Companion planting made easy

plant companions in the garden

companion plantingIt was my father in-law who first introduced me to the concept of companion planting, as we discussed gardening, and he sagely shared the secret of planting marigolds with tomatoes in order to repel nematodes.  I remember wondering what other plants could be grown among my crops to aid in the health of the garden, and then I wondered why more people don’t use this age-old method of pest protection?

If you’re interested in organic gardening, and gardening without the use of pesticides or herbicides, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ve entertained the notion of companion planting.  Chances are you’ve Googled companion planting and discovered the 1,410,000 results that come up, clicked through the first few links, and quickly became overwhelmed by the vast number of recommendations for pairing combinations of plants–I know I certainly did!  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the suggestions, which are sometimes confusing, unscientific, and even contradictory.

garden companions
My copy of “Great Garden Companions” is beat up and well-worn from years of heavy use.

About 10 years ago, I was lucky enough to stumble upon Sally Jean Cunningham’s book: “Great Garden Companions“, in which she lays out her companion-planting system–a system that takes the confusion out of companion planting and makes it easy to employ this method to aid in your pursuit of a chemical-free garden.  Even on a larger scale, as in our market gardens, companion planting can be utilized to reduce the need for pesticides, and to improve the efficiency of the garden.

Sally Jean is a Master Gardener with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and she’s done the hard work of sorting through hundreds of companion planting recommendations, looking for those recommended by several sources and backed by scientific research.  And, as a Master Gardener myself, I prefer to use information supported by the cooperative extension and grounded in science, so Sally Jean’s book was a godsend.

Some may call the companion-planting method merely an “old wives tale”, but just because something is folklore doesn’t mean it’s fiction.  Afterall, companion planting is one of the oldest of gardening traditions–even the ancient Roman historians wrote about companion planting–and practically everyone has heard of the “three sisters”, a Native American method of planting corn, beans, and squash together.

Note:  This is not an affiliate link, though I do highly recommend “Great Garden Companions” to anyone interested in this method of growing and raising crops.

What is companion planting?

Simply put, companion planting is combination of gardening fact and folk-lore that advocates growing certain plants together for their mutual benefit–a symbiotic relationship of sorts.

Humanity’s modern gardening methods disregard and destroy the natural systems in effect on Earth because we often feel the need to interfere with the links of the living chain, which causes the system to begin to collapse.  However if we set up our gardens to take advantage of the natural processes that make nature so successful, we can create a self-sustaining system that is a benefit not only to ourselves, but to the ecosystem that we are a part of.

What are the benefits of companion planting?

Creates biodiversity:  Planting flowers and herbs among your vegetables in the garden creates biodiversity, which means having many different plants and animals in the area, and supports the natural systems at work, creating a healthier, stronger ecosystem.  When your ecosystem is strong, the plants and animals therein are stronger and healthier too.  And if your vegetable plants are strong and healthy, they can ward of pests and diseases more easily, which means you’ll have a better harvest than you might otherwise reap.

Helps prevent pest problems: Mixing plants together makes it more difficult for pests to find those they like to eat.  Inter-planting flowers and herbs among your crops confuses the insects in some cases.  In other instances, your companion plants may camouflage your vegetables.  Some odoriferous plants repel pests, and still others attract natural predators such as birds and beneficial insects.

A helping hand: Some companion pairings help each other grow, such as corn that’s planted beside lettuce, shading the lower growing crop from the hot summer sun.  And even sunflowers that are planted between your cucumbers, creating a natural trellis for your vining crops.

Use nutrients efficiently: Make the most of what your garden’s soil has to offer by pairing plants according to their nutrient needs.  Some crops need well fertilized, rich soil, while others do just as well in average, or even fairly poor soil.  A good example is pairing potatoes with beans, potatoes are heavy nitrogen feeders, and since beans effectively fix nitrogen into the soil this is a great companion pairing.  In other instances, following a group of heavy feeders such as tomatoes or cucumbers with a planting of light feeders such as beets or carrots, can help you utilize your soil most efficiently.

Reduces need for pesticides: Companion planting allows you to grow vegetables, flowers, and herbs in a chemical free, environmentally friendly way.  Growing strong, healthy plants that are less susceptible to pests and disease, and growing them with beneficial friends and allies to help ward off pests, reduces, and potentially eliminates, the need for pesticides in the garden.

Companion planting the easy way

companion planting made easyI’ve adopted Sally Jean’s gardening method, which takes the confusion out of companion planting, and I’ve had great success with it.  By sorting your plants into basic groups companion planting suddenly becomes a much simpler endeavor.

Step 1:  Sort your crops into plant families

There are 4 ways to group your vegetable crops into families, by botanical family, feeding needs, performance benefits, and pairings that benefits each other by deterring or warding off harmful pests.  Depending on your circumstances you may choose to employ just one of these groupings, or all of them.

Botanical families

Genetically related plants can be grouped together, since they typically have similar needs for light, moisture, and fertility.  Plants of the same family are often plagued by the same pest and disease issues, so grouping them together can make treating these problems much easier.  For example, group brassicas together in one family, tomatoes and peppers together in another.  Organizing your plants this way also helps you to choose the appropriate friends for each crop family.

Feeding families

feeding family companion planting
Some crops require much more fertilizer than others.

Group plants according to their nutrient needs, as some are heavy feeders, while others are moderate to light feeders.  Corn, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and squash are all crops who need a rich, well fertilized soil to produce well, while beets, carrots, onions, and turnips all do well in average or even poor soil conditions.  Grouping your crops into feeding families can help you to make the most of your soil fertility, and this can be a good strategy for those with smaller gardens, or if you have poor soil that you’re working to improve.

Performance families

Some plants can help another by simply being in close proximity, such as lettuces planted in the shade of pole bean tee-pees.  This kind of grouping can help you make the best of limited garden space, with the added benefit that insects may become confused by the close placement of the two unrelated crops, and they may not be able to find their target crop.

Pest-fighting families

In this grouping, one family member may help repel pests that attack another family member.  Or one crop might lure pests away from another crop.  Research studies have indicated that bush beans planted in alternating rows with potatoes can significantly reduce the numbers of Colorado potato beetles afflicting your potato crop.  Radishes, too, are a great trap crop used to lure flea beetles away from your greens–just pull up the infested radishes and destroy them to get rid of the flea beetles.

Step 2:  Choose your friends carefully

Once you’ve created your “plant family” it’s time to add some “friends and allies”.

companion planting for pest-control
I’ve learned to recognize Evening Primrose seedlings, and I allow these “weeds” to grow up in strategic locations throughout the garden because they attract Japanese beetles away from my beans.

Plant friends attract beneficial insects to the garden–beneficials are those who either prey upon garden pests, or those who pollinate, thus increasing the yield of your garden.  But in order to attract these “good bugs” we need to offer them food and shelter, because when beneficials aren’t eating pests, they eat pollen–another protein source, and they like a place to hide when threatened or resting.

Plant allies are protector plants, or trap crops, which deter, or lure pests away from your vegetable crops.  Typically these include common annuals (ie-marigolds, etc.) and culinary herbs, and even some perennials in adjacent beds can offer a benefit to your vegetable garden.

2 Rules for choosing ally-attracting plant-friends

  • Provide a season-long bloom: beneficial insects need to be able to eat from the time they emerge in the early spring, through to the fall, when cold forces plants into dormancy and insects either die off or return to hibernation.
  • Include aster and carrot-family plants: there are many aster-relations to choose from–from sunflowers to coneflowers, daisies, chamomile, cosmos, zinnias, and many more–all of them offer nectar and pollen to beneficial insects.  The carrot-family, however, includes many odoriferous herbs–such as caraway, dill, fennel, parsley, and even Queen-Anne’s Lace–which serve as our protector plants.

 Step 3:  Survey your plant neighborhoods

Once you’ve grouped your crop families it’s fairly easy to pair them with beneficial allies to create neighborhoods that suit your specific preferences and gardening principles.  Decide which type of mulch best suits each neighborhood, determine optimal crop rotation, and make notes for future reference as you experiment and learn.  You can check out my own neighborhoods below to see what some possible groupings might look like.

create plant-family neighborhoodsCabbages, beets, and peas please!

Pairing cabbage-family crops with other cold-loving crops makes sense if you’re interested in season-extension.

I absolutely avoid using straw as a mulch because slugs and snails love to hide in it during the day, then lunch my tender brassicas during the cool nighttime.

The brassica neighborhood has a 2-3 year rotation period in my gardens, so they won’t be in the same plot again for at least 2 years, and we always remove spent plants at the end of the season because they can harbor pests and diseases over the winter.

why companion planting is beneficialCarrots & onions

When my garden was smaller, serving just our own family, I would plant my onions, and then scatter-sow carrots between them, using the thinnings in salads.

Now that we have a much larger market garden, I plant in wide beds, alternating carrots, onions, and beets.

These crops are generally not prone to disease, but do we employ a 2 year rotation period for carrots, since they can be affected by root maggots, while greens can be planted in the same bed repeatedly without a problem.

group plant families together in companion planting

Beans with potatoes

I always pair potatoes with beans–firstly because the beans act as a trap crop for my more valuable winter-storage crop of potatoes.  And secondly because legumes like beans fix nitrogen into the soil, and since potatoes are heavy nitrogen feeders this is a good plant-relationship to foster in the garden.

Because potatoes are susceptible to a number of diseases we give them a minimum of 3 years in our crop rotations.

how to make companion planting easyTomatoes & Co.

Generally, these heat-loving, nutrient-demanding crops will go in the garden around the same time.

how to companion plantWe employ a 4 year rotation with nightshade crops, which are known for spreading a number of viral diseases.


Vine City

Crops like cucumbers, squashes, and pumpkins need plenty of space to spread out, rich, fertile soil, and hot, humid weather to perform well.

Another companion planting strategy is to plant cucumber among your cabbage-family crops early in the season; you will have harvested the brassicas by the time your cucumber-crops need more space.

3 year rotation to avoid reintroducing pests, like the Cucumber beetle, which overwinter in the soil, mulch, and nearby logs or the debris of the forest floor.

how companion planting worksPermanent perennials

Keeping a permanent bed in the garden not only gives you a place to plant perennials like rhubarb and asparagus, but also offers a dependable habitat to beneficial insects.

Providing shelter and water entices the insects to remain close by, which will increase their foraging in your garden and further reduce the numbers of pests preying upon your crops.

Get growing!

Companion planting doesn’t have to be complicated or confusing.  Using this method of grouping plants based on one of the four categories, and pairing them with friends and allies that suit each plant family takes the guess work out of it all.  And by arranging your garden into “neighborhoods” you’ve created an easy rotational system.

I’ve printed my own neighborhoods onto index cards, with my notes and reminders, so that they are easy to refer to.  I can carry them with me in my back pocket when I go out to the gardens to plant, and I double check them constantly to make sure I’m putting the right seedlings together, and laying the correct form of mulch.

Now that you know how–go ahead and create your own garden neighborhoods and try companion planting for yourself!

Garden planning for beginners

garden planning for beginners

An expression of art and science, gardening is a practice that dates back to the start of civilization, and is both creative and economical.  With the ever-increasing trend towards green and sustainable living, gardening is enjoying a resurgence–if you’ve been considering taking up the habit, I hope this is your year!  If you’ve been toying with the idea of gardening but need a little incentive, let me tell you why it’s a good investment of your money and time, and how you can get started right now.

Why you should garden

garden planning for beginnersSelf-expression:  No two gardens are exactly alike because no two gardeners are exactly alike.  Any garden will be based on the principles, values, and methodologies that the gardener possesses.  You can get as creative or scientific as you please with your garden, with no one to tell you you’re doing it wrong.

Environmentally friendly:  Growing plants in your backyard is good for your local ecosystem.  Your garden offers habitat and food for local wildlife, and studies have proven that backyard gardens are key components in the conservation of our native pollinators.  Growing your own food also means you’ll be less dependent on the industrial food system, which helps to reduce our need for oil.

Quality & freshness:  When you grow your own food, you can monitor the health and vitality of your plants to ensure the best possible produce.  You can reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  Growing your own means you can experiment with different varieties for new flavors, allowing you to create gourmet meals for your family and friends.  And if it’s fresh food you’re after, it doesn’t get better than vegetables harvested in the afternoon for dinner the same evening–or a carrot straight from the garden!

Family oriented:  Having a garden in the backyard is a wonderful way to teach children where their food comes from; it entices them to be more adventurous with their food.  Vegetables they might otherwise have turned their noses up at, may now become their favorites simply because they were able to watch them grow.  You can get the whole family involved in the garden–it’s a great way to get outside and have fun!

Establishing your new garden

Once you’ve decided that you’re ready to “dig in” and start your first garden, you’ll want to cover the basics before you actually begin putting plants in the ground.  There are many different methods and styles of gardens available for you to choose from, if you’re short on space you may want to go with a small raised bed–say 3-feet by 8-feet.  And to make the most of that small space, you’ll want to utilize the square-foot method.

Note:  If you’re gardening in a small space, I recommend you check out this article from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Regardless your choice in garden style, there are a few things to consider.

  • Location – Where you place your garden is very important, as vegetables require a minimum of 6 hours of full sunlight daily–8 is preferred.  Watch the sun to determine where it rises and sets, look for shade cast by trees and buildings, and situate your garden accordingly.
  • Proximity – Think about your garden’s proximity to your water source, tool storage, and the drop-off point for in-puts such as manure.
  • Water – For best results, your garden is going to need plenty of water.  If you don’t have access to a spigot for a hose, you could set a water collection tank up on stilts and let gravity feed the water into your hose or irrigation system.
  • Soil type – Most soils are fine for gardening, but it’s a good idea to do a soil test (preferably in the fall, to give amendments time to mature before planting begins).  Contact your local county extension office for a test-kit and instructions on how to take your soil sample, as well as information on where to send it.
  • Tools – You’re going to want a few basic tools to get started with: a spade, garden fork, hoe, trowel, hoses, and a wheel barrow all come in handy in the garden.

To till or not to till?

When you take into consideration the fact that there are 900 billion microorganisms in a pound of soil, you begin to understand that the soil is alive with life.  You soil is the life-blood of your garden, it should be nurtured, cultivated, and treated with respect.

Personally, I use the tiller to break new ground.  Otherwise, if I don’t have to till, I don’t.  I like to use a garden fork or a broadfork to loosen the soil in the spring, and to work in compost or manure–otherwise, I mulch it and leave it be–allowing the organisms to proliferate.

The beginner’s garden

goat manure for the garden
We have a great local source of goat manure–just $10 for a truck-load–and they load it for us with their tractor!

If you don’t own a tiller, perhaps you know someone who does, but if not, don’t fret–often hardware stores or garden supply stores have rototillers available to rent.  Sometimes you can find a local handy-man who offers rototilling services.

But how big should you make your first garden?

The Farmer’s Almanac recommends a 10-foot by 16-foot plot for the beginning gardener.  A plot that size can feed a family of four through the summer, with a bit extra for canning, freezing or sharing with friends and family.

It’s best to start small and simple when you’re just starting out.  Resist the urge to grow too big too quickly, which can be overwhelming and lead to an over-run, neglected garden that sets you up for disappointment and running the risk of abandoning your project.  It’s easiest to start with the mainstream row-method, and work your way up to wider beds and different growing methods.

Planning your garden

This is the fun part of gardening; gardeners everywhere look forward to January when they can pour over seed catalogs and use a pencil to lay out their gardens.

We love fresh coleslaw in the summer!

What will you grow?

Make a list of all the vegetables you’d like to grow.  Consider what your family likes to eat.  It’s best to start with crops that are easy to grow like lettuces, cucumbers, beets and carrots, radishes, swiss chard, spinach, kale, green beans, summer squash, and tomatoes.  Some crops may produce more than one crop per season, such as beans, lettuce, spinach and tomatoes.


Put it on paper

Use graph paper to sketch your garden to scale.  You can divide your 10×16 plot into 11 rows, each 10-feet long and running from north to south to receive the best possible sunlight.

Group plants together

It can be beneficial to group plants into families; grow all of your brassicas in one part of the garden, nightshade crops in another, roots and greens can be grown together, all of your legumes (peas, beans, and potatoes), and vining crops like cucumbers and squashes.  Typically crops of the same family require similar growing conditions, and grouping plants like this allows for easier rotations.

Allow appropriate spacing

On your graph paper mark down the spacing between plants to determine how many seedlings or how much seed you will need.  Keep in mind that plants that grow taller will shade low-growing crops and plan your layout accordingly.  Avoid spacing plants too close together so that each crop is not crowded and fighting for nutrients, water, and sun.

Sowing and harvesting

Before you put anything in the ground, you’ll want to know the first and last frost dates for your area.  You can contact your local extension office, or try this frost-date calculator from the Farmer’s Almanac. To help you determine when to plant each crop, use this interactive seed-starting calculator for free from Johnny’s Seeds.

It’s helpful to know when each crop will reach maturity so that you can harvest your vegetables at their peak.  Check the seed packet or the catalog for the “days to maturity”, count off the days and weeks on a calendar, and mark on your garden plan the estimated harvest date.  This does take some time, but it’s incredibly helpful information later in the summer when you’re looking at your beets–for example–and wondering if they’re ready.

Knowing the days to maturity and when to harvest also allows you to set up planting so that crops will be ready for harvesting when you are.  Some gardeners want crops to “come in” all at once for easy processing, while other prefer a continuous supply of fresh produce throughout the summer.  Gardeners can stagger plantings, or plant a succession of sowings to get more than one harvest or to extend the season.

Maintain your garden

cardboard as mulch
Cardboard makes a great weed-block, and typically you can get loads of it free at nearby stores.

Even more than the sowing of seeds and transplants, maintaining your garden once it’s in is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the craft.

The key to success is to keep a “clean”, weed-free plot.  Weeds inhibit the growth of your vegetables, sucking up valuable nutrients and water your crops need to grow healthy and produce fruit.  Don’t allow grass surrounding your garden to get long and over-run, since slugs and snails love to hide there and will raid your crops at night.  If possible, create a “no-man’s land” around your garden–where you or the birds can easily pick them off.  Make time every week for weeding, and try to make daily trips through the garden to monitor your crops for pests and diseases that can affect your harvest.

Use mulch to suppress weeds, retain moisture in your soil, and build up your soil’s vitality.  There is a wide array of mulches to be had–newspaper and cardboard, wood chips, landscaping fabrics–again it comes down to personal preference and methodology, and the choice is yours.

Timing is everything when it comes to harvesting.  If you miss the window of opportunity your vegetables will be past their peak in flavor and texture, and there’s nothing more disappointing than woody green beans!  Even worse–insects, birds, and other wildlife may dine on your vegetables rather than your family savoring your gourmet vegetables over dinner.

A “growing” opportunity

garden fresh carrots
Nothing beats a carrot straight from the garden!

Gardening offers families the chance to connect with nature, to better understand where food comes from.  It’s a great way to protect the environment and live more sustainably.  Establishing a new garden is an opportunity for healthier living, and while the recent trend may seem like a fad, gardening is one activity that had held true through the history of mankind.  Heirloom seeds saved by generations who came before us, allow us to experience this history through our food.  Cultivation practices once forgotten in the face of technology are returning to us, connecting us to our ancestors.  If you’re ready to take the plunge into gardening and cultivating even a portion of your own food requirements, then give yourself a pat on the back and have fun with the journey that now lays ahead of you.

7 foods you can easily grow indoors this winter

kitchen windowsill herb garden

Now that the balmy days of summer are behind us, and the time to tuck in for the long cold of winter has come–I like to play around with growing different foods inside my house.  The gardening season may be over, but providing fresh and nutritious foods for family meals is a never-ending task, and though I am not yet set up with cold-frames and hoop-houses, I am able to grow some foods indoors during the winter.

Growing my own food, even on a small scale, saves money and the environment in one fell swoop, and I have the added benefit of knowing that it was produced using methods I approve of–safely grown to the benefit of man and nature.

Foods to Grow

micro-greens at home
Photo courtesy

1. Micro-greens:  These baby greens pack a punch of dense nutrients that make a great addition to salads and sandwiches, providing a great source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as folate.  You can often find seed at your local natural foods store–look for broccoli seed or sunflower seed.  Or go to Johnny’s Seeds for a broader selection of delectable micro-greens and micro-green mixes.

To grow simply fill a shallow tray with potting soil, moisten with water so that its damp but not wet, then scatter your seeds so that they are approximately 4-6 seeds per square inch.  Sift a thin layer of soil over the seeds and lightly mist with a spray bottle; place the tray in a sunny windowsill.  Mist or lightly water the seeds daily until germination occurs, then water the seedlings at the roots to avoid soaking the leaves.

Your micro-greens are ready to eat when they’ve grown to 1-2 inches in height and have 2 sets of leaves.  To harvest, hold the seedlings by the stems and use a pair of scissors to cut off the leaves.  Be sure not to cut the roots in order to ensure multiple harvests.  Eat them right away–or store them in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to 5 days.

growing sprouts in a mason jar2.  Sprouts:  Scientists agree that there can be up to 100-times more beneficial enzymes in sprouts than in uncooked fruits and vegetables.  The quality of the proteins in beans, nuts, seeds or grains is improved during the soaking and sprouting process.  Fiber content is increased significantly, along with the available fatty acids, and the content of vitamins, including vitamins A, B-complex, C, and E–by up to 20-times!

You can grow sprouts simply in a mason jar, or in a specialized sprouting tray.  To use the jar method, simply place a tablespoon full of your selected seed in the bottom of a quart jar and cover with water.  Soak for 8 hours or overnight–depending on the type of seed you’ve chosen.  Drain off the water, then over the next 4-5 days rinse the seed twice a day, each time covering the sprouting seeds completely, swirling them around in the jar and allowing them to soak for approximately 30-seconds before draining again.  Keep the jar of sprouts in a dark cupboard or corner.

When the sprouts have grown their first set of leaves, place the jar in a sunny window sill to green them before harvesting.  You can eat them right away, or store them in the fridge for a week or more.

For more details about how to grow your own sprouts using the jar method–check out this post.

3.  Leafy greens:  Anything from spinach to lettuces can be grown indoors with little effort and are jam-packed with vitamins like A, C and K, as well as folate and iron.

Start indoor greens from seedlings found at your local nursery, or from seed, which you can get locally or online.  Plant seeds about 4-inches apart in a tray filled with a good quality potting soil–seedlings plant 6-inches apart.  Water regularly to maintain soil that is damp or moist to the touch.

Harvest by selectively cutting the largest leaves, allowing continuous growth of the plants and successive harvests.

4.  Kombucha:  I’d never heard of this fermented tea drink before my stay at Medicine Hill, but Linda taught me to love it and I’ve been brewing my own ever since!  Kombucha is a slightly fizzy health drink that has been around for 2000 years and scientists have proven its healthful benefits.  Kombucha aides in cancer prevention through detoxification of the liver, serves as joint care by preventing and treating the symptoms of arthritis.  As a probiotic beverage, Kombucha improves digestion and is noted for reducing–even eliminating the symptoms of fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety.  What’s more, kombucha is extraordinarily anti-oxidant rich and boosts immune systems and energy levels at the same time.

To make your own kombucha you first need to get a scoby.  You can order a Brew Now Kit from Kombucha Kamp or get one from a friend.  Brew your tea, dissolve the sugar into the hot tea, allow to cool a bit before adding to the jar containing your scoby and starter mix (which is just a portion of the original tea the scoby was grown in), cover with cotton linen that allows the scoby and tea to breath, while preventing fruit flies from getting in, and store in a dark cupboard for 7-10 days.

After about a week, pour off a small amount of the fermented tea to test the flavor.  The longer you leave the scoby in the tea the stronger the kombucha will be, but be careful–too long and the mixture can turn to vinegar!  When it meets your taste preferences, pour off two-thirds or so of the tea, leaving the scoby and the remaining fermented tea in the jar for the next batch.  Brew another batch of tea to add to the jar containing your scoby mother.  Bottle your finished tea and enjoy!

grow your own mushrooms
Photo courtesy

5.  Mushrooms:  With many of the nutritional attributes of produce, as well as those often found in meat, beans, and grains, mushrooms are low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free and very low in sodium.  They provide our bodies with nutrients like selenium, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin D.

The easiest way to get started with mushrooms is to get a mushroom kit.  In just a few weeks you can grow several different types–including oyster mushrooms, shiitake, and a variety of button mushrooms.  Prefering dark, cool, moist and humid growing environments, mushrooms do well in basements, however a spot under the kitchen sink might suffice.

When your mushrooms are fully grown their caps will separate from their stems and they are ready to harvest.  Simply pluck them with your fingers–rinse and eat them right away, or store in a paper bag in the fridge.

6.  Ginger:  With a long history of effectiveness in treating the symptoms of gastrointestinal distress, ginger is a great food to have on hand.  It is used world wide to alleviate nausea and vomiting, as well as to flavor foods, sauces, and beverages.

To grow your own ginger indoors, you must first begin with a quality ginger root that is plump and smooth.  If it is shriveled the root has gone past it’s prime and is not suitable for growing with.  Soak your ginger overnight in warm water before planting into a mixture of loose potting soil and compost.  The pot should offer plenty of drainage, and be placed in a warm spot that remains between 75 and 85 degrees, since cooler temperatures can stunt the plant’s growth.  Water lightly during the winter when the plant is dormant, then as new shoots begin to appear water more heavily.

After about 10-12 months the plant will reach between 2 and 4 feet in height.  It is now matured, and any new sprouts growing infront of the main plants can be dug up and either replanted elsewhere, or harvested for use.

kitchen windowsill herb garden
Photo courtesy

7.  Herbs:  Studies show that many of our common herbs and spices offer health benefits to those who consume them.  Herbs contain unique anti-oxidants, essential oils, vitamins, and polyphenols that help boost our bodies’ immune systems so that we can fight germs and toxins.  Most of the evidence science has associated with the health benefits of herbs and spices is related to cinnamon, chili peppers, tumeric, garlic, oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary.  For thousands of years herbs and spices have been utilized for their flavor along with their healthful and medicinal uses.

The easiest way to grow herbs indoors during the winter is to bring a selection of plants in from your summer garden.  Take cuttings, or pot up small plants–but take care to use the proper growing medium–using potting soil will eliminate many of the pests your garden soil harbors, and you can add sand or vermiculite to allow for the good drainage herbs require in order to thrive.  Transition your herb plants to the indoor atmosphere gradually, rather than bringing them directly inside–put them in a bright, cool, transition zone–a garage, entryway, or enclosed porch–for a few weeks.  Once they’ve had time to acclimate, move them to an area in the house where they’ll receive full sun for a least 8 hours a day, but take care to protect them from heat and dryness.  Herbs prefer daytime temperatures within the range of 65 and 75 degrees, and it’s especially important that their nighttime temperature drop at least 10 degrees, so be sure to turn down the thermostat before you go to bed!

Harvest your herbs as you normally would, a pinch here and there–but if you’re looking for pesto from your indoor basil plant, you may want to set up a couple of fluorescent lights to help stimulate the growth and yield required for such a harvest.  Use your herb cuttings right away, or store in a zip-lock bag in the fridge for 5-7 days.

In Conclusion

This is just a sampling of some of the foods you can grow indoors during the long winter months, but as you can see there’s a lot you can do.  If you can designate one shelf in a cupboard to growing sprouts and kombucha, and one bright, south-facing kitchen window to herbs and micro-greens, that’s a fair amount of food that you can produce to help supplement your family’s diets when your garden is under a foot or more of snow.  Most of these foods you can grow with supplies you probably already have hanging around, so they’re easy and inexpensive too!

How about you?  Do you grow anything inside during the winter?  What would you recommend to a friend???

Dealing with hornworms in the organic garden

tobacco hornworm

I don’t know whether I hadn’t had an infestation of hornworms before, or I just hadn’t noticed them (which seems rather impossible!), but the tobacco hornworms have had a good year this year and there’s no avoiding them.  One day all your beautiful tomato and pepper plants are healthy and fine, and the next–bam! –you’re facing devastation.  My farmer–as I’ve taken to calling Lady Linda (remember-I’m an apprentice now!)–gave me the scoop on hornworms.

What is it?

tobacco hornwormThere are two types of hornworms, and they are very similar in appearance, both are a lovely shade of green and both can grow up to 4-inches in length!  The tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) bears eight “V”s positioned down the length of its body in white and black accent colors; while the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) wears seven diagonal white lines down each side.  Both possess the soft spikes that have given these species their names, and the Latin root of both caterpillars–Manduca–means “to chew” (I remember this by relating “mandible”–as in-the mouth parts of some insects–with Manduca).  Aptly named, I think!

The tomato and tobacco hornworm caterpillars are native to the United Stated and commonly are found in the northern states.  The offspring of the sphinx moth–also known as the hummingbird moth and the hawk moth–these moths are nocturnal insects, and lay their eggs in a fine powdery mass on the underside of leaves of solanaceous plants such as–tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and even potatoes.  Alternately, some solanaceous weeds serve as hosts for overwintering larvae, including horsenettle, jimsonweed, and nightshade.

Generally there are two generations a year, the initial generation, and then the generation that will overwinter to rise next year and begin the attack upon your tomatoes all over again.  The moths overwinter in the soil and will begin to emerge from the soil in early June; they may continue to do so as late as August.

Methods for control

before & after tobacco hornwormsOften, the first thing gardeners will notice is defoliation at the tops of plants, but if you look beneath the plants, on the ground, you will see the droppings left behind by the caterpillars, which is called “frass”.  The caterpillars take refuge under the leaves at the interior of the plant during the heat of the day, which makes them a challenge to find!

While you can use organic biological pesticides such as spinosad and Bacillus thuringiensis (BT), even an organic pesticide is still a toxic poison and use of such should be carefully considered before applying.

Typically, a daily regimen of hand-picking the caterpillars from the leaves of your plants will save your crop.

hornworm frass againLady Linda’s tips:  “If you pick the offenders from the plants, then sweep away the frass on the ground, the next day when you go out to hunt hornworms, you will be able to tell which plants are harboring the caterpillars just by looking for frass beneath them.  This works really well if you’re using black landscaping fabric beneath your plants, or if you’re in a hoop-house or greenhouse where greenhouse fabric is used to prevent weed-growth beneath your plants.  It’s a huge time-saver for a small greenhouse operation!”

Since the larvae of the sphinx moth overwinters in the soil, it is imperative to clear your garden of each season’s crops and weeds every fall, and to rotate your crops every spring before you begin to plant again.  Sometimes a significant distance between the emerging larvae of a harmful garden pest and the pest’s dinner is enough of a deterrent or delay to give your plants the head start they need to grow strong and healthy before they are attacked by hungry mouths.

Tilling your garden under at the end of the season will destroy any pupae attempting to overwinter there.

parasitized hornwormAny caterpillars found with a cluster of white eggs upon their backs should be left, as these larvae have been parasitized by a parasitic wasp, which will hatch and prey upon other caterpillars–a very beneficial insect to your garden!

When you pick the caterpillars, toss them in a jar and take them to your chickens–they’ll thank you for it with eggs bearing rich orange yolks!

So get over your ick factor, get out there and get those hornworms!

References & Resources

How to Control Hornworms – from Organic

Tobacco Hornworm – feature from the Entomology Department of the University of Florida

Tomato/Tobacco Hornworms – from the Colorado State Cooperative Extension


Harvesting garlic

curing garlic

freshly harvested garlicSince this was my first time growing garlic, I was pretty stoked to go and dig up the bulbs earlier this week.  I’d planted the garlic cloves back in October (you can read about that endeavor here).  I mulched them heavily with dry leaves and watched over them all winter.

This spring I pulled up about two-thirds of the mulch, leaving some of the leaves to help block out the weeds, and sure enough the garlic sprouted and grew tall spikey-looking leaves. According to online resources the garlic is ready to harvest when the leaves begin to brown and fall over, so we watched with baited breath (did I mention we LUV garlic???), waiting for those leaves to topple over.  Sure enough, they eventually did just that.

I reviewed the harvesting process using these online references:

How to Grow, Cure, and Store your own Garlic –  from Old World Garden Farms

Spring & Summer Garlic Care – from Grow Italian.

digging garlic


And then I went to work with my trusty spading fork.

The soil  in these raised beds is so fine that plants grow easily here, and harvesting the garlic could hardly be called work.  I simply dug the tines of the fork into the soil near the garlic and lifted the garlic head right up.  A gentle shaking and tapping removed the bulk of the excess soil from the root system.


freshly dug garlic

Using a handheld sweeper brush I removed any remaining soil from the roots and the garlic head, bundled them with twine, and strung them up in the barn to cure for the next several weeks.

curing garlicVoila!  Garlic!  We can’t wait to try our own home-grown garlic.  Now the only question is–how long do you think will all of this last us???

Do NOT buy ladybugs; attract native species to your garden instead

ladybugs as predators

attract native ladybugs to your gardenLadybugs are often touted as a safe solution to aphid problems in the garden because their use doesn’t involve harmful pesticides.  The little spotted beetles are popular all over the world, and in ancient times they were thought to be indicators of good fortune and a bountiful harvest. However commercially available ladybugs are not native to the US, and pose a threat to the natural ecosystem that many folks are unaware of. Read more

Home gardeners beware of pesticides in potting soils & nursery plants

somerset beekeepersThis past Tuesday at the monthly meeting of the Somerset Beekeepers, we hosted Gary Fish from the Maine Board of Pesticide Control to talk with us about “Pesticides and Pollinators”.  We are a small group, so I’m always grateful that any knowledgeable speaker should come to Skowhegan to share their knowledge with us, and I know that our beekeepers are eager to learn what these people have to offer us. Read more

Growin’ good!

lettuces growin goodThese are the lettuces I planted a few weeks back.  They’re looking really great.  Here you can see the soaker hose I’d laid in this bed for the day, to give everything a good watering.  And if you look closely, you can see the new lettuce sprouts I planted between these heads to ensure a successive harvest.  We love our leafy greens!

Hardening seedlings in a mini hoop-house

After the devastation of last year’s seedling fiasco (read about that here), I was more than a little anxious about hardening off my seedlings this year.

My mini hoop-houses (more about that here) have been working so well this spring that I decided to construct something similar to protect my tender tomato and pepper seedlings during their hardening off period.  The only real difference between this hoop-house and the others I’ve made this season is that this one is not built on top of a raised bed. Read more

Sustainability through the family garden

arugula markerI managed to set up 2 mini hoop-houses and planted a number of lettuce seedlings, yet April was a cold and windy start to the gardening season that left me longing for more.  So far May has made up for it in spades!  I’ve been out in the garden practically every day for the last week, working on preparing one bed or another, planting lettuces and other greens, such as Bok Choy, Mizuna, Tatsoi, Mache, and Arugula.  I’ve planted spinach, and yesterday I planted peas. Read more