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.

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.

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.

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

Even though the calendar says summer is winding has wound down, it seems like my garden is was kicking into high gear in the fall.

GardenAugust  Just look what I picked not long ago!  This harvest includes lots of varieties: 7 kinds of tomato, 5 types of cucumber, 3 different peppers, two types of kale, an assortment of beans, bouquet of basil and some bonus sunflowers.


The tomatoes deserved special mention – these are Pink Brandywines. They are large, hefty, juicy and just plain delicious. Everything a tomato should be.




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 not over yet. Yes, it’s time to bring houseplants indoors, plant pansies and violas and dig up tender bulbs. And, it’s still harvest time.

While I was tempted to rip out my tomato plants when they seemed to be decimated by wilt/blight/stink bugs/etc a few weeks back, I’m glad I waited. Because most of the plants have revived and are still producing. And  although the brix scale is lower than those picked in the heat of the summer (meaning the tomatoes aren’t as sweet), they are still head and shoulders above the grocery store variety.

I’m picking red tomatoes, green tomatoes and tomatoes that are green with a hint of pink. Tomatoes with a hint of pink will turn red on the windowsill (or in a bowl, on the table – any place but a refrigerator). The green tomatoes are great for salads, salsa, chutney, curry and, of course, fried up just like at the Whistle Stop Cafe. For some great green tomato recipes, look here.

There will come a point when I’ll have to call it quits for this gardening year. But that time may not come for several weeks – one year I harvested a Juliet tomato in December!

Here’s a hint – don’t waste your money on store bought tomato cages. You see them in the big box stores – cone shaped with a few metal rings, usually 3′ high and 1′ in diameter

While these cages will support tomatoes in their early stages of growth, just about every tomato will be at least 5′ high, with indeterminate tomato  growing 8′ or more. And depending on the type, tomatoes will grow 3 – 5′ wide. These store bought cages will not provide the support your tomatoes need and will easily topple over during a strong wind.

Want to build a better tomato cage? Start with concrete reinforcing wire (usually sold in 50′ rolls), bolt cutters and a good set of work gloves. Cut off 5′ lengths, leaving “fingers’ along one length. Use pliers to make a hook at the end of each finger. Shape the section into a hoop, using the finger hooks to hold the hoop together (you can also secure the hoop with plastic ties or wire).

Place two cages side by side and insert a 4′ metal stake or rebar in between the cages. Secure both cages to the stake – this will keep the cages from falling over during wind or rain.

Note: You’ll want to plant your tomatoes before you secure the tomato cages to the stake. I usually plant two tomatoes per cage.

These cages are also great supports for peas, pole beans, cucumbers and small melons.

And although they will rust, they will also last for 15+ years.

Since the weather in DC went from spring to unbearable in a few short days, watering has been a topic of discussion in my gardening circles.  Here’s a few tips on good watering practices:

  • Trees need 25 gallons/week and newly planted trees are more vulnerable to heat stress. Twenty five gals = about 1.5 inches of rain so if the rainfall in a given week is 1.5 or greater, no need to water.
  • Newly planted/transplanted vegetables and flowers also need good soakings. One deep watering is worth 2-3 surface waterings – you want the roots to go deep. Surface watering (where only the top soil get wet) means the roots stay near the source of water (surface) and are more vulnerable to the elements. Plants need water to take up nutrients and the deeper the water goes, the greater the plant’s ability to take in nutrients.
  • During the heat of the day, you might see plant leaves curled – this is especially true for plants with large leaves that lose more moisture due to transpiration (plant equivalent of perspiration). Often times they’ll revive when the sun goes down – check the soil moisture before watering.
  •  Spraying water on plants (especially tomatoes) can increase the likelihood of disease, in particular diseases that are spore-borne. Water the soil, not the plants. Set your hose to a gentle trickle and go smell the roses.
  • While you don’t want to stress your plants, vegetables and fruit are sweeter if they aren’t over watered. Too much watering often leads to large tasteless fruit.

If I had to prioritize watering –  trees come first followed by perennials followed by annuals (including vegetables).

Any other tips on helping your plants survive summer’s heat?

Why bother growing plants from seed? Wait a few weeks and the big box retailers will have plants a’plenty, right? Well, yes and…

  • You’ll find a much wider variety of vegetables and flowers in seed catalogs than in any nursery or plant store.
  • Plants raised for the big retailers are a higher risk for diseases that could potentially wipe out your crop (and your neighbor’s crop as well).
  • You’ll save money. You could buy a four pack of marigold plants for $5.00 or so at your local nursery. Or, for under a dollar you could get a pack of 50 marigold seeds.

What you’ll need:
Good seed starting medium (look for medium without fertilizer), clean containers (use a mild bleach solution to clean) with drainage holes, and of course seeds. Good sources of seed include Pinetree, Southern Exposure, Territorial Garden Seeds and Park Seed.

Some Seed Starting Tips

Read the label
The seed packet is a valuable source of information – does the seed need warm or cool temperature to germinate? Light or dark? How deep should the seed be planted? Should it be started indoors or sown outdoors (peas, beans, root crops such as radishes and carrots are sown directly in the ground)?

When to plant
Work back from the average last frost date in your area to see when you should start your seeds, generally 6-8 weeks prior to the last frost date. Here in DC, April 10th is the average last frost date.

Seedling needs
Once the seeds emerge, they’ll need light. Florescent shop lights (mix of cool light and warm light) hung a few inches over the plants work just fine – no need for expensive grow lights. Move the lights up as the seedlings grow.

Disease prevention
Damping off (seedlings quickly collapse) is a result of humid, moist conditions – prevention includes providing air circulation, add a thin layer of sand to the surface of the soil,  thin seedlings so they’re not overcrowded, and be mindful of over-watering.  Watering from the bottom helps.

Some good resources on seed starting are found here and here. Next up, transplanting and hardening off~

Our community garden plot is producing produce in rainbow colors.

Although insalada caprese is sometimes considered the quintessential summer salad, we would propose  Shepherd’s salad (sometimes called Turkish salad) as a viable alternative. Our rainbow iteration includes purple and yellow pepper, yellow and black tomato, red onion,  green and yellow cucumber, feta, mint, parsley and a lemon/olive oil dressing. Nothing else.

Despite the diversity of ingredients – heirloom and hybrid, determinate and indeterminate, native and non-native, homegrown and store bought (olive oil and lemon juice don’t grow on trees, you know) – they all just get along.

Can’t we do the same?

We’ve been harvesting greens from our community garden plot for weeks now, although with the hotter weather most of the remainder is bolting. But the good news is that we picked our first pepper yesterday with many more on their way.

And we found something unusual growing in one of the garden beds – a little black and white dog!

Spring planting is well underway here on Monroe St – greens are growing in the garden and the more tender annuals are growing inside. With our new gardening space, we can think about growing more sun loving plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.

We are still planning to do a hybrid of bio-intensive and  square foot gardening which makes the best use of limited spaces.

For new urban gardeners,  a great basic guide to planting a home garden can be found here.

And on this beautiful day in the neighborhood, let the sunshine in!