Race to the top

Peas growing

Sugar snap peas climb strings on our trellises.

The peas are going full tilt now, twirling themselves up the strings I provided, seemingly in a race to the top of the trellis. It’s great fun to watch, which makes the waiting easier as my family anticipates the first sugar snaps that will emerge. In the meantime, we picked a couple strawberries today; the baby lettuce planted earlier this year is yielding greens for salads and sandwiches; and the string beans are on their way, currently about 3 inches tall.

But back to the peas: Don’t forget you can eat the shoots. When the plants are small, selectively snip off the top inch or two and put them in a salad. Or just eat them. The nearly six-year-old daughter of friends visited our garden today and ate a pea shoot. It was old hat to her because she had learned about eating them in the garden at Riverside Elementary, which is tended by garden educator Dorothy Mullen.

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The peas have popped!

Two rows of peas will soon be reaching up to the trellis above them.

Two rows of peas will soon be reaching up to the trellis above them.

The peas we planted four weeks ago (on St. Patrick’s Day) have finally popped themselves out of the ground. Now the race is on as they shoot toward the trellis above. By June, we should be eating them off the vine. And before that, if the crop looks strong, we’ll pick off some of the tender shoots and add them to salads.

It seemed like a long time before the first one poked through but the conditions were less than ideal – hot and dry for a number of days. I watered in the early mornings and tried to be patient. Now that the peas are on the move, maybe they’ll distract me from watching the next set of seeds: We have beets, collard greens and Swiss chard in rows in front of the peas. No sign of them yet.

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Submit your photos

garden tool

This tool could be yours!

I am eager to see photos from our boxes in action, producing all sorts of great things to eat. Please send me your favorite images by April 5. I’ll gather a few gardeners to pick a favorite and then send the winner the cool garden tool on the right. I picked up one of these the other day and found it very useful for pulling up those shallow invasive ground covers that seem to colonize any piece of bare ground.

I know it’s early for 2013 pictures, so maybe I’ll put out a request later in the season too, but feel free to send picture anytime you think of it.

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Gardening time coming soon!

Bounty from 2012

Asian cucumbers, regular cukes, green beans and tomatoes! (From my 2012 garden.)

The traditional day to plant your peas, March 15 – St. Patrick’s Day – is just two weeks away! I am eager to dig into my own garden and am getting ready to build raised garden bed kits for yours. This year, following inquiries from some customers, I will re-introduce cedar beds, along with the white oak I introduced last year. Both are terrific materials. Please email me if you have questions.

As I wait for the ground to thaw, I’ve been looking at some photos from last year’s harvest and am posting a few favorites here. Please email me with your own photos. With your permission, I’ll add them to the Flickr page I created.

Bounty and bed. This shows a corner of a bed I made about six years ago. It’s made from 1×6 cedar, which is thinner than the 5/4 stock I now sell, and it’s holding up very nicely.


Beans and tomatoes

Beans and tomatoes from 2012.

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Lawn-to-Food Workshops

Photo by Jonathan Eckstein via AllPrinceton

Garden educator Dorothy Mullen is leading Lawn-to-Food tours and workshops on the second Saturday of every month from until October. Each session will start at 9:30 a.m. at Riverside Elementary School. The workshops are free, but participants are required to register in advance by emailing Dorothy. The next workshop is on Saturday, May 12:

Dig up some herbs to take home.  Start seeds for warm weather crops like basil.  Learn to set up container gardens and learn to manage a compost pile. Take home raspberry bushes.

And the upcoming schedule is:

June 9
Healthy Children, Healthy Planet Fair (I’ll be at this one with a display of Bountiful Boxes beds)

July 14
Learn to cut and dry herbs, share herb recipes, and take home some herbs to make tea or ice cream: sage, mints, stevia, lemon balm, pineapple sage, rose geranium and lemon verbena.

August 11
Bug tour.  Examine them with bug boxes and hand lenses.  Are they friends or foe?  Release lady beetles with us and explore the compost pile for insect treasures.  Hunt for butterfly eggs.  Learn more about managing a compost pile.

September 8
Reduce, re-use, recycle.  Learn ways to turn your recycling into compost and save money at the same time.  Try layer gardening, make seedling cups for spring use from newsprint, and use cardboard as free weed barriers.

October 13
Harvest greens and make soup at Dorothy’s house.  Schedule this day will be tour, work and harvesting, cooking and eating.

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We have a winner!

Tamara Dujovne and Matias Zaldarriaga of Princeton have a new garden, thanks to the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative. The Cooperative had a booth at the recent Communiversity festival in Princeton and gave away a Bountiful Boxes bed. I brought the bed to their house on Saturday and helped assemble the kit. I say “helped” because there were plenty of able workers in the two delightful girls and their enthusiastic father.

Matias, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, was particularly happy to be the unexpected recipient of a free raised bed because the in-ground garden plot he created last year wasn’t terribly successful. As Dorothy Mullen pointed out in a recent post, the great thing about a raised bed is that you get to start immediately with terrific soil.

He said he’s looking forward to tomatoes in the new bed. I evangelized for green beans.

We lined up the 4′ boards across the corner posts (matching the numbers written on the end of each board to the numbers written on the corner posts), and the girls placed the screws in the holes.

Then Matias (left) and the girls got to work driving in the screws, while I (right) lent a hand. It was good to see the kit go together easily. The oak corner posts have pilot holes that are custom-matched to the boards, which makes the work of driving in the screws truly child’s play!

We finished the construction in their yard near where they’ll place the bed. Belle Mead Coop donated the soil that will fill the bed. When they’ve loaded up the bed, they’ll mulch around it so it’s not necessary to mow right up to the wood.

After I left, Matias got down to the real work and fun – here is a picture that Tamara sent:

Note that they’re using the square-foot gardening technique, a system for simplifying and maximizing the use of a garden bed. I’m looking forward to seeing more pictures as their garden grows.

How about your garden? Please send pictures and we’ll post a gallery!

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A word about soil

Soil from food and yard compost

A customer recently asked what soil is best to fill her new raised bed and whether it’s good to use yard-waste compost she and her husband have built up over the past few years.

An essential question and a great reason to return to garden educator Dorothy Mullen for the second in our series that I’m calling “Ask Dorothy.”

The first thing Dorothy noted is that there’s no point in having a raised bed if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity to enrich the soil from the typical clay-heavy soil you’ll find in yards around here.

The simplest way to do that is buy some from a supplier, such as Belle Mead Coop, that has already made a mix meant for gardening. As Dorothy says:

The Belle Mead mix is ready to use.  It is not as light as the square foot gardening mix, but much less expensive.  I’d recommend it.

If you’re going the do-it-yourself route:

The high clay content around here requires lots of compost or amendments to make it light and rich.

It’s controversial, but I was taught that compost from leaves is actually not very nutritious, but it’s wonderfully light and excellent for the texture.  It brings up the one disadvantage of raised beds which is that the nutrients in the soil mix drain out quicker than they would in conventional in-ground beds, so raised bed gardeners should plan on using some kind of fertilizer.  I use Espoma Garden Tone and sometimes fish emulsion.

The Square Foot Gardener swears by this formula: 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 blend of compost, which you can buy until you are making your own compost.  It’s expensive at first, but remember that a raised bed will grow more than twice the vegetables of the same space in a regular bed.

Peat moss is not a renewable resource so I use some but not nearly as much as I used to.  I like it in the first year to get a new garden off the ground.

If you use your own compost, it may be filled with seed, particularly if you compost weeds.  Leaf compost won’t have this problem.  Use mulch to suppress weeds if you use seedy compost.

In short, the experts disagree on the best method.  Personally I use lots of my own compost in subsequent years, but the first year I set up a bed I buy materials to make my soil mix.  I skimp on the vermiculite which is horrifically expensive and I use oodles of compost and a little fertilizer.

I was glad Dorothy put in her strong plug for raised beds and followed up by asking why she says a raised bed will be twice as productive as the same space in a regular bed. Again it’s a matter of soil:

Raised bed soil is perfect. Jersey clay is not.  You get twice the productivity because the roots don’t have to work and you add nutrients.  The downside:  hairy carrots.  Some plants LIKE heavier soil.

There is rarely a perfect answer.


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Choosing a spot for your new garden

Dorothy Mullen

Dorothy Mullen (photo via ciaochowlinda)

From time to time I’ll be asking a timely gardening question of master gardener Dorothy Mullen. To start off our series, today’s question is: What are some simple things to consider in choosing a spot for a garden bed?

There is some guess work involved in selecting a location because you have to predict where the sun is going to shine for at least six hours (for leafy greens) and preferably eight hours (for anything that fruits, like beans and tomatoes).  For crop plants, you want as much south-facing, uninterrupted light as you can get.  You need to be sure you have a water source near by.  That’s pretty much it if you’re doing a raised bed.  You don’t need a soil test because you are bringing in a growing medium.  The deer pressure is way less in my neighborhood than it used to be, but if you have to protect against deer, you’ll need a 7-foot-high fence.  You can get steel posts and netting at Obal’s or Belle Mead Co-op.

As for putting the bed down in your chosen spot, Dorothy added:

You want to lay thick whole sections of newsprint under the soil to suppress weeds for a year or two, and I put the newsprint around the bed and covered with mulch too to create a walkway.

Don’t let the grass grow right up to the bed or it will be a headache to mow around it.

Speaking of gardening tips: Dorothy will be leading Lawn-to-Food tours and workshops on the second Saturday of every month from April to October. Each session will start at 9:30 a.m. at Riverside Elementary School. The workshops are free, but participants are required to register in advance by emailing Dorothy. The first workshop, on April 14, is a great way to get started:

Bring a paper egg carton; we’ll have starting mix and seeds to share.  Take home a dozen different seeds to start.  Also learn to direct sew seeds into raised beds, starting with plants that tolerate some frost: kale and collard greens.  Take home raspberry bushes.

 Please check back for more gardening tips!

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Peas planted!

First pea planting 2012Master gardener and educator Dorothy Mullen wanted to know the moment I was finished setting up the  bed at Whole Earth Center so she could get started putting in seeds – given all the queues of an early spring, a gardener can hold on only so long. Well, here’s a note from Dorothy about her first planting:

I planted edible pod peas.  In New Jersey we usually say to plant peas around St. Patrick’s Day.  It’s been so warm I did it a little ahead of time.  Peas are a cold weather crop and should not be planted well into April, although you can do a second planting in the fall.  What’s nice abouat these peas is that the whole plant is edible.  The tender leaves can be harvested and eaten in salad or stir fries.

Next up: a row of climbing peas by the trellis.

Dorothy will be contributing gardening tips throughout the season, so pull out your trowel and stayed tuned.


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New season, new material!

Garden bed

This is our demonstration garden bed at the Whole Earth Center - showing off our new white oak boards.

The puzzle and wonderment of our mild winter is giving way, among the gardeners I know, to sheer excitement about the imminent growing season. That means: Bountiful Boxes is opening for business!

This year, I’m excited to introduce a new material for the garden beds. I’ve found a source of locally and sustainably harvested white oak. White oak is a very dense, rot-resistant, insect resistant wood. We’ve gotten great life out of the cedar and fir beds we’ve sold in past years, but I’m expecting even greater longevity from this oak. The boards are still 1-inch thick, but they’re “rough cut” which means they literally have a somewhat rough appearance that I think looks quite nice in the garden. Also it is a lot less wasteful than planing fatter lumber down to a finish-quality board.

Want to see it?! Stop by the Whole Earth Center in Princeton and see our demonstration bed. We’ll soon be planting it with sugar snap peas, pushing ahead of the traditional March 17 planting date.

Also new: We’re now set up to take orders right here on this website. We’ll still have order forms over at Whole Earth Center, but the simplest way is to click the Buy Now button at the right or send me an email.

Happy spring!


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