Monday, January 31, 2011

Upcoming events of interest to food gardeners

Here are three events happening in the month of February in Montgomery County and the District of Columbia.  If you know of other food gardening-related events in Maryland or close by, please leave links in the comments.

February 19: RootingDC, a FREE Urban Gardening Forum to educate and build community among gardeners.

February 25: Green Matters Symposium, Real Food Renaissance.  This year the annual Brookside Gardens event will focus on the growing number of local, regional and national grassroots efforts to encourage Americans to eat “Real Food.” From public gardens to local government and nonprofit groups advancing change in our local food systems to high profile chefs committed to changing the way we eat and think about where our food comes from, we’re experiencing a culinary renaissance.  Register by today, January 31, for a discounted fee of $79.  $89 thereafter.  Edit: early registration deadline now extended to Feb. 7.

February 26: Random Acts of Gardening, Montgomery County Master Gardeners Mini-Conference.  This day-long educational program includes several classes on food gardening topics as well as on community gardens, seed-starting, landscaping, etc.  Cost: $50.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Novelty-vegetable-seeking behavior

Here's a topic to contemplate on a snowy winter's day, with seed catalogs spread around.  How do you make your choices for the new garden, and why?

I was having an email conversation with a fellow Master Gardener recently, during which I happened to mention a new variety of butternut squash I'd seen in a catalog.  She replied, "Waltham butternut has been fine for a long time; I think I have been saving seeds from it for at least 50 years, so there’s no need to try anything else."

This is not an attitude I disagree with, fundamentally.  Three cheers for Waltham butternut - it is a great squash.  (The photo is of Early Butternut, very similar but slightly shorter-vined, which is why I chose it for last year's garden.)  Three cheers for seed-saving, too.  (Though remember that if you grow any other Cucurbita moschata squash along with your butternut, they may cross.)  Also, three cheers for being a gardener for more than 50 years!

However, cheer-worthy as this approach is, it is not me.  No matter how good a particular variety is, I'm unlikely to grow it more than a few seasons in a row, and I'll only go several seasons because I don't like to waste seeds.  This is my year for using up all those packets of seed still hanging around from the last five years.  I have purchased for myself (as opposed to for the demo garden) a grand total of two packets of lettuce seed this year, and I didn't really need those, but since I have a salad table now, hurray, I will try to keep lettuce going all season.  Anyway, once I've made this sacrificial gesture (that still results in many delicious meals for my family) this year, next year I can approach the catalogs with excitement and buy All! New! Seed!  And what will I buy?  Not the varieties I've just used up seed packets for.  No matter how good they were.  I want to try something different.

Now, I should emphasize that I do not, by the definition psychologists use, have a novelty-seeking personality.  You won't catch me sky-diving or taking drugs or buying a new car I can't afford.  Nor am I the gardener who has to have the latest, most trendy thing, always.  But I am the sort of person who, given the choice, will opt for purple carrots.  (I am also the sort of person who likes to know, and tell other people, that purple was the original color of most cultivated carrots; orange came later.)  I'm more likely to go for something I haven't grown before, because it might be really good and it will certainly be fun to grow.

In my opinion, there is plenty of room in the gardening world for both sorts of gardeners - the "stick with what works" kind, and the "ooh, purple carrots" kind.  It's only gardeners who grow the same varieties for years on end who can tell you that they produce well, not just in that really good summer we had one year, but over all the droughty and rainy and buggy summers we have in the normal course of things.  They're the ones who'll have extra saved seed to share, too.  And if the trend is moving toward more hot, buggy summers, they are the ones who'll be able to tell you honestly that a tried-and-true variety is just not cutting it anymore (although it may take several years to persuade themselves).  They may be a little stick-in-the-mud, but they know what they're talking about.

If it wasn't for the purple-carrots gardeners, though, fewer of us would be willing to strike out into new gardening territory.  We can be a little flaky at times, we novelty-seekers, but we broaden viewpoints.  We also make the mistakes so you don't have to.  Talk to us and we'll tell you what not to plant, or when not to harvest, or that you really have to cut the seed-heads off or you'll be in big trouble.  We want to listen to your experiences, too, because ooh! maybe we'll grow that next year.

By the way, before you say anything, I don't think either attitude is a function of age.  I know "stick with what works" people much younger than me, and "let's try something different" people much older.  Most of us probably fall somewhere in between, and maybe we are always ready to try a new tomato but not willing to budge on sweet potatoes.  Also, most of us have small gardens (or at least smaller than we'd like them to be) and can only fit in so many different plants, and then there is the issue of leftover seed.  (Seed exchanges are great for this problem.  There's one this Saturday at Brookside Gardens if you are in the area.)

Perhaps each of us who leans toward stick-with-it-ness might resolve to try something with an ooh! factor this year, and the novelty-seekers might decide to become an expert on one variety by growing it year after year.

I have dibs on purple carrots!  Ooh, except yellow carrots...

Damrosch: Europe Plugs Its Own Leeks

Mention leeks in a conversation and many Americans think plumber. But in Europe, leeks are a time-honored garden favorite.

Leeks, though, are part of a growing political controversy in the European Union, where historic, open-pollinated varieties are being edged out by varieties, often hybrids, registered by seed companies.

To read Barbara Damrosch’s view on the issue in her “A Cook’s Garden” column in Thursday’s Washington Post, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Growing Tomatoes Atop Ice

As you look out and see 10 inches or more of snow this morning, are you planning to put on your boots and set out some tomato plants in your garden?

Ridiculous thought, you're thinking.  But don't they grow tomatoes, cukes, and lettuce atop the South Pole ice pack?

Yes, scientists at the United States South Pole Station grow a variety of veggies and herbs and a flower or two in a remotely controlled greenhouse that the manager calls a “growbot.”

Take three minutes to read Ann Posegate’s “A garden grows at the South Pole,” from Wednesday’s “Kids Post” page of the Washington Post.

To take a fast trip to the growbot, CLICK HERE.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Frugal Gardener: Build a Light Stand

Thinking of buying or building a light stand to start your veggie, herb, or flower seeds this spring, so you can select the exact varieties you want and save a few bucks in the growing?

How much do you want to spend?  $460.95?  $324.95?  $229.95?  $143.90?  $60.00?  $17.98?  $9.74?  Nothing?

To check out common possibilities, I paged through what’s probably America’s most popular seed catalog, Burpee. Burpee has a variety of light stands—single and double deckers—available in price from $460.95 to $143.90. All utilize 48” shoplights and include cool-white or wide-spectrum fluorescent bulbs. A Burpee customer for many years, I’ll assume quality is top of the line. Got the $$$ but not time to build your own, go Burpee.

If you want to save some dollars, build your own. A recent weekly email from the Vegetable Gardener website, which is affiliated with Fine Gardening Magazine, included a link to Greg Holdsworth’s article, “DIY PVC Grow Light Stand.” Greg gives a list of what you need and then tells you how to make an adjustable light stand, all illustrated by 12 numbered photographs. He estimates cost of PVC and hardware, including a 48” shop light and bulbs, is approximately $60.00

Want to save even more? All you need is a 48” shoplight and a place in a warm room to hang it. I just checked availability of 48”, 2-light, utility fluorescent shoplights at Lowe’s online and found two available, one at $17.98 and one at $9.74. Of course, you would have to buy two cool-white fluorescent bulbs, which cost an additional $7.00. To be fair, let’s add the bulb costs to up the barebones shoplight possibilities to $24.98 and $16.74. Still, those prices are a long, long way from $460.95. Smile, you Frugal Gardener.

And how can you set up your light stand for nothing? Go out in the garage or shop and take down a shoplight and use it for a month or so as your light stand. Or borrow one from a neighbor or friend.

The photo at left shows how for many years I used two shoplights to start seeds in our utility room, right next to our furnace, where even in these days of cut-back temperature settings, the seed-starting setup stays about 72°F, just a couple of degrees below the optimum temperature for starting tomato seeds. I’m now using a double-decker light stand that friends gave me a couple of years ago when they were “cleaning house,” but frankly my old shoplight setup on the luggage shelves next to the furnace worked just as well.

To link to the Holdsworth article, “DIY PVC Grow Light Stand,” CLICK HERE.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

National Pie Day (Part 2)

Happy Pie Day!!

Nicolas decided he wanted a zucchini pie to celebrate, so I took out previously frozen pie filling. It looks like this:

Note that if you are preparing pie filling for freezing, it's a good rule of thumb to prepare a little more than the recipe calls for. For example, the zucchini pie recipe calls for 5-6 cups of sliced zucchini, and I use a generous 6 cups for the frozen filling. This is because, when you freeze some fruits and vegetables, they will break down or shrink somewhat. Thus you will need more to fill out your pie.

Next up is preparing the pie crust. Sure, there are some decent prepared pie crusts on the market, but I take pride in preparing my own. Besides, I feel like if I'm going to take the time to grow the produce that goes into the pie, it'd be a shame not to have a 'completely from scratch' creation. The recipe I like to use is a 'stands the test of time' Betty Crocker recipe. I found it online here. This recipe is for a single crust, and you will need to double everything for both crusts.

I would like to offer up some tips I've discovered over the years as I have greatly improved my crust-making.

1. Roll out the crust on a floured sheet of waxed or parchment paper. Then you can pick up the paper and flip the crust over into the pie plate with less chance of tearing. I have found that 'folding the crust into quarters', as the Betty Crocker recipe suggests, doesn't work for me at all.
2. When dividing the dough into two for top crust and bottom crust, make one ball slightly larger than the other. This is because the bottom crust needs to be slightly larger than the top crust, and then you won't need to roll the bottom crust quite so thin. Once the pie is filled, distribute the filling to make an even surface. This will minimize 'sharp' spots that may tear the top crust when you lay it down.
3. After you've trimmed the excess crust and crimped the pie down, you may wonder what to do with the leftover dough. I learned this from my Mom - make cinnamon rolls. Roll out the leftover crust, spread some softened butter or margarine (any 'buttery spread' will do), sprinkle generous amounts of sugar and cinnamon on top, roll up, and cut into 1 inch rolls. Bake on a tray or sheet of aluminum foil in the oven with the pie. Yummy!

4. One last note about baking the pie. It's a good idea to cover the edges of the pie with a metal ring that's made to fit over standard pie plates. This will prevent the edge of the crust from browning too much. Some recipes say to remove the ring during the last 10-15 minutes of baking, but I've found that if I do that the edge still gets too dark. I leave the ring on throughout baking. If you don't have a fancy ring, applying strips of aluminum foil around the edges works just as well.

Happy Pie Day!!!

New treated lumber for raised beds

I was watching "Ask This Old House" with my grandchildren yesterday and was surprised to see them building a raised bed for a disabled individual out of what looked like pressure treated lumber. To my surprise, the lumber was treated but not with the usual toxic chemicals. Rather, it was treated with sodium silicate (a mixture of sand and sodium bicarbonate) which is glass. The high pressure and temperature process infuses the wood fibers with a protective glass coating and makes the lumber impervious to rot. The product is fairly new on the market is called "TimberSil". If your thinking about making a raised bed, this new product may be answer to more expensive borders like stone or block.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Head's up, National Pie Day (Part 1)

In the spirit of the 'eat it' part of 'Grow It Eat It', I feel it would be remiss of me to fail to give you a head's up that this Sunday, January 23 is officially National Pie Day!!!

It says so right here:

According to the website, the American Pie Council "is the only organization dedicated to preserving America's pie heritage and promoting America's love affair with pies." I fully support this mission! Read on directly on the website for more information about membership (amateur, professional, and commercial), pie resources, recipes, and schedule of pie-related events (like Pie Day!!!)

As for me, I'm gearing up to celebrate by defrosting either some zucchini or black raspberries, both grown last summer, from my freezer. Then again, why not both? 'Fresh' pie in the middle of winter!!!

Stay tuned for more on National Pie Day!!!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Read while you can't weed, part two

Here are some of the best gardening-related books I've read this fall and winter.  These are all general-interest books, but definitely useful for the vegetable gardener.

Insects and Gardens: In Pursuit of a Garden Ecology by Eric Grissell.  Not a new book, but new to me, and not your typical "bug book."  It has a good review of basic entomology as the gardener would use it: common orders of insects, their biology, and how they interact with the garden.  But the main thrust of the book is to examine the benefits of habitat diversity, and how to appreciate insects and stop being afraid of and/or annoyed by them (at least part of the time) - how to become "the realistic gardener" and move beyond "the only good bug is a dead bug."  This is not the book to get if you want to identify insects, though the photos are lovely; it's an exploration of their world and how it relates to yours.

Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.  Also a book that's been around for a while; I was reading it for the first time.  A truly thorough appreciation for all the amazing stuff that's in your soil - if it's healthy, and if not, you'll acquire a strategy for making it better.  To till or not to till, that is a question we gardeners all need to address.  This is the anti-tilling argument.  I'll probably end up splitting the difference, but will tend more toward not tilling where it's possible.

An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown.  If you like the kind of book in which the author takes you on an organized but idiosyncratic journey through a topic, delving deeply into particular stories that catch his fancy, and wandering through the botanical world and through history, this is for you.  I found it fascinating to explore seeds from many perspectives: pollination, germination, self-protection and survival strategies, as well as how humans have used certain seeds to our economic and nutritional benefit, and why we are what we are because of seeds.  "The story of seeds, in a nutshell, is a tale of evolution bursting with questions," Silvertown says, and provides a lot of the answers.

A reread for this winter: The Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin.  Because my compost needs organizing, and this is a great book to attack that issue with.

Share your favorites and new discoveries in the comments!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Afroculinaria blog

I will get to those other books soon!  But for MLK Day, I thought the best thing I could do was to introduce you to Michael Twitty's new blog, Afroculinaria.  Michael is a local but widely-known food historian, cultural interpreter, writer, speaker, and all-around interesting person.  His interests include African, African American, African Diaspora, Southern, and Jewish foodways.  The blog will show "the process of delving into the history, aesthetics and knowledge systems of African-based food traditions and where possible, recreating the foods of the past."  It will connect with a new website in progress, launching in February.

Check it out!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Read while you can't weed, part one

Yesterday's post about beans was brought to you not only by my personal enthusiasm, but by a number of informative sources I've come to rely on.  It can be tricky figuring out the differences between where plants come from and where they are currently used, in cultures that have adopted them and bred them into new varieties, and sometimes there are no real answers.  However, here are a few of the books I trust to get it as right as it gets.

William Woys Weaver's 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From and Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.  The former is available at the usual book retailers, and the latter is out of print, available used for a substantial cost, or for much less as a CD from online book sellers and some gardening catalogs.  Also, check libraries.  Weaver tells the best stories about edible plants, and his research is awe-inspiring; also, he cares not just about cultural history but about botanical origins, not just about growing but about cooking.  He gives you insightful details like (as I was reading yesterday) how long ago strings started being bred out of string beans, and what that means in terms of dating old varieties, as well as why a tidy little bush bean is probably not a Native American crop of ancient lineage even if it's named after an Indian tribe.  And he's often funny.  (This is a serious university-sponsored blog and I am not supposed to say I have a big intellectual crush on the man and want to marry him and grow his onions, but there you are.)

Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide by Ben-Erik van Wyk.  This is more in the nature of a reference book, but a really gorgeous one that I love browsing in.  I am relying on it for most of the plant origin information I need to build this year's garden.  It doesn't include everything (no mouse melons!) and the entries are short, but basic information is provided for each plant on origin and history, cultivation and harvesting, uses and properties, nutrition, and common names in various languages.  The book is organized alphabetically by scientific name (which is good practice for my memory, though there's a thorough index as well) with several pictures of each food plant.  Part of the fun is reading entries for plants we could never grow here, like baobab (I gather it can be a houseplant, but I don't think I'll try) or durian.  But it's also useful for identifying all those different brassicas, or finding out that asparagus pea and winged bean are not all that closely related after all.  Family relationships aren't clearly enough designated for my taste, though; they may be mentioned in the text but aren't given in the header.

I'll write another post tomorrow on some of the gardening books I've enjoyed recently, and would love to hear about yours too!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Beans from all over

Borlotto beans, Phaseolus vulgaris
As I work on planning the 2011 demo garden, I like to visualize what it's going to look like when it's growing (assuming all goes according to plan, and the chances of that are slim to nonexistent), and what discoveries visitors will make.  Since I am organizing the garden by geographic origin of plants, I think people may be surprised by what ends up where, and also by similarities between edible plants in different parts of the world.  Our ancestors often ate similar food despite living in far-flung areas of the globe and not yet trading with each other.

One type of food plant that shows up in several different continents goes by the general name of beans.  "Bean" is a descriptive word for a type of edible seed or seedpod.  Most beans are legumes - well, let's leave out coffee beans and any others that have acquired the name by association, and say "all beans are legumes."  That is, they belong to the family formerly known as Leguminosae, now generally called Fabaceae.  Not all legumes are beans, not by a long stretch (think peanuts, alfalfa, kudzu, redbuds, cassia, baptisia, lupines, and it goes on and on).  But beans are a particular type of edible legume characterized by how their seeds are "packaged" and how they're eaten.

If your family is Native American, European-American, or African-American with a long history here, you probably hear "bean" and think first of Phaseolus vulgaris, which is one of the species originating in the Americas.  These are our common "green beans" (or yellow, purple, mottled or striped as the case may be) or dried beans such as kidney, black, and many others.  They have long-vined (pole), bush, and in-between forms.  There are thousands of varieties.  All the Phaseolus beans come from the Americas (despite the Latin name deriving from a term that was used to describe Old World beans).  Others in the genus include the lima bean, Phaseolus lunatus, and the runner bean, Phaseolus coccineus.

You might, especially if you're from the South, think about beans growing, or beans in a can, and make the association with the plant variously known as cowpea, black-eyed pea, Southern pea, crowder pea... which is also sort of a bean.  At any rate it's certainly a legume, and it comes from Africa (where it has other names).  Its scientific name is Vigna unguiculata.  It has several subspecies, and one of them was bred out of the original wandering cowpeas into the Asian crop we know as Chinese long bean, yardlong bean, snake bean, or asparagus bean.  (Not to be confused with asparagus pea, another edible legume related to winged beans.)

Then (also on the Old World side of the garden, in Asia) there are soybeans, mung beans, sword beans, moth beans, adzuki beans, hyacinth beans, and many others, not to mention lentils.  I won't have room for all of these but I'm going to try several.  In the Mediterranean region we find fava beans and chickpeas, the latter growing in warm, dry conditions and the former planted as a cool-weather crop like peas.  (Pisum peas, that is, the ones that are usually green.  Though not always.)  You will find if you visit the garden this summer that I've had to blur the edges of what goes in Europe, Africa and Asia, because all these plants are so ancient that the origins have been muddled by early trade, but at least the taxonomists are clearing up what fits into all those many Old World genera and which belong pretty much exclusively to the New World.  Sort of.  I have upstairs a Vigna caracalla (called snail bean or corkscrew vine) which I started from seed and am nursing along until it puts out its gorgeous blooms next summer (I hope).  It's a tropical plant from... South America.  Where the Phaseolus live.  I'm glad it's not generally considered safe to eat, so I don't have to put it in the vegetable garden to confuse people.

What's the first thing you think of when you hear "bean"?  A particular plant, a favorite dish?  (Or maybe Mr. Bean, or L.L. Bean.)  What sorts of beans do you plan to grow this year?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Just Dreamin’ of Veggies

I’m just dreamin’ of veggies—veggies past and future—while snowflakes arrive on the north wind and I’m comfy warm under my new “Grow It Eat It Nap Quilt.”

I’m the MG in the family—Master Gardener. Ellen is the MQ—Master Quilter.

When Ellen dropped in to check on some quilting fabric at Seminole Sampler, a fabric shop in Catonsville, not far from BWI Airport, I tagged along. While Ellen was looking at bolts of fabric, I stumbled upon a sale table with a box of fabric called “Farmer’s Market,” with designs of veggies and small fruits.

Next thing I knew I was selecting fabrics with fruits and veggies I’ve either raised or would like to: green- and red-leaf lettuce, large-red and cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, blackberries, strawberries, carrots, broccoli, potatoes, garlic, and onions.

“Found something interesting?” Ellen said when she found me.

“Look at these,” I replied, showing her my collection, “--veggie and fruit designs. I’ve grown most of these.”

I could all but hear her brain kick into gear. “Bring those fat quarters so we can look for some sashing and backing fabric.”

Soon the deal was done. A dozen fat quarters of “Farmer’s Market” plus the complementary fabric.

On Tuesday Ellen finished hand-sewing the binding of the nap quilt. After lunch I found it neatly folded on the back of my blue recliner. And an hour later, while snowflakes started to fall, I pushed back in my recliner, pulled the quilt up under my chin, and tested it out.

When I woke a half hour later, I declared the nap quilt a grand success. It was the right weight—just the right warmth—to keep away any winter chill.

And think of the promises it holds—of more winter naps—and of dreams of veggie gardens past and future.

Thanks, love.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Elements of Organic Gardening by HRH The Prince of Wales

The ground is frozen, snow on top, not a lot to do but there are always books!!!!

This book caught my eye at the library. Gardening commentary, great photography and seemingly endless gardens at three of the Prince's estates make this a perfect book to climb into bed with when you simply can't bear to read another seed catalog.

Turns out HRH Prince Charles is an avid environmentalist and gardener. Despite semi-candid pix of the Prince hefting buckets of bird seed and leaning artlessly on a shovel (wearing some pretty fancy footgear more suited to the palace than the potting shed) it is clear that the Prince is the director and final arbiter of what goes into the garden and how it's done.

The book is heavy on fab pictures of expertly designed gardens photographed to highlight the best features with lots of flowers, breathtaking hedges and topiary, and for us, a nice section about vegetable gardening.

Potatoes are a favorite vegetable of the Prince and I learned that Dennis, the man who really does the work in the garden first chits the potatoes which means to let them sprout in a frost-free place before planting to get them off to a faster start. In a useful photo, he is planting out the chitted potatoes and I notice that they are NOT cut. It's the whole potato. About four of them to a man's hand. Dennis, by the way, is wearing green wellies to the knee.

Favorite varieties are Pink Fir Apple and Anya. None of these sound familiar to me who reads the more common seed catalogs so it may be they are only available in England and the continent.

Leeks and Brussels sprouts are also well-liked by HRH and so, several varieties are included in the royal potager: Alcazar, Startrack and Swiss Giant-Zermatt are some of the leek varieties and Brilliant F1 and Trafalgar F1 are just two of the five varieties of Brussels sprouts planted.

To prevent the Brussels sprouts from toppling over, they are planted in a trench which is then earthed up as they grow. I'm not familiar with this technique and plan to try it myself.

I was also fascinated by the organic liquid feed made from a common home-grown herb. They use the Bocking 14 strain of comfrey. Leaves are picked and placed into a water bath and allowed to marinate for about two weeks. Apparently this brew is very smelly (not for the 'faint-hearted' as the book explains! and further research on the internet turns up such works as septic and sewage.) This mixture is used in a 10% solution or as the British so simply explain it, a jam jar full to a 1-gallon can of water.

Comfrey sends roots very deep - 10 feet according to some sources and this enables the plant to bring to the surface nutrients that other plants cannot access. It CAN be a pest if other varieties are used. But Bocking 14 is sterile so no wanton self-seeding can occur and the roots are supposedly more well-behaved than other varieties.

The liquid is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and particularly high in potash. Sounds interesting and what a great idea that you can grow your own! Move over compost tea!

It's nice to know that we have something in common with the Prince.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Think “Up” to Solve Soil Problems

Tomatoes & strawberries in raised beds
If you’ve been thinking about starting a veggie garden this spring but fear that your rocky, clay, sandy, or wet soil will doom your effort, keep thinking, but in a new direction—up!

Yes, carrots don’t grow well in clay or in a rock garden, and bean seeds probably will rot in your swamp, but there is a solution to such problems: a raised bed.

A raised bed uses your bad soil as a foundation and rises above it as you add good garden soil. I’ve built raised beds over Piedmont Maryland’s clay soil. I’ve approached the job slowly—adding mostly composted leaves and manure over a period of years. But if you’re in a hurry, you can haul in a truckload of good soil and get the job done in one day.

Most people think “sides” when they think “raised beds,” but that doesn’t have to be. You can make a raised bed simply by stacking good soil on top of the bad, but the lack of lateral supports limits the height of such raised beds.

In ancient times, gardeners often used recycled railroad ties for supports, but health concerns through the years have convinced most gardeners, including me, that creosoted lumber isn’t good to use around edibles because of leaching chemicals.

Cinder and cement blocks are sometimes used, but they often don’t like to stay in place, and sometimes they’re just plain ugly.

My gardens mostly are on the side of a hill, so I have many terraced gardens—which I say are raised beds of a sort—at least on one, two, or three sides. I make mine out of 12”-wide stacking blocks that I buy at Home Depot or Lowe’s. The blocks let me shape beds as I want, at least to some degree, and they stay in place, look great, and likely will last longer than I will.

Many gardeners build raised beds out of wood—pressure-treated lumber or natural cedar or oak. Cedar and oak are expensive, and there are some lingering concerns about chemicals in pressure-treated woods leaching into veggie beds, though more recent formulations seem to have minimized that problem. Of course, recycled-plastic lumber and relatively inexpensive, untreated pine lumber are possibilities. Plastic lumber tends to be pricey, though, and untreated pine tends to deteriorate much quicker than treated lumber.

A practical problem in making a raised bed of lumber is how to keep it together at the corners and keep it from bowing on the long sides. Do-it-yourselfers will figure out solutions to such problems, but for the rest of us, a realistic answer is pre-fabricated aluminum corners and connectors to which you add the wood of your choice.

The best source I’ve seen for such aluminum fittings is Gardener’s Supply Company. To go to their site, CLICK HERE. When you get there, in the left column go to Gardening/Vegetable Gardening/Raised Beds. You’ll see ads for the fittings, as well as for complete kits, which you might be interested in if your income tax refund is burning a hole in your checking account.

Looking at catalog offerings is a good way to orient yourself so you can compare prices and materials with what might be available elsewhere or with what you have been thinking about building yourself.

If you want additional information about raised beds, see Norman Winter’s “Give your vegetable gardens a needed lift with raised beds,” in Saturday’s Washington Post. CLICK HERE.

Note:  Mention of specific products, brands, or companies is not intended as an endorsement by the University of Maryland.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A garden pledge

Happy new year!!! I hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday season and I pray that 2011 will be a prosperous one for us all.

I was thinking about what I could blog about and didn't want to talk about the seed catalogs that have been dropping through my mail slot every day (even though I LOVE getting them!).

So I started to think what I could write about. I thought about the Grow It Eat It initiative and the classes that have been taught. I remember a lot of people saying "I'm going to start a garden next year" and then it hit me. What would happen if everyone who reads this just helped one person plant a garden--whatever the size--this year? That could possibly be hundreds of gardens started in Maryland!

So here's my challenge. I even made my own graphic for it! My personal pledge this year is to help at least one person start a garden. It can be a container garden, a small raised bed, or a nice-sized garden (whatever that may be).

There's no place to sign up, it's just a personal pledge and I'd love to hear from everyone when they've accomplished their goal! I have two people in mind already that have been saying they are going to plant a garden for at least three years.

Is there anyone out there willing to take this pledge with me? I think it's going to be lots of fun!

So here's to 2011 and greener gardens for all!

Until next time....happy garden thoughts!