Children and Nature Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To Uncategorized

Start Gardening at Home

cilantro babies

Are you at home more and wanting to go to the grocery store less?  This might be a good year to grow some of your own food at home.

When I started this blog I was the School Gardens Coordinator in the most densely populated city in New England: Somerville, MA. I’m now living (and still happily gardening), in rural Vermont.  Over the years I’ve posted many articles about how to start your own garden, whether it’s in raised beds, pots on a porch, or a large plot tilled in a field.  I’ve gathered the posts below in the hopes that they might help you get started or answer some of your questions.

*Please excuse funky formatting of older posts.  I recently changed the format of the blog to make it more mobile friendly.


Gardening with kids: If you have kids at home, this article has a lot of really helpful tips.  When I wrote it I was coordinating the weekly programming and maintaining the vegetable gardens at 8 Somerville public schools.  Gardening is an incredibly rich sensory activity that allows for movement and engaged outdoor time.  Watching seeds grow into plants and produce food is magical.  I strongly encourage you to try it with your family!

Pic 1006

Making a Raised Bed Back-Yard Garden: I wrote this series of posts when Evan and I built raised beds in the backyard in Brookline.  Raised beds can be a good idea if you want clear boundaries between play/yard space and garden space.  This can help family members understand where they can walk and where they can’t, can help lawn mowers avoid veggie plants, and can keep lawn grass from creeping back into your garden.  The “Planning” post has the most information on how to get started in your backyard space.
Bakyard Gardening: The Idea
Backyard Gardening: Planning
Backyard Gardening: The Shopping List
Backyard Gardening: Construction Day
Backyard Gardening: First Harvest
Backyard Gardening: Putting The Garden To Bed


Seeds vs. Seedlings: Sometimes it’s best to buy vegetable seedlings from a nursery.  Sometimes it’s better to buy a packet of seeds to start yourself.  Check out this post  to decide whether to buy seeds or seedlings.


Consider planning a Container Garden: If you live in an urban setting with questionable soil, rent or are planning to move, or have a nice sunny porch, you may want to consider a container garden!  Containers are a great way to try out vegetable growing on a small scale, and can help you determine if you’d like to do more the next season.  If you start gathering materials now, it can also be a very affordable option!  This post lists all the things you should consider to grow a successful container garden.

Seasonality Tips: In April it’s still quite cold and only certain seeds should be planted.  Check out this post to know what to plant when.

Let me know if you have any vegetable gardening questions!  Questions from friends, family, and neighbors inspired every one of these posts.  Happy Gardening!

Home Gardens Recipes

Late Fall Greens: Chard Recipes

In our garden only leafy greens and root crops remain.  The last lettuce got hit by a hard frost, the spinach was finished off in our salad last week, and arugula stands in scruffy flowering patches.   Chard and kale plants, however, still tower above the sprouting cover crop of winter rye.  Kale can survive very heavy frosts – even long stretches of time below freezing.  We found that it actually improves, growing sweeter and more tender with frost.  Chard, however, starts to brown and wilt with each new night below freezing.  Now’s the time to enjoy it!

We’ve been enjoying some delicious chard quiches.  In fact, we started calling them chard pies because more chard than egg ended up in the pie crust!  Just use your favorite spinach quiche recipe, and substitute chard for spinach.

When I’m in the mood for a simpler chard dish, I steam chopped leaves and stems in a pot with a thin layer of water in the bottom.  After it’s wilted, I drain it and toss the leaves with a splash of balsamic vinegar.  Crumbled feta on top adds some creamy and salty flavors.  Mmmmm.

In the end, we always have more chard than we can eat straight out of the garden.  To preserve it for the winter, we harvest all the remaining healthy leaves (feeding the bottom or browning leaves to the chickens).  Because we have so much volume, we compost the stems.  They are good, though, so feel free to include them if you want!  We chop the leaves and blanch batches of them in our largest pot.  After the leaves are wilted and dark green, we remove them from the boiling water and allow to cool in a colander.  After all the leaves have cooled, we squeeze out any remaining water and pack them into plastic freezer bags in portion sizes our family is likely to use in a meal.  Now we’ll have plenty of tender greens all winter long.


Home Gardens School Gardens

Time to Keep Garden Pests Under Control

It’s been a great growing season.  We got an early start and have had a decent mix of rain and warm sunny days.  Now that your tender seedlings are reaching up toward the sky, it’s a crucial time to prevent pest damage.  Plants are especially vulnerable when they are young with only a few leaves to gather energy from the sun.  Unfortunately, young tender leaves are also the most desirable food for most pests.

I have found it helpful to review the life cycle of an insect with gardeners trying to keep pests out of their gardens.  Different insects are easier to control at certain stages – checking out this page may save you a lot of time and energy!

For small kitchen or container gardens, the best way to keep pests under control is daily monitoring and hand picking/squishing.  If squishing bugs, eggs, and caterpillars between your fingers feels too violent or gross, you can place critters between a leaf or tissue first.  Remember to look under leaves and along stems – pests are rarely in plain sight!

If your plants are really being attacked, use google to find organic pest solutions using words describing what you have observed, the type of plant, and the word “organic.”  In the photos below, I’ve illustrated some of the bugs bothering our vegetables:

Young cabbage worm on broccoli leaf

Can you find me?  This is a small cabbage worm on a broccoli seedling.  They are very well camouflaged and are usually found along the stem or underside of the leaves of broccoli, cabbage, kale, or collards.

Snail on broccoli seedling

Snails and slugs thrive in damp humid environments.  One down-side of mulching is the creation of snail and slug homes near your plants.  They usually come out after dark and feast at night.

Three Lined Potato Beetle laying eggs on tomatillo seedling

These little beetles love love love our tomatillo plants. They lay small bright orange eggs on the undersides of leaves. Squish eggs, and then the little brown worms that emerge, to avoid breeding the hard-to-catch and destructive adult beetles!

Beetle eggs on the underside of a tomatillo leaf
Flea Beetle damage to eggplant seedling

Flea beetles damage leaves of plants from many different families.  To keep them off your seedlings, try laying row cover cloth over the young plants and sealing the edges to the ground using rocks or stakes.  Once the plants have enough leaves to withstand these pests, remove the cloth.  This is a good preventative method for all flying pests (remember, most insects in their adult stages can fly and are hard to catch and kill).

Row covers protect young cucumber seedlings
Black netting keeps our cat out

Remember that non-insect pests also cause damage to gardens. This black netting is lightly mounded over the soil and keeps our cat from using the newly seeded carrot bed as a litter box.

Marigolds and tomatos planted side by side

Remember to use preventative methods to keep pests out.  Strong healthy plants do not attract as many pests or diseases compared to stressed ones.  Companion planting, like the tomato and marigold pairing above, will help your organic garden thrive.  Some companions actually help their friends by attracting predatory insects that will eat the pests!

As you work to keep pests away, never forget that organic gardening depends on creating an ecosystem in your garden.  That ecosystem includes pollinating and predatory insects.  Always look up the pest before squishing – it might, after all, be a garden friend.

Home Gardens Musings

New Growth: Seedling Inspiration

It’s still the perfect time to plant seeds!  We are not quite to our May 1st frost-free date in Somerville, so hold off on heat-loving tomatoes, basil, eggplants, and peppers.  Cilantro, spinach, lettuce, peas and dill are great choices to sow directly (put seeds right in the ground outside) at this time of year.  Remember that peas will need trellises to wrap their tendrils around.  Baby greens, if cut off above their “crowns” (the part where the leaves grow out of the stem), can re-grow a crop up to three times!

Watching my seeds sprout and grow in the spring is good for my mental health.  I watch my little lettuces and peas like a mother watches a child.  No matter how busy I am, I take a moment every day to visit the porch, take in a deep breath of fresh air, touch the soil to test for dampness, and observe the minute changes that gradually accumulate.  Plants – given sun, soil, water, warmth and air – have a remarkable ability to grow.  Conversely, we adults caught up our culture of stress, work, and extreme busyness have our ups and downs.  We have days we feel tall and strong, but we also have days when we want to curl up into a ball and go into hibernation.  I’ve found it especially important to take time to take a walk or visit a park during my time living in the city.  Want to read more about nature’s effect on mental health?  Check out this article!





Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Seeds vs. Seedlings

With these early warm temperatures, many people are starting to think about summer vegetable gardening.  And it’s the perfect time to start your own seeds!  I usually start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants in the second half of March and most other seedlings after that.  But should you start your own seedlings?  The answer isn’t necessarily yes.

Many great local farms and community organizations sell seedlings.  Even if six packs are more expensive then seed packages, remember your money is going to a good cause.  If you’ve been growing vegetables for a year or two (or more!) and are looking for a new challenge, go for it!  It also is often worth the effort for folks with very large vegetable gardens or farms.  But remember, strong seedlings are the key to success for a healthy summer vegetable garden.   You’ll need the right equipment, enough time to care for the seedlings, and an attention for detail to raise strong seedlings.

The first key thing to find out is which plants should be grown into seedlings indoors or in a cold frame.  Some seeds hate being transplanted and should simply be directly sowed into their final resting place – be it a container garden or in the ground.  I always direct sow beans, carrots, cilantro, corn, cucumbers, dill, summer squash/zucchini, baby lettuce greens, beets, leeks, spinach, other greens, onion “sets”, peas, potatoes (pieces of potatoes, not seeds), radishes,  and pumpkins/winter squash.

Head lettuce, kale, and chard will need to be transplanted.  However, I’ve had good luck planting them in outdoor beds, rather than indoors in seedling trays.  After they’ve grown their second set of leaves, I then spread them apart by transplanting them into their final summer resting place.

Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, kohlrabi, broccoli, and cauliflower are best started indoors or in a greenhouse.  If you want to grow these from seed, make sure the following pieces are in place!

  • Be sure not to get in over your head.  Start the number of plants you can care for.  Try starting one or two of your favorite varieties of a veggie listed above if it’s your first year.
  • You’ll need really strong natural light.  If you don’t have a sunny southern window, consider buying a grow light (or put a full spectrum fluorescent bulb into a regular fixture).  You can see my set-up from last year below – the grow light is propped up on containers from my pantry.  I substitute in taller containers as the plants grow.  You can see that the light is quite close to the seedlings – keeping light this low prevents seedlings from being leggy – one of the most common weaknesses of home-grown starts.
  • Buy seed starting potting mix.  There are organic soil mixes available at most garden stores.  These mixes keep moisture even, contain the nutrients young plants need, and don’t compact like outdoor soil will.
  • You also will need warm temperatures for certain seeds to germinate (65-75 degrees).  Sunny windows can be warmer than the rest of your house.  Anything with a motor, like a refrigerator, can also provide extra warmth to specific places in your house.  If you don’t have any particularly warm places, you may need to buy a heat pad to get tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and basil to germinate.  I bought one from Johnny’s that worked well for my eggplants.
  • Timing: You want to start seeds so that they are the right size when it is warm enough to plant them outdoors.  UMass Extension has good guidelines (and many other resources for Massachusetts gardeners), or you can search for other charts online.
  • Make durable labels.  You need to know which plants are which.  I suggest popsicle sticks with permanent marker.  You can also cut strips out of recycled plastic containers and write with permanent marker on them.
  • Pay attention!  Even water is key for healthy seedlings.  Lights should be kept close to the tallest leaves, but you don’t want these leaves to touch the bulb.  Once you see plants developing their second set of leaves, you may need to transplant them into lager containers so they do not become root bound.  Keeping a close eye on your spring babies will set you up for success.
There are many websites offering advice for first time seed starters.  Check them out if you want more informaiton!  I found Mother Earth NewsNational Garden Bureau Organic,  and Gardener’s Supply interesting and informative.

Home Gardens Musings School Gardens

Gardening with a Changing Climate

Last weekend I planted lettuce, spinach, and pea seeds in the buckets on my porch.  The soil was toasty warm and over-wintered chives stretched as tall as my hand.  I wish I had measured them – I swear they grew an inch that day as they enjoyed temperatures in the 70s.

As I mentioned in a January blog entry, we tapped our maple trees two weeks early this season.  We didn’t know if sap would even flow – there were few deep freezes this winter and temperatures went above freezing on most days.  December and January temperatures are usually below freezing.  When they rise above 32 during the day, we know it is time to tap.  This year we didn’t receive any such guidance from the local climate.

In validation of these observations of warming climate and earlier seasons, the USDA released a new hardiness zone map at the start of 2012.Minimum temperatures rose across the country.  We can now officially plant earlier in the spring and expect frosts to come later in the fall.  Click on the map to see what zone you live in.  Remember to account for different micro climates, such as warmer temperatures by a south facing wall or cooler temperatures on north facing slopes.

Though it is important not to make climate change claims based on individual weather events, all of our local observations indicate that the gardening season is getting longer.  It’s still too early to plant certain vegetables in Massachusetts, and will likely stay cool at night.  Spinach, chard, kale, lettuce and peas are all great cool weather plants that can tolerate cool nights.  Get those seeds in and you could enjoy an early spring harvest this year!

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Backyard Gardening: Putting the Garden to Bed

This post is a bit overdue, we put the garden to bed the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  Given this year’s temperatures, we could have done it on New Years Day!

Putting a vegetable garden to bed in the fall isn’t truly necessary, but it makes things much easier in the spring.  It will allow you to plant earlier, when soil is still quite wet from melting snow.  Your garden will also look cleaner and more attractive to neighbors and housemates in urban settings.

Choosing the right time can be tricky, especially when first frosts are coming later and later in the season.  This year we had our first frost on November 2 in the city, leaving everything but chard and kale limp and dead.  These hardy greens, however, often get thicker sweeter leaves in the late cool fall, so I like to leave my garden intact until I’ve finished eating them all.  However, I also try to get my garden tucked away for the winter before it gets so cold that outdoor work becomes a painful chore.

Once you’re ready to unearth your veggie plant stumps and skeletons, gather a shovel, pruners, soil rake, a place to put your compost-ready plants, and some sort of mulch.  Leaves offer a free option, but these often blow away.  Salt march hay or straw (make sure it doesn’t have seeds) stay in place better and can be bought from a garden store.  First, pull out all your old plants, chop them up into 4″ pieces and put them into the compost.  Keeping compost additions small will ease in turning your heap.  Next, turn over your soil to kill any small weed plants and aerate your soil.  This is a good time to add completed compost or soil amendments so that everything will be ready in the spring.  Once you have raked your soil flat, add a layer of mulch over the top.  It can help to water the entire garden after mulching it to weigh down the mulch and keep it from blowing away.  Mulch will prevent weed seeds from sprouting early in the spring and will keep soil from blowing away or eroding during the winter.

We sifted completed compost out of the bin, re-layered its contents with our new dead plants, tilled the new compost into our garden soil, and mulched the garden with leaves in about 45 minutes!  Plenty of time was left for some pick-up basketball during the unseasonably warm late November weekend.

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes

Backyard Gardening: First Harvest

This post is far overdue: we harvested the first delicious greens from the backyard garden months ago. In fact, the lettuce and arrugula we planted after clear-cutting the spinach is now ready to eat!  Summer has a way of running away with my time and (happily) diminishes time near a computer.

I think in this case, pictures speak better than words.  An amazing spinach yogurt soup recipe can be found after the photos.  The unique blend of spices and herbs makes it uniquely delicious.  In mid and late summer, try substituting any cookable leafy green (like chard or kale) for spinach.

Spinach Yogurt Soup:

  • 1 Onion
  • 2 Tablespoons Flour
  • 2 Cups Vegetable Broth
  • Terragon
  • 3 Tablespoons Butter
  • 1 Teaspoon Salt
  • Nutmeg
  • Cayenne
  • 3/4 Pound Spinach
  • 3/4 Cup Yogurt
  1. Sautee onion + butter until soft but not brown.
  2. Mix in flour, salt, terragon, nutmeg, cayenne.
  3. Shortly after, mix in broth and cook until bubbly.
  4. Add spinach, bring to a boil and then reduce heat + simmer for 10 minutes uncovered.
  5. Turn off the heat to allow it to cool for a few minutes before putting it in the blender and pureeing.
  6. Return to pot, mix in yogurt and heat until steaming – not boiling.
Get Involved! Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Composting Webinar Online!

Ok, ok, I know my friends are probably sick of me talking about compost.  I have just a few more things to say about the topic, then I’ll leave it be for at least a few months…really!

First, last week’s webinar went really well.  Thanks to all who attended, especially those who asked such interesting and probing questions!  I could tell that everyone in the “room” was really thinking about getting started and thought deeply about addressing any concerns or roadblocks in their way.  Could’t attend?  Don’t worry!  You can view the webinar recording (click on the image below) to learn the basics of urban home composting and listen to the question and answer period that followed.  Thanks to the Environmental Leadership Program for making this available.

Click this image to check out the webinar!

Are you a more visual learner?  All examples of composting methods pictured in the webinar can be found at the Somerville Community Growing Center.  I’ll be leading the last of their compost trainings THIS Saturday June 25th!  If you live in Somerville or in the Boston area, I’d love to see you there.  I would also be very appreciative if you could pass along this free opportunity to folks you think might be interested.  Read below for more the details in a letter sent recently by the “Compost Caretaker Team:”

We’re happy that the Growing Center can facilitate Somerville residents in reducing their waste stream and creating healthy soil.  However, simply bringing your food waste to the center is not the only step!  If you wish to compost at the Growing Center, you must attend an FCGC volunteer orientation AND a Growing Center composting workshop. 

Our last COMPOSTING WORKSHOP of the season is on Saturday June 25 from 12-1 pm: Join Groundwork Somerville’s Gardens Coordinator for this practical workshop.  Have you wanted to learn about urban composting or had trouble managing a healthy compost bin? Come learn the basics of turning yard and food waste into a valuable soil amendment in one of the most rewarding ecological activities that fits well in the city. Learn a few simple guidelines and see a range of options. This is a great opportunity to trouble shoot, ask questions, and create a viable plan to reduce household or office waste! 

Our compost bins are managed by Friends of the Community Growing Center (FCGC) volunteers and the labor of those who wish to use the bins for their food scraps.   Thank you for your help!

Tai & Aileen
FCGC Compost Caretaker Team

Healey School Gardener hunts for "compost critters"

Get Involved! Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Urban Composting

Moving to Boston provoked several urban lifestyle wake-up-calls, many of them relating to city residents’ relationship to food and waste.  Many of my comments drew quizzical looks.

In line at dining hall brunch:
Classmate: “Why don’t you want a bunch of these HUGE strawberries?!”
Me: “They’re not in season, it’s January.  I don’t know, I’d rather eat citrus because this is the time of year it’s really good.”
Classmate: “?!? Ok, more for me!”

At a department event with free food:
Me: “Where do we put the vegetables we’re not going to eat?”
Professor: “Uh, in the trash?”

After living here for almost six years, I now see why it is so hard to be aware of seasonality or waste reduction options when living in an urban community.  It takes much more effort and desire, and many people choose to focus their efforts elsewhere.  In the past several years I’ve happily noticed increased interest in compost, farmer’s markets, in-season local food, and back yard/porch gardening.  Things are really changing.
There certainly are legitimate reasons that composting, eating in-season local food, and urban gardening are challenging and even harmful to one’s heath.  Toxic soils, rats, and high initial costs can give such pursuits a bad name if done without some research and strategy.  This is why I am so excited to be able to offer “Urban Composting Workshops” – both in-person, as a representative of Groundwork Somerville at the Somerville Community Growing Center, and in webinar format as a Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leaders Program.

Join me in person or online to learn about how to deter pests and rodents, eliminate odors, and turn waste to compost as fast as possible.  These issues are common in urban settings and often give composting a bad name – don’t let this happen to you and your neighbors!!  Maintaining a healthy compost bin reduces waste (and smelly trash cans) and improves soil quality. Done right, you can inspire others to compost in their backyards. Even with limited space or no backyard, there are options for you too.  Join me!