Monday, February 23, 2009


So I have my seeds picked out. I am sure I will be tempted to change by the time my paycheck comes in on Friday and I sit down to place my order, but I will not waver. I sat for 3 hours flipping through catalogues (Seeds of Change, Territorial Seeds, Fedco and Gardens Alive mostly) And I have decided that this year my garden will include:
Silvery Fir Tree tomatoes- they are heirloom, early (58 days), productive, good container plants and DETERMINATE! and apparently their leaves are kind of decorative.
Window Box Romas- as they are named, they are intended to grow in pots. If I get a few pots up on the roof this year, these will surely be up there basking in the sun! Apparently they are tasty in salad, sauce or fresh, all the ways I like tomatoes best.
Nelson carrots- Sturdy looking carrots that apparently do well even in heavy soil. Something Amy and I both have to deal with.
White Satin carrots- As the name implies, they are white. They should be crunchy, juicy and sweet. And between these, the Nelson, and the Dragon carrots from Amy, we should be eating really colorful salads this summer!
Sunset beans- I chose these because Territorial Seeds said that runner beans deal with shade better than other varieties of green beans, and seeing is I want to put them down the alley where they will have partial shade, this seemed a logical choice. Of course there are also the pretty peachy-pink blooms that will hopefully be climbing all over the trellis outside my kitchen window.
Alderman peas- I figured that I would throw my husband a bone with this one. Last year I had my sugar snap peas, this year I will grow him some fresh shelling peas... maybe I should get that Tarragon plant after all so we can eat like the French and Jacques Pepin!
Paprika Alma pepper- I was going to get a hot pepper, but then this caught my eye. Its says they are sweet with just a hint of heat and they can be eaten fresh, or I can dry them and make my own paprika! I'll have to get my Hungarian cookbook out and make goulash!
Mesclun salad mix- It includes arugula, Osaka purple mustard greens, red Russian kale, and tres fin endive. I haven't the slightest idea as to what any of that tastes like, but it should shake up our salad plates for the summer.
Pot and Patio Mix- Another salad blend, this one especially made to put in a big pot on the edge of your patio. Again, it will end up down the alley.
Lettuce leaf basil- I let my husband pick this one out to. It sounds tasty, my only fear is that the 2-3' tall plant will take over the yard. I think we will be eating a lot of pesto this summer.
Spicy globe basil- My answer to the lettuce leaf basil. This stays in a compact little plant. It's going in a window box I think.
Dark Green Italian parsley- you all know what this is.
Spearmint- again, I think you know what this is.
Brussels Winter Chervil- I just like to say 'chervil', kind of sounds like 'gerbil.' I saw a recipe calling for it, and my postage wasn't going to go up if I only picked this one more thing, so it will be living it up in the garden this summer. And if for some reason I hate it, I'm sure my guinea pig Puck, who doesn't turn anything green down, will enjoy it.
Red beard onions- little guys, kind of like scallions, only kind of pink colored. Just wanted to try something different.
I also have a bush cucumber, bush scallop squash, baby bok choi, sparkler radishes, blue pod peas, and blue Kentucky wonder beans. I will also be purchasing sage and rosemary as well as a geranium and a new guinea impatient at one of the two garden sales I go to. I like to support the community groups, and those are plants that I am not great at starting on my own.
I also had to pick out a few flowers.
Nasturtium mix- If Paul insists on flowers, I am going to insist that at least some of them are edible. These are. I am hoping to make some kind of fruity sorbet and use candied nasturtiums as garnish.
Verbena- These are container flowers that like sunshine. I hope they will produce well in front of the house where we get lots of afternoon sun. I think I am going to get the Mango mix, which has an assortment of orange to yellow to pink.
Rudbeckia- Ruby Gold- These can survive poor soil and drought. If these die in the front of the house, I will know that nothing will grow there! My mom said that Rudbeckia is a fancy name for black eyed Susans, I thought they looked familiar!

There will also be Johnny Jump ups or Violas, two of my favorite little cuties. And also marigolds. My mom has been saving seeds from a plant that was a class project and mother's day gift when I was in second grade. They are such cute little happy yellow flowers. This year I am not going to let them get lost under the wild tomatoes!
I also have bearded irises, a butterfly bush, a peony, calla lilies, and a miniature rose that should have all over wintered well.
I can hardly wait until the weekend when I can order all my seeds! And my mother and grandmother will be visiting in a few weeks and and I look forward to spending an afternoon planting seeds. I guess I better get moving on building my greenhouse!

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Just got "Carrots love Tomatoes" and "Square foot Gardening" out of the library. I want to get the most out of my little space.

Raised Beds

We will be blogging about our raised beds shortly, but I just had to laugh. I was so worried about what the landlord would think of them. He came by and asked why we made so few (3). He is appartly as gung-ho about having a garden as I am. I hope all my talk has not gotten his hopes up to high. I mean you can have all the know how in the world and pick the plants with the best chances and still end up with only a garnish for all your work. We have so much shade and I haven't even begun to address the proplem of the ground hog...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Choosing plants

Being February, it is too cold to work outside, so I'll get back to garden layout when it warms up. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot to do INside. PlanBe- Amy- already has her peppers started. I am still trying to decide on what kinds of seeds I want! Luckily I have a few more weeks until the seeds HAVE to be in the greenhouse so I have baby plants in time.
In previous years I have simply bought whatever looked healthy at the library plant sale. This year I am paying close attention to what each plant requires, and especially how big each plant gets. Last summer I had a little problem with tomatoes gone wild, and nearly choked out the rest of my plants. This year I am prepared to find out just how different all the varieties of plants can be.
Size and requirements of plants are important for any gardener, but are especially important in regards to an urban garden. My space is limited, so in order to make it productive I need to find plants that are happiest in the microcosm of Philadelphia and also of my yard. Since I live in the outskirts and have actual dirt instead of a concrete pad, I avoid some of the biggest challenges. Some urban gardeners who use containers on a patio in city centers face the problem of the urban heat island. They are so surrounded by asphalt, buildings and cars that their yard is so hot that the dirt can't stay moist enough and the plants can be singed from heat. The pavement amplifies the solar heat gain during the day and gives off the heat long after the sun goes down making it hard to get good growing conditions. If the right plants are chosen however, success can be had. Many truly dedicated urban gardeners take to the sky and used their roof as plantable area. This has even more difficulties associated with it than gardening on a patio. The weight of the plants on the structure, the harsher wind, the difficulty in getting supplies 2 or more stories in the air, the list goes on. I hope one day to take to the sky and use all that wasted space on my roof, perhaps even sharing it with a few solar panels. But for now I am tackling growing in the ground. However dense your area, by being an urban gardener you can help mitigate the heat island effect by creating spaces that absorb water and CO2 and replacing some of the impervious ground with something closer to what was there before the city was built.
So what do I need to pay attention to when choosing seeds? Light.
Some of my garden is full sun and some of it is part shade. Many plants require full sun, a lot will tolerate part shade, in that respect I am lucky. If you want to familiarize yourself with all the different combinations of sun, part sun and other important factors, check out, go to their downloadable catalogue and scroll through until you find one of the 'at a glance' charts. They tell you what is good to grow in what parts of the country, how much light is needed, what is required to start the seeds and more. I think Fedco is the first place that I have seen that gives you a summary in chart form rather than having to skim through pages and pages of listings, handy! Some other places make it a little easier by putting icons at the end of each summary to show what that particular specimen requires. Things like that are why I prefer to look at paper catalogues rather than on line- it is easier to browse and compare with your fingers stuck in different pages rather than have to keep track of 15 web pages.
The next is soil.
Some plants need fertile soil, some needs sandy soil, some like soil that stays moist, most don't like to get their roots soggy. Again, other than not being super fertile, I'm in luck. My soil drains well and has been worked enough now that it is loose enough to let roots really take root. Just by looking at your soil you can probably get a basic idea of what you have. Soil with too much clay or too much sand may need several years of amendment before you get a good yield from your vegetables and flowers. Many vegetables will want more of one nutrient or another in the soil, kind of like a pregnant woman needs more of certain vitamins than say a high school athlete. I'll cover more about soil when I actually get to start digging. Just be forewarned that soil type makes a difference, but most problems can be corrected.
And what I think is the most important for an urban gardener- size. I want as much variety in my postage stamp as possible! so plants need to be compact, or at least controllable.
Last year I chose cherry tomato plants. I figured, small fruit, small plant. WRONG. Most tomatoes, the cherry ones I had included, are vines and get very leggy, they need to be tied to stakes or cages to support the branches. I had always heard my mom talk about determinate tomatoes but I had it in my mind that these were container type tomatoes that wouldn't get very big or put off much fruit. Thanks to Territorial Seed Co., I now know that determinate simply means that instead of growing vertically and contiuously, they grow latterally and stop after they get to a certain size. They do have the disadvantage of having all the fruit come at once, but by having several varieties, tomatoes can be spread over the growing season. And after my previous attempts at tomatoes (all in pots, all kind of neglected since I didn't realize how much care goes into gardening) never got very big, I figured since I really had space- which in contrast to a 10'x6' patch of concrete, I did-, I could pack in the tomato plants. I also hate to let baby plants go to waste and since I didn't have anybody else to share them with, I put 6 ideterminate cherry tomato plants (vines) along one side of my garden. The good news is that I got pints and pints of tomatoes. The bad news is they smothered just about everything else I had planted along that side and threatened to take over the yard. A few zinnias managed to squeeze there way through, and the marigolds survived well enough that I got a few flowers out of them once I pulled the tomato plants out, but I have learned my lesson, and am now searching for the perfect DETERMINATE tomato for my garden.
My dilemma in picking out seeds has been made even more difficult by the fact that my mom sent me a big stack of all her favorite seed catalogues. I have added this to the pile of Amy's favorite seed sources and I am up to 10 or 11 catalogues FULL of more tomatoes, peppers, green beans, squash, flowers and all kinds of other stuff that I would love to put in my garden but know that I don't have the skills or patience for yet. Once I find the tomatoes I want, I have to move on to peppers, then cucumbers, lettuce, squash, flowers AHHHHHHH!!!! I have to remind myself that I am new to this and I am going to be more disappointed if I plant 15 things and don't have time to really learn how to grow them so they all flop, than I will be if I stick to 3 or 4 things and really figure them out and get a nice harvest before adding to my garden.
So the quest begins, to pick the plants that will thrive in my little Eden.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Cheep seed starting set up

Sorry this is backward - to show results and then talk about process - but here is how I started peppers.

  • Egg cartons
  • Sprouting soil
  • Lipped baking tray
  • Washtub
  • Seeds
  • Thermometer
  • 60 watt bulb and clamp fixture and/or multispectrum florescent light and fixture.
  • Something to keep the moisture in.
  • Oh, and water.
Put the amount of sprouting soil you think you'll need in to a washtub or bucket or sauce pan, what ever you have really. Sprinkle this soil with water until it is damp but not wet. Scoop this soil into your egg cartons. Tap the filled cartons on a table to compact the soil very lightly and then add a little more soil and fill and tap again until the cells of the egg carton are full.
Gently push your seeds into the soil in each cell. Knowing that about 20% of my seeds won't sprout I put 2 seeds per cell. Later you'll clip the less successful sprout of each cell, or tease them apart when you move them to little pots.
Place the filled egg cartons on the lipped baking tray. Your free alternatives to the baking tray are polystyrene meat trays, cut in half "door storage" style juice jugs and random clam shell packaging. Put a little bit of water in the tray and cover with the moisture barrier. I've used, cling film, space bags, and so on but I finally caved and bought something for the purpose, which cost $6 and was made in the USA so I'm not going to feel bad about it.
Place these items where they can get to the correct temperature. Peppers like it hot, 75-85 degrees. I put mind in a closet and set up a 60 watt. At this point heat is more important then light. You could store them in the dark at this point, if you have a lizard mat, heating pad, or ceramic heat bulb that would be awesome. I use the thermometer for the first couple of days as I figure out were the heat source should go to keep the spouts at optimal temp.
Then you wait, checking the moisture and so forth until you see spouts. What is when light becomes important and you need to change up to a multispectrum light and give them room to grow, you want to keep the light rather close to the sprouts because they can become very tall if they are reaching for the light.
Next up, moving them to pots...and starting tomatoes...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Armchair Gardening

PlanBe has already started her peppers, man am I behind! I'm still drooling over the catalogues.

I have really been at gardening for 3 years now, though since I moved away from home I have always had house plants- I was the strange one on my floor in the dorm. We bought our house 3 summers ago, I don't think anybody had ever tried to grow anything other than weeds back there. When looking at houses I probably should have thought a littler harder about how big of a yard I would require for gardening, but we are here now, I love the house, and I am enjoying the challenges of having a 15'x25' yard. That first summer I was just ecstatic to have dirt to play with that wasn't in a pot.
When I started digging (with the help of my mom who has been gardening for 20+ years) we found construction debris-big rocks, chunks of concrete, etc.- even though our house was built over 100 years ago and we could immediately tell that the garden was not going to be immediately bountiful. Oh yeah, and the fence needed fixed...

For any of you with the problem of poor, previously unworked soil, the only way to deal with it is enrichment or 'amending the soil'. I was lucky to not get the clay soil that my mom has, but it was still very nutrient poor. So here's how my garden came about.
With such limited space, the compromise beween my husband and I was that I was allowed to have my garden if I left enough space to have friends over to enjoy our chimnea and space to enjoy eating alfresco. We settled on an approximately 2' deep bed around 3 sides with the small patio on the 4th.
I defined my beds, lining the edges with bricks that came from dismanteling the former outdoor privy- long ago abandoned, but the bricks were still in great shape- you have to love free on site building materials! Then I spent hours picking piles and piles of rocks and weeds out (which did have one benefit of concurrently loosening up the dirt), and saw just how bad our dirt was. The first summer we managed to get grass to grow. I planted tomatoes, lettuce, green beans and 3 kinds of flowers, I think we managed to get 3 tomatoes and 10 green beans. Oh yeah, and lots of zinnias. I killed a lot of plants and learned quite a bit.
The process-
A new garden needs:
Definition- In this case bricks to keep all the grass and weeds that I spent back breaking hours pulling out of the growing area, and so I only nurish the part where the plants are instead of overfeeding the grass. Raised beds are also an excellent choice as, among other benefits, they give you the freedom to build on top of poor soil rather than enrich it like I am, but in my case, that will come later.
Something to fluff it up- Coir is great for this, it loosens up the dirt so the plants can get their roots down in deep and improves drainage. I have found that coir also works well as mulch to keep moisture in the soil and weeds from growing around the plants.
Something to feed the plants- I choose to be organic, meaning I don't use manufactured chemicals as pesticides and fertilizers. In the long run it is MUCH better for the planet, your soil, and your body since you are not consuming the residue of those chemicals. I use long release granulars because face it, I'm lazy sometimes and if I can throw a handful of granuals in when I put the plant in the ground, and maybe twice more through the summer plus a few boosts with liquid kelp dissolved in my watering can, I'm going to go that route!
How to get Plants- For my first summers some of the plants came from my mom, some came from a local plant sale, some came from my early attempts at starting seeds. I am switching to starting most of my own seeds, and PlanBe is already quite good at this, so keep an eye on her comments. You will have to figure out what works best for you. I think for me I really want to start all my own but it is going to take awhile to get the hang of starting plants so I will supplement them with plants bought from the neighborhood sale. It is really rewarding to see something go from a tiny seed all the way to fruitful plant
What kind of Plants to Get- When I started I didn't know much about what would grow well in our area, or what I even wanted, other than flowers and tomatoes. Apparently I chose wrong, for 2 years I had lots of leaves on the tomatoe plants, but no tomatoes. Last year I had cherry tomato plants that nearly took over the neighborhood, and we got pints of tomatoes out of them. We didn't get much else though since everything else got lost in the vines. I will be commenting more on how I choose plants this year. For a beginner there will be a lot of trial and error. You can read the descriptions though and check for sun, soil, temperature and water requirements to give you an idea if it will work in your area. After that, keep track of what works and what doesn't, and look around the neighborhood for other gardeners to talk to, to see what works for them.
So there is my first post as a blogger. I know it is a little wordy, but there is so much to say about gardening. I am so excited to think that we may find kindered spirits who can share the challenges and joys of urban gardening. If you stumble across our little piece of cyber space, drop us a line and let us know what you think... and how your garden grows.


change of set up.

So the hack had other issues then needing lung power...the plants were still drying. The water was condensing into the bag instead of on the tray were the plants could get at it. so one $6 impulse buy later...

Yay sprouts!

humidity hack

So the egg carton spouting trays were drying out to fast so I came up with a hack. Space bags. It really works, but unfortunately we have to re-inflate the bag every morning...

Starting seeds and a blog in the snow

I had to laugh as I set up my make-shift sprouting tray in the office closet. It was snowing, the first big snow of the winter and here I am starting my summer plants. I maybe a bit early starting the peppers but this is when my chart says to start them. I have planted "California wonders" a sweet bell type from buzz seeds, "Thai Hots" from natural garden, Anchos collected from peppers we bought at a farmers' market, red frying peppers from Fordi's South Philly neighbor and Orange bells of unknown origin...