About Soil

soil, gardening, raised beds
My neighbor Ellie Fisher and her boys with a load of soil.

Question: Hi Lisa!   We have a small garden area, maybe 4'x6’, where I can plant vegetables.   I do not have a green thumb so haven't had a lot of luck over the years, but want to give it a go again this year.  What do you recommend for getting the soil ready to plant? What should we add to it and should we test it in some way first?   Thank you :-)


Answer: Hi Ellen! Where to begin? There are a range of approaches to getting the soil ready for a new garden, from not doing much at all to testing the soil you have and amending it if necessary. You can also bring in new soil.

The New Gardener: What to Plant and Where to Get Seeds

Bounty from the Plageman garden

Recently I read the following query on a Facebook group for gardeners in my town (Milton, MA): “Hi. I’m a new gardener. My husband made me a raised bed. What are some good vegetables to start with? And any recommendations on where to get seeds?”

What a great topic for this blog, especially as the gardening season is about to begin.

In my opinion, must-haves for the new gardener with a relatively small plot include lettuce, green beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes. The first three are quite easy to grow from seed planted directly into the garden. Where to get that seed? I love Ocean State Job Lot, which carries seeds from Burpee’s at a 40 percent discount. You can also often find seeds at your local supermarket. 

And, NEW THIS YEAR for gardeners in Milton, MA (where I live): the Milton Public Library has started a Seed Library through its Milton Grows program! Residents can "check out" up to three packets of seeds. Folks are also encouraged to donate seeds, although it's not necessary. (The cilantro, kale, and a few tomato varieties are all from my garden.) If you're not a Miltonite, check YOUR library's home page. They may well have a Seed Library too. They're becoming ever more popular.

More unusual varieties of a given plant—“Cimarron Romaine” lettuce, for example—can be ordered online. A few of my favorite sources include Rare Seeds and Pinetree Garden Seeds.

You can also find helpful information on these seed sites. For example, Pinetree includes a section called “Easy to Grow Varieties.”

Of Summer Lettuce

Recently our dear friend Cheryl wrote to my husband Phil and I about her lettuce. “Our Romaine has overgrown so it is now a large plant reaching for the skies.  I am planning to make an escarole-type soup since I suspect it is now bitter.  However, [my husband] is worried that it could be poisonous.  What do you think?”

lettuce, bolting, overgrown, summerHmmm. I’ve never found that overgrown, or bolted, lettuce is poisonous. In fact, Phil reminded me that we’ve used it as “a poor man’s substitute for spinach in a stir fry.” (The photo that leads this post shows two of our young neighbors next to some of our own bolted lettuce.) That said, Cheryl’s question was certainly worth a Google search, and everything I read confirmed my hunch that it is not toxic. However, Cheryl was right about bolted lettuce being bitter (see this article from SF Gate).

Compost: The Gardener’s Gold

I love compost. It gives me great satisfaction to divert veggie wastes to our three-bin system outside rather than pitch them into the garbage. It also means we pay less for trash removal (those banana peels add up quickly!), and every few weeks in the summer—after the microbes and worms have finished their work—I get a free supply of high-quality fertilizer, the gardener’s gold. Plus, harvesting that “gold” gives me a full-body workout.

Free Plants!

One of the things I like best about gardening is the annual discovery of “volunteers,” useful plants that have unexpectedly reseeded themselves. I find them everywhere, from gourds atop the compost pile to a dill plant among the nasturtiums.

Part of the fun is trying to recognize a useful volunteer versus a weed. Sometimes I let a mystery plant grow until I have an idea of what it is. Once, for example, I noticed a plant with large squash-like leaves growing

Critters in the Garden: Deer and Bunnies

If you have a garden, there’s a 100 percent chance that it will attract critters. Over the years Phil (my husband) and I have discovered everything from snapping turtles to slugs; even a mama turkey and her chicks.

Most of these animals do relatively little damage. Deer and rabbits are the BIG exception. Our garden seems to have a neon sign inviting them over, in part because the garden borders a brook and faces a large swath of woodland.

Of Cilantro, Lettuce, and other Greens

Lettuce, CilantroLast night my husband Phil and I enjoyed a picnic in the nearby Blue Hills complete with a baguette and a tub of cilantro pesto. That’s actually what prompted this post, because the pesto (recipe below) was made a few days ago with cilantro from our garden.