Thursday, December 15, 2011

Choosing Our Seeds: Part 2

The last blog post highlighted three great seed companies.  With this post, we’ll describe other interesting options.  This is not meant to be a comprehensive directory; it’s just a list of seed companies we know and love.

Sow True Seed
A favorite regional seed company is Sow True Seed in Asheville.  They carry many heirloom and certified organic varieties that grow well in the southern Appalachian Mountains and the piedmont area (where Greenville is located).

Sow True only sells untreated seeds, which means that no fungicides or other chemicals have been applied to them.  All seeds also are open-pollinated (as opposed to hybrids), which ensures that when the purchaser saves seeds, the resulting plants normally look and taste like the originals.

Seed Savers Exchange
Seed Savers Exchange, located in Decorah, Iowa, is a leader in locating and resuscitating heirloom and historically-significant varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs.  SSE publishes a beautiful catalog with botanically accurate names and vivid descriptions of plants and fruits.  A favorite of mine is their McMahon Texas Bird Pepper, a variety grown by Thomas Jefferson, which can be dug up, wintered inside, and replanted outside the following year.  

If you join SSE (for about $40/year, or $25 for those on a reduced or fixed income), you receive a 10% discount on each order and a copy of their Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, which lists nearly 14,000 varieties of seeds owned by members.  Its intent is to encourage seed-sharing and to connect people who have similar growing interests.

If you want a catalog where you don’t have to search for the organic seed designation, take a look at High Mowing Seeds, a small operation in Vermont.  100% of their seeds – over 600 varieties - are certified organic and non-genetically modified.   

Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
Peaceful Valley offers a line of private-label, organic seed.  One advantage of ordering from them is that they also sell other brands of seed (Renee’s Garden, Horizon Herbs and Seeds of Change), allowing you to purchase from several companies with one order form and one shipping charge.

Horizon is the ultimate seed catalog for high-quality, organic herb seeds, herb plants and tincturing supplies.   The most beautiful plants I’ve ever received were shipped by Horizon from the west coast, one of which was a horseradish plant that’s been shared with many friends over the last few years. 

Do keep in mind that the companies we’ve covered in both blogs sometimes have very different prices for comparable varieties of seeds.  Always check the number of seeds or weight of packets when you are comparing companies’ prices.

If you have any other companies you think we should know about, please share their information with us in the “Comments” section below.  It’s time to curl up on the sofa with those beautiful catalogs and a cup of hot chocolate or eggnog!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Choosing Our Seeds: Part 1

Seed catalogs have started pouring in.  Gardeners, place your orders!  Seed sales have increased 20% - 30% each year for a while now, so early ordering is the key to securing the varieties you want.

Before you choose your seed sources, identify what is most important to you about the companies from whom you order.  Is it organic seed selection; a good choice of heirloom, open-pollinated varieties; offerings of old Southern standards; or maybe plants related to your birthplace or ethnic heritage? 

I usually order at least a few packages from Johnny’s Seeds in Maine.  They’re geared toward commercial growers, but still have much to offer the home gardener.   (  The germination rates are among the best in the industry, and although not all of the seeds are open-pollinated or organic, they do have many organic and heirloom varieties.  Their catalog alone is a wealth of information.  It lists germination time, planting instructions and information about which plants are heat-resistant and cold-tolerant.  If you want a place to help you identify more edible flowers for your garden, this is it.  Johnny’s also offers organic strawberry plants, which sometimes are difficult to find.  Even if you don’t plan to order from them, be sure to get one of their catalogs.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds ( is another source for non-genetically modified, heirloom, open-pollinated varieties - although none are certified organic.  Their focus is on maintaining and reviving ethnic specialty varieties and preserving biodiversity in our gardens. As our climate changes, many of us are shifting some of our production to more unusual plants that thrive in our hot, humid area:  Malabar spinach, winged beans, yard long beans and different varieties of melons.   Baker Creek offers all of these, along with complete homesteading packages for the Southeast.  Their photographs will fuel your summer garden fantasies!   

Paul Manuel, Director of Food & Nutrition Services for Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, favors Heavenly Seed, a company based in Anderson:  Their seed offerings are focused on what grows well in our region, which is an often-overlooked, but critical, characteristic.  They offer many open-pollinated heirloom and organic varieties of seeds, in addition to Clemson-developed hybrids and sweet potato plants.  The prices are very reasonable:  a packet of 400 Burgundy Okra seeds (a favorite of Paul’s) sells for $2, as does a package of 8000 seeds (1/4 oz.) of Southern Giant Curled Mustard.  We will be ordering from them in 2012.

Before you place an order with anyone, be sure to check the companies you’ve chosen on the Dave’s Garden Watchdog site: Consumers rate their experiences with garden companies as positive, negative, or neutral, with supporting comments.  Using this resource can help you avoid becoming entangled in a customer service nightmare - or confirm that you've made a good choice!  

Part 2 of our blog, which will be posted next week, will cover additional seed company choices.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Transitioning to Your Fall Garden Part 2: Soil Recovery and Season Extension

Soil Recovery
If you can, allow part of your garden to rest for the winter.  Late fall is a great time to rebuild soil fertility by adding compost or piling on manure.  Some types of manure, like poultry droppings, require a 90-day waiting period before you plant, making November and December the perfect months to incorporate it for your early spring garden.   No matter what you do with your soil, at the very least, do not let it remain bare in the winter months.  The simplest method of protection is to cover the ground with spoiled hay or straw.  The mulch will help prevent vital nutrients from leaching out of the soil and will add organic matter to your garden as it decomposes over the winter.
Season Extension
Many of us continue to grow vegetables into the fall and winter.  Mustard greens, collards, broccoli, lettuce, radishes, arugula and onions are all thriving at the St. Francis Community Garden right now.  Here in South Carolina, we don’t have to resort to heated hoop houses or greenhouses to extend our gardening season through the winter and keep our plants alive.   There are several steps we can take, however, to extend the life of our less hardy greens and to keep our plants growing for a while longer. 
Using heavy straw mulch helps.  You can often avoid damage from a light frost by covering your less hardy greens with the straw, then pulling it back off the plants after the air has warmed (mid-morning).  Covering your plants with row covers or plastic draped over hoops or lines also helps protect plants from frost.  The covers we use in the garden should add about 4 degrees of frost protection and will keep the ambient temperatures just warm enough to bolster the greens’ growth until the coldest part of the winter (December and January).
If you decide to use a row cover, whether it is fiber or plastic, make sure that you keep the material off the plants to ensure frost protection. 
Instead of row covers, some gardeners use milk jugs or similar containers to cover plants.   Cut the bottom out of the milk container and place it over the plant.   Take the cap off the jug when the daytime temperatures hit the high 30’s, and put it back on as the temperatures cool in the evening.   If the temperatures move above 50, remove the jug entirely during the day.
Another thing to be aware of is that you can create a “spa” environment for pests when sheltering your plants.  They like season protection, too.  Check your plants for cabbage worms and related pests before putting on a cover.  If you notice new damage after the covers have been placed over the garden, patrol again.  For natural slug (and some caterpillar) control, put sweet gum balls around the bases of the plants.  Tender-bodied pests don’t like to crawl over the prickly seed pods.  Just be sure to pull up any sweet gum volunteers quickly next spring.
Speaking of spring, we'll cover seed companies and plant variety choices in the next blog.  Catalogs come out in December and January; it won't be long before we'll be planning our spring gardens!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Transitioning Your Garden from Summer to Fall I: When to take out summer vegetables

The question I’m most often asked at this time of year is, “When do I take out my summer vegetables and plant my fall garden?” Your timing for transitioning the garden depends on two factors:

1) Space. Do you have to take out your summer vegetables to make room for fall? If not, leave them in the ground until the first frost.

2) Productivity. Are your summer plants still productive? If they are, leave them in and reap the benefits.

You may be surprised at how productive summer vegetables can be in October. Last year, my tomatoes had hundreds of green fruits on them when our local meteorologist predicted the first frost. I kept the larger ones on my counter, and they ripened over a 5-week period. Their taste and nutritional value were somewhere between fresh-picked, vine-ripened July tomatoes and grocery store offerings. It seems like the longer it takes them to ripen, the less flavorful they are.

As an alternative to covering your countertops with fruit, you can pull the tomato plants out of the ground and hang them upside down, in a cool but protected spot, picking tomatoes as they ripen.

Green tomatoes can be used in cooking (see Dot Russell’s recipe in the newest issue of Edible Upcountry) or pickled. Pickling was the method I chose for the cherry tomatoes. The only required additions were pickling salt and vinegar. I chose to include garlic and dill seed from my garden, before I processed the tomatoes with the water bath method.

So many recipes for pickled tomatoes are based on pecks or bushels – but here’s one that’s great for small batches:

We’ll post more information about fall gardens soon – and watch for our upcoming courses on food preservation and cooking!


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Welcome Rebecca!

We are thrilled to finally have Rebecca McKinney join our St. Francis Community Garden family! Many of you are very familiar with her from her volunteer work in the garden over the summer. As of Monday, September 12th, she is now a part time St. Francis employee and your expert in gardening. To reach Rebecca, her phone number is #255.188 EXT. 2233 and her email is She has a wealth of knowledge in many areas (as highlighted in her biography below). She will be hosting the Sprouting Saturdays through the Fall and assisting me with educational programming, so stay tuned! Addditonally, here are 6 interesting facts about our new face of the St. Francis Communtiy Garden:

  1. She grew up in Southwestern Ohio, in an area surrounded by farms. As a child, she spent most of her vacations on relatives’ farms in Southwestern Kentucky.

  2. She has one sibling, a brother, a patent attorney in California who specializes in nanotechnology (The science and technology of building devices, such as electronic circuits, from single atoms and molecules.).

  1. She and her husband's suburban homestead houses 13 chickens, 5 ducks, bees and 3 cats. She has future hopes of adding Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats to her animal one day.

  2. She and her husband enjoy bicycling the Swamp Rabbit Trail together.

  3. She likes to bake and make cheese, yogurt, jams and salsas.

  4. She is published in the area of psychometrics (The branch of psychology that deals with the design, administration, and interpretation of quantitative tests for the measurement of psychological variables such as intelligence, aptitude, and personality traits).

Rebecca McKinney is an experienced organic gardener, instructor and consultant. A former college professor, Assistant Dean of a School of Business Administration, corporate trainer, manager for industry, and management consultant, she now focuses on developing self-sufficiency and on sharing knowledge about organic gardening and sustainable living.

Rebecca has trained elementary school teachers and garden volunteers for Greenville Organic Foods Organization’s (GOFO’s) Grow Healthy Kids program and staff for the Phoenix Center’s therapeutic adolescent gardening program. She and GOFO’s founder, Viviane Trama, also developed a 12-week gardening and nutrition curriculum for the Phoenix Center and worked with staff and residents to plan, plant and maintain their garden.

She continued her work with children at Stone Academy, where she developed outdoor garden-related activities for elementary school students.

Rebecca also teaches for the OLLI program at Furman University. Her first class, “Beginning Organic Gardening,” was so popular that she was asked to develop more courses. “Our Local Sustainable/Organic Food System” brought farmers and food experts in to highlight the importance of buying locally and organically-produced meat and vegetables, and led to a series titled “Locally Owned and Grown,” in which students will tour local farms and restaurants that source locally.

Rebecca has been a Master Gardener since 2007. As a member of their Speakers Bureau, she is frequently asked to speak to garden clubs and other organizations about organic gardening, native plants and invasive plants. The MG evening program recently requested that she present “Transitioning to Organics” as part of a continuing education requirement for all Master Gardeners.

She recently graduated from the South Carolina New and Beginning Farmers Program, where she built a network of contacts and friends throughout the state and attended classes on agribusiness and farming.
Rebecca is a member of GreenWorks, a green networking group; Carolina Farm Stewardship Association; Piedmont Beekeepers Association; South Carolina Upstate Mycological Society and Greater Greenville Master Gardeners.

Please join me in welcoming Rebecca! Our next Sprouting Saturday is scheduled for September 24th at 9am. Additionally, for those who have a hard time attending on Saturdays, Rebecca will be holding a Sprouting Tuesday evening in the garden beginning at 5:30 (for those who can get away after work). Please take advantage of these times for having Rebecca guide your Fall planting and assist in troubleshooting issues.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Plot Spotlight: Ben and Sarah's Plot H

Many a plot owner and stranger alike have marveled at our community garden's Plot H. The bed is exploding with standard garden fare; herbs, leafy greens, vegetables, root crops and a few more unusual elements, like plastic water bottles. For our first Plot Owner Spotlight, Ben and Sarah graciously spilled the (green) beans and confided their gardening secrets, dreams, and demons (cabbage maggots, of course).

Ben and Sarah may say they are garden “newbies,” but both have had outside experience. Sarah is an avid rose gardener, a pursuit whose difficulty prepared her for the commitment a productive food plot requires. Ben's mother has casually gardened at her home in Florida as long as he can remember, growing exotics like dead man's fingers and bananas. Their signature upturned liter bottles of water are actually a trick taken from Ben's mom. She wanted to improvise an alternative to the trendy “aqua globe” to water her plants in the summer's heat. An upside down bottle filled with water allowed the soil to absorb the water it needed close to the root system.

Perhaps the pair's influences explain their garden's unique style, which could be explained as at once whimsical and utilitarian. Every inch of space is meticulously planted with the spacing, nutrient, and pest prevention needs of each plant considered. Ben and Sarah follow a master plan they designed months before the growing season that allows for crop rotation and companion planting and keep a detailed techie garden notebook (on Ben's phone) so they can review and plan for the next year.

At the same time, the plot is undeniably beautiful. From a distance the rainbow chard provides a shriek of color against the jeweled emeralds and jades of leafy greens, broccoli, lettuces, and nightshade leaves. Heirloom vegetable varieties are sought out for both their flavor and stunning additions of color and texture. Globes of water are suspended, seemingly in thin air, throughout the plot and a wispy border of herbs and sleek onion tops edge in the perimeter.

As vegans, Ben and Sarah are as careful with their plot inputs as they are with their diets. Their garden is organic and they try to avoid soil amendments that are made from animal meat, like fertilizers containing blood or bone meal. They mentioned poor soil fertility, a common problem in beginning urban gardens, as an issue in their plot and amended their soil with worm tea and ZOOM! Organic Garden Food. Ben and Sarah are finalizing their planting plan for fall as their summer crops go in and are hoping to build a cold frame and start more of their vegetables from seed. The strengthened connection they now feel to their food is not going to be easy to let go. They plan to plant through the winter in hopes of a year round harvest, we hope they succeed!

Want a plot like theirs? We are hoping to stock the shed with “The Vegetable Gardener's Bible” and Neem Oil, their garden manual and pesticide of choice, but their daily diligence in watering, pruning, and picking off pests is up to you!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Meet your new Sustainability Specialist!

(L-R) Sydney with plot owners Sarah Kocienski and Ben Carson

Hi all! This is Sydney, St. Francis’ newly hired Sustainability Specialist. I will be working in the garden, leading workshops, organizing garden related events, and, hopefully, posting regularly on this blog! I am so excited to be part of the good work everyone involved in the St. Francis Community Garden is doing and cannot wait to meet all of our plot members and supporters.

Before I fill you in on upcoming garden news, I would like to share a bit about myself. My life sometimes feels like it revolves around food.

Cajun roots ensure I love good eating, music, and times. I have a relentless itch to travel. When stationary too long, I become a voracious reader and cook and let my mind and palate wander. My bachelor’s degree focused on sustainable food systems, anthropology, and women and gender studies. I am certified in Permaculture Design, a system for designing sustainable cultural and agricultural systems that mimic patterns in nature, which has greatly influenced my personal direction and philosophy. I have experience working domestically and abroad on gardens, urban farms, and various food projects. My career focus, and passion, lies in increasing access to fresh produce in underserved communities, which makes St. Francis’ Community Garden a great fit!

Natalie and I thought it would be nice to have an event where we could all meet. I hope you can attend our Garden Meet & Greet tomorrow (Friday, April 29th) from 11:30am-1:00 pm and start the season off right! If friendly faces and good conversation is not enough to get you out, we will also have lemonade!

Our Sprouting Saturdays schedule has been sent out. The first will be May 7th from 9-12. I hope we can cover a special gardening topic each Sprouting Saturday and would love your feedback. What has been ailing you in the garden? What green buzz has you itching for more information?

Please do not hesitate to contact me with garden questions or concerns (or even just to chat). My office number is (864) 255-1800 ext. 2233 and my email is

Monday, March 14, 2011

First Spring Planting Day of 2011

This past Saturday was our first Spring Planting Day of 2011 and the day could not have been more perfect. After a 4 month hiatus from garden activity, it was so nice to get back into the gardening routine and see so many familiar faces and new ones. To top it off, the weather was amazing!

I mentioned a few announcements at the Spring Planting Day that I wanted to mention here as well. First, we have a slightly new look at the garden, as we were able to get the outside of the garden, closest to the road, landscaped for "curb appeal." Many community gardens are not well know for their aesthetics, so we are blessed to get some help in this area (see below)!

Next, we have also put in an order to get our garden storage unit wrapped, adding an awning on the front. This will also increase the curb appeal and allow a bit of shade for us on hot summer days.

Amidst much fuss trying to create home-made permanent plot markers, we have commissioned Ryan Galloway, the local artist down the street, to create metal weather-proof garen plot markers for our plots. We are going to maintain the alphabet theme and will paint them ourselves. If you are interested in helping with this project, please contact me!

Finally, we are in the midst of adding a new addition to our gardening team. Thanks to a grant applied for through the Bon Secours Mission Fund, we will soon have a person to support the St. Francis Communtiy Gardening efforts part time. This Sustainability Specialist will be skilled in vegetable gardening, organization, and community relationship building. We are currently interviewing qualified individuals and hope to have a person hired by the end of the month/beginning of next. We will keep everyone posted on our new addition:)
Our next Sprouting Saturday will be March 26th at 9:00am. See you then!