Zucchini Relish

Ingredients

Mason jar half full of shredded zucchini, onions, and peppers in vinegar brine.

To make about a quart for fresh eating:

  • 4 cups of shredded zucchini
  • 1 large onion, shredded
  • 1 red bell pepper, shredded
  • 1.5 Tbl salt
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1.5 c. vinegar – I usually do half white vinegar and half red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar

Method:

Put all the shredded vegetables in a non-reactive bowl and sprinkle with salt. Mix thoroughly. Let stand about an hour to draw out the moisture. Drain, rinse, and drain again, pressing out the moisture. This is an important step – it keeps the relish crisp.

Mix the vinegar(s) and sugar and mix until the sugar dissolves. Pack the vegetables into a large jar and cover with the brine. Store in the fridge. Tastes best after it marinates overnight.

Optional: Canning

This recipe can be canned in a water bath. To preserve the best texture, I recommend cooking the veg as little as possible.

  • Heat the vinegar and sugar to boiling.
  • Drop in the vegetables and return to the boil.
  • Pack immediately into hot jars.
  • Process in a steam canner (atmospheric, not pressure) for 10 minutes.

This recipe riffs off relishes from the Ball Blue Book and the Joy of Pickling, but uses a lot less sugar. It’s very tangy and savory.

Using zucchini relish

This might be the most important part, because unless you are a vinegar fiend (like the person I married), this is too tart to eat straight. Here’s how we use it:

  • Mix with equal parts shredded beets, carrots, and cabbage for an amazing vinegar slaw. Even just plain cabbage would be great. This is probably our favorite “salad,” and it can be made all winter long with canned relish and root cellar veggies.
  • Mix a few heaping tablespoons with a can of tuna (drained), a cup of thawed cauliflower rice, and mayo to taste.
  • Drain about 2 cups of relish and add 1/4-1/2 tsp baking soda. When it stops foaming, it should be only mildly tangy. Add a bit of olive oil, prepared artichoke bruschetta, olives, and/or capers and use as pizza topping.
  • Add to rice-and-meat pan dishes like Sausage, Greens, and Rice.
  • Use instead of sauerkraut.

Growing Greens Indoors

Indoor greens: I think I’ve finally figured out to do it (at my house, anyway)

I’ve puttered around trying to grow things indoors over the winter for years, but I’ve only managed “worth-it” harvests in the last 12 months or so. This could get long…but here’s what I can now harvest about once a week or ten days:

TL; DR – What do you recommend?

I suggest you get two, 2′ wide three-bulb light setups, each with an 8.5 gallon underbed tote underneath. Fill the tote about 6″ deep with the best potting soil you can afford. Sow thickly with a mix of brassica greens (kale, mustard, red cabbage, tatsoi). After about a month, you can harvest by the handful with scissors, leaving the stalks to regrow. They’ll be ready to harvest again in about 10 days. If you plan it right, you can harvest each tub every ten days for a continuous harvest. Each time you harvest, fertilize with your choice of fertilizer.

The long version: What worked

I finally figured out that all of these things are absolutely necessary to grow meaningful food indoors.

  • Growing the right things
  • Lots of light
  • Deep soil
  • Fertilizer

What to grow indoors

For me, it’s all greens. Microgreens (grown just until they have their seed leaves), baby greens (a few true leaves), full-sized lettuce, and some almost full-sized chard and kale. I’ve given up growing anything that fruits or sets a large root (like carrots) – they just need more light and space than I can give them. Those things also would produce a fraction of the food per square foot compared to greens. For my mini-greens setup, it takes them about a month to come to size – then I can harvest about half a pound a week per 2’x1.5′ box. Cut-and-come-again, they just keep cranking out leaves until the soil fertility runs out. Good varieties:

  • Kale
  • Tatsoi
  • Mustard greens
  • Lettuce
  • Red cabbage
  • Collards
  • Chard and beets (takes longer)
  • Spinach (takes much longer)
  • Cilantro

You can go nuts over at Johnny’s Seeds microgreens area (definitely try the Mild Micro Mix), or you can just dump all your old seeds into a jar and spread the seeds thickly. Also check your local feed store for seeds sold by the ounce. You can usually get most of the things on the list above for a dollar or two per ounce. Just don’t buy by the standard garden packet or you’ll go broke.

How much seed do you need? Hmm…maybe a tablespoon of seed per square foot? I confess, I have a hard time restraining myself on these seeds so I don’t really measure. I also use more seed for microgreens and less if I’m letting the plants get a little bigger. But I can say I’ve bought maybe 8 ounces of seed over the last couple years and I haven’t run out yet.

Lots of light

I have a sunroom with a wall of windows on the south side of my house that is designed to capture sun in the winter and shade from the sun in the summer. I’d been assuming that once the leaves fell, this would get enough light to grow things. This year I realized that’s not really true, especially when it’s cloudy. And it’s Michigan, so it’s cloudy a lot in the winter. I’ve tried both T5 fluorescent setups and a couple kinds of LEDs. What seems to matter the most is not the kind of bulb, but the number of bulbs and the kind of fixture they are in.

This two-tier cart setup (plus a similar one-tier version; 24″ wide and 2 bulbs per fixture) from Gardener’s Supply has been my workhorse for years now. I bought it to start seedlings, but now I use it year-round for microgreens, mini greens, and full-sized lettuce. In addition to great bulbs and reflectors, it has a wicking mat setup that the THE BEST for keeping things watered perfectly from beneath. It’s the only “self-watering” setup I’ve ever owned that has actually worked. I pour about a gallon of water into the tray once a week, and everything stays really, really happy.

This Agrobrite T5 (24″, 4 bulbs) with great built-in reflection is probably the best light I own. (Shop around; prices vary a lot). Greens absolutely thrive under this light. It uses the same bulbs as the fixtures above, so I only have to keep one kind of replacement bulb on hand. Bulbs last a couple years, but not “10,000 hours” as advertised.

The Agrobrite has an amazingly reflective fixture. This planter is close to 20 years old but you can still find find similar things.
Monios T8 LEDs. There are many brands of this style light; I don’t see much difference among them.

I’ve started adding in much cheaper LED lights (Monios T8 LEDs, both 2′ and 4′ in full-spectrum and cool 6500K versions). These are very convenient and modular. You can hang them horizontally or vertically; you can screw their clips into wood or use the attached hooks; you can daisy-chain them in lots of configurations. They are sufficient as supplemental light, or as primary lights if you put them close enough together (like, 6″ apart).

Whatever you buy, BE SURE it includes reflectors. Having some sort of reflection increases their light output by at least 5x (as measured by my light meter phone app – “Korona”). Since mine didn’t come with reflectors, I’ve been improvising with aluminum foil, aluminum flashing, and mylar reflective sheeting. It’s more expensive and uglier, but it really helps. The really wild thing is that I learned this reflection setup (below) actually reflects more sunlight around to the back of this vertical planter than the LED lights produce. Mind. Blown.

Greenstalk planter, Monios T8 LED lights, Mylar reflective sheeting, and curved wire trellis. The Mylar reflects more light (sun coming through the windows) than the LEDs produce!

Deep Dirt

Unless you are growing microgreens, you really need a lot of dirt to grow food in pots. One head of lettuce needs a pot at least 4″x4″x6″. I really like growing lettuce in clear plastic “shoe boxes” – two or three heads per box. Three boxes fix perfectly under a 2′ grow light. I’ve also just discovered, thanks to my neighbor’s excellent discard pile, that these Hefty 8.5 gallon under-bed boxes are absolutely perfect for growing baby greens. Again, they fit perfectly under the 2′ grow lights, and they are sturdy enough to move when full. I didn’t even drill drainage in these – I can see the water level and not over-water them. And at about $10 each, they are a steal compared to most flower pots. Whatever you get, make sure it’s at least 6″ deep.

Check out that root system!

I’ve also been trying the original Greenstalk vertical planter. There are lots of planters in this stackable style; I picked this one because it holds a whole cubic foot of dirt per tier. You really want that root space. They have a new version called the “Leaf,” which has shallower tiers. This might work for indoor greens just fine. If you get one, definitely get the “mover” wheeled base – you are going to want to rotate this frequently. I had mixed luck with it over the summer, but I think I had too little light and was trying to grow the wrong things – beans and carrots, which didn’t take off as I’d hoped. I’m trying it this fall with kale, tatsoi, lettuce, and chard; we’ll see how it does now that I have lights added to the setup.

What else? Random planters I originally bought for outdoor use, each of which holds maybe 3 cubic feet of soil. They all purport to be self-watering; that’s bunk. The rolling cedar ones I ended up lining with plastic (heavy-duty garbage bags) because they had huge gaps and they leaked when I watered them. But that’s working fine now, and I was able to set up a second tier underneath by suspending two of the LED lights from the bottom and putting a 13 gallon under-bed box on the floor. That bit is new, but it seems to be doing well.

I’ve rigged several LED lights around this setup: two 2′ lights hanging underneath and 4′ lights above and resting on the edge facing in toward the plants to balance the light from the window. The top lights use shower curtain clips on a curtain rod. Note the homemade reflectors.

I also have some random plant pots, window boxes, and such. My rule of thumb is “at least 6″ deep” or “at least 2 gallons.” One or two chard or kale plants can grow to full size in a 2-3 gallon pot.

Chard that I brought in from the garden at the end of the season. The yellow one is going into its second winter.

What kind of soil do you use o grow greens indoors? Something with good drainage and lots of fertility. I tend to go with bagged stuff rather than homemade compost to try to keep the bugs out of my house. Happy Frog is pricey, but good. You can mix your own, but the price ends up being about the same in the end. You’ll want to tend that soil well, because it’s your big recurring expense. To that end…

Yes, you actually need fertilizer

I’m so accustomed to how I handle soil fertility in the garden, it’s been a long time coming around to accepting that I need to buy something called fertilizer and use it regularly. When confined to pots, plants just eat up all the nutrients in soil really fast, and then they just…stop growing. They don’t die, but they don’t thrive, either.

Worm castings are good, but pretty low-powered. I bought some kind of organic granules at a hydroponic shop, but I’m wishing now I’d gotten liquid fertilizer (especially for the Greenstalk). But I have a big bag of it, so I just put it in a shaker bottle and shake some on and water it in each time I harvest greens. I’m not an expert on fertilizer, so I went by what the knowledgeable folks at the store said was good for growing leafies. When I take plants out (e.g., the lettuce goes bitter after about 3 pickings), I do a heavy rejuvenation of the soil by adding vitamins (worm castings and the powdered fertilizer) and minerals (green sand and/or bone meal). After 2-3 rounds, or if the soil seems to be tiring out, I dump it in my garden and start with fresh dirt. That’s really a pain (and expensive), so I’m trying to get better about rebuilding the indoor soil.

Wow, that sounds expensive

Um, yeah. You’re not going to save any money by growing greens indoors. You can cut corners on containers for sure, and on lights if you rig your own stands and reflectors. You might be able to come up with a cheaper way to do the soil, too. Microgreens need almost nothing in the way of soil and light, so start there if you’re looking to economize. I did my setup this way because this is my hobby, and looks were moderately important (most of my lights are in my living room most of the year), and I was willing to pay for that. I don’t expect to make my money back in cash saved at the grocery store – though I’m ramping up enough this year that may be a factor. And, with Covid, access could be an issue. But this setup pays me back in joy every day, and that ain’t nothing.

2020 Joy: CSA Share

As an avid gardener, I’ve never done a CSA share (community supported agriculture – basically you get a box of whatever’s in season on the farm, usually weekly). However, this fall, I decided to give Tantre Farm’s fall CSA a try. It was four weeks in October, right when I was pulling out the last of my garden crops. It also leans heavily to squash, potatoes, and other “good keepers,” so I thought this would be a good way to try a CSA – less pressure to eat everything within one week.

Gardening has played a huge part in keeping me sane through this incomprehensible year, and I’m missing more than just the vegetables. This share delivers on that, too. Each Saturday, I am giddy with anticipation to “play the vegetable lottery” and see what’s in store this week. It’s 2020. ANYTHING pleasant to look forward to is great for my soul.

So on Saturdays, I sleep as long as I’d like, get up and stretch, grab my mask, and head to the market. I grab my box o’veg, and usually one or two other things, too. The fall produce is astonishing. Not sure if it’s just a particularly good year, or if I’ve just never bothered with the market this late in the year but WOW. It’s like piles of edible jewels. I really have to restrain myself because once I grab that Tantre box, I have plenty of vegetables. I do often stop off at Agricole on the way home, though, and pick up some local meat to support the “soup” part of the week’s ritual.

Once I get home, the kitchen dance begins. First, all the cool storage veg (squash, potatoes, onions, garlic) get put away. I have a root cellar for cold storage and a cool basement for the squash and onions, so that’s easy to do. Then I kinda spread everything out all over the kitchen. Trim the carrots off their tops, wash, and put in the fridge. Rinse and fridge the peppers. Cut the radishes and salad turnips off their tops, wash the roots, and put the tops in to soak (they’re pretty sandy). Chop up a bunch of veg for raw eating through the week: radishes, carrots, peppers.

Then the cooking begins. I cook the bunch of kale, radish or turnip tops, and other cooking greens in a couple cups of water for about 5 minutes. This yields about 3-4 cups of cooked greens and a cup or two of mineral-rich “pot likker”. This stuff has changed my diet drastically. I’ve been eating cooked greens every day, and either adding the broth to soup, or just drinking it cold out of the greens container. I’d say I knock back about 1/4c at a time, and I can feel the minerals going straight to my bloodstream. Have you ever eaten something so nutritious that your cells sing? This stuff feels like magic. So, greens enough for the week.

The last two weeks, I’ve then started making stock. Last week was poultry, this week is mixed red meat. I keep a bag in the freezer with bones for stock (separated into “birds” and “not-birds”), and also leek tops and other misc veggie discards. I’ve made bone broth for a long time, but my experience with the kale cooking liquid has me convinced my broths need more vegetables. The hard thing is that brassicas (e.g., kale stems) and sweet veg like carrots and beets make broths that don’t taste right in most of my soups. So I’m still experimenting. Any alliums are great; small amounts of beets and carrots are OK; some carrot tops are OK, too. I make 6-7 quarts at a time, then can it, so now there are many meals’ worth of super-nutritious stock ready for soupmaking.

As that’s simmering, I have some lunch and flip through the Joy of Pickling, because each week, something pretty much begs to be pickled. This week is Middle Eastern Pink Turnip Pickles – like you get in your falafel sandwich. Last week was soy/ginger pickled radishes (mixed reviews), and the week before, a lactofermented kohlrabi curtido that I’m definitely doing again.

This week, I also baked a squash (and its seeds, separately) that I…ahem…found in the parking lot next to my car. I mean…if the market gods offer, who am I to decline? It was a little bruised, so I knew it wouldn’t keep, so into the toaster oven it went. And I think I’ve finally figured out how to roast pumpkin/squash seeds in a way that’s manageable and tasty. 1) Don’t wash off the goop – just scoop the seeds out with as little goop as possible, and spread on the pan. The strings that remain will cook to a crisp. 2) Salt well and bake them until they are threatening to burn. I did actually burn about half a batch, and that’s when I discovered I’d rather eat them burned than undercooked. And given that my sweetie loves them, and they serve the same snacking purpose as almonds ($10+/lb), it’s totally worth it to fuss with the seeds. Also means the only parts of the share we haven’t eaten in the four weeks is one totally unripe watermelon and 3.5 bunches of carrot tops.

Now I’ll take a couple hours off while the stock cooks, and then bottle that up. Minus actually canning, this has taken about three hours from pickup to dishes-washed. I don’t think I could do this in “normal” times, but right now, weekends are sort of daunting stretches of unplanned time. And when there’s nothing to do, I start doomscrolling, which isn’t good for anybody. I’m sure if I had plans (are we ever going to have those again?), this would just be way too much work – but right now, it’s one of my favorite things to do.

Cooking with Canned Salmon

Canned salmon has a lot going for it! Wild-caught Alaskan Salmon is…

  • high in protein, omega-3 fats, and calcium
  • low in mercury
  • sustainably harvested (gets a “good” rating from Seafood Watch)
  • shelf-stable and lasts 4+ years unopened
  • shipped sustainably (unrefrigerated cargo containers on trains/ships)
  • currently half the price of grass-fed ground beef per pound
  • tasty hot or cold (you can eat it like canned tuna)

It does have one drawback, however: it’s canned with the bones and skin (unless you get boneless/skinless, which is far more expensive, and shipped first to China to be deboned by people working in questionable work conditions, and then packaged and shipped back). So I wanted to share some tips that got me past the initial squick factor and into loving this fish.

First of all, know that after going through the canning process, the bones are very soft and totally edible. The long, thin bones are so fragile at that point that you don’t even notice them. The vertebrae are larger and more noticeable. The skin is very fragile and disintegrates when you stir it in. So here are some ways of coping with them all.

  • Expend a little effort and take out the biggest bones and the skin. If you empty the can onto a plate (drain the liquid off first), you should be able to get the majority of the skin and large bones out in a couple minutes.
  • Stir the salmon thoroughly. If you’re making salmon burgers, you’ll do this in the course of cooking, anyway.
  • Mix it with ingredients that have some “bite” to them, like diced carrots and onions. If you bite into something a little firm, it’s probably just a carrot, right?

Ready to cook with canned salmon? Here are some recipe ideas:

Do I need to buy a canner?

When crisis looms, a lot of us look to securing our food supply. I’m hearing a lot of people saying they want to get into canning these days, but are concerned about the cost of equipment, storage space, and availability of materials. And frankly, just buying “one more thing” for an endeavor that might not be lasting.

So this week, I’m bringing you information on “canning with found objects.” You may be able to can with equipment you already have on hand. This is water bath canning, suitable for jam, pickles, tomatoes, and some salsa recipes. Please don’t use this method for any low-acid foods like vegetables, meat, or beans.

Improvising a canner

First off, NO, you don’t need the classic black-with-white-speckles graniteware canner to do canning. Though if you decide to buy, it is probably the most straightforward and least expensive way to go. What you DO need:

A deep pot with a lid. It must be deep enough to hold your jars, a rack, an inch of water over the top of your jars, and at least an inch of space so it doesn’t boil over when it’s full.

Three canning jars in a large pot
This is an 8-qt soup pot. It’s fine for canning half-pints (small jar in top left) and definitely too small to can quart jars (top right). If I’m really careful, I could probably can pints (lower left) without overflowing the pot…but I’d be pushing my luck.

A rack, or “something to keep your jars from touching the bottom of the pot.” This is usually a metal rack, but I’ve had success with canning rings, silicone potholders, and even folded kitchen towels. Look around; there is likely something in your kitchen you can use. This is really important, because without something between the jars and the pot’s bottom, jars will break in the canner.

A jar lifter. Some people manage without them, but this is non-negotiable for me.

A ladle and canning funnel are not 100% required, but they make life a LOT easier.

Bonus: Canning instructions. There are newer books out there, but for straightforward and cheap, it’s hard to beat the Ball Blue Book ($10). It’s refreshed a bit every year, but as long as it was printed this millenium, the info is still good, so check for it used, too. The other definitive guide is the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, which is available as a PDF download.

Canning kits

So you’ve determined you don’t really have the tools you need. What’s the easiest way to get started? Sadly, most “canning starter kits” are drastically overpriced. I just saw the Ball starter kit selling for $150…absolutely ridiculous. Try this instead:

  • Check Freecycle, Facebook Marketplace, and Craigslist.com and just ask if anyone has equipment to give away or sell cheap.
  • Buy a 21-qt graniteware canner with rack. Check “farm and fleet” type stores – they should run about $20-25. Here’s one you can order (not an affiliate link). A full kit like this is OK, too – has pieces you won’t need, but it’s $35…if you can find it in stock.
  • Buy a funnel ($2), a jar lifter ($8), and a good ladle ($5).

You should be able to get set up for around $35, plus your jars. And while we’re talking about jars, I often get asked if you can can in glass jars that held food you bought at the store (mayo, jam, salsa, etc.). The official answer is “no.” However, I know the Amish in my area regularly reuse commercial “lug-top” jars (like salsa or jelly jars, with a pop-up button on top) for water bath canning. As jars will be scarce this year, it’s worth keeping in mind. Be sure the pair the jar with its correct lid and don’t store anything that hasn’t resealed and popped the button “in.”

Salsa Recipes for Canning

It’s extremely important to use tested salsa recipes if you plan to water bath can them. With the mix of acidic and non-acidic ingredients, if you get the blend wrong, your final product could have an unsafe pH and harbor botulism. The problem is, most canned salsa recipes taste far too strongly of vinegar for my taste. These two, tested by Ball, are my favorites by far. These no longer appear on their web site, but did in the past.

Ball Fiesta Salsa

Buy:

To Yield… Buy…pints4812
Whole tomatoespounds51015
Whole cucumbersmedium246
Whole bell pepperslarge246
Long hot peppersmedium246
Green onionbunches123
Cilantrobunches.5.751
Garliccloves369

Prep:

Yield (pints)4812
Chopped tomatoescups71421
Chopped cucumberscups246
Chopped sweet pepperscups2.557.5
Chopped hot pepperscups0.511.5
Sliced green onioncups123
Minced cilantrocups0.511.5
Garliccloves369
OreganoTbsp123
Salttsp1.534.5
Cider vinegarcups0.511.5
Lime JuiceTbsp246
CuminTbsp123

Cook:

Bring to a boil and simmer about 20 mins.

Can:

In pints; water bath 15 mins.

Smoky Salsa

A nice thing about this salsa is that it takes relatively few fresh peppers…great if you have tomatoes left over after making the Fiesta Salsa above.

Buy:

To Yield… Buy…Pints612
TomatoesPounds612
Red onionMedium36
CilantroBunches12
Bell pepperMedium22

Prep:

Yield (pints)612
Tomatoes, choppedQuarts36
Chili powderTbl1.53
Red onion, dicedcups36
Cilantro, mincedcups1.53
Garlic powdertsp1.53
Bell pepper, choppedcup0.51
SaltTbl0.51
Smoked salttsp12
Smoked paprikatsp1.53
Vinegarcup0.751.5

Cook:

Bring all ingredients to a boil and simmer for 10-20 minutes. If desired, puree about halfway with an immersion blender to make a less chunky salsa.

Can:

In pints; water bath for 15 minutes.

How to Build a Raised Bed Garden: FAQ

These are the most common questions I see about raised bed gardening, along with my answers. Though I try to be comprehensive and not just relate my experience, you may find other things work better in your situation and location.

How tall should I make my beds?

If you can work on the ground and want raised beds to keep your garden neat and easier to weed, make the beds 8″ (20cm) tall and fill with 6″ (15cm) of dirt. The plants will send roots down into the native soil beneath the level of the beds, foraging for water and minerals. You DO NOT need to make these beds any deeper, unless you have mobility issues or aesthetic preferences. See “Pet Peeves” below.

Photo of wood and metal raised garden beds.
Square 4×4′ raised beds are 8″ tall with 6″ dirt. The 4′ diameter steel fire pit rings are dug into the slope and are about 12″ tall on the uphill side.

If you want elevated beds so you don’t have to bend or kneel, make the bed about 36″ (180cm) high. If you are very short or tall, you might want to adjust accordingly. You can use your kitchen counter for reference – if your countertop is comfortable for you to use, make the top of your bed the same height. Filling a bed with 36″ of soil is very expensive, so you might want to fill the bottom with rocks, sticks, or empty plastic bottles. Or, make your elevated bed with a bottom (be sure it has good drainage holes) so the depth of the soil is at least 10″ deep; 12-18″ is ideal.

I find this bed just a bit too low (29″) for comfortable work, but it’s great on my deck where I can’t grow directly in the soil.

If you are planting on concrete, gravel, or contaminated soil, follow the directions for elevated beds.

What should I make my beds out of?

Good options
MaterialProsCons
CedarRot-resistantExpensive and tends to split
Plain pine (my favorite) Cheap; lasts 8+ yearsNot termite-resistant
Cinder blocksInsect- and rot-proofCan reduce acidity of soil. Concerns about fly ash (heavy metals) leaching into soil but no hard evidence.
MetalInsect- and rot-proofCan rust after time. Watch for sharp edges.
Pallet woodCheapDoesn’t last as long as pine lumber. Thin, short boards are prone to splitting. Some pallets have been treated with chemicals. Look for a “KD” (kiln dried) or “HT” (heat treated) stamp for the safest options.
Not recommended
MaterialProsCons
Composite decking (Trex)Rot-resistantWarps a lot and screws pull out after a couple years. Not compostable, recyclable, or burnable after use. Corrugated construction allows weeds and grass to creep in at the corners.
Pressure-treated lumberRot-resistantArsenic was banned from pressure-treated lumber in 2004. However, lumber yards still won’t allow their employees to cut it indoors. To me, that suggests chemicals I don’t want around food. Guide to recognizing pressure-treated lumber.
TiresCheap and indestructableConcerns about leaching chemicals, but there’s no conclusive evidence that they’re really horrible. If you feel comfortable, use them.
Railroad tiesCheapActual used railroad ties are soaked in creosote, which give them a black or dark brown color. Creosote is carcinogenic and ties often can’t go into regular landfills. Note: 6″x6″ landscaping timbers sold at garden centers are sometimes called “railroad ties” but don’t have creosote.

Do I need to line the bottom of my beds with something?

Generally speaking, no. Six inches of heavy soil/compost/manure will kill most grass and weeds under the bed. Landscaping fabric and plastic are counterproductive because the plants can’t get their roots below the bottom of the bed. They will also shred over time and be a pain in the neck to remove later. There is no need to line the sides of the beds with plastic to make the wood last longer, either.

The only lining I’d put in the bottom of a bed is cardboard, newspaper, or packing paper. Place the bed frame directly on top of the cardboard, so the cardboard sticks out evenly on the inside and outside of the bed. Make sure to cover the paths as well, and cover the paths with 6″ of wood chips. This will keep grass from creeping into your beds from the corners.

The big exception to this is if you are working on a contaminated site and want to prevent plants from getting their roots into the soil. Then I’d go with an impermeable bottom layer such as several inches of gravel. (P.S. – did you know the most common contaminant found in urban Ypsilanti, MI gardens is actually arsenic from old orchards, not lead? Don’t assume urban sites are unsafe and rural sites are OK!)

What do I fill my beds with?

  • Contact a local nursery or landscaper for a truckload of “garden blend” soil. This is half compost/half topsoil. Figure about 3/4 yard per 4’x8′ bed (6″ deep). In my area, I can get 3 yards of garden blend delivered for about $125. This will fill 3-4 4×8′ beds.
  • Manure – great stuff! The older, the better. Chicken, cow, and horse manures need to mellow a lot before use, but goat, rabbit, and llama manure can be used right away. It’s OK if it still has straw or woodchip bedding in it if you cover it with a couple inches of good garden soil. Tomatoes planted in this will not fare well their first year – they’ll get blossom end rot because pure manure doesn’t have enough calcium in it. It may also have too much nitrogen for root crops the first year. Squash will love it, though!
  • Leaves, grass clippings, and straw – good for a base layer. These will compost in place and leave good soil behind. They will also shrink by about 75%, so expect to have to refill your beds next year. If you don’t have many on your property, cruise leafy neighborhoods on trash day to pick up your neighbors’ bags of leaves and clippings.
  • Topsoil or native soil from elsewhere on your property – not great, but not horrible, especially if you can improve it with compost or manure. Straight soil is too heavy for elevated planters on legs.
  • Commercial compost – can be OK. Lacks minerals, and often has a lot of plastic junk in it, but you can clean it up and improve it over time.
  • Bagged soil, compost, etc. – The most expensive option, but might be your only choice if you live in a city. Use a blend of compost, manure, coir (shredded coconut hulls), and a smaller amount of top soil.

Gotchas and pet peeves

  • Beds 16-24″ tall. They’re too short to work standing up, and too tall to work from the ground. I’d rather have two 4’x8’x8″ beds than one 4’x8’x16″ bed any day.
  • Beds that aren’t filled within 1-2″ of the top. Why build a 36″ tall bed, then fill it with only 18″ of dirt? You now have to reach over the top to get to the soil level, and there’s 18″ of wood shading much of your garden.
  • This might happen because soil settles, and any organic matter will shrink a LOT in its first year. If you put 8″ of grass clippings and straw into a bed, and put 2″ of soil on top, by the end of the year, it’ll be maybe 3-4″ deep. Fill beds to the very top, and be prepared to add more soil next year.
  • Over-built first gardens. Ok, I get it. Self-contained 36″ tall cedar keyhole gardens with built-in fences are gorgeous – but there’s a really good chance one of two things will happen next year: You’ll either hate gardening and be mad you spent that much money, or you’ll love gardening and want a bunch more space. If a garden like this one makes your heart sing, go for it – but know that you don’t need something this fancy and expensive to start gardening.
It’s a beauty – but you don’t need something this expensive to start out. This lists for $1899, and then you need about 4 yards of soil to fill it.

Kid Garden Plans

Here are two more garden plans geared at kids. I drew these up for a community garden in Ontario. The garden asks that people don’t plant potatoes, perennials, or tall crops like corn or sunflowers, so this is what I came up with. Each link has a diagram and plant list.

Color block garden (link)

Each quadrant is a different color

Kid favorites (link)

Featuring a pizza/spaghetti section, a pickle section, and several vegetables and flowers that a lot of kids find delicious or fascinating

Microgreen Kit Comparison

Microgreens are all the rage, and for good reason. They are 4-40x more nutritious than their full-size counterparts, can be grown indoors without lights in any season, and are beautiful and tasty to eat. And, as we’re all hunkering down waiting for COVID-19 to burn itself out, lots of people are realizing a little green would be welcome with all those beans and rice dinners.

So, how do you get started? It depends on your budget, DIY instinct, and tolerance for mess. (Note: I have no relationship to these companies, and haven’t tried all these solutions, but am making recommendations based on my gardening knowledge and the results of my own setup at home.)

No-fuss recommendation: Hamama Microgreens Kit

Startup price: $39 (from Amazon; $49 on the Hamama web site) for 1 tray and 3 refills

I originally thought these were extraordinarily expensive and ridiculously dependent on a disposable product you can only get from one manufacturer. But as I ran the numbers, I realized that the added expense might be worth it to some folks because of Hamama’s no-fuss setup. Literally just add water. There’s no dirt to get on the seeds or splash onto your counter. The tray fits on a windowsill. You can get prettier trays if you’re so inclined. You can even have the seeds are sent on a subscription basis, so you don’t even have to reorder. Price per serving (about 1/6 of a tray) is about $2.17 for the first kit and $1.05 for refills. If you could find a 6×12″ tray, you could just buy their refills and get the ease of use without the shockingly overpriced plastic tray.

Total DIY option

Startup price: Maybe $2, depending on what you have on hand

At the other end of the spectrum, you could kludge together something that would work, possibly from things you have on hand. Just find some kind of shallow tray or pan (aluminum pie tin? Plastic take-out tray? Flat Glad leftover tub?), put in about 1″ of potting soil, seed starting mix, or coir, and sprinkle heavily with seeds. (Great directions at Gardeners.com.)

For cheap seeds, check your local garden center for seeds sold in bulk. They are often about $1 per ounce, and an ounce of seeds will last you forever. Best varieties are broccoli and kale for mild flavors, and radishes or mustard greens if you like them spicy. These would be basically free, depending on what you had to spend on seeds (assuming you had soil on hand).

Happy medium

Startup price: $29 for 3 trays and enough seeds to last until your kid goes to college

Ok, let’s say you’re willing to spend a bit of money, but you don’t want to be stuck in case Hamama goes out of business or jacks up their prices. You can put together your own kit from widely available components.

  • Seed trays: windowsill size or 10×10″ size (search for “1010 trays no holes” for different colors)
  • Growing medium: either coir or microgreen mats (The mats almost mimic the tidiness of the Hamama kit but might be a little harder to sprout)
  • Seeds: either local in bulk, or 3oz bags or professional-grade 1oz packets (broccoli and kale or mild micro mix are my faves for reliability and speed)
  • Optional domes: keep heat and humidity in and cats out (use binder clips to keep domes on). I recommend removing the domes, or at least cracking them open, once the seeds are sprouted to avoid mold.

The price on these works out to around 41 cents/serving to start, and 20 cents/serving for refills. So – MUCH cheaper than the Hamama, if you’re willing to deal with dirt. This is basically the setup I use.

I do actually have grow lights with these swanky wicking mats underneath (I drilled holes in my trays to take advantage of the wicking) but the light setup is not needed. That’s because seeds contain all the power they need to sprout, and they don’t really start getting energy from the sun until they put out their first true leaves. You’ll harvest the greens before they run out of sprouting power stored in the seed.

So! I hope that helps you decide how you might like to go about growing microgreens. I highly recommend them to everyone!

Flavor Garden

This garden is designed for maximum flavor – taste you literally can’t buy.

Potatoes and peas
(Left to right) Potatoes, me, peas, garlic, squash)
  • Garlic – ranges from sweet to peppery to downright hot! If you want garlic scapes, too, be sure to buy “hardneck” varieties.
  • Tomatoes – there are hundreds or thousands of kinds of tomatoes to suit every palate. Every color, every shape, every firmness…knock yourself out!
  • Snap or snow peas – ok, so you’ve probably figured out that these are my favorite vegetable! They are so good when homegrown largely because you can pick the perfect peas each day and not be tempted to pick ones that are under- or over-ripe.
  • Potatoes – even homegrown russet or Yukon Gold potatoes taste better than their store-bought counterparts, but why stop there? Try fingerlings, purple potatoes, red potatoes for salad. It’s amazing to find potatoes that aren’t just a vehicle for butter.
  • Green beans – nothing compares to home-grown. Pick your color (green, yellow, or purple), size (slender haricort vert or full-size), and texture (with or without “fuzz” on the beans). You might not even know the full diversity of green bean flavors available – try a few and see what you like!
  • Dry beans – hard to grow in sufficient quantities, but they are beautiful, varied, and delicious. And, you can just save a handful for next year and never buy seed again.
  • Baby winter squash – if you think zucchini are flavorless and boring, try this: plant butternut squash, and start harvesting them when they are about the size of your hand, with tender green skins. They are less wet and more flavorful, but just as tender, as zucchini and summer squash. Be sure to let some mature all the way to become your winter squash!

For more garden plans, see:

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