Taking care of your gardening tools is important for food safety, plant health, and tool longevity. Some of the key maintenance tasks for gardening tools include sanitizing, oiling, and sharpening. Sanitizing your tools helps protect against spreading plant diseases from plant to plant and from contracting a food illness if being used on food plants. Oiling and sharpening go hand-in-hand. These practices help your tools stay moving fluidly and sharp. Maintaining your tools will make your gardening safer, more efficient, and more effective.
To prevent spreading plant diseases and pests, it is ideal to sanitize your cutting tools in between plants, especially when a plant you are working on has any visible signs of infection. Visible signs of infection include mold and dark spots or rot. Signs of pest infection include chew holes, clusters of small insects or eggs, and insect droppings. In practice, it is not always practical or efficient to wash tools between plants; however, take special care if there are any signs of plant pests or diseases.
It is also a good idea to do a seasonal cleaning and sanitizing of all of your gardening tools, especially, if you’re like me and you often neglect to sanitize your tools during the growing season. An easy way to sanitize your tools is to follow these three steps:
Wash off soil and large debris (leaves, roots, rocks, etc.)
Sanitize your tools in a 10% bleach solution
To clean my tools, I hosed everything down to wash off soil, slugs, leaves and whatever else was clinging to the tools. Then I prepared a 10% bleach solution in a bucket. I dipped each tool into the solution and swished them around for 10-30 seconds, lightly scrubbing as necessary. Then I put everything out to dry, and, if needed, finished drying the tools off with a towel before storing away again. I then disposed of the bleach solution in our backyard. The chlorine from the bleach will evaporate, so this should not affect anything in the environment.
Oiling and Sharpening
Some brands of pruners, such as Felco, sell specific oil for treating hand tools. I usually use WD-40 on my tools, as needed. Occasionally hand tools will get a little rusty either from improper storage or heavy usage in wet conditions- it happens. I usually need to oil the joints and springs on my hand tools about once a year. Typically, I will do this in the late winter or early spring.
Sharpening may need to happen more often if you are using your tools often. Tools are more dangerous and not as effective when dull. Sharpening files are readily available at hardware stores and nurseries, and these files could be used on a per-use basis. If you have very expensive hand tools, it may be worth getting your tools professionally sharpened from time to time. If your hand tools are fairly inexpensive, regular sharpening should help extend your tools’ lifetimes; however, there may be a point where it makes more sense to replace the tool if it gets overly dull or rusted.
‘Tis the season for pumpkin spice, pumpkin pie, and decorating our porches with this marvelous orange gourd! Though I did not grow any pumpkins this year, my boyfriend and I did buy a couple of these seasonal squash for carving. In a year that’s been far from usual, it’s been nice to turn to some traditional fall activities to celebrate the new season.
Pumpkins are for sale everywhere from grocery stores and big box stores to independent garden centers this time of year. We went to the Green Acres in Sacramento to find ours. They have a fun selection of large carving pumpkins, gourds with various shapes and colors, and tiny table-topper squash. We had our hearts set on carving pumpkins.
After some cliche pumpkin patch photos, we took our pumpkins home and set to work! I decided on a Harry Potter themed jack-o-lantern while my boyfriend went the Pokemon route. We rocked out to a Halloween playlist on Spotify while we sculpted our spooky squash cut outs. I am pretty pleased with how they turned out!
Not ones to waste, we saved the pumpkin seeds to roast into a salty snack. I cleaned the goo off the seeds in a bowl of water, and then drained them. While preheating the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, I spread the pumpkin seeds out on a cookie sheet and doused them with avocado oil and a generous sprinkling of Kosher salt. They went into the oven for about 20 minutes, and when they were nice and golden in color, I took them out too cool.
Well worth the effort for a day of fun pumpkin carving and fantastic porch decorations. Though the festivities may be more subdued this year, there are still ways to safely have fun and enjoy the holiday! Happy Halloween!
As fall approaches, you may have noticed some of your garden veggies have slowed down. The leaves may look a little crispy or droopy or they’re starting to yellow. At this point in the season, it probably doesn’t have to do with watering. Plants that went into the ground back in May or June are reaching the natural end of their life. Most summer vegetables that we love such as eggplant, melons, and zucchini are annual plants that only live for one season, and then they naturally expire. Although, I always feel sad pulling out my plants at the end of a season, the good news is that there are still plenty of veggies that like to grow in California’s fall and winter. September through mid-October is a great time to plant leafy greens, root vegetables, and cruciferous crops (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts). Plant soon, so that you can enjoy garden fresh veggies throughout fall and winter as well!
Garden Bed Turnover
In between your summer and fall crop, it is good to give your planting bed a bit of a refresh. After harvesting the last of your summer crop and pulling out the spent plants, you’ll want to add some nutrients (in the form of fertilizer or compost) and soil back to your garden bed. If you are planting in containers, you may need to change out the soil, or at the very least, add more potting soil to your container. The reason for this is two-fold. First, most summer vegetables are known as ‘heavy feeders.’ Tomatoes, in particular, fall into this category. That means they need to take up a lot of nutrients from the soil in order to fuel their fast, fruit-laden growth. Those nutrients need to be replaced in your garden bed before the next round of crops, so your new plants don’t starve. The second reason to replace soil in your garden bed is simply because the soil level has likely dropped several inches since the beginning of last season. You’ll want to add in some new soil and/or compost and mix it into the existing soil.
Leafy greens are a great cold-tolerant crop that can thrive in the cooler temperatures of fall and winter. Some are hardier than others, so be sure to read the seed packets and plant tags to know how low your plants can go. Certain crops such as lettuce and spinach want to be protected from frosty nights with protective cloth. Other favorites such as chard and kale stand up to frosty nights and even taste better because of them. Other examples of leafy greens you can plant include mustard greens, collards, and arugula. Leafy greens are great to sautė, add to eggs and salads, as well as winter soups and stews.
Rooting for root vegetables! This tasty group includes beets, carrots, potatoes, radishes, and turnips. These are wonderful, hearty, starchy foods that grow well in the cooler weather. Beets, carrots, radishes, and turnips grow best when planted directly from seed into the garden bed. It is possible to transplant them, but sometimes they don’t take as well. With carrots especially, you will want to make sure you have nice loose soil to plant in. When carrots hit a hard pan of soil or a rock, they can stop growing downward and result in very short carrots and/or oddly shaped carrots. Admittedly, seeing the variations in carrot shapes is one of the fun things about growing them yourself. All of the atypical shaped carrots usually don’t make it to the grocery store!
Potatoes are a slightly different story. You don’t grow them by seed, you actually grow them from planting other potatoes! Most garden centers will carry something called “seed” potatoes. This means that they are potatoes which are ready to be planted and make you more potatoes. I often just plant the odd potato that has sat too long in my pantry and has begun to sprout. It has worked pretty well for me so far.
Alliums are a group of plants which includes onions, garlic, leeks, and shallots. I did not include them in the root vegetable section because technically they are not roots! The parts of these plants that we eat are actually modified leaves and stems. You can use their leaves while they grow (i.e. scallions, garlic scapes, green onion), and at the end of the season harvest the bulb! For cured garlic and onions, let the leaves dry down completely (become brown and dry) before harvesting. By letting them cure in the ground, they will store longer in the pantry or root storage.
Crucifers (a.k.a. Brassicas a.k.a. Cole crops). Yes, that is a lot of different names for one single group of plants. These terms are all referring to a very familiar plant group which includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, and brussel sprouts. Kale, mustard greens, collards, and bok choy are all brassicas, too. You may have noticed while eating these vegetables they all share some degree of sulfur tasting compounds. This is one of their shared characteristics. They all also happen to be rather cold hardy. Many crucifers actually taste better/sweeter after a cold snap because the plants are adapted to store their energy (a.k.a. sugar) during a freeze, resulting in a sweeter tasting harvest afterwards. Kale and broccoli can also sometimes look a little bit purple after a freeze, and this is also part of their reaction. This is a versatile plant group, and in my opinion, tastes best when grown in cold weather!
Some other cool weather crops include certain herbs, members of the pea family, and more. Parsley, cilantro, and chives can all stand some cold weather. Perennial herbs such as thyme, oregano, and sage may slow down over winter, but might still be producing some new leaves. Fennel is an herb which is grown for its bulb, leaves, and seeds. It does great in cold weather. Celery is another one which is infinitely useful for soups, stews, sauces, salads, snacks, and more. Awesome cool weather staple. Last, but not least, peas such as sugar snap peas and snow peas can be grown in fall and winter. Although once the rains begin, peas tend to be prone to powdery mildew. Harvest before mildew sets in to enjoy these yummy vegetables as snacks or in a stir fry!
So you want to ditch your lawn? We decided to ditch ours this summer (well, most of it). It was one of numerous projects we had planned for our yard this year, and if possible, we wanted to keep the cost of the project lower by doing the labor ourselves. After a little research and a little convincing, we decided to sheet mulch over our existing lawn. The result is a lower maintenance, lower cost, and more environmentally friendly yard.
What is sheet mulching?
While there are variations in approach, sheet mulching boils down to a technique of layering cardboard and mulch to kill weeds and lawn by depriving them of sunlight. Some people substitute newspaper or paper bags for cardboard, and I think this could work for a smaller space. However, with newspaper or paper bags, you would want to put multiple layers of paper down for complete coverage. Cardboard is great because it is already decently thick. In some tricky spots, however, you may need to have multiple cardboard layers. Mulch can include a combination of compost and shredded bark. Some guides suggest adding a layer of compost between the cardboard and bark layers, however, others do not mention it. For cost saving purposes, we chose to skip the layer of compost in between.
Why would you want to sheet mulch?
There are many benefits to sheet mulching. They include water savings, lower maintenance, and enriching the soil (e.g. carbon sequestering). The lawn and cardboard will break down under the bark over time adding carbon and nutrients to the soil. Additionally, the plants you choose to install in place of the lawn are an opportunity to add wildlife and pollinator friendly plants. There are also a number of attractive low-water and drought resistant plants that can thrive in your yard and reduce water use and costs.
How did we do our sheet mulching?
Here is the process we used, step-by-step:
Cap off sprinklers which will no longer be in use. Alternatively, use a sprinkler-to-drip conversion kit if you are going to be modifying your irrigation system. If you plan to use your current irrigation system, you can skip this step.
Mow & edge your grass as low as you can. This will make it easier to evenly layer the cardboard and mulch.
Lay out cardboard and wet it down completely.
We did a combination of collecting cardboard boxes at home and from family and friends and buying a roll of cardboard. Buying the cardboard added to the project’s overall expense, but towards the end we were in a time crunch, so we decided to make the purchase.
Spread bark 3-4 inches thick.
We purchased shredded cedar bark from a local soil yard and had it delivered. We borrowed a wheelbarrow, so we could bring loads of bark from the front to the backyard. We then spread out the remaining bark in an even layer in our front yard.
Some articles suggest contacting tree removal companies in your area to see if they will deliver wood chips to you for free. No guarantees, but it could be worth a call!
We spread the work out over a few weekends. We spent at least one whole weekend prepping the area- capping sprinklers, laying out cardboard boxes, and ordering supplies.
The next weekend, we had the bark delivered. We were able to get a good chunk of it moved in one day. We had two wheelbarrows and two rakes (3 would have been better). One person loaded the wheelbarrows, while the other ran and dumped them.
In the backyard, the plan is to add a second garden box next to the first! Then in the front yard, we will be planting later this fall. I have an idea of some of the plants I want and have a rough drawing sketched out. I will post an update once the new plants go in!
Making your own pico de gallo salsa is an easy way to spice up your Taco Tuesday! With ripe tomatoes and jalapenos from your garden, the freshness and flavor of this salsa will out shine any store bought pico. If you grow your own onions and cilantro, even better!
Pico de Gallo
3-4 ripe tomatoes
1-2 jalapenos (add more if you like it spicy!)
½ white onion
1 juiced lime
½ cup of cilantro
Remove stems and cut tomatoes into quarters. Cut jalapenos in half and remove seeds. Wash and remove stems from cilantro. Juice one lime. Add all of the ingredients to a food processor and pulse until everything is in small chunks. Alternatively, dice everything by hand and then combine with lime juice and cilantro in a medium mixing bowl. Eat with tortilla chips, on a taco, or as an accompaniment to a quesadilla!
Even as our summer garden wilts in the current heat wave, we are enjoying the last fruits of our labor and savoring each ounce of it! One of my favorite ways we’ve been enjoying our late summer produce is in caprese salads. By itself or on a crostini (really toasty bread), this is a delicious treat made that much better by using home grown tomatoes and basil and a deliciously simple homemade balsamic vinaigrette.
3-4 ripe tomatoes of your choice
½ cup of chopped basil
4 oz. of mozzarella (fresh or low moisture, depending on preference)
Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing
6 oz. extra virgin olive oil
2 oz. Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Salt & Pepper to taste
Pinch of dried oregano, basil, and/or Herbs de Provence (optional)
Slice tomatoes into thin rounds and slice mozzarella into equivalently sized pieces. Layer mozzarella and tomato slices in an alternating pattern. Sprinkle chopped basil evenly over the tomato and mozzarella, and drizzle balsamic vinaigrette over the salad.
Optionally, you can toast some slices of a nice Italian bread such as Puglisese, Focaccia, or Ciabatta, and serve the Caprese salad atop the toasted bread slices for an amazing homemade bruschetta. Be sure to drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette.
In the midst of these difficult and uncertain times, an interest in growing one’s own food is seeing a renewed fervor. Many home gardeners are posting pictures of their freshly planted vegetable gardens with the caption #victorygarden as an homage to another time of food shortages during World War II. Some are reminded of a time in the not as distant past when the 2008 Great Recession turned many towards growing their own food at home. One of those who was inspired to start growing their own food in 2008 was Chanowk Yisrael, a software engineer turned urban farmer living and working in Sacramento.
The Yisrael family, Chanowk, Judith, and their children, have been growing food and serving their local Oak Park neighborhood and the greater Sacramento area for a little over a decade now. According to the USDA, Oak Park is considered a “food desert”. This term means “an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food” (Oxford Languages). The Yisrael Family Farm helps combat that by growing food, educating eager gardeners, and nurturing their community. Or as their slogan says by “Transforming the Hood for G.O.O.D.”
The Yisraels have received recognition for their sustainable agriculture and social justice work over the decades. They have helped pass local laws to make selling food from home gardens and urban farms more accessible to more would-be farmers. They also have shared their story at popular conferences including the annual EcoFarm Conference in Monterey. They have impacted not only their local community but have made a name for themselves in the greater organic farming community.
Visiting the Farm
Back in February before most events were cancelled, my mom, boyfriend, and I took the opportunity to attend one of the Yisraels’ gardening workshops. The class we attended was called Planning Your Spring Garden. My mom found the registration for the class online and invited Josh and I. We were planning to start our own backyard garden soon, and we were intrigued by the idea of visiting the Yisrael Family Farm and having the privilege to learn from the legendary owner/operators.
The workshop began in a classroom at an elementary school across the street from the Yisraels’ home. The Yisraels use of one of the classrooms as a community education center. They also tend to the school’s garden space. Opening the classroom door, guests were greeted by the aroma of essential oils and the purr of a kettle full of boiling water. Judith Yisrael was checking in guests as Chanowk set up a PowerPoint presentation.
As we settled into our seats, we marveled at the beautiful stacks of handmade bars of soap lining one of the counter tops. Before the presentation began, Judith invited everyone to peruse the bath and body products and make purchases. My mom bought a couple bars of soap scented from herbs grown on their farm. After that, we were all asked to introduce ourselves. There was a group of about twenty people from their early twenties to late fifties and sixties. Many had attended Yisrael Farm workshops previously or had been recipients of a garden built through Chanowk’s garden consulting service. Others, like us, were new to the farm and its programs and were eager to soak up all of the knowledge.
After an awesome presentation on the ins-and-outs of gardening, we were led on a tour of their incredible farm. Their front yard was hedged in by medicinal and culinary herbs and brightly colored edible flowers. As we followed them around the side of the house, we came upon a large wooden bin underneath a shade tree. Chanowk opened the lid to show us the rich compost inside. It was full of worms and other little critters. Adjacent to the worm bins was a fenced off fruit orchard which was home to a lively group of hens. The hens scratched at the dirt and pecked the soil round the base of the fruit trees. As Chanowk entered the pen the hens gathered around him expectantly. We were each allowed to scoop up a handful of feed from a bucket and hold it out to the waiting hens. The hungry birds picked and pecked at the food in our palms and squawked loudly to vie for our attention.
Behind the orchard were several rows of crops which lay low to the ground. Things like lettuce, chard, kale, and onions were growing there. There was also a large structure sealed in plastic near the back fence. Chanowk and Judith rolled up the sheet of plastic that sealed the greenhouse to reveal a warm, humid wonderland of seedlings and trays of potting soil. As we entered, the temperature went up by about ten degrees, and condensation dripped down the sides of the walls and from the ceiling.
Outside of the greenhouse was another set of row crops in the ground. Next to that was a tool shed and a large water tank. Potting benches and tools lay ready to be picked up again. The work on a farm is never done. Closer to the house was a fire pit surrounded by places to sit and a grill to cook. Here the Yisraels host their friends, their family, their community and bring them together with fire and food. It was a gift to be let into their sanctuary, even just briefly. I hope we can visit again soon!
How to Support the Farm
The Yisraels sell plant starts and food from their farm and farm stand. They also sell their body care products. Also, with even more urgency now that the pandemic has increased the number of people experiencing food insecurity, the Yisraels also help people in their community to establish vegetable gardens at their own homes.
Check out their website. Read their story in their own words. Visit their online shop, and follow them on social media! I can’t overstate how important their work is especially in these tumultuous times.
Lavender is a beautiful and useful plant that is a must have for gardens! Not only does it smell and look great, but it is beneficial for pollinators, too. Not to mention you can use its fragrant flowers and leaves to scent soap or candles and flavor food and beverages. Making lavender sachets or using dried lavender for decoration are also popular uses of this wonderful plant.
Lavender is in the plant genus Lavandula. It is native to the Mediterranean region, and it grows well in other Mediterranean climates such as here in Sacramento. Once established, the plant has low water requirements, so it is great for drought-resistant landscaping. There are many species and varieties of Lavandula, including hybrids. Lavandula angustifolia and L. x heterophylla are edible lavenders which can be used to flavor drinks and foods (Brenzel 2001).
I am growing a variety called Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’ which is a hybrid of English lavender. It has beautiful light green stems and narrow leaves with long wispy flower spikes. In her HGTV.com article on culinary lavender, Julie Martens Forney says L. ‘Grosso’ has an “intensely intricate flavor” and “makes a wonderful culinary lavender.” After using some of my lavender to make a simple syrup and using the syrup to flavor some of my favorite drinks, I have to agree! (Lavender Simple Syrup recipe below).
I highly recommend growing lavender even if you only have room for a potted plant. Lavender can do well as a container plant, and you can still enjoy its delightful aroma and cheerful blooms! Not to mention lavender is supposed to help ease anxieties, and we could all use a little less stress in our lives right now!
Lavender Simple Syrup
1 Cup Sugar
1 Cup Water
½ Cup Lavender flowers and leaves
Combine in a small saucepan on the stove. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Simmer for one minute, then remove from the heat and let syrup steep for 30 mins. Pour into a clean jar and store in the fridge for 1-2 weeks. I like to add lavender simple syrup to coffee, tea, and cocktails to give them a lovely herbal twist. Also great in lemonade!
Brenzel, K. N. (Ed.). (2001). Sunset Western Garden Book (7th ed.). Sunset Publishing Corporation.
They thrive in hot weather and intense sunshine. They convert all of that wonderful sunlight into sugars that they use to grow and make food. The high temperatures help ripen the fruits of tomatoes and cheer-on the swelling of green bean pods. Tomatoes, zucchini, basil, and peppers are all classic summertime veggies. There is a reason that fresh vegetables like these taste best in summer- they like it hot!
Watering is Key
During hot spring and summer months, it is crucial to make sure you are watering your plants consistently and sufficiently. Getting to know your plants’ water requirements can take a little bit of research and a lot of time in the garden to fully understand your garden environment. Water needs can vary depending on how much sun your garden gets, how wind it might be, and what type of soil you use. Some soil can hold water more effectively than others, and that can impact how often you need to water.
Water moisture meters are usually readily available at hardware stores and garden centers. They can come in handy if you prefer a measurement to determine water needs. Your fingers are another great and even more readily available moisture gauging tool. Surface level soil moisture does not always tell you what you need to know, so dig down a few inches with your hands or a trowel and feel the soil. It should be as wet as a wrung out sponge. If it is any wetter than that, you may be watering too often, and if it is any drier than that, you may need to increase the amount or number of times per week that you water.
Certain plants have specific needs such as drying out completely between waterings or being constantly moist, so get to know your plants a little better to know if this is the case. Start with reading the tag or seed packet your plant came with. Oftentimes sun and water requirements will be written there on the tag. Consulting a gardening book such as the Sunset Western Garden or looking up your plant online is another simple way to learn more about the species you are caring for. Bonnie Plants website has a great educational section, and Old Farmer’s Almanac has some good articles, too.
The best time to water your garden, especially in hot weather, is the early morning before it gets too hot. The plants will be the most receptive to water at this time, and the roots and soil will have the opportunity to soak in the water before the intense heat dries everything out. If you are watering by hand, be sure to direct the stream at the base of the plant near the roots. The roots are the plant organs which take up the majority of a plant’s water and nutrients, so near the roots is where the water you apply will be the most effective and efficient.
Unnecessary moisture left on the leaves and the soil can make plants more vulnerable to fungus and bacteria. If you do run sprinklers, be sure to have them run early in the morning. This way the excess water will dry in the milder part of the day as it starts to heat up. By the time the sun is at full strength, the excess water will have evaporated. Drip line systems are generally very efficient and deliver water at a slow, steady rate to the roots of the plant.
Over the past few days, it has been fun watching our plants grow in leaps and bounds. I swear some of our tomatoes grew a few inches taller overnight! With some of the tomatoes growing up and over their cages, I am planning to start pruning the tops of the tomatoes to help keep them a more manageable size. Additionally, I prune the bottom leaves off of the tomato plants, so that none of them are touching the soil. Pruning some of the dense inner leaves of the tomato plants can also be nice for creating greater airflow between the leaves of the plant. The climate in and around a tomato tends to be hot and humid, which is great for tomatoes but also for fungus.
Our zucchini has put on its first fruit, and I am eagerly watching it grow. Even though I suspect we’ll soon be swimming in squash and wishing we weren’t, that first harvest of the season is always something magical to look forward to. Somehow the veggies taste extra delicious when you grow them yourself!
We are trellising our cucumber vertically with a tomato cage to help it maintain a social distance from the zucchini. Cucumbers have a vining growth habit and can quickly grow over and around your other plants if you let them. By intentionally training our cucumber onto a vertical trellis, we are keeping the other veggies’ health and safety in mind. Not to mention it also makes them easier to harvest!
The ‘Jedi’ jalapeno peppers we planted have already started to put on fruit. While I don’t know if these peppers will be strong in the force, I do suspect they will be strong in spice!
Our basil plants are lagging somewhat behind the rest. They stayed inside longer than most of our other seedlings because they were small, and now they continue to grow more slowly than the rest. We gave them a dose of fish and kelp emulsion liquid fertilizer, so hopefully they will start to catch up soon. Fingers crossed for some delicious pesto in my near future.
Hope everyone is keeping cool and staying safe out there! Happy gardening!
I am so excited for the brand new herbal additions to our garden! We transformed the bare patches of dirt on either side of our concrete walkway into a culinary herb garden. It is just feet away from our kitchen, so we will be able to easily access and harvest fresh herbs for our culinary creations!
They may not look like much now, but pretty soon we’ll have herbs to spare! I can’t wait to start cooking with these. I see compound butter and simple syrup in my future!
Thanks, of course, to Josh for installing the drip line! Looking forward to watching this part of our garden grow.