Growing pains

Abandoned toy


UPDATE: This site can now be viewed directly at

Sometime in about a week, I will be switching web hosts.  This will enable me to let my blog better reflect the business behind it, which would otherwise be against policy.

All of the content (save this post) has been exported to the new (but offline) site already, including your comments.  There will be no more ads.  There will also be no more “likes”.  But the blog will look much the same, with all the parts in the same place it has been, and you’ll have more options for sharing posts that you like.

Important highlights for regular readers:

  • The web site address will still be, but at the switch or shortly thereafter, the site will direct to a static home page and there will be a menu option for the blog.  Those of you with bookmarks will probably want to edit your bookmarks to go direct to the blog.
  • Those of you who keep up with the latest posts by following on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ will still get updates that way.
  • Those of you who keep up with the latest posts on RSS:  It might work, or you might need to reset your feed.  I am about 80% sure you will need to change nothing.
  • Email subscribers: Your subscriptions will be moved for you to the new site.
  • subscribers: Your subscriptions will be moved for you to the new site, but you will no longer get email notifications from  If you want email notifications, once the site is moved you will have the option to subscribe there.
  • readers who aren’t subscribed but see us in Reader: The site will no longer appear in Reader unless you manually add it or follow us using one of the methods above.

I am very excited about the move, as it opens up a lot of options for me.  When the site is officially moved, I’ll post a quick note on both the new and the WordPress link  If you don’t see that within 10 days, please check in manually.

I hope you will join me at the new site, and bring your friends and questions!


Setting Realistic Goals for Your Garden


Where are you going?

I’m a big believer in goals.  If you don’t know where you want to go, you probably won’t get there.  While unstructured exploration can be educational, if you want to begin or increase the amount of food you grow, you need to set some goalposts: ones you can realistically reach but still challenge you.

Let’s get one unrealistic goal out of the way: you are almost certainly not going to grow ALL your own food.  It is often said that our grandmothers and great grandmothers did it, but that’s untrue.  White flour or corn meal and sugar purchased at the general store formed a major part of most rural diets, from biscuits to cornbread to jelly.  Some households managed to grow, hunt and forage enough calories, which they could then barter for other supplies, but these households generally had at least one knowledgeable adult working full time at that job, a large tract of land plus available common space, often 2 or 3 adults and a selection of children plus a community to help with the big projects.  The earliest western frontier households?  Many of them died, and few were truly isolated.  Bartering money earned at other tasks for food is not a failure.  Someone with a full time job and a moderate sized backyard is just not going to be able to imitate a mature homestead with multiple generations of improvements and knowledge.

The specific goals you set will depend on your current situation, but good goals are always measurable.  A novice gardener might choose “I will only eat zucchini I grow myself from May to August 2014,” and then work very hard at zucchini.  Given the way it grows for most people, you are at greater risk of becoming sick of it, but the mere act of reaching goals is encouraging.  A veteran gardener and canner might choose, “I will only eat the tomatoes I grow and preserve this year,” and then count up the number of tomato paste and related products that come home from the grocery store and try to figure out how many tomato plants they are going to need.

I would encourage anyone, except possibly the newest of beginners, to set multiple goals.  Write them down.  Put them somewhere you will see them at least once a day — perhaps on the fridge door or on your computer screen or smartphone.  This will keep you focused on what you are trying to achieve and the progress (or lack thereof) you have made.  Reaching goals is confidence boosting, but failing is also educational and should be viewed as such.  Figure out why you failed and how to work around that issue next season.

By challenging yourself to get specific results, you’ll improve your ability to plan and execute your food growing desires.

(By Nicole Castle)

Stealth gardening: When obvious is not an option

Front landscaping

Can you count the edibles?

In the past year or two there has been a lot of media, web and blogosphere attention generated about homeowners and their front yard gardens, and the neighbors and cities unhappy about them.  While there’s nothing inherently unattractive about edibles or gardening, some of these gardens have certainly been undesirable from a modern urban/suburban aesthetic.  Property rights issues aside, I don’t share that aesthetic and you may not either, but whether you just want to keep the neighbors happy or you have to deal with local ordinances or homeowner’s association restrictions, there are ways to use your front yard for edibles without raising the ire of others.

Front yards are great places for fruit and nut trees.  They don’t need to be planted in a row or a grid just because it’s an orchard.  You can also take cues from the permaculture movement and build layered beds of edibles, which is more natural appearing.  While this makes maintenance more difficult for fruits that need it, it does reduce the need to keep the windfalls picked up in order to maintain a manicured appearance.  Another option for “tall” shapes is building a nice trellis or arbor for vines like grapes, squash or gourds.

Numerous edible shrubs can do double-duty as foundation plantings.  A few examples are roses, rosemary, blueberries, tea camellia and hazelnuts.  Rosemary can be pruned into a formal hedge.  Some herbaceous plants like cardoon and artichoke can be shrub sized.  Jerusalem artichoke is a tall sunflower with good tasting tubers.  And then, of course, there are regular sunflowers big or small.

Culinary herbs are other plants which straddle the arbitrary line between “edible” and “ornamental.”  Your local nursery probably has dozens of “flowers” that are edible or medicinal herbs that have been selected for brighter colored blooms.  They tend to be not as strong as their wild cousins, but provided you have the same species (beware mislabeling), they still share the same flavors.  Yarrow, borage, chives, sage, chamomile and lavender are a few in this category.

“Ornamental” vegetables are often just regular vegetables which have been bred for other characteristics.  Ornamental kale is still kale, and many of the varieties not sold as ornamental are still quite attractive.  Same for many other greens such as swiss chard and beets.  The bright leaves of rhubarb, the red blooms of scarlet runner bean and the bold foliage of hibicus plants (including okra) can used as ornamentals.  Ornamental sweet potatoes don’t make good roots, but the appearance above ground is the same — a rambling ground-hugging vine.  The non-ornamental versions just don’t have lime green or purple leaves.

Be more careful with ornamental peppers — not all are Capsicum annum and the ones that are tend to be brutally hot.  I would buy seeds from a reputable seed company to ensure safe edibility.

Underneath it all are groundcovers.  Think wintergreen, strawberries, thyme, purslane, and prostrate rosemary.  The more groundcover you have, the less mulch you need to keep fresh.

In a nutshell: if you need to garden stealthily, avoid rectangular garden shapes, straight rows and uniform blocks of plants.  Instead, think in terms of landscape design, where you choose the shapes and sizes you need, and then pick the appropriate plants.  Plant things like greens closer together for a more lush and full appearance.  This will reduce individual plant productivity and deplete your soil faster, but if the alternative is not using the space at all, you still come out ahead.

Finally, don’t be afraid to mix in plants that are purely ornamental or are not edible to us but feed beneficial insects and birds.  If you attempt to build your edible landscaping with 100% edibles, you will probably drive yourself nuts trying to find solutions to every space.  Yesteryear’s kitchen garden contained a mix of pretty and useful, and yours can, too.

There’s no reason your front yard “garden” needs to be unattractive — or even recognizable — to even those people who have a firm modern landscape/lawn aesthetic.  Plan carefully, and you can have a stealth garden in plain view.

(By Nicole Castle)

Thyme, the edible groundcover

Culinary thyme in bloom

Culinary thyme in bloom

Thyme is an herb used in much of western cuisine.  It’s a short woody perennial that thrives in dry, unproductive spaces, and it widely available as transplants.  Like most herbs, you really only need one for eating, and a transplant costs the same as a pack of seeds, so you might as well save yourself the trouble.

On the downside, thyme spreads out and often gets shaggy and unattractive.  Periodic “hair cuts” of the plant, or what we’d call rejuvenation pruning in a larger shrub, will improve the appearance and the productivity of the parts you want to eat, which are the small leaves.  As for spreading… well, thyme makes an excellent groundcover under shrubs.  Stealth groundcover, if needed.

The variety typically grown for eating is “culinary thyme” but there are many varieties available and all, provided they are Thymus vulgaris, are edible.  In addition to regular culinary thyme, I grow silver-edged thyme (which has a pretty silvery sheen to it) in my front landscaping beds and lemon thyme (which has a citrus-y scent) in the back landscaping.  I also grow Pennsylvania Dutch Tea Thyme, which has larger leaves doesn’t seem to have the habit of dying back and getting as woody as the others do.

I don’t possibly need this much thyme to eat, but thyme is also extremely attractive to beneficial insects when blooming, and coaxing them to my garden pays dividends on my plants needing pollination.

Culinary thyme

Culinary thyme

(By Nicole Castle)

Choosing What to Grow – Part V

If you’ll remember back in Part I, Gardener Jane included some fruits on her list of food her household frequently ate, which were apples, peaches, pears and strawberries, blackberries and blueberries.

Fruit trees are a relatively long term investment and even the most precocious take about 3 years to begin bearing.  Large nut trees like pecans and walnuts can take 10 years or more.  While those big nut trees may produce for a 100 years, peaches only produce until they are 10-15 years old.  Depending on the disease and pest pressure in your area, they may require frequent spraying with a variety of products on a schedule to stay healthy.  While Jane correctly identified the fruits they eat which can be grown in her area, the apples and peaches will, for her, require a fairly high level of commitment and attention.  Jane decides to put off considering fruit trees for a year while she focuses on her garden.

Small fruits, on the other hand, often begin bearing the second year, and in the case of strawberries the very first year.  Like most produce, berries are sold by the pound and at a fairly steep price.  It’s to the benefit of the growers to pump their berries as full of water as possible before selling since water is heavy, but this dilutes the taste.  And somewhere along the line Americans have been conditioned to perceive larger berries as more desirable, so the berries get larger and larger while acquiring no extra taste.

Since there are many blackberry bushes growing wild, Jane decides to begin with a bed of strawberries this year, and maybe work on blueberries next year.  Potted strawberry plants usually cost about $1.50 each, and are a bit cheaper in flats, but Jane asks around and finds something with an existing strawberry patch that needs it thinned.  So armed with a garden trowel, an old kitty litter bucket and some garden gloves, Jane acquires about 50 plants which are well-adapted to her area for the price of a hour or two of labor and some dirty knees.  Strawberries prolifically reproduce themselves be creating daughter plants on runners; in a couple of years Jane will have extra plants to pass on to another gardener, to use to expand her strawberry production or to sell.

Under good conditions, a single strawberry plant will produce 1 quart of strawberries per year.  At the cheapest in season prices, one quart of strawberries will cost $2.50, so even if Jane had purchased plants she was likely to at least break even with the first spring crop.

Small fruits are one of the best ways to get a lot of bang for your gardening buck.  They are low-maintenance, perennial, taste better than store-bought and pay for their investment quickly.  There are other perennial crops that can continue rewarding you year after year, especially if you live in a warmer climate, as part of a practice called permaculture, or “permanent agriculture.”  Because they are perennial, they can be integrated into your landscape instead of requiring dedicated space.  I grow strawberries as a ground cover under blueberries as a foundation planting on the shady side of the house, much as a another house might have azaleas and vinca.  While they are less productive than they would be in a more ideal spot, they turn what would otherwise be a non-productive spot into several quarts of berries each year.

A few of my favorite resources for getting started with edible landscaping are linked below and may be available from your local library or on intra-library loan.

Perennial Vegetables

Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape

Landscaping with Fruits and Vegetables

(By Nicole Castle)