Grow It Yourself

You are currently browsing articles tagged Grow It Yourself.

Tomato season is in full swing.

So that means the prize winners are reaching their full glory…

The beer can: a Canadian unit of measurement

…and it is time for some tips.

Is this tomato ripe?

You can tell when a tomato is ripe and ready to pick by its colour and feel.

As your hard green tomatoes begin to ripen and change colour, they will pass through a few shades before they are ready to pick and eat. If you’re not sure what they’re supposed to look like when they’re ripe, look up your tomato variety online or in a seed catalogue.

But in real life, a good way to tell is by giving them a squeeze.

Take hold of the tomato and squeeze it gently. Ripe tomatoes should be firm but have some give to them, especially on the bottom and on the shoulders.

If you’re still not sure, the best way to tell is by picking it and eating it. The flavour and texture will let you know if it is ready. If you do end up picking a tomato too early, just leave it to ripen on the counter.

Now, we all know what a ripe red tomato looks like, but what if you are growing yellow, orange, green striped, or purple tomatoes? What if it is called Black Pineapple? Ivory Egg? Black Prince?

A few ripe tomatoes

Green-striped tomatoes like Green Zebra or Green Moldovan turn a lime-green or yellowish colour when they are ripe…

with a little red on the bottom.

Black Pineapple: the reddish one in the middle is ready to go.

Sungold - when it turns orange, let it get orange-er. The one on the right is ready.


Ripening tomatoes can crack if they are exposed to wild fluctuations in moisture. Say it has been hot and dry and maybe you forgot to water for a few days and then there is a 2-day rain and KAPOW! The tomato cracks open.

Dang it.

If this happens, pick the tomato and eat it because it will not keep very long. Just cut off the cracked bit.

Shock horror!

A vegetable tragedy

This travesty is a disease known as blossom end rot.

Blossom end rot occurs when a lovely ripening tomato starts to develop a dark, watery spot on the bottom. The decay spreads quickly and eventually leaves the bottom of the tomato a sunken, scabbed over mess.

The sad truth is that once the bottom starts to turn dark, it cannot be stopped. This particular tomato is done for. Your only option is to pick it and toss it in the Yard Waste bin (maybe not a good idea to put it in your compost).

The problem usually starts with the first (lowest) set of tomatoes on the plant. Sometimes if you pick tomatoes that are showing signs of the disease, the rest of the plant will recover and the other tomatoes are not affected. Sometimes, though, the whole plant is doomed.

Why? WHY?!

Blossom end rot is a calcium deficiency in the plant that can be caused by:

  • Uneven watering. Maybe the plant wasn’t watered enough during a period of hot weather, or maybe it has been watered too much and has been sitting in cold, wet soil. Maybe there is a clog in your soaker hose next to this particular tomato. Planting a tomato too early in the chilly spring can also make it susceptible to blossom end rot. Make sure to water regularly, deeply, and uniformly.
  • Your soil may not have enough lime and therefore not enough calcium. The only way to know this is to get your soil tested (For instructions, see “Time to Bring in the Scientists”). An easy way to add calcium directly to the plant is to add a handful of bone meal to the planting hole when you plant the tomato.
  • Shallow root systems. In order for the tomato plant to take up the calcium and nutrients it needs through its roots, the plant needs to have its feet rooted in deep, well-drained soil. Planting other plants too close to the tomato can also interfere with the tomato’s root system.
  • Not enough phosphorus (P). Tomatoes need a fertilizer that is high in phosphorus - this is the middle number in that triplet you see on the fertilizer box. The middle number should be higher than the other numbers.

If you want to read more about this crappy disease and what you can do to prevent it, head over here.

An advanced move

Since we are almost in September and the long, warm days of summer are beginning to wane, you may want to take a good hard look at your tomatoes and decide whether or not these tomatoes are going to ripen on the vine before it freezes or at least turns cold.

To ripen your tomatoes faster, gradually stop watering. Depriving the plant of moisture stresses the plant and forces the tomatoes to ripen. Around here, we back off on watering in mid-August (to twice a week) and by the time we hit mid-September, we have stopped watering them completely.

Some handy tomato tools

Tomato preparation is made a lot easier with two handy tools:

A serrated knife. Your bread knife is the only knife worth using on a tomato. No squishing, spurting, or sawing.

The tomato shark. A melon baller with teeth. We don’t go for the one hit wonder kitchen utensils around here, but this serrated little number scoops out the stem (and seeds, if you don’t want those) very nicely.

And suddenly, every drop of water from the hose is worth it.

Tags: , ,

Ok, we were too busy talking to the 80 or 100 people (!) who came by to take pictures during the day, but this is how things looked before the gates opened.

Top 10 Best Plant Names.

Sorry, Saskatoon berry. I went on holiday, eh.

Wait, does that say “tarrafon”?

My lovely and charming assistant. (And proud member of Urban Land Army West Seattle!

People like cookies. Thanks, Little Rae’s Bakery.

Posters, information cards, and a draw for an Urban Land Army t-shirt and City Seed Packs. A lot went down.

Bakery equipment in a garden setting.

The Grow It Yourself garden gone wild.

Oops, forgot to weed that patch before people came over.

Or as they say in West Seattle, ‘Black Pineapple’.

We want to thank everyone who stopped by for a tour of the Urban Land Army grounds. It was loads of fun talking about gardening all day and meeting people from the neighbourhood.

The 2nd Annual West Seattle Edible Garden Tour was sponsored by Community Harvest of Southwest Seattle and the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. Good work, people.

We’ll be back soon because we have a lot to talk about, like how do you know when a tomato is ready to pick, or when to dig the potatoes, or seed another round of carrots, beets, and salad greens?

(Hint: NOW. But hang on, there’s a bit more to it…)

Tags: , ,

Photo from the excellent

Gardeners need a break too!

But we know it can be nerve-wracking leaving your garden behind - you’ve worked hard to grow your food and you don’t want to turn your back on it.

Here are a few tips to help you breathe easy while you’re away:

1. Find a waterer who is up for the job - a reliable and decent sort you know will show up and take care of things.

2. Make it easy on the waterer. Lump all your pots together in one spot. Minimize hose lugging by getting a splitter for your tap. This way you can attach more than one hose and all they have to do is turn it on. Think about how you can make watering as quick and efficient as possible - the last thing you want to do is irk the caretaker.

3. Give the waterer a tour and leave them with written instructions - it’s easy to forget the ins and outs of someone else’s place.

4. Give the garden a good drink before you leave so the plants are in good shape to begin with.

5. Mulch the garden with compost, grass clippings, or a mix of shredded leaves and grass. An inch or two added to the top of the soil helps to prevent evaporation, keep the soil cool, and hold moisture longer.

6. Tie up the tomatoes or leave string with the waterer - if you’re gone for a while, they might start to topple over.

7. Fertilize if you haven’t already - your tomatoes will need it if they’re flowering.

8. Pick anything that needs picking so it isn’t wasted. We’re bringing bags of lettuce with us and raided the basil to make pesto, which we then froze. And remember to tell the waterer to help themselves to the goods.

9. The garden isn’t going to be under your watchful eye and the waterer probably won’t be there every day so don’t get bent out of shape if a plant or two doesn’t make it. It’s the cost of going on vacation and just another good example of natural selection in the garden.

10. When you come back, treat them to something real nice or fork over a handful of cold hard cash. They’ve kept your food alive and that calls for a big thanks.

Now kick off your work boots and get out of here!


We all have our problems.

When it comes to garden pests, some of us are plagued with slugs and others stand down plagues of grasshoppers.

Perhaps raccoons level your corn, squirrels uproot your lettuce, or aphids infest your cabbage.

And cats:

From and spotted at eHow

Come on, you have a bathroom at home. It’s just rude.

The truth is that sooner or later we all come eye to eye with a critter that insists on eating our food or messing up our garden, and even though we all have to live together, they can be a real pain.

Here at Headquarters, our nemesis is the flea beetle.

Flea beetles are small critters that often attack members of the Brassica family (broccoli, kale, collards, mustards). They chew holes in plants and can completely defoliate and kill a plant if it is young and tender.

Three years ago they descended on a crop of fall-planted collard greens and then overwintered in the soil only to attack the potatoes that were planted there the following spring. And then they went for the tomatoes. They went back down into the soil, overwintered, and…repeat.

Panicked queries to garden hotlines produced heavy sighs of sympathy and recommendations to pick up and move. Once they’ve moved in, they tend to stick around. Luckily I work from home so I can go outside, sneak up on them, and squish them several times a day.

They are fast so this approach takes cunning and a bit of training.

It’s not so bad

Everyone has to eat though, and it is always a good idea to plant a little extra as insurance against nature’s hungry.


Remain calm

Accept some damage. Would it have been worth it to spray those hard-bodied-impossible-to-kill flea beetles with a pesticide and in the process kill beneficial bugs like ladybugs and bees that were lurking around and probably give my nearby lettuce a good coating, too?

Well, no. From past experience I knew that the potato plants would get eaten a little bit, I’d squish a bunch to make myself feel better, and then the flea beetles would go away and the plant would outgrow the damage.

The idea that you can wipe out pest populations completely is a bit of a pipe dream, anyway. A better approach in our opinion, and in the opinion of the people who hand out the World Food Prize no less, is Integrated Pest Management - a step-by-step approach to pest control that uses least toxic methods first. For more information and pictures on controlling pests naturally, download the Natural Pest, Weed, and Disease Control guide.

When it comes to pest control, keep in mind that the first defense against pests is a healthy, diverse garden.

Healthy soil = healthy plants. When you feed the soil (compost), you get plants that are strong, lush, healthy, and less attractive to pests (and diseases, too).

Keep things neat. Don’t leave weeds and old, dead leaves and plants lying around. Critters like slugs love to burrow in and munch on decaying plants.

Keep an eye on things. Just like eating supper with your kids, daily crop tours help you to keep track of how things are going and whether your plants are being gnawed or bothered.

Diversity is nice. Mix in perennial and annual flowers with your veggies. Some flowers - Bachelor’s Buttons, Sweet Alyssum, and Anise Hyssop - do a great job bringing in beneficial insects like bees, butterflies, and ladybugs.

Bachelor’s Buttons

Others, like French marigolds, repel annoying insects.

We’ll cover how to encourage biodiversity in the garden on another day. Today, we offer up some information about common garden pests and how you can defend the homefront.

The Slug

They figure there are about 40 different kinds of slugs currently residing in the United States. When I pulled up one of the romaine lettuces in the Grow It Yourself garden, this is the kind of slug I found lurking inside:


The outer leaves were covered in slug slime and had to be chucked into the Yard Waste bin. I didn’t put the lettuce in the compost bin because I’m not taking any chances having slug eggs hatch in there and then having slugs spread themselves hither and yon when I spread the compost. No, sir.


You can spot slugs by their creepy soft bodies and shimmering slime trail. Lovers of lettuce and other soft-tissue plants, slugs take big chomps and leave jagged holes in your plants or, if it’s a small lettuce, they might strip the whole thing down to the stem. They may be slow, but they do not mess around.

Keep an eye out for them, but remember that big ugly slugs were cute once too. This is what a baby slug looks like:


And even smaller….

Slug eggs look like clear, shiny pearls.


It gets worse. We dare you to look up slug reproduction on Wikipedia.

Yes, slugs do some good. They feed on decaying leaves and plants and help recycle organic matter into the soil. They are also food for raccoons, and chickens and ducks really like them too.

How to get rid of slugs

Slugs come out at night, so they can be a bit of a challenge to find. On the bright side, the most fun you can have in pest control is strapping on a headlamp and going slug hunting! Some people swear by the therapeutic benefits of a slug hunt.

Shine a spotlight on them (just follow the slime trail), pick them (did we mention you might want to wear gloves), and:

a) Dispose of them in a plastic bag and throw them away.

b) Toss them into a pail of soapy water to drown and then toss somewhere else.

c) Throw them into an open area or, if you’re not on good terms with your neighbours, over the fence.

Note that all of these options are gross and we’ve personally never hunted slugs at night, but we’re all for it. We just toss ours into a densely planted area - a slug wilderness - at the back of the yard.

What else can you do to get rid of slugs?

Don’t encourage them. Slugs like to lurk under stones, boards, plant debris, low-growing plants, and compost bins, so keep these kinds of things away from your garden.

Copper barriers, beer traps (use the cheap stuff), egg shells or Diatomaceous earth (rough on their bellies and fun to spell), are all recommended as ways to control slugs in your garden. Read more about these and other slug-stopping methods here.

If you’re a Seattle/King County resident you can also direct your pest questions to the outstanding Garden Hotline: 206.633.0224 (They also take emails)

What about other critters?

To learn how to deter squirrels, check out these suggestions from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Raccoons giving you trouble?

Copyright The Oregonian

Quality tips here.


Our pest control philosophy is to not grow any plant that is a repeat pest offender. Nasturtiums always seem to end up crawling with aphids. Cabbage - ditto. We have diligently hosed off aphids every day, but honestly it is a bit gross and we have bigger fish to fry.

On the other hand, aphids are loved by ladybugs everywhere and when you have an infestation, the ladybugs will come.

Next up: Container gardening!


“Even during the rationing period, during World War II, we didn’t have the anxiety that we’d starve, because we grew our own potatoes, you know?”

- James Earl Jones, voice of Darth Vader

James Earl Jones is right on.

A huge amount of security comes from knowing that potatoes are in the ground. We expanded the garden at Headquarters this year - part of it became the Grow It Yourself garden (with 3 rows and 3 kinds of potatoes) and the rest of it became…potatoes.

This is where things just get illogical. Potatoes take up quite a bit of room and are pretty cheap to buy so, to a pencil pusher, it is probably not cost-effective or efficient to devote so much land to them.

But on Canada Day, when your arm is buried to the elbow and your fingers bump into that first potato of the year and you hold it up in triumph while your mom cheers from the patio and your dad pulls out more and more even though you just dug there and found nothing, and then you cook and eat them up with butter and just-snipped chives, well…

O Canada!

The potato schedule

If you planted your potatoes when we did - in late April - they are probably just starting to flower.

You should be able to dig down and find the first little potatoes in early July. Through the summer you can rob just what you need for supper and let the others grow to full size and harvest them in the fall.

In the meantime, you need to be watering and hilling: piling up mulch (soil, straw, compost) to cover the leaves and stem of the plant as it grows.

You will need to hill 2 or 3 times through the season, and you ultimately want about a 12 inch mound. You can also think of it this way: mound it up so that 8 inches of the plant is showing at all times and the rest of it is covered.

The point of hilling is to create enough room for the potatoes to grow nice and big, and to keep them well covered - if they are exposed to sunlight they turn green and actually become toxic to eat.

Don’t freak out. The green is just chlorophyll and is not bad for you at all, but the colour indicates that a natural toxin in the potato - Solanine - has become concentrated in that part of the potato and this is what you don’t want to eat. If you ever see green on a potato, just cut it off. The rest of the potato is fine.

The same logic applies to storing potatoes - keep them in a cool, dark place rather than on a sunny, cheerful kitchen counter.

How to hill potatoes

Gently pile the soil next to the plant, right on top of the leaves.

Pile it up. Remember that you ultimately want a mound that is about 12 inches high.

If you don’t have enough soil in the bed to mound with, you can also use compost (which has the added benefit of providing nutrients to the plant) or straw. Straw is nice because it keeps the potatoes nice and clean and they are easier to find. Mulching potatoes with straw is huge in Scandinavia.

How to water potatoes

To be honest, watering potatoes makes us a bit nervous. When they are hilled, it is hard to know whether they are getting enough water, too much, or what the heck is going on down there. Not enough water causes knobby potatoes worthy of entry in your local newspaper’s Weird Vegetable contest, and it also produces a smaller crop. Overwatering, on the other hand, can cause black or hollow centers in potatoes.

It is a bit of a mystery, but we’ve always ended up with good crops, so maybe it is not rocket science, after all.

This is what the potato people recommend:

During warm summer weather, keep your potatoes well watered. We tend to give ours a good drink a couple of times a week, or 3 times if it’s really hot.

We put the garden hose in the trench between the rows and let it run on a slowish trickle. How long depends on your soil and what you think is a trickle, but try 15 or 20 minutes per row. (You will probably have to move the hose to make sure all the plants in the row get watered.)

It is especially important to water when the potatoes are flowering and just after they have stopped because this is when the plant is actually producing potatoes. After this point the plant can tolerate a little more drought, so you can probably cut back to watering once or twice a week.

As always, watering in the cool morning is best.

Tags: , , , ,

Watering is one of those things that is a bit misunderstood.

As you stroll through your neighborhood in the spring and summer, you are likely to spot well-intentioned people staring blankly ahead, pointing a spray nozzle straight at their plants and hitting them with a full, deafening blast of water. Or, the sprinkler on the front lawn is also watering the sidewalk and unsuspecting terriers and pedestrians.

Inside, these people are thinking, man, watering stinks. I hate gardening. My flip-flops are soaked.

For some good information on watering your lawn, trees, and shrubs with less time, expense, and runoff, check out this handy guide: Smart Watering.

As far as the vegetable garden goes, we are here to help take the mystery out of watering with a handy device we use here at Headquarters:

The soaker hose:

The soaker hose is a form of drip irrigation. The hose is punctured with small holes that allow water to drip through it. When the water is turned on, the hose looks like it is weeping, or perhaps sweating.

Soaker hoses wind through the garden, placed about 12 to 18 inches apart.

What’s so great about a soaker hose?

Laying a soaker hose next to the base of your plants delivers water straight to the plant roots - right where you want it.

No more moving hoses.

No more standing there spraying plants and thinking about what else you could be doing.

You save money. Soaker hoses use much less water and deliver water more efficiently than sprinklers or the “point and shoot” method. So you get a lower water bill in summer when water rates are the highest.

You have healthier plants. Watering at the root level instead of from the top cuts down on moldy leaf diseases.

Soaker hoses are a recycled product. Now you can water and be a do-gooder at the same time.

The specs

You can buy soaker hoses at hardware stores, nurseries, and the like, or if you’re really lucky you can find them cheap or free on Craigslist or at garage sales.

They come in various lengths - 25 feet, 50 feet, 75 feet, 100 feet. You can buy adapters, gaskets, timers, and other gadgets to go along with them, so if you end up with one that has a leaky section or one that is too long, you can fix it right up. (Tip: we used a 50 foot hose in the Grow It Yourself garden, which is 13 feet long and about 6 feet wide and packed full of plants.)

Soaker hoses emit enough water to soak about 6 to 9 inches of ground on either side of it, so lay your hoses 12 to 18 inches apart.

Keep the hose at least 1 to 2 inches away from the base of plants.

These hoses have an open end at one end to attach to the garden hose…

…and a cap at the other end.

You can extend the length of your hose by unscrewing the end cap and attaching another soaker hose to it. Keep in mind, though, that you shouldn’t have a hose longer than 100 feet - at this length the water pressure gets pretty weak and it won’t emit as much water as the plants need.

How to install a soaker hose

Now, the plants are getting pretty tall and bushy, so this is a little late in the game to be installing a soaker hose in the garden, but sometimes you just have to do the best you can.

Warning: You are going to get wet and a little dirty, so ready yourself.

1. Unroll the hose and spread it out nice and long.

You will be inspecting the hose for leaks and to see that it works properly. Also, getting it a bit wet makes it much easier to carry and control. When these hoses are dry they tend to be unwieldy, flying about and crashing into plants, houseguests, and your own head.

2. Attach the soaker hose to your garden hose…

…turn on the tap, and wait for the entire hose to begin seeping. You do not want it to be spraying, straining, and making a sound that makes you think, “Is it supposed to sound like that?” With decent water pressure, you shouldn’t have to turn on the tap very far at all.

3. Gather up some sticks of some sort. As you lay the hose, it is helpful to put some sticks in the ground to help guide and secure the hose and keep it away from the plants. There is a risk of plant crush here, and you need to be careful.

4. If you have a helper, go collect them now.

Friendly advice: If you do not work well together on projects requiring patience and cheerful, collaborative problem-solving, maybe pick someone else. Or, just do it yourself (recommended).

Also keep in mind that this is only a job for the most precise and even-tempered of children.

Copyright Smart Family System

5. Consider your terrain. If your garden is on a slope, plan to lay the hose in a way that minimizes uphill travel for the water - instead of it going straight up, then down, try laying it across the slope.

6. You want to be able to attach your garden hose to the soaker hose in a convenient spot - at the edge of the garden and probably in a spot closest to the tap. So figure out where you want the hose to end. Probably the easiest thing to do is attach the soaker hose to the garden hose at the beginning, lay the end point where you want it, and then lay the rest of the hose.

Note: We have found that soaker hoses do not work particularly well with potatoes, since they are hilled up with soil and it takes a long time for water to penetrate through to the roots. We water those separately with the garden hose, so we skipped the potato section.

Potatoes in foreground

The Job

Secure the end you are starting with. A heavy object keeps it from getting pulled around and ending up where you don’t want it to be.

Starting at the edge of the bed, carefully lay your hose in between rows and next to plants, staying at least 1 to 2 inches away from the base of the plants. Secure the hose with sticks as you go.

Keep winding it through the garden, spacing the hose about 12 to 18 inches apart.


When you are satisfied that the hose is laid out evenly and that all of your plants are going to get a drink, attach the garden hose and turn on the tap to test it out.

We ended up with a bit of overlap, but ah well.

Life isn’t perfect

And neither are soaker hoses. The hose can degrade if it is bent or exposed to the sun and the elements for long periods of time. This can cause the hose to spring a leak, creating a fountain effect whereby it sprays your plants with abandon instead of dripping calmly. If you have a new hose you should be ok, but our second-hand one needed some work.

Tomatoes are particularly sensitive about getting their leaves sprayed - they can develop leaf diseases if sprayed day in and day out, so check to make sure they are not getting hit.

If your hose has some leaks, just mound up some soil on top. This is usually enough to smother the leaks but still let water through.

Sometimes, a few strategically located leaks can be a good thing: if the hose doesn’t quite reach a plant, it might spray in its general direction and give the plant the water it needs.

This hose had a few leaks next to the lettuce, but I just left them alone because lettuce likes a little top watering.

As with most things in life, you need to take care of your stuff. To keep the hose in fine working order, keep a layer of mulch over it through the season. At the end of the season, remove it from your garden, carefully wind it up - lasso style - and hang it in the garage.

How long and how often do I need to water?

This will take a bit of testing and will depend on the weather and the type of soil you have, but try watering for 20 or 30 minutes once every 2 or 3 days. In really, really hot weather you might have to water every day.

To check to see if your plants are getting enough water, carefully dig down next to the plant into the root area. If it is moist, they’re good. If it’s dry, water.

Up next: Hilling and watering potatoes

Tags: , ,

I’ve been hearing a rumor that people think it is too late to start a vegetable garden this year. Not true!

There are still loads of vegetable plants at nurseries and by this time they are a fairly good size, so you can get your hands on some pretty advanced tomatoes, eggplant, and maybe even squash. Depending on where you live and how big the plant is, you should probably choose ones that mature in less than 70 days. (Check the plant tag or ask.)

An herb garden is easily within reach - in fact, basil is a slow-starter and doesn’t reach its prime until later in June or July. Buy herbs like basil, chives, oregano, and thyme (plants, not seed) from your local nursery or other quality plant seller.

Lettuce, beets, beans, and carrots are all fast growers and can still be planted. In fact, you can plant these every few weeks through the summer, all the way up to July or August for a fall crop (at least here in Seattle). If you find lettuce and beets in plant form at a nursery, all the better - you’ll be eating them in no time. Beans and carrots will need to be planted from seed.

Plant onions to eat as green onions - green onions are simply an immature onion. Plant these as a bulb - sold in bags as “onion sets”.

If you have time and moxie, there is still time to rip out your lawn and get a garden in. We show you how.

If the prospect of converting your lawn or building raised beds seems overwhelming or unlikely to happen this year, do not fret: you can garden in containers this year. A container can be pretty and expensive or as cheap as a bucket from the back of your garage. Both do an equally good job - just make sure to drill or poke holes in the bottom for drainage, add potting soil (not dirt from the garden), and fertilize regularly (ideally with liquid fertilizer). Check out Bucket Brigade - an Urban Land Army project that rescues unwanted buckets and turns them into vegetable containers.

So put on your boots and get out there! You can still have a first-rate garden that would make your grandma proud. Check out posts on fixing up your soil, how to choose seed and plants, and getting the garden in.

Tags: , , , , ,

Around here, the lettuce, parsley, and green onions are ready to eat. We know this because they’ve grown to a considerable size and look just like the food at the grocery store.

Picking food seems like it should be pretty easy, and it is, but there are some finer points worth mentioning.

As has been reported in the news:

Saskatoon Sun, June 2, 2002

It’s official, so get out there, man! If your lettuce leaves are at least 4 or 5 inches long and resemble a key salad ingredient, then grab a knife and get picking.

How to pick lettuce

There are a few different techniques for picking lettuce. Simply choose the one that suits the lettuce type and your personality.

Romaine or butterhead lettuce

Easy. When the lettuce has formed an inner heart (romaine)…

…or a good sized head (butterhead)

…simply grasp the lettuce at the base and pull it gently out of the ground, trying not to disturb the surrounding plants.

Knock off the soil…

…and break off the root ball, disposing of it and any ugly leaves in the compost or yard waste bin.

Loose-leaf lettuce

Two approaches:

1. Leaf by leaf. Wait until the leaves grow to a decent size - at least 4 or 5 inches. With a sharp knife, cut the biggest outside leaves at the base. More leaves will grow from the inner bit.

2. Grasp all of the lettuce leaves and cut them off in one fell swoop right above the center bit (a couple of inches), from which new leaves will grow.

This is known in gardening circles as the “cut and come again” method. In other words, you cut it all off and it grows back again.

Some additional notes

If you have a variety of lettuces planted close together like we do, harvesting the ones that bump up next to each other gives everyone more room to grow.

Washing and preparation tips

For best results, soak the lettuce in a bowlful of water for a few minutes. The dirt will sink to the bottom and the extraneous garden bits, and yes, the occasional bug, will rise to the top.

If the lettuce is warm and wilty, throw a bunch of ice cubes in the water and give it a few minutes - it will perk right up.

Pull out the leaves and give them another quick rinse if you like. Proceed with salad spinning or other favoured drying method.

But save the water! Instead of pouring it down the drain, step outside and water something with it.

If you are eating it right away, tear the lettuce into bite-size pieces. If you are bagging it up for later though, don’t tear it up - keep the leaves whole for maximum freshness. A resealable plastic bag with the air squeezed out works real well.

The first salad of the year!

And it’s a good one.


Now, doesn’t that look appetizing?

To pick, select the biggest (oldest) leaves…

take hold of the stem at the base…

…and pinch or cut it off.

First parsley-inspired supper of the year:

Copyright Mollie Katzen, The Moosewood Cookbook, 1977

Forgot to take a picture of the end result, but it was really tasty.

Green onions

Their time has also come.

Um, pull.

On the menu this morning: salmon scramble on a toasted English muffin.

Gardening is delicious.

Tags: ,

Ladies, you understand that proper support is essential, and the same goes for tomatoes.

Tomatoes are a vine and need to be securely staked to avoid falling over and breaking along the stem. Technically you could let them trail along the ground - and some people do this - but getting them vertical saves space, gives the plants room to breathe, and protects the fruit from turning bad whilst sitting glumly in a wet spot or getting chomped by a strolling or crawling critter.

Once your tomatoes are about a foot tall and getting a little leany, it is time to get going on staking.

Tools for the job

To stake a tomato you will need a sturdy support of some sort and something to tie the tomato to it, like twine, women’s pantyhose, or any number of specialized tomato ties that you can buy at a nursery or from a mail order catalogue.

Most anything with a bit of height (4 feet+) and reasonable strength will serve as a tomato stake, so get creative. We’ve used pipes, bakery racks, thick pieces of bamboo, and tall 1″x1″ wooden stakes.

That is, until we discovered….cue soaring music….the tomato spiral!

Copyright Lee Valley Tools

Now, not only do these spirals look fantastic in the garden, you also don’t need to cut up all your pantyhose to tie up the tomatoes - you simply wind the plant around the spiral and it supports the tomato all on its own. As Lee Valley Tools explains, “This is the most popular way to support tomatoes in many European countries”. Clearly, much of Europe knows its stuff.

How to stake a tomato

Gather your tools: stakes, ties, and a knife or scissors to cut the ties.

If you have a temporary stake like we do, gently remove it, holding the plant as firmly and carefully as you would a small baby’s head.

Take your stake and place it parallel to your tomato plant about 1 or 2 inches from the stem, gently separating the leaves to get it in close.

Make sure the stake is standing up straight and then push it into the ground a good 8 inches or more. You want this thing to stay put in a windstorm and to be able to take the pressure of a plant heavily laden with tomatoes.

Examine it from a distance to make sure it is straight and make any necessary adjustments.

Then we simply wound the plant around the spiral. If you are tying it to a stake, place the tie below a strong side stem near the bottom of the plant and then tie another one to a strong side stem higher up.  Be sure to tie it firmly but not really tight - keep in mind that this plant is going to keep growing and develop quite a thick stem so you don’t want to choke it.


For now. Your tomato might outgrow its stake and require additional ones. If they get long and heavy branches and start to wander later in the season, just put in another one and tie it to that.

Tomato Pruning

Listen up: this part is really important for people who are growing indeterminate varieties of tomatoes.


Indeterminate tomatoes are vining types that grow branches, leaves, and fruit until they are killed by frost in the fall.

Determinate tomatoes, on the other hand, are a bush type of tomato that grow to a certain size and then stop. They produce all of their fruit at once and do not need pruning.

How do you know if the tomatoes you are growing are indeterminate or determinate? Check the plant tag, seed pack, or google the name of the tomato. (If you can’t find a good answer, you can ask us, too.) In our garden, Sungold and Black Prince are indeterminate and Glacier and Green Moldovan are determinate.

Back to the pruning…

What do you want from a tomato? Tomatoes. Therefore, it is important that you prune your indeterminate tomatoes regularly so that the plant puts its energy into growing tomatoes rather than a bunch of unnecessary side shoots and stems that will only produce leaves. The goal is to have one main stem and to limit the number of wandering, lanky side shoots. Who wants foliage when they can have fruit?

Here’s what you do:

When on Crop Tour, watch for these little side shoots, or suckers, that grow between the main stem and the leaves.

Double triple check that you’re in the right place and that they don’t have any flowers or flower buds on them, and then just pinch or snap them right off.

Also watch for any new stems that are trying to grow up from the base of the plant. You really just want the main, original stem, so pinch these off too.


Fertilizing your tomatoes

Now, you should have fertilized your tomatoes when you planted them, but if they have started to flower it is time to give them another shot.

Read the directions on your fertilizer pack, but probably you will want 1/4 - 1/2 cup.

Sprinkle it around the base of the plant and then gently work it into the soil with your fingers.

Water it in, filling your tomato moat. We took the spray spout off the watering can because we didn’t want to spray water all over the tomato - we wanted to fill the moat only.

Let it soak in.

If you used this direct pour method, you may have created a hole in the soil that can expose the roots of the plant. You don’t want that so just backfill it  and reform the moat if necessary.

That’s it! You’re done with tomato upkeep for the time being. Tomatoes grow fast, so keep an eye on those side shoots that need pruning and be sure to keep tying up the plant as it grows.

Before we sign off, check out the new paint job on the bean trellis:

Pretty, no?

Up next: Harvesting, or how to pick your food

Tags: , , ,

It’s gonna be a hot one. Supposed to hit 90 degrees here in Seattle today, so a few words about watering and coping with hot, cranky vegetables.

First, when you get up in the morning, water the heck out of those plants.

When it’s this hot they will take all the moisture they can get and will probably be ready for more tomorrow. Watering everyday in this heat is important (but do check to make sure you definitely need to - gently dig down around the plant roots to see if it is moist or not. Your goal is to have the water penetrate right down into the root zone).

I also give the lettuce - and only the lettuce - a shot of water from the top with the watering can. I don’t know if it helps, but it sure makes me feel better.

Early morning watering is best, but can be tricky when you’re getting ready for work, so watering in the evening is also ok. The reason why watering in the evening isn’t as good is because plants that sit through the cool night with water on their leaves are more susceptible to fungal diseases.

If you have plants in containers, you definitely want to water everyday on hot days like this. Pour it in until water runs out the holes in the bottom of the container.

Plants get the blues, too

In the heat of the day - noon/afternoon - your plants will start to flag and look a bit wilted. Don’t panic - they are not dying and will perk up when the sun starts to go down and it cools off a bit.

When they are floppy and sad in the hot sun, resist the almost impossible urge to water them. Getting sprayed unannounced with cold water can be quite a shock, and they’re already having a rough day.

Put yourself in the plant’s shoes. (Getty Images)

Harvesting in the heat

If you were to pick food like lettuce in the heat of the day, the leaves would be rather warm and floppy instead of crisp and alert. Like watering, you should pick food in the morning or evening for best results. We don’t live in a perfect world though, and if you forgot to pick lettuce for your lunch date with grandma, then you can revive the leaves by soaking them in a bowl of ice water for a little while.

Tags: , ,

The garden is in, it’s growing like a weed, and the heavy lifting is over.

Now what?

Well, people, now comes the good part.

The Crop Tour

Where I come from, the Crop Tour is a daily excursion on which you check how the crops are growing, if the bugs are eating them, or if it’s safe to drive across that wet patch yet.

Often showing themselves in the early evenings, those on a Crop Tour give themselves away with their slow moving vehicle, tanned-to-the-elbow arm out the window, and eagle eyes.

Photo by Sue Pederson,

Note that those on a Crop Tour should be approached with caution, as they are busy taking close note of things the rest of us can’t see, and chances are pretty good they’ve just had a rye and coke.

Same rules apply to Crop Tours here in the city, except we don’t get to drive a truck.

Observation and routine maintenance

The Crop Tour is all about taking stock of how your garden is growing and performing some routine maintenance. A lot can change in a garden in only a day or two: the tomatoes suddenly need staking, the flowers need to be deadheaded, the potatoes need hilling. Is everything getting enough water? What is with that crappy looking plant? Who is that creepy little bug?

Here, we’ll go through the first batch of tasks that need doing, and will keep returning to Maintenance and the Crop Tour as plants grow and jobs change.

First things first

When it comes to cooking and Crop Tours, we at Urban Land Army follow the advice of Nigel Slater, world’s best food writer:

“First, pour yourself a drink.”

Early evening is a great time for a crop tour because it’s cooled down a bit, you’re ready for a beverage and a stroll, and the plants have recovered from a day in the hot sun.


Is everything ok?

Check the health of each of your plants by observing color, size, and stance.

Are they yellow, puny, and falling over? Maybe you are overwatering.

Are they brown and crispy, puny, and just sitting there like a stick? Maybe you are not watering enough.

Does the plant look good overall but has a few leaves that look like crap?

Just pinch them off and pretend like you didn’t see anything.

Are there holes in your plant leaves? Chomp marks? Do you see suspicious bugs or creatures like slugs? We’ll be talking about critters and critter control real soon, so stay tuned. In the meantime, don’t panic, and keep in mind that everyone has to eat and plants usually outgrow a little bit of damage. Also, bugs don’t live forever and may be nearing the end of their life cycle and will go away soon. If you want to get a jump on it though, take a picture or describe the ailment as best you can and send it to us. We will try to help.

An important and satisfying part of the Crop Tour is spotting the good stuff, too. Are you noticing butterflies? Bees? Get down low to the ground and see what you can see - there is a whole world of little creatures on top of and just below the soil and it is pretty darn interesting. We’ll talk about encouraging biodiversity and beneficial insects in a future post.

Finally, would you eat this plant? You know in your heart what a healthy plant looks like, so if the answer is yes, they’re probably doing just fine and you can take a deep breath and enjoy your beverage.

Look how nice.

These plants are also just fine.




And frankly, the potatoes are nothing short of fantastic.

Does this garden have enough plants?

Are all the plants filling in? Even when the plants are full grown do you think you’ll have too much bare ground? We took a step back and reckoned we would.

Because we forgot to plant the marigolds! These were in the original garden plan but got lost in the shuffle. French marigolds will add some more color to the garden, but they also emit a scent that scares off some tomato-loving bugs.

So off to the nursery we went, and picked up three 4-packs of “Durango” marigolds. We got these ones because we thought they were real pretty and they reminded us of an enthusiastic Urban Land Army member in Durango, Colorado. Here’s to you, Katie!

Watch, and learn

One of the great things about frequent crop tours is that you get to watch the life cycle of a bean.




Remember when we threw down some lettuce seed in amongst the plants? Well those little seeds grew like a damn, and now there are too many plants in this little space.

Remember that you want to leave several inches between lettuce plants - if they’re too close together like these little sprouts are now, then they won’t have room to spread out their roots and leaves, and won’t realize their full potential as a lettuce.

So, dear gardener, the time has come to harden your heart a bit and thin them out. We know it hurts, but take a deep breath and start plucking, choosing the strongest looking plants and leaving a few inches between. The remaining ones will grow into a lovely crop of July lettuce.

We know. We know you want to leave them all because you planted them and they grew. It’s not easy, but it’s for the greater good.

Natural selection, eh.

Epilogue (about 1 week later)
Just look at them now!

Ok, they’re still too close, but we couldn’t do it either - we couldn’t pull out as many as we should have. We’ll move them around and space them out though and it’ll work. Sigh, our hearts are still too soft for thinning.


As your plants grow, so will the weeds, and you don’t want these pesky things robbing your vegetables of space, sun, and moisture, so get them out! Early picking is important because if you let a weed hang out, flower, and then drop its seed all over the place, then you have an even bigger problem.

Weed identification can take time and experience, but since we have a pretty straightforward garden here and you know what you planted and what you didn’t, just pull out whatever doesn’t belong. We all have different weeds in our gardens, but Urban Land Army Headquarters is partial to dandelions and quack grass.

Remember, though, that a weed is in the eye of the beholder. Some people go to town on dandelion wine, or putting dandelion greens in salads. We are a bit old-fashioned in this regard and tend to yank the sucker out, but that’s just us.

Make sure you get the whole root of the dandelion or you will be seeing that fellow again.

And sometimes, you just get a happy surprise.

Two sunflowers - the top one looks like it is a red variety and the other one who knows - popped up side by side near the Sungold tomato. They were a little too close together and too close to the tomato, so we gently dug them up and transplanted them in a better place - at the back of the garden next to the bean trellis where they can grow tall and proud. These should make a real cute addition.

These sunflowers are a good example of the fact that stuff just grows, eh. You might end up with random seed and plants in your garden courtesy of friendly neighborhood birds and squirrels, the wind, not-quite-finished compost, or, if you live in a warmer place, from seeds overwintering in the soil. Some plants are just real outgoing and want to spread themselves around. California poppies, Bachelor Buttons, Johnny-Jump-Ups, and even tomatillos pop up all over our garden in the spring. If they’re not in the way and we like them, we just leave them be. Flowers are pretty and useful in a vegetable garden.



After a flower has finished blooming, it will shrivel up and look crappy, and it is time to get it out of there.

Pinching off dead, spent flowers is called “deadheading” and is a satisfying part of any Crop Tour. You can even do it with one hand, so you can still sip your drink. Deadheading not only improves the look of your plants, it also helps to encourage more flowering as the energy is put into new buds and flowers rather than ones that are past their prime.

With violas you can pick off the entire stem, not just the flower. Just pinch it off at the base.

Now take all your little flower bits and toss them in your weed bucket…

Shameless promotion of Bucket Brigade - they make great weeding buckets too!

…or the compost, or what have you.

Lovely. This garden is really starting to shape up.

Yes, those are silver spiral tomato stakes!

Up next: Tomato staking, pruning, and fertilizing

Tags: , ,

Now that the plants are in the ground, it’s time to water them in.

A few good things to remember about watering:

Water from the bottom, not the top

The point of watering is to water roots, not leaves, so don’t spray plants directly with water, particularly tomatoes, which can react badly. Instead, water plants at the base.

The only exception is lettuce, which seems to benefit from a bit of spraying from the top (makes the leaves more tender). Still, your primary watering should be around the base of the plants.

When watering seeds, use an adjustable spray nozzle attached to a hose or a sprinkler-style watering can. This is because the soil - and the seeds just below - should be watered lightly and in droplets. Watering with too much pressure can disturb the seeds.

Keep seeded areas moist. Don’t let seeded areas dry out. Without water, seeds shrivel and die, so don’t forget to get out there with the watering can. Plants are more tolerant of dryness, but new ones need to be treated with care and watered regularly.

How much do I need to water?

This is not an easy question to answer because it all depends, eh. It depends on your soil type (fast draining sandy, slow draining clay, or a nice mix), the weather (temperature and rainfall), and your watering system (soaker hose, drip irrigation, hose, watering can).

The best advice we can give you is to gently dig down to root level next to the plants, or to seed level near the seeds, and see if it is moist. If it is dry, water. If it is not, don’t water. Over time you will work out how much you need to water and how often.

That said, we have a few watering tips:

Soaker hoses or drip irrigation are best for vegetable gardens. These systems release water slowly and directly to the roots of the plants, saving water and preventing soil erosion in the process. We will soon be adding a soaker hose to the garden, so stay tuned for that.

Try to water during the cooler parts of the day to prevent evaporation. Early in the morning is best and the evening is also pretty good.

The Finer Points of Watering

On planting day we used a spray nozzle attached to our trusty hose. (A good quality hose, by the way, will save you a world of trouble.)

Each plant was watered individually at the base with a gentle spray.

The soil where the lettuce seed and green onions were planted - and the lettuce plants - got a light spraying. The water needs to soak in at least 1/4 inch for the seeds, so water until the ground looks thoroughly moist but not waterlogged. If you are unsure how much water has penetrated, just dig down a bit and have a look.

The tomatoes got a good drink. Fill your moat with water, wait for it to soak in, then repeat once more.

The potatoes also got a good soak since they were planted a few inches down. Spray the trenches until water begins to accumulate a bit. Let it soak in then repeat once more.

The beans also got a light spray on top. Back and forth, back and forth, until you reckon the water has soaked in to a depth of one inch. Again, dig down with your finger and check if you’re not sure.

A watered garden. So cool and refreshing.

Efficient and effective watering is a bit of a knack that you will develop as time goes on. We will be returning to watering tips and techniques throughout the season, so stay tuned.

Tags: ,

Three more things to plant and the Grow It Yourself garden will officially be in the ground.

Tomatoes, potatoes, and beans each have their own special trick and you will need some extra supplies here: vegetable fertilizer and measuring cup, bone meal if you have it, bean inoculant, and little shallow dish or container of some sort.


We are growing 4 tomatoes:

Glacier. An early maturing, red and tasty slicer.

Sungold. An orange ping-pong ball sized cherry. An all-time Urban Land Army favourite.

Green Moldovan. A late-season striped green slicer with sentimental value.

Black Prince. A prolific sauce tomato that is almost black. A new addition to our repertoire with a solid reputation. Recommended for new gardeners.


Dig a hole deeper than you would think. Tomatoes benefit from being planted quite deep, actually, and will send out a bunch of roots from the buried stem. If your tomatoes are a little on the short and stocky side, like ours, dig a hole deep enough so that the stem is buried by an inch or two. If your tomato has a long stem, dig a trench 4 or 5 inches deep and set the plant in it or dig a hole straight down about 6 inches. Don’t be afraid to bury the stem up to the top set of leaves.

Make sure the soil in the hole is nice and loose so that the tomato’s roots will be able to spread out.

Add 1/4 cup of vegetable fertilizer to the hole - about a handful.

If you have bone meal throw in a handful of that too. (We thought we had some. We did not. Harumph. Bone meal, high in calcium, helps to protect tomatoes from blossom end rot, an infuriating little disease that can sometimes, but not often, occur. We might get some later and work it into the soil so we can sleep at night.)

Now, mix the fertilizer and the bone meal together in the hole.

Holding the tomato so that it is straight and sturdy, backfill the hole with soil, press down firmly, and create your little moat about 1 foot around the base of the plant.

Put the tag in. You’ll forget which tomato is which - we promise you.


Now, potatoes are a bit of a special case.

First, you need to cut the potatoes a day or so before you plant them. Cut them in half, making sure there are at least one or two eyes on each piece. It is from the eyes that the sprout, and then the plant, will spring. Leaving them overnight heals or toughens up the cut side.

Second, potato plants are covered up with soil as they grow - this is known as “hilling”. You will be mounding up soil in hills throughout the season so that only about 8 inches of the plant is visible at all times.

Now, since this is a raised bed and the soil is already a foot above the ground, if you started mounding up soil even more then you would end up with tall, steep, and ridiculous hills of soil by the end of the year. And, you would run out of soil for mounding.

So here’s what you do if you have a raised bed: dig a trench 6 to 8 inches deep. If you have room, pile the soil next to the trench and then you can simply push this soil over for hilling when the plant starts to grow.

However, if you want as many trenches as you can pack in and don’t have room to accommodate these piles - and you just want to do things the hard way - you can do what we did. Put the soil in pails, store them in the garage, and use it for hilling when you need it. A little weird, yes, but square footage is precious in a city garden and a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

We planted 3 rows and 3 kinds of potatoes: fingerling (Rose Finn), yellow (Yukon Gold), and red (Forget The Name).

Before you put a potato in the ground, make sure the soil in the trench is loose. We gave each trench a quick once over with the garden fork.

Push the potatoes an inch or two into the soil sprout side up, cut side down, 12 to 18 inches apart.

The rows (trenches) should also be 12 to 18 inches apart.

When they are all in place, cover them with a few inches of soil…

…and press down firmly.


We are growing 2 kinds of beans: Scarlet Runner Beans called ‘Golden Sunshine’ and pole beans called ‘Bingo’.

Trust us on this one: inoculating your beans is worth it.

What’s inoculant? Inoculant looks like silty brown soil and contains Rhizobium bacteria, which are necessary for converting nitrogen into a form that beans (legumes) can use.

The benefits? Improved soil fertility, stronger root systems, and way more beans, people. Way more beans.

Inoculant comes in a little package, something like this (no brand endorsement here, just what we happened to get):

How to inoculate your beans:

Get a shallow bowl and dump your beans in it. Add a very small splash of water, just enough to wet them.

Shake the inoculant over the beans so that they are covered in the stuff.

Give it all a shake to completely coat the beans.

Plant in a straight row in front of a trellis/pole/suitable bean structure an inch deep and 1 or 2 inches apart. Cover.


Up next: Watering it in

Tags: , , , , ,

No more messing around - the plants are going in.

Here, we’ll go through the finer points of planting and the special needs of some of our plants.


We start with chives, and an advanced move.

I already had some chives out front, so instead of procuring new ones, I divided the Mother Plant. Dividing a plant, or breaking it up into smaller parts - means that you can get two plants from the original one, or three or four or five, depending on how big the original plant is and how much you want to break it up. You can divide chives, you can divide daisies, or any other perennial plant that comes back year after year. (You can read more about dividing plants here, if you like.)

Easy: We dug up a clump of chives and then, grasping them by the base of the plant….

…gently pulled them apart.

This was a big clump and we could have easily broken it up into several more small clumps, but we just called it good.

The Finer Points of Planting

Using either a garden knife, trowel, or your own paws, dig a hole. You want a hole that has loose soil around the sides and the bottom so that your plant’s roots can plunge through and spread itself around. So dig around and loosen it up a little bit. The hole should be wide enough to accommodate the plant’s existing roots, and it should also be the right depth: the base of the plant should be level with or slightly below the top of the ground.

Like so:

Put the plant in the hole and hold it up straight by the base, then fill in the hole with the soil you dug out. Press down gently on the soil around the plant so that the plant is firmly in there and standing tall.

Since you’ll have extra soil now - the plant is taking up the space where the soil was - form it into a circular moat around the plant so that water will stay put and not run away from the plant.

By the way, these chives are going to flower soon - that’s what those little purple balls are about. They will open up and look pretty, then the stem with the flower on it will get tough and eventually dry out and we’ll remove it. Then new chives will keep growing.

For plants that are in a pot, like this thyme, here’s how it goes:

(Make sure the soil in the pot is well-watered prior to planting.)

To remove the plant, grasp it gently by the base…

and tilt the pot, squeezing the sides and pushing on the bottom to loosen the plant.

Once it’s out you’ll want to make sure the roots are loose and not all bound up tightly and wrapped around each other. In this case, the roots are in fine form so we just squeeze the sides of the soil a bit and gently nudge and separate the roots at the bottom.

We wanted to locate the thyme next to the bricks because it is low-growing and looks pretty spilling over the sides.

Here is the parsley (Italian/flat leaf), planted about 8 inches apart. The plants will eventually bump into each other a bit and create a nice big mass of it.


This looks like there are two plants - and sometimes you are lucky and do get more than one plant in a pot - but this is one plant with two stems.


We got a mix of red and green leaf lettuces and wanted to separate them into 4 blocks of different colours and types: one green loose leaf, one red loose leaf, one green romaine, and one speckled red romaine.

So we separated them into groups, gently pulling them apart.

Planting lettuce is quick - since these were small plants we just needed a little hole. If you have a garden knife, just stick it in 4 or 5 inches, pull the soil back, stick the lettuce in, and press down on the soil. Once you get the hang of it, you can really cover ground fast.

Seed, too!

Lettuce grows quickly and doesn’t live through the entire season, so if you keep seeding you can get a few crops of it. We wanted to eat some soon, so we put in plants that would be full grown in a few weeks, but we also want to have more lettuce once these were done, so we sprinkled each block with seed. These will start coming up in a week or 10 days and be full grown in about a month-and-a-half.

Take a pinch and sprinkle them around…

…then sprinkle a bit of soil on top, so that they are covered by 1/8 to a 1/4 inch of soil.

You can check your seed pack for exact planting depth if you want, but a good rule of thumb is to plant seed twice as deep as the thickness of the seed.

Lettuce blocks done. These will fill in and should look pretty great when they are full grown. Romaine lettuce needs more room than loose leaf, so we put 6 of these plants in the blocks, and 10 to 12 of the loose leaf.

Green Onions

These can be planted close together - 1 or 2 inches apart - and we thought they’d look cute in clumps and squares around the lettuce blocks.

A handy thing to do with green onions and lettuce: when you pull out a green onion, pop a new lettuce plant into the hole.

Plant the onions about 1 inch deep - the first knuckle on your finger is a good measure. Just push them in.

And cover them up, of course.

When you are seeding, wait until you have put all your seed in before you cover them up, so you don’t lose track of what you’ve put in, and where.

Halfway there!

Up next: Putting in the tomatoes, potatoes, and beans.

Tags: , ,

The soil has warmed up and so have the days and nights, so it’s time to get the garden in!

The best time to plant is either early or late in the day when it is a bit cool and plants won’t get stressed by heat and blazing sun. A slightly overcast day is actually ideal seeding and planting conditions, but let’s face it - you get the garden in when you have time to get the garden in, and that’s just fine.


The first thing you need to do is assemble your plants, seeds, and trusty tools (garden knife or trowel, gloves, shovel). If you are planting tomatoes and beans, grab your fertilizer and bean inoculant, too.

Now, maybe you’ve already sketched out your garden layout with a sharp pencil - to scale - on a fresh sheet of graph paper and know exactly where your plants and seeds are going to go. Or, if you’re like us, you stand and stare at the garden for the better part of an hour, and then make your move.

When deciding where to locate your plants and seeds, here’s what you need to think about:

Height: How tall will each plant get? You don’t want tall plants to shade out shorter ones, so put the tall ones at the back and the short ones at the front. Consult your seed pack or plant tag for size at maturity. If it’s not on there, check out our guidelines or do a search on the wide wide world o’ web.

Spacing: How far apart do you need to plant your seeds and plants? Your seed pack should tell you this. Also check out our guidelines.

Companion planting: Some plants just make a good team. Sometimes one attracts a pollinator that another one needs, or one chases away a pest that likes to attack another. Lettuce likes green onion. Tomatoes like basil and marigolds.

Convenience: It only makes sense: put the plants that you will be picking the most in the most convenient and accessible place. When you want to run out of the house and snip some lettuce and chives for supper, you shouldn’t have to reach across to the middle of the bed or take a lot of extra steps to reach. Plants like potatoes that aren’t picked frequently can be located in a spot that is more out of the way.

Ah, beauty: What colours, textures, and shapes will look good together? Will you group plants in a circle or a square, or in a wavy row? Saying goodbye to traditional, straight rows makes things more interesting and lets you pack in the plants.

After much staring and pondering with hands on hips, here’s what we decided:

We would locate the herbs - parsley, chives, thyme, basil, and oregano - at the front of the bed because they a) are short, b) should be handy for supper picking. A late-breaking addition to the herb garden - mostly for prettiness - is Pineapple Sage (the bright yellow one). This will throw out red flowers that will attract hummingbirds and serve as a bit of a break between the herb section and the vegetable section.

The lettuce would be planted together in 18″ square blocks surrounding the stepping stone. Each block would contain a different type and colour of lettuce, and we saw this in a book once and thought it was real cute. We would put in plants and throw some seed down in between the plants so that we have one crop now and one crop later.

The green onions (in the blue bag) would be planted in circular clumps and square blocks outside the lettuce blocks.

The tomatoes would be planted 3 to 4 feet apart along the edges of the garden. The one that would mature first and the cherry tomato would be located along the path where they would be handy for picking. The ones that would be planted at the back are indeterminate tomatoes - these kinds keep growing taller and taller throughout the season. The ones planted at the front are determinate - they grow to a certain size and stop, so they are shorter.

The three different kinds of potatoes would be planted in 3 short rows down the middle of the bed in between the tomatoes and behind the stepping stone.

The two varieties of beans would be planted in straight rows both in front of and behind the trellis. One variety would be planted on the left side of the trellis and the other on the right, resulting in a half-and-half situation.

The flowers (violas) would be planted along the edges of the garden bed in the lettuce and herb areas, and will spill over the bricks.

Before you start putting things in the ground, set the plants in place, then adjust, making sure you are leaving enough room for the plants to grow to their full potential, get enough sun (not get shaded by bigger plants), be convenient for picking, and look real nice.

That’s the plan, folks.

One more thing. When you take your plants out of their pots and put them in the ground, they have to adjust to a different environment and conditions, so they go through a bit of shock. Make it easy on them by watering them prior to planting.

Pick off any spent (dead, done, finished) flowers. Start with a good lookin’ plant.

Then water until it pours through the bottom.

Up next: Planting the darned things!


One last quick task we need to do before we get seed and plants in the ground is fertilizing and preparing the soil.

What kind of fertilizer do I need again?

If you haven’t done your garden math to calculate how much fertilizer you need, head over to “Gardener Math” to see how it’s done. Once you know how much to use, go get yourself a granular (dry/in a box) vegetable fertilizer. We recommend organic or “natural” fertilizers because we like nature and the production of these kinds of fertilizers is less energy-intensive than synthetic fertilizers.

The numbers on the box might be: 4-6-4, 8-10-8, or some such. If you don’t see one that is specifically for vegetables, get one that is all-purpose and you will still be a-ok.

Read the label

All fertilizers are going to be a bit different, so read the back of your box or bag to check the application rate. Make sure you’re looking in the Vegetable section and refer to ‘New Plantings’. The back of our bag told us that we needed 1-1/3 cups of fertilizer for every 10 square feet. The Grow It Yourself garden is about 78 square feet, so a lightning fast calculation gave us this magic, close enough number: 10 cups.

Measure it out

Now go find a measuring device of some sort. A quick scan of our garage yielded a 64 ounce (8 cup) yogurt container. This was the ticket. We’d fill it up once and then add what looked like 2 cups more.


Now all you need to do is sprinkle some of this stuff on the dirt. Grab a handful and toss/spread/sprinkle the fertilizer, moving your hand back and forth as though you are feeding chickens like they do in a children’s book or on a tv show about life in the country. The fertilizer should be covering the ground in a thin layer, like so:

As you move along and sprinkle it on, look over your shoulder and keep an eye on how much fertilizer you have left and how much land you still need to cover. You should be getting a feel for how thickly you should be applying it. If you’re worried about using too much at first and running out, just do a very light layer on your first pass and then add some more once you’ve covered the entire area.

Spreading fertilizer in the garden is a minor knack that you will have gotten the hang of by the time you’ve covered a very small area. New skill!

Work it in

Now grab a tool like a garden fork and work the fertilizer a few inches into the soil. Start at one end of the garden bed and stick the fork into the soil.

Give the fork a half-turn and the fertilizer will move down into the soil. This is a really light, quick job and will take just a few minutes in a small garden.

Side note: Watch your feet

Ideally when you are spreading and incorporating the fertilizer you should be able to reach to the center of the bed from the outside edge of the bed or from a stepping stone so that you don’t stomp on and compact your soil. It is always good to avoid walking on your soil, especially when it is wet. Plants and seeds grow best in soil that is light and friable - it is hard for them to push through compacted soil. This is where paths and stepping stones come in handy. If you don’t have these and it can’t be helped, lay a board across your bed and stand on that instead.

When you’re finished, you shouldn’t really be able to see the fertilizer anymore.

Smooth it out

The final step is to fetch your trusty rake and smooth out the soil so that the entire garden bed is flat, even, and devoid of large clumps of soil. The benefit of raking the soil is that it will give you a flat surface for seeding (they will all get planted at the same depth) and watering (it will soak in evenly instead of running downhill).

Turn your rake over so the flat edge is against the soil.

Alternately push and pull the soil back and forth with the back of the rake, smoothing out the hills and valleys.

This is another one of those “knacks”. It might take a couple of minutes to get the hang of it, but just keep at it until you have a smooth, flat bed.

Nice work.

Up next: Seeding! Planting!


Now we are just dying to get seed and plants in the ground, but we had to take a deep breath and get some structures in place:

1. A border for the garden bed so the soil doesn’t erode onto the grass.

2. A path for walking on.

3. A trellis for the beans to climb up.

4. One or two stepping stones for easy access.

You need to lay a foundation, eh. It is a really good idea to do this before you plant because it makes a bit of a mess and you don’t want to uproot or stomp on what you’ve put in.

The original plan was to put in a short horizontal path in front of the GIY (Grow It Yourself) garden, where the stick is, and then take out the rest of the grass later.

However, after much deliberation with Mr. Urban Land Army, it was decided that we should not mess around. We would take out the rest of that grass now to make another garden bed for personal use, and then build a larger path that would cut through the existing garden and wrap around the GIY garden and the new bed.

Patience with seeding and planting was required, but the big reward was more land and a path that meant business.

Salvage is fun

To build the garden border, path, and trellis, we used only materials that we had on site.

We are enthusiastic curbside scavengers and Craigslist hunters, so we had a pretty big pile of bricks to draw from, and a cool bed frame we found for free on the street to use as a bean trellis. A neighbor-of-a-friend-who-got-an-enormous-pile-of-wood-chips-from-an-arborist has invited people to help themselves, so we will fetch the wood chips soon and add them to the path. On another day, though, when we’re not so tuckered out.

The soil for the new bed came from where we dug out the path. We’ll add some of the compost that’s still sitting in a pile in the driveway to beef it up a bit and make it all nice.

Luckily for all of us, the grass that we took out was actually grass (unlike the GIY grass that was actually a big weed patch) - so this means we’ll build a sod compost pile! And we’ll show you how to do it - on another day when we’re not so tuckered out.

Mr. Urban Land Army gets to it.

Our future sod compost pile:

New garden bed is now just a bunch of dirt, so we start on the path. We dug 4 to 6 inches down, stopping before we hit the orange-brown subsoil, and 2-ish feet across, and threw the dirt onto the new garden bed. Sorry, we forgot to take a picture.

The GIY garden starts where the stick is. We will divide these two gardens with a row of bricks.

A few bricks are added to mark the edges of the path.

Then the path is walked to make sure it is wide enough.

The last bit of dirt is removed with a hoe.

And then raked smooth.

A trench is made for the brick border.

More trenching. In the foreground is a trellis we were trying out for the GIY garden. In its former life it was a speedrack at legendary local bakery, Little Rae’s.

Brick laying begins. We simply stood them on end and or laid them horizontally in the trench. Nothing fancy, and it works.

The brick face of the GIY garden. It looks like a miniature warehouse skyline! Very Urban Land Army.

Sinister cowboy shadow.

Brick laying complete!

Grabbed the hoe and moved some dirt. The soil is now a couple of inches from the top of the bricks.

Put in a different, old bed frame trellis and a strategically placed stepping stone. (I’m going to paint the trellis a sunny little shade of yellow.)

Done! This entire job was completed in just 4 hours, including a beer break.

NOW we can get set to plant the garden!


Ready to fix up your soil?

We love this part.

Last week we ordered 1 yard of compost from e-green landscaping, a bulk soil and stone supply shop here in West Seattle, and yesterday got to work on fixing up the soil in the new garden.

Here’s what a yard of compost looks like:

3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet (by volume, not in reality on the driveway)

We will be dumping 4 to 6 inches of this compost on top of the soil and then mixing it in to a depth of 4 to 6 inches. Next year, and every year after that, we will add 1 to 2 inches of compost to the top of the soil. No need to work it in!

(To figure out how much compost you need for your garden, check out Gardener Math.)

Adding compost to your soil does many good things:

1. It improves every type of soil. If you have hard-to-dig and slow-to-drain soil, compost helps to “open it up” by letting water percolate through to plant roots. If you have sandy soil like we do that drains quickly and dries out fast, compost helps the soil to hold water better and stay moist longer.

2. Plants are healthier and produce more food. Soils amended with compost have higher yields, so you will grow more vegetables if you add compost than if you don’t. Compost also provides important nutrients to plants as it breaks down and this makes plants healthy - and by healthy we mean bigger, less susceptible to disease and damage from pesky insects, more tolerant of a little neglect (it happens), less hungry for fertilizer, and, again, more productive.

3. It reduces your water bill. Soils amended or mulched with compost use 50% less water in summer! True story.

4. Compost helps to smother weeds (less weeding!) and encourages important soil life like micro-organisms and bigger critters that work to keep your soil healthy and productive.

So get with it, man! Go get some compost!


1. Assemble your tools. For an undertaking such as this you will need a wheelbarrow, long-handled shovel, a garden fork, and a rake.

And don’t forget your gloves.

2. Check out the goods. This stuff smells good and is a little bit warm. Here at Urban Land Army we love compost. Maybe a little too much.

3. But first! Before you start adding compost, you should loosen the soil in the garden a bit more. This is because you want to have a garden that is good and deep - if plant roots are able to plunge deeply into the soil rather than take up space closer to the top then you will be able to fit in lots of plants close together. The deeper plant roots can go, the more they can hunt around for moisture and nutrients too. Ideally you want a good 1-1/2 to 2 feet of soil depth.

A garden fork is going to work really well here. Start at one end and plunge the fork about 1 foot into the soil.

Rock it back and forth to loosen the clod of soil then move over and keep doing this.

To avoid compacting the soil, don’t stand on the soil that you’ve just loosened. Instead, turn around and work backwards so that you’re standing on the unworked soil. We forgot to do this, and until we caught on about 3 rows in, we had stomped all over our freshly loosened soil.

When you’ve finished, the soil should look something like this:

4. NOW you can add the compost! This is too easy to even talk about, but just fill up your wheelbarrow, remembering to bend at the knees, and then haul it round to the garden and dump it on top. Each wheelbarrow dump will give you about 4 inches once it’s spread out.

4. Repeat. This 78 square foot area ate up 11 wheelbarrow loads.

5. Smooth out those piles so it is roughly even.

6. Check your depth. Remember that we want 4 to 6 inches of compost, ideally. An easy way to check this is to take your garden fork, shovel, brick, or any such object, and set it near the edge of the bed at the level of the original soil. See how far up the compost comes.

The tines of this garden fork are about 10 inches long, so we’ve got about 4-5 inches here, more or less.

We’re not big sticklers on achieving absolute precision. We prefer to narrow the eyes and go with what looks about right. Adding a little more is certainly not going to hurt anything, especially in a new garden, and adding a little less than 6 inches is ok too. A good pile of compost will give you a great start. And anyhow, real farmers - city ones and country ones - follow their nose and unscientific gut as much as anything.

7. Now comes the real work. If you have kids, go get them now. This kind of work builds character. If not, grab your garden fork (or a shovel would work too) and start mixing the compost into your original soil to a depth of 4 to 6 inches.

Alternately plunge and turn…

…scoop and lift.

It should start looking like this (notice the difference between the compost that has been worked in the foreground, and the compost that is still sitting on top behind it):

Done! Our soil was really sandy and it took quite a bit of turning and mixing to get it worked in well. This took about half an hour, including breaks to stretch out the sore, fresh off a lazy winter back, and to wander around a bit.

Look, our first worm! This is a good sign.

Up next: Structures. Building a border, setting up a bean trellis, and maybe putting in a path.

And if there’s still daylight, we’ll seed and plant! (I know, the suspense is killing us too.)


The Plan:

Our pile of compost has arrived, so this weekend we are going to prep the soil of the Grow It Yourself garden, build a border around it with bricks, put up a bean trellis, and then get some seed and plants in the ground. We visited the nursery this week and our fresh new box of plants is waiting patiently. So go pick up your seed and plants today and have them ready to go in! Not sure what to get or how to pick out a decent plant?

Good thing you’re here.

If you’re growing the same plants in your garden as we are:

Tomatoes, Lettuce, Green Onions, Potatoes, and Pole Beans

Basil, Chives, Oregano, Thyme, and Parsley

Buy these as plants: Tomatoes, Basil, Chives, Oregano, Thyme, Parsley, some lettuce

Buy these as seed: Lettuce, Pole Beans, Potatoes (the seed is an actual potato, by the way), and Onions, which are sold as “onion sets” in bags like so:

Photo by

The reason we’re getting lettuce plants AND lettuce seed is that we want to have lettuce right away, but since it also grows from seed really fast, we’ll keep seeding more throughout the spring and summer.

By the way, if it was March we would show you how to start some of these seeds yourself indoors. But it is almost May and the time for doing this has, sadly, passed. There is simply not enough time for them to grow big enough inside and then reach maturity before the fall chill sets in. But there’s always next year! Grow It Yourself Season Two will show you how to start seeds indoors. It’s good fun and can save some money.


Make no mistake: this is what you’re going to be faced with at the garden store.

Oh, man.

In the face of so many different kinds of beets, it is important to remain calm. But hey wait, we’re not even growing beets in the garden! That’s one hurdle cleared.

As my dad always says, it’s the decisions that kill you.

What’s a girl to do?


Not to get all preachy or anything, but we suggest you get yourself to a garden center, nursery, or other seed seller that is not a Great. Big. Chain. These places have seed that is cheap, but unless they have a really good seed buyer, they often don’t carry the best or most interesting varieties (cultivars, types, strains) for your particular growing area. They usually carry what is grown in huge quantities and might grow well enough no matter where you live but they don’t necessarily produce the tastiest vegetables. So to these big boxes we say, “Do not insult me, sir!” and then turn on our heel and buy from nurseries that stock seeds that are well-suited to our climate, and perhaps are rare, heirloom, or just plain interesting.

Calypso Bean, also known as Orca or Yin Yang Bean. Photo by Seed Savers Exchange.

The good news is that a good seed buyer at a good nursery knows what grows best in your area and has selected seeds that will do well. So if it’s there and you’re standing there looking at it, it’s probably going to work and be downright tasty.

So how do you choose between the 26 different kinds of lettuce you’re staring at? Just think about what kind of lettuce you like to eat - romaine? loose leaf? butterhead? Maybe you want to grow some of each - that’s what we’re going to do. We will plant 4 blocks of lettuce, each one a different kind and color. One is a red loose leaf lettuce, one is a green romaine, one is an reddish brown oak leaf lettuce, and another is a mixture of red and green loose leaf. It’s going to look really great and it is nice to have a salad with many different colors, shapes, and textures.

In short, variety is good fun, so mix it up.

How much lettuce seed do I need to get? One pack of each kind of lettuce will be lots. Even if you just want to grow one kind of lettuce, one pack should be good for a small garden.

As for the onions, we picked red onion sets just because these grow kinda prettier onions, we think. The taste will not be all that different from a yellow or white onion though, so you decide. Look for these onion sets in bags - sometimes they are kept near the vegetable seeds or flower bulbs inside the nursery. Note: all a green onion is, is an immature onion. You’re just picking a regular onion early.

How many onions? 1 bag will do you.

When you’re choosing Pole Beans, look at the seed pack carefully to make sure you are actually getting a pole bean (that climbs high up a trellis) and not a bush bean, which only gets a couple of feet tall. It should clearly say ‘Pole Bean’ on the package. We are growing a pole bean called ‘Bingo‘. We are also growing a ‘Runner Bean’ - another kind of pole bean. If you see one, grab it! Runner beans, or Scarlet Runner Beans, produce gorgeous red flowers that attract hummingbirds and they produce lovely dried beans too. A great variety is ‘Scarlet Emperor’. We have grown that one for years, so we’re trying something new this year - Golden Sunshine:

Copyright Territorial Seed Company.

How many beans? One pack of each kind will do. If you want to give your bean harvest a boost, it is also a good idea to get a package of legume inoculant. It’s a bit spendy ($6-ish) but worth it - you’ll get way more beans. Ask a friendly nursery staff member if they have it. One little bag will do. (We’ll show you how to use it.)

Potatoes will probably be sold in bins outside. We like to eat different kinds, so we got fingerlings (Rose Finn Apple), yellows (Yukon Gold), and reds (hmm, forget). These will mature at slightly different times and some keep better over winter (reds). Fingerlings are perfect for fresh eating - well, they all are. (Remember that you won’t have loads to store from a couple of rows in a small garden, but you might have some if you don’t eat them all up this summer!)


Before you do anything, you need to figure out how many plants to buy. To do this, you need to know how much room different plants need and, therefore, how many your garden can hold.

Here’s how it breaks down:

Tomatoes: reach 2′ across and should be planted 3′ to 4′ apart.

Lettuce: 8″ to 12″. Plant every 4″ to 6″.

Potatoes: Grow to 2 feet or more. Plant every 16″ or so.

Green Onions: Skinny. Plant every 1 to 2 inches.

Pole Beans: These grow vertically and wind around a trellis. Plant every 1 to 2 inches.

Violas: Reach 6 to 8 inches, plant here and there.

Marigolds: Reach 1 foot across, sometimes more. Scatter around tomatoes and basil, staying 2 feet away from tomatoes and a foot or more away from basil.

Oregano: About 8 inches to a foot at maturity.

Thyme: 6 to 8 inches at maturity

Basil: Reaches 1 foot across

Chives: Allow 8 inches to a foot between clumps

Now, to figure out how many plants to get, go out to your garden, narrow your eyes, and slowly walk the perimeter. Assess the situation. Either grab a stick and mark out in the dirt where the plants will go, or just eyeball it, imagine it, or take a deep breath and a wild guess. Write it down in your trusty pocket notebook. If you overestimate, don’t worry about it - you can always move stuff to a pot, or eat more. Vegetables are good for you, eh. If you underestimate, just go get some more. Figuring out how plants grow and how much your garden can pack in is a learning process - trial and error is a way of life for gardening types like us. (More tips on spacing to come though. Read on…)

Good rules of thumb when choosing vegetable plants, or plants of any kind for that matter:

The plant should look healthy. It’s standing up straight, sturdy, and proud. It has good color (not yellow or sickly or spotted), it seems like it’s the right size for its pot (its roots aren’t plunging out the bottom, or it looks like it’s too big and about to escape). It looks like you want to eat it.

Avoid: Floppy, yellowing, sprawling, too big for their britches plants.

Let’s go down our list of plants we need to buy:


Some good lookin’ lettuce:

It is stout, not sprawly, the color is lovely, and it just looks like it would be crunchy and tasty. Pick something like this.

How many lettuce plants should I get? Lettuce grow to be about 8 inches across, so you want to plant them about every 4 inches. If you want to do the lettuce blocks like us (2′ x 2′), get 4-8 plants per block, so 16-32. (Remember that we’ll also be seeding lettuce, which will help fill it in and costs less than plants. If you’re patient (unlike us), you could grow the lettuce entirely from seed, but you won’t be eating any for a good month.)

Lettuce is often sold in packs of four. If you’re doing your own thing, just figure out how much you like lettuce and how much of the garden you want to devote to it. Two or three 4 foot rows would give you a good amount to eat.


Again, look for ones with strong stems, and a nice green color. You might notice that some are darker green than others, which probably means it got more fertilizer. This is not necessarily a sign of a better tomato - as long as the tomato is a good solid green and not yellow or generally wimpy looking, you’re probably ok. Just make sure it is standing up straight, has a fairly thick stem, and is not floppy and delicate looking. Tomatoes are tough customers once it gets warm and usually recover from looking crappy once you get them in the ground, but you might as well start strong.

As with the lettuce, we recommend mixing it up. We’re growing a cherry tomato, an early fresh eating tomato, a sauce tomato that ripens a bit later, and another that is really yummy and ripens even later. This way, you get tomatoes that serve different needs (fresh eating, freezing/saucing) and that ripen at different points, so you always have something to eat.

Staggering the harvest is an important part of vegetable gardening, and it takes some planning and practice to get it right, but one easy way to ensure that you have a steady supply of tomatoes is to select ones that ripen in 50-60 days, others in 60-70 days, and, in longer season climates, 80 days and above. In a northern-ish, sometimes weather-iffy place like Seattle where we are, 80 days and over is usually too long for the tomato to reach its full potential. In other words, you could be staring at green tomatoes in September.

Money-saving tip:

Some tomatoes will be sold in one gallon pots…

…some in 4 inch pots

…and some in little packs.

We are here to tell you that tomatoes grow really fast once they’re in the ground, so it doesn’t matter a whole lot which one you get. The one in the 4 inch pot will catch up to the size of the tomato in the 1-gallon pot in no time, so you can save money by getting the 4 inch one. The main thing to look for is a healthy plant. The ones in little packs might be root bound and under a bit of stress (though these ones above look nice and healthy), so we’d go for the slightly bigger size or get the little guy out of that pack quick.


As with the seeds, you’ll probably stand there and stare at many different versions of the same plant.

How do you know whether it is Greek Oregano (left), Puerto Rican Oregano (center), or Dwarf Greek Oregano that you want, when all you came here for was some regular old dang oregano?

Well, we’ll tell you. It’s the Greek Oregano. The classic thyme for cooking? English Thyme. That’s the traditional route - but Puerto Rican Oregano sounds intriguing. We might be back.

Also, a nursery with knowledgeable staff and quality signage can help take the mystery out of choosing plants. Any nursery worth its salt posts a sign with the plant’s name (Latin and common), how big it gets at maturity, and a helpful little description, like so:

How much?

Herbs grow pretty quickly, so you’ll probably just need one oregano and one thyme (each get to be about a foot across). We got two parsley (Italian) because we eat a lot of it, and you might want to get more than one chive if they’re a bit on the small side.


We got 4 little pots of violas, which are edible and can go into your salads. When buying flowers, don’t get suckered into buying the one that is in full bloom - you want some that are blooming, but you also want to look for lots of buds that will open later. Spread out the beauty, people.

This isn’t a lot of violas and we might end up getting more, but we were feeling a bit cheap. We will also be getting marigolds to plant by the tomatoes, so that will beef things up in the flower department. We’re waiting on those until we plant the tomatoes. If you get some, you will be confronted with many different kinds, most likely. Just pick the one you like.

A final word on Basil. It has been noticeably absent here, and there is a good reason for that: It’s still too cold for basil! You will see it at some nurseries, but do not be fooled. Basil is a very sensitive plant and needs to have warm days and nights. We don’t put ours in until well into May, sometimes the beginning of June.

At the end of our always delightful shopping trip to the nursery, we ended up with this box of goodies:

Thanks, West Seattle Nursery. Urban Land Army thinks you’re swell.

Local plant sales are also excellent places to pick up plants, and you’ll keep your money in the neighborhood. We’ll be planting tomatoes that we grew on our very own, and supplement them with interesting ones from the Seattle Tilth Edible Plant Sale - a must-go-to event for Seattle gardeners on May 2 and 3. You will truly not believe your eyes. They even have a plant list online so you can make your list beforehand. (They have beginner gardening and container gardening classes too!)

Now off to the plant store with you!

We’ll be here getting that compost into the new garden. See you back here tomorrow.


Now that we have broken ground on the Grow It Yourself test garden - and you have dug into yours? - there are a couple of things we have to do before we can start planting.

First, we need to improve the soil by adding organic matter, and then we will need to get some fertilizer.

The fun thing about gardening is that you get to do math.

The gardener of today is faced with any number of calculations throughout the season, such as how much compost to get and how much fertilizer to add. To save you from the classic conundrum of standing in the garden center parking lot figuring out how many 2 cubic foot bags of soil you need to cover a 43 square foot area, we offer you some handy formulas and common calculations.


So if, like us, you’ve ripped out a chunk of lawn (or you’ve uncovered a dusty old garden beneath the weeds), you are going to need to add organic matter like compost to the soil to make it productive enough to grow award-winning vegetables and support a healthy population of soil life. (Fun fact: There are over 4 billion micro-organisms in just 1 teaspoon of healthy soil!) Compost is usually the easiest thing for urbanites to get their hands on - either in bags or in bulk.

Now before we get to the math, if you remember nothing else in your gardening life, remember this:

Soil Is Everything.

You can scrimp on tools, seeds, and even plants, but to get lots of healthy vegetables and to make it all worthwhile, you need to go all out on building healthy soil, especially in a brand new garden. It can be a bit of an investment the first year (see money saving tips below), but I promise you it’ll be worth it, and you’ll only have to add a bit in subsequent years.

Compost Math

How much compost do I need to add?

New gardens: Adding 4-6 inches will give your garden a great start. (This will be forked into the top 10 to 12 inches of soil - we’ll show you how)

Established gardens or raised beds: Add 1 to 2 inches every year (either dumped on top or worked into the top 4 to 6 inches of soil)

To figure out how much compost you need to buy or charm your way into:

1. Measure your garden (in feet). The Grow It Yourself test garden is 13 feet long and about 6 feet wide and we want to add 4 inches of compost. (We will supplement this with homemade compost and try to get it to 6 inches deep.)

2. Calculate volume (cubic feet). We all remember how to do this, right?

For a square or rectangular garden area:

Volume: length x width x depth (in feet) = cubic feet

Remember to convert everything to the same units (feet). So if you want 4 inches like we do, convert inches to feet by dividing 4 by 12 (= 0.33).

So the calculation for our garden is:

13 feet x 6 feet x 0.33 feet = 19.5 cubic feet. We’ll call it 20.

But my garden is a circle!

For a round garden, raised bed, or container, you need to use a different formula:

Volume of a cylinder: 3.14 x radius squared x height

Say you have a round garden bed that is 6 feet across (diameter) and you want to add 6 inches of compost (height).

The calculation is:

a) 3.14 x 3 feet (the radius) squared x 0.5 feet

b) 3.14 x 9 x 0.5 = 14 cubic feet

Same goes for a container, though in this case you’d be filling it with potting soil, not compost.

For a container that is 12 inches (1 foot) across and 2 feet tall:

a) 3.14 x 0.5 squared x 2

b) 3.14 x 0.25 x 2 = 1.57 cubic feet

But my garden is a half circle!

It’s more common than you think. Here’s ours.

Measure it, pretend it is a circle and use the formula above, then divide in half.

3. Go get it

With our cubic foot number and favourite pocket notebook, off we went to the nursery.

Most bags of compost are 1 cubic feet, but check the bag to make sure, and then do the math to figure out how many you will need. Since we needed 20 cubic feet of compost, we needed 20 bags. But hm, they were 5 bucks a pop, so it was going to be over $100 with tax. (And also a little heavy for the trusty sedan - check to see if your nursery offers delivery.) This was more than I wanted to spend, so I considered my bulk options.

Remember from school:

1 cubic yard = 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet = 27 cubic feet

I figured 20 cubic feet is kinda close to 27 cubic feet and we have to top up the existing garden with compost too, so we decided to order 1 yard in bulk from our local soil and rock supply place. It cost around $40 plus delivery, and it comes right to your driveway.

Fertilizer Math

Before you plant your garden, you should add a balanced vegetable fertilizer to the soil. We recommend using organic fertilizer because we are organic gardeners and that’s that. Popular liquid fertilizers in brightly coloured packages that promise Miracles are basically crack for plants, and you will go broke supporting their dirty habit. A balanced organic fertilizer (like 4-6-4 or 10-12-8) will release slowly to plants over the season and contain only ingredients found in nature.

There are dry/granular fertilizers that come in boxes and bags, and liquid fertilizers in little jugs. Use the dry stuff for the garden and liquid for pots.

What are those 3 numbers on the box?

Those numbers represent Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium, or, if you recall from the Periodic Table: NPK.

Here’s what each one does:

Nitrogen (N): promotes green leafy growth. Important for veggies like lettuce.

Phosphorous (P): promotes fruiting. Important for tomatoes, peppers, squash, and other veggies that produce a fruit. If you are growing these, look for a fertilizer with a higher middle number (4-6-4).

Potassium (K): promotes strong roots and overall health

We’ll show you how and when to add fertilizer to the garden, but for now, the math:

1. Calculate the area, or square footage, of your garden

Area of a square or rectangle: length x width

Area of a circle: 3.14 x radius squared

Area of a large or irregularly shaped area: divide into squares, rectangles, triangles (try it, it’s fun!), or circles, then calculate the area of each and add together.

2. Look on the back of the fertilizer box and check the application rate

In this case, pay attention to the rates for vegetables and for new plantings.

The instructions on this box are nice and clear with application rates that make sense for small city gardens: it tells me what I need in volume: 1-1/3 cups for every 10 square feet. Easy enough. Just refer to your square footage and do the math. Sometimes application rates are given as cups per “row feet”. We ignore row feet because for no good reason it confuses us.

Sometimes, though, the application rates are given by weight rather than volume, like 5 pounds per 100 square feet. This is not as user-friendly and calls for a formula:

1. Calculate the area (square feet) of your garden

2. Check the back of the box for your application rate (i.e., number of pounds per 100 square feet)

3. Square feet of area x __ pounds of fertilizer ÷ __ square feet = pounds per square foot

Example? Let’s.

Test garden: 13 feet x 6 feet = 78 square feet

Application rate on the box: 5 pounds per 100 square feet

5 pounds fertilizer ÷ 100 square feet = 0.05 pounds per square foot

78 square feet x 0.05 pounds = 3.9 pounds of fertilizer

Let’s call it 4 pounds. Now check the weight on the front of your fertilizer box.

4 pounds! Perfect.

See? Math is fun.

Note: If it doesn’t come out even like this, there is no need to weigh anything. You can just convert weight (pounds) to volume (cups):

Dry/granular fertilizer: 1 pound = 16 ounces = 2 cups

Liquid fertilizer: 1 pound = about 1.5 cups


Money saving tips

In future posts we will show you how to build a compost pile and start a worm compost bin so you can make some of your own compost for free!

If your budget is small this year, hunt around for free or cheap compost or well-composted manure. Check out Craigslist, talk to your Parks Department, or try to track down some local farmers or ranchers - people with chickens, horses, or other animals will often part with manure if you pick it up. Just make sure it is well-aged/composted (at least 6 months to a year). Don’t add fresh manure to a vegetable garden.

Keep in mind that not all compost is created equal. Any time you are procuring compost (or topsoil or even woodchips) from a free or cheap source, make sure to ask what went into them. You don’t want to bring compost made out of weed seeds, cat litter, or diseased plants into your garden.

Another option is pooling your resources. If you have a gardening neighbor or nearby friend, you could go in on a yard of compost together and split it.

Next up: Choosing seed and plants


Want a veggie garden instead of a lawn? Rip it out! All it takes is a shovel, a pair of gloves, a wheelbarrow/other holding device, and a couple of beverages. It’s a great way to put kids and friends to work, and with helpers you’ll get it done in no time.

We took out a good chunk of grass yesterday at Headquarters to make way for the Grow It Yourself test garden, where we will grow 5 vegetables and 5 herbs and walk you through everything from breaking ground to seeding to watering, eating, harvesting, and preserving.

Here’s what we had to work with:

Far away:

Close up:

All of you are going to have something different to work with, but when deciding where to locate your garden you should keep these things in mind:

Sun: South and west facing is best. You will need a minimum of 6 hours a day of sun to have a vegetable garden and the more the better. Fruiting, heat-loving vegetables like tomatoes and peppers need more - at least 8 or 10 hours.

Water: A water source like an outdoor tap should be close by.

Budget, time, and ambition: Depending on your cash flow, schedule, and level of gardening experience or ambition, you may want to start small. (The Grow It Yourself garden is a good example of going small, but you can certainly go smaller.) Keep in mind that once you take out grass, you will need to fix up the soil with a good amount of compost, fill it up with seed and plants, water all of it, and take care it for the next 5 or 6 months. Time and money, people, time and money. Of course we can’t think of a better way to spend time and money than on a veggie garden, but we’re just saying that you don’t want to become overwhelmed, cranky, or broke.

Here’s what you do:

1. Mark off the area for the garden.

Rope, sticks, branches, or police tape will do.

The test garden is marked off as 13 feet x about 6 feet (it has a curve in it and is 8 feet at its widest point and 4 feet at its narrowest). Total: about 78 square feet. Our particular patch of grass and weeds is in a sunny spot and happens to be tacked onto an existing vegetable garden.

This size garden will be enough room to grow a bunch of pole beans on a trellis, 3 or 4 tomatoes, some marigolds, violas, a sizeable block of lettuce and green onions, a couple rows of potatoes, and a cluster of herbs: basil, chives, parsley, oregano, and thyme.

Of course if you have less room than this, you can scale back the number of plants you grow. A couple of posts down the road we’ll go through some scenarios for smaller (or larger) gardens and lay out how much you can grow of what. Keep in mind that here at Urban Land Army we practice intensive gardening methods, which is important to do if you want to get lots of food from a small space. Again, stay tuned for more on this.

Side note: we will put in a 2 foot path to the right of the stick below, which will cut through the existing garden. We’ll show you how to build the little path too.

2. Break ground!

Get your shovel and shove it into the grass.

It’s probably going to be hard to break through, so jump on the top of the shovel blade a bit.

Go down about 8 inches or the depth of your shovel blade.

Move over to the left or the right - you decide - and repeat.

Pause to laugh out loud, imagining your new kickass garden:

And repeat, until you’ve gone all the way around the perimeter.

But wait! We came up against a border of bricks at the edge of the existing vegetable garden, which we removed and then kept going, moving in about 6 inches into the garden to make sure we got all those grass and weed roots:

There. Once around.

Now you want to take one step in (about 1 foot) from the original cut you made along the edge and start cutting another row.

Keep going, continuing to cut the bed into rows:

Halfway there.

Go get a drink.

Refreshed, finish up in no time.

3. Chop

So now you have rows of grass sliced clean through. What you need to do now is chop these rows into manageable chunks so you can get a hold of each one, shake off the dirt, and get rid of the grass and weed clump. Here’s how you do it:

Clasp your shovel and turn it so you’re looking down on the back of the blade. Raise the shovel in a menacing manner and strike the first row - slicing it into 1 foot clumps, like so:

4. Go get your wheelbarrow or other holding device (tarp, big pail or bucket, etc.)

5. Shake the soil off the grass clump

Starting in one of the corners, pick up/pry out the first clump.

Shake the soil off the clump (you want to keep as much soil as possible). Do this by banging it against the ground and then whacking it with something, like your hand or a Japanese farmer’s knife:

6. Dispose of grass and weed clumps

When you have knocked off most of the soil and all you have left is a clump of grass and weeds and roots attached, toss it into your wheelbarrow.

Now you will have your first square of lovely soil - free of grass and weeds. Nice.

7. If you spot green plastic weed barrier trapped in your grass clump, groan, then curse.

Alternately rip and untangle it from the clump and dispose of it in a separate garbage bucket. This stuff won’t be breaking down in a compost pile or anywhere else soon - let’s say for 100 years. Put it in your compost pile at home and it will come back to haunt you. Put it in your yard waste bin for pick-up, and that’s just rude. Unless you come up with a creative use for it, you’re just going to have to throw it out.

8. Continue on your way, pulling out the clumps, shaking them off, and revealing satisfying dirt

9. Go get a drink

10. Root around one last time for remaining weeds and little clumps of grass you may have missed

We used a garden fork to dig down a few inches and turn up weeds, big dandelion roots, and grass bits that got missed the first time. We did this because these things will take root again and we don’t want to be battling a bunch of weeds in our new garden bed.


You now have the foundation for your vegetable garden. This soil is not going to be quite good enough for planting in, so the next step will be adding compost and learning a bit more about what makes ideal garden soil.

But you, my friend, have finished Step 1! Now go put away your tools and order a pizza.


What do I do with the wheelbarrow full of weeds and grass?

We didn’t feel like dealing with the weeds in the wheelbarrow just then, but we are just going to put them in the yard waste bin, which is taken to a centralized composting facility. We’re doing this because most of the patch was weeds rather than grass, and these weeds won’t be killed in our home compost pile and we don’t want them coming back to haunt us in future compost. They will be killed off at high temperatures at the big hardcore composting place though.

If we had more grass than weeds, then we would have built a sod compost pile. Directions for doing this as well as other cool ways to “recycle” your grass can be found in, “So long, sweet lawn.” We really recommend these approaches because, first, you get really nice compost or other great use out of the grass. Also, yard waste bins often have weight restrictions and one filled to the gills with sod will hurt people’s backs and likely be rejected. So check out your options.

Time: In a 78 square foot area, with one person working and one person taking pictures, this grass removal took 3 hours. With helpers you could cut this down to 1-2 hours. No sweat.

Questions? Something to say? Go on and leave a comment here.

Up next: Prep the soil


Grow It Yourself is a new Urban Land Army series that answers the question:

How in the heck do I grow food?

It’s a good question, and we are here to help.

Here on the blog, from this weekend through this fall, we will walk you through the steps of growing a vegetable garden that would make your grandma proud, the first time out.

This is going to be a straightforward, stand-up, hard-working, and respectable vegetable garden. You will be able to eat from it through the spring and summer, pass some out to friends, and save some for winter.

Here’s where it gets interesting:

We’re going to garden along with you. This weekend we are going to break ground on a new garden at Urban Land Army Headquarters, and then, using photos, video, and no-nonsense instructions, we will document the growth of this garden through the entire season.

We will show you how to do everything, from ripping out the lawn and preparing the soil to deciphering a seed pack, putting the seed in the ground, watering, fertilizing, harvesting, and preserving the vegetables that you grow.

No mysteries here - we’ll cover it all.

The Plan: 5 and 5

To make this garden as straightforward and successful as possible, we have selected 5 vegetables and 5 herbs to grow. These have been chosen for their degree of difficulty (easy), general tastiness (yummy to most), and entertainment value (high).


Lettuce, Pole Beans, Tomatoes, Green Onions, and Potatoes


Basil, Chives, Parsley, Oregano, and Thyme

Oh, and a few flowers, because flowers are pretty, eh. Violas (edible - put them in your salads) and marigolds (good with tomatoes).

Sound good?

Of course you can choose different plants for your garden if these don’t strike your fancy - we’re not here to run your life - but the instructions will be for growing these particular plants. If you have questions about substitutions, just leave a comment on the blog and we will try to help.


Tomorrow we will break ground on the new garden. This is a patch of ground that is just crying out to be cultivated. You may remember it from such blog posts as “Out, Out Brown Spot!”

A “situation” on the property of Urban Land Army Headquarters

Frankly, it is pretty crap - compacted soil, dandelions, the usual. BUT we will transform it into a lovely and productive piece of ground in no time at all - you’ll see. Who knows, you may also be faced with a patch of lawn that would be much better off as a vegetable garden, and if so, follow along and then dig in to your lawn!

If you’re really lucky you already have a garden bed in place - in which case stay tuned for tips on fixing up the soil and getting it ready to plant.

If you have a small space like a patio, rooftop, or balcony, and container gardening is your best bet, don’t worry, we’ll cover this too.

Let’s get cracking

Tune in this weekend for photos and instructions on breaking ground and getting rid of that lawn!

This is going to be good, people.