Category Archives for Urban Garden

neighborhood plant and seed exchange

5 Tips for Hosting a Neighborhood Plant and Seed Exchange

Looking for a great way to meet your gardening neighbors, build community and get free plants? Host a plant and seed exchange! We hosted one in our small urban neighborhood this spring, and can’t wait to do it again next year. Here are five tips for how to organize a plant and seed exchange for your neighborhood.

Gauge interest

Really, all you need is one other interested fellow gardener, and your plant and seed exchange can grow from there. If you’ve already met a gardening neighbor or two, ask them about the idea. If you haven’t, then reach out – I posted a note on my neighborhood’s Facebook page. Try posting in a community newsletter, or on a nearby shop bulletin board.

tables for seed and plant exchangeChoose a space

We used an area park, but you could also use backyard or front walk. I used to host weekly food-coop pickups on my tiny front porch – just spread everything out on the steps, porch and sidewalk. Ask a church or business if you can use their space – most are happy to support a community event.

Set some guidelines

Let people know what to expect by spelling out a few details apart from time and place. No need to get too organized here. For example, you might want to note that everything at the plant and seed exchange – including tools – are free. Tell people to bring plants in giveaway containers. Figure out if you need folding tables.

Send out notifications

Use social media, flyers, posters – whatever method your neighborhood uses to share news and event notices. If you want to open the event to other urban gardeners, spread the word (and try to find a point person) in those communities as well.

Prepare to share

Divide your seeds and label them in envelopes or small bags. Divide plants and replant them in to-go containers. We used saved tin cans, but you could also use newspaper pots, takeout containers, and seedling pots saved from nursery purchases.

A plant and seed exchange can be a great way to build community, and that has more benefits than just free plants – read more about the benefits here. We met fellow gardeners, made friends and got to know our neighborhood better. Let us know if you host one, and if you have any additional tips to share!

how to do soil test at home

How to Do a Simple DIY Urban Garden Soil Test

Conventional gardening focuses on plant health; organic gardening focuses on soil health. That’s what the instructor said in the gardening class I was in at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Then she taught us how to do a soil test at home – no mailing a sample off and waiting for results.

I’m working on getting a certification in Gardening and Garden Design, and it’s the most fun I’ve had learning stuff in classes since I studied for my pilot’s license. I look forward to each one and even though I’ve been gardening my whole life I always learn something new.

In the soil class we learned about life underground, and it’s pretty exciting down there. Friendly microbes, insects and worms are all partying down below, creating a happy habitat for plant roots. We learned why healthy soil is the key to organic urban gardening.

Soil rule #1: No compacting

Garden soil (never “dirt”) is made up of minerals and organic matter, with lots of gaps for air and water to move through. In fact, our instructor told us good soil texture is half matter, half air and water. Compacting the soil removes the critical air and water pockets that insects and plant roots need.

In the urban garden, soil is often far too compacted from frequent traffic and construction. That’s why it’s a good idea to build raised beds or walkways to keep garden soil light and fluffy.

healthy garden soilBut not too fluffy. Fluffy, sifted soil will compact quickly. Chunks of soil, called “peds,” rest against each other to create air pockets that remain even after hard rains. The first, and most basic, soil test to do at home is simply check your garden soil for compaction. If it’s compacted, break it up into chunks to add air pockets, and mix in some compost or bagged garden soil to add organic material. Also consider growing a cover crop on any bare ground (and over winter), because the roots will break up compacted soil.

Soil rule #2: Know what’s in it

We took a test in the soil class, but not the nail-biter botany type of thing that English majors like me avoid. The instructor showed us how to do a soil test at home – well, two actually: A simple soil test in the field, and a more involved test to do at home. I already knew about testing soil for pH levels (the amount of acid or base in the soil to see how different plants will fare). But these tests identified soil content and texture.

For the field soil test, we got our hands dirty. Grab a fistful of soil and wet it with water until damp. Knead it, adding more water if necessary, until it starts to hang together in a ball. Start pushing the soil out between your thumb and finger to make a ribbon. If the ribbon extends more than an inch without breaking, it has a fair amount of clay.

If it breaks, then rub it between your fingers with more water. Sandy soil feels gritty; silty soil feels smooth.

how to do a soil test at homeThe second soil test was a little more lab-like. Take a handful of soil and dump it in a pint canning jar. Fill the jar 3/4 full with water, put on the lid, and shake it hard for two minutes. Then, let it sit and separate into layers (this can take up to 24 hours).

The first soil layer to settle is sand, then silt, then clay, then water and floating organic matter. The thickness of the layers corresponds to the percentage of the soil material.

Soil rule #3: Treat the texture

Urban garden soil is often rocky, especially if you dig below grade, where construction crews often dump bricks and other building waste materials. In a rural or suburban garden, the occasional rock is no problem. It will break down eventually, contributing minerals to the soil.

But in the urban garden, we are constantly picking out gravel, glass, brick and rocks. A rocky base will drain well, but make sure you have a good foot or more of healthy soil above that.

Clay isn’t the enemy! This was a shock to me, used to adding compost and yet more compost to our thick Virginia clay. In fact, clay is full of plant food and it hangs onto moisture. This means you can water less frequently.

Water runs right out of sandy soil, and so do plant nutrients. Mix in clay and organic matter to boost it.

Silty soil is a gardener’s friend. It holds moisture well and contains plant nutrients, so it is pretty fertile. But fine silt compacts easily, so a silty soil needs organic matter and some sand to maintain good aeration.

Once I learned how to do a soil test at home, I went back to test all my urban garden beds. I learned that our yard’s soil at grade is heavy on silt and clay – healthier than I expected for an urban space! Our raised beds consist of more sand and compost. I may add a little clay soil from the yard to those.

Ultimately, you can’t have too much organic material. The final word from the instructor for organic urban garden soil is: When in doubt, mix in more compost!

bike wheel trellis

Garden Art: Make This Easy and Fun Bike Wheel Trellis

I think a vegetable garden should be functional first, but also pretty if possible. I’ve been working on making my own garden art with found materials. We save money over buying something ready-made, and our garden art reflects our own distinctive personality – like this funky and functional bike wheel trellis.

Chef Iggy and I are dedicated cyclists. Some might say obsessed. We have quite a collection of road and mountain bikes, and our bike shed kind of dominates our urban garden. Sadly, a few months ago our neighborhood bike shop closed, but as they were shutting down they let me take home a collection of assorted size bike wheels.

These were old wheels, not practical for riding. But I discovered they were perfect for a bike wheel trellis for our green beans.

Creating garden art

I’m a very practical person, so I tend to demand that my “art” also be useful. At first I wanted to build some type of sculpture-type thingie with the bike wheels but I wasn’t sure what the purpose would be, or where to put it. Then, when we put in our latest small bed, I realized the wheels could be mounted on the fence behind to act as a trellis. Artsy and practical! It was a win-win.

blank garden fenceI chose the best five out of the eight wheels I had, looking for variety of size and color. I laid out a few test designs on the ground in front of the bed and eyeballed them to guesstimate what they would look like on the fence.

Once I had a design I liked, I pulled in Chef Iggy to figure out the hardware.

Building the bike wheel trellis

I didn’t want the wheels to spin, otherwise they could chop off little tendrils reaching into the trellis. I also wanted them to be firmly attached to the fence, which we couldn’t reach from behind. We had to figure out a way to mount them from the front.bicycle garden art

Chef Iggy came up with a clever mounting plan using a 4″ carriage bolt to hold the wheel, then screwing a washer and nut on the bolt to hold the wheel tight. He sank the bolt through a 5″ x 5″ block of one-inch pressure treated lumber so that the bolt stuck out the front of the block.

Then we simply placed the blocks where we wanted the wheels, and screwed them to the fence with two deck screws. Slide the wheel on the bolt sticking out the front, then add the washer and seal with the nut. We tightened the nut until the bike hub sunk a bit into the pressure treated block. that way it won’t spin.

Why we love it

Now that our bike wheel trellis is installed, I realize we situated it in a great location. We can see it from the French doors of the kitchen, across the garden. So we have a pretty focal point that pulls the eye across to the end of our little garden space.

I love our little bike wheel trellis because it’s a piece of functional garden art. I also love it because it was free (well, $5 of hardware). And it’s very personal, as a small legacy from Bunny Hop bike shop, which serviced my mountain bike for many years.

One of my New Year’s garden resolutions was to work harder to make my garden pretty. I want it to be a place of calm retreat, with garden art and little resting places. This isn’t easy to do in a small urban space. Now, every time I look out through the kitchen doors, or pull my bike out of the shed for a ride, I look at our little bike wheel trellis and smile.


olla and plant stakes for garden watering

Sustainable Garden Watering with Natural Ollas

It gets hot and dry during Virginia’s growing season, but we have found a sustainable watering solution for raised beds and containers. We tried ollas for garden watering last summer. This ancient garden watering method works so well that we’re installing more.

Ollas work sort of like drip irrigation, but they’re much cheaper and easier to install. Fill your ollas with water from a rain barrel and you may not even need your hose this season.

What is an olla?

A classic olla (pronounced “oy-yah”) is an unglazed terracotta pot, usually round, with a really narrow mouth and a lid. You bury it up to the neck in your garden, then fill with water and cover. I don’t know where they come from originally but it’s a Spanish-language pronunciation so I have to assume somewhere in Latin America. olla for garden watering

I’ve seen similar watering concepts used in the Middle East, which makes me think this used to be a pretty widespread water conservation method before the advent of plumbing.

How olla garden watering works

One of the keys to an olla is that the terra cotta is unglazed. That way the water seeps out slowly, keeping the soil damp within a pretty wide radius. You also want an olla with a narrow mouth so that it doesn’t lose much water via evaporation.

Because the water is deep in the ground, an olla encourages roots to grow more deeply than surface watering would. Occasionally I’ll put an olla out for winter storage and it will have fine roots encrusted around it. They really work!

You fill an olla every 7-10 days, roughly, depending on its size and how dry the soil is. Check them regularly (you can dip in a straw or dry stick to measure the moisture level), and learn what your seepage rate is.

Ollas for container plants

We liked our ollas so much that we started looking for a smaller type for our containers. The pots we grow herbs in are too small to bury an olla of any useful size, but we did find unglazed terracotta plant stakes designed to work with wine bottles.planting rosemary in container

Bury the stake in the container so that the rim is about 1/2″ above the soil surface. Fill a wine bottle with water (remove the foil around the neck) and flip it over so that the neck rests in the terracotta stake. It will empty slowly over several days as the water seeps through the stake.

I’ve seen these watering stakes come with very pretty glass globes, but the ones I’ve seen are far too small to work well. I’d be filling them every day! A wine bottle keeps our rosemary, thyme or mint watered for about a week – enough time to go on vacation and not ask someone to water the pots.

Make your own olla

We bought our ollas from Growoya but you can also make your own. Use an unglazed terracotta pot and matching saucer – water should not bead up, but soak in quickly. Scrub them well to just in case there’s some surface sealer. Bond the saucer tightly to the wide mouth of the pot with silicon sealer. Then you can bury the pot upside down and use the bottom drainage hole to add water.

In late fall, when we pull out the last of our vegetables, we also pull out the ollas and clean them inside and out. Because they are porous they can crack if they absorb moisture and then freeze. We store them over the winter, and let our winter cover crop fend for itself once it’s established.

As water becomes more scarce across the planet, we will need to practice more sustainable garden watering methods. Try some ollas this growing season and see what a difference it makes for your plants.


garden rain barrels

5 Garden Rain Barrel Features Yours Must Have

We didn’t even use our garden hose last summer. Instead, we use our rain barrel to save gallons of non-chlorinated garden water every time it rains. Between the rain barrel and the garden ollas, our plants thrived in Virginia’s summer heat. Yours can too.

Rain barrel basics

There are five key features to look for when choosing a rain barrel. We learned this the hard way, by starting with a salvaged rain barrel with substandard features, and then upgrading to a better one. A bad rain barrel is better than none, but if you’re starting from scratch you can choose wisely.

We aren’t evaluating rain barrel size because most seem to come in roughly 90-gallon capacity. Any more would be too small to bother with, and larger ones wouldn’t be very portable. Anything bigger than about 100 gallons would be more of a cistern – a permanent installation.

These are the key features to evaluate:


Rain barrels come in wood or plastic. Wooden barrels, which are usually repurposed whisky or wine barrels, are very attractive and environmentally friendly. That was our first choice but when we started asking barrel owners we learned that wood is a lot more expensive, heavy, hard to find, rots quickly and tends to leak.

We don’t love plastic, but in this case it seemed like a better choice. It’s lightweight and easy to move, ages well and is easy to source. It’s also a lot cheaper, and you can often get replacements parts (like lids or screens). Plastic comes in various colors, and we found a wood-ish brown we could live with.


garden rain barrel lid

This garden rain barrel has a tight-fitting screw on lid.

The barrel should have a lid! Seems obvious, but our first one didn’t, and a lot of leaves and other debris fell in. The lid should be removable, of course, and ideally large enough to dip in a bucket or watering can.

Extra points for a lid that’s replaceable. Check to see if you can order an extra down the road, in case yours breaks.


Not only did our lidless rain barrel collect a lot of debris, but the mosquitoes loved it. We ran the healthiest mosquito nursery in the neighborhood! The floating mosquito discs didn’t seem to do a thing.

garden rain barrel with no lid

Mosquitoes love rain barrels with no screen or lid.

Make sure your rain barrel lid has a fine mesh screen so mosquitoes can’t lay eggs. Make sure it’s fastened well enough to stand up to water pressure and some leaf accumulation. And make sure you can replace it if (when) it rips.


Brass is sturdier and longer lasting than plastic. Check to make sure the handle operates smoothly, and that the spigot end is threaded for connecting a hose.

garden rain barrel brass spigot

A brass spigot will stand the test of time.

Our updated rain barrel has a brass spigot, but it fails in one key regard: The spigot is really close to the barrel, which makes it tough to slip a watering can underneath. Look instead for one more like our plastic valve, which sticks out a little further from the barrel.


Once you have one rain barrel, and you see all the wasted overflow water during a rainstorm, you may want to add another. Or another. Most plastic barrels have overflow valves at the top so you can connect extra barrels with a hose.

Look for overflow valves that are threaded for hose connections. It’s handy to have one overflow valve on each side of the barrel, so you can position the overflow barrel on either side. Also, make sure the overflow valves have caps so nothing can creep inside.

Rain barrel installation tips

When you have your perfect barrel, spend a little time on installation to make it easier to use. Install the barrel raised, so you have room to put a watering can under the spigot. Extra height also creates more water pressure. We built our rain barrel support base from fire pit stones placed in a tight circle, and filled the base with sand to support the bottom of the barrel.

sturdy rain barrel base

Build a sturdy raised base to get the most water pressure from your garden rain barrel.

Reroute your downspout if necessary. Get the rain barrel exactly where you want it, because once it’s installed and filled, it’s not going anywhere.

If you can’t find a barrel with the perfect features, don’t worry. A substandard rain barrel is better than none! Our basic barrel was free, so the price was right, and we used it for two years before upgrading. Get one this season and watch your water bill shrink.

pressure treated wood for raised beds

Why We Use Pressure Treated Wood for Raised Beds

Readers have noticed that our raised beds are made from commercial lumber, which is chemically treated. Before we designed our urban garden I did quite a bit of research on the various options for garden construction materials. Here’s why we decided on pressure treated wood for raised beds.

Raised bed options

Looking through endless pretty garden magazines and books, we found a lot of suggestions for raised bed materials. Here are the options we considered:

  • Brick – looks pretty, but it holds a lot of heat for our already hot climate. It’s expensive and difficult to build, and once it’s up it’s not moveable.
  • Logs – also pretty, but they would take up more room width-wise in our tiny space. Plus, living in the city we didn’t know where to find perfect straight logs the right size.
  • Cedar – pretty, and ages well, but after calling around I only found one place in our town that carried it. and it was twice the price of commercial lumber.
  • Woven willow – so very pretty. So impermanent (rots quickly). So difficult to make. So hard to find the materials.
  • Stone – expensive, better for a terraced garden or retaining wall than our freestanding raised bed plan.
  • Composite wood – looks great, but it’s expensive and more bendy than wood. We would have to reinforce our 9-foot long beds in the middle with cross bracing.

The more we explored, the more commercial lumber started looking like the right option for us. It’s cheap, readily available to city dwellers, rot resistant, easy to work with and doesn’t take up much space.

But is it safe?

The risks of commercial wood for raised beds

I started reading up on gardeners’ objections to pressure-treated wood for raised beds. Primarily, warnings centered around the chemicals injected into the wood. The main problems seem to be arsenic and copper.

When I dug a little deeper, I found that chromated copper arsenate (CCA) is no longer used in pressure-treated lumber. Instead, manufacturers have shifted over to arsenic-free salt and copper-based preservatives called alkaline copper quat and copper azole. So I focused on researching copper’s effect on edible plants.

First, from stories I’ve written about organic farming, I know that organic farmers often use copper-based insecticides in farming. In fact, this is a common objection to organic farming – these copper-based chemicals may be organic, but they do leech into the soil and they don’t go away. So there is already copper in our commercially-farmed organic produce.

Second, the studies I found (including this great article in Fine Gardening) conclude that copper seepage from pressure treated lumber is negligible. The levels are low, they are limited to the soil area immediately next to the wood, and plants in the study died before they accumulated toxic levels of copper.

Pressure-treated lumber is not certified organic, but since we aren’t running a commercial farming operation we aren’t interested in certification. In all other aspects we run an organic operation, so we feel pretty “clean” about our veggies overall.

The choice is personal

Once we decided on pressure-treated lumber, we built our beds and tried to give them a little extra time to weather before we added the soil. Our latest bed will end up sitting in the rain and sun for three months before we add soil. Perhaps that will allow some of the copper to seep out from the surface before the soil and plants hit it.

I’m not advocating that everyone use pressure-treated lumber. That’s just what works for us, after careful consideration. You may have more space, or more money, or better resources than we did. Let us know what works for you! I always love looking at more pretty pictures of raised beds.

seed packets for hosting a plant exchange

5 Benefits of Hosting a Seed and Plant Exchange

Have you ever been to a plant exchange? Botanical gardens sometimes hold plant sales, but that’s not what I’m talking about. At a plant exchange or seed swap, community members get together to trade or give away their extra seeds and plants. This spring, we’ll be hosting a plant exchange in our neighborhood, and we’re planning ahead.

If your neighborhood doesn’t already have a plant exchange, start one! It is a terrific way to grow your urban garden, in several powerful ways.

Hosting a plant exchange isn’t just about growing plants, it’s about growing your community. A strong gardening community helps everyone in these five ways.

Get to know your neighbors

We city residents tend to rush around with our heads down. My neighborhood has a high percentage of students who attend the nearby university, and I don’t always make the effort to get to know them since many of them leave after a year or two.

But urban neighborhoods where the residents know each other have lower crime rates. They also weather dramatic events more easily – which I’ve seen personally during a few nasty hurricanes. After our neighborhood plant exchange I met several other gardeners in my block, and now we chat regularly.

Learn from other urban gardeners

Not only will you swap seeds, you can also swap knowledge about what plants do well in your area. Maybe someone will know who used to be in your house or apartment, and if they grew anything there. Ask where neighbors shop and order their seeds. At our swap I met several gardeners who had success in our area with unusual local plants including Moonflower and Cardinal plant (also got some clippings and seeds).

Free plants and seeds

The win here is pretty self explanatory. I think I came back from our plant exchange with more goodies than I gave away, which is sort of an occupational hazard for gardeners. But it cost me nothing, which I can’t say about my regular trips to the pricey garden shop.

Waste not

A tiny urban garden doesn’t usually need a whole seed packet, and those seeds won’t germinate as well next year. Share the seeds you won’t use, and pick up some different seeds to try out. Next year I plan to start more plants from seed, knowing that I can swap the extras in spring. In fact, I may even coordinate with a few other gardeners so that one of us starts tomatoes, for example, while the other starts peppers.

When it is time to divide herbs like thyme and mint, it always feels bad to throw away the part you cut back. Instead, you can transplant the remnants into a small container to share with a neighbor.

Potential for future events

Perhaps hosting a plant exchange can become an annual event. Or maybe your neighborhood is interested in building a community garden. You might even decide to hold a garden tour to show others how to build different kinds of urban gardens. I can see all that in our future now that we’ve held our inaugural seed swap!

Convinced? Then it’s time to prep for hosting  plant exchange. We scheduled ours for early spring, and it was a great kickstart for our neighborhood gardens. Read all about it, including our tips for planning your own event!

how to build a raised bed

How to Build a Solid Raised Bed in Under Two Hours

Chef Iggy and raised bed lumberTwo people, two hours, one raised garden bed. This DIY project really did take less than two hours, and that includes shopping time at our local home improvement store. Here are our step-by-step instructions for how to build a raised bed in under two hours.

Preplan: 15 minutes

1. Keep it small. The length is the biggest issue determining how quickly you can cut and assemble the bed. Our finished bed is 5′ x 2.5′ and the 5′ length meant we could cut and assemble the bed in our garden shed (garage-sized).

To cut longer board lengths, you might need to set up the saw and assemble the bed outdoors, which can slow things down a bit.

2. Write down the measurements so you know what lengths to cut the lumber. Decide what height the sides should be – you may need two rows of boards for tall beds.

If you don’t have a saw, you could have the boards cut at the home improvement store. We wanted to cut ours so we would have exact measurements, and not pay extra for the cuts.

3. Decide where it will go. We had been eyeing the yard for a few months, so we already knew where to site the bed to capture the most sun. Clear out that space and level it, if necessary.

raised bed lumberShopping: 45 minutes

Living in the city has many advantages! We live two miles from a big box home improvement store. Once we figured how to build a raised bed, we made a materials list and did a quick in-and-out on a Sunday morning, before the crowds hit. We bought:

4 8-foot boards, sized 2″ x 6″

1 8-foot length of 1″ x 1″ lumber

A big box of 2.5″ deck screws

Some people don’t want to use salt-treated lumber to build raised garden beds because it contains chemicals. I have done some reading up on this, and it seems the biggest problem is that arsenic is sometimes used in the wood treatment.

The studies I found concluded that a) not enough arsenic is used to leach into the soil in a meaningful way, b) any amounts that do enter the soil only do so right at the edge of the bed, and c) when plants do show trace amounts of arsenic, it’s not nearly enough – even if eating an entire bed of plants at once – to affect a human system (arsenic leaves the body after a few days).

how to build a raised bed in layersAfter reading these results I decided to use salt-treated lumber to build a raised bed because it’s cheap and easy to find. Our bed frame will also sit outdoors to weather for a month before we add soil and plants.

Bulding: 45 minutes

Chef Iggy cut all the boards to size while I sat in my home office and worked on an overdue story. He’s nice like that.

Once he had the boards cut, we found a flat place (the shed floor) to assemble them. Our bed has 12″ tall sides, so we planned to build two 6″ tall beds and stack them on top of each other.

We laid out the first level, butted up the boards at the corners, and screwed them in. Then we set the second set of boards on top of that and screwed those corners together.

how to make a raised bed screwing in corner supportsFinally, we inserted the 12″ tall 1″ x 1″ pieces at the corners and screwed those in. That way the two layers wouldn’t separate.

When I say “we,” I mean Chef Iggy did most of the work while I occasionally held some boards and made semi-helpful suggestions. Also, I took pictures. You could probably save significant time if you don’t take pictures.

Finishing: 5 minutes

That’s basically how to build a raised bed. Once finished, it can be placed anywhere in the garden. We lifted ours on its side, carried it through the shed door and out to our chosen space next to our fence. Chef Iggy leveled it, then pushed dirt and gravel up around the outside edges to seal the bottom cracks.making the raised bed level

And voila! It’s ready to go. We aren’t adding dirt yet because I want the lumber to weather first, to give salt and other chemicals the best chance to rinse away. In March we will add soil and plants.

Now that you know how to build a raised bed, consider adding one to  your urban garden. You can even use a similar plan to build a cold frame. It’s an efficient and attractive way to get more from a small space.

garden planner image

5 Reasons You Must Have a Good Digital Garden Planner

If you can’t be in your back yard during winter’s unwelcoming weather, then choosing and using a good garden planner is the next best thing. I like to vicariously visit spring by digitally planting rows of new seeds, or breathing life into baby plants with colored pencils. A garden planner thrives no matter what the weather. Imaginary garden planner plants never die, they always have just enough room and the perfect amount of water. Green dreams are born during the off season, and they live forever in the garden planner.

Choosing the right garden planner is especially important for an urban gardener, because you don’t have much room to work with. Someone in a suburban or rural space can plant willy nilly, or expand the beds to add some new squash that catches their eye in spring. Urban gardeners don’t have that luxury. To maximize yield from a tiny urban space, we have to make every square inch work, and that requires careful advance planning. Even if you’re just planting a few containers, planning in advance will give you lush pots full of edible treats, instead of struggling experiments.

Why go electronic?

Here’s the question: What type of planner? Use traditional graph paper and colored pencils? A spiral notebook? Those are lovely, and I do like the tangible feel of paper and soft colored pencils or watercolors. But I’ve converted to a digital garden planner. Here’s why:

  1. Digital planners have lots of resources right at your fingertips. The one I use lists characteristics and zone-specific grow times for different plants, so I don’t have to look that up somewhere else. It also includes a list of what plants grow well together, which is critical information for mixed containers.
  2. It’s so easy to make changes! No smudgy erasing, no crossing out and starting over. Just point and click
  3. Templates – once you’ve drawn your hardscape (buildings, fences, cold frames, raised beds, compost bins), you never have to draw them again. Simply use last year’s hardscape template for this year’s plantings. You can also divide your annual template into months, so you can compare January to June without having to draw 12 separate plans.
  4. Reminders in your inbox. All of the digital planners I’ve seen include email updates. This means you get timely reminders to plant and harvest, designed for the specific plants in your garden.
  5. Automation for advanced techniques like crop rotation, square foot gardening and winter growing. Digital planners adapt the suggested planting and grow times for plants grown under row cover and in cold frames, so you can extend your gardening season. They also mark warning areas for repeat crops, encouraging gardeners to rotate plant types to better protect against pests and disease. Square foot gardening is a technique many urban gardeners use to maximize space.

I still like pencil and paper. Honestly, the feel of a soft pencil on thick paper is one reason I became a writer (is that weird?). So, using a digital planner won’t stop me from sitting in my garden and jotting down plant notes in my Moleskine or sketching my colorful plant babies. But I don’t have to do that anymore to keep careful records and plan the coming year.

Digital planner problems

Before we start talking about specific planners, know that there are some caveats to going digital. First, because the best diagram-type planners use Flash, they won’t work on an iPhone or iPad. I know there are some planners in the iPhone App store, but either they don’t have charting options or the reviews are terrible, so I haven’t paid for one yet to test it. Let me know if you’ve found one you like! Happily, Burpee offers an app for Android. I don’t have Android so I haven’t tested it, but it looks robust.

This just means you may need to plan on your laptop, which usually isn’t a problem for an urban gardener as your kitchen table is probably pretty close to your little farm. You may not be able to work outside on your laptop comfortably though, what with screen glare and all. Just be aware that most of your planning may not be super mobile.

Second, once you select a digital planner, you are kind of committed to it. They aren’t too expensive to prohibit changing over, but switching does mean creating all new templates and plans. Remember that you’ll probably be getting regular emails from this garden planner company, and the plant lists in the planner will be based on what the company sells. So, if you’re growing organic, for example, choose a company committed to organic growing.

Which garden planner to choose

Overall, I suggest choosing a planner from a company that is small enough to feel personal and reflect your specific garden values, but large enough to stay on top of software updates (and not go out of business!). One of my favorite seed suppliers that meets all this criteria, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds does not offer a digital garden planner (sad face!).

I ended up going with the planner from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a company based near us in Mineral, Virginia. They grow in zone 7a, same as we do. They are committed to preserving heirloom seeds from our region, which I appreciate. And their seeds are organic and non GMO, which is how we run our garden. I’m totally comfortable clicking on “buy now” from my plant list to order seeds from them.

Mother Earth News offers a detailed planner very similar to the one from Southern Exposure, but without the seed purchase option. Both the Southern Exposure and Mother Earth planners are free for seven days, then cost less than $30 annually.

Burpee offers a Garden Time Planner (without charting option) that is iPhone friendly. Although you can’t draw a template of your garden, you can choose your plants and zone, and the app will send you planting updates. Burpee also offers how-to videos in the app.

Whichever planner you choose, winter is the perfect time to get started! Download your digital guide and start dreaming.


cover crop

Peace Out: My Garden Plan for New Year Recovery

Let’s admit that 2016 has been a rough year. In fact so rough that it inspired me to start this blog. When the world is full of so much anger, negativity and hurt, it drives me to the peaceful backyard world of eager little plants pushing their way to the sky. I want to spend as much time there as possible, and then I want to bring the fruits and vegetables into my happy kitchen, cooking and baking treats for everyone I know and love.

The new year is a time to make plans, and for me 2017 will revolve around my garden plan. That’s my strategy for recovering from 2016 and launching a fresh and fertile new year. This garden plan is less about charts, seeds and plant lists than it is about emotions. My plan is about how I want to spend time in my garden, and how I want it to feel when I’m there.

I’m counting on my garden to help me recover from 2016. Here’s what a healing garden plan looks like:

More down time

Five years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. While I was going through radiation, I got tired easily and needed a lot of down time. So I spent about an hour each fall afternoon just sitting on my patio, staring at the herbs growing in the pretty terra cotta pots. There were butterflies and hummingbirds. A pair of goldfinches visited my zinnias every day. Neighboring trees and shrubs peeked over the fence.

While I sat there, doing nothing, thinking nothing, my brain made space for not only rest, but fresh ideas. Some of these were garden ideas, but others were sparks of work creativity. Fresh writing projects, story pitches and collaborations burst into my head at random moments. It may be a little twisted, but I kind of enjoyed those few months of radiation.

Obviously you don’t have to have cancer to benefit from a daily break. My garden plan for 2017 includes a short daily rest period just sitting in my garden or going for a short walk in the neighborhood, spying on the alley gardens. My garden exists partly to give me the rest and creative energy that I need, and I’ll be relying on that.

Share the love

Working full time, it’s easy to hole up and be hermit. I’m pretty burnt by the end of the day. Most days by about 4:30 I just want to sit on the couch with a gin and tonic.

Tempting as it is to become nonverbal and drink great gin, I like having friends. I think that reaching out and finding commonalities with others is more important now than ever. Making and maintaining friendships takes a little effort. Not just verbal effort, but actions. Garden plan actions.

rosemary butter cookies

I can share garden treats, like these rosemary butter cookies.

This year I want to work on connecting with both friends and new acquaintances. My garden can help me with this goal because I can share extra vegetables, as do most eager gardeners. But I can also share gardening ideas back and forth (part of why I love adding to this blog every week). And I can share recipes and the food I cook from my little urban garden. More friends, more better.

Prettify the garden

Like a lot of urban gardens, mine isn’t beautiful. It’s a workhorse of a space, churning out a decent yield for its size. We’ve taken good advantage of the area. But it’s a space home to a sloppy compost bin, a bike shed, a gravel driveway, a grill, an air-conditioning unit…. You get the idea. Plus the neighbors are RIGHT THERE, in varying degrees of urban entropy and randomness.

urban garden

Needs some work to be pretty.

What I want now is to make my city garden pretty. Or, prettier. I’m never going to grow ornamental shrubs or flowers for cutting. The plants I care for are there to pay me back in food. But there’s no reason why they can’t also soothe me with their peace and beauty.

Maybe the beans can climb an ornamental trellis. Or I’ll plant more working flowers (to attract pollinators or repel pests). Perhaps we can create some kind of water feature to invite trickling sounds into the backyard. I’m open to ideas!

Ask questions

Gardening never stops. I’ve been gardening off and on for decades, but I have so much more to learn. Fortunately, the experts are usually happy to share their hard-earned knowledge. I plan to make more field trips to talk with more of them.

I want to learn more about soils and compost, more about crop rotation and “intercropping” plants. What grows well in my area and also tastes fabulous? What plants grow well together? How can I extend my growing season?

compost pumpkin

I’m obsessed with compost. I want to learn so much more about compost.

As part of this deep dive, I’m thinking of taking classes at my nearby expert center, Lewis Ginger Botanical Garden. What I love about Lewis Ginger is that not only is it a top-ranked botanical garden, but they don’t just focus on ornamental plants. They have a large vegetable garden as well. They even have an extensive children’s garden, with kid-friendly play and plant areas.

In fact, Lewis Ginger offers a gardening certification program. It looks like about a year’s worth of classes, and I’m tempted to enroll.

Grow and expand

Lastly, I want to explore all that my tiny urban garden can be. Where can I find more growing space? What can I put in a container to open up more garden space? In other words, what ways can growing in the city be an asset instead of a liability?

If more city dwellers gardened, we could bring back green spaces into the urban landscape. More city folks would enjoy the bright, rich taste of a fresh tomato. More kids would grow up learning a few small farm skills.

Urban gardening, urban farming and urban homesteading are a growing movement, and we are excited to help expand it. In the coming year we want to learn as much as we can and share that knowledge with fellow urbanites who appreciate amazing food.

Grow it, cook it, eat it. That’s how I plan to stay happy, healthy and sane in 2017, and beyond. Join me and we’ll all get through this year together!