To determine native species in your area, ask a smart friend, or visit the Native Plant Database. My family and I live in the Northeastern U.S., and our seed bombs include (among other seeds) eastern red columbine, red milkweed, butterfly weed, New England aster, joe pye weed, lanceleaf coreopsis, blazing star, wild bergamot, sweet coneflower and rigid goldenrod. Select low-maintenance drought-tolerant native species that can thrive with intermittent care. As mentioned previously, choose seeds wisely. You certainly do not want to select invasive species that will threaten biodiversity. Consider species that create habitats for other native critters like butterflies and birds.
- The soil falls apart as soon as you open your hand. This means you have sandy soil.
- The soil holds it’s shape, and when you give it a little poke, it crumbles. This means you have loam. Perfect for a garden—it retains moisture and nutrients, but doesn’t stay soggy.
- It holds it shape, and when you give it a little poke, it sits stubbornly in your hand. This means you have nutrient-rich clay soil. Perfect for this project.
If you have dreams of a yard-ful of annuals, perennials and veggies, yet have the horrible misfortune of heavy clay soil (I can relate), today you are in luck. There is little need for clay amendment in your seed bomb recipe. Just head to your backyard and collect some clay soil. If your soil is sandy or loamy, however, you must add natural clay (often found in natural stream banks), terracotta clay powder or air-dry clay (found in art supply or health food stores).
Like making a mudpie, making a seed bomb is not an exact science. Use the below recipe as a guide, but your measurements needn’t be exact.
3 parts clay (see note above)
3 parts dry organic compost or worm castings
1 part small native perennial seed
1 to 2 parts water (added by the Tbs)
The mixture should be moist, but not wet. Knead it with your hands, being sure to incorporate all seeds. Roll it into 1 to 2 inch balls. Set them on newspaper to dry for 2 days before using, or store on a sunny windowsill before throwing over a fence. Your seed bombs are ready to wreak havoc on green wastelands. Just throw and they will grow. Rich in nutrients, the clay and compost aid in germination and help strengthen plant root systems.
- Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant. –Robert Louis Stevenson
- Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them. –A.A. Milne
- Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy. –Shel Silverstein
- The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. –Roald Dahl
- Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart. –A.A. Milne
- Small as a peanut, big as a giant, we’re all the same size when we turn off the light. –Shel Silverstein
Now, Joanie or Johnny Appleseed, plant something already!
It’s time for unlawful mischief. It is time to plan swift small-scale attacks and organize aggressive mini mobile units to exhaust opposing forces. It’s time to take back orphaned land all but forgotten. To arm yourself with trowel, seeds, bulbs, saplings, and a vision of verdant green. It’s time to plant everywhere. Anywhere.
Fare-the-well sterile orphaned lots with rubble and rubbish—vacant unloved spots thrust between broken buildings and wildness! It’s time to whisper plans to each other—to break ground and work silently, stealthily—to race home and dance with heart exposed and arms in the sky. We will win! We will win!
Guerilla Gardening. Unbeknownst to you perhaps, this (slightly) unlawful silent underground movement—the unauthorized cultivation of plants on otherwise neglected public or private land in response to dwindling green space—is cropping up all around us. The idea is to reclaim green space, regardless of who actually owns it. Technically, guerilla gardening is illegal. You must accept the fact that some might view seedbombing as vandalism, just performed with plants instead of spray paint, rocks, matches or eggs. One part beautification, one part eco-activism, guerilla gardening is a burgeoning movement of green enthusiasts—free-range planters on a mission.
But, it’s more than just planting. It’s putting green where it’s not expected—putting something common in an unusual place or something uncommon in a usual place—surprising people and making them re-evaluate their position in the natural world.
Never underestimate the power of a plant.
Before grabbing your spade (Holy moly! I can’t wait!), ask yourself the following:
- Will you be part of an organized gang (launching your green thumbs into an unstoppable offensive of wax myrtle at Calumet and Main) or will you work solo, impulsively scattering shooting star seeds in pavement cracks on your way to the post office?
- Will you be a one-time guerillero, or will you be making this a regularly scheduled habit of dogwood debauchery? You’re far more likely to avoid trouble if you bring smallish people with you. This lends some credibility to your act.
- Will you work in the early morning, evening, or furtively at midnight? I highly recommend early morning hours to avoid detection from suspicious passersby. Or, you may opt to be discovered. If so, wear THIS.
Where Do I Plant?
If not working alone, you should meet with your trusty gardening team (mine has small, steady hands) and do some research. Look around you and consider a few unloved orphan spots close to home—empty pots or concrete planters, abandoned public gardens, vacant car parks—even a gap in pavement can serve as a modest blank canvas. Now, let’s be clear. I don’t advocate tossing seeds or planting plants in your neighbor’s weedy flowerbed, and you don’t need to plant a farm or a community garden. Just one plant will do for now. You do need a sunny spot and good soil. You may consider planting at first in a portable pot. Placed near a street sign or next to the barber’s door, this may be the ideal start to a career of gardening with intention. Of course, you should sneak by to water it every so often, or leave with it a kind sign: I’m yours. Water Me Please.
What Should I Plant?
If possible, find a generous gardening friend with a good plant or seed selection. Otherwise, purchase species from a local plant or seed supplier. Often, native wildflower seed mixes are available. Select low-maintenance drought-tolerant native species that can thrive with intermittent care. Choose perennial species wisely. You certainly do not want to select invasive perennials that will threaten biodiversity. Consider species that create habitats for other native species like butterflies and birds. For a list of recommended native species in your area, visit the Native Plant Database.
The following are your planting options:
Native Bulbs: Usually planted in the fall, these miraculous little storehouses are simple to plant and bring a spring surprise.
Native Plants, Shrubs and Trees: Just pop in a plant. Choose hardy, preferably perennial native plants that are easy to maintain.
Annual Plants with Big “Wow” Factor: Choose plants that will catch someone’s eye—plants with a powerful punch.
Classic Clay Seed Bombs: These little fistfuls of compacted clay, compost and native perennial wildflower seed break down over time and eventually plants sprout in place of dirt, weeds and invasive species. Seed bombs are used to surreptitiously improve areas that a guerillero is unable to reach. Locked vacant lots or roadside embankments—all are promising native plant nurseries. Keep in mind that seed germination is highly dependent on water. Keep track of the weather. Scatter the seed bombs on the ground—over a fence onto an empty lot—right before an early spring rainy spell to ensure germination.
Please send me your before and after photos–I’d love to see.
Now, go forth and garden!
When my workday has ended, and I have carefully put to bed my small spicy accomplices, I look forward to at least a light snack and a footrest in recognition of my achievement. It would be a shame if this did not happen. I am sorry to say, this is the case with many hardworking beings—nimble industrious laborers who endlessly whirl about finding food, making babies and cultivating crops only to return to, well, an empty snack bowl and an unfurnished apartment.
Small beings have the same basic needs as you and I—food, water, a place to live, and a healthy environment. Amphibians, birds, small mammals, and beneficial insects—many of these busy little creatures, neither destructive nor aggressive, are an important part of our ecosystem. However, due to fast-paced environmental change and habitat reduction, it has become increasingly more challenging for them.
It is easy to encourage these critters and to be good neighbors. Generally, larger areas with diverse vegetation have greater species diversity, but a well-laid-out modest backyard with a variety of food, cover and water can entice a wide assortment of wildlife. The relative location of food, water and cover is what creates usable wildlife habitat. Below are some simple steps to take.
- Do nothing. Allow half of your garden to remain unmanicured. Leave some wild, untamed areas in your backyard. Allow the weeds to grow up and the insects to move in.
- Go organic, or minimize pesticide use. Use compost, not chemicals.
- Reduce the size of your lawn. Instead, plant a wide variety of flowering native plants to attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs, ground beetles, rove beetles, lacewings and praying mantises. Choose long-blooming, nectar-rich flowers and plants that bloom at different times of the season.
- Feed them and they will come. Plant bushes and trees with edible fruit. Don’t snip dead flowers. The seeds within them provide essential food for many animals. Leave fallen trees or leaves in place whenever possible to allow birds to hunt for insects. Keep birdfeeders stocked with thistle, safflower and black oil sunflower seed. If you start feeding, don’t stop during the winter months.
- Landscape with features that appeal to you. A bed of vibrant flowers, a shady spot under a tree, a privacy hedge, colorful fall berries, and evergreen winter shrubs are pleasing to everybody, including backyard critters.
- Add a birdbath. Birds need a dependable supply of fresh, clean water for drinking and bathing. The best birdbath mimics nature—gently sloping, shallow, and shady at ground level. Change the water once a week.
- Provide nooks in the backyard with a variety of nesting material. Hang concentrated stashes in tree crevices, berry baskets, or mesh bags. Fallen leaves, unraked twigs, dry grass, straw, pet fur, sheep wool, feathers, bark strips, pine needles, small sticks and twigs, yarn, string, and thin strips of cloth all make excellent nest materials.
- If you have a birdhouse, add a roost box. Birds only nest during spring and summer. Overwintering birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and small woodpeckers require large nesting cavities during winter months.
Be patient. Depending on your property size, it may take several years to see all the desired results. Make a plan now, and, come spring, put out a vacancy sign. Give vegetation time to become established, and the tenants will move in.
Soon, you will receive tiny handwritten messages regarding extra storage space, laundry and parking facilities; high-pitched calls about hooking up teeny home theater components and keeping microscopic exotic pets; and little notes about room service and spa treatments.
Almost two years ago, through a local educational grant, I was among a group of parents, students, teachers and administrators who helped establish a vegetable garden at our grade school. We designed and installed a 25’ x 40’ garden with nine rectangular wood-framed beds, permanent above- and below-ground fencing, and an underground high-efficiency drip irrigation system.
Today, our small gardening program provides benefits that reach well beyond the garden gate. Our small garden helps teach an environmental ethic, helps demystify the concept of food production, and helps get kids really dirty. In December, we harvested the hearty carrots and turnips and watched our winter cover crop come up. In January, we keep small busy hands warm inside. Now we plant paperwhites.
Bulbs are miraculous little storehouses that hold not only a future flower, but also a stockpile of plant fuel required to produce an entire season of blooms. Here in New York’s Hudson Valley, typical hardy flower bulbs and the bulbs we eat (onions, shallots, garlic) require a chilling period before bloom or harvest time. Cool temperatures spark an internal biochemical response that triggers the embryonic flower to start its development. Most flower bulbs (tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocus, Dutch iris, scilla) require 16 to 18 weeks of cold before the flower is fully formed. Once the blooms have faded, the bulb is nourished by the foliage and is equipped to produce flowers next season. It is a self-sustaining cycle.
Unlike most bulbs, Narcissus papyraceus is uncomplicated and quiet and doesn’t ask for much. Native to the southeastern Mediterranean’s warm climates, paperwhites are coaxed into indoor bloom with very little effort. Kept evenly moist in a bowlful of pebbles in the sun, they are reliable to the point of being foolproof. The outcome: fast-blooming star-shaped clusters of delicate white sweet-scented flowers—instant gratification in the dead of a northeast winter.
Paperwhites will bloom about 4 to 6 weeks after planting, so if you’d like flowers for special occasions, plan accordingly. For continuous bloom throughout the winter, plant bulbs every two weeks from now until mid-February.
How to plant paperwhites:
- Choose firm top size unsprouted bulbs, free of blemishes or discoloration. Select a watertight container 4- to 5-inches in height. Be creative—a small salad bowl, glazed pottery, clear glass vase or wide-mouthed jar is perfect for the job. Choose a size that’s wide enough to hold a small quantity of bulbs shoulder to shoulder.
- Spread a layer of clean river rocks, marbles, glass beads, or gravel along the bottom of the container. Gently position the bulbs, pointed end up, on top of the medium. Paperwhites prefer a big crowd, so squeeze them in. The more the merrier! Add another layer of anchoring material (rocks, etc.) to fill any gaps. Cover the bulbs up to their shoulders, leaving the pointed tips exposed.
- To avoid bulb rot, fill the container with just enough water so it contacts the roots, but not the bulb. Dutch farmers say to keep the water close enough so the bulb can “sniff” it, but not touch it.
- Set the container in a cool location with indirect light. Replenish the water every 2 to 3 days. Be patient. When roots develop in 2 to 3 weeks, move the container to a sunny window with southern exposure. Once the plants flower, remove the bulbs from direct sunlight and place them in a cooler place with indirect or diffused light.
- Ahhh! Spring in the midst of winter!
Seeing as I’ve had a few of those crazy weeks (and I know you know what I mean), in lieu of a highly descriptive and captivating post about barely completing our mummy costumes for tonight’s Halloween events due to a surprise “winter” storm and loss of power, I hope you’ll accept some gratuitous photos of times I’ve recently had working in the school garden with all the kids. We’ve been busy putting everything to bed for the upcoming winter—harvesting the hearty fall beans, lettuce, tomats, carrots; cleaning up the beds; planting the winter cover crop. It’s important.
G’night garden! Sleep tight!
My apologies. I’ve been neglectful. Spring arrived and I was caught off guard and spent the past few weeks getting my hands dirty, getting splinters and bruises and too much sun and getting darned poison ivy. There is nothing I like less than an armful of itch, but a new sheriff’s in town and the ivy’s been apprehended—I’ve laid down the law along with my basil, sugar snap, carrot, radish, lettuce, and swiss chard posse. Everything but the tomatoes and cukes are in. Yee haw! I’ll spare you the dirty details. I’ll admit only that I’m sure to have planted too much. I always do.
Here in the Hudson Valley, last spring frost is around Mother’s Day. Our growing season is short. This means many seeds are sown indoors weeks before final frost date. Tomatoes, cucumbers, looseleaf lettuce, summer squash, and gourds all spend quality family time with us inside in early spring. Some hearty ones we plant as seeds directly in the garden—sugar snap peas, radishes, swiss chard and carrots are tougher than the rest.
There are many. And they are hard to keep track of. Hence, plant markers.
This project requires old silverware. Teaspoons, tablespoons, iced tea spoons, and soup spoons are perfect for the job, but you nonconformists out there may use forks or knives. You will also need steel wool or sandpaper, a dishcloth, a black permanent marker, a hammer, cement or steel block, and a handy metal letter stamping set.
First, with your design team, consider what you’d like to display on your marker. Start simple. “Dill” and “Mint” are good. With practice, you’ll soon move up to “Catnip” and “Rosemary.” Cute lengthy phrases will eventually come easy like “you are my sunshine” or “meet me in the garden” or the cheeky anthropomorphic “water me, please.”
Anyway, to prepare your spoon for printing (I’ll say spoon since, to spare small delicate fingers, we prefer working with spoons over other silverware) wrap it in the dishcloth and place it face down on a hard, flat surface like a steel block or cement. Hammer the back of the spoon until it is completely flattened. Count out the letters in your word. With permanent marker, mark the number of letters in your word (with dots) on the spoon. Beginning with a middle letter, carefully place your stamp over the corresponding middle dot, being certain that the letter is facing the right direction. Firmly whack the top of the stamp once with your hammer. Repeat with remaining letters, until your word or phrase is complete. Using your marker, completely fill in each letter—no need to stay within the lines. Using steel wool or sandpaper, gradually buff away the black permanent marker marks surrounding the letters.
Voila! Now, get outside and use ‘em.
Just a note: It might be helpful to remember that your markers don’t have to be limited to plant pots and garden beds. Silverware is flexible and quite forgiving. It can be hammered and twisted and tilted and bent into gift tags or napkin rings or bracelets as well. Furthermore, don’t limit your garden dreams to fancy old silverware. My friend Ian, a roofer, provides me with beautiful scrap copper that can be hammered and bent and sanded and is just perfect for the job.
Early last spring, through a local educational grant, I helped students, teachers, parents and administrators establish a vegetable garden at our small grade school. Permanent above- and below-ground fencing surrounds our 25’ x 40’ garden to guard it from hungry critters.
We designed and installed an underground high-efficiency drip irrigation system to water our 9 rectangular wood-framed raised beds. Following garden construction, we all helped weed the garden beds, plant seeds, transplant seedlings, maintain the beds and harvest the veggies.
Our small gardening program provides benefits that reach well beyond the garden gate. In addition to enhancing the classroom curriculum, the program inspires personal and social responsibility. It nurtures community spirit, common purpose, and cultural appreciation by building bridges among students, school staff, and local organizations.
Kids learn from maintaining the garden throughout the year: weeding, thinning, fertilizing, mulching, composting, monitoring pests and diseases, and harvesting. Kids gain a sense of ownership and accomplishment and a willingness to try new foods. As well, they obtain life skills.
The kids experience a deeper understanding of natural systems and become better stewards of the Earth by designing, cultivating, and harvesting with their own hands. Our small garden helps teach an environmental ethic, helps demystify the concept of food production, and helps get kids really dirty.
Whoa, finally. Spring has sprung. For short-summered gardeners like me, it is particularly important to get started early. My gardening team and I start many tender annuals indoors. We avoid purchasing seedling trays or pots and try to start most seeds in biodegradable handmade pots. Cardboard tubes, newspapers, grapefruit halves are great options—we use eggshells.
To get crackin’, eat lots of eggs. Prick a small drainage hole in the bottom of the shell with a pin or needle. To remove the contents, create a small opening in the shell—about the size of a dime—with a sharp knife. Reserve the egg contents for cooking my friend Jenny’s Back Pocket Quiche. Carefully pinch the opening until 1/3 of the shell is removed. Wash each eggshell. Surprisingly, it does not take long for hungry, motivated gardeners to have a full carton of clean, empty shells.
Select some seeds. Really, any annuals will do. For a nice selection, see previous post on Spring Planning. My gardening team is partial to fancy pinkish flowers and cherry tomatoes.
With small green fingers and thumbs, fill each eggshell with damp seed-starting mix to about ¼ to ½ in below the shell opening. Place the soil-filled shells into an egg carton. Using tiny finger, create a small indentation in the center of the soil. Follow the instructions on the seed package for proper planting depth. The general rule is to plant three times deeper than the size of the seed. Place a seed or two into the indentation and lightly cover the seed with soil. Use a permanent marker to label each eggshell with seed type. Moisten the soil again gently with a few drops of water. Allow the water to saturate the soil before adding more water. Be careful not to drown them!
There are so many many types of seeds. In a typical dormant seed, like a French bean or sunflower, two future cotyledons occupy most of the interior. The outer covering is called the seed coat. The seed coat is usually hard and protects the softer parts of the seed. There is a tiny hole in the seed coat called the micropyle. When the seed is ready to germinate, water is absorbed into the seed through the micropyle. Rapid growth of the seed’s embryo ruptures the seed coat, allowing the radicle to emerge in search of nutrients. The radicle becomes the root of the plant. The hypocotyl, the space between the radicle and the colyledons, extends and emerges from the soil. The hypocotyl is exposed to sunlight, straightens out and develops into a stem. The cotyledons, two thick, leaf-like thingies, become new green leaves. The tiny plumule rises up between the cotyledons and develops into the plant’s true leaves.
Clearly, seed germination is highly dependent on water. So, to help retain necessary moisture, cover the egg carton lightly with a large transparent plastic container. Monitor your seedlings daily for growth and water needs. They should be kept evenly moist, but not saturated. You should begin to see sprouts in 10 to 14 days, depending on seeds selected. When the seedlings emerge, they will need space for growth, and sunlight for photosynthesis. In general, sunlight on a warm windowsill is best. Keep them in inside until they have 3 to 4 true leaves.
By the time playground weather comes around, your eggshells will house a flock of able-bodied, rosy-cheeked seedlings. Before moving them out of the hen house, take a few weeks to “harden them off”—gradually introduce them to their new growing conditions. Move the “egglings” to a shady spot for increasing amounts of time, several days in a row. Bring them back inside or cover them if temperature looks like it will drop. Progressively increase the amount of time and sunlight they receive outside until they appear ready to venture out on their own. This gives the seedlings a chance to acclimate to sunlight, drying winds and climate changes. On a cloudy day, plant them directly in the ground, crushing the bottom part of the eggshell so the roots can emerge. Water the transplants well, but gently.
Why use eggshells? Eggshells provide good moisture retention for germination, less transplantation shock, a good source of beneficial calcium (especially important for fast-growing tender annuals), and the obvious environmental and monetary advantages.
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Below is our big spring plan. I always try to remind myself that a plant’s only mission in life is to grow and reproduce.
Most likely, this will happen.
Tomatoes: Sow indoors 6 weeks before final frost date (Harvest 120 days)
Sugar Snap Peas: Sow outdoors 4 to 6 weeks before final frost date near vine supports (e.g. fencing, nylon mesh netting, tomato cages, bamboo poles) (Harvest 60 to 100 days)
Cucumbers: Start seeds indoors 3 to 4 weeks before final frost date in peat pots or newspaper pots, or sow directly in garden (Harvest 60 days)
Looseleaf lettuce/baby greens: Sow indoors late winter and transplant 3 to 4 weeks before frost date; or sow outdoors 3 weeks before final frost date (Harvest 30 to 50 days)
Radishes: Sow directly in garden 3 weeks before final frost date (Harvest 21 to 28 days)
Gourds: Sow indoors 3 weeks before final frost, transplant next to sturdy trellis (Harvest 90 to 130 days)
Summer squash/zucchini: Start seeds indoors 2 weeks before frost date, or sow directly in garden. (Harvest 60 days)
Potatoes: Chit (grow shoots on) seed potatoes inside 2 weeks before last frost date, move to garden or tub when shoots are 1 inch (Harvest 60 days)
Swiss chard: Sow directly in garden 2 weeks before final frost date (Harvest 50 to 60 days)
Green bush beans: Sow directly in garden 1 to 2 weeks before final frost date (Harvest 60 to 80 days)
Stubby carrots: Danvers or Little Finger sow directly in garden early spring, then thin seedlings (Harvest 100 days)
Herbs: (basil, parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano)
Handy Garden Resources: