water to seep directly into the soil.”

This is where we differ. You must keep the soil moist if you want seeds to sprout. It might mean watering daily for as many as two weeks, depending on what you’ve planted and whether you get rain. After that, you shouldn’t let the ground become parched… however, you don’t need a soaker hose, and you don’t need a rigid twice-a-week watering schedule. Have you gotten rain lately? Do the plants look healthy, and are they a little bigger each day?

In truth, if your garden plants develop fungus and rot, it’s likely that you’re watering too much. Once the vegetables establish themselves in my small kitchen garden, I let them tell me when to water—and I hose them down by hand. This has been a dry summer, but I’ve watered my tomatoes only twice in the past six weeks. Still, the plants are nearly seven feet high, and I’m harvesting dozens of large fruits weekly.

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