Prepare Garden Soil for Growing

Prepare Garden Soil for Growing

By Kelly Orzel, author, master gardener and owner Bowery Beach Farms

soilTest.-¬KellyOrzelPhotographyWhen most gardeners think about their garden, they picture big beautiful blooms or perfectly ripe tomatoes…I think about what’s underneath: Dirt. (Sidenote: I would bottle that scent and wear it if I could!)

But first things first, test your soil. The importance of soil testing cannot be overstated. Most vegetables prefer a pH of 6.5, but without a starting point you won’t know whether you need lime to raise it, or sulfur to reduce it. Your results also tell you which amendments to add if you want to grow brassicas, nightshades or something else. Soil test kits are available at your local extension office and for a nominal fee you’ll get all sorts of helpful information (it’s worth the investment).

Don’t scrimp on soil. I saw it time and again when I worked in the nursery, weekend warriors trying to save a few bucks on inferior soil, while spending huge amounts of money on dahlia tubers, new seeds or bright, colorful annuals and perennials. This ADES (All Dirt Is Equal Syndrome), affects many new (and experienced) gardeners, and can be disastrous in the garden!

soil.compostAmended.-¬KellyOrzelPhotographyLet’s dispel soil myth #1 first:  Topsoil is not the answer. “Topsoil” means the dirt was scraped from the top, including troublesome weed seed. It doesn’t indicate if it has organic matter (which you want) or what percent of sand, silt and clay is in the bag. What you really want instead is loam. Loam has just the right balance of soil particles, giving you excellent drainage and improved nutrient and water-holding capacity (yes!). Look at soil bag descriptions and look for something that drains well.

Every year I start with a soil test to determine what my plants are going to need and add accordingly (blood meal for foliage, bonemeal for flowering plants and lime/sulfur to adjust the pH). Just follow the directions on the bag and apply.

A note on digging. Unless you are starting a brand-spanking new bed, DON’T DO IT ! This is soil myth #2: Rototilling mixes your soil. No. It doesn’t. Actually, it breaks apart your soil’s structure and kills the beneficial microbes and worms living in your garden.

soil.Feat.-¬KellyOrzelPhotographyInstead, top dress your beds with a few inches of compost and let the earthworms do the work. It’s what they want to do anyway and they’re good at it. They’ll sense that delicious, nutrient-rich compost ladled on top of your garden bed and crawl up, around and down as fast as they can to digest nutrients, leaving castings and distributing nutrients throughout the soil. Why would you want to mess with the natural order of the universe?

For new raised beds, fill them with a 50/50 mixture of garden loam and compost, topping it with a few inches of straight compost. Otherwise, all the same principles for amending and no tilling apply.

Soil myth #3: You need to aerate your soil. Wrong-o. While you want some space in your soil for air, water and roots to tunnel through and reach nutrients, let the soil microbes handle that. This is why good soil structure is so important (remember that mix of sand, silt and clay we talked about?). You don’t want too much sand because that will cause all your water and nutrients to drain away before plants can get a hold of them, and you don’t want too much clay either, which causes root rot. With the right blend of soil particles, earthworms and microbes not only till, but they aerate as well, leaving behind hundreds and thousands of channels as they slide, inch and wiggle their way through your garden.

Osoil.Bed.-¬KellyOrzelPhotographynce your bed has been made (ha!) and planted in, try to avoid stepping on and compacting the soil. Each time you compress the soil, you’re squeezing out all those air channels and suffocating the roots.

As you plant into your beds and notice an increase in earthworms, that means you are doing something right! Earthworms are a sign of healthy, biological activity in your soil. If you don’t see as many worms as you like, you can add casting to help improve the fertility, buy actual earthworms and toss them into the garden or raise your own in a homemade earthworm bin (there’s lots of free plans available online).
Personally, I use drip tape and landscape fabric (rated for 12-15 years) with holes burned into them, and plant directly into these little pockets to help control the weed situation.

BackyardGardenerBook.KellyOrzel.-¬KellyOrzelPhotography 2While most of us hate weeds because they make the garden look sloppy, but they’re extremely dangerous because they steal all that organic matter and water from your plants, and overcrowd your garden. To make it look more aesthetically pleasing you can cover the fabric with wood chips, straw or gravel.

For more information on soil, its amendments and nutrients, compost, as well as everything you can (and can’t) imagine about organic growing and the kitchen garden, pick up a copy of Kelly’s book, The Backyard Gardener, available on Amazon
Barnes+Noble’s or get your signed copy on her site, Bowery Beach Farm.

Kelly.Orzel.BoweryBeachFarmKelly Orzel is an author, girl-farmer, garden speaker, Master Gardener and life-long grower of green things. With more than 20 years of experience and a master’s degree in Horticulture, Kelly’s obsession for plants and flowers has culminated with Bowery Beach Farm in Maine. As a sustainable, organic farmer she specializes in culinary herbs and scented geraniums.  

Aside from dirt, Kelly loves bread and cheese, over-sized sweaters and Jane Austen novels. For more information on Kelly and her garden lectures, contact her here! You can visit her and her farm at

Consider the Ultimate Kitchen Appliance

Consider the Ultimate Kitchen Appliance

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

Residential 001In 2001, when my boys were toddlers I read This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow. Considered the mother of the “eat locally” paradigm (other than Alice Waters, of course), the nutrition professor tracked a year of eating locally and organically with the seasons. If she’d been southern California it might have been easy. But she was working with the short growing season on the Hudson River not far from New York City. She was convincing with her experience, made it sound like an adventure. So, to the best of my ability, I pursued a similar lifestyle in Northeast Ohio.

Imagine if I’d had the budget for an Urban Cultivator, a fully automated kitchen garden?  I love kitchen toys and this is the ultimate … a climate-controlled greenhouse that slides under the kitchen counter. Looking a bit like a wine mini-fridge, the fully plumbed appliance makes it possible to have fresh herbs, greens and veggies year ‘round without leaving the kitchen. Think Caprese salad with just-picked basil?! In winter.

I hadn’t heard of the appliance until this year, but the Urban Cultivator has been around almost 20 years. Its precursor was a “box” for growing medicinal cannabis. In an ironic twist, growers wanted a product for kitchen gardens and so a new company was born.

UrbanCultivator_KitchenExample-06Chefs were interested because they could control quality and source expensive, hard-to-find herbs and microgreens, says Tarren Wolfe, company spokesperson.  (No relation to this blogger.) He recommends leaf lettuces, sunflower sprouts, micro-arugula and more. “You can go beyond your everyday, average salad with a far more nutritional product.”

“When you pick something you lose quality and up to 50 percent of nutritional value in 24 hours,” says Wolfe. “With the Urban Cultivator you can do it cheaper and get a tastier, healthier product.”

The mini-greenhouses, which hold up to four flats of plants, are self-contained and self-regulating. They top up watering reservoirs and control heat, light and humidity.  I’d be growing parsley, basil, lemon thyme, mint and so much more if only I had $2,500 to add one to my current kitchen. The restaurant version is much bigger and costs closer to $10,000.

Learn to Use the Herbal Wellness Cabinet

Learn to Use the Herbal Wellness Cabinet

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

RXDana Eudy, owner of Field Apothecary in Germantown, New York, sees herbs as a contributor to a healthy lifestyle and that, she says, “keep us out of the expensive, over-burdened health care system.”

“Herbs can be used in so many creative ways from healing to cooking to skincare to cocktails,” she says.  “I like getting them in to my system in all forms and am always looking of ways to be inventive with them. They have the amazing power to heal us on our deepest levels.”

Thinking about it holistically, the herbal maker says, “They live in harsh elements and toxic environments but have evolved to tolerate and even defend themselves under these conditions. They also have the ability to capture our only true energy source – the sun and turn it into food and medicine.  While herbs can be used for treating illness, I suggest that a person work with a practitioner if they are dealing with a complicated health issue.”

I blogged about Field Apothecary  in February and sampled a CSA Wellness Box in March. This month, I return to owner Dana to learn more about the products delivered to subscribers of her Community Supported Apothecary (CSA) or sold individually on line. My figurative “place” in mainstream culture is so far removed from herbal treatments, that I asked Dana’s guidance to use some of the products such as bitters and flaming cider. Others, such as Poison Ivy Liniment, Lip Balm and Tulsi Tea, were self explanatory.

Q. How do you know which herbs and herbal products to combine?

A. I have been fortunate to have many great teachers such as Peeka Trenkle, David Crow, Dr. Vasant Lad. I use herbs like I would use food. I have many herbal books that I consider cookbooks. I keep these books stored in my kitchen and I refer to them often. It is certainly an indulgence and I have quite a library filled with herb reference books.  All the remedies that we make are also used in my own home so it is a personal experience.

20170216_080809Q. I received various bitters in my Wellness Box. What will Digestive Bitters do for me?
A. Bitters RULE! You will notice that many European diets have an apertivo or digestif before or after a meal. Meanwhile, Eastern medical traditions consider digestion the beginning of good health. Bitters help stoke digestive fires and help us assimilate and digest our food.  Because the digestive fire slows as we age it becomes increasingly important to get bitters (bitter food, too) into our diet.         Our digestive system is the seat of our health. If we are digesting well, we are typically more in balance throughout our system. And our gut and mind are interconnected. A healthy gut certainly leads to a healthy mind. We literally “think” more clearly.
Q. What do Clear Thinking bitters do for me?
A. I use them before meditation but also later in the day when I am feeling sluggish and need to bring my focus back. Field Apothecary’s remedy contains the two brahmi herbs gotu kola and bacopa which we grow at Field. Brahmi herbs are a very special class of herbs in Ayurveda that are considered brain food.

20170216_080622Q.  What does Flaming Cider do?
A. Flaming Cider as we call it is an amazing overall boosting tonic. Apple Cider Vinegar by itself is so beneficial. By adding herbs to this base we make it stronger. It is great for first-stage colds, congestion and stagnation. When our bodies are having a hard time keeping up with seasonal transitions such hot inside cold out, think fire cider. We use it as a vinaigrette, add it to cole slaw, guacamole, flaming cider margarita, bloody mary, roasted veggies . . . you can see how versatile and how I might work to get it in to my diet. A little goes a long way. Even my kids will ask me for it when they are feeling a bit off. A shot or one tablespoon should generally do it. If I am under the weather, I may take that amount 3 times per day. Flaming Cider also kick starts digestive fire with all the warming herbs such as garlic, ginger and horseradish.

All Field Apothecary wellness products are made from herbs cultivated by Dana and her family. They grow about 65 different herbs – from hops to tulsi.  Her tinctures, ointments and more are sold individually online or through a CSA subscription. 


4 Tips for Herb Garden Photography

CG HeadshotBy Chad Gordon, Guest Blogger, Professional Photographer

Do you feel like you see one thing, the camera sees another? Consider the following to improve your garden photography.

  • Shoot during the “Golden Hour” … For beautiful light and long shadows that give a photograph warmth and depth, its best to shoot in the “golden hours” loosely defined as two hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset. There is a sweet spot for light in that time frame that can depend on the day or time of year, but generally, your images will be more dynamic in those hours because the sun is lower in the sky, casting more defined shadows.  Photographing in the middle of the day often renders flat, washed out, or uninteresting results.
  • Think about composition … Composition is another key to an interesting OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAphotograph. Try isolating one herb. Try selective focus… blurring out the background if you have the capability. Or isolating the plant against a clean background. You may want to remove a stray dead leaf. I pay attention to everything in the frame before clicking the shutter.
  • Change perspective…. Change your sight plane. Crouch or stand on a rock or bench (carefully!). Heck, Lay on your stomach. Many people only shoot form their natural standing height because that is how we always see things. Changing the angle or sight plane can make an image much more unique and interesting.
  • Slow down … That is my biggest tip. Sounds corny but experience the setting. Feel it. Take your time and walk around and look how the light touches things. I often just spend my time looking before even taking the camera out. How you feel at that moment will often be conveyed in your image. If your goal is to just document a plant or setting, which is totally fine if that is your goal, but it will feel like a document for record.

Chad is Creative Director at designRoom Creative in Cleveland. He studied photography in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has a degree in photo illustration from Ohio University. His unique infrared photography has been shown in numerous galleries.

Growing Native: What’s All the Fuss?

Growing Native: What’s All the Fuss?

By Rie Sluder, Guest Blogger, HSA Vice President * From the NorthEast Seacoast Unit newsletter Snippings

Queen Anne's Lace 2Exactly what is a native plant? To most people’s surprise the wildflowers that populate our road sides are not all native plants. Queen Anne’s lace, the ox-eye daisy, dame’s rocket, and common chicory were introduced to North America by early settlers. They escaped cultivation and have adapted to the environment so much so that they have become ubiquitous throughout New England and beyond. So exactly what is a native plant and why all the fuss?

Many define a native plant as a plant that was here before European settlement. It evolved over time with the other organisms in the area creating an ecosystem that is beneficial to all. In Grow Native: Bringing Natural Beauty to Your Garden, Lynn Steiner defines a native plant as a plant that is an integral part of a biotic community, establishing complex relationships with other local plants and animals.  Steiner points out that indigenous people lived in harmony with the natural ecosystem while the colonists did not. When settlers arrived, they chopped down the trees, ploughed the land and planted seeds from their homeland to replicate a lifestyle they had left behind. Many of these imported plants escaped cultivation and invaded the countryside changing the local habitat.

purple coneflowerOver time many native habitats were destroyed affecting the population of animals and insects that depended on them. The practice continues to this day. The decline in the Monarch butterfly population is an example of what happens when its natural habitat becomes threatened.

The plant industry often looks at plants as decoration only. Plants are chosen and developed because they are a particular size, color, have attractive leaf variegation or have double blooms. While this is pleasing to the eye and promotes sales, little thought is given to how it will impact the environment or the local wildlife. While we all want beautiful gardens we must realize that we do not live in isolation.

Growing natives helps to secure the biodiversity of our environment. Native plants attract pollinators which in turn help the plants produce seeds to replicate themselves. Having genetic diversity allows for new combinations of plants to form over time resulting in new adaptations that allow our planet to evolve and survive as climatic conditions change.

Another good reason to grow natives is that they are more sustainable to grow. They have developed a natural resistance to local insects and diseases and, therefore, need little if any intervention such as the use of pesticides. When grown in the proper conditions for a species, native plants thrive with less water and maintenance then many nonnative ornamental plants do. For many parts of the country having survived a drought last summer, this becomes an important asset.

goldenrodDeciding what to plant in your garden is a personal decision. If you want to go native, Steiner recommends that the best way to start is to integrate native plants with your established nonnative landscape plants. Choose plants that fit the conditions of your garden rather than trying to force them to adapt. A strong healthy plant is more resistant to insect infestations and to disease.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Database is a good resource to use to determine if a plant is native. You may discover that many of the plants that you already grow are native plants such as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), bee balm (Monarda didyma), purple cone flower (Echinacea purpurea) sunflowers (Helianthus), lance leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), blazing star( Liatris spicata), lupine (Lupinus perennis), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa L), and mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum).

The Herb Society of America has two programs that support native conservation. The Native Herb Conservation Committee, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, identifies and promotes the use of native herbs. Its fact sheets and essential guides can be found on the website ( under “Explore”. The 2017 Notable Native HerbTM is Solidago spp.

GreenBridgesLogo_LoThe second program offered by HSA is the GreenBridgesTM program which was created to secure safe passage of plants and pollinators by helping to prevent habitat fragmentation. Become a GreenBridgesTM partner by registering your garden with HSA. Details can be found on the HSA website .

Save Those Dandelions for Wine

Save Those Dandelions for Wine

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster and Kelly Wilkinson, Dandelion Wine ExpertDandelion (2)

When I was a child my family of four bonded over dandelion hunting. We plunged narrow trowels into dry earth twisting and pleading with the dandelion roots to let go. We were removing these pests from my parent’s rural yard.

Today, I’m uncertain why. If you think about it they have cheery yellow faces and whimsical wishing poofs. But, I guess we’ve been cultured to think of them as unsightly.

If you’re going to remove them, why not repurpose them as food. (WARNING: Only use those from yards NOT treated with chemicals.) Young greens are good in salad or sautéed like spinach. Flowers are nutritional in baked goods.

In collecting and creating I was surprised by the short season, which varies by region. Their late spring  appearance in Northeast Ohio is not nearly enough to feed my culinary curiosity.

Quick before they disappear I want to share a conversation with Kelley Wilkinson from Asheville, North Carolina. Kelley writes:

6 year old dandelion wineI used to be a wine snob. I worked in a wine shop for a year, and was paid with wine, instead of a salary, and learned everything I could. We held weekly tastings and I even rubbed noses with Robert Parker at national events. I filled my cellar with the finest Bordeaux and California wines. 

But I’ve also been a long-time organic grower and gardener.

The two things didn’t quite jive, since I knew that grape production often involves tons of toxic chemicals. Plus I have been a wild-food aficionado and herbalist for many years. So making my own organic and/or wild alcohol seemed inevitable. I was a bit nervous to begin the journey, since I  have been cursed with a good palette. (I KNOW when I’m drinking awful wine.)

So when I made my first batch, I was not expecting much, to be honest. The amazing outcome for me was that the Dandelion wine I made was so superior to much of the world’s ‘finest’ wine, that it actually left me speechless.

In the wine world, we talk about floral notes. As you can imagine, no wine I’ve ever tasted has had the kind of floral notes that come through in a great batch of dandelion wine. Literally takes your breath away. The nose on it is astounding. And of course, bowing to the wisdom of our ancestors, knowing that what you are drinking is a lovely medicinal, its impossible not to fall in love.

At this point my husband and I make nearly all of our own alcohol, from mead to hard cider, and have found the process so simple and rewarding, we rarely buy alcohol any more.

Do I miss that ’89 Haut Brion anymore? Actually I still have several cases in my cellar (which, by the way, is now mostly filled with dried herbs, medicinals, and food storages). But I find myself reaching for the home brew instead.

* * *

Dandelion (1)Here Kelley shares her basic recipe for dandelion wine. Note, I have not tried it, but Kelley has plenty of experience.

THE HARVEST … Pick open blossoms early in the day, and plan on processing them and beginning the wine that very day. Blossoms quickly run to seed, and if you wait a day, you will find they have begun the change with the white chaff appearing, and most of the delicate flavor gone.

When you get home, the tedious process of separating the petals from the green parts begins, and is very important in flavor. A strawberry huller can be useful in this task. The green parts are quite medicinal, and can be dehydrated for a nice bitter. But if you leave too much with the petals, that same bitterness will be imparted to your lovely delicate floral wine.

THE EQUIPMENT (available at brewing supply companies)

  • Glass Carboys
  • Airlocks
  • White wine yeast, such as montrachet, reisling, even champagne yeast.
  • Bottles (You can save wine bottles to reuse or buy them from them)
  • Corks
  • Corker

I am a good fermenter, and since I am not commercially producing my wine for other people’s enjoyment, I don’t rely on gadgets. Many winemakers also cook their juices and fruits before making wine, which I don’t do. I believe many of the health-giving properties from the ingredients used are present in the raw form and are destroyed in the cooked form, so I choose not to. For those who have an aversion to things that are not sterile, they may mix all of the ingredients together with the dandelion flower tea which has sat for several days, (except for the yeast!), bring it to a boil for 30 minutes, wait for it to come back to room temperature, then add the yeast and put it all in the carboy.


  • Approx. 1 gallon dandelion blooms
  • 1 gallon water (spring or filtered)
  • 2 pounds organic golden raisins (sultana is a great choice)
  • 2 pounds raw sugar, or 3 (12 oz) containers of organic frozen white grape juice concentrate, or a mix of both.
  • 2 organic lemons
  • 3 organic oranges
  • 1 packet wine yeast


  1. Pick the blooms mid to late-morning on a sunny day when they are wide open. Remove petals from the bitter green base.  Immediately move to the next step.
  2. Peel the citrus, and remove as much white pith as you can (pith will add too much bitterness), then slice the remaining peels thinly. Return the fruit to the cooler. You will need these later.
  3. Add petals and citrus peels to a large container, preferably glass, ceramic, or stainless steel. I usually use a large pot. Heat the water to boiling. Then pour over the mixture. You are, in essence, making an infusion here. Allow to rest for 2-3 days, stirring occasionally.
  4. Strain the mixture through cheesecloth to get every luscious drop.
  5. Add sugar or grape concentrate to the infusion.. Stir well until dissolved.
  6. Add remaining ingredients.
  7. Carboy, ready to fermentFunnel everything into a glass carboy, with an airlock, and let it sit for approximately 3 weeks.
  8. Strain into a secondary cleaned carboy and leave all the sediment/fruit behind.
  9. This can sit 2 to 3 months before bottling. The important thing is to make sure  bubbling has ceased.. If there is a lot of sediment you can siphon it into the original clean carboy and wait a few more months. When it is clear it is time to bottle.
  10. Make sure your bottles are clean. I run them through a very hot dishwasher and let them dry.
  11. Siphon your wine into the bottles, then cork them.

Although you can drink this immediately, you will be surprised how the flavor improves with cellaring. I have let it cellar for years and it continues to develop a depth of flavor.



A Handful of Herb Garden Hacks

By Rickie Wilson, Guest Blogger

diaperDiaper plant moisture: Diapers help potted plants retain water control.  Simply purchase a size to fits the bottom of your pot. Trim away the plastic edges of the diaper. Place diaper in the pot bottom with the absorbent side up. Then, plant. The diaper will keep your plants moist for days after watering.

Seed tape: Instead of purchasing costly seed tape make some; this works great for tiny seeds.  Unwrap a strip of double-ply toilet paper and mist it with water.  Space the seeds down the center of the paper according to spacing instructions on the seed packet. A great idea for this hack is to alternate the tiny seeds of radishes and carrots. When the radishes sprout they mark the row and help to break the ground.

Toy planter:  We had an old Tonka dump truck that belonged to our sons who are now in their 30s and 40s. Needless to say it was well worn and loved.  A good clean-up, a quick Toy-truck-plantercoat of paint and a few succulents later and we had a lovely planter for the patio which gave us wonderful memories.

Photo seed organizer:   Use old photo organizers with plastic pockets to store seed packets.  Write the date of purchase on the seed packet. Organize the collection by season, garden area or any way you’d like.

Plastic fork pest control:  Placing plastic forks, tines up, strategically throughout the garden will deter small garden pests.

Self-cleaning/sharpening garden tool holder:  Paint and seal a medium or large garden pot inside and out.  Cover the bottom hole securely with duct tape. Next fill a similar size bucket with a small bag of play grade sand. Mix 20 to 30 ounces of plain mineral oil or baby oil with the sand. Now fill your decorated pot with the sand and tamp it down. Insert your garden tools. The sand will sharpen the tools each time you remove and replace. The oil will keep them rust free.