Shrooming: Trials and Tribulations of growing Shiitake Mushrooms

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My path to learning how to grow Shiitake mushrooms has been paved with years of failure until about 3 years ago. I can now say that I finally have success and have enough confidence to begin to experiment with growing other strains and in different growing mediums, such as straw and wood pellets.

Many years ago, I thought it would be fun to grow mushrooms so I bought a-grow-your-own mushroom kit from a seed catalog.  My rationale was that they were a fungus and mushrooms grew wild in my compost pile, woods and in our grass.  How hard could it be? HA!

My first kit arrived in the dead of winter and I eagerly opened the box. I followed the instructions, put the box with the gooey bag of ick down in the basement and tenderly cared for it for months….and…. nothing happened. I was frustrated and felt like I had been suckered (not for the first time and probably not the last). I tossed the mass of ick on my compost pile and thought it was a waste of time and money!

Then one very hot and humid day in August while tossing scraps on the compost pile I spied a mushroom.  I looked closer and I thought it was a shiitake and it appeared to be growing from that lump of white ick that I dumped months earlier.  I was excited but I didn’t want to pick it just yet. I wanted to wait just a little longer to see if it grew bigger.

A few weeks passed and I was thinking that the mushroom should be more than ready to pick and I hoped that more had sprouted.  I went out to the compost pile and it was gone – nothing. No white lump, no beautiful mushroom nothing but a pile of dirt and gravel.  WHAT?  I dug into the pile and there deep under the dirt and gravel I found a shriveled up dead mushroom. My neighbors heard me cry NOOOOOO!  I was crushed.

A few years went by….One day I was out with our hiking club walking next to a member I hadn’t met before.  We were chatting along and she suddenly stopped and said “Oh look! There’s a blah blah ish-a-toris something or another mushroom” (long Latin name).  She bent down, picked it, took a bite and offered me a piece.  As she stared and smiled at me, I was trying to find my lower half of my jaw as it was sitting on the ground.  I thought… “Did she just do what I think she just did?”… “Uh- no thank you” I replied.  I quickly gained my composure and I peppered her with questions on how the heck she knew that mushroom was edible.

I learned that she and her husband were wild mushroom foragers and that they learned this craft by going out and watching other seasoned mushroom hunters forage.  She explained that wild mushroom foraging should be taught by a seasoned forager and should not be taught via books or the internet.  There are too many poisonous mushrooms that look like nonpoisonous mushrooms and one mistake could be fatal.  I quickly decided that foraging for wild mushroom wasn’t for me.  Then I learned that she grew all kinds of mushrooms on her compost pile, logs, and wood chips, which she inoculated with mushroom kits.

Stop! Time Out! What did you say?  She explained that growing mushrooms is easy if you have the right environment.  I shared my tale of woe with my many attempts of growing mushrooms in my basement in the dead of winter and my hopes and dreams for a lonely mushroom growing in my compost pile from a discarded kit until it was killed…

She kindly explained that mushrooms like warm, humid shaded conditions and not cold dark basements.  To grow mushrooms, you needed to replicate those conditions and my shaded compost pile in August just happened to be the perfect environment for that shiitake mushroom.

So why do those darn gardening catalogs only sell those kits in the dead of winter?  She smiled kindly and stared at me…It hit me, O.K. I get it – there’s one born every minute…”S” stands for sucker…She laughed and explained that I needed to buy the spawn from a “real” laboratory that specialized in growing fungi.  Oh…I said – there are mushroom laboratories??? I thought this was supposed to be easy…

Fast forward a year after my initial hike with the “Mushroom Lady.”  A consultant from CT Department of Agriculture was doing a site visit for my farm certification.  We were wandering around my property and he saw how much of it was covered in woods.  He asked if I ever considered growing mushrooms.  I had flashbacks of years of failed attempts growing mushrooms in boxed bags in my basement and of my conversations with the wild mushroom lady telling me I had to find a mushroom laboratory to get good spawn while she ate her way through our hike.  I asked him if I needed to have a sterile room or some building to grow mushrooms commercially.  He said no as there are mushrooms strains that grow well in the woods.  Clearly I was missing something. He recommended that I do some research and think about it.

A year of research…I began to read books on mushroom cultivation. Who knew there were so many different kinds of mushrooms? I watched YouTube videos, read articles from magazines/blogs and I took a workshop on growing mushrooms.  The class was packed and, after hearing similar stories to mine, apparently, I wasn’t the only one that had been suckered with those grow-your-own kits.  I was not alone. I learned that the easiest and most successful way to grow mushrooms is to inoculate oak trees freshly cut into 4-foot lengths.

Months after taking that workshop and doing more research, I decided it was time.  A farmer friend was kind enough to allow me to cut down several trees on his property.  We hauled the logs back to my driveway and my husband (who was trying to be patient with me) hauled them to the back of our property and into the woods.  On several cold spring days, we drilled, plugged and waxed hundreds of holes.  It was a cold and sticky job and at that point, my husband was not- so- patient anymore and declared “No more logs!”

The logs were then put to bed on the forest floor laid out in sections.  I was nervous because I didn’t know if this would work. But I was hopeful as I had done my research and felt confident that I did this right.  It would be a year of waiting to get my answer.  Was this going to be another failed costly experiment?

Nine months later, I was giving someone a tour of my farming operation and I took him out to the pile of logs in the woods.  I spied a mushroom, then another and another!  I became emotional as I tried to explain to my guest that I finally had shiitake mushrooms. I was having a moment…this was big!! However, my guest was not so sure about me and was probably thinking that I was a whack job. He soon left and I was alone in the woods carefully cutting my prized mushrooms and lovingly carrying them into the house to show my husband.  I told him in a cracking voice, “It worked!  It really worked!”

Hubby wasn’t impressed…

Then I told him the current price per pound for shiitake mushrooms at the market.  His eye got real big and he said Oh! This year we will be experimenting growing in straw and wood pellets oyster, shiitake and winecap mushrooms.

Books:

Links to books listed are Amazon Affiliate Links. I get a small commission at no extra cost to you.

The Mushroom Cultivator: A Practical Guide to Growing Mushrooms at Home by Paul Stamets and J.S. Chilton

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets

Websites:

Fungi Perfecti – www.fungi.com

Mushroom People – www.mushroompeople.com

Anatomy of TSF Soap

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 I’m always humbled and grateful when asked to speak about what I do here on Thompson Street Farm.  This week I was the speaker at a local garden club here in town and I have to say what a wonderful group of ladies! I understand there are 5 garden clubs in town, and this particular club has been together for over 30 years.  Can you imagine how much knowledge and experience there was sitting in that room! How cool!

After my presentation on growing micro-greens, a sweet woman asked about how I made my soaps. She identifies handmade soap to her childhood elderly neighbor, Mrs. Jones, peddling her soap door to door.  Apparently her soap was extremely harsh that one lost a few layers of skin when using it. I’m guessing from the age of my new friend, “Mrs. Jones” learned how to make soap between World War I and the Depression. In those days, there weren’t a lot of choices for oils other than animal fats and other moisturizing ingredients – which explains the harshness of her soap.

Commercial Soap

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Today there is a world of difference between commercial soaps and handmade. Technically commercial soap is not real soap but a detergent that is created from petroleum based products .  Yes, the base ingredient in commercial soap is petroleum oil!

My Decision to make Handmade Soap

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(Lavender Soap made with lavender grown on our property)

When I began researching how to make soap it was out of necessity.  I had been purchasing a goat’s milk soap from an independently owned health food store for my daughter.  My daughter had a stroke before she was born and as a result she is missing 80% of her right brain, so we had many health issues to deal with.  She is also a beautiful redhead with extremely sensitive skin.  It didn’t matter which commercial soap I used, her skin was as red as her hair and irritated – similar to the reaction to Mrs. Jones soap!

Perfumes were also a huge problem for my daughter.  It is not uncommon for children that have severe brain damage to have an over-reactive sensory system. I can only explain it as standing in front of a speaker at rock concert 24 /7.  The brain’s sensory system is on overload it can’t filter out and dial down what’s going on around them. If you stop and think about it, our world is pretty noisy. For Katie as a baby, sound, smell and textures was magnified a billion times over.

Its an understatement that the early days for Katie were painful – everything bothered her. For example, my husband loved Irish Spring Soap, but when he came near her she would become overwhelmed and started to scream and cry.  We went through a period of time when I dumped every commercially made product including the toothpaste and toilet paper and we went O-Natural!  Thankfully, Katie is much better thanks to years of therapy.

The Decision to Make My Own Soap:

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(Pine Soap – pine needles are harvested from our own pine trees and now that I’m becoming a herbalist, I’m adding my own pine infused olive oil to this soap!)

When Wholefoods moved to town our small independent health food store went out of business and that ended my source for handcrafted goat’s milk soap. The good news is soap making had become popular and with YouTube at my fingertips, I decided it was time to take control of our soap supply and learn how to make soap.

When I started my research I had a basic list of requirements:

  • The soap had to be moisturizing, have a great lather but be a firm enough that didn’t melt into a pile of goo in the shower.
  • Ingredients had to be mild enough for daughter’s sensitive skin.
  • Oils for the soap had to be found in the grocery store and had to come from the plant world.
  • Scents need to be from the plant world (correction/clarification from original posting: I do use fragrance oils if essential oils are not available, too expensive, or I happen to like the scent!).

I knew I wanted my soap to have at lease 2 oils that were great for skin, olive oil and coconut oil. After weeks of research, my first generation master soap recipe was born and it was a Mediterranean inspired blend using 4 oils and raw goats’ milk.

  •  Olive oil – has been used for centuries as a great skin conditioner and moisturizer.
  • Coconut oil – has been used for centuries as a great skin conditioner and moisturizer.
  • Canola Oil – creates a stable lather and a great skin conditioner.
  • Safflower Oil – creates a wonderful lather and is a great skin conditioner.
  • Herbs, flowers, vegetables and goats milk had to be either grown by me or acquired by a local farmer that shared my socially responsible beliefs.

During my research, I learned there is a minefield related to certain common ingredients in soap making. The biggest one is palm oil, and the atrocities associated to the destruction of rainforests to meet the worlds demand for palm oil.

I admit, my soaps are not for everyone, but I can honestly say I try to be socially conscious and intentional on where my ingredients are sourced. It is important to my daughter’s wellbeing and to me. I want to create a product that is safe; with no chemicals or preservatives.

New Sea Salt and Mineral Clay Inspired Soap with Avocado Oil

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I have to say I have the best customers! They are intelligent, well-traveled and socially conscious and they are challenging me to take my social responsibility even further! Over the summer I heard a few concerns expressed about how canola oil is grown and processed. Canola oil comes from a plant called rapeseed and most of the crop grown in the world is from GMO seed. Since I refuse to use GMO vegetable seeds on my farm it was an easy decision to do the right thing and switch out that oil and substitute it for sunflower oil.

In addition, I did some more research on the benefits of sea salt and mineral clays in soap.  Out of that research I created a new 4 oil sea salt soap using avocado oil. Avocado oil is rich in vitamins A, B, D, and E.  Sea salt is known for its relaxing properties and is a natural detoxifier as well as some of the mineral clays that I use – Dead Sea Clay, French Green Clay, Bentonite Clay and Moroccan Clay.

So  I say to my new” Garden Club Friend” – try my soaps, I think you will be pleasantly surprised just how good you will feel! Please check out my entire line of soap on website online store.

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(Honey, Cinnamon and Carrot Soap – I purchase my honey from a local farmer. Although I might get brave and purchase a hive in the coming year.)

 

Keeping Backyard Chickens – Part 1

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When I decided to convert our backyard into a micro farm, one of the requirements under our state’s agriculture law and USDA Regulations was to be recognized as a “farm” on both the state and federal levels. Qualifying criteria was to sell $2,500 of agriculture product and/or have livestock.  As I was just starting out and didn’t yet have $2,500 of agriculture product sales, I needed to get some kind of livestock, which could include hooved animals, bees, chickens or rabbits.

Local zoning code requiring 2+ acres for hooved animals eliminated that option for me but, since I was in a “rural” zone, rabbits, chickens and bees were fine.  I therefore decided on chickens because I could sell fresh eggs and then butcher the birds for meat when they stopped laying at around 2 years old.  At least that was my reasoning when I presented my idea to my husband.

Fast forward 6 years later and they are still alive and even were given names  “Henrietta 1 – 9” aka “The Girls”. One of them, a poor bird that was being brutally picked on by the brood was named “Sally” by my husband and became his pet. In addition, although I have lost several birds (which I will discuss later), not one of them has been eaten (by a human at least). All in all, the “Girls” truly have lived a charmed life.

If you are thinking about getting chickens, here are a few things I’ve learned over the years.

Spring Chickens

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Spring is usually the time when hatcheries begin to sell chickens. If you are serious about getting chickens, make sure you purchase them from a good hatchery. Chickens carry a lot of diseases and federal law requires that chicks  be vaccinated for a nasty viral disease call Marek’s Disease prior to sale.  This is a virus that can kill off an entire flock and contaminate others.  I was also surprised to learn that the vaccine wears off in 2 years, which is why most birds are butchered within 2 years.

The lesson here is that purchasing chicks from non-registered hatcheries can result in all kinds of flock failures so – “Buyer Beware”.  According to University of Connecticut’s top poultry expert, genetics impact long term health and the Marek Virus is found in the genetic line of a particular bird family.

I recommend that you also check out a website called My Pet Chicken .  I met the owner/creator, Traci Torres, while we were guests on the Colin McEnroe Show on WNPR CT Public Radio a few years ago and she is a wealth of knowledge on chickens.  Her website offers great information and cool products for backyard chicken owners.

A recommended book is “Storey’s Guide to Chickens”.

Equipment

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Once you decide upon a breed of chicken, you’ll need some equipment to get them through the first weeks of life. Be forewarned that  having chickens can be expensive in the beginning. As baby chicks need warmth and protection, a safe warm nursery will need to be created.

I picked my chicks up in early March when there was still snow on the ground and it was bitterly cold. Keeping them in the garage therefore clearly wasn’t an option so they ended up in my backroom where I could keep an eye on them. Then the circus began as EVERY critter in our household wanted to sniff, play or even eat our new babies!

Baby chicks make a lot of poop so be prepared to clean your box frequently. They need a box big enough for them, a warming light, a special size water container and baby chick feeder, all of which I purchased at my local farm supply store.

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Abby's first meeting

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Moving into the Coop

Housing the chickens will depend on where you live. We have very cold snowy winters and thanks to the realities of Climate Change, we also experience extended days of hot/humid days of 90+ degrees. I wanted the coop to be predator proof so I decided to purchase one made by a local farmer, which cost me $600 (without roof shingles and  unpainted). I added the shingles, stained the outside with weatherproof stain and, as we are now going on our 6th year, I’m so glad I did this.

The other consideration is not to overstuff your chicken coop with chickens. I had originally purchased 9 Rhode Island Reds and this coop was built for 6 chickens. It was a tight fit and I had to add another roost for them. Overcrowding a chicken coop is not healthy for the birds and can cause health problems.

Since we live in a wooded area we have all kinds of wildlife (i.e. – hawks, coyote, fox, fisher cat, raccoon, possum, an occasional black bear) plus local dogs and cats.  As all are potential predators, we fenced in a large section of  woods surrounding the coop to given the chickens plenty of room to roam while also protecting them from most of these critters.

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My next blog posting will cover choice of bedding, general care and a few things my chickens taught us.

Flower & Garden Show 2015

If you have cabin fever from all this snow and extremely cold weather come on down to the CT Flower Show and warm up by thinking about spring! Starting today through Sunday I will be at the CT Flower & Garden Show. I will have a sampling of my best selling soaps plus, lavender sugar scrubs, lavender body sprays and herbal salves.

Flower Show

PLUS! Show offer only!  Interested in turning your backyard or small plot of land into cash? Off is only good during the show get $50.00 off my next full day SPIN Farming workshop March 14th from 9 – 4 in South Glastonbury. Show price $150.00 normally $200.00.

SPIN Workshop Flyer

 

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Pine Trees and their Medicinal Uses

 

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As a child growing up in California, I loved to hear the breeze through the Ponderosa pines. Because these trees are so tall (over 230 feet high), there is a distinct sound that I’ve not heard in any other forest that I’ve walked through.  That airy sound of the breeze through the trees is what I miss most about my home state.  Then there is the smell of pine, which makes me feel refreshed, calm and at peace.

Until recently I didn’t know that pine (all species) have medicinal properties which have been used for centuries by Native American tribes.

Native American’s have been using Pine Medicinally for Centuries

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Native American tribes in this region used all parts of the tree for medicinal purposes. A bark decoction for coughs and colds was used by the Abanaki, Iroquois, Micmac, Mohegan and Shinnecock tribes. Bark was also used as a poultice for colds by the Algonquin and for cuts and wounds by the Chippewa. A pitch pine drawing salve was made by the Delaware and Ontario people just to name a few of its many medicinal uses. (HANE: Herbarium, pinus strobus L.)

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Here in Connecticut we have White Pine which is a shorter scruffier tree than its cousin the Ponderosa. And, today, pine needles and bark are harvested and dried for use in teas, tinctures and infused oils. Pine resin is the golden jewel of the tree as it has incredible healing properties. White Pine has anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, expectorant, diuretic, antibacterial, stimulant, antispasmodic and astringent properties.

Eating my first Pine Needles

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Have you ever tasted a pine needle? After our last big snow fall, the sun came out and it was a beautiful day to go out for a walk through our woods to harvest pine needles for my pine soap and salve.  I decided to try a needle.  Honestly, it was nothing to write home about.  It tasted like a pine needle.  I had read pine needles are high in Vitamin C and boosts the immune system.  I read that not every pine tree species tastes the same.  The author encouraged readers to try different trees and go with the one you liked best.  However, since I only have one species of trees on our property, what I tasted was what I tasted – pine and I’ll have to take her word that not all pine trees taste the same…

Making my First Batch of Infused Pine Oil

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This was the fun part – after harvesting enough pine needles, I loaded up my crock pot and added my oil. As I turned on my crock pot, I was struck by a thought! How would a pine marinade work for chicken.  I decided to adapt a recipe for pine needle salad dressing into a marinade.  My husband is such a good sport about this stuff – I knew it wouldn’t faze him in the least.  I was right – after 20 years of eating my “experiments” what’s a few pine needles with dinner.

The final results were OK – I think I would prefer the chicken barbequed to add a little natural smoky flavor with the pine marinade rather than baked.  So I will try this recipe again when the weather gets warmer.   However, my husband thought the chicken tasted great.

White Pine makes wonderful Soaps and Salves

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I love working with pine.  I’ve perfected my drying technique so the pine needles keep their beautiful green color in my soap.  The needles also add a great natural exfoliatant, which is another plus.  All the benefits of pine, plus a four oil soap recipe make a well balanced soap.

The pine infused oil is another bonus as it can be used in many applications such as salves which is moisturizing for extremely dry skin.  The pine salve will also promote healing of small scratches, cuts, burns and other minor skin irritations. During these bitter cold winter months I need something like this as my hands take a beating. They get so dry and cracked (sometimes bleed) that the salve had been a perfect remedy.

I just love pine trees!

Fresh Chopped Green Onions


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I always leave plenty of green onions to overwinter in the garden because, in the spring, it’s a treat to be able to go out and harvest them to add to my salad and/ or salad dressings. Over the years, I’ve created a few short cuts so I have onions ready to go into whatever I’m making.

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Chop by hand

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If you don’t want to chop the onions by hand, an easier way is to chop them in a food processor – the goal is to chop the greens into small pieces.

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The food processor chops the onion into really fine pieces.

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Finely chopped onions make great additions to salad dressings.

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They are perfect to add to add to hamburger or meatloaf dishes.

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Chopped onions are also perfect in a fresh salad.

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Fresh green onions in a container store well in the refrigerator so they are always ready when I need them.

Waiting for Spring

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It’s been a cold and icy winter here in Connecticut and we are making the best of it with warm cozy fires in the evenings and bundling up with layers of sweaters and wool socks if we have to go out.  On the other hand, my poor cat has had it with the cold temps that keep him inside more than he wants to be and we start hearing about it from him when mid- January rolls around.  We’ve learned how to speak cat during these cold winter months.  He is very vocal and expressive when he’s not happy.

However, I happen to love January, especially the last week, because this is the time when I begin to implement my growing plan for the upcoming season.  I begin to start my seedlings in the greenhouse for an early spring crop.  If you are thinking about starting a garden, now is the perfect time to start planning.  A well planned garden will make planting and care both easier and more productive.

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Here are some basic things to consider:

  • Soil – what kind of soil do you have? Is it loose, level, well drained? Is it sandy or hard clay? Plants will not grow in either of these soil types unless lots of organic matter like well-rotted compost is added.
  • Sunlight – how much sun does that spot have during the day? You need at least 10 plus hours of sunlight per day for high quality vegetables.

 

  • Shrubs and Trees – they will compete with the sunlight if they are near your garden.   Monitor where the shade pattern is during the day and place your garden outside of the shaded area. In addition, their roots tend to choke out tender vegetable plants, so the further away they are the better.

 

  • Water – How close is the water supply to your garden? Gardens require frequent watering during the growing season. If you must carry water to your garden or haul a long hose, place your garden nearer to the water supply.

 

  • Location, location, location – garden placement is the most critical piece to growing. If your garden is too far away, chances are it will be neglected. Gardens need to be cared for daily, which means, planting, weeding, pruning, watering and harvesting (which is the best part of all). If your garden is on the “back forty”, chances are you will never reap the full rewards of your hard work.

th0HRWLZVBCreate a Garden Plan:

Once you’ve confirmed that you can meet the above basic conditions, the next step is to plan out your garden on paper.  This will be your map to building and maintaining your garden during the growing season.    This plan doesn’t have to be fancy – I find the simpler the drawing and/or list, the easier it is to implement and to later adjust.

My garden has 22 raised beds numbered 1 – 22. When I create my garden plan, I tend to plant a single vegetable type in one bed.  For example, beds 15, 16 and 17 contain arugula and beds 7, 8 and 9 have lettuce etc.  I’ve tried fancy garden software but it didn’t work well for me because I have several beds of varying size and conditions (i.e. some beds are part shade).

When creating your plan, consider the following:

  • Size / Cost – How big is your garden going to be? Obviously, the available space you have will dictate the size. Remember there are upfront costs to consider when starting a garden and the bigger your garden is the more it’s going to cost.

 

  • Vegetable Location – Are you planning an entire row with one vegetable or are you planting half with one thing and half with something else? Are you planting in the ground or in raised beds?

 

  • Row Length – This is important to determine how much seed to buy. How many plants can you plant per row? The answer to that question will be in the seed description.

 

  • Inter-Row & Inter-Plant Space –   A foot wide path between rows is a good rule of thumb. You don’t want your rows too narrow as weeding becomes very difficult. Conversely, you don’t want your rows too wide as this wastes space and requires more weeding. Ick!

 

  • Planting Dates – You need to figure out the approximate date of the last frost in your area. I start turning over my soil and prepping as soon as the ground is defrosted and warmed up. It could be a few weeks before or after the general frost date for my area.

 

  • Succession Planting – What plants will follow when each vegetable is harvested? This is a space saving technique but you need to plan for it to work.

Vegetables – What to Plant?

What are you going to grow?  My advice is to plant what you like to eat and don’t over plant.  If you plant 20 squash plants your family is not going to be happy with you.  You are not going to grow everything so use the available space wisely, especially if it’s small.

Sweet corn is a perfect example of what not to grow on a small plot.  Corn needs to be grown in a large space (over 1000 sq. ft.) for proper pollination.  So choose vegetables that your family will enjoy and that make sense for the space you have.

    • Small gardens (less than 1000 sq. ft.) – think about plants with a high yield per plant, which include the following vegetables:
      • Bush Beans
      • Leafy greens
      • Tomatoes
      • Peppers (hot and sweet)
      • Squash (bush variety)
      • Mustard Greens
      • Collard Greens
      • Kale
      • Chard
      • Spinach
      • Carrots
      • Beets, Peas
      • Eggplant
      • Onions
      • Radishes
      • Turnips
      • Herbs

 

    •  Large Gardens (1000 sq. ft. or more) – larger gardens can obviously grow a larger variety of vegetables (including those that take up more space) but remember the bigger the garden the more work required and the higher resulting yield. If there are only two of you and unless you want to be super gardeners or love to be outside puttering around, I’d recommend downsizing to a small plot:
      • All the vegetables listed above
      • Melons (vining varieties)
      • Squash (vining varieties)
      • Pumpkins
      • Sweet Corn

039Growing Seasons

How will your garden grow?  Some plants (i.e.- lettuce and peas) are better suited to grow in the early spring whereas squash and tomatoes are heat loving plants that do well in high temperatures.   Make sure that your plan includes a seasonal planting schedule that correlates with your successive plantings.

Successive Planting 

Planting every few weeks provides a continuous harvest throughout the growing season.  To avoid gardener burnout, spread out your plantings to avoid a monster harvest all at once and instead have a steady flow of vegetables throughout the season.  For example, planting new lettuce every two weeks during the early and mid-spring seasons guarantees you’ll have lettuce until it gets too hot.

In addition, successive planting ensures the wise use of your space.  Planting squash in place of an earlier crop like peas will allow you to grow two crops in the same space in a single season.

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Order seeds from quality organic seed companies now.  Don’t wait until the snow melts.  I don’t recommend that you purchase seeds from a large box store as their seeds tend to be of poor quality and have low germination rates.  In addition, don’t forget that there are GMO seed companies parading around as “your local friendly seed company” so buyers beware!

I’m not going to get into the details of the GMO debate but if you want to know more, just “Google” it.  This is a hot topic in the world of agriculture and gardeners and consumers need to understand how important it is to buy properly sourced seeds from non GMO companies.  To get you started, here is an article from Mother Earth News.

There are many organic seed companies, but here are a few that I’ve used personally and recommend:

lucille-surprise[1]  What? No space to Garden? Grow it in a container!

Yes, it is possible to have a garden even if you don’t have available land by growing in a container!  All that’s needed is good quality organic potting mix and a container – i.e. – an Earth Box or even a baby wading pool will work!  For DIYers, purchase a storage container (or baby wading pool) from a large Box Store.  It doesn’t have to be deep as about a foot of growing space is all that’s needed.  Drill a few holes in the bottom and sides to allow water to drain out of the bottom and air through the sides for the roots to develop.

 

 

Pictured below are some of the containers that I grow in.  Easy Peasy!

opening day 012   Baby Wading Pools

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

opening day 007  Fabric Grow Tubes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

opening day 010 Storage Totes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Earth Box

 

 

 

 

opening day 016  Large Grow Bags

 

 

 

 

 

If you have questions about your garden, please feel free to contact me.  Happy Garden Planning!!!

My Homework – Lemongrass Tea

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As a Christmas gift to myself, I enrolled in the Herbal Academy of New England, an online educational program for those who want to become herbalists and/or anyone who is interested in herbs.  I am thrilled and excited to add an academic understanding of herbs and how they interact in their various forms.

I’ve discovered that ideas of how and where you can use herbs are limitless!  We can create teas, tinctures, poultices, essential oils, soaps, creams, syrups, and salves.  We can also use them in our cooking, baking, jams, jellies, vinegars, oils, honey, salts, mix them with other herbs or simply munch on a sprig right off the plant.

Until now, my education was limited to reading books, the Internet and talking to my Naturopathic doctor.  Once 20 years ago, I also took a guided hike on identifying wild edible plants.  All I can remember from that day was the ability to identify Yarrow (a popular flower used for medicinal purposes) and tasting some uninspiring grassy, sometimes bitter tasting weeds.  Ick!

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The first lesson in my program involves making a medicinal tea from whatever I have on hand. Since I grow a lot of herbs on my small farm, I have many options.  Needing an herb to test, I grabbed one of the many large paper grocery bags on my counter filled with herbs, opened it and discovered that I picked lemongrass.  I had never used this herb before so I decided to try it.

 

Back-story on my poor little Lemongrass plant – It’s a Miracle!

Lemongrass is a new herb on my farm.  Last winter, I found a catalog company that had a sale on plants and, at the time; it seemed to be a good deal. Who can resist a sale!  The plant arrived on life support (obviously the reason for the sale) and it was clear that the plant didn’t have much, if any, time left.  However, deep in the core of this dried up grassy blob; I found a little green stem. Since maybe there was some hope, I figured I’d plant it vs. tossing it into the compost pile.  I placed it into a corner of a raised bed already pretty full of mints, sage and oregano, blessed the little plant and left it at that.

During the summer, it got watered (when I remembered…) and to my surprise that scraggly dried up little grassy thing started to grow! By the end of summer, it had shot up over 36 inches and was taking over the corner of its raised bed.

Before the first freeze, I cut the plant back down to its original size (a few inches tall) bound the cut grass into bunches and stuffed it into a grocery store paper bag to dry.  I tossed the bag on my kitchen counter where it’s been since fall.  I honestly had no clue as to what I was going to do with the grass. A couple of thoughts surfaced

(possibly soap or a seasoned salt) but no decision.

My Research on Lemongrass

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(Disclaimer:  I am not a health expert and have no medical training.  The purpose of this article is not to diagnose and/or treat medical issues.  This is for informational purposes only.  If you have questions regarding your health, please consult with a medical physician)

According to Healthers.org lemongrass has some great medicinal properties. Here is an excerpt from their website:

  • Powerful pain relieving properties. It helps to alleviate muscle spasms by relaxing the muscles thereby leading to the reduction of pain-related symptoms.

 

  • Is useful for all types of pain including abdominal pain, headaches, joint pains, muscle pains, digestive tract spasms, muscle cramps, stomach ache and others.

 

  • Can be linked to increasing the body’s ability to repair damaged connective tissue such as cartilage, ligaments and tendons and is thus recommended for these types of injuries.

 

  • Improvements in blood circulation.

 

  • Its antifungal and antibacterial, lemongrass inhibits bacteria and yeast growth.

 

  • It is useful for gastrointestinal infections and may also be applied externally to wounds as it fights germs.

 

  • As an antioxidant, lemongrass contributes to liver and pancreatic health by helping the body to more quickly remove toxins.

 

  • It has also being linked to lowered or normalized cholesterol levels.

 

  • It also treats digestive issues including gastro-enteritis and may be helpful in relieving constipation.

 

  • Some sources suggest that lemongrass has antidepressant properties and is thus beneficial for nervous and stress-related conditions.

 

  • It is said to be helpful in alleviating anxiety and depressive symptoms. It helps to strengthen the nervous system and may thus be useful for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

 

  • The presence of Vitamin A in lemongrass makes it helpful for skin issues such as acne pimples.

 

  • It helps to brighten the skin and eyes and clear up oily skin, thus improving acne.

 

  • Its antibacterial property is also valuable for skin infections. Lemongrass may improve poor body odor by controlling excessive sweating.

 

  • One research study conducted at Ben Gurion University in Israel found that the citral found in lemongrass has possible benefits in inhibiting cancer. It revealed that this compound may contribute to the death of cancer cells with no noted negative effect on normal cells.

In addition, I wasn’t surprised to learn that lemongrass is a great culinary herb and is very popular in Asian cuisine.  According to the book “20,000 Secrets of Tea: The Most Effective Ways to Benefit from Nature’s Healing Herbs” by Victoria Zak, lemongrass, as a tea, is one of the tried and true herbs for added flavor and synergy.  It’s often used in tea blends to enhance and balance flavors of multiple tea herbs.

Inspiration Hits!

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In herbal basic training, one must know how to make medicinal teas.  I learned that medicinal teas have a higher tea to water ratio.  In addition, commercial teas in tea bags have little to no medicinal value because there isn’t enough of the herb in the tea bag to make a difference.  If you are looking for a health benefit from commercial tea, buy loose leaf.

I discovered that lemongrass tea has a wonderful strong lemony taste with a back note of grass and I was surprised how much I liked it.   As I sipped my cup of tea, I began to think about the possibility of using this tea in a soap recipe along with the dried lemongrass. I already make herbal soaps using dried herbs and essential oils and wondered what would happen if I added tea to my recipe?

Not wanting to waste time, I dried the steeped lemongrass from my pot of tea, measured out enough tea for my soap recipe and began measuring / mixing the rest of my ingredients.  My house smelled like the lemon groves I used to visit not far from my childhood home in Southern California.  It was invigorating!

January 13, 2015 008  The soap is now curing and, as it will be a few weeks before I can test it, I’ll post an update in the coming weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lemongrass Tea Shrimp Scampi

 January 13, 2015 023 Here I go again…. While cooking dinner that night, I was hit with another inspiration!  My recipe for Shrimp Scampi called for lemon juice so I thought I would add the remaining lemongrass tea to my pan instead of lemon juice.  It worked great and my husband, who is my official taste tester, gave me thumbs up!!

 

 

 

 

 

(Replaced the lemon juice with the tea)

January 13, 2015 035

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The success of my experiments will result in my ordering more plants this spring so I can use lemongrass in even more products.

 

I’m Talkin Dirt!

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Spring has arrived here on Thompson Street Farm. My raised beds are finally defrosted and the rain has stopped, we’ve been busy cleaning out winter debris and prepping the soil for planting.

Maintain good soil health: One of the most important parts of being a successful gardener (or in my case farmer) is maintaining good soil health without dumping expensive fertilizers that are bad for your health and environment. Soil is a biological system which has millions microorganisms living in it that needs to be cared for. Understanding what is in your soil and what is not, will determine how successful your garden (or farm) will be.

I’m not a biologist and to be perfectly honest, soil biology is one of my weakest areas in my farming operation. I’ve read extensively on the subject; however, for me personally, I need things broken down in easy to understand language. I need a recipe of sorts specific to my land. There is so much information out there most of it doesn’t apply to my situation and I am frequently confused and frustrated.

I’ve learned I’m not alone. Finding soil amendments in small quantities can be hard for small plot growers. Some elements are only sold by the ton. In other situations when I could find smaller quantities (e.g. 1 lb. bag); it was too expensive to buy in the numbers I needed (e.g. 50 bags). This was my problem with bloodmeal. In the end, I resorted to ordering a 50 lb. bag from Amazon, paid the shipping fees because it was cheaper than buying (50) 1 lb. bags from my local garden store.

Use a good lab for soil testing: Last year I hired a soil fertility expert to help me figure out what to do with farm land I am leasing. My first year, I had very little seed germination. I knew I needed a soil test, but I wanted help translating the results and help sourcing a reliable retailer who would sell me soil amendments in the quantities I needed.

In our first meeting I explained I used my states university lab and I was frustrated on how to interpret the information. They use a general rating system:

• Below Optimum
• Optimum
• Above Optimum

In the recommendations section on every lab result regardless of what was rated they recommended 10-10-10 fertilizers. I started asking myself why do soil a test if the recommendation is always going to be the same? I knew the lab wasn’t explaining my test results accurately. They knew I was an organic grower, so why were they always recommending the use of commercial fertilizers.

I learned from my soil specialist some soil labs are better than others. He strongly recommended I stop using my state lab and use a lab that will give me the actual numbers of each element.

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Test your Soil: Standard recommendation is once every 3 years in the fall.  However, if you need a starting point don’t worry what time of year it is – just do the test.  This will be your baseline.

Collecting your soil sample:  If you have multiple beds (I have 22 raised beds) save some money by taking a sample of dirt from all your beds.  Mix the dirt in a container and remove 1 scoop and send it off to the lab.  This will give you an overall baseline of your soil make up.

If you want to know what’s going on in each bed take samples from different sections of the bed and mix together and remove a single sample.  But be aware this can be expensive.

If you are growing in the ground, take samples from several different locations in your growing area.  Mix together in a container and pull out 1 sample.

Soil Testing Check out Dan Kitterage YouTube Video introduction on soil testing

According to Dan Kitterage from the Bionutrient Food Association in MA he recommends your base minerals should be as follows:

  •  Sulfur – 75ppm
  • Phosphorus – 75ppm
  • Calcium – 60% – 75%
  • Magnesium – 12% – 18%
  • Potassium – 3% – 5%

For more detailed information on soil biology I recommend you check out Dan’s website www.bionutrient.org

Manure vs leaf compost/mulch:  Once you have addressed your soil mineral issues there is the question of organic matter.  How much, what kind and how often?  An old friend of mine is always telling me “You need nitrogen and lots of it!” “Use whatever you can find! That will really get you going.”  My response is always “Not so fast my friend…..”

As an organic grower dumping manures in my beds or field is not the magic cure to all soil ailments.  There has to be a balance between minerals and organic matter.  In addition, manures are often mixed with the animals bedding which tends to be higher in ammonia verses nitrogen and other nutrients because the bedding is soaked with urine.

What kind of manure matters:  Chicken, cow, horse, rabbit, goat, pig etc.  Not all manures are the same.  They all have different nutrient levels.  Is the manure mixed with the bedding?  If yes, what kind of bedding did they use?  Stay away from wood shavings and sawdust bedding if possible.

Wood shavings and saw dust are often sprayed with chemicals which will leach out into your soil.  Add the additional high levels of ammonia and you have a potent mixture that could burn your plants.

I realize finding manure free from the wood bedding maybe difficult but if you check around you may find someone who doesn’t use that type of bedding with their livesstock.  If the bedding is straw then it’s ok because straw doesn’t absorb urine and breaks down quickly.

How old is the manure?  Never ever put fresh manure on your soil.  Last year a new gardener at our local community garden put several inches of her daughter’s newly made horse poo on her bed.  Her rational it’s organic and free!  What could go wrong? The result was she killed everything.  That was a hard lesson for her to learn.

One year or more is best as it has time to rot a little, cool off so it won’t burn your plants.  In addition, a little goes a long way, especially in small spaces.

How often should I put down manure? If the manure is composted (which is different than pure manure) you can put it down every year.  If it’s straight manure its best to add it on your field and let rest for 1 month before planting.  There is no information available on adding straight manure every year is wise.  I recommend you consult with a soil fertility expert.

BEWARE of Toxic Manure: Not to be an alarmist, but sourcing your livestock manure is important.  It’s what the animal digests and comes out the other end is the concern.

Some farmers spray their hay fields with herbicides to keep the weeds down.  The hay is baled, sold or fed to the farmer’s livestock.  When the cow or horse, for example, eats the hay, the residue from the herbicides passes through the animal and there you have it – toxic manure.  It can stunt, mutate, or kill whatever you are growing and now you have a bigger problem – you have toxic soil.

Grass clippings collected from lawns that have been sprayed with herbicides and composted can also pose a similar danger.  As much as I would love to ask for grass clippings from local landscapers, I don’t.  In my neighborhood, we have a lot of those white and green trucks with tanks on them spraying Lord knows what on people’s lawns.  My concern is the long term effects from the large number of residences that use these companies will be on our ground water. I doubt anyone’s monitoring this.

To learn more about this issue click here 

Using Manures as a soil amendment:  Several sources recommend finding farmers that feed their animals with clean feed and use the manure solids minus the bedding.  The challenge will be finding a source that will give you just the manure.  It can be done.  One gardener told me she asked an organic farmer friend if she could collect his cow patties in his pasture. Even though he gave her a strange look, he told her to knock herself out.

Another farmer friend recommended I check into large chicken producers who are overflowing with chicken poo and will deliver it by the truckload.  Large producers often don’t use bedding in their operations. The chickens are in cages and the waste drops to a space below them and is shoveled out.  In addition, owning chickens myself, I know there are a great many benefits other than collecting their eggs and/or eating them.

Chicken manure is high in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and is considered a great amendment according a by USDA Agriculture Research Service study

“They found that cotton yields peaked 12 percent higher with organic fertilizers (sic. specifically chicken litter), compared to peak yields with synthetic fertilizers…”

Manures are not sterile: As wonderful manures are, you need to be aware there are pathogens in manure that can contaminate your produce if it hasn’t been properly composted.  It can have some pretty nasty bugs such as E-coli, Listeria and salmonella just to name a few.  As a commercial grower I have be very careful what I put on my soil as the last thing I want is contaminated lettuce from manure not properly composted.

For my piece of mind, unless I’m guaranteed the manure has been sitting for a few years, I will only use it on my open field.  For my permanent raised beds I use leaf compost.  In addition, I only recommend trucking in manure if you are farming ¼ acre or more.  Anything smaller I recommend leaf compost.

Leaves are easy to find.  I discovered last fall some people were more than happy to collect and bag leaves if I hauled them away verses the homeowner hauling bags to the town dump and paying a dump fee. In addition, ask your neighbors to blow their leaves into your yard.  I was lucky last fall my neighbor was more than happy to blow his leaves down the hill in-between our houses.

I run my leaves through a leaf mulcher which gives me nice chopped mulch ready to be put on my beds.  I recommend about a 1 to 2 inches of mulch on top of your beds or growing area in the late fall and leave there over winter.  Come spring, I mix whatever is left into the soil and as long as I don’t have to add any rock minerals I’m good to start planting.

Since its spring now, check if you have leaves hanging around from last year and go ahead and put them in your garden or if you’ve already planted side dress your plants.  It will help retain moisture and keep weeds down.

Recap: 

  •  Test your soil in the fall every 3 years. Or test now for a baseline.
  • Use a lab that breaks down everything by the numbers verses using general terms such as Below Optimum, Optimum etc.
  • Use leaf compost/mulch on less than a ¼ acre or in raised beds. If you want to use animal manures, try to use manures that are bedding free (i.e. wood shavings or sawdust), and are fed clean herbicide free feed.

Resources:

  • Logan Labs , LLC  www.loganlabs.com
  • BioNutrient Food Association  www.bionutrient.org

      • Educational Youtube videos and webpages explaining soil biology in easy to understandable language.
      • Soil consultants ready to assist you with your questions (for a fee) if you are like me and don’t have a science background or just need help.

Product Review: Topsy Turvey Upside Down Tomato Planter

 

Tomato-planter[1]

One of the great things about being a SPIN (Small Plot IN-tensive) Farmer is many of us like to share short cuts and new time saving products that we find useful. For example, one of our tools in the “tool kit” is growing vegetables in all kinds and sizes of containers. One of best ideas is using wading pools for toddlers. Drill holes in the bottom and sides for drainage and aeration fill it with a good quality potting soil and you’re good to go!

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However, there are some containers and gimmicks that are not worth the money or effort. I’m a firm believer of learning from other people’s experiences and this product is one of them. I have several good friends who purchased “The Topsy Turvy Upside Down Tomato Planter” (“As Seen on TV!”) and were nice enough to share with me their experiences.

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Based on my interviews, this product gets my lowest rating which is a sad face. Their warning is buyers beware! This product does not live up to the expectations as advertised.

My first interview was with my neighbor’s Bob and Sue. Bob and Sue purchased their planter at a local discount store and put everything together themselves. The kit included the bag, basic instructions on how to fill and hang the bag and a packet of fertilizer. Soil and tomato plant were not included.

My friend Gail purchased her planter from a local farm and garden supply store in her town. It was already assembled and planted with a tomato plant. All she had to do was buy it and hang it when she got home.

Here is what they said about this product:

Brenda: During the summer we know you love fresh tomatoes and for years you grew tomatoes the normal way, in a pot, planter or in the ground with success. So why did you buy this product?

Bob and Sue: It was advertised that it was easy to use and could be put it anywhere in the yard. Our yard has lots of shade and we wanted to be able to move the planter around the yard to the sunniest spaces throughout the day.

Gail: I work a lot of hours and I don’t have time to garden anymore. I wanted something simple and care free. When I saw it all put together ready to hang in my yard, I couldn’t resist.

Brenda: How was it to assemble and install?

Bob and Sue: It wasn’t easy. Once I filled the bag with soil it was really heavy. We looked for weight requirements and there was nothing listed in the instructions. I wasn’t sure if I was putting it together right or not.

When I finally got it filled with potting soil and then planted the tomato plant, it was a big mess. Soil kept leaking out all over the place it was incredibly heavy.

Gail: I didn’t have any problems hanging it up. I just hooked it on the railing on my front door stoop.

Brenda: During the growing season, how easy was it to care for the plant?

Bob and Sue: It didn’t go well at all. The reason we purchased the planter was so we could move it around our yard with little effort so it can always have sun. The planter ended up getting so heavy we had to buy a heavy-duty shepherd’s hook hanger and anchor it to the ground with heavy-duty wire. Moving it around wasn’t an option anymore.

The other problem we noticed was that the plant didn’t grow straight down as they advertised. The plant wanted the sun and wasn’t getting it hanging upside down. Instead it curved up and grew up the bag.

When the weather got really hot the soil in the bag dried out and my plant started to wilt. Some days I had to water it several times just to keep it alive.   Then there was always the fear of the bag ripping or the hook breaking after watering because the bag was so heavy.

Then there was the question of what to do with the fertilizer that came with the kit. There were no instructions on what to do with it. Over all, it was a lot of work to keep that plant alive and very frustrating.

Gail: Honestly, I really didn’t pay that much attention to it. I had it hanging off my front stoop railing. I did notice a few times after watering that the weight of the soil and plant was putting a lot of stress on the bag, but I wasn’t too concerned about it. If it broke it broke.

 However, now that I think about it, watering was actually a problem. Watering from the top meant the water then flowed down and out the holes never reaching the bottom vines. Watering at the separate holes didn’t allow enough water for the plant.

Brenda: How did the tomato plant grow? Did it give you the quantity that you expected?

Bob and Sue: After all the work that went into putting it together and the amount of care it required the output of tomatoes was minimal. It certainly didn’t give us the bumper crop that they advertised in their commercials or on the box.

Gail: For the first few weeks my plant was producing enough tomatoes to satisfy me.   Then I ran out of tomatoes and the plant didn’t produce anything for almost 3 months. Then right before a hard freeze I noticed the plant flowered again and it looked like I was going to finally get more tomatoes. Unfortunately, the freeze came, and then snow and that ended everything.

Brenda: Did this product meet your expectations and deliver what it promised? And would you recommend it to your friends and family?

Bob and Sue: No and No. It was a waste of money and I’m concerned about how they advertise this product. I don’t think they are being truthful. My biggest concern is if an elderly person bought this product. How would they be able to manage assembling this thing and care for it.

Gail: No – I didn’t get a consistent amount of tomatoes as they advertised. And if you think about it, what plant can grow upside down? Mine, defied gravity and turned up and grew up the bag and it was in full sun all day. I don’t recommend this product – this is a buyers beware product.