Tag Archives: backyard vegetable gardening

City Pickers for a Suburban Harvest

Learn how one Irvington family is deepening their connection to the earth and each other (and having fun) by growing their own food — using some very interesting, rewarding, and easy-to-emulate methodologies.

by Gwen Merkin

Irvington resident Gwen Merkin, Program Manager for Corporate Sustainability at UL, has more than ten years experience in the fields of energy efficiency, corporate sustainability, green building, waste auditing, and city planning. She lives in a pondside house near Sunnyside Lane with her husband, Ryan Merkin, also a leader in building science and energy consulting, and their two young daughters. She spends her limited free time fostering connections between people and the Earth, and loves the magic of plants.

Throughout the quarantine, our family has found growing our own food to be incredibly soothing — from the bonding it brings as a family activity, to the wonders of nature and science, to the confidence of increasing self-sufficiency. We are feeling grateful for our deepening connection to nature.

Last year, after years of tinkering with vegetable gardening that resulted in very small yields, we bought three City Pickers, which are mobile, self-watering, raised-bed grow boxes. The plants live above an aeration screen that enhances the oxygen flow to roots and encourages faster growth. They worked really well for snap peas, cucumbers, arugula and kale.

This year, we bought two more City Pickers and seven Earth Boxes (a similar solution, made from recycled-content plastic), and decided to test a few more strategies to see if — on our 200-square foot deck and a plot in the back yard below — we can produce enough veggies to feed four adults and two children throughout the summer and early fall.

We started from seeds we’d been collecting over the last few years, plus a few purchased online from Seed Savers Exchange. We planted them in a combination of trays designed for growing seedlings, hydroponics (for lettuce), recyclable plastic salad containers (which are maddening as a single-use product), plus direct sowing into the 12 City Pickers and Earth Boxes. We borrowed a grow light to help expedite the process of turning the seedlings into viable plants.

We like this Parks’ domed seed-starting tray with 60 cells.

We use bagged potting mix — which is soil-less and designed to maximize growth in pots. The raised-bed systems require it — plus a blend of dolomite (crushed limestone) and organic fertilizer. We’re growing cucumbers, kale, mustard greens, arugula, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, cilantro, and basil. The ‘garden’ is up on our deck so we don’t create a tasty buffet for the abundant deer and geese.

The black plastic ‘mulch’ comes with the Earth Boxes. It helps retain moisture and keeps the weeds and critters out. In this box, we’re growing arugula and snap peas. You water the Earth Box through the pipe in the corner. The water is stored in the bottom of the container and the plants suck it in; you can’t overwater because the excess drains out through the bottom.

This is our electric hydroponic grow station, in which we’re growing butterhead lettuce. The dials on the bottom let us know if we need to add water or food. It took approximately three weeks from planting until we were able to enjoy the first crop (it was good)! The next round should be ready in half the time; the leaves are getting big again.

We put all our food scraps (except for meat, cheese, fish) in this FCMP Outdoor Tumbling Composter, and it makes amazing compost fertilizer. We start with an equal volume of leaves and vegetable peels and scraps. In spring temperatures it takes three to four weeks to make compost; it’s a lot slower in the colder months and faster in the summer. I also bury unfinished compost right in the backyard, and have seen it transform our clay soil into beautiful, worm-filled garden beds.

We are obsessed with watching the magical process unfold.

While our six- and eight-year-olds have not yet taken to eating salads (in a bowl, anyway), they love to pick leaves straight from the plants and pop them into their mouths!


Filed under Conservation, Horticulture, Rivertowns Westchester NY, Vegetable Gardening

Have You Tried Growing Potatoes?

By Isa Hetzel
Garden Club member Isa Hetzel is an interior designer who lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Digging up potatoes near summer’s end is one of the most rewarding, delicious, and surprising events in gardening. It’s bit like a scavenger hunt. You never know exactly where or what you will find. It might be a bunch of little ones all together, or a nice fat golden tuber in the dark earth.

Though not commonly grown in home gardens, potatoes are among the easier vegetables to try, with good results. “Seed” potatoes, the potatoes from which a new crop is started, are often bought from nurseries online and locally. Since this year presents a particular difficulty, you can try potatoes you have on hand or buy at the grocery store. I’ve done both with success. If you google “growing potatoes,” the ‘rules’ will tell you that store-bought potatoes are sprayed with sprouting inhibitor, but it hasn’t made a difference in my experience.

So, here is what you will need:

• A bag of potatoes. I like the very small ones, no larger than an egg; organic if possible. If you have larger ones, no problem.

• A sharp knife.

• Some compost if your soil is hard like clay. Potatoes prefer loose, loamy, rich soil with very good drainage. The amount of compost you might add depends on how much amending your soil requires. I use bagged Lobster Compost from Maine. The soil where mine are planted is loamy to begin with so I don’t need to add much.

• A little organic granular fertilizer.

• A digging shovel and a trowel.

• A small plot of ground. I’ve chosen a section that gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight every day, and measures about 7 x 3 feet. You’ll need enough space around the plot to walk around and to reach the plot to weed and to dig up the potatoes. So plan accordingly. If you are doing a larger area, you might divide the planting into two sections, a couple of rows with space in between. They will need to be watered frequently in dry weather, so keep that in mind.

Order of Things:

First, dig up the ground about 8 to 10″ deep, loosening it and turning it over. Add compost and mix it up. You might want to add a little organic granular fertilizer. Even up the surface a bit.

Next, cut each piece in about half. Make sure that each piece you plant has an ‘eye’ or two, which will be the sprouting points. If the potatoes are quite small, you can use the whole potato. If they are rather large, you might want to cut them into half or in three pieces. Each piece may produce several tuber roots, which are the potatoes.

Using the trowel, dig holes roughly 6″ deep, drop in a potato and roughly cover it with soil. Do this in rows, which will help you keep track of where you have planted them, with the potatoes about 8″ apart in all directions. Smooth the top of the soil. By planting them this deep, the tubers will develop below the soil surface and won’t be exposed to the sun, which can make them green and bitter

You can cover the rows with mulch, such as straw, which will help retain moisture and keep the light off the tubers if they get too near the surface.

If the soil is not too dry and rain is expected, you can get along without watering. They will need less water at the beginning, since they are well below the surface, and the air will be cool. The idea is keep them moist, not soaked, and don’t allow them to dry out.

Sprouts should begin to emerge in two or three weeks, depending on the temperature and weather.

Once they are up and growing, make sure they don’t dry out. Keep the weeds down, and wait. And wait some more… maybe 10 to 14 weeks from planting. A couple of weeks after the flowers come, they should be ready to dig. If you wait a bit longer, they will have grown larger and give you a bigger crop. It depends on the size you want. You can always dig up a couple to satisfy your curiosity and check the size.

Dig them, wash them off lightly, and store them in an airy bag in a cool, dry, dark spot.
• Smashed potatoes with butter and garlic?
• Late-summer potato salad with dill, sliced hardboiled eggs and mayo?
• Lightly sautéed in a spritz of olive oil?
• Smiles all around.


Filed under Horticulture, Vegetable Gardening