Low-Maintenance Food Plants for Novice (or Reluctant) Gardeners

By Catherine Winter

Are you interested in growing your own food plants, but you’re intimidated by the prospect of doing so? Or is it something you’re reluctant to do but feel that you should be doing for health, wellbeing, and planet-saving? Well, don’t worry: there are some delicious, easy-to-grow plants you can try out that won’t break your spirit, and might just encourage you to keep at it.

lettuce, leaf lettuce, cut-and-come-again lettuce, salad greens, organic lettuce, heirloom lettuce

Cut-and-Come Again Lettuce

Lettuces are pretty easy to grow anyway, but the kind that will re-grow after it’s been snipped is ideal for newbie gardeners. Most lettuces’ leaves will happily spring back after you’ve snipped them for salad, so you won’t have to fuss over re-sowing over the course of the growing season: just trim off a few leaves now and then (sparsely, so you don’t take more than 30 percent of the plant at a time), and your salad bar will re-stock itself in no time.

Iceberg, arugula, mizuna, tender mustard greens, and most loose-leaf varieties are ideal for this method, and since lettuce grows really well in the shade, you can grow it on a small balcony or patio, or even indoors.

cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, currant tomatoes, yellow cherry tomatoes, orange cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom cherry tomatoes

Cherry Tomatoes

Tomatoes are considered the gateway to gardening, as just about every gardener out there started with a tomato plant, even if it was just a teensy potted one on a balcony. Cherry (or grape, or currant) varieties ripen much earlier than full-size ones, so you have earlier gratification for your gardening efforts.

If you have the space, get yourself a few different plants to see which ones you like best. Maybe an orange or black cherry, grape, or currant, etc. Each one has a unique flavour, and since they’re so easy to grow, you can expand your palate while revelling in the joy of being a new gardener. (And honestly, who doesn’t love tomatoes?)

potted herbs, culinary herbs, basil, thyme, parsley, cilantro, savory, cooking herbs, pot herbs, potted herbs, kitchen herbs

Herbs

Culinary herbs are wonderful for small spaces, as you can grow them on a sunny windowsill or patio and just trim off bits here and there when you’d like to cook with them. Hardy aromatics like thyme, sage, and savory thrive on neglect, and will survive if you forget to water them as regularly as you should. Leafy herbs like parsley and basil are a bit more high maintenance, and both chives and oregano are stubborn survivors, and perennials to boot: they’ll come back year after year.

If you’re more interested in medicinal plants, calendula is really hardy, as is chamomile. Lavender thrives in sunny spots, yarrow can do quite well with neglect, and if you really are terrified of killing your plants, get a pot of mint. That stuff is damn near indestructible.

You can do this! If you need any help or advice about which plants would do best for your space and your skill level, don’t hesitate to contact us for help: just leave a note in the comments section below, or drop us an email at farmtheworldorg AT gmail.com

Photos by Dan Gold, Dwight Sipler, and Patty Mitchell via Unsplash and Foter creative commons.

tomatoes, growing tomatoes, tomato plants

Gateway to Gardening: Which Plant Got You Started?

By Catherine Winter

We all had one. You know what I’m talking about.

That first little plant that sparked a love of things that grow, and set you on your path to being a gardener, farmer, and/or homesteader. It could have happened when you were a child, or when you moved into your first apartment with a partner, or perhaps even after you retired. Maybe you adopted an unloved seedling from a garden centre and nursed it to verdant health, or someone gave you a plant as a housewarming present and they sparked a green fever that just keeps getting stronger.

Cherry-tomato-plant

For a lot of people, the one that got their green thumbs twitching was a tomato plant. There aren’t too many folks out there who don’t love tomatoes, and they’re as easy to cultivate in a container garden as in a standard grow bed. Cherry tomatoes are ideal as starter plants because they combine the ease of growing with the early gratification of jewel-sized tomatoes that you can pop in your mouth at least a month before larger varieties even begin to ripen.

In my case, it was a bean.

Miss Emmanuel’s first grade class, 1982. We had all been given a couple of beans to poke into our paper Dixie cups full of soil, and we lined those little cups along the sunny window ledge and made sure to water them any time the soil seemed a bit dry. Within no time at all, there was a little green seedling popping up through the earth, and I watched as every day, it unfurled a bit more until it was a merry little plant in its own right.

Bean-sprouting

Naturally, I hounded my parents to let me have a garden space so I could plant more (MOAR!!!), but the apartment landlords said no. I had to make do with a few containers of plants on our patio, but I’d caught the bug. We lived in that place until I was seven years old, and as soon as we moved into a house of our own, I was allowed to cultivate a little patch of earth in one corner of the backyard. Now I have a massive berry patch, hugelkultur piles, a dozen grow beds, bean and pea tipis, and a couple of hazelnut bushes. It just goes to show that a love like this can sprout (hurr, hurr) from very humble beginnings.

Which plant got you started as a gardener?

Zone 9b – Time to Start Seeds!

By Angelina Williamson

Right now is the perfect time to start seeds indoors in zone 9b. It’s generally recommended that you give most plants about 8 weeks to get big enough to plant outside. If you’re a stickler for planting your vegetables after the last predicted frost date then you still have a couple of weeks to get your seeds started as our last frost date is usually May 1st. I, however, nearly always plant my vegetables in mid-April which is two weeks early. It’s a gamble, but one that has nearly always paid off for me.

Vegetable seeds that must be started indoors in zone 9b:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Eggplants

You can also start summer squash, winter squash, and cucumber seeds indoors but they grow so fast and do really well direct-seeded later in the season that I don’t bother with them. I’ve seen beans and peas in starts too but, again, they tend to do much better being direct sewn that I never start them or buy them in pots. There are some plants I don’t grow here, such as melons, so I can’t say with experience whether they do better started indoors or not.
Other plants you can start now are flowers and herbs for your summer garden.

seedlings-in-paper-cups

Seed-Starting Secrets

I have mixed luck starting seeds indoors but there are three things I’ve found essential to my seed-starting success:

Use sterile seed-starting mix. This ensures that you’re starting off without any viruses or bacterias that can cause your seedlings instant death. I have learned this from sad experience. Don’t plant your indoor seedlings in straight compost either. Unless you’re sure its nitrogen content isn’t too strong, use the sterile seed-starting mix. Seeds have all the nutrients a plant needs to get started, too much nitrogen will burn them and cause them to wilt and die. I’ve made this mistake, it was such a sad time for me seeing all those tiny dead plants.

Find a good light source. You can buy indoor seed-starting lights and as soon as I can afford this I will do it. If you have a very bright south facing window you probably won’t need artificial lights. In my current situation I don’t have great window light for my seedlings. I will probably bring them outside during the day and in at night to get them the extra light they need. If your seedlings grow tall and thin with few leaves it means they aren’t getting adequate light.

There are many containers you can start seeds in but I have only had luck with the ones that have a water-wicking mat that draws water up from a bottom tray into the base of the plant cells. This type of seed-starting tray prevents you from overwatering or under-watering the seeds, both things that can kill off your seedlings. All you have to do is make sure the bottom tray stays full of water.

seed-starting

Starting your own seeds certainly is more work than buying starts in a nursery. I want to say right now that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting your plant starts from a nursery, but there are real benefits with going through the trouble to start your own. The greatest benefit, in my opinion, is that you have a vastly increased number of plant varieties to choose from when you grow from seed. There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes you can grow from seed while most nurseries will carry no more than ten or fifteen. Another benefit is control over what kind of seeds you use. You can choose to use only organic and/or non-GMO seeds if that’s important to you. The last real benefit is that seeds are less expensive than plant starts, even after you factor in sterile soil and specialty pots if you use them.

Here are the seed varieties I put in my seed-starting tray yesterday:

Tomatoes:

Aunt Ruby’s German GreenCaspian PinkRoman CandleOpalka, and Gold Medal.

Eggplants:

Thai Chao PrayaThai Lavender Frog Egg, and Tadifi.

Peppers:

Fish Pepper and Aji Cristal.

I’d love to know what other people are starting from seed this year! What will you be growing? Let us know in the comments section below!

death bee, bee, Detroit, bees, pollinators, declining bee populations, resin bee, giant resin bee

Death Bee

By C.E. Young

I’d never seen a bee as big as Death Bee, a bee so large I noticed him by his shadow first, a disc out of the corner of my eye that had to be either a fairy or—hope against hope—an honest-to-goodness hummingbird. I live in Detroit. I’ve seen a hummingbird once in my 50 years here. A half-century missing the simple magic of that. Except fairies and hummers didn’t buzz, and when I say “buzz” I mean vibrate, and when I say “vibrate” I mean Rodan. In the span of 5 seconds I went from guy sitting in his backyard trying to read a book over the noise of the neighborhood, to facing head-on the truth that here there be monsters. Death Bee.

Fat but agile as a guided missile. Black and yellow war bands. Wings that likely cut flesh. Six hairy trunks that served as legs. ‘Roids or insane workout sessions, who knows? I only knew I’d never seen a bee that large. He might have been one of the mutated Africanized killer bees whose coming was part of city-lore since the 70s. (It was hard enough as a Black kid to find positive reflections in the United States, now I had to worry about African bees adding to the false threat narrative too?) Would an Africanized killer bee respect diasporic brotherhood? No, it would impale me on the 8 inch switchblade it hid in its ass. I’m a big man. 6’2”. Couple hundred pounds.

Which is to say that I ran.

big-bee

Death Bee didn’t follow. It staked out a position near the section of my privacy fence closest to the back porch (1: my reading spot; 2: of damn course) and patrolled. If I came near that spot it advanced. I backed away, he resumed normal military stance. There were no flowers there. Nothing of obvious value to Death Bee or any other bee. I had to assume this was a show of force as a prelude to invasion.

My backyard was the only peace I had in this hellish neighborhood, and that only when most of the neighbors remained indoors. I was not giving that up. I recall thinking—as I dashed up the porch steps, threw myself at the door, and hoped to all gods that anyone bumbling into my yard didn’t suffer too much—This far, no further. Research elevated Man from bee. I didn’t want to do a whole scorched-Earth campaign of the backyard. There were tomato plants and zucchini growing back there, for gods’ sakes.

I looked out the window and I saw Death Bee patrolling and I knew that, as frightened as I was, I would not kill. It’d be too much like watching Godzilla die, and nobody…nobody needed to see that.

Non-lethal measures it was, then. I consulted the greatest source of life I knew: Catherine Winter, writer, artist, grower, high priestess of Whee. I truly didn’t want to kill anything in the yard (collateral damage to centipedes and mosquitos: acceptable); regular bees and crickets and spiders—they all had their places. A Death Bee, though, was an affront to gods and civilization. Especially one with so much attitude (I swear I saw it watching the back door, waiting for me to come out, Rambo face paint across its fuzzy face, red bandana ready to slowly tie across its forehead). I knew there were a billion chemicals I could use, but I also knew that when I used those chemicals (and yes, I have) and the wind blew any of their spray back toward me I ran like mad from caustic cancer fleshburn hell.

“I only want to scare it,” I said. “What makes bees go away?”

“Neem oil,” she said. I found out where I could get it. I bought it. I bought a sprayer. A good one. The ‘Nuke It From Orbit’ variety. But I waited. I didn’t spray immediately. A day had passed between spotting Death Bee and getting the Neem. Side note: Death Bee and the Neem is a helluva band name. Maybe Death Bee was gone, rejoined its fellow mutant bees or been captured by aliens for anal probing. He was big enough for that.

I opened the back door. It was early. It was quiet. Won’t say “too quiet” because, y’know, effing city life, but the air was still on that summer day. It was as if the Earth wanted me to listen.

Then I heard it.

The buzzing.

bee, death bee, big bee, huge bee, resin bee, giant resin bee

Death Bee didn’t merely buzz. Death Bee was a running chainsaw perched on the edge of the bathroom sink and about to fall onto a baby, and you knew you had to catch it in your bare hands no matter what. That’s the flavor of dread that sudden abundance of zzzzzs elicited. The inevitability of doom. The reminder of mortality.

I ran outside to take its measure, curiously emboldened by my fear. Death Bee hovered into view, darted at me (by then I was already halfway across the lawn. Yes, I waved my arms and hands spastically aloft. Why do you ask?), then resumed stealth mode by the fence. What about that section of fence made it so appealing? It was an old, rickety wooden fence. Death Bee was no borer bee, no. Death Bee was munitions. He’d be the first one pushing the plunger down to blow the fence so neither of us could have it. So I began to wonder was there something on the other side he was protecting? Some huge Kalahari Death Bee mound in my neighbor’s yard behind the vines and weeds he never got around to attending abutting the fence?

I tuck-n-rolled back into the house and considered things. The neighbor had dogs, so I didn’t want to spray over the fence. I would be precise with my nuclear-option sprayer. I would wait until very early the next day, attach the sprayer to the hose, and begin.

The neighborhood would learn to love the smell of Neem in the morning.

Neem actually smells quite good. An oily, minty, brown mouthwashy goodness. If I were Death Bee I’d stand in the stream of the spray with my mouth open and thank me for the service. But I trusted Cate’s wealth of knowledge. If there’s one person I’d follow into purgatory to plant a small patch of seeds, it’s Catherine Winter. So I sprayed. I sprayed the entire length of the fence. I sprayed the porch. No sign of Death Bee, so I sprayed again. I went inside, let it dry, and came back out. There was no Death Bee.

Until there was.

He rotored quickly into view and he was pissed. In my mind I countered with I pay the ridiculous mortgage on this house! anger for anger. The Neem was supposed to have worked! I didn’t have a baseball bat or a sword but I did have a flyswatter. If Death Bee wanted a piece of me he was going to have to come get some.

But then I remembered that my brother was deathly allergic to bee stings; that I’d never been stung; that I did not want to learn by field study if I was deathly allergic, and that I’d once had a bee fly up my shirt sleeve and terrorize me for either 5 hours or 8 seconds—who can tell?—by pretending it wanted nothing more than to get out. My mother told me to be still and it would fly out, but, as Lou Reed sang in Last Great American Whale, you can’t always trust your mother. I whipped my arm around and flung it out like a sling. I also ran like hell when it came out. Past is future.

Memory exists to keep us from killing ourselves repeatedly.

I ran again.

Godzilla, Godzilla nope, Godzilla Oatmeal, Godzilla nope meme, Oatmeal Godzilla

Day 3.

More research was needed. I knew that bees were endangered but I didn’t think they were endangered in my city. I knew bees weren’t wasps (assholes) or yellow jackets (assholes). I knew the old saw that if you left bees alone they’d leave you alone. But Death Bee behaved as if he were the Amun-Ra of bees: he had no fear, brooked no trespass. And he apparently snorted Neem like cocaine because he’d gotten increasingly Tony Montana-ish.

What I did not know, however, was that bees weren’t a no-have option. Bees were dying. Everywhere. It seemed unimportant…until you researched it. You realized not only were they important, they were crucial to every benefit we receive from agriculture. Bees were frikkin’ life. A butterfly’s wings might cause a tsunami but a bee’s butt gave us string beans and yams. One way or another, they gave us string beans and yams.

Was there a way to live with Death Bee? Of course not, he was maniacal. But I will admit to respecting him a wee bit more. Also, I neemed the hell out of that space for the rest of the week. An absolutely unbelievably minty fresh yard. Some days Death Bee was there, some days not.

death bee, resin bee, giant bee, giant resin bee

Until one day he wasn’t. And the next. And one more. Understand, I’d never seen a single other huge bee besides Death Bee this entire time. Or let’s say I never saw more than one Death Bee at a time, one huge bee that would register on a scale and grin an evil grin about it. I never found out what kind of bee it was. Never knew where it came from, why it picked my yard, where it went. I knew, however, that I’d never buy a commercial insecticide again. Regular bees flitted among the flowers of my zucchini plants. I was cool with them. I had no desire to harm anything outside, really (except centipedes and mosquitos. Maybe flies). I could live on this planet; they could live on this planet. I could read; they could pollinate. And if ever there was contention, it could be handled without loss of life. That’s a small epiphany but it’s huge.

So was Death Bee some guide sent to teach me a lesson? The lesson being neem oil is addictive to humans. Could be. Maybe I’d forgotten to appreciate the bio part of life as I’d sat there that summer day with the guts of a dead tree dipped in magic in my hand (if you want to know what I was reading, it’s called There Is No Lovely End by Patty Templeton; writer love 4 ever yo). That’s very likely. We all know bees are dying everywhere. We know lots of things are. And we know pretty much we’re the ones killing them. Conglomo-murder. We’ll kill anything if it lands on our plastic fork at a picnic.

But a lot of us aren’t interested in killing. We just want to read good books in the summer air and chill.

While keeping watchful eyes out for any Death Bees we might find.

seed-sharing, seeds, seed bank, community seed bank, sharing seeds

New Year, New Opportunity to Create a Community Seed Bank

By Catherine Winter

The holidays are coming to an end soon, and those of us in the northern hemisphere now have a solid chunk of winter to slog through. This is the most frustrating time of year for most gardeners, as unless one lives in one of the warmer patches of North America or Europe (I’m looking at you, Texans and Spaniards), winter consists of snow, sleet, biting winds, and grey skies.

One saving grace about the winter months is that being forced to cocoon indoors allows us the opportunity to make plans for the coming growing season. It’s also a perfect opportunity to reconnect with friends… and if you put those two together, the conditions are ideal for creating a truly spectacular community seed bank.

A benefit to creating a seed bank in your own neighbourhood is that it’s more than likely that conditions will be quite constant in  your area: those who live near you will be contending with the same growing zone, rainfall, and similar soil conditions, as opposed to trading seeds with friends who live across the continent. This makes comparing growing notes much easier, and gives everyone a solid idea about what will or will not thrive in your area.

organic-seeds

How to Build Your Seed Bank

If you haven’t done so yet, request seed catalogues from a few organic/heirloom seed companies. Few things can brighten up a dismal winter day like flipping through a colourful booklet full of photos of all the vegetables and herbs that you can grow in a few short months. It’s important to use only organic seeds, as the plants that grow from them will be much more nourishing than those that are conventionally grown (i.e. genetically modified and pumped full of insecticides.) Your plants will be healthier, you’ll be healthier, and you’ll be able to save viable seeds from them for next year’s garden… and to share with your friends.

A few great companies to order from are the following:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Heritage Harvest Seeds

High Mowing Seeds

Salt Spring Seeds

Sustainable Seed Company

Then, you just need to gather some friends together for coffee or dinner, and discuss options.

One of the goals of community seed bank creation is that people can split the cost of organic packets and share the seeds around, instead of each individual making a huge investment. A typical seed packet contains between 30 and 300 seeds, depending on the plant to be cultivated, so a small group of people can grow a huge variety of different foods at very low cost. Let’s take a look at this breakdown as an example:

  • Friend 1: Three types of lettuce, and cucumbers ($10)
  • Friend 2: Kale, cabbage, carrots, and beets ($10)
  • Friend 3: Three varieties of tomatoes, and basil ($10)
  • Friend 4: Squash, pole beans, bush beans, thyme ($10)
  • Friend 5: Carrots, beets, oregano, leeks ($10)
  • Friend 6: Chard, onions, spinach, dill ($10)
  • Friend 7: Mesclun greens, assorted sweet peppers, peas, radishes ($10)
  • Friend 8: Melon, broccoli rabe, jalapeños, celeriac ($10)

That’s just a $10 investment per person, and if all the orders go in together, there will be just one small shipping fee. In turn, every person gets 32 edible plant varieties to cultivate. Isn’t that a much better investment than for each friend to pay $80 for the same number of plants, especially if they’d only use a fraction of the seeds in each packet that season?

Even if your group decides that they really only like the types of vegetables that can easily be turned into salads, there are dozens of tomato, lettuce, cucumber, and leafy green species to explore. If your group consists of tomato lovers, each of you could have over 20 different varieties growing in your yard for just a few dollars!

Sharing resources like this just makes sense on so many levels.

Related Post: Greens to Grow Indoors This Winter

friends-talking

Gathering the Community

This is also a great chance to branch out from your immediate friend/family circle and engage others in your community. The average person doesn’t know too many people in their neighbourhood aside from their immediate next-door neighbours, so putting up a notice on public boards (like in local shops or religious institutions) or even popping printed flyers into mailboxes is a good way to connect. You can create a Facebook group page, arrange meetings at your community centre, and cultivate great new relationships alongside flourishing gardens.

Multicultural neighbourhoods are also ideal for branching outside of regular comfort zones in terms of the vegetables and herbs that you might not be familiar with. When I was still living in Toronto, the neighbours around me were Chinese, Tibetan, Jamaican, Nigerian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, and Bolivian. By chatting with them and sharing items from one another’s gardens, I had the opportunity to try callaloo (amaranth leaves), bitter melon, tatsoi, and a huge variety of herbs that I had never tried before.

Community seed banks really are ideal ways to cultivate biodiversity, and help groups of people get a head start on food security for a very small investment. You might also find that you develop some wonderful friendships along the way too.

Photos via World Bank Photo Collection and Wikimedia commons.