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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Seeds and Where to Find Them

By now you may have received your first seed catalog(s) in the mail. It's a fun time of the year for gardeners. We get to sift through the pages, read the descriptions designed to entice us, and dream of what we will plant next year. When the weather is cold and dreary the catalogs give us something bright and hopeful to look forward to!

Which seed catalog is the best one? That really depends on the gardener and what they are looking to grow. Seed companies exist with many different combinations of products from vegetables and herbs to flowering and ornamental plants. Most companies offer a wide assortment of seeds but there are a few that specialize in only a couple types of seeds like tomatoes or peppers. There is a seed catalog out there for everyone!

When choosing which company to order your seeds from look for non-GMO seeds. Companies that have sought to avoid GMO seeds have what is called the "Safe-Seed Pledge." They are taking in active role in avoiding the purchase of GMO seeds. I won't get into the specifics of why you should avoid GMO seeds as that is a rather large topic for discussion. I'll save that conversation for another day.

You also can get seeds from friends or save them yourselves. The only issue with these seeds is the resulting plant may have some variations from the original unless extra care was taken to avoid cross-pollination. Seeds saved from hybrids do not produce reliable offspring and aren't the best source for seed saving. Stick with heirlooms for seed saving for the most reliable results.

Below I will list a some of the most reputable seed companies around that I am VERY comfortable in recommending. The seed companies that I use frequently are marked (*). I will also add to this list from time to time so feel free to bookmark it and check back periodically. Also if there are any you would like to recommend please mention them in the comments. A couple of the links below are affiliate links and I greatly appreciate your support of GrowingTheHomeGarden.com!

Don't forget to check out a few of these garden seed posts for more information on growing plants from seed.

A Directory of Quality Seed Companies

  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds* - heirlooms, herbs, and a few types of flower seeds. GREAT catalog with photographs you will drool over!
  • Botanical Interests* - Great seeds and very informative packets with hand drawn art. They have an organic line of seeds which is a great option. I order garlic from them every fall and use their organic line of greens frequently.
  • Johnny's Select Seeds* - A great company with a great reputation across the industry!
  • Renee's Garden* - Renee has some fantastic seeds which include heirlooms, herbs, and flowers. There is also an organic line available.
  • Seed Saver's Exchange - A non-profit seed saving organization that is dedicated to saving open-pollinated and heirloom seeds.
  • High Mowing Seeds - 100% Organic seed. Vegetables, herbs, and flowers. They also have cover crops that can be very useful for soil building. 
  • Sustainable Seed Company - Organic seeds and heirlooms.
  • Marianna's Heirloom Seeds - A Tennessee resident who specializes in heirloom, open-pollinated, and naturally grown seeds.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Making a Hoop House for Winter Vegetable Growing

small garden hoop house for winter vegetable growingMany gardeners take the winter season off from gardening. They work hard from early spring through late far then take a little break but you don't have to stop growing vegetables in your garden just because the weather has changed. One way to continue growing vegetables in cold weather is to construct a hoop house. A hoop house is simply an unheated greenhouse type structure that will help keep the temperatures several degrees warmer. In areas with mild winters a hoop house can allow you to continue growing all the way through the winter. Hoop houses can be made of many different types of materials. In this post you will see one way to put together an economical, small hoop house for your garden.

(The materials for this project were furnished by Lowe's as a part of the Creative Bloggers Network!)

How to Make a Small Hoop House for Winter Vegetable Gardening:

Materials for a Hoop House

  • 5 - 3/4 in. electrical conduits (10' cut in half)
  • 2 - 4"x4" pressure treated 8' posts
  • 2 - 1"x4" pressure treated 8' boards
  • 2 - 1/2"x2" pressure treated 8' boards
  • 20 - 3/4 in. conduit straps (one package)
  • Screws
  • 1 roll of 6 mil plastic
  • A few pieces of scrap wood
It took me part of one day to put together one hoop house so you can easily put together several over the course of a weekend. You could even create a larger hoop house using the same type of construction materials.

The first step to making this hoop house is to cut the conduit pipes. For this I used a pipe cutter. I cut each length of 10' pipe into two 5' lengths.

Once the pipes were cut in half I wanted to bend them to form a slight curve. You can buy a pipe bender to bend the conduit which I would recommend if you plan to put together a lot of hoop houses. I went a simpler route and placed the two 8' pieces of 4"x4"s a short distances apart and bent the pipe by placing my foot where I wanted the bend to start. Then I adjusted one end upward slightly to form the curve. It's not an exact method but I was able to get all the pieces to bend fairly consistently.

After the pipes were bent I attached them to the 8' 4"x4" lumber with the conduit straps and screws to create the ribs. I did this for both sides of the hoop house then moved them into the garden.

Next I attached two pieces of 1"x4" together to form a ridge. The ridge will hold the tops of the conduit with more conduit straps. It also serves as a good place to attach the plastic which comes next.

I rolled the plastic out on the ground and measured it to 14' long. This allowed for the 8' of hoop house I needed to cover plus an extra 6 feet for covering each end. I centered the plastic which was 10' wide over the peak and left a couple inches on each side of the hoop house to attach the plastic to the 8' posts.

Once the plastic was in place I secured it to the peak using small pieces of scrap wood leftover from a previous project and attached the bottom of the plastic to the 4"x 4" base posts. I used the 1"x 4" pieces of lumber to clamp the plastic to the base.

I anchored one end of the hoop house with a couple retaining wall blocks and the other end I folded over and used a small piece of scrap hose to hold it onto the hoop house. If I have to secure the plastic to other poles later more hoses can be used.

Inside the hoop house I should be able to maintain a warm enough environment for winter greens to grow!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier (Book Review)

Recently I purchased a copy of The Market Gardener written by the Canadian organic farmer Jean-Martin Fortier. As soon as I read the description I was immediately interested in its contents. The Market Gardener explains how to raise enough crops on just 1.5 acres of land to make a full time income and support one's family.

With my love for growing the garden, farmers market experiences, and a hope to always be able to continue to do what I enjoy for a living The Market Gardener sounded like a great book.  I was not disappointed! I learned a lot from the pages of The Market Gardener. Jean-Martin Fortier has 10 years of experience in growing vegetables which he then sells through a thriving CSA program, to grocery stores, and at farmers markets. He and his partner Maise-Helene Desroches have created a unique business plan for small scale farming using biointensive techniques that can be transferred over and scaled to any small garden.

What is The Market Gardener About?

In the first pages of The Market Gardener, Jean-Martin explains some of the fundamentals of how their small organic farm is so productive. Biointensive farming involves techniques that nourish the soil and the land to get the maximum output possible from the crops. By enriching the soil, plants can be spaced closer together and the rich soil contributes to a better harvest. There is a great deal of planning to grow a program as successful as Les Jardins de la Grelinette (the name of their farm).

Throughout the book Jean-Martin shares biointensive techniques on weed control, growing crops, and most importantly: planning the whole small farm operation. In order to make the farm as profitable as possible it requires extensive planning, detailed note taking, and organization which enables their small 1.5 acre farm earn over 120k per year. What they have done is very impressive, especially when you consider the lack of mechanization. As a small scale farming operation they have minimized the use of tillers and mechanical equipment to help preserve soil structure. It's a farm, but its spirit is a garden.

The Market Gardener is a great roadmap for anyone interested in pursuing a similar farming operation. The book doesn't sugar coat the process but instead gives you guide in how to think, how to plan, and how to implement successful techniques for small scale farming. What I found particularly interesting were the statistics that he shared about Les Jardins de la Grelinette. There were charts with a list of profitable vegetable plants and the income they produced, proper plant spacing, when to start the crops from seed, fertilization, crop rotation, and much more. The Market Garden really is a treasure trove of information on biointensive gardening for the market gardener!

It's an inspiring read for any gardener who dreams of running his or her own farm. Every farm situation is different and success will vary significantly between techniques used and the discipline of the farmer. Jean-Martin does a great job of explaining the process in a realistic and detailed fashion. Farming is extremely hard work and The Market Gardener explains how to be successful at it on a local scale.

I highly recommend The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower's Handbook for Small-scale Organic Farming for anyone who has aspirations of making an income off of the land!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Planning Your Next Garden: Evaluate the Garden

The calendar hasn't said so yet officially, but winter weather is already here. As I write this post sleet is spitting through the air outside. Fortunately I have a pot of hot coffee available to offset the cold. What should a gardener be doing on these cold "winter" days when the garden isn't suitable for enjoyment? Cold winter days mean that it is time to plan the next garden. It's time to take what you learned from this year and plan how you want to do next year's garden better, bigger, and more efficient. Today I thought I would tell you about my thought processes for planning the next round of gardens. I'm mainly talking about the vegetable garden but you can adapt the thoughts in this post to herb gardens, cutting gardens, native gardens, or any other type of garden.

Planning a garden begins with evaluating the current and past gardens 

Evaluate your garden problems.

Every year you garden you will learn things. Maybe a plant did fantastic and you figured out exactly how to grow it, what conditions it enjoys, how productive it can be, or the right site for it, but maybe it didn't do so well. Maybe that plant failed miserably. (Don't worry about it I've screwed up quite a few plants over the years!) The experience can be turned from a failure into a positive learning experience simply by evaluating what went wrong. It's time to ask yourself some questions:

  • Did I have a pest problem? 
  • Was there a watering issue? Was there too much rain or too little rain?
  • Was enough fertilizer used? Did I use too much?
  • Did I time the fertilizer correctly?
  • Does the soil have enough organic matter?
  • Did I space my plantings properly?
  • Did I mulch my plants?
  • Did I stake the plants properly?
  • Did I spend enough time in my garden?

Those are just a few of the many questions you could ask yourself about your garden. It's not important that you micro-evaluate every little thing about your garden but rather that you get a general idea of what may have caused the problems your garden experienced. If you can identify the problem you can find a way to fix it!

how to grow great summer squash
5 Tips to Grow Great Summer Squash!

How Did Your Garden Produce?

Evaluating your garden isn't just about the figuring out the problems but also find out what you need to grow. Maybe you were giving your neighbors a daily dose of zucchini. In which case your neighbors may have mysteriously stopped answering the door...or moved...

Designing a garden: Things to Think AboutIt's also possible that you grew 4 tomato plants and you didn't have enough leftover to can some for the winter. Maybe you realized that you really don't like broccoli after all and the 25 heads you brought in from the garden was too much. It could be that you noticed that you used all the onions from the garden in your cooking too fast and need to grow more. There are many situations where you need to evaluate what you grew and how your garden produced.

Make a list of the vegetables you grew then make a few notes about their production. Keep it all related to what your needs are. If your family needs more peppers next year then make a note of it. If you need fewer zucchini plants (or need to successively plan them better) then take note of that too. Also include anything you didn't grow but might want to next year. Just keep the list simple.

Evaluate the garden space

There are efficient methods of laying out your garden design and then there are aesthetic methods to layout your garden design. Sometimes they overlap but often they don't! Ask yourself:
What could make the garden more efficient? The proximity of garden areas can greatly increase your efficiency. Your garden probably has a few critical elements for efficiency in its design:
  • Garden Beds
  • Compost Bins
  • Storage Areas
  • Water Sources
If your garden is small then this won't matter nearly as much, but having these areas close to one another can reduce a significant amount of wasted time in hauling hoses around, moving compost, and getting equipment. Ideally your garden will be centralized in relation to all the other elements but unfortunately sometimes the best situation for our gardens is not the best one for efficiency! In all things do the best you can!

Evaluate your garden tools

Do you have the best tools for the job? Is there something else that might work better? Are they cleaned and sharpened? If you take a few minutes to maintain your tools that may be all you need to significantly increase their efficiency!

Evaluate your garden's ultimate goal

Every year I set out to try something new in the garden. My goal is often simply to learn more about the plants I am growing and to figure out the mystery of growing a vegetable or a plant. It could be your goal is similar, but maybe your goal is grow enough food to donate to a local food bank. Maybe your goal is to sell produce at a farmers market and make a small profit. Whatever your goal was for this year try to figure out how well you met your goal and what was the difference between what you accomplished and what you hoped to accomplish.

Evaluating your garden shouldn't be something that is a tedious chore. Take some pleasure in thinking and reminiscing about your successes and even your failures. When you evaluate the garden you learn from it. When you learn something you'll know how to do it better when you plan your next garden.