A bitter winter, a long and cold spring and still a ways to go before the soil is warm enough to plant the summer garden mainstays (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and melons). Garden stores have some plants for sale but the stock is still limited because of the cold. But getting a jump start on gardening is still possible through an unexpected (and inexpensive) source for gardens — the nearby grocery store. Below are just a few examples of grocery store produce that will produce in your garden.

Herbs:
The nearby grocery store sells potted herbs – basil, cilantro, parsley and mint. As an aside, basil and cilantro are easy to grow from seed, parsley and mint not so easy. The basil pot I bought  has 12 plants,the parsley pot has 6 plants – both on sale for $2.49/pot – twice the plants and half the cost($4.98) for an herb pot from the big box store.  Taking the herbs from a sheltered indoor environment to the outdoors requires a few days of hardening-off, but then into the ground they go and, based on previous years experience, up they’ll grow.

Lemongrass:
If you enjoy Southeast Asian cooking,  you’re probably familiar with dishes flavored with lemon grass (Cymbopogon citrates). Buy a stalk of lemon grass (choose one with the root end intact) from the grocery store, cut the foliage down to a few inches then place the stalk in a glass of water. In a few days, roots will emerge (as well as offshoots). Plant out when the weather has warmed, and the stalk will quickly turn into multiple stalks. Lemon grass is a grass, after all.  Tips on using lemongrass in cooking here and here.

Garlic:
Ever have a clove of garlic sprout? While the sprouted clove may be past prime for cooking, it is primed for planting. Plant with the tip pointed up; chances are it will sprout. And if it doesn’t, you haven’t lost anything but a few moments of time to plant the clove. More on growing garlic here.

Taro (and other roots):
Elephant ears are a tuber with dramatic heart shaped foliage, pricy at upwards of $10/tuber at gardening places.  Elephant ears is the descriptive name for the ornamental plant; they are  in the same family (colocasia) as taro or poi – important food crops in many parts of the world. While elephant ear tubers are not edible, you can buy taro roots (similar foliage as the ornamental elephant ear) for a fraction of the cost at the grocery store. Plant out after the danger of frost has passed, root side down. If it isn’t clear which is the top and which is the bottom, plant sideways and let Mother Nature figure it out!  Other grocery store roots to try are horseradish and ginger – both have grown successfully in my backyard garden.

Bottom line:
Twelve basil plants, six parsley plants, two lemon grass stalks (that will both become a large clump of stalks), an ornamental foliage plant (taro) and six garlics growing, all for under $8.  The frugal gardener in me approves.

grocery gardening

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Tete a tete“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt” ~Margaret Atwood

Spring blooming bulbs are (finally!) underway and require no attention other than regular admiration but there is plenty to do in the garden during the longer spring days.

  • Start out with spring garden cleaning – cut down stalks of dead plants you left up all winter as habitat for overwintering insects, shake any remaining seed pods onto the ground (if you want plant seeds to self-sow) and clear away debris
  • Check your tools to see if any any wooden handles are dry (linseed oil is good for this) or need sharpening; check pots left outside to see if any have cracks.
  • If you haven’t had your soil tested, now’s a good time to do it. While local cooperative extension services often offer soil testing, UMass Amherst is also a good option.
    *  More useful information on soil testing in a previous post
  • Get going (if you haven’t done so already) on indoor seed starting – tomatoes and peppers and other plants that need to wait for warmer soils to be planted outside should be started 4-6 before average last frost date.  Useful instructions on seed starting from a previous post are right here, and instructions for an easy DIY seed starting stand (also from previous post) are right here.
  • Give the garden a good raking over to loosen the top soil and break up any clumps of dirt – this in preparation for sowing seeds for cool season planting.

GardenSeeds_2015What can be planted this time of year? Lots!

*  Greens: Lettuce, spinach, chard, mustard, kale
*  Root crops:  Carrots, radishes, beets, turnips, kohlrabi
*  Early peas such as snow peas and sugar snap

Here’s a planning calendar for what to plant and when plus an article on preparing your soil.

Gardening in small spaces, making pickles, growing specialty crops, edible landscapes and healthy affordable food for all are just a few of the topics at the annual Rooting DC urban gardening forum. This day-long event – which includes panel discussions, workshops and talks –  is free (donations appreciated) and open to the public. The forum includes an info fair with lots of  great organizations coming to share opportunities and information.

Mark your calendar now for February 28th from 9:00am – 4:00pm at Wilson HS, advance registration is recommended.

rootingDC

There are plenty of good looking tomatoes ripening on the vine in various plots in my community garden. There are also a number of very sad looking tomatoes with yellowing/brown leaves and withering stalks.

Are DC gardeners destined to eventually lose their tomatoes to wilts or blights or other diseases?  My answer is no, and here are some tips to help combat tomato collapse:

  1. Testing your soil. You can improve your chances of growing good crops if your soil has the right balance of nutrients. Right now UDC is offering free testing during July and August. Another  option is UMass Amherst’s soil testing lab.
  2. Watering slowly and deep – slowly so water doesn’t splash onto the leaves, deep so that roots grow down and pick up more nutrients. Best time to water is in the morning
  3. Cutting off leaves when there is a hint of yellow or brown – or proactively cutting off the bottom sets of leaves to mitigate splashing spores onto the leaves in the first place
  4. Practicing good sanitation – don’t touch the tomato leaves when they are wet, don’t inadvertently spread disease by touching unaffected plants after you’ve been handling diseased plants
  5. My alley neighbor, who was a knowledgeable gardener, swore by using a copper spray to combat these diseases. I’ve also read of an effective spray using baking soda or potassium bicarbonate called the Cornell spray. The Internets also shows gardeners using copper wire (inserted into plant stem just above soil line) or making a cut and inserting a copper penny. I think I’ll stick with the methods listed above.

In some cases, the tomatoes aren’t affected (although the plant looks stunted). But if the stalk is withered then the plant should be pulled up and put into your trash (not compost pile). Any tomatoes on the vine should be fine to eat. If they’re green, leave them on your counter top to see if they ripen. Or look up some good green tomato recipes (like this green tomato curry).

What are your tips for growing good tomatoes?

 

 

Green thumbs, greens growers and greenies of all stripes are invited to attend Rooting DC, a forum designed to bring DC gardeners together.

Come for workshopping, networking and round table-ing on Saturday February 18th and help foster partnerships between those who are working towards a common goal of a greener, healthier DC.

You can register here – this free event fills up quickly!

Finally, just after Thanksgiving, I finished with the last of the summer’s produce.

Tomatoes picked green had [mostly] turned red and peppers picked green had turned yellow and orange and red.

The tomatoes were roasted with olive oil and thyme and incorporated into a “beans and greens” dish. The peppers were roasted and used to make this white bean and red pepper dip (with the rest of the peppers frozen for later use).

And the remaining green tomatoes were made into green tomato chutney – great for Thanksgiving and more. Using fresh spices makes a difference.

Now it’s time to enjoy fall’s bounty – arugula and mustard greens that self seeded and chard in a rainbow of colors.

It’s been a slow summer for producing produce – finally picked a goodly amount of tomatoes, a few peppers, two cukes and a handful of pole beans.

Although shepherd salad is a favorite, I’m going to try to make some of the Washington Post top tomato recipes. Starting with vermillion red beer to accompany a batch of tomato kimchi-chi.

 

HeliosHarvest