Thursday, December 8, 2016

I'm a TV Star!

Check it out!  Basics of Seed Starting.  My friend Colleen Dieter hosts Garden Journeys, a cute little segment on Time-Warner Cable News (being renamed Spectrum Cable News) that airs at 46 minutes past the hour, every hour, on Saturdays.  She asked me if I would be a guest and of course I said yes.

Seed Starting Basics aired already and is online available here.

Seed Saving Basics will be up this coming Saturday.  I'll add a link when it's available online.  [UPDATE: Here it is!]

I really enjoyed doing this, and it taught me a few things.  Condensing an entire one-hour class into a two-minute spot showed me exactly what is most important.  I may start giving a little two-minute synopsis at the beginning of each class to emphasize the most important takeaways from the entire hour and to let people know what to listen to most.

What fun!  I hope I can do that again.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Seed Starting Basics Class Outline

Seed Starting Basics

The reasons to start seeds are many.
  • To have starts available on YOUR schedule.
  • To have varieties that aren’t available locally.
  • To avoid bringing in pests and diseases.
  • To have big, healthy starts.
  • To save money.
  • To continue the chain of saving seeds.
  • To have the satisfaction of doing it yourself and being self-reliant.
  • For the fun of it.

Types of seeds:
  • Hybrid
  • GMO
  • Open-Pollinated
  • Heirloom

First, gather your tools.  
Must-haves are
  • containers to start the seeds in,
  • "soil" (anything light that doesn’t form a crust on top),
  • small watering can/jug/bottle,
  • misting bottle,
  • labels,
  • marking pencil,
  • mild fertilizer (I like fish emulsion mixed with seaweed, or John’s Recipe, used half strength)
  • and seeds.  
Nice-to-haves are:
  • Lights ~ you can do this in a window IF you have a bright enough one (most aren’t), so lights might be a must-have..  
  • Bottom heat is nice, too, especially for sprouting, but not really imperative if your house is warm enough.
  • A cover for the tray to keep it moist (plastic wrap works great and it's cheap).
  • Timer for the lights.
  • Cold frame outside for hardening off.

A note about lights: Most windows don’t provide enough light. Large, south-facing ones might.  If you start to see legginess (elongated stems between each set of leaves), that’s a sign they’re not getting enough light.  In that case, use cool white flourescents with the most lumens you can find at the hardware store.  Hang the lights an inch above the seedlings’ leaves and raise in small increments as they grow.

Two rules to go by and you’ll do well:
  1. Don’t plant the seeds too deep: deep enough is twice as deep as the seed is big.
  2. Don’t let the seeds dry out: after germination, do let the top of the soil dry out, then let the dryness go progressively deeper as the seedlings get taller.

Planting Procedure:
  1. Fill containers with slightly moistened seed starting mix.
  1. Plan seeds twice as deep as the seed is big. This means some seeds will be practically sitting on top of the seed starting mix with only a light dusting of mix sifted on top of them.
  2. Label them.  Do this immediately after sowing each type of seed or you WILL get them mixed up.
  3. Bottom water until all seed starting mix is wet.  If this doesn’t happen after 24 hours, mist the top of the seed starting mix with your spray bottle until saturated, or use your watering can.
  4. Keep warm and well watered and wait.
  5. When germination has begun, place under lights if they aren’t there already.
  6. Once seedlings have their first set of true leaves, let top of soil dry out, but only the top.  You can begin watering with a half-strength solution of fish emulsion and seaweed once a week.
  7. Raise lights as needed, but only to one inch away from top of seedlings.

  1. If starting seedlings individually: wait until they are WELL rooted in their current pots, then lift the root ball out with a fork and pot up into containers about ¼ bigger than their current container, watering in with seaweed.
  2. If starting seedlings in a communal pot: wait until the seedlings have at least one set of true leaves, lightly grasp by a leaf and lightly pull while pricking under the roots with a pointed object (small fork, tweezers, point of a knife, etc.).  Transplant into an appropriately sized pot (small is better), and water in with half-strength seaweed. When well-rooted, pot up again according to the instructions above for individually grown seedlings.

Until the seedlings are good sized (a few inches tall and a few weeks old), only feed with half-strength fertilizer to avoid burning the seedlings.

Hardening off: Gradually getting the seedlings used to outdoor conditions.  This takes a week or so.
  1. Put outside in morning sun for a couple of hours every day, gradually leaving them out longer each day, until they can stay out all day and night.
  2. If you can’t bring them in and out so often, build a cold frame or use floating row cover - put the seedlings in the cold frame or under the row cover in the morning, then bring them in at night. Over the course of the week, gradually life the row cover or cold frame lid a few inches higher each day until they’re practically uncovered.

~ * ~

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Worming the Garden

Went out to check sproutage today...

Beets're lookin' good.

Garlic, too.

Even the old mustard seeds I didn't think would sprout did.

But what's this?!

And THIS?!?!?!

Oh, you little BASTARDS! You got them ALL!!!

FINE.  I'mma' gonna' get ALL o' YOU!!!!!

Bt.  Bacillus thuringensis.  Kills them ALL!  

BOTH the cabbage looper and cross-striped cabbageworm.  

Some tips for using Bt:

  • Use fresh Bt.  If your bottle is four years old, it's dead.  Bt is alive, a bacteria that's dormant, and it dies over time or if left in prolonged heat.  Speaking of that:
  • Store it at room temp.  If you left your bottle of Bt in the garage through last summer, it may be dead.  Buy another one and this time store it under the kitchen sink.  
  • Mix a fresh batch each time.  When you mix it with water, it "wakes it up" and it dies in about a day and a half.  The worm has to eat it when it's alive, so spray in the evening if you can.  
  • Coat the entire plant.  Pay close attention to the undersides of leaves.  A lot of the time moths will lay their eggs under leaves to protect them from rain.  When they hatch, the worms are so small they don't really move far, so if you don't spray under the leaves where they are, they'll likely survive and you'll have to deal with them later, when they're bigger and can eat more.  
  • Tip for coating underneath leaves: Starting at the bottom of the plant, use a broom or leaf rake to "rake" the leaves upwards and follow it closely with the spray before the leaves fall back down.  
  • One more tip: Some gardeners spray their entire garden once a week with Bt as a preventative.  I don't (obviously), but I may start.  Neem oil would be another good thing to use regularly since it would nip beetles in the bud when they're still tiny. 

Now go get those little bastards.  I did and feel much better for it.


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Carrots and Radishes Together Again

I love this time of year.  Late fall, when everything starts to cool off and you can feel winter coming in the air.  Piles of pumpkins arrive at the grocery stores and mums show up at the garden center.

Gardening is so much better this time of year.  One can garden all day without fear of sweating to death.  No threat of said sweating for at least a few more months.  The weeds grow slower, the bugs are fewer, and the garden rebounds from the hellish nightmare of sumer.

And winter veggies!!  I ADORE winter veggies.  Mama was from Jackson, Mississippi, so you know I love me some greens.  Broccoli and cauliflower are sure winners, as are turnips and beets and carrots.  Romaesco, aka Broccoflower, a curious fractally spirally thing that tastes like a cauliflowery broccoli, or broccolish cauliflower.  Hence the name.

As you can see in the first photo above, I plant my radishes with my carrots to get a good stand of each.  Carrot seedlings are weak little things, so meek that even the slightest crust on top of the soil will smother them.  Radishes on the other hand are tough little musclemen, busting up through the toughest soil, crust or no crust.  I guess you'd say carrots are like three-year-olds - cut the crust off, Mom!  Okay, honey.  

They grow well together for another reason - by the time the radishes are harvestable, the carrots are big enough to need thinning, so I pick my radishes and that thins my carrots.  Neat, huh?

What kind of carrots, you ask?  Multicolored ones of course.  There's just something about pulling a purple carrot out of the ground that makes me insanely happy.  You should try them.  Then you can be insanely happy, too.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Canning Hot Peppers The Easy Way ~ AKA Small Batch Canning

Ever wanted to try canning, but didn't have the equipment?  Contrary to popular belief, most people have almost all the equipment in their kitchens already.

"WHAT?!  What do you mean, Linda?"

Let me show you it...

Yep.  Regular old kitchen towels, regular old tongs, regular old 5% vinegar, regular old measuring cups, and regular old pots - one big one for boiling the jars and one little one for boiling the brine.  

The only thing different about this that everyone may not have is the big pot - it's a pasta pot, with a colander insert.

If you don't have one, you can use any big pot as tall as your jars plus an inch and a half, and a collapsible vegetable steamer.  All you need is to keep the jars up off the bottom of the pot so water can circulate below them.  It doesn't have to be too far - half an inch will do.  And it needs to be tall enough so water covers your jars by a good bit - an inch is good - while boiling.  But if you can find a pasta pot, get one.  It's SO MUCH EASIER to do this with one.  Mainly because you can lower the jars into the boiling water with the insert instead of doing it one-by-one with tongs.

The only thing you need to buy are canning jars.  Canning is having a bit of a resurgence lately, so most grocery stores carry them.  I like to use half pint and quarter pint jars since I live alone, but full pint jars will work nicely as well.  They're as big as a can of green beans you buy from the store - a pint is 16 oz. and most canned goods are 15oz. (The RoTel in the photo is 10oz. I didn't have a can of green beans.) - so if those do well for you in feeding your family, so will canned things in pint jars. 

RoTel! And a pint, and a half pint, and a quarter pint.
While you're getting the jars, take a look at the canning tools.  Ball sells a kit that's only about fifteen bucks and has canning tongs (MUCH better than regular ones), a bubbler stick, a magnetic lid "getter", and a canning jar funnel to make it easier to pour stuff in the jars.   

Next, you need a recipe, a tested one.  Canning can easily be dangerous, especially water bath canning if the acidity of whatever you're canning isn't 4.6 acidity or more acidic.  Botulism survives boiling temps and grows in anything less acidic that 4.6pH.  It's odorless, flavorless, and invisible, so don't risk it - use a tested recipe and follow it.

Here's the one I use, from Ball Canning's website, though if I have only a few peppers to do, I halve it (3 cups vinegar, 1 cup water, half as many peppers, SAME GARLIC! Bwahahahaha!).  

Pickled Hot Peppers
Makes 5 pints
2 and 3/4 lbs banana, jalapeno, or serrano peppers, or a combination of these varieties
6 cups vinegar (5% acidity)
2 cups water
3 cloves garlic, crushed

LEAVE peppers whole or cut into 1-inch pieces. Mix peppers together if using multiple varieties.
COMBINE vinegar, water, and garlic in a large saucepot. Bring mixture to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Discard garlic.
PACK peppers into hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Add Ball® Pickle Crisp to each jar, if desired.
LADLE hot liquid over peppers, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles.
WIPE rim and adjust two-piece caps. Process 10 minutes in a boiling-water canner.

(Note: When cutting or seeding hot peppers, wear rubber gloves to prevent hands from being burned.)
(Note from Linda: When it says wear gloves, wear gloves.  Or you will find out exactly how often you rub your eyes, pick your nose, or touch your bits.)

So let's do this!  Step by step...

Assemble your stuff.  I have my Ball Blue Book out even though I don't use it often.  You don't need to buy one - all the info is on the website - but it IS handy, especially if, like me, you do a lot of your productivity stuff when the internet's out.  

Heat your jars, lids, and rings to sterilize them.  To keep lime deposits off your jars, throw in a cup of vinegar.  It's not essential, so if you forget it, don't worry, but since it's right there on the counter and the jars look so much better without a white cloud on them.  Do this in your canning pot to preheat the water for the canning later.  

Make your brine.  This is just vinegar and water and garlic.  Turn it on high and bring it to a boil.

While the brine's heating up, remove your jars to a clean towel.  BE CAREFUL!  If you're not paying attention, some of the water will run down your tongs and burn the shit out of you (just like it did to me right before I took the photo below - yeah, I'm an idiot.).  Don't pour the boiling water out of the big pot.  You're going to need that later.

Pack your jars with peppers.  I did some sliced, some halved, and some whole.  I like sliced ones with a steak, halved ones on sandwiches, and whole ones when eating tacos.  (I am NOT a foodie! Just spoiled.)

Your brine should be boiling by now.  Ladle or pour it into the jars but NOT to the top!  Stop half an inch down.  There's a thick ridge on the outside of the jars just below the threads for the lids.  That's half an inch down from the top, so just fill to that ridge line.  Your peppers will float, but not to worry - they'll eventually sink.  Why leave that space?  It's called "headspace" in canning parlance.  When you boil your jars, the contents will expand, and that space keeps it from expanding so much that it flows out of the jars, contaminating the rims and possibly making a pepper seed or somesuch get in the way of a good seal forming.

Remove air bubbles.  Use a butter knife or that bubbler stick the came in your tool kit to push the peppers around a bit to let the air bubbles escape.  Since I'm doing quarter pint jars, there really aren't that many air bubbles that get trapped, but if I were doing larger jars or more "sticky" stuff like peach preserves, big pockets of air can get trapped halfway down the jar and that takes up space that could be taken up by food.

Wipe the rims with a clean towel and put the lids and rings on BUT ONLY FINGER TIGHT.  Remember how the stuff in the jars expands?  It forces air out and you have to leave the lids just loose enough for that to happen without exploding the jars, but tight enough that the water in the boiling pot doesn't get in.

Load the jars in your pasta pot insert.  This is why a pasta pot with an insert is so handy for this.  If you don't have an insert, you have to lower them down into the pot of boiling water, one by one, carefully.  CAREFULLY.  I don't know about you, but I know about me, and I'd screw that one up in grand fashion.  So I'm glad I have a pasta pot.

Remember that boiling water from sterilizing your jars in the beginning?  That's the same water we're going to water bath can with now.  Handy, huh?  BUT, and THIS IS IMPORTANT - I pour out most of the water before I lower the pasta pot insert into it OR IT WILL OVERFLOW.  I don't pour it down the sink because I'll put most of it back in in a minute.  I just pour it in the brine pot to hold it since that pot's empty now.

Carefully lower the jars into what's left of the boiling water, pour in the reserved boiling water in the brine pot 'til it covers the jars by one inch, or as close to an inch as you can get.

Put the lid on and bring it back to a rolling boil.

After it reaches a full rolling boil, set your timer for ten minutes.

DING!  Take your jars out of the pot, set them on a kitchen towel, and tighten them the rest of the way.  Use a kitchen towel or hot pad to handle them 'cause they're hot!

And listen to the satisfying "PING!" of all the seals setting!  The next day, make sure the little "bubble" or "reverse dent" in the top of each lid is now a DENT.  If any of them are still up and not down, refrigerate those and eat them first.

I did 8 quarter-pints and 1 half-pint last night since that's about as much as my pasta pot will hold.  The rest of the jars are the ones I did in class, including one of orange habaneros.  

This may be a banner year for pickled peppers.  Roger said he's going to leave the peppers in the garden at work 'til frost, so I hope to get more of them - more jalapenos, more habaneros, and maybe even some little spicy bells and Tabascos.  The Tabasco plants are absolutely covered with peppers, so I may even try to find a good tested recipe for Tabasco sauce!  Wouldn't that be awesome?  Why yes, yes it would.  Almost as awesome as the Ghost peppers Casie's giving me. ...  I'd better get the ice cream maker oiled up and ready...


Friday, May 27, 2016

Tim Miller: Water Conservation in the Vegetable Garden

We were lucky to have Tim Miller of Millberg Farm as our free class speaker May 21st at The Natural Gardener.  Tim owns and operates a thriving CSA farm where he grows vegetables and fruits without using aquifer water (hasn't used a drop in over 25 years! Amazing!), and he spoke at length to an attentive crowd on how he does it.

Tim was kind enough to allow me to photograph his handouts and post them online.  Tim is the copyright holder of all information unless otherwise specified.  And click on the images to embiggen.

Trench Composting Benefits and Critical Periods for Irrigation of Vegetable Crops

Benefits of Trench Composting

Trench Composting How To

Critical Periods for Irrigation of Vegetable Crops

Drought Proofing Your Soil

Planting by the Moon Signs & Weather Using Almanacs

Monday, April 18, 2016

I'm Too Sexy for my Beesuit

Too sexy for my beesuit, so sexy it huuuuurts.

Caught a swarm today.  My first one since I was a kid, catching them with my dad.  And MAN, was it fun!

Saturday, a woman posted in the neighborhood group on (Facebook) that she had a swarm in her tree above her garden and they flew after her husband when he was mowing the area where her grandkids play, so did anyone know who would come get it?  Well, sure!

Many of y'all reading know we've been having some hellacious storms since then, so I was hesitant.  She said it was twelve or fifteen feet up off the ground.  The thought of knocking the hell out of a branch full of bees with a four-tined hoe and hoping they fell into the bucket I was holding while standing on a ladder that was standing in a truck IN THE RAIN didn't sound that appealing.  I'm a brave Aries, which really means sometimes I'm too stupid to realize things aren't a good idea.  Luckily this time I wasn't so dumb and thought that didn't sound smart, so we waited.

Hey! My diet's working!
Swarms are a fascinating thing.  They're honeybee reproduction.  It's so funny that we call it "the birds and the bees" when their reproduction is really nothing like ours.  When a colony of bees grows too big for the home they're in, they start making a bunch of new queens.  When those queens are nearing hatching time, the old queen takes off with a bunch of the population.  When the first queen hatches, sometimes she takes off with a bunch more of the bees and sometimes she does the thing we've usually heard of - either stings the unhatched queens to death or fights them, again to the death.  Then she makes her mating flight (the only time bee reproduction is even close to our reproduction) and comes back to reign supreme in the current home.

Meanwhile, the old queen and her followers (which is funny - she's the follower - it's the colony that decides all this) fly around looking for a new home.  Sometimes it doesn't take long.  Scouts will have been scoping out new digs since before they even left the old place, so many times they'll fly right to it.  But sometimes they run out of time and have to get out of their old home before they've found a new one, so they all light somewhere, cluster around the queen to protect her, and wait, sending out scouts to look around the neighborhood.

Once the scouts have all found prospective accommodations, they come back and each do a waggle dance for the rest of the group.  They're communicating about what they've found so everyone can decide whether they'll like this new place.  Can you imagine?  Wagging their
butts seven times to the right and twelve times to the left means "It's a 4K bedroom with a POOL!"  Three times to the left, eight to the right, and two back to the left says "But the one I found is in a great neighborhood two blocks from a supermarket (veggie garden)!"  Those are some talented derriers!  And when one of those derriers convinces the rest that they want that pool more than convenient shopping, they all take off to the new place at once, queen in tow.

While all this is happening they're quite gentle really, and don't at all fit the stereotype.  A swarm is just a ball of bees with a queen in the middle, so she's the only thing they have to protect.  Bees are usually only aggressive when guarding something.  A fat hive full of brood (babies) and honey is really something to protect. That's when they're the meanest.  Just protecting one little queen isn't that big of a deal, so they're quite calm about it all, lots calmer than I am when I'M moving.

Being cold and wet makes them calm, too.  I don't know why.  That usually makes me pissed off.  But I'm not a bee.  So today, after watching the early-morning weather forecast and seeing that the big storm headed our way was going to be gone by noon, I texted Terri and we made a plan.  A little after noon, sure enough, the rain quit and the sky cleared so I gathered my gear and took off for Terri's.

My little truck wasn't quite tall enough, so Terri's husband Melvin backed theirs up under the branch.  But I'm short.  Too short.  He already had a stepladder out, so while I was getting my beesuit on, he was kind enough to put it up in the back of his truck.  He put it in the perfect place and it was actually quite stable!  I was so glad of that.  (He helped me so much that this whole thing was an absolute breeze.  He's also responsible for the lovely photos you're seeing here.  Thanks, Melvin!)

The actual collection story is rather boring really.  Not for me, but for you.  I climbed the ladder, held up the bucket, and knocked the hell out of the branch. The cold wet lump of bees fell straight in the bucket and somewhat on me, and that was that.  I set the bucket down in Melvin's truck bed so all the rest could fly in and went to sit on the porch with Terri to wait.

We had a good visit!  I like her.  It's so nice to meet good people.  Melvin joined us and I got to find out that he's pretty cool, too.  We talked about kids and bees and grandkids and organic gardening.  They told me they didn't want to spray the swarm, that they didn't believe in that, but in helping them instead.  Man, I love living in the country where people are smart enough to not scream "KILLER BEESAAAAHHHHHH!" and grab the Raid.  They had an adorable little veggie garden in the back where the bees were, so that was a good part of what we talked about.  I'd go check on the bees every so often, knocking the branch again because some wanted to cluster back up there where the queen's scent still was, then scoop up more and put them in the bucket.  Then back to talk of gardening.

I finally figured I'd gotten the queen for sure when almost all the bees were in the bucket.  I loaded everything up, taped the top on with Melvin's butterfly-covered duct tape, said my thank yous and goodbyes, and off I went, one happy beekeeper.

When I got home, I thought it would be a good idea to give the newbees a frame of eggs and brood just in case the queen was injured in all this - with recently laid eggs, they can make another.  I tore apart the Lilith hive, the one that nailed me last year, and man did that piss them off.  Rain was coming so I didn't have time to light the smoker, plus bees don't fly in the rain so everyone was home.  Yeah.  Big old box full of mean bees.  Oh, joy.  They got angrier and angrier as I opened both boxes and looked through them frame by frame for that perfect one.  They stung me a couple times, but not badly.  I don't blame them really.  Luckily it was on my arthritic wrist.  Bonus!  I couldn't find a frame with eggs I liked, so I just took one full of honey thinking that would make a nice housewarming gift, and closed the mean little bitches back up.

The rest of the story is just me unceremoniously dumping the bucket o' bees into the new hive box with the frame of honey.  I think they liked it.  Even if they don't, they don't have much choice since it's still really stormy and they can't go anywhere.  I hope the forecast for more clouds and rain tomorrow holds true.  The longer they're in that box, the more likely they'll be to stay.  They've been away from a working hive for at least two days now.  Add another one tomorrow and into Wednesday and methinks that's long enough to get them jonesin' for some comb-makin', so they'll just do it.  The drive is strong.  Once they get started on that, they won't want to leave.  I hope.

So thank you, Terri, and thank you, Melvin.  I hope to come down to visit again some day with jars of honey in tow.  Wish me luck!


Next day update: 
They're still in there!  I just checked late this morning and saw a bunch of little faces staring at me when I looked into the top entrance with a flashlight.  So far, so good.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Potting Soil Trials

Every day at work I get asked "What kind of potting soil should I use?"  We started carrying a lot of new potting soils at work, so I thought I would evaluate them myself so I can recommend them (or not) from experience.  This is a record of that trial.

I bought some of all the "old" potting soils, some of the garden soils (since some customers keep wanting to use them as potting soils since they're cheaper, despite my warnings), and Rhiannon, the lovely Fox Farm rep, gave me one each of theirs.  I found ten large pots to put them in, planted two Roma tomatoes in each, and watered them all in with regular (not the "iron added") Maxicrop liquid seaweed.

My plan is to let them all go for one month without any inputs except water.  After one month, I plan to feed the non-pre-fertilized soils to have an even playing field.  After two months, the amount of time the pre-fertilized soils say their fertilizer runs out, I'll use the same Fox Farms products on all the pots.  I'll post photos throughout.

The soils are:
Ladybug Brand Hill Country Garden Soil
Ladybug Brand Rose Magic
Organics by Gosh 5-in-1 Potting Soil
Organics by Gosh Flower & Garden Soil
Ladybug Brand Vortex Potting Soil
Black Gold Potting Soil
Fox Farm's Happy Frog Potting Soil
Fox Farm's Ocean Forest Potting Soil
Fox Farm's Happy Frog Soil Conditioner
Fox Farm's Coco Loco Coir Fiber Potting Soil

One month out:

Left to right: Hill Country, Rose Magic, 5-in-1, Flower & Garden Soil, Vortex, Black Gold, Happy Frog Potting Soil, Ocean Forest, Happy Frog Soil Conditioner, Coco Loco.
In future photos, I'll likely rearrange the pots to group like soils together - "garden" soils next to each other, potting soils next to each other, etc.  For now, they're loosely grouped by brand.

I'll start fertilizing them tomorrow.

May Update

Fox Farms' products are still kicking butt!  I'm impressed.  All the pots were fed the same and watered the same.  I think I see some early blight setting in, dammit.  It's most prevalent on the plants not in Fox Farms' soils.

To see the difference better, 
you can embiggen this one by clicking on it.

September update

Well, it was early blight and it got them all, but not before I was able to get some tomatoes.  There were more tomatoes on each of the individual Fox Farms plants than there were on all the other non-Fox Farms post combined!  I think I got eight or so from the non-FF, and one of the FF plants had thirteen.  Amazing.

The blight took them down so fast I didn't get any photos.  I think I'm going to keep the soil in the pots as-is and wait 'til this fall when I'll add some compost to them, probably FF Soil Conditioner, and try some romanesco in them.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Organic Vegetable Gardening 101 ~ Class Outline

The following is the outline of the Organic Vegetable Gardening 101 class I teach, mainly at The Natural Gardener.  To find out when the next class will be, check out the Events Calendar of The Natural Gardener's website.


“Though an old man, I am yet a young gardener.” ~ Thomas Jefferson when he was 72 years old

“You’re not really learning a thing about gardening if you’re not killing a few plants. 
 But it’s okay, they’re not puppies.”


Most all the vegetables we grow today aren’t native to the area.  They have evolved to grow in other climates with better soil.  We can get close to replicating that, but it does take some effort.  

Making a Bed:
1) Site it where it gets enough sun and where a water faucet is close.
    a) Sun – Some vegetables can make do with six hours of sun, but most need eight to really do well.  Plants need the sun to make food, and since vegetables are the Olympic athletes of the plant world, they need a LOT of food, therefore a lot of sun.
    b) Water – Make sure it’s close to a dedicated water faucet, or run a hose that you leave there.
2) Drainage – make sure it’s not in a low spot where rain sits for long periods of time
3) Raised bed, wide row, or flat?  Raised bed is definitely best.
    a) Materials for sides – wood, metal, cinder blocks
4) Fill it from existing soil or buy soil
    a) Soil – Contrary to popular belief, most soil isn’t “bad”.  It’s just devoid of nutrients and organic matter.  Even if it had something toxic in it or a disease organism, quite often it can be fixed.  Rarely does soil need to be replaced – only when there are large amounts of something toxic in it.
6) Put a sittin’ spot out there and some Christmas lights to encourage you to be out there more enjoying it.

Amending the soil:
1) Soil is the digestive system of the plant
2) An analogy:
    a) Compost is a veggie-filled salad with yogurt dressing with live and active cultures
    b) Dry fertilizer is meat and potatoes
    c) Liquid fertilizer is fish stew
    d) Seaweed is a bourbon and water
    e) Compost tea is a probiotic
    f) Molasses is a probiotic booster
    g) Mulch is a blanket that tucks everything in
3) Texas soils, generally speaking, don’t have enough organic matter or nitrogen – it gets baked out every summer and nitrogen gets used up and washed out by the flooding rains.

Planning the layout
1) TIMING!!! Pay attention to it. Use TAMU's Travis County Vegetable Planting Guide.
2) Square foot gardening
3) How much should you plant?
    a) Don’t try to grow “X” number of plants per person.
    b) Just grow a few of everything you like.
4) GROW WHAT YOU LIKE. DON’T grow it if you don’t like it.
5) Grow more expensive/nutritious things first.
6) Perennial herbs can be put outside the bed.
7) Use the Square Foot Garden Spacing Guide to determine how big some things are.

    a) Green side up.
    b) Don’t plant too deep
    c) Water in with seaweed
    d) Water extra the first couple weeks, then ease off.
    a) Don’t plant too deep. Twice as deep as the seed is big.
    b) Don’t let them dry out.

1) Watering  – Roots need both air and water.  Soggy, sopping wet = all water and no air.  Dry as a popcorn fart = all air and no water.
    a) Dig into the soil and feel it.  Aim for keeping it as damp as a well-wrung-out sponge.
    b) Soil moisture reservoir.
    c) Long, slow, infrequent soaks are better than frequent light waterings.
    d) MULCH
    e) Drip irrigation, soaker hoses, ollas.
2) Fertilizing –
    a) NPK
    b) Nitrogen – Phosphorous – Potassium
    c) Green – roots, flowers, & fruit – overall health
3) Season extenders
    a) Shade cloth
    b) Row cover

1) Harvest early and often
2) When in doubt, just pick one and taste it
3) Wash  and refrigerate, just like fresh produce from the market
4) If you don’t know how to cook something, try simply slicing and browning in butter with some salt
5) If you have too much of something, freeze it!
    a) Make a cooked dish with it and freeze that
    b) Blanch
    c) Can it or dry it (come to Canning & Preserving Class in fall)


More Info Sheets from The Natural Gardener.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Gardening on the Porch

Have you ever seen those dreamy pictures of gorgeous porches overflowing with plants?  You know the ones - white porch railings, porch swing on one side, inviting steps leading up to the cozy sitting area with mint juleps* waiting on the side table.  They're on the covers of those garden porn magazines like Southern Living and House Beautiful, placed there by clever marketing people who know those images will take you away like a bottle of Calgon, making you want more.  You're standing in the supermarket checkout waiting patiently for your turn.  You finish loading your groceries onto the belt, look up, and something catches your eye.

"Lose AMAZING Amounts of Weight Using This One Simple Trick!"  Ugh.  "I am Justin Bieber and Paris Hilton's Love Child."  Double-ugh.  "A Spaceship Destroyed my Windmill and Crashed Into my Garden!"  Ug- wait, what?

Then you see it.  ...  Heaven.  ...  Sitting right next to the alien accident.

Oooooooooooh you involuntarily sigh as in your mind's eye you stand there at the end of the walk, imagining yourself in front of that porch, drinking in the coolness, about to walk up the path and take a seat. Heaven, I tell ya'.  Heaven.

*Y'all know what a mint julep is? It's a little bit of mint, a little bit of sugar, and a whole lot of bourbon.  Now we know what those "vapors" Scarlet kept getting really were. 


Now back to your regularly scheduled reality.

Here in Texas, it gets so hot so quickly that even if we can achieve the aforementioned porch bliss, it's fleeting.  The wisteria quits blooming within a week or two, in a month the geranium leaves turn a vomitus shade of yellow that clashes unattractively with the few necrotic blooms left, and the petunias soon follow suit, petering out in the heat after getting so long they look like wet cats hanging on a clothesline.  And if your porch faces west, speed up those timelines by half.

What to do?  Are we doomed to long for the unattainable, working so very hard for a few fleeting moments of bliss?  Buying new hanging baskets every month, when the first ones fry, in a futile attempt to chase the dream?  Not necessarily.

I'm not going to promise you pie-in-the-sky.  (Mmmmm ... pie ...)  Due to our hot and dry climate, our biggest foe in this race for beauty, we do have to work at it more than our Eastern Seaboard cousins.  But with a few different plant choices, better soil, and a little more attention to other things than just plants-in-pots, we can have a beautiful display just like them.

GORGEOUS porches with very few potted plants.
See? It CAN be done! And done well.
"More attention to things other than plants-in-pots?  But I thought this was a container gardening post!"  Nope.  It's Porch Gardening!  Gardening with the porch as a whole.  I will focus on container gardening - a lot on container gardening - but what good would gorgeous pots do if the rest of the porch looks tired?  Think about it - if you spend all your time and effort making those pots look great, but ignore the cobwebs in the corners, leaf stains on the concrete, dog-nose-smudges on the front door, and dead bugs in the patio light, how good are those pots really going to look?  Especially when they peter out in the heat and non-plant things are all that's left.  And since it's much harder to get a plant to thrive in a pot than in the ground, wouldn't it make sense to use the ground around your porch to make it look fabulous, too?

Why, yes it would!  So when making your battle plan to achieve that photo-spread-quality porch, don't ignore those things.  You don't have to rebuild the whole porch, but fixing the things you can will go a long way towards making the things you can't fade into the background.

Cleaning and Straightening:
First take everything off the porch so you can get a good look at it all.  We get "snow blind" to things we see every day, so you probably don't even notice those dirt-dauber nests and piles of flip flops, and your mind covers over the faded chair cushions with the memory of them when they were new.  Taking everything off the porch will get them out of their familiar surroundings that hide the imperfections and allow you to see them as they really are.  And it gives you room to work.
Even peeling paint can look good.
     Don't forget to look outside and around the porch as well.  It's amazing what accumulates there.  Even a little junk makes a big impact.  Think of just one metal folding chair waiting on a trip to Goodwill leaning against the side of that porch in the gorgeous magazine photo.  It ruins the whole thing.
     Sweep away those cobwebs and wasp nests, wipe those slobber spots off the door, and do the best you can to scrub those stains off everything, or at least lessen them so they aren't as noticeable.  If the paint is peeling on the railings and door trim and you're feeling especially industrious, spend thirty bucks at the local hardware store and repaint them!  If that's not in the cards (and let's face it: it probably isn't), then at least lessen the "paint dandruff" by scraping and brushing off as much of the peeling paint as you can 'til you're left with "Shabby Chic" instead of just shabby.
     Now turn your attention back to what you took off the porch.  Clean it up and put it back if it belongs there.  (Hint: Mud boots and bags of recycling don't belong there.) Is the furniture clean and in good enough repair that if you sit on it you won't end up on your butt?  If not, sqirt some glue in the cracks and add a few screws.  If anything's still suspect after that but you don't want to throw it away, turn it into a plant stand so no one sits on it.

It may be hard to believe that just cleaning and straightening can make such a big impact, so to illustrate, let me "show you my underwear".  My back porch after two months of neglect:

And again after 57 minutes of cleaning and rearranging (yes, I timed myself):

That time included putting everything that didn't belong back where it does belong (three trips to the garden and four to the tool shed), potting a few plants, finding a few new decorations, AND staging and taking photos for this post. Bet you could do yours in half the time I spent. I'm most proud of that porch light. It cleaned up really well.  And speaking of finding "a few new decorations"...

Think about how you use the porch, or could use it, and arrange things attractively with that in mind.  Would it be nice to have a spot to sit and read on a sunny spring day?  Put one there.  How about a little table next to the door to set your shopping on while you fish for your door keys?  I have one now and it's SO VERY handy.  If you can't break yourself of the habit of kicking your shoes off on the porch, don't fight it.  Find a little bench, staple a "curtain" to the front edge, and hide them under there.
     Stand back and look at what you did.  Rearrange and look again.  Rinse-wash-repeat 'til you're happy.  Still have some holes to fill?  Take a walk around the backyard and peek in the garage looking for anything that would be useful or look cool.  I found that double-handled pot in the barn, the round rusty one in the photo above, and not only does it look great, but it'll double as my bottom-waterer to sit overdry pots in to rewet the soil.
     Get creative!  Let your imagination run wild with things you don't think would work at first glance.  An example: That old wooden stepladder of your dad's that you really need to quit using because it's falling apart, but can't bear to part with?  Lean it against the wall in a corner and put your gardening tools on the rungs, switching them out seasonally with things like dried corn in fall and pansies in winter.  Maybe get some old metal loaf pans from the baking-pan aisle next time you're at Goodwill and screw them to each rung, then use them as cache pots (pots without holes that you set another potted plant in).  Of course come summer you'll be better off getting rid of the plants (unless they're cactus) and filling the pans with decorative rocks, or shells from your last trip to the beach.  Or put some pillar candles in there.  Bonus points if you go out there one night and actually light them.
One of these days I'm going to put some plants in there.
     Still have holes?  Keep looking for more stuff.  Get Grandma's antique propane heater out of the garage and set it up in front of the sitting area as if it's going to warm you up when you're out there.  Of course it won't, but it's amazing how it almost feels like it does.  A mirror would look awesome leaned up against a wall with plants in front of it, and the reflection will make it look like there are twice as many.  That extra end table would look great on the porch - if it's the wrong color go after it with a can of spray paint.  And that chandelier you grabbed at that garage sale thinking you'd fix it and hang it in the dining room - well let's be honest, you're never going to do that, so hang it up on the porch instead.  It doesn't matter if it doesn't work.  It'll still look great and you can finally enjoy it.

That chandelier makes me think of something else ~ real lighting, the kind that really does light up.  You've already cleaned those dead bugs out of the porch light, right?  Right?  Okay, stop what you're doing right now and go do it before you forget again.
Now that that's done, think about replacing that regular white frosted bulb with an Edison bulb - they're only about eight bucks and are fairly easy to find nowadays.  If no Edison bulb is available, look for anything in clear glass.  And unless you have a modern-style house, get warm white.  Cool white or "daylight" bulbs are too harsh and make your porch look like how the inside of your car looks when a cop pulls you over at night and lights you up with his spotlights.  Or how I'd imagine that'd look when that happens ... yeah, that's the story...
   Now go look at that light after dark.  Walk out to the street and take a good look.  Still really dark?  Well turn it on, silly! *snicker*  See if it's enough to illuminate all of your cleaning and redecorating job, or at least look good.
These and more are at The Natural Gardener
     If not, look at where you need more light and think of how to put some there.  If you have an outlet on your porch, you're home free - pick up an outdoor swag light to hang out there, one of those with it's own plug-end and on-off switch.  Or find a cool outdoor stand-lamp that would work.  And there's always my old fave - white outdoor Christmas lights.  Strings of mini-lights give a good bit of light, but the bigger C7s or C9s give a little more and don't necessarily look seasonal so fit right in when used year 'round.  Staple them up along the porch ceiling, at the edges or criss-crossed across the middle, so the light casts a nice glow on the entire porch.  If you're using the small lights, tuck them up in places you can't see them from the road lest everyone think you're a lazy Christmas decorator.  Or not - I use them year 'round and as long as they're white they look fine.  If you don't have a porch roof to staple them to, stuff the entire string in an interesting glass jar and plug them in, then lay the jar on a table on it's side so rain won't accumulate.  If it's round, prop it between two pretty rocks so it won't roll.  Even a gallon pickle jar will work.  Maybe set it underneath a chair or in a corner so all you see is the light glow and not the lights themselves.
     If you don't have an outdoor outlet on your porch, there are lots of beautiful solar or battery-powered lights that don't cost much and would do the job nicely, and more safely than an extension cord.  I've seen them in all shapes and sizes and I'm sure you have, too.  At the Natural Gardener, we have Soji Lanterns that look like those cool paper lanterns from Pier One, but they're weather resistant and solar powered, and some are even colored or patterned.  We have cute little strings of them, too - mini lanterns all in a row.  And I'm sure you could find lots more if you shop around.

Dressing Up Around the Porch:
Now that the porch itself is done, stand back and take a good, hard look at what's in front of it.  Any planting beds there?  If so, bring that soil back to life with some compost and molasses (good old blackstrap, either from your pantry or agricultural grade, available at most nurseries - a quarter cup per gallon of water, one gallon for every ten square feet or so).  Prune what's there and fertilize, or rip it out and replant with things that will really give you a show.
I love how they filled in the gaps underneath with
jasmine about as much as I love that little rose.
     If you don't have a planting bed there, make one!  Though it would be effort well spent, you really don't have to build a big stone planter box or kill yourself double-digging.  Put some beer on ice on the new porch table as a carrot-on-a-stick for yourself, then spend half a day marking off the new planting bed and remove all the weeds you can. (If it's bermuda grass: first, my condolences; second, go ahead and have one of those beers now, ...or three; third, come see me at The Natural Gardener for advice since more drastic measures need to be taken.)  Next, spread at least three inches of good live compost over the entire thing, top with some pine straw or pine bark mulch, and water it all in with molasses as you enjoy one of those beers.  In the coming weeks, keep watering that bed as if something is growing there because it is - the soil life.  In a month, rake back the mulch and go at it with a shovel, mixing in that compost as deep as you can.  You'll be amazed at how soft the ground is now that it's alive again.
     Now comes the fun part - plant it!  Plant choice is so very important since if you don't choose right, what looks great in spring right after you plant it will look like a chicken in a windstorm by July.  If you're an old hand at gardening, then you know what to do.  If you're a new gardener, come talk to us at the Natural Gardener so we can help you pick just the right plants for a really nice show.

Some tips on choosing plants for on and around your porch

Evergreen yaupons and showstopping sagos will
still be green in winter
Pay attention to bloom times and seasonal interest.  If you want year-'round bloom, or almost-year-'round, leave room for annuals.  There are few if any perennials that bloom in winter (if there are any, I can't think of them), so if you want color out there then, leave room for snapdragons and pansies.  If you don't want to have to replant all the time but don't want a bleak scene in the dead of winter, make sure to plant some evergreens.  Fluffy grasses that die back in winter would be great, too - just be sure to whack them down at the last winter minute so they grow back nice and green in spring.

Look around in other peoples' yards for plants you love.  Make sure you're comparing apples to apples - in other words, look in yards that face the same direction as yours and have similar amounts of sun or shade.  Don't look across the street because that aralia that looks great in your neighbor's east-facing yard will fry in your west-facing one.  If you see something you love but don't know what it is, take a closeup picture of the flowers and leaves, and another of the entire plant, then bring it to the nursery and we'll identify it for you.  Chances are we'll have it for sale, so you can buy it right then and take it home.  And while you're yard stalking, look for non-plant ideas, too, and take a picture so you don't forget.

Figure out which way your porch faces and choose plants with that in mind.  North-facing means shade-tolerant plants that are extra hardy to withstand the arctic blasts come winter, west-facing means tough survivors that can handle the blasting heat of the afternoon sun coming at their fronts AND backs (after it and the heat it brings with it bounces off your house), south-facing means still heat tolerant and sun loving but extra-hardy isn't so much a concern, and east-facing ... well, east-facing is the sweet spot.  Your plants there will get morning sun and evening shade, so your plant choices are wide open.  Lucky you!

Perennials or Annuals?  Why not both?  Annuals give you that instant gratification thing, but they poop out and have to be replanted.  You don't have to replant perennials, but it takes a couple years for them to get going and looking great.  So plant perennials with a bunch of annuals between them to take up space and add some color while the perennials mature.  It's the best of both worlds!  Plus, you won't be as tempted to plant your perennials too close together, something you'll regret later, just about the time they get settled in and start blooming their heads off.

Now THERE'S a porch ornament!
Use Seaweed.  Seaweed is like a bourbon and water for plants - it's great for plant stress, so use it liberally when planting things out.  It also has hormones that promote root growth, so it'll help your new transplants really take hold.  When I'm transplanting, I mix up a couple gallons in my big watering can using the directions on the package (a couple ounces per gallon of water if you're using the liquid, which I highly recommend), plant about 50 square feet of area, then water them all in with every bit of that two gallons of mix.  Hold the watering can so it showers the tops of the plants, putting enough on each plant to soak the ground under it pretty darn well, too.

And, unless it's high summer when you shouldn't be planting anyway, FERTILIZE!  Right away, right after planting.  I like to use dry fertilizer since I only have to fertilize every couple-or-three months, instead of every two weeks with a liquid.  I scatter handfuls like I'm feeding chickens, spreading it all over the whole bed to encourage roots to grow out there to get it.  I use some higher-nitrogen stuff at first (higher first number) to promote lots of new leaves, making sure there is some phosphorous and potassium (the next two numbers) in it, too, for great roots and overall plant health respectively.  Next time, I switch to something with higher phosphorous (second number) so they have everything they need to bloom like a house afire.  I repeat this next spring - higher nitrogen for new leaves, then higher phosphorous next time for blooms.

Water regularly at first, then less after they get established.  That's a few weeks for annuals and over a year for perennials.  You don't have to water every day necessarily, but more than once a week probably, definitely in summer.  Long, slow soaks from a drip system or soaker hose are best - put them under the mulch.  Make sure that water's getting six inches or more down in the ground every time you water.  Dig a hole to check a few times 'til you learn about how long to leave the water on to achieve that.  Then check often to see when you need to water again - take a little trowel out there, stick it in the ground, pull it to the side to open up the ground, and stick your finger in, ALL THE WAY in.  Dry as a popcorn fart for the first inch or two and damp as a well-wrung-out sponge three inches down at the bottom - time to water.

Container Gardening ... Finally

Container choice:
There are so many things to pick from here that you're sure to find exactly what fits.  Plastic, terra cotta, glazed, metal, wire - all have their plusses and all have their minuses.  There are some nice-looking plastic pots nowadays that are lightweight, but in our Texas heat they can deteriorate rapidly.  Glazed can be expensive, but if you get good quality that's been fired correctly so it doesn't flake in the freezes of winter, they can last for decades.  Wire hay racks and baskets look cool and are fairly cheap, but they can dry out quick (I put extra vermiculite in mine, and line them with a bit of plastic to help hold in some moisture.).

Use your imagination.  Think of anything that will hold soil and put a plant in it.  Even if it doesn't have holes, you can use it as a cache pot - a decorative pot without holes that you put a plant-already-planted-in-a-pot in.  (Say that three times fast.)  Cache pots are great since repotting is a breeze - just go buy another plant and plunk it in, pot and all.  You won't see the ugly plastic nursery pot since it'll be hidden inside the other.  The drawback is you have to make sure to dump them after a rain, and again a little later once the potted plant drains as much as it's going to.
     Or use regular pots-with-holes as cache pots - rain problem solved.  This is a great trick for us procrastinators.  Even if you are going to pot it IN the pot eventually, for now, just put it the decorative pot until you get time to do that.  Just don't forget and leave it in there for months.  Truth: Yes, I have one like that right now, on the back porch no less. *blush*  But it's the perfect pot for it and the pot's too big, so I'll be overpotting if I do that!  Yeah!  That's the ticket.
A cactus fountain. Oh, the irony.
     ANYway ... I like to get creative with my containers.  I have some antique five-gallon buckets from back when they used to make them out of metal.  They're old and rusted, sometimes all the way through at the bottom but that's a good thing - pre-installed holes!  And I have some enamel soup pots that started getting chipped and rusty - I drilled some holes in the bottom and boom, done.  My mom had an old gas tank from who-knows-what machine that she cut the top out of and painted, then set atop the frame stand from a treadle sewing machine.  And everyone's seen the planted boots.  They're so cute.

Just please, for the love of GOD don't be tempted to plant in a toilet.  Not even as satirical statement.  Really.  Just don't.

Choosing a Potting Soil:
Most people put more attention into choosing their plants than their potting soil, but that's ass-backwards.  If you have a really great soil for the plants to grow in, they'll grow almost as an afterthought, without much effort on your part.  So start there.

Many commercial potting soils are made up of Peat Moss, Vermiculite, and/or Perlite, and some have a bunch of sawdust or bark mulch thrown in for filler.  Peat holds moisture VERY well, sometimes too well, staying way too soggy for plants - though in our heat it also has a maddening habit of getting so dry so fast that it pulls away from the sides of the pot and becomes hydrophobic, "afraid of water".  Vermiculite holds loads of moisture as well, but sometimes, like in our waterlogged spring rainy season, that can add to the problem.  Perlite helps drainage quite a bit, opening up those soils so that excess moisture can pass through and adequate air can get in.  Uncomposted Sawdust and Bark Mulch don't do much of anything except dry out quickly and tie up nitrogen, which starves your plants - potting soil makers add it as cheap filler (yes, commercial plant growers use it in their growing mixes, but they also have automatic feeding and watering systems that deliver lots of chemical nitrogen regularly along with water at almost the push of a button).

This isn't to say that none of the above should be used.  Quite the contrary.  Just use them in such a way that their positive properties are a benefit and the negatives are avoided.  That means mixing them with other things instead of using them as the entire mix.  Things such as:
Coir Fiber ~ holds moisture, but doesn't get so dry that it's an exercise in futility to rewet it with a water hose like peat
Compost ~ also holds moisture, has some nutrition, and adds a LOT of LIFE to the soil
Rice Hulls ~ don't get waterlogged, though CAN dry out quickly so use sparingly
WELL COMPOSTED Sawdust, Bark or other wood products ~ I avoid wood in my potting mix unless it's so well composted it's unrecognizable, but if you have a soil already that has a lot of it in there, just sift it to get the big chunks out and know you'll probably have to fertilize more often, preferably with a liquid fert so the nutrients are immediately available even if the bacteria are busy elsewhere.  Watering with compost tea and molasses regularly will help break those down quicker, too.

Choosing Plants:
This is the second most important step in successful container gardening.  If you don't choose the right plants, nothing else you do will matter - they won't thrive for long.  
Split-leaf philodendron and purple zebrina
     So what are the right plants, and how do you choose them?  First, remember the tips I gave above, especially the ones about which way your porch faces.  Second, match the plant to the light conditions - a covered porch with lots of shade or a sunny one without a cover.  Thirdly, get what's pretty.  You very well may choose wrong, but that's all part of gardening - learning from your mistakes.  With that in mind, it'd probably be best to not buy that thirty-dollar fuschia basket that says "keep moist" on the label until you get some plant-killing experience under your belt.  'Til then, stick to the little 4" pots for two bucks or the quarts for five so your massacres don't break the bank.
     I will give you some hints, though.  These are some of my favorite porch plants:
Brightly colored Swiss Chard
Purple kale
Snapdragons and pansies in winter - they're so cold tolerant there's no need to cover them ever
Herbs like thyme and mint
Bearded iris
Citrus trees, especially when they're producing
Sweet Potato Vines
Lantana - I know, I know, done to death. But they're about the only thing still blooming in pots in July
Purple Heart and Purple Zebrina - those good old standbys some call wandering jew
Dwarf bananas
Tropical house plants, atleast in the warm seasons
Asparagus ferns, especially foxtail ferns
English ivy and it's cousin Algerian

Planting those Plants:
Why, yes, Sugar Pie, I DO need help.
Thank you.
This is the easy part.  Pick the right sized pot, one just a little bigger than the rootballs of the plants you want to put in it (more on that in "Repotting" below), throw in some of your fabulous potting soil, and stick those plants in there, filling any voids between and around them with more soil.  No need for gravel in the bottom - it doesn't really improve drainage and takes up valuable real estate.
     Before you actually plant them, set them in the pots and stand back to look at them.  Call up your inner flower arranger and make sure they look good and balanced, thinking forward to when they grow and fill out the pot.  Remember how tall those snapdragons will be one day, so put them towards the back or in the middle.  The alyssum is probably going to spill over and hang off the edge, so put it near the front.  And don't forget colors - try to avoid putting all the purple on one side.
     When you find your first placement won't work after all, it's a simple matter of rearranging and looking again.  If you'd already planted them, this step would be a real pain in the ass.  So arrange first, plant next.
     Be sure to leave a little room near the top so water won't run off.  Having the soil an inch or so lower than the pot rim is perfect, half an inch for small pots.  And use that seaweed I mentioned above.  It's great stuff!  And water in well so the entire pot is soaked.  Speaking of that...

This is the biggest bugaboo for us here in hot-as-hell Texas.  Since the soil in pots is separated from the Earth, they don't have access to the soil moisture reservoir the ground has.  This means you have to be extra-dilligent in making sure they have enough.  If you have a great potting soil that holds moisture well, you're halfway there.
     Make sure you have a watering setup that you will really use, even when you're tired from a long day at work.  Be honest with yourself - if you think toting watering cans is a downright chore, then don't kid yourself thinking you'll keep up with that in high summer when you may have to make three trips to water everything well.  Set up a hose with it's own watering wand right close to the porch, or even on it so it's exta-easy to grab.  If you're worried about it cluttering up your nice job of cleaning, just hide it.  I have one - look closely at the "after" picture of my porch.  See that blue peeking out from behind the chair in the corner?  Didn't see it at first, did ya'?
     If you don't have extras of these to dedicate to porch watering, then buy some.  Trust me.  If you don't, you'll take them off the porch to use somewhere else in the yard, and when you get home from work one day that following summer and your plants are bowing down begging for water, you'll cuss yourself to high heaven when you have to go off searching for it when all you really want to do is go inside in the air conditioning.  Or worse - you'll go inside, thinking you'll relax a bit then go water, and you'll forget.  There go all your plants - crispy-critter dead.  Even if you water them the next morning and they're not quite dead yet, they'll look like they want to be, especially after a few rounds of this.  And keep blooming?  YAHAHAHAHAHANope.  They'll go on strike until you cave to their demands and install that dedicated water hose after all.  
     Moisture meters: Be careful when buying one.  Go online and read reviews.  I've seen some cheaper ones read "dry" while sitting in a gallon of Ozarka.  The best moisture meter is one you already have ten of - your finger.  Those digital meters are handy if you get one that works, but double-check them every so often by feeling for yourself, down a few inches into the soil.     
Plant Nanny in action.
     Ollas and olla-type waterers are handy as all get out!  I highly recommend them.  For big pots, get the little quart sized ones that you bury up to their neck in the soil.  In little pots those would take up too much room, so use the smaller Plant Nannies that you push into the soil and upend a water-filled wine bottle in.  (Be sure to push them into the soil first with the palm of your hand.  Don't put the wine bottle in and use that to push them in or they'll break. Ask me how I know that one. *sigh*)  Yes, we have both of these things at the Natural Gardener, or I'm sure you can order them online.

Bottom watering: This is a handy technique for rewetting those pots that you've accidentally let get overly dry.  Don't feel bad - we've all done it.  It's just another thing we have to contend with down here.  To bottom water, just fill a shallow pan with water and set the pot in it all day or overnight.  The water will slowly wick up from the bottom, rewetting even the most stubbornly dry soils.

Since beneficial bacteria are oh-so-helpful in breaking down compost and dry fertilizer, and since pots don't usually contain enough of them to do the job well, a liquid fert is best to use.
     Finding an organic liquid is a trick, but they are out there.  I like fish-based ones.  They come in hydrosylates and emulsions and don't ask me what the difference is.  I've read about them and tried to understand which is which, but I'm still not sure I've got it right.  I do know that some are made from the entire fish while some are from what's left after the filets are removed.  Some are cold-processed while others are heated during production which destroys some of the nutrients.  You can do some research to figure out which you prefer, or just remember first-number-nitrogen is for greens and second-number-phosphorous is for blooms and choose the larger number accordingly.
     If you're like me though and don't like fertilizing every week or two, you can certainly use dry and it'll work just fine.  Again, first-number-nitrogen is for greens and second-number-phosphorous is for blooms.  Unless you're shopping at The Natural Gardener where everything's natural, look on the label for "Nutrients derived from..." to see what's in it.  Just like groceries, if you can't pronouce it, it's probably not natural.
     Dry ferts are fine to use, but they're much better if you keep those bacteria in that soil alive.  When you garden in containers, it's completely separated from the Earth.  In the ground, your plants and the soil they're in have access to the massive moisture reservoir below them and the life everywhere around them.  In a pot, the soil will dry out a lot faster since it doesn't have that big reservoir to wick water up from, or for roots to grow down in.  And when the soil dries out the life in it dies and can't be replaced by more migrating over from the leaf mold under a bush a few feet away.
     To keep the soil alive and/or bring life back to it, remember these two tricks: Water your pots every month or so with aerobically brewed compost tea, or put a couple handfuls of earthworm castings on top and water those in with some molasses water like I mentioned above.  Aerobically brewed compost tea is brewed beneficial bacteria, aerated so the bacteria will have air to live, while earthworm castings are alive with similar bacteria and fungi.  So it's like feeding your pots yogurt, the kind Jamie Lee Curtis touts on tv.  The molasses gives those good bugs carbohydrates, sugar, energy to reproduce and do the job of softening the soil and breaking down any compost you have in there, feeding the plants all the more.

This is simply removing the spent, faded blooms.  It makes the plant look better, and encourages more blooms.  Blooming is a reproductive plant process.  That's right - blooms are plant sex. That we give them to our sweethearts makes a lot more sense now, doesn't it?  If a plant blooms and sets seed, hormones tell it it's successfully reproduced, so it's less apt to bloom more.  If you cut those blooms off right as they fade, well before they set mature seed, you'll encourage it to make more blooms.

If you're successful at your job of giving your plants everything they need, they're going to get bigger, so you need to keep them in bounds.  Pruning things also encourages rebloom, so make it a regular part of your gardening routine.
     You can do a little selective pruning every now and again, taking a limb off here, a stem there, so they don't look bald by doing it all at once.  You can cut them back a little, taking only a few inches off the top, all the way around, to encourage rebloom.  Or you can whack 'em, shearing them to a chrome dome like a kid in basic training.
   To show you how to prune, I took my coleus outside and chopped it.  If you look at the photo collage over there on the left, you'll see in the top left photo that it was looking a little tired.  Before taking the scissors to it, I planned out my cuts, looking down the stems for new sprouts.  Look closely in the top right photo and you can see them coming out at the nodes (stem joints).  Look for those and if you find them, prune just above that node.  Those sprouts will grow quickly and take over, filling the plant's "body" back in.  If you don't see sprouts, just clip above a node, any old node, and they'll show up.
     Bottom left photo: poor, pitiful little thing.  But it's for it's own good.  In no time at all it'll grow back out twice as bushy since every cut you take makes two new branches.  And if you have an easy-to-root thing like my coleus, you can strip some of the leaves off those cuttings and poke them back in, like I did for the bottom right photo.  Or stick them in other pots and keep them watered 'til they root.  It's like getting free plants!

This one's too big!
This can be either pulling out the old and putting in new or putting the old in bigger pots (called potting up).  For pulling out the old and putting in new, just do just that - dig out those old plants, roots and all.  Leave as much soil as you can, knocking it off the roots of the oldsters, then throw the whole things in the compost pile so that they may one day live again in another form. (Why do I have "The Circle of Liiiiiiiiife!" playing in my head right now? An earworm. Lovely.) Those old plants most certainly took some nutrients out of the soil, so put them back with copious amounts of compost and a little bit of fertilizer.  Then replant.
And this one's too small. :(
     When putting the old in bigger pots, the most important thing is to get the right size pot.  You don't want one so small you have to stuff the rootball down in it - there won't be any room for it's roots to spread out.  And you certainly don't want to get one so big that the little plant is swimming in it.  One about an inch or so bigger, or twice the soil volume of the rootball, is about right.
     Why not pick a BIG one?  ("That plant's going to get big and need the room anyway!")  Because you'll drown your poor little plant.  Soil dries out not so much from drainage or evaporation, but very much mostly from the plant's roots sucking that moisture out of the soil.
But this one? Ahh, this one!  Yeah,
this one's juuuuuuust right.
If you put a tiny little plant in a great big pot like in that first photo above, the vast majority of the soil around that plant doesn't have roots in it to dry it out.  It'll stay wet, soggy sopping wet, and that soggy soppy wet will constantly wick over into the original rootball, drowning the plant.
     If you have a big pot that you just have to use, then pick a bigger plant.  If you're hardheaded like me and you just have to use THAT pot and put THAT PLANT IN IT!!!, then put more of them in there.  Fast growing annuals are great for colonizing new soil with roots super-quick, so maybe tuck some of them in around That Plant's feet.  But still, watch the watering.  It'll be easy to overdo it.
     I don't know what to write here since we're coming to the end of our story and are just about done, but if I don't put something here, there'll be a big old blank spot on the page when I post it.  Do-dee-do-daaaa-killing-time-la-la-LA!


There!  We're done!!
Man, that was a lot of work.  I'm worn out.  I don't know about you, but I'm going to pinch the fat cheeks of that Kentucky Colonel mint to make me a mint julep and go drink it on my nice clean back porch.  Yeah it's January and we just had a cold front move in, but I earned it damit.  I bet the three fingers of bourbon in it will keep me warm ...  

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