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Pea-sprouts-cropped

Got a sunny window? Grow baby peas like these in four to seven days.

 

You’ve see them at the farmers market – and likely gasped at the price. Those tiny, tasty little leaves called microgreens are treasured by locavores and health-conscious cooks looking to get more nutrients on their plates. The truth is, nothing could be easier or more economical to grow yourself. If you have a sunny window, you’re in business. And what could be more local than that?

What are microgreens?

Microgreens are the tender, leafy part of edible vegetables and herbs that you grow in soil under bright light and harvest when they are just a few inches high. Most greens will be ready to harvest within 14 days. Try broccoli, kale, arugula, beet, basil, cilantro, mustard, cabbage, amaranth, sunflower or pea. Or mix several different seeds and harvest a mini-salad.

Microgreens are good for you

A study released by researchers at the University of Maryland last summer revealed that microgreens are power-packed with significantly more nutrients than mature plants. For example, red cabbage microgreens had 40 times more vitamin E and six times more vitamin C than mature red cabbage. You can read the complete results  in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Here’s how to grow your own

Like most grow-your-own adventures, there is more than one way to get results. These instructions from Altan Alma Organic Farm in Boulder, CO, have always worked for me.

IMG_0135

You’ll need:

  • Jar or bowl (for peas or sunflowers)
  • Flat, leak-proof container, like a plastic nursery flat
  • Flat containers with drainage holes. Clean recycled plastic food containers with holes poked in the bottom
    are perfect for this, or you can use plastic nursery containers.
  • Soil  (Organic potting soil works just fine)
  • Spray bottle filled with water
  • Sunny window or grow light
  • Seeds (Good seed sources:  Seeds of Change, Lake Valley Seed, Botanical Interests)

Grow your greens

  • Fill your drainable containers with about one inch of soil. Leave a half-inch of space below the top of the tray.
  • Set your drainable containers inside the flat, watertight tray.
  • Wet the soil in the container completely (but not soaking).
  • Sprinkle seeds evenly over the soil.
  • Place container in a bright, sunny window, or under a grow light.
  • Water daily, using the spray bottle to keep seeds moist.
  • Once mircrogreens have reached one inch tall, begin bottom watering only.
  • Move the container to the fridge once the greens are three inches tall.
  • Your greens should be ready to harvest within eight to 14 days. To harvest, use scissors or a sharp knife to cut plants an inch or so above the soil line.

Grow peas or sunflowers

  • Place seeds in a jar or bowl and cover with water. Soak overnight.
  • Drain water, rinse peas with fresh water, and allow to drain overnight. The seeds should just be starting to sprout.
  • Fill your drainable containers with about one inch of soil. Leave a half-inch of space below the top of the tray.
  • Set your drainable containers inside the flat, watertight tray.
  • Wet the soil in the container until just damp. A spray bottle is handy for this. Do NOT soak the soil.
  • Sprinkle seeds evenly over the soil.
  • Place container in a bright, sunny window, or under a grow light.
  • Water daily, using the spray bottle.
  • Microgreens should be about six inches tall within four to seven days.
  • Once they have reached the desired height, move the container into the fridge and water from the bottom only. Pour water into the watertight bottom tray so the roots can soak it up.
  • To harvest, use scissors or a sharp knife to cut plants an inch or so above the soil line. If you leave enough stem with leaves and place the container back in the window, you might get a second crop!
  • Pea and sunflower microgreen should keep seven to 10 days in the fridge.

Keep ’em coming

Once you’ve harvested your microgreens, simply pull out the roots and toss them into the compost bin. Then, fluff up the remaining soil with a fork and plant again. I like to stagger plantings so I always have a ready supply of greens. Be sure not to reuse soil that’s suffered an insect infestation.

Try this microgreen recipe

Toss hot pasta with butter, just-harvested pea greens, and freshly grated parmesan. Be sure the pasta is piping hot so the greens wilt just a little. Delish!

Permaculture principles at work

  •  Catch and store energy
    (Harvest while it’s abundant)
  •  Obtain a yield
    (Make sure you’re getting valuable results)
  •  Use and value renewable resources and services
    (Reduce dependency on scarce resources)

The Children’s Garden in Gardens at Spring Creek, Ft. Collins, CO

From a kid’s-eye view, gardening can be great fun. Where else are you encouraged to get dirty, play with bugs, and use grown-up tools? With good planning and a little creativity, a community garden can be a place of wonder for its youngest members.  Begin with these tips from American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) member Rory Klick, available among the many free resources on the ACGA website.

Rory Klick’s Ten Tips on Gardening with Kids

Kid gardens must be kid-based. This means that kids help generate the ideas for what will be there, help with construction and planting, and are responsible for maintenance. Grownups need to facilitate and show how, but not do everything. Focus on the process of involving them, and they will then take ownership.

Pumpkins are easy to grow and fun to harvest

Develop the garden to be appropriate for the site and regional conditions. Involve the kids in the site analysis process so they understand how important the light, soil, drainage and other environmental factors are to having a garden. Develop the garden so the features and plant choices are adapted to local conditions, so you are not “working against nature.”

Focus on functional garden design, not how it will look. Start the design process by determining what the children want to be doing and learning in the garden. Base the features on the practical functions they will serve, and don’t worry too much about aesthetics. Gardens that serve as hands-on learning laboratories for kids will be beautiful because they are well-used and well-loved spaces. Also remember that the children’s sense of what is pretty may not be yours; that’s ok because the garden is their space.

Be comfortable with dirt. All kids are washable, so as long as parents have been notified about the gardening activity in advance and haven’t sent them in fancy clothing, let them get dirty. If mud is a concern once the kids are going back inside the building, try plastic grocery sacks over their shoes, or set up a hand-washing and shoe-scraping station before they go back inside.

Teach children that worms are good garden friends

Bugs and crawly critters are cool. Children aren’t inherently afraid of things that crawl and creep. They learn that these things are bad or scary or icky from adults. When you pass on an aversion to something because of how it looks, that’s called “prejudice.” Worms, caterpillars, grubs, insects, spiders and all sorts of wondrous creatures are out in your garden as part of the ecosystem. Please see them as integral parts of the system, and the kids will be amazed and curious, not afraid. Check out Worms Eat My Garbage and other great teaching resources on garden critters.

No chemicals. Given that you are gardening with children, this really should not need any explanation. Also, in urban areas it is advisable to have a basic soil assessment for lead and other urban contaminants to make sure your site is safe for children before the garden is developed.

Grow some things to eat. Children are much more willing to try and consume fresh fruits and vegetables that they have grown. In fact, they likely will try things they never have eaten before because they have tended the plants through harvest. 60% of kids today don’t eat enough fruits and veggies; learn more through the USDA’s There’s a Rainbow on My Plate and other kids’ nutrition resources. Have a harvest celebration and encourage the kids to share their bounty with others, whether informally or through national programs like Plant a Row.

Reinforce the lessons from the garden while indoors. Prepare the kids for their gardening experience by asking questions like, “What will we see today?” or “How much do you think things have grown since last week?” Engage kids in keeping journals and/or scrapbooks of their garden to monitor its progress through the season and over the years. If working with a school garden, integrate the garden across disciplines beyond science.

Painted rock garden markers created  by children at the Dover Cassily Community Garden, NH

Keep it fun. Have enough equipment, whether trowels or watering cans, to allow small teams of 4-8 kids to work together on a task. Many children do better in small group situations, and it’s also easier to guide the kids when each team has a specific assignment. Try partnering older (grades 5-8 or HS) and younger children to provide younger kids with a helper, and help older children be more responsible. Have a plan for how the kids’ time in the garden will be organized so they aren’t left idle for long, but also be open to the “teachable moments” that come along.

Gardening is a powerful experience for children. Children have fewer and fewer chances to interact with the natural world, and the connection to nature is important for their development. Children who develop regard and concern for the natural world come to be good stewards of the land and its resources. Being responsible for tending a garden also fosters their sense of “nurturing” and helps them learn to care for other living things. Kids don’t often hear much positive feedback from adults, and creating and tending a garden empowers kids because they hear that they have “done a good job.”

Inspired children’s gardening programs

Garden of Eatin’ at North Bay Children’s Center, Novato, CA. Take a video tour.

Children’s Peace Garden at Growing Gardens, Boulder, CO.

Troy Kids’ Garden, Madison, WI.

Mixed Greens at the Blandford Nature Center, Grand Rapids, MI

Permaculture principles at work

  • Creatively use and respond to change
    (Envision possibilities and intervene in effective ways)
  • Obtain a yield
    (Make sure you’re getting valuable results)
  • Design from patterns to details
    (Observe natural/social patterns and apply them to design)
  • Use and value diversity
    (Diversity leads to greater resilience)

Vodpod videos no longer available.

See how Landshare.net connects growers to people with land to share

Every yard is a farm

I’ll admit, I can’t walk past a neighbor’s front yard without calculating how much food could be grown on it. To me, every patch of grass is a potential farm. It seems that at least 52,000 people agree with me. That’s how many have signed on with two popular websites that match those who have land with those who want to garden, a practice popularly known as landshare.

Front yard veggies in Boulder, CO

People are growing produce and even raising ducks and chickens on neighbors’ lawns, spare farmland, business campuses, church property, highway median strips, and public parks—anywhere there is useable land. While community plots and other forms of garden sharing have been prevalent for years, technology has given the landshare concept global legs, amping its visibility and making connections within an active community of growers simple and quick.

Meet two landshare pioneers

Perhaps the best known landshare evangelist is the gregarious UK celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who in 2009 partnered with public-service broadcaster Channel 4 to launch Landshare.net, a free website that matches landowners with growers. You can catch Hugh in action and learn about some of the projects in place on the site’s video library. Landshare has expanded to Australia and Canada and recently partnered with SharedEarth.com, the largest garden sharing site in the U.S.

SharedEarth's Adam Dell

SharedEarth.com also made its debut in 2009, inspired by founder Adam Dell’s own garden sharing experience. As the Austin, TX internet entrepreneur relates in a recent Treehugger interview, “I wanted a garden, but I don’t have the time or know-how to garden myself. So I put an ad on Craigslist and within a couple of days I had several responses. The ad said, ‘I’ll provide the land, water and materials if you’ll provide the work. We can share the produce 50-50.’ I found a credible person who loves gardening, but lives in an apartment. We met, came up with a plan and she got to work.”

Adam began to research community gardens. When he discovered that most of them have long waiting lists, he built SharedEarth.com to make it easier for eager gardeners to find land. It worked. Together, SharedEarth.com and Landshare.net represent more than 5,000 acres of shared land in cultivation. As both sites point out, the list  of would-be gardeners is far longer than that of available land.

Be a landsharer

I invite you to re-imagine your lawn, office park, or that patch of ground next to city hall as abundant sources of delicious, healthy food. Here’s some inspiration:

  • Urban Patchwork, an Austin, TX project that turns local homeowners’ yards into vegetable gardens.

More landshare sites

Permaculture principles at work

  • Obtain a yield
    (Make sure you’re getting valuable results)
  • Design from patterns to details
    (Observe natural/social patterns and apply them to design)
  • Use small, slow solutions
    (Local resources and responses, manageable scale)
  • Use and value diversity
    (Diversity leads to greater resilience)

Marigold and peppers. Dill and cabbage. Nasturtium and cucumbers. Who needs pesticides or expensive soil amendments when careful matchmaking can do the trick? Companion planting—including plants in your garden that help other plants thrive—is a time-tested practice among indigenous farmers and permaculture gardeners alike, and it’s a low-impact way to grow bountiful vegetables.

Companion planting benefits

  • Chemical-free pest control. Carefully selected plant partners regulate pests by repelling harmful insects, attracting their natural predators, or serving as “trap crops” that provide a tastier alternative to their neighbors.
  • Pollination. The right companion plants attract honeybees and native pollinators, encouraging fertilization and successful seed development for flowering vegetables.
  • Healthier plants. Plants like peas and clover add nutrients to the soil that are especially beneficial to their companions.
  • Shade. Taller plants can provide much-needed heat protection and enhanced humidity for their shorter neighbors.
  • Structure. Large woody plants provide climbing support for “travelers” like cucumbers and beans.

Five perfect veggie partners

Just about every vegetable has at least one companion plant that will help it thrive. Here are five of my favorites.

Borage. If I could have only one companion plant in my vegetable garden, it would be this one. Bees can’t resist its delicate star-shaped blossoms—and neither can I. Borage is one of the best pollinator attractors (hence its “Bee Bread” alias) and benefits most any plant in its vicinity by increasing resistance to disease. Plant borage with tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash, or with strawberries to enhance their flavor. Borage is both a treasured medicinal herb and a nutritious addition to your dinner table. Its leaves are rich in vitamin C and calcium (that fuzz dissolves from the leaves when cooked); fresh-picked blossoms have a delicate cucumber flavor and make a gorgeous salad addition.

Sunflower. Did you know that ants herd aphids onto sunflowers, keeping them off neighboring plants? Plant a few, and invite the neighbor kids over for a fascinating natural science lesson. Traditional Cherokee gardens almost always include sunflowers, both for food and to improve the yield of corn. Sunflowers attract pollinators and hummingbirds, provide seeds for birds and humans, shade nearby heat-sensitive plants, and provide a natural trellis for climbing vegetables.

Nasturtium. Nasturtium is one of the best plants for attracting predatory insects that feast on harmful pests, and is a trap crop that lures egg-laying caterpillars away from nearby cabbage. Nasturtium deters a number of unwanted insects, including wooly aphids, whiteflies, and cucumber beetles. Pair it with radishes, tomatoes, brassicas (cabbage, collards, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, broccoli, mustards), and curcubits (melons, cucumbers, gourds), or plant it as a barrier. Nasturtium is reputed to improve the flavor of nearby vegetables, and its leaves, blossoms and seeds are delicious additions to a summer salad.

Marigold. Like borage, marigold is one of those “plant it everywhere” companions that is beneficial to most vegetables, especially especially tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, gourds, squash, broccoli, kale, and cabbage. Marigold’s pungent odor is reputed to deter some insects as well as rabbits and other rodents (I’ll be testing that this year), and the roots produce a pesticidal chemical that is especially useful in deterring nematodes. Use French marigolds (Tagetes potula); the chemical secreted from Mexican marigolds (Tagetes minuta) can be too strong for the roots of some tender young plants.

Dill. The aromatic oils in dill attract beneficial predators and repel harmful pests like aphids, spider mites, cabbage loopers, and squash bugs. Sow dill seed liberally among cabbage and other brassicas, chervil, onion, corn, lettuce, and cucumbers, but keep it away from carrots and tomatoes. While dill can help tomatoes, it will stunt their growth once it matures. Dill is a versatile culinary herb. I plant it among cucumbers and harvest both to make half-sour dill pickles. Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars particularly enjoy dill, and I believe it’s worth a few chomped plants to enjoy their eventual winged beauty in the garden.

Ready to play matchmaker in your garden?

Here are some useful resources:

Garden Toad’s Companion Plant Guide

Gaia’s Garden Companion Planting Guide

Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte

Permaculture principles at work

  • Observe and interact
    (Pay attention )
  •  Obtain a yield
    (Make sure you’re getting valuable results)
  • Integrate rather than segregate
    (Stack functions to capitalize on how things work together)
  • Use and value diversity
    (Diversity leads to greater resilience)


Layering cardboard is the first step in building a new community garden.


Some neighbors deliver home-baked apple pies. Mine tote cardboard. It’s not unusual to spot a smiling person in a bathrobe dragging the box from a newly purchased appliance across the lawn to deposit onto our front porch. Skeptical at first (is she charmingly eccentric or just plain weird?), the folks on my block have seen me begin a number of now-thriving garden beds with a thick layer of cardboard. A few of them are now successfully using the method in their own gardens.

Why cardboard is better

Whether you’re concerned about environmental impact or gardening on a budget, cardboard is the perfect alternative to traditional landscape fabrics made from polypropylene, polyester, or similar polymers. Here’s why:

  • It’s abundant—and free. Recycle boxes from your own purchases, scavenge from your neighbors or workplace, dumpster dive, and make friends with the loading dock crew at your local big-box appliance store. I live within a mile of our community recycling drop-off center, and I’m not shy about hovering near the cardboard bin to secure large pieces destined for the compactor.

    Cardboard abundance from a restaurant dumpster

  • It’s water-wise. Cardboard absorbs water, keeping it in your garden bed where it’s needed.
  • It’s truly biodegradable. Cardboard decomposes quickly (2-3 months), unlike polypropylene, which does not biodegrade and eventually entangles spreading plants.
  • Worms love it. Cardboard is tasty worm food, and the resulting castings (waste) make for a soil amendment rich in essential minerals and enzymes. Those of us with hard-packed clay soil appreciate how the worms’ burrowing action aerates (adds oxygen) and drains the soil.
  • It’s recycling made easy. By using cardboard you rescue and  reuse material that might otherwise go into a landfill.

Two more weed barrier options

There are two new commercial weed barrier options. One is essentially a long roll of brown paper, slightly thinner than paper bag material. I tested one of these products; the paper tears easily but it does cover a lot of ground quickly. It’s biodegradable, minimally packaged, and a good option if you need something right away and don’t mind paying for it.

The other is marketed as biodegradable polypropylene and is currently the subject of much debate. I’m a gardener, not a chemical engineer. The Biodegradable Products Institute has good information, including this article on sorting through facts and claims, written by a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University.

Tips for using cardboard as a weed barrier

  • Use brown cardboard only—avoid white, brightly printed or waxed.
  • Remove tape and staples.
  • Large pieces of thick, corrugated cardboard like those from appliance boxes will cover a larger area and provide a more substantial weed barrier.
  • Be sure to overlap edges 6-8 inches.
  • Water the cardboard well before you add mulch.
  • Poke holes into the wet cardboard to add plants.

Will you eventually get weeds? Yes. No barrier, including cardboard and landscape fabric, will stop wind-born seeds or runners that creep over from another area. But if you’ve also included deep mulch on top of the cardboard, you will find that unwanted plants are easier to remove.

Permaculture principles at work

  • Use and value renewable resources and services
    (Reduce dependency on scarce resources)
  • Integrate rather than segregate
    (Stack functions to capitalize on how things work together)
  • Use small, slow solutions
    (Local resources and responses, manageable scale)
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