It’s Growing! #gardenlove

Beds2My husband rushed to put all of his seedlings in his newly built garden bed before we headed to Florida for a few weeks. The light began fading from the day as he tenderly placed the last plant in the soil he’d been preparing for a few weeks. And then the heavens opened up.

He raced to the porch just as the rain poured down on the plants. Now almost three weeks later, I’ll let you be the judge whether that was a good omen. The plants are all thriving here in the Smoky Mountains.

Before we left, we put together a simple, yet effective compost bin. We’ve been unable to compost for the past ten months, and it felt wasteful to throw away onion skins, broccoli stalks, eggshells, and coffee grounds. We put the new bin right next to the deck steps for easy access from the kitchen.Compost

Here’s an excerpt from my book, From Seed to Table, which contains a section on creating a place for your scraps from the kitchen.


I’ve been composting kitchen waste ever since I had a small rooftop garden in my efficiency apartment in Ann Arbor in 1979. Since then I’ve composted on a twenty-acre homestead, in an urban backyard, and behind the shed in my current home in Pennsylvania. It’s a simple process and begins with finding a container with a sealable lid to keep in the kitchen for the food scraps.

It’s not a complicated process, although many folks hesitate to begin because they believe it’s difficult. If you simply follow a few basic instructions, you’ll be rolling in the black gold of the gardening world as quickly as the tomato plants begin sprouting green fruit.

Not all of your waste from the kitchen makes good compostable material. Avoid the use of meat scraps, fish byproducts, cheese, bones, fats, oils, or grease because they attract wild animals, take a very long time to break down, and can spread harmful bacteria into the soil and infect plants.

Eggshells, coffee grounds, and vegetable matter make the best material to start the process of minting your very own black gold. We buy brown (unbleached) coffee filters, so we throw the grounds and the filter in the compost bin as well.

Once the container is filled with your kitchen scrapes, empty it into the compost bin and cover with either brown or green organic material. Making the rich topsoil requires a balancing act between green materials and brown materials placed on top of the kitchen scraps. The green things are those still close to the live stage, such as grass clippings, food scraps, and some manures. Don’t use the manure from pets or pigs, as it will promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Chicken manure is the best kind. The browns have been dead for a while and consist of dry leaves, woody materials, and even shredded paper. We use the ashes from our fireplace, too. Layering these elements, with the browns taking up the most space, leads to the decomposition of the materials. Air and water are essential in assisting in this process, but usually there is enough liquid in the compost container and in the air without watering the pile. If you notice the material in the bin looks dry, go ahead and water it.

There are products you can purchase from shredders to rotating drums to three-stage bins. You can spend from $20 to several hundreds of dollars to make a compost bin. If you live in the extreme north, you may need to invest in the more sophisticated type of equipment to ensure the success of your compost bin. However, I’ve composted in Michigan, Florida, and now Pennsylvania and managed to do it successfully without expending tons of money.

When I lived in an urban setting in Florida, I did the simplest thing. I bought a plastic garbage can for under $10 and cut off the bottom. I drilled holes all over the lid and sides to allow airflow. You can spend a little more on a galvanized garbage can, but it will be more difficult to remove the bottom. I dug a hole about three-inches deep in the soil the diameter of the can and placed the bottom into the ground, filling around the outer sides to make it secure.

I covered the bottom on the inside with the dirt I removed to make the hole, making sure it was nice and loose. Then I placed my kitchen scraps on top. I covered those with leaves from my yard and put the lid back on the garbage can. Every time I put new material from the kitchen into the bin, I stirred the whole thing with a shovel.

In Pennsylvania, we bought a simple compost bin from Lowes for under $50. It has small panels on all four sides that slide off for easy removal of the dirt from the bottom.image008

In the spring, I fill flowerpots with the healthy rich soil from the bottom of the compost bin to assist grateful petunias, pansies, impatiens, and marigolds. We’ll gaze upon the blossoming colors on the patio and take satisfaction in making fertile soil that originated in our kitchen and garden. Our vegetables, herbs, and flowerbed plants will all receive a healthy dose of the soil as well, and then we start the process all over again.

Earthworms are the essential ingredient for turning the scraps into rich dark soil. If I see a worm in the yard, I’ll pick it up and carry it to the bin, but mostly the earthworms find it all by themselves. If you don’t see any in your pile, buy a small container of earthworms from the local bait shop and let them loose. They eat the organic matter, and quite graciously poop behind nice dirt.

I love the symmetry of composting. It’s a way to be a part of the cycle of nature without disturbing or destroying it.

How’s your gardening going? If you’re not a gardener, what’s going on with local food at the Farmer’s Market? Always love to hear what’s going on in different parts of the country. We figure we’re about a month to six weeks ahead from where we were in Pittsburgh. Even though we’re in the mountains, it’s still the south! Happy gardening and eating the luscious foods of spring and summer.


Click on cover to purchase on Amazon.


The Well-Traveled Tomato Seeds

toms!By Patricia Zick @PCZick

We recently flew to Florida for a working vacation. When I put my large suitcase on the scales, it weighed in at sixty-one pounds.

“Either lighten the load or pay $90,” the airline agent said.

My husband went for the zipper of my suitcase. He pulled out four ping-pong paddles.

“Why are you taking those?” I asked.

“Because there’s a ping-pong table at the conference, but they have lousy paddles,” he said. He put the paddles in his briefcase — work-related materials. He lost at ping-pong last year when he played with a colleague, and for an entire year, blamed it on the hotel’s paddles.

Next, he pulled out a bulky plastic bag I hadn’t packed.

“My golf shoes wouldn’t fit in my suitcase,” he said. Those he squeezed into my briefcase. Another work-related item because his boss asked him to play golf. “You can rent clubs, but not shoes,” he told me as the scales announced we’d removed six pounds.

“Got to get rid of a few more things,” the agent said as I wondered how I’d manage to haul my now bulging briefcase.

My husband wasn’t finished. He pulled out a Tupperware container filled with packages of seeds and folded paper towels. Then he fished around some more and found Lleweylln’s 2013 Moon Sign Book, which contains a gardening guide for “conscious living by the cycles of the moon.”

“I need to start tomato seeds while we’re gone,” he said.

Even while traveling, the garden manages to come with us.

During the second quarter of February’s moon on February 22, 2013, my husband went into the bathroom of our hotel room  and layered damp paper towel sheets (the thinnest and cheapest kind of paper towel — that’s why he travels with them) over sprinklings of tomato seeds.

tomato seeds sprouting - from Florida to Colorado to Pennsylvania

tomato seeds sprouting – from Florida to Colorado to Pennsylvania

He usually starts them closer to March 1, but he believes in following the cycle of the moon for all phases of the planting stage, and this year that occurred in the third week of February. Who’s to argue with him? He’s been gardening for forty years with great success.

Robert's Garden 2012

Robert’s Garden 2012

“I like to start fruits with seeds during the second quarter,” he told me. “I’ll start some more during March’s second quarter so they’re not all coming in at once.”


The Moon Sign Book quotes Lao Tzu for the week of February 17-23: “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” My husband knows himself, as well as knowing all he grows.

I remained in Florida when he flew to Denver for another conference. Guess what he took with him? That’s right, the container with tomato seeds beginning to sprout. A few days ago, he flew home to Pittsburgh where the container now rests in our bedroom on a dresser.

Maybe we can enter this year’s crop of tomatoes in the “Most Traveled Vegetable Seed” contest, if there is one. Let’s hope the tomatoes win because the golf and ping-pong matches didn’t fare so well, despite my husband’s best smuggling efforts, using my suitcase.

The seedlings went into small pots on March 2 and sit under grow lights along with onions, parsley, and lettuce.

Real Local Food - tomatoes ripening on the vine

Real Local Food – tomatoes ripening on the vine

Soon he’ll start spinach seeds. They only take three weeks to a month before they’re ready to go into the ground. He likes to start those seeds during the first quarter, which begins March 11. Again, he’ll start them in batches so we have spinach until the summer heat makes them bolt. I love having extra spinach to freeze (see my post on preserving spinach). We’re still eating it once a week and have enough to last until we can eat it fresh again.

Spinach 2012

Spinach 2012




That’s the gardening news from western Pennsylvania. What’s going on with your garden right now?


January Gardening?

catalogs galore

catalogs galore

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

The seed catalogs appear in the mailbox daily now. Today we ordered seeds for broccoli, brussel sprouts, radishes (both red and the long white variety), lettuce, Swiss chard, parsley, basil, and flowers. However, the catalogs came a little late for onions. After consultation with Llewellyn’s 2013 Moon Sign Book, my husband determined the best time to start the seeds was in the waning days of 2012.

So while we were in Florida over Christmas, my husband began sprouting onion seeds. He buys the cheapest and thinnest paper towels and places a layer of seeds on one sheet. Then he piles sheet upon sheet until the top of the plastic container is full. He dampens the towels with water and keeps the container in a warm place. He treated his package as if it was a pet, carrying it inside wherever we visited and adding water as necessary to keep the towels damp.

the sprouts after ten days in damp paper towels

the sprouts after ten days in damp paper towels

This year he sprouted seven varieties of onions – both short and long day types – of yellow, white, and red.

By the time we arrived back in Pennsylvania, the seeds had sprouted in their paper towel womb. The thin paper towel helps those tiny little sprouts from sticking to the layers.

A week ago, he put the seedlings into four-pack containers filled with regular potting soil with a very small quantity of organic and rock fertilizers. He uses a five-gallon bucket for soil (two-thirds filled) and throws in a handful of the fertilizers. Once the packs are filled with dirt, he pokes holes in each section with a pencil.

pencil poking

pencil poking

Then he “pokes” the onion seedlings into the soil.

poking onion sprouts

poking onion sprouts

Now the seedlings are growing happily under grow lights in cupboards in our family room. Unfortunately, we don’t have a heated greenhouse, but we’ve found a way to manage.

minutes in soil

minutes in soil

a week later after living in a cupboard under grow lights (set on a timer)

a week later after living in a cupboard under grow lights (set on a timer)

Now we await the shipment of the rest of the seeds. Some seeds, such as tomatoes, peppers, and butternut squash, he’s kept from last year’s crop. But he’ll still get some new seeds, even though each year I tell him more than twenty healthy tomato plants are way too much for two people unless I set up a roadside stand.

How about you? Are you sprouting seeds, looking at catalogs, waiting for the nurseries to open with plants, or anticipating the local farmer’s market in your area? Whatever you do, locally grown food is always the best choice.

last year's crop we're enjoying this winter

last year’s crop we’re enjoying this winter

Note: We recycle the magazines when we’re done with them each year. We also reuse all the four- and six-pack containers as well as the trays.