I like the idea of gardening, just not the digging your hands in dirt with worms part. Frankly, gardening stresses me out. Am I overwatering? Why is the plant turning brown? Did I plant it deep enough? Too close? Is this a good bug? Bad bug?
But I love food! And I love a gorgeous garden. Maybe what stresses me out the most is not knowing enough about gardening, yet not having time to figure it out.
A few weeks ago, my Mom’s Club held a green gardening workshop led by Rita Wollmering from the Herb FARMacy. After listening to Rita’s talk, even I was inspired to start gardening and create some culinary pots. Rita recommends planting after Memorial Day. Perfect timing: let’s get started!
Here are some ways to be more environmentally-friendly or green with your gardening, as well as tips to help your garden grow organically.
Start with good soil. Coast of Maine soil products are the best and they’re organic. Don’t reuse old potting soil because the nutrients are gone. There could even be diseases in there (ewww)! Sterilize your pots with nine parts water to one part apple cider vinegar; then rinse and dry in the sun. For planting in the ground, test your garden soil every three years. Rita recommends the University of Massachusetts soil testing lab. It’s just like getting your blood work at your yearly check up! Your garden will flourish.
Let the sun shine. You need lots of sun for a successful garden. Afternoon sun is best. Think Mediterranean: sun, air, wind. Don’t put plants near a downspout or crowd them against your house. Guilty and guilty. I need to re-think the design of my postage stamp yard.
Get some pots. If you use ceramic pots, be sure to soak your pots first before planting or the pot will dry out your soil. Use natural materials like shells and rocks at the bottom of your pot to allow for drainage. Don’t use packing peanuts or corks like I have in the past.
Water once. Water thoroughly until water comes out the bottom of the pot. If your pots don’t have drainage holes, drill a hole at the bottom. The best time to water is in the morning. At night, bacteria and fungus will grow. Try not to wet the leaves — especially on tomato plants.
Planting herbs. Culinary herb gardening is an easy way to get started. Plant perennial herbs in one pot and annual herbs in another. Rosemary, bay leaves, and lemongrass are perennial herbs but they won’t make it through a New England winter. Bring these herbs indoors and you’ll have them for your culinary garden next year. Parsley has a biannual lifecycle — but consider it an annual because it doesn’t have leaves the second year. Plant basil in its own wide pot because basil tends to grow out.
Harvesting herbs. From June through August, harvest your herbs. In September, cut only what you need. Clipping basil will cause it to flush out and grow better. Cut the main stem at the third leaf set with garden or kitchen shears. Don’t pick the tops! With thyme, Rita recommends cutting two thirds and leaving one third of the plant. This prevents browning at the base of the plant. You can cut chives almost all the way down.
Freezing herbs. Blending spices with butter, olive oil, or stock is the best method to freeze and use your herbs throughout the winter. Place chopped herbs in a BPA free ice cube tray, then top up the wells with a bit of olive oil. If you have lots of herbs, place the whole leaves in a food processor, add your butter, olive oil, or stock and process until finely chopped. Transfer this mixture to containers or an ice cube tray and freeze.
Strain it. Bottle it. Save it. You can use the herbs you harvest to make a delicious flavored vinegar. Densely pack herbs in a mason jar. Add cider vinegar and let it sit for 4-6 weeks. Strain with a cheesecloth into a clean jar or bottle. You don’t have to refrigerate the vinegar because it has a high acidity that acts as a preservative. A flavored vinegar would make a thoughtful hostess gift in bottles like these (you know I’m already thinking about holiday gifts).
Growing tomatoes. I was surprised to hear that tomato plants need three feet between each plant. Rita recommends planting tomatoes in five gallon pots. Use the space below to plant lettuce, arugula, or cilantro. Then cover exposed soil with salt marsh hay or mulch to prevent bacteria from growing. Think about planting different types of tomato plants so that they grow throughout the summer. Try cherry, a mid-season tomato, and beefsteak. Keep in mind that pink tomatoes are sweeter than red, while yellow and orange tomatoes are less acidic.
Working with weeds. Avoid spraying pesticides on your grass or patio because the chemicals can seep into your garden. Did you know that you can spray weeds with vinegar? Make sure the vinegar is at least 5% acidity and be careful not to spray your plants or grass.
Keeping the bugs away. Repel mosquitos with lemongrass, lemon thyme, citronella scented geranium, and santolinas. Plant combinations for a stronger repellant. Also consider plants like phlox and zinnias to attract dragonflies, which eat mosquito larvae.
Gardening with your monkeys. Channel your kids’ natural curiosity by teaching them to garden. Kids love being outside and they love doing things their parents do. Even if you’re not an avid gardener, you can learn together. Give your monkeys small tasks and responsibilities in the garden. Teach them garden etiquette, such as where to walk and how to water. It’s a fun project that will keep them busy this summer!
Books and supplies. Head over to your local bookstore or library for books on organic gardening. If you have a black thumb, EarthBox garden kits are a new foolproof system for container gardening. It’s a maintenance free high-tech growing method with a built-in reservoir to ensure that each plant gets the water it needs.
Ask me in September if I’m a gardener. Hopefully my freezer will be packed with herbs and my family will be sick of caprese salad. Either way, my nails won’t be dirty because I’m going to pick up some gardening gloves for me and my monkeys asap. Let’s get gardening!
Note: Did you know I’m the Parent’s Corner Columnist for Happy in Newburyport’s online magazine? This post originally appeared as my June column. Hope you picked up a few tips for your garden 🙂