In the Garden
Get down and dirty in the garden


3 Reasons Most Gardens Fail (and How to Avoid It!)

Now that you’ve decided to set out on this adventure called gardening, let me give you a few words of advice. First, remember that plants grow all by themselves in nature. They really don’t need you. You need them. The reason I bring this up is because whenever I ask someone if they’d like to start a garden, their first response is usually the same. “Oh, I’d love to have a garden, but I have a brown thumb.”

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Like I said, plants really don’t need you to grow. Proof-positive: This tomato plant popped up in my garden without my help! So relax. Green thumb not required for this endeavor. The second response usually runs along the line of “I have no time.” Well, I’m here to tell you that gardens don’t require a lot of YOUR time. They simply require water and sunlight. Remember, plants can grow all by themselves. Do you see a pattern, here?

Your biggest decision when it comes to maintaining a garden is location. Should you grow your plants outside in the soil, in containers on the patio, or in hydroponic towers? Would you prefer a sprawling garden across your lawn, or perhaps one more vertical in nature? Answer these questions, and then you can begin to address the pitfalls.

Live Your Garden

What do I mean by “live your garden?” Simple. Incorporate the pleasure of gardening into your everyday lifestyle. Consider me. I’m a morning person. I love my coffee and I love the sounds of birds chirping away as sunlight breaks over the horizon. To me, there’s nothing more relaxing then a stroll through my garden, coffee in hand, as I gaze over the beautiful beds of green. While I’m there, I might pinch a tomato sucker, pull a spotted leaf from a potato plant, or pluck a pesky little caterpillar from a stem, should I spot one.

Nothing arduous, nothing time-consuming. Simply a pleasant stroll through my garden where tasks are easily managed. No sweat, no stress. No putting off the grueling garden chores that have piled up and await me. Instead, I “live my garden” by visiting every day. Even the occasional weed is no trouble when it’s only one, here and there. You see, a garden is no-fuss when it becomes an enjoyable part of your schedule. Not a bad place for meditation, either!

Grow What You’ll Eat

When your garden hits full splendor, you’ll adore every minute spent among the fruits and leaves while you’re living your garden—unless they’re rotting on the vine. Yuck. Not the place you want to be. There’s no bigger turn-off than the sight of gaping holes in your fruit beset with worms or buzzing flies. Granted, harvest is usually the time everyone wants to be in the garden. But if no one wants to harvest what’s in season?

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Fruit will rot. Broccoli will bolt. Weeds will accumulate. You get the picture and it’s not pretty. It’s a quick way to ruin the thrill of gardening, if you ask me, so be prudent during the seed selection process. Choose to grow only what you or your family will eat. Sure, it’s a lot of fun to grow zucchini. It’s super easy! But can you eat it all? Do you have the space to freeze it? If not, you’ll quickly find your friends and neighbors rolling up their car windows and closing their curtains when they see you approach. “No more zucchini, please. We can’t eat another bite!”

Get Down and Dirty

“It’s all about the soil.” You’ve probably heard this before, perhaps even been advised to have your soil tested for pH and the like. I don’t know about you, but chemistry isn’t my strong suit. Test my soil? Amend it for the proper balance of pH and nutrients? Sounds a bit too complicated. I just wanted to garden, not become a scientific expert on dirt.

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Good news! You don’t have to be an expert on soil. You simply need to know that healthy soil means healthy plants. What defines healthy soil? Organic matter, or what I call, compost. Yep. Basically, it’s plant and animal matter in varying stages of decomposition and let me tell you, my compost pile is amazing when it comes to growing plants. Why, all I do is toss in a few vegetable scraps, seeds attached, and poof. Germination. Abundant green growth. And I don’t even have to water! Great soil retains water and feeds the plants. Win-win. Don’t have a compost pile? No worries. Until you do, you can purchase any combination of organic compost, mushroom compost, composted cow and worm manure, peat moss and your plants will thank you.

 Now that it’s spring, go ahead and start that garden you’ve always wanted. This time, you will succeed.

A Quick Guide to Spring Gardening

The sun is out and the snow has melted. You’re ready to kick your garden back into shape after the long winter months. Truth be told, it needs a bit of TLC before you can begin to plant. Dust off your gardening gloves, and get to work. Here are some quick tips for whipping your spring garden into shape.

flowers in spring yard at dusk
Photo by Valentina Locatelli on Unsplash

1. Survey the Yard

Take a good inventory of your yard’s current condition. How are things looking? Are things missing? Order any tools or equipment you might need, and make note of tree limbs that should be removed. Cut down any unsightly or dying foliage, and compost it. Mend any broken fences, pathways, or outbuildings.

2. Remove Any Debris

Now is the time to clean out your garden, especially your raised beds and other areas that tend to collect debris. Remove any piles of leftover snow, as well as any dead leaves. Weed to the best of your ability, and be sure to pick up any old sticks or branches that blew into your yard over the winter months.

3. Perform Any Necessary Maintenance on Your Tools

Even though gardening can be just a hobby, it can still lead to injury or illness if you're not careful. By keeping your tools in top shape and wearing appropriate attire you’ll be staying safe in your garden and preparing for a great season. Make sure your garden tools are sharpened, and you have checked the spark plugs, air filter, and oil on your lawn mower. Although you can start this task earlier in the winter if you have some spare time, make sure you tune up any of your equipment before the weather clears. 

4. Feed the Soil

Now is the time to add any nutrients to your soil. Compost or fresh manure are great additions, as long as you provide plenty of time for them to cook down into the soil (this is especially the case if you are adding manure that hasn’t had time to break down yet). You can add other fertilizers to see what nutrients are lacking.

If you’re unsure of your soil’s fertility and composition, don't be afraid to take a quick sample and run it through a home soil-test kit, or drop it off at the local cooperative extension. You might also consider aerating the soil if it especially compacted, although this task is best performed in the fall.

If you haven't already, now is also an excellent time to start a compost pile. Buy a bin or start one right on the ground, but keep it far enough away from your house that you won’t notice it if it starts to smell. Add plant debris as you remove it from the garden, as well as any dead leaves. You can add kitchen scraps as well. This will provide rich, nutritious homemade fertilizer within just a few short months.

5. Trim Perennials

Any plants that made it through the rough winter months should be fertilized and pruned. Wait until the threat of another frost has passed, and then prune right after flowering plants have bloomed. Prune summer-blooming plants in the early spring, as soon as you are able.

6. Plant New Flowers

Once you have cleared your beds and garden of any remaining debris or weeds, start planting your new additions. While planting perennials is a good way to cut down on our workload in future years, consider adding a few annuals to add some pops of color now.

7. Mulch

Re-mulch any flower beds or garden areas that need to be mulched. Mulch helps cut down on weeds and to conserve moisture. It also helps to moderate the temperature of the soil, meaning that you can warm the soil prematurely so you can get your seeds into the ground more quickly. If you aren’t concerned about appearances, consider laying down a sheet of black plastic to help accelerate the thaw.

8. Transplant Seeds

If you started seeds inside, now is the time to begin hardening them off and preparing them for their upcoming transplant into the garden. If you didn’t start seeds inside, now might be the time to consider doing so (especially if you live in an area with a late spring, and you still have feet of snow on the ground). When you are ready to start transplanting, make sure you harden them off first. Put them outside during the day, and bring them back in at night. This will help acclimate them to the slightly cooler outside air and help to prevent transplant shock and death.

9. Prepare for Mowing

You don’t need to start mowing your lawn as soon as the snow has melted. However, in addition to making sure all of your equipment is in good working order, you should also clear the lawn of debris and fill the mower with both oil and gas.

10. Don’t Forget to Stay on Top of Your Regular Tasks

Although it can be easy to become caught up in the flurry of new springtime gardening tasks, don’t forget that any existing plants you have still need to be cared for. Deadhead any plants that have already begun to flower (or those that still have remnants left over from last fall) and be sure you are providing your plants with ample water. Prune flowering shrubs and make sure you are monitoring your lawn for growth so that you are ready to mow it once it has reached a few inches in height.

And remember—summer will be here before we know it!

Prevent Blossom-End Rot in Less Than 2 Minutes

Have you ever planted tomatoes in your garden, lovingly cared for the little darlings and followed their growing instructions to the “T” only to have your hopes for a beautiful ruby-red harvest dashed by the unsightly appearance of rotten spots on your fruit? Large, ugly spots, that left unchecked, could entirely engulf your tomato.

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It happens. And trust me, it’s a sad day when you visit your garden and discover there are holes permeating your tomatoes. It’s called blossom-end rot and afflicts many a garden. Unfortunately, this affliction is not limited to those gorgeous tomatoes you’ve been fawning over, but cucumbers, squash, peppers, even melons are susceptible. Ugh. Not good news. But what can you do? You did everything in your power to prevent it, right?

Maybe not everything. After years of distressing over this problem, I discovered that it’s preventable and the solution is easy. Blossom-end rot is not a fungus, as it appeared to me, but a nutrient deficiency; specifically, calcium. Granted, wet conditions can exacerbate the problem, as can the levels of nitrogen, salt, and pH in the soil, but they are not the cause. The plant’s inability to absorb calcium is the real culprit.

What’s the secret to eliminating those disfiguring spots?

Epsom salts and eggshells. It’s a combination that I’ve used for several years now and can personally attest to its efficacy. Now, I realize that many gardening sources will suggest that the solution is solely about calcium, but from my experience, simply adding the calcium alone to my plants did not solve the problem. However, when I combined a teaspoon of Epsom salts with 1-2 crushed eggshells, sprinkled the mix around the base of my baby tomato plant as I gently transplanted it into my outdoor garden, I haven’t had an issue since. Not once. Ever.

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Experience speaks volumes. I’m not saying to ignore the other factors that lead to a tomato plant’s good health. Quite the contrary. Consistent moisture is key when it comes to a thriving tomato plant, as is the proper balance of pH and nutrients, and an ideal growing climate. Tomatoes like it warm. They prefer a heavier regimen of water during their early growth stage and appreciate a draw back during harvest time. Nitrogen is important, but too much will yield lots of beautiful green leaves, without so much beautiful fruit.

Nutrients for Success

As for macronutrients (the N-P-K listed on your fertilizer labels), phosphorous is the nutrient you’ll want to keep on tap for your tomatoes. In fact, it’s important for all fruit bearing plants, and of course, calcium. If you don’t want to use eggshells for your calcium, bone meal is a wonderful option because it combines calcium and phosphorous in one feeding. I do love a multi-tasker!

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For me, the Epsom salts and eggshells solved my blossom-end rot problem. Completely. Lesson learned. Mission accomplished. Better yet, interplant basil with your tomatoes and you’ll discover an even more delicious tomato! It’s called companion planting and works wonders in your garden. Other good companions for tomatoes include: bush beans, cabbage, carrots, onions, and parsley. Happy gardening!

Black Sage: A Sage of Consequence

Black sage is an herb of consequence that grows in country of consequential beauty – the California coast.  It grows freely on the most conspicuous of sites.  Along Route 46 not far from Hearst Castle, where the green hillsides lead to the blue ocean and the imposing outline of Morro Rock, it flowers in a thousand tourist photo foregrounds.  For the native Chumash of this territory and current lovers of the earth, black sage is a health ally.

black sage near hearst castle
Photo by Bill Rozday

Black sage (Salvia mellifera) is native to the California coastal zone from San Jose to the Mexican border.  After flowering season, its stems become tough and black; hence, black sage.  Look for it anywhere from sea level to over 3,000 feet.  It is one of 17 sage species that colonize the state and is distributed widely enough that ecologists use it as an air quality indicator.

The Chumash Indian territory encompasses black sage range, and this people employed it as an herbal soak to ease foot pain after long hikes.  Modern research affirms anti-inflammatory compounds such as ursolic acid and diterpenoids in its foliage.

Today, black sage has entered our culture as a significant food.  It grows in the form of dense bushes, which produce a profusion of blossoms that help sustain a large honeybee population.  The honey they produce is considered the finest in the world, with a clear color and mild flavor.

This mild flavor, together with the trait of a long shelf life due to non-crystallizing properties, carries occasional honey samplers into the category of regular users.  Its clarity and pure sweetness make it a sugar alternative of choice.  Its non-crystallizing quality is a fortunate one, since black sage tends to produce honey only once every three years and the bees have it as a food source in the long spells between heavy blooms.

Black sage blooms in April, but the fragrance of the leaves identifies it in other seasons.  The oil responsible for its aroma allows it to endure the dry California climate.  It also makes the leaves suitable for gourmet chicken dishes, says native plant expert Penny Nyunt of Las Pilitas Nursery in Santa Margarita.

black sage on big sur coast
Photo by Bill Rozday

This sage colonizes a second high-profile habitat at McWay Falls, a noted attraction featuring a waterfall dropping onto a Pacific beach.  It grows along the popular footpath that hosts untold thousands of photos of the falls and adjacent sandy cove.  McWay Falls is situated south of Monterey, along the Big Sur coast.

For a learning experience with black sage, visit Las Pilitas Nursery. The nursery and informal nature center offers the plant for sale.  It also grows wild on the adjoining property, which features acorn woodpeckers in a virgin live oak grove, western bluebirds, and occasional visits from a black bear seeking fruit from an ornamental apple tree.

Look for Bill Rozday’s High Ground Books at Virgin Pines Press.

Starting a Community Garden? 3 Things You Need to Know

If you’ve long wondered about the impact a community garden could have in your town or city, now is the time to find out. According to the National Gardening Association, the number of Americans growing their own food increased by 17% between 2008 and 2014, and community gardens saw a 200% increase in participation during the same period. Americans are taking up gardening at a growing rate, and much of that added participation comes in the form of younger gardeners passionate about knowing where their food comes from.

The presence of community gardens has also proven to directly increase participants’ fruit and vegetable consumption, especially in rural areas. Before you get started, make sure you know the answers to these three questions to set your project up for success.

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Photo by Pixabay/jill111

1. How Interested Is Your Community?

Depending on where you live, you might already be involved with a dedicated, city-wide community gardening organization, or you could be pioneering the first community garden your area has ever seen. As you reach out to your community to gauge interest and commitment levels, be open and welcoming to different perspectives. You’ll need an enormous amount of help between thinking about a community garden and harvesting your first heirloom tomato, so be prepared to lead in a welcoming, inclusive way.

If your area already has an established community garden organization, your process will be much easier. Residents will be more familiar with the concept of communal gardening, and you might have access to an established process as well as assistance starting, funding, and publicizing your garden if you start your garden as a chapter within a larger organization. However, if you’re completely on your own, take advantage of numerous online resources like the American Community Gardening Association to help you along the way. 

2. Where Will Your Garden Be Located?

This is a simple question, but depending on how much help you have, answering it could be very time-consuming. If you’re working within a larger organization, you may receive financial assistance as well as help choosing and negotiating use of a lot. Working on your own, you’ll need to leverage connections in the community and reach out to property owners and businesses to help you select, pay for, and insure a plot of land for future use. Buying or leasing are both viable options, depending on your garden’s financial assets. Here are a few important factors to keep in mind as you evaluate the viability of a space:

• Drainage
• Light access
• Future building and development that could affect the location
• Zoning laws
• Water access
• Lot size

Urban gardens are more subject to space constraints than rural ones, but don’t be discouraged if your finances only allow you to set up on a small plot. Using space efficiently is far more productive than having several acres and wasting their potential. 

3. How Else Will You Serve Your Community?

Hopefully, you’re fortunate enough to generate a wealth of community interest in your garden right away. Regardless, not everyone will have the time, disposable income, and prior gardening experience to be able to take care of their own plot right away. Your garden should be a gathering place for all members of the community, even those who aren’t sure how much they want to be involved. One easy way to do that early on is to set up a community composting area.

If your garden has space, reserve an area for community members to bring food scraps. Be sure you clearly outline what types of food remains are appropriate for composting so that participants unfamiliar with the process understand what they should and shouldn’t bring. Composting takes time and patience, as well as an initial investment in bins to store compost at different stages. But as seasoned gardeners know, it’s worth the investment. You’ll be able to introduce new community members to your garden, reduce landfill waste in your town, and eventually generate nutrient-rich soil for your garden at a low cost.

As you dive into your community garden planning process, you’ll encounter many other questions and factors to consider. Use these three to foster practical, actionable planning, but leave time for more research and more abstract questions, such as what your garden’s mission statement might be, or what guidelines you’ll put in place. Starting a community garden is hard work, but it will reward you and your community with a bounty of positive results.

If you’ve started a community garden, participate in one, or are thinking about starting your own, what has worked well for you? What would you avoid doing in the future? Add your insights, hacks, questions, and stories below to help others as they work to make the world a greener place. 

Wildcrafting: Where To Go

In my last blog entry, I introduced the topic of wildcrafting. Let’s go a bit further and explore where to go to find dynamic herbal medicine in the wild.

There is no experience quite like harvesting your own plants in the wild for medicine and food. Buying herbs in a store or through a mail order company never comes close in quality to what you can gather yourself. Locating harvest places outside of the footprint of others is nothing less than an enjoyable treasure hunt. I call it herbal reconnaissance. The vistas to be seen, birdsong, the calls of small animals, fresh air, bees buzzing, feet on the ground, and the occasional deer and waterfall all add up to an encounter that is like none other. The all-around beauty is exquisite, and the plants are the freshest you can possibly get. Nothing can beat a plant picked at the right time from a healthy stand for strong medicine and nutritional content. I teach my students that just being out in nature is healing in itself. That we get to harvest plants is a bonus for which we are always grateful.

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Photo by Suzanne Tabert

One of the most frequent questions I hear from my students is where they can go to harvest plants in the wild. The places where I take students is off limits to them, their family, and friends. It’s the number one rule at the Cedar Mountain Herb School! Thinking it through, if the thousands of students I’ve taught over the last 30 years all came back to harvest at the same places where I’ve shared with them for study, and brought their friends, who bring their friends, where would the plants be? They would all be gone, and their ability to generously give of themselves for healing would be taken away. Respect the plants, the stands, the animals who also need the plants, and the time it took for the teacher/harvester to find the locations.

Planning is key before harvesting plants. Knowing the medicine of the plants, when to harvest for the best quality of constituents, what part of the plants, the harvesting tools needed, how long it takes to process them after picking, and best ways to preserve them are all things to make note of before any harvesting is done. After harvesting, look at the stand and ask yourself if there are clear signs of harvesting. If so, be more mindful of using a lighter touch.

wildcrafting near stream
Photo by Suzanne Tabert

Where to Go Wildcrafting

Check with your local Forest Service for topographical maps and locations where plant harvesting is allowed. Cultivate a friendly relationship with them, and they’ll often show you on the maps where to safely go, and what to expect while on the land. 

Private land. Always check with the owners before entering private spaces and harvesting. For many years, my students and I enjoyed harvesting dandelions on an organic farm because I knocked on the owners’ door one spring day and asked permission. After they got over their initial shock that someone not only wanted to “weed” for them, but bring a crew, they heartily agreed to allow us access to 40 acres of prime organic riverbed soil. Digging dandelions there was so easy and fun! We were happy to know that the plants we dug were free of herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers, and they received the benefit of free labor. The vibe was great all the way around!

state park landscape
Photo by Suzanne Tabert

State Parks. Look up the regulations for harvesting in parks in your state. Rules can vary from state to state and park to park, so it’s best to know for sure what is allowed. In my state, harvesting up to a gallon of plant materials at a time is permissible at some parks and at certain times of the year. That means one-gallon total, not a gallon of each plant. Make sure to ask whether chemicals of any kind have been sprayed in the park where you wish to harvest. If so, do not harvest there. Plants take up and hold on to chemicals which we don’t want in our bodies, correct?

Tree farms. I have a key to the gates of 76,000 acres of land that has been a timber farm for 100 years. No other herb school or organization has been granted access to the land. The pioneer plants that sprout and thrive where trees have been cut are a wealth of herbal medicine. The trees on parts of the land that have not been harvested in decades provide so much fertility as the deciduous plants and conifers drop their leaves in the fall to decompose and add to the richness of the soil. The plants at the tree farm are happy and robust. I’ve fostered a very good relationship with the owners by respecting their rules and taking care of the land like it was my own.

Something to consider is to avoid harvesting in places where there are posted signs of chemical spraying and/or biosolids, where there is evidence that people have dumped vehicle liquids such as motor oil, antifreeze coolant, and transmission fluid on the ground, or other garbage. The plants growing near will be poisoned and rendered unusable for medicine or food.  

Coming up soon, look forward to information on tools needed for harvesting, gathering tips, how much to harvest at any given time/place, and more. Until then, big love to you all, and as always, I’m Wild About Plants!

Ideas for Cultivating Year-Round Permaculture

Transitioning from spring, summer, and fall gardening to year-round permaculture can be a jump for fair weather gardeners. However, if you’re an avid green thumb, you’ve probably wondered how to start growing veggies throughout all seasons. While it may take some trial and error, especially if living in below freezing winter climates, this change simply requires a few adjustments and additional materials from your regular gardening routine.

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Photo courtesy of Pexels

Pros of Year-Round Permaculture

Cultivating your own fruits and vegetables is not only a delicious hobby, it’s also a great way to grow exactly what you need. Growing your own vegetables puts you in more control of the food you consume and waste, and is a great way to save money on groceries. By creating meal plans around the produce you’re expecting to ripen, you can prepare or purchase any additional foods you may need to develop well-rounded meals.

Being in control of the produce you grow can also be helpful in ensuring you are eating the vitamin heavy vegetables your body needs. Beets, for example, are loaded with antioxidants and have been noted to help prevent heart disease and inflammation. If you’re unsure of what vitamins and minerals are missing from your diet, nurses are experts in preventative health care and can help guide your nutrition goals on your next doctor visit.

Growing produce year-round gives you more time to grow new vegetables that may grow better in the winter than in warmer months. This can help reduce your grocery bill in the winter months and can help keep your garden active all year. It’s also a good way to stay in control of the produce in your diet throughout the winter, which can help your preventative health goals.

Winter Adjustments

There are a few adjustments needed for winter gardening, and depending on your current gardening situation, they may be minimal. Gardening beds that are slightly underground are helpful in regulating the temperature of your crops both in the winter as well as summer. If your produce boxes are in the ground, you may need a simple cold frame — a window to let the sun in and keep the cold out — and some additional mulch to keep your vegetables warm throughout the winter. Hoop houses are a similar concept, but with plastic rather than glass.

Once you’ve taken the measures to maintain the ecological balance of your plants, it’s important to consider the kinds of produce you’ll grow. Depending on the climate you live in, during the winter, chances are you’ll have to skip the fruits and stick to exploring a variety of vegetables, as fruits can be difficult to grow in climates that aren’t warm. However, there are tons of tasty veggies to grow and eat through the winter.

Some resilient winter vegetables include: winter squash (of course), onions, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and celeriac. There are several other vegetables that will grow in the winter time; these are simply a few versatile vegetables can be used to make all sorts of hearty winter meals. Growing year-round herbs can also help spice up your winter dishes.

Year-round permaculture is very different than warm weather gardening; it’s an in-depth, sustainable subculture that involves cultivating an environment for plants to thrive in. There are several benefits to giving this endeavor a try, including having control of the produce you consume during the winter, staying healthy, and giving winter vegetables a home on your dinner plate. As we ease into spring, consider ways to incorporate year-round permaculture into your gardening lifestyle.