Potager Gardening in a Crisis

The COVID-19 virus has made it difficult for grocery stores to keep shelves stocked. I visited the grocery for the first time in a month and was surprised to see so many shelves empty. Toilet paper, of course, was no where to be found. But, other things like flour, eggs, butter, and many fresh vegetables were in short supply too.

Seeing so many of our necessities and favorites missing from the shelves makes us feel especially vulnerable in tough times. So, many people are trying to reclaim a little control for their food supply by starting vegetable gardens.

More gardeners is a great thing. But it’s happening at a hard time. Seed sellers are seeing explosions in sales. Some sellers have had to cut off seed access to non-farmers because demand is so high and supply chains weren’t ready for this much sudden interest. But even in a crisis, with supply shortages, there are still things you can do to get started gardening.

Most importantly, remember that no matter what, the basics are the same. You have to prepare your soil. You have to plan your layout, even if it’s just a temporary. If you aren’t already composting, start now! If you can vermicompost – even better!

Check out my collection of potager posts to help you get started.

Finding Seeds and Plants

Once you do those things, the challenge of finding seeds and plants remains. So, here are some ideas to help you get started right now… even if you can’t get seeds delivered from online sellers.

  1. Ask gardeners you know to share a few seeds (using social distancing pick-ups).
  2. Local vegetable farmers may sell plant starts. (Even those that normally don’t sell plants, might be willing to now. So ask.)
  3. You can also start many things from cuttings including all of your herbs. Get these at the grocery or from friends and neighbors yards (with permission).
  4. You can start sweet potato slips from the sweet potatoes you get at the grocery store. Also, sweet potato vines can be cooked like spinach. So even if you don’t have 120 warm days to grow these for tubers, you can grow them just for the greens.
  5. The seeds in store bought pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and more can be planted. They are likely hybrids, so the plant you get will be completely different than the one you planted from. But it will most likely still be edible.
  6. You can also use the crowns of celery, romaine lettuce, carrots, parsnips, and others to grow more. Just put the base in water (changed daily) until roots form. Then plant in your garden.
  7. Even though it’s not ideal, you can also use store bought potatoes as seed potatoes. Soak the tubers in water for a couple hours to expunge any growth retardants. Place in a warm location until eyes form. Then use 2-3 ounce pieces as seed potatoes.
  8. Onions, garlic, and ginger from the store can also be planted. The tops of these three plants are edible too. So, you may want to grow them just for the greens. Ginger needs warm weather to grow.
  9. Dried grocery store beans can also be used as seeds. Just plant extras because germination rates will be low.
  10. Even your spice seeds such as dried mustard and coriander can be used in a bind.

Note for items from the grocery store because these are mass harvested, the plants they produces aren’t likely to be the best, most productive, or beautiful. They also have a higher risk for plant pathogens than certified disease free seeds and plants. Yet, in a crisis, if this is all you have to work with, it’s certainly worth trying.

Fertilizer

Also, although no one lines to think about it under normal circumstances, diluted urine makes a perfect fertilizer. Don’t apply to plant leaves. Instead apply to the soil. You can read my post about using urine in the garden on Morning Chores.

Also, before you say “gross” think about this fact. All organic garden soil is loaded with the excrement and dead bodies of decomposed of insects, bacteria, fungi, and others. It also contains bird poop from the birds who fly over or eat pests. Oh and, commercial farmers who sell at grocery stores use industrial sewage and feed lot manure to fertilize field crops.

Closing the loop by using waste to add nutrients to soil is the foundation of sustainable agriculture. We just have to be smart about how we do it.

Soil Compaction

Most soils have some minerals. But many are simply too compacted to grow in. It will take some work, but if you can dig up your soil and mix it with mulched leaves, you can very quickly improve the structure so that you can at least grow some kinds of vegetables.

Ideally, you’ll also add well-aged compost. But that can also be hard to find these days. So, work with what you have.

Care and Share

Especially when gardening in non-ideal conditions, good plant care is the key to getting a crop. Water regularly, weed often, add compost as soon as you have it, mulch with a light layer of grass clippings or paper, and hand pick insects if you see multiples.

Finally, always remember, nature is built on sharing not hoarding. Share your extras. Share what you learn. Then, you’ll not only grow a garden, but a strong community that often shares exactly what you you need in surprising ways.

Choosing the Right Plants for Your Garden

Choosing the plants that will grow well in your climate, weather, soil type, and garden is quite complicated. That’s why a big part of becoming a good gardener is learning how to read your landscape, understand your conditions, and carefully select plants that are most likely to thrive where you live.

If you want to learn more about all the intricacies involved in careful plant selection, then check out my post on MorningChores.com.

Also, remember to give any new plant a little extra care until you are certain it is happy and habituated to its new home. Start with good soil, water regularly, and fertilize organically with compost, compost tea, or slow-release bagged mixes that won’t be toxic for all the beneficial organisms that live in your soil.

Urban, Suburban, and Rural Homesteading

Did you know that you can homestead anywhere? Homesteading is a basic set of life skills that can be practiced wherever you live right now. So don’t let a lack of land limit your dreams. Make up for a shortage of acreage with creativity and access to awesome resources!

Here’s an article I wrote for Morning Chores on the various pros and cons of homesteading in different locations to help you get started.

Brooding Ducklings

If you want to learn how raise your own ducklings more like a mama duck would, then take a look at this post on Morning Chores for more details.

Also, if you plan to hatch your own duck eggs, then you may want to take a look at this post.

And, use this calculator to figure your hatch dates.

What to Grow in Your Potager (including a list of 30 categories of plants to consider)

It can be difficult to think beyond the grocery store, or the farmers market, when deciding what kind of food to grow on your homestead. Every recipe we know, every cookbook we have, tend to rely only on the readily available ingredients most of us can access. Yet, the most thrilling part about having your own garden is that you are not limited to the short list of ingredients available to the average shopper.

These more diverse, colorful and flavorful foods tend to have not only more utility in fine cooking, but also more nutrient content. Deeper colors, richer more complex taste profiles, and varied textures are all indicators of the wholesomeness of your food. This is what you really want from your potager – better health and the richness and beauty of an abundantly interesting array of culinary delights.

Heirloom Seeds

So the first advice I am going to give you is not to shop for seeds at the seed racks at big box stores. They are fine for a first year garden when you are just trying to learn a few skills and improve your soil .

In the second year, though, seek seeds from seed saving organizations that act as the keepers of our culinary legacies. Heirloom, open-pollinated seeds have been handed down for generations. Those seeds carry not only the genetic information to make a new plant, but also the history of their relationship with gardeners over many generations.

There are lots of great organizations out there offering seeds. Below are a few I use frequently. This list is not exclusive and I will happily add others if you have suggestions you love.

Grow for Love and Pleasure

My next bit of advice is to grow the ingredients that greatly enhance the quality and pleasure of your meals. For example, if you plan to grow potatoes, grow gourmet fingerlings, or purple varieties lower in starch and higher in anthocyanins, or German styles with more complex flavors.

If you adore artichokes, then start them in pots indoors and transplant outside so you can get a crop the first year. If your grandmother grew pickling cucumbers that make you feel like a child at heart, then plant that variety even if they take are not as productive as new hybrids.

Growing what you love, with loving care, is the absolute best way to improve your gardening skills. Once you become an excellent vegetable gardener, it’s quite simple to scale up and grow a production garden for greater self-sufficient. Until you’ve mastered the basics though, focus on plants that make you want to fine tune your skills because they are meaningful to you.

Growing Beyond the Grocery Store

My last bit of advice is to spend a little time understanding the full scope of plants you can grow at home. Because grocery stores only carry what stores and sells well, and farmers markets can only carry the variety their customers will readily buy, trying to build a garden around what you see in those locations is very limiting.

Instead, do some research into all the various kinds of foods you can potentially grow. Read old, pre-grocery tore recipe books for inspiration on how to use less common ingredients. Embrace authentic ethnically varied and obscure culinary cookbooks.

To get you started, here’s a list of the kinds of things you might want to consider growing in your potager. Once you narrow down this list to what you might want to grow in your potager, then you’ll still need to look around for the specific varieties that speak to you and are well-suited to your climate.

Alliums – hard neck garlic with scapes, soft neck garlic for storing, leeks, storing onions, bunching onions, torpedo onions, flat onions, multiplier onions, Egyptian walking onions, shallots, garlic chives, society garlic, and common chives are all great choices for a potager.

  1. Artichokes – Start indoors and grow as annuals in cold climates. Grow as perennials in USDA Hardiness Zone 7b and above.
  2. Arugula – Grow the cultivated varieties as annuals and Sylvetta as a perennial.
  3. Asparagus – Buy crowns or start from seed. Mary Washington is the only heirloom that is commonly found as 2 year crowns. Start some of those, then also start some Precoce D’argenteuil or Conovers Colossal from seed for more variety. Once these get going, they self seed and keep you stocked with new plants when you need them.
  4. Beans – There are so many kinds of beans it’s amazing. Classic canning beans, filet beans, runners, half-runners, drying, broad, garbanzo, long, turtle, lima, butter, soy, and more. Some even come in bush form so you don’t need to trellis. Try a couple types each year to expand your bean expertise.
  5. Beets – These also come in a host of colors, shapes, and best uses. There are varieties that are great for fermenting or storage, others best fresh in salads, and some are used to make sugar. Some make tastier tops. Beets only take 60-75 days, so they are a good choice to try several kinds of to find your favorites.
  6. Broccoli – We’re used to the large headed types that we get at the grocery store. At home you can grow multi-heading varieties that produce one larger head followed by lots of small heads. You can grow rapini broccoli with edible flowers or Romanesco heads that simulate the Fibonacci spiral.
  7. Brussels sprouts – In warm climates, these are easier to grow in fall than spring. But it’s worth it because you can get much tastier and more colorful varieties than most markets sell.
  8. Cabbage – There are lost more styles of cabbage than most people realize. There are heading and non-heading types, early maturing, fresh eating, long-storing, multi-colored, conical, savoy-leafed, and more. Once you start growing heirloom cabbage at home, you’ll understand why this is one of the mot versatile foods you can grow.
  9. Carrots – Purple, yellow, red, short, fat, long, squarish, narrow, baby, and more carrot options exist for the home grower. You can also use the tops in stocks and as garnish.
  10. Cauliflower – This comes in a variety of colors like purple, yellow, and green. There are even varieties you can grow in warm climates.
  11. Celery – Stalk celery can be a pain to grow unless you perennialize it in a pot and harvest unblanched stalks as needed. But leaf celery is just as tasty and grows as easily as kale. Celeriac is root celery that grows well in cold climates and makes for a perfect mashed potato substitute or creamed soup base.
  12. Chard – This is wonderful in just about any garden. There are so many varieties. Bright lights is fun for color. Fordham is great for large leaves, Perpetual spinach chard is my favorite for a cooked spinach substitute in warmer weather.
  13. Chicory – This family includes gourmet favorites like radicchio, endive, frisee. It also includes root chicory which makes a great coffee substitute.
  14. Corn – Sweet corn is nice, but nothing beats a homegrown polenta with drying corn. Homegrown popcorn is tons of fun too. There are hundreds of heirloom corn varieties. But, you’ll need to plant enough for cross pollination. Plus, you’ll want to time planting when GMOs in your area won’t interfere.
  15. Cukes – Want to grow your own cornichons, make cucumber soup, garnish your salads, make food art, ferment pickles, and more? You can do it all with the right kinds of cucumbers. I usually grow two varieties a year for fun. Protect the stem from borers with aluminum foil and use packing tape to remove squash bug eggs and nymphs from your plants.
  16. Greens – I have a seedbox that I call “greens”. This is where I store an endless variety of leafy vegetables that I cut for a continuous harvest of salad. My collection includes collards, cresses (water, upland, and garden cress), all sorts of lettuce, kale, mustard, mizuna, tatsoi, bok choy, spinach, false spinaches like New Zealand and Malabar, sorrel, oyster plant, Seven Top turnips, purslane, mache, and more. Many of these also work amazingly well for stir-fry dishes and saute’s. (I tend to grow these in smaller quantities than my staple greens like chard, arugula, or cabbage so that’s why I lump them together as greens rather than giving them their own line item.)
  17. Fattened/modified stems – Many plants that we think of as “roots” are really fattened, modified stems. Potatoes for example are a fattened underground stem that roots grow below. Ginger, galangal, and turmeric are referred to as rhizomes, but these too are just a variation on a fattened stem. Wasabi, kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes, bulb fennel, and yams are other examples of fattened stems you can grow in your potager in the right conditions.  (Note yams and sweet potatoes are two different plants, and sweet potatoes are a root).
  18. Legumes – Besides beans, there are also all sorts of other legume family plants to consider. Snow peas, snap peas, shelling peas, pea tendrils, cowpeas, crowder peas, fenugreek, lentils, alfalfa, peanuts, and beneficial flowers like lupines, clover, and sweat pea.
  19. Melons – Watermelons, cantaloupe, muskmelon, honeydew, are all part of the squash family (see below) but they are on the fruity side of the spectrum and make delicious warm season low calorie treats.
  20. Nightshades – This family includes so many garden favorites that have similar growing requirements including tomatoes, sweet or spicy peppers for fresh or dried eating, ground cherries, tomatillos, and eggplant.
  21. Rustic roots – Salsify, turnips, rutabaga, parsnips, parsley root, horseradish, burdock, daikon, radish, Chinese yam, yacon, skirret, dandelion, and sweet potatoes are some lovely rustic roots that are easy to grow in the right climate.
  22. Other squash family plants – Summer squash, winter squash, luffa, gourds, bitter melon, and pumpkins all fall into this basic plant group along with the cukes and melons already mentioned. These plants take lots of room unless you choose compact varieties or make use of vertical space. But they are highly productive and fun to grow. See the tips under cucumbers for insect prevention.
  23. Big impact plants – Okra, rhubarb, cardoon, hibiscus (for tea), hops, moringa, hemp (if legal), and mammoth sunflowers for seeds are a few plants that take a fair amount of room, but offer big aesthetic impact and tasty treats in a potager.
  24. Herbs – The classics like sweet basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, chives, mint, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, and lavender are wonderful. But don’t forget epazote, licorice, Mexican marigold, lovage, culantro, methi, marjoram, leaf curry, fennel, hyssop, bay, anise, chervil, rue, French tarragon, lemon verbena, savory, and more.
  25. Edible flowers – Pineapple sage, roses (flowers and hips), nasturtium, pansy, chrysanthemums, borage (cooked greens are edible too), honeysuckle, hollyhocks, and more.
  26. Spices – Cumin, coriander, caraway, mustard seed, nigella, poppy, sesame, and anise for seed are some easy to grow spice plants that add stunning flower displays to a garden.
  27. Seed Crops – Flax for seeds, ancient wheat, amaranth, quinoa, and other grains offer long-standing beauty and may even give you a tiny crop to use to top your salads or add interest to rice preparations.
  28. Small fruits – Lots of dwarf fruits grow well in pots and can add interesting details and focal points to a potager. Blueberries which require more acidic soil than most vegetables can be grown in pots. Citrus that needs to be overwintered inside can adorn a potager in warm weather in large pots. Espaliered fruits like apples and pears can line paths. Strawberries fit in lots of places. Grapes, blackberries, and raspberries can be trained on fences. Figs, elderberry, goji, and hazelnut can be grown as shrubs and kept compact in size.
  29. Garden helpers – Plants like marigolds, comfrey, zinnia, and flowering mints just seem to benefit all gardens. Also perennial flowers like echinacea, black-eyed susans, coreopsis, goldenrod, and others are well-loved by wildlife in my garden.
  30. Cover crops – Whenever your garden is not planted with vegetables or flowers, then you’ll want to use cover crops to protect your soil. The easiest to start with are mustard in early spring, buckwheat in hot weather, and crimson clover in fall to overwinter. Once you get an understanding of those, then move on to winter wheat, Austrian peas, vetch, millet, sundangrass, annual rye, and barley.

Conclusion

I hope this list and the seed resources above will inspire you to think beyond the basics and grow a large variety of diverse and interesting foods and plants in your potager. Happy gardening!

Incubating Duck Eggs

Ducks are my passion. They are some of the most entertaining, beautiful, and useful animals I keep on my homestead.

If you also feel drawn to ducks, then check out my latest duck post on Morning Chores. It’s all about incubating your own duck eggs and offers insights into how ducks do this in nature too.

You may also want to check out these other related links if you want to make plans for how to use them and raise them on your homestead.

Vegetable Garden Planting Calendar

If you are new to gardening and looking for a quick and easy tool to help you decide what to plant when, check out this new planting calendar. The programming team at Morning Chores developed it. Then, I helped refine some planting dates and adapt it to work for many different climates.

This is a perfect starting point for planning your own planting calendar. Plus, it’s easy to print so you can mark it up with your actual dates.

If you like this calculator, then you may also want to check out a few other cool calculators at Morning Chores.

Happy gardening!

How to Plan An All-Purpose Herb Garden

If you are looking for inspiration on starting an all-purpose herb garden for cooking, teas, medicine, livestock, and more — take a look at my post over at the amazing Morning Chores homesteading reference website.

While you are there, check out a few more herb-related posts to give you plenty of inspiration to create the perfect herb garden for your homestead needs.

12 Underused Herbs Every Smart Gardener Should Know and Grow

Why You Should Have a Herb Spiral and How to Build It in 4 Steps

Many Benefits of Mints and Their Surprising Versatility for Gardeners

How to Choose the Right Duck Breeds

If you are looking for inspiration to help you choose the right duck breeds for your homestead, take a look at my post on Morning Chores.

While you are there, take a few minutes to browse all the other informative homestead posts and inspiration on that amazing reference site. There are all sorts of livestock tips, plant growing guides, food preparation and preservation details, and more.

In particular, you may find these free calculator tools useful for garden and livestock care.

The Little Yellow Duck House and Mirabelle Plums

I absolutely love ducks, so it’s not a shocker that my first homestead project of the year was duck related. I re-purpuposed a small, semi-mobile chicken coop into a larger duck house. Essentially, I sat the coop on a 4 x 4 frame, over a couple layers of recycled cinder blocks and end caps.

Two Runner ducks, two Welsh Harlequins, two Rouens, a White Crested, and a Khaki Campbell are the new residents in my chicken coop turned duck house. The ducks don’t actually live in the coop. Instead, the ducks live beneath it in direct contact with soil in the earthen underparts inside the cinder blocks.

The coop itself is still intact. I can use the old ramp opening, my chickens used to use, to reach in and collect eggs. However, I usually let these ducks out at daybreak, before they would normally lay. So, I’ll also offer them private nest spaces outside the coop come spring.

I’ve done a lot of experimentation with duck housing and spacing. I’ve even let them pick their shelters. My small flocks opt for cozy, damp spaces without light when dark approaches. (By contrast, larger flocks prefer the pond as nighttime protection even over a large, ideal duck house.)

The challenge, though, is keeping a cozy duck house from becoming a stinkpot. To solve that issue, I situated their new home on a slight slope at the base of a larger hill. When it rains, a bit of extra water washes into their earthen residence and helps the manure percolate into the ground. Of course, during droughts, I’ll have to be the rain.

The soil around and under the house is fast-draining and teeming with soil life because I’ve been adding organic matter there for years. So far there is no smell, but we’ll see if that’s still true in August. I also put down a layer of hardware cloth to keep diggers from accessing my ducks in their night shelter. But I am not using bedding at all.

Rain flows into the duck house and washes manure into the soil so the house is essentially self-cleaning.

The run was inspired by the idea of chicken chunnels. It’s about a 45 feet long and nestled between my goat pasture and my primary vegetable garden. It spans 4 to 5 feet in width. I’ll be adding a bamboo top soon to give the ducks shade before the weather warms up.

The fencing on the right is home to a line of wild blackberries in the spring and summer. The ducks will keep those briers from crossing into the formal garden, while enjoying eating the berries and leaves they can reach. The yellow fence on the left will grow something viney, but I haven’t decided what yet. That soil will have too much nitrogen from the ducks to grow legumes. So, I am thinking maybe hops, nasturtium, or Maypop vines could be light weight alternatives.

The yellow fencing is made using old grape vine posts (compliments of our friends Ken and Kari at Round Peak vineyards). Then, I doubled up two lengths of frayed fire hazard electric poultry netting that is no longer useful with a charger, but is perfectly suitable to confine ducks. I used additional posts as weights at the bottom of the fence for stability and to keep ducks from, well, ducking under. (Sorry, had to!)

Gently down slope of the duck house is an edible landscape areas with fruits and berries. The idea is that the manure in the run soaks into the soil and is dispersed by microlife to the nearby plants. I have used this logic with ducks for several years and it works incredibly well.

The big question is… will this work with Mirabelle plums?

Mirabelle Plums

The Mirabelle plum trees are separated by Aronia berry bushes. They are dormant in this photo but those two plants make beautiful companions in spring. I just really hope they also love their new duck neighbors! The goats sure seem too.

Against my better plant judgement, I am attempting to grow Mirabelle plums in North Carolina. I first encountered these amazing fruits in Northern parts of France like Normandy and Nancy. Though, they are more common in Lorraine.

Mirabelle are the sweetest, most fragrant, yet diminutive plums I have ever eaten. So, even though I might be crazy, I still had to try to grow them.

The climates where Mirabelles grow well have cool summers and moderate winters. Meanwhile, we have erratic winters and summers that start mild but end hot, humid and drought prone.

For the past two years, my Mirabelle trees have survived only by dropping their leaves in late July and putting them back on a few weeks later. This process of leaf drop is stressful on the young plants and puts them at risk for not storing enough nutrients to survive winter and bud in spring. Yet, it saves them from succumbing to death by overheating.

I am hoping that the cooling and nourishing effect of having a shaded duck run slightly uphill of the Mirabelles will drop the soil temperature a few degrees, and keep those plants well-hydrated during our hot summers. If that works, perhaps they can stay cool enough without leaf dropping.

It’s January and the Mirabelles are having their winter rest. The ducks are enjoying the henbit, deadnettle, annual grasses, and bitter cress that sprouted in our winter warm streak. So, it will be a while before I know if my two loves – ducks and Mirabelles – also love each other.

Still, seeing my beautiful ducks make themselves at home in their new run and yellow duck house gives me hope for a Mirabelle plum-filled future. And since my favorite spring and summer seating area is just 20 feet from the duck house, I’ll have the perfect front row seat to watch that relationship evolve.