A Garden Can Teach Anything

carrot harvest

Hey Memphians!

If you’re looking for a great place to get out of the thunderstorms today, I am giving a talk at 10:00 am at Palladio Garden all about incorporating horticulture into education. Horticulture isn’t just important for horticulture’s sake. A garden is the perfect model for using techniques found in nature for solving human problems. I’m going to tell you all about the unexpected ways we incorporate the school garden into wider educational objectives at Hutchison School. It’s going to be a great talk. Don’t miss it!

Happy growing,

Mary

Back to School

It had been a long time since I had one of those nightmares about getting to the last day of the term and then realizing that I had forgotten to go to one of my classes all semester long. Well, they’re back, because I’m back at school.

I’m a few weeks into my Masters program, and my brain is melting out of my ears. I mean, it’s in a good way. But melting. And because I’m getting a Masters of Science in Sustainability, all of my spare time is filled with readings about different ways that the world will come to an end. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but spending a good deal of time contemplating the planet’s perilous warming and resource depletion does produce a fair amount of anxiety.

IMG_4158.JPG

I want my children to grow old in a world that can sustain their needs, their children’s needs, and their grandchildren’s needs. That’s why I’m doing this. Please remind me of that when I’m wondering why I decided that getting a Masters when I have two kids under three and working my day job was a good idea.

I’m going to spend some time in the coming weeks reviewing some of the literature that I’m reading for class, so far all of you sustainability nerds out there, buckle up! For those of you that are just here for the pretty garden photos, don’t fret! I won’t abandon that. You may just have to scroll past some of the nerdiness. :)

Spring is coming. Wishing y’all warm breezes and good gardening weather.

Happy growing,

Mary

Pea Shoots and Microgreens

One of the hardest things about gardening with kids is that there is no real “immediate gratification” for their work. Plants take time. While it’s a great life lesson to learn, it can be a challenge. Sometimes, I like to give classes a quick win, and microgreens are perfect for just that.

Microgreens are just the tender young shoots from certain plants. My favorite microgreens are black oil sunflower shoots. They’re nutty and interesting and pack a nutritional punch. Micro-cilantro is also delicious.

IMG_4114.jpg

I worked with a third grade class last week to plant pea shoots. I ordered field peas bred specifically for shoots from Johnny’s. After they arrived, I poured them into a clean bucket and let them soak in water for 24 hours before the girls were scheduled to plant. When the girls got to my classroom, they scooped a few shovels full of an organic potting soil into flat greenhouse trays, making sure that the soil was level and breaking up any clumps that they saw. Finally, they took handfuls of soaked peas and spread them out in a thick layer over the soil.

IMG_4115.jpg

A week later, and voila! We have pea shoots. They taste bright and fresh, like someone injected the flavor of snap peas into a crisp spring lettuce. My favorite way to eat pea shoots (other than straight out of the trays) is with pasta. I mix the shoots into the pasta with shredded Parmesan cheese and lemon juice.

I like to harvest them when they have several sets of open leaves. They weren’t quite there this morning, but spring break begins tomorrow, so I wanted the girls to have an opportunity to sample their hard work. They ate their pea shoots my favorite way… straight out of the tray.

These kinds of projects are a great way to bring a little gardening indoors during the cold, winter months. (Or any time!) It’s also perfect for a classroom setting, because students can observe the growing process and quickly see the results, even if you don’t have access to an outdoor garden space.

Have you ever tried microgreens? What are some of your favorites?

Growing Mindfulness

I originally had a different blog post scheduled for today, but after what I heard on my morning commute today, I completely scrapped those plans.

Growing things forces us to be in the present moment and use all of your senses. It is grounding.

Take a few minutes and listen to this story from NPR’s Story Corps about a veteran who used sheep farming to overcome PTSD. I haven’t walked in this person’s shoes before, but I can identify with someone who has and continues to benefit mentally and emotionally from the more therapeutic aspects of farming and gardening.

It’s a touching story and worth a listen.

school farm.JPG

Tasting Tuesday

A Tasting Tuesday harvest of Japanese turnips waiting to go to the dining hall

A Tasting Tuesday harvest of Japanese turnips waiting to go to the dining hall

Kids can learn all kinds of things from gardening. I truly believe that gardening isn’t the end-point of a lesson, but rather a lens for learning all kinds of other things in any subject on the planet. We use the school farm at Hutchison to teach history, foreign languages, geometry, engineering, poetry, and many other topics seemingly unrelated to the mechanics of making a seed grow. We also use the farm to teach our younger girls about bravery and being open to new things.

When kids take part in growing a vegetable, or any plant for that matter, they become emotionally connected to it. Growing food gives them ownership. They grew it. They harvested it. They want to know what is going to happen to it, and they definitely want a say in it.

Me on Tasting Tuesday

Me on Tasting Tuesday

At Hutchison, I developed a program called Tasting Tuesday. It gives girls in pre-K through 4th grade an opportunity to bring their crops from farm to table. Most weeks, girls help harvest one of our garden crops and deliver it to the dining hall where our chef turns it into something delicious. On Tuesdays, I take that culinary creation around the dining hall during lunch time, where the girls have the opportunity to try it.

Every single week, I see the pickiest of eaters try new vegetables, because it came out of the garden. I see girls who normally wouldn’t touch something green with a ten foot pole excitedly tell girls in other classes that their class helped grow this food so everyone better eat it. I can’t tell you how many parents have come up to me and said something like, “My daughter doesn’t eat vegetables, but because of Tasting Tuesday, she now eats kale.”

When kids have the opportunity to become invested in their food, and when they have a say in what’s done with it, they are usually far more open to trying it.

The girls at Hutchison take their role in feedback just as seriously as their role in harvesting. Every Tasting Tuesday, the girls who try the featured dish let me know if they like it or not. I celebrate with them when they find a new vegetable that they enjoy. When they tell me that they don’t like something, I always tell them that it’s okay, and I am just so proud of them for trying something new. Often, when a girl at a lunch table tries something and enjoys it, her reaction is enough to get the other girls to try it, too. Bravery is contagious. The love of good food is contagious.

They may not get tested on this subject, but learning to be open to new experiences is one of the best lessons that a kid can get. I love that every single week, the girls get to use food from the farm to learn a little more about themselves.

A Tasting Tuesday delivery of kohlrabi on its way to the dining hall!

A Tasting Tuesday delivery of kohlrabi on its way to the dining hall!

The girls LOVE telling Chef exactly what they think should happen with their harvests. This crate of kohlrabi became a giant bowl of kohlrabi cole slaw.

The girls LOVE telling Chef exactly what they think should happen with their harvests. This crate of kohlrabi became a giant bowl of kohlrabi cole slaw.

Bee Green

The 2017 Beeswax Spa Products Debut… they completely sold out!

The 2017 Beeswax Spa Products Debut… they completely sold out!

In 2017, I told y’all about some inspiring young entrepreneurs who created a honey business from our hives at Hutchison School. These incredible girls were able to grow their business in some creative ways. In 2018, the girls launched a line of beeswax spa products, like lip balm and body butter. They experimented with recipes and came up with their own marketing and sales plans. The spa products were a hit, and the demand far exceeded their expectations.

The initial cohort of bee business girls graduated last year, but there is a new group of girl bosses taking charge. This year, they wanted to put beeswax to a greener use, so they decided to create plastic-free kitchen packaging.

They started out by researching all of the problems with single-use plastics. They were shocked and saddened by the information they uncovered about plastics in the ocean, but it motivated them to get to work. The girls melted beeswax and pine resin together, and they used paint brushes to lightly coat a piece of cotton fabric.

beeswax+wraps+2

I got to test out the beeswax food wrap at home, and I loved being able to cover bowls of leftovers with a sustainable alternative to plastic wrap.

beeswax wraps

These young entrepreneurs are still perfecting their recipe and methods, but they are going to launch their product at Beeline Bazaar at Hutchison School on March 2nd. If you’re in the area, come on by and support these young women and their green bee business!

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle

Getting Started with Seed Starting

First tomato plants of the season popping up

First tomato plants of the season popping up

It’s that time of year again!

This past Saturday, I gave a talk at Palladio Garden in Midtown Memphis about starting vegetables, herbs, and cut flowers from seed. As many of you are revving up for spring, I thought you might find some of this information useful.

You might wonder why on earth someone would start plants from seeds, when you can get perfectly fine transplants at any nursery or garden center. I like to start everything I grow from seed, because it is cheaper, I get more variety, and I can control inputs. That means I know exactly what went into my soil mix and on my plants, and I’m not left guessing as to what kinds of chemicals might be present.

Me with the very first handful of lisianthus I grew from seed. You probably can’t find seedlings for these stunners in your neighborhood garden center! It’s just another advantage of starting seeds yourself.

Me with the very first handful of lisianthus I grew from seed. You probably can’t find seedlings for these stunners in your neighborhood garden center! It’s just another advantage of starting seeds yourself.

Now, I know some home gardeners swear by the success they’ve had starting seeds in a little tray they picked up at a hardware store and leaving them on a sunny window sill. I’m here to squash those fantasies and tell you that if you’re committed to starting seeds at home, it takes a little investment. (Okay, so maybe saying that it is “cheaper,” isn’t exactly accurate. It can be cheaper in the long run!) To successfully and consistently grow healthy vegetable, herb, and flower starts, you need:

1) Trays. I like to plant into cell trays and set those cell trays in flat 1020 trays. That way, I can gently lift up the cell tray and pour water into the flat tray. The cell trays have holes in the bottoms of each cell that can soak up the water. This makes for a far less messy situation for starting seeds in your own home. Here is a link to Johnny’s Selected Seeds tray selection.

2) Germination Mix. Although some home growers say that potting mix works for their seeds, I like to use mixes that are specifically designed for seed-starting. My favorite is Pro-Mix with Mycorrhizae. This is a super fine mix, perfect for germination. Mycorrhizae are neat, beneficial fungi that grow on plant roots. It help extend the roots and aids in their nutrient uptake.

3) Grow Lights. This is where it can get pricey. I’ve seen people make their home seed-starting operation work with trays and clear plastic domes. It’s a lot of work, though. You have to keep the tray in a window and watch for signs of light deficiency. (That’s when your plants get “leggy.”) Then, you have to move them outside when the weather is nice. Then move it back in when it’s cold or rainy. It can be a headache! A grow light is the way to go for peace of mind and consistent seedling production. Here is a good option from Johnny’s.

Bok choy seedling grown in a Jiffy pellet

Bok choy seedling grown in a Jiffy pellet

4) Water pitchers and/or a sprayer.

5) A box fan and/or overhead fan nearby for air circulation. This will help keep fungal infections at bay!

6) Seeds, of course.

For indoor production, I also really like using Jiffy pellets. I space them out in a flat 1020 tray, and add enough water to keep them feeling damp, but not soaking wet. They’re nice, because the air is a natural barrier for root growth, and it can help keep your plants from becoming root bound. They’re especially nice for gardening with children, because they’re so easy to transplant.

It’s important to check the back of your seed packet for your specific crop’s seed starting specifications. Some flowers have to have light in order to germinate, so you shouldn’t bury them. Some crops like to be in warm soil, so you might want to invest in a heated germination mat. Most vegetables just need good seed to soil contact to germinate, but they’ll need good light as soon as they have sprouted.

Centaurea seeds are SO COOL.

Centaurea seeds are SO COOL.

Also, make sure that you’re not over-watering, as that can lead to “damping off,” which is a term for a fungal infection that can cause your seedling stems to shrivel and collapse. Good air flow helps prevent this, so make sure to have a fan nearby. Additionally, I dip my seed trays in a 10% bleach solution before reusing them to kill off any lingering pathogens.

If you are in or around zone 7b (where I am) and growing cool-weather crops like leafy greens, you can start those seeds now and transplant when it looks like your long-range forecast isn’t dipping below 30, provided that your plants have a few good sets of “true leaves.” For all of those wonderful summer crops, you’ll have to wait just a little while longer. Your seed packet will specify how long before the last frost to plant indoors, but for most summer crops, I wait until March 1st to plant indoors, and I transplant my seedlings outside between April 1st and 15th, depending on the weather. Crops like cucumbers, melons, and squash only need two or three weeks in a seed tray, so wait even longer for those.

If you are in Memphis and want to come to my next speaking gig, I am giving a talk at Palladio on April 13th at 10:00 am titled, “Incorporating Horticulture and Plant Science into the Education and Development of Children.” Also, my dear husband is giving a talk on April 6th at 10:00 am called, “Tree Law and Other Disputes Between Neighbors.” His wealth of information about the intricacies of tree law is always a hit!

You can drop any seed-starting questions in the comments below, or you can always send me an email at mary@thesouthernhorticulturist.com.

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle

Me with a gazillion seedlings.

Me with a gazillion seedlings.

The Cheeseburger Challenge

Third grade girls at Hutchison School study map skills. They also love lunchtime. We combined these two activities for a cool project to teach about where our food comes from.

First, we examined the lunch menu, and we chose a meal to research. Cheeseburgers are a perennial favorite, so I tried to track down every step that the ingredients of a cheeseburger took before it got to our plates.

foodmiles

First of all, it’s harder than you might think to find out where our food comes from. I tracked down sources for as many ingredients as I could, and for some of them, I just had to use my best guess. During this process, the girls learned that most ingredients don’t go straight from a farm to their lunch plate. They make stops at processing plants, wholesalers, distribution centers. They stop to get washed, packaged, labeled, and sometimes they make another stop to get re-packaged and re-labeled.

IMG_3827.JPG

The girls added up the miles for all of these different stops that I discovered. We found that a plain cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato likely traveled over 13,000 miles before it got to us. We then tried to see what 13,000 looked like in a smaller scale. Using their map skills, they tied together pieces of yarn that represented the different legs of their lunch’s journey. Even when one inch of yarn represented twenty miles, their string went out my classroom door, and up, down, and around our hallways. We then examined the pieces of yarn that were cut to represent potential miles traveled in a local food system. All stretched out, the yarn didn’t even leave my classroom.

The great thing about this project is that it led to more questions. We debriefed for over thirty minutes as the girls had dozens of questions about how their food system works, and now I wonder where the girls will take these questions next.

IMG_3834.JPG
IMG_3831.JPG

Screen Time

I recently made two radical decisions that have quickly made me smarter, more mindful, and happier.

I am obviously someone who likes to spend a lot of time outside, getting dirty. There’s not much that I love more than spending time in nature. I didn’t think that someone like me could be subject to screen addiction. I’m too outdoorsy, right?

The idea that maybe I was a little too attached to my smartphone and social media started to nag at me a few months back. I’ve taken social media breaks before, but those were usually short-lived and didn’t do much to moderate my usage long term.

A little over a month ago, I attended the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools Biennial Conference. Michele Borba, one of the keynote speakers, gave a compelling talk about how excessive screen time is eroding our sense of empathy and social skills. She spoke about how this lack of empathy erodes civil society, as well as how empathy is a skill necessary for personal happiness and professional success. While her talk was ostensibly about these negative effects of screen time and social media on kids and teens, I found that her talk resonated with me on a personal level. How many times had I found myself mindlessly scrolling Facebook, when I could have been reading to my kids? (Or to myself?) How many times had I fallen down a smartphone rabbit hole, only to emerge more anxious about the world around me? I should have realized how bad I had gotten when I found myself texting my husband about how awesome Michele’s talk was… during the part of her presentation where she was talking about our need to be more present in the moment. I guess I suffered from a little bit of screen time cognitive dissonance.

I thought that it was great information, but I couldn’t possibly get rid of my smartphone. I needed it! So, I tried to look for things I could do that would help me curb my smartphone time:

1) I learned how to make my screen gray scale, so it wouldn’t be as appealing to stare at it. Well, I stuck to that for about a day before switching it back.

2) I deleted my Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone and downloaded Kindle instead. My thought was that when I went to reach for my phone, I could scroll a book instead of social media. That worked for a few days, but I went right back.

Even as I struggled to moderate my own screen time, I began to notice the pervasiveness of the smartphone in my daily life. I started to cringe at how interested my two year old was in my phone when he saw me playing with it. I noticed the times that I was in a room with other people, and we were looking at our phones instead of each other.

Why was I feeling compelled to stare at this thing? Why was I feeling like I just had to check social media multiple times per day? Why couldn’t I take a walk without pulling out my phone to see what someone else had posted? How many hours of my life have I spent looking down at my phone, instead of up at the world around me?

Has this device made me happier? Has social media made me happier?

Every person is different, but for me, the answer two the last two questions is a resounding no. I am so thankful that social media has kept me in touch with old friends, but there are better ways of doing that.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I permanently deleted my Facebook. It was hard. I downloaded thirteen years of photos that I had on there. I made an all-call for contact information from my friends, so I could keep in touch. Then I did it. And guess what? I immediately read two books. The crazy thing is that before I deleted Facebook, I genuinely thought I didn’t have time to read for pleasure anymore. Frankly, I didn’t have the attention span for it, when my phone was just a reach away, lighting up and buzzing, telling me that someone somewhere had said something, and I must know about it right now.

A few days later, I deleted my personal Instagram. I read another book.

I still found myself reaching for my phone, though. I scanned news headlines, checked my email obsessively, looked at the weather forecast. I was still going on walks while simultaneously scrolling through something on my smartphone. It got me thinking, why do I need this thing at all?

So, last week, I went back to the Stone Age. I took my smartphone to the AT&T store and told them that I wanted a flip phone. The sales guy was dumbfounded. He tried to talk me out of it. His equipment couldn’t even process my switch to a flip phone. It just isn’t done.

I’ve spent about a week without a smartphone for the first time in eight or nine years, and so far, I think it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Guess what? I read another book. I’ve read more books in the last few weeks than I have since college. One of my key takeaways from Michele’s talk was that reading helps build empathy, and I figure I’ve spent so much time scrolling that I need to make up for lost time.

Now that my two year old is seeing me read more, he is asking to read more. This weekend, I took my kids to the library and got a library card. News flash: did y’all know that libraries are cool buildings that have a wealth of information, books, and resources and wonderful humans who want nothing more than to help you access these resources? I think I knew that once, but I had forgotten about it over the last, say, eight or nine years.

I get that not everyone can or should go without a smartphone or social media. It has worked for me, because I have an iPad at home that I can use to access my email or the internet when I’m not at work. I’m getting a camera and a flashlight, because that’s largely what I used my iPhone for. I do miss being a part of some hilarious group texts. I also miss GPS, but looking up directions before I leave the house isn’t so hard. Instead of funny group texts, I started reaching out to people individually for phone calls and some genuine non-FaceTime face time.

Ditching the screen means I have more time to get my hands in the dirt, so expect a few more gardening posts soon.

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle

Hello again!

Hey friends!

I’m embarrassed to say that it’s been over a year since I’ve posted anything. I’ve been busy doing things like having a baby and trying to catch up on some sweet, precious, elusive sleep. However, I’ve got a calendar of posts coming your way soon. Until then, check out this video of yours truly showing off our wonderful school garden at Hutchison School.

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle

maryriddleandbaby.JPG

Garden Math

It's been a busy start to the school year over here! I hope you've been following along on my Instagram page. 

Balancing and weighing the garden harvest.

Balancing and weighing the garden harvest.

One of the best things about my job is working with such creative people. I wanted to take a minute to tell you about one of the projects I did over the summer. I was assigned to lead a camp this summer that uses the school farm to teach Kindergarten and first grade math skills, and I really wasn't really sure which subject material would be most important for these girls to review. My awesome coworker and fantastic Kindergarten teacher Heather Fontana came to the rescue. We came up with some great activities that builds age-appropriate math skills for the little ones, all while they're having fun in the garden. The best part is that these projects are easily adaptable to your home or school garden.

They graphed their harvest! 

They graphed their harvest! 

  • Our first project was designed to help the girls brush up on graphing and one-to-one correspondence. We harvested tomatoes, beans, eggplant, okra, and flowers. They had to count out the number of each item we picked, and then, they had to graph it. They counted out the number of little squares that corresponded with the number of each variety of veggies they harvested. For example, we harvested 17 eggplant, so they had to count out 17 little graph squares that represented each harvested eggplant. This was a challenge for them, but they loved being able to easily see which number was the greatest and which was the least. 
  • One-to-one correspondence proved to be a little tricky for some of the younger girls, so I made little cards with different numbers from 1-20. The girls had to take some of the beans that they harvested and fill the card with the corresponding number of beans. This task was challenging at first, but the girls got better and better at it. 
  • We also worked on weighing skills, as well as the concepts of less and more. We had a couple of pumpkins come in early. The girls had to predict which pumpkin they thought had the most seeds in it. Then, I cut open the pumpkins and let the girls remove the "guts." I asked them if it would be reasonable for us to count out each one of the hundreds of pumpkin seeds. We talked about other ways we could find out which pumpkin had more. This led us to discuss balance and weight. We talked about how a pan balance worked, and they filled each side of the balance up with the seeds from their pumpkin. They noted how when one side dropped, that meant it was heavier, and if that side was heavier, we could probably assume there were more seeds there. The girls also used the balances to compare like with unlike. They filled one side up with beans, and tried to discover how many of the other veggies they harvested it would take to make the sides balance. 
FullSizeRender (2).jpg

The garden is a natural place to learn math and spacial reasoning skills. Do you have a favorite garden math activity? Let's hear about it! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

The Solar-Powered Girl-Powered Wash Station... finished!

Back in June, I told you all about a brilliant young woman at Hutchison who designed, planned, and built a solar-powered vegetable wash station at the farm. Well, she's finished it! Here's the full story, from beginning to end.

IMG-4934.JPG

***********

Have you ever been so bowled over by the brilliance of a teen that it leaves you speechless?

This past fall, I was busily tucking tiny kale seeds in to the warm soil of the Hutchison farm, when a freshman girl wandered in through the gate. 

"Hi, Mrs. Riddle! My name is Elizabeth. I've designed a solar-powered vegetable wash station that will allow us to capture the gray water from the sink into a cylindrical chamber that will clean the water using a small motor and a UV filtration system. Would you like to see it?"

Me: [blink, blink]

"I've created a budget for it and preliminary blueprints."

Me: [jaw falls slightly agape.]

Pulling myself together, I ask her which class this is for, and who's giving her credit for this.

"Oh no," she says, "I'm doing this just for fun."

For fun, I later find out, in between her classes, quiz bowl competitions, and running tech for two school plays, but I digress.

Working with Henry Hampton, our Physical Plant Director, Elizabeth fine-tuned her idea and got her plan and budget approved. She decided that she wanted her station to be useful and educational, so she added a component to capture and sanitize rain water, because, as she said, "it's important for us to learn about water conservation."

Parts were ordered, and the plan was set in motion. Elizabeth came out to the school over the course of three weeks during her summer vacation to build her design. Two wonderful members of the Hutchison maintenance staff, Carnell Benton and Napoleon Logan, helped Elizabeth with the build every step of the way. Even on 100 degree days, she could be found at the top of a ladder, nailing shingles into a roof, or unloading the latest shipment of lumber. She ran the show with grit and grace. 

Last week, I am thrilled to report, she finally got to put the finishing touch on her project: the solar panel! With several second and fourth grade classes watching, she climbed up onto the roof of her building and installed  it. In a few minutes, the battery was charged up enough to get the pump moving. Elizabeth collected rain water in barrels over the summer, and with the flip of a switch, the rain water was pumped through her invention and into the sink. (I was able to wash a whole crate of cucumbers just using filtered rain water. That was a first for me!)

Installing the solar panel. Photo by Cathy Barber.

Installing the solar panel. Photo by Cathy Barber.

The younger kids (and, let's be honest, all of the adults) were stunned, and I could see the gears in their head starting to turn. The girls were full of questions. Their hands shot up in the air like popcorn as they asked her things like, "Did you have to make several versions of your plan, or did you get it right the first time?" and "How do solar panels work?" and "Where does the water go once it's used?" Elizabeth may have inspired an entire new generation of budding scientists and engineers!

One of the greatest things about working with kids and teens is that they show you on a daily basis to never underestimate them. With just a little bit of support and the proper resources, Elizabeth was able to invent something new and useful. I can't wait to see how she changes the world. Way to go, Elizabeth!

IMG-4948.JPG
The whole crew. Photo by Cathy Barber.

The whole crew. Photo by Cathy Barber.

The finished product! Photo by Cathy Barber. 

The finished product! Photo by Cathy Barber. 

Planning and Planting for Fall

This is such a great time of year. The summer bounty is really starting to come in strong. I'm awash in tomatoes, basil, okra, cucumbers, beans, and eggplant, and the summer flowers are putting on a fireworks show. It's awesome, right? On top of that, it's a high of EIGHTY THREE DEGREES in Memphis today. I'm pretty sure we had warmer days this winter. It's been a mild summer, and the garden is loving it. 

Well, I've lived in this region too long to expect this to last. Late July and August in Memphis is (usually) oppressively warm. Usually, by mid to late July, my first round of zinnias, squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes have started to succumb to powdery mildew, southern blight, or some other kind of nasty fungal infection. I don't want all of the glorious summer bounty to end in July, though; there are still months to go before our frost date! So, I get ready now to make sure I've got delicious summer produce and bright, beautiful flowers pouring in from the garden until October. 

Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes germinating

Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes germinating

Fall tomatoes are some of the best. In the spring, I like to seed hybrid tomatoes that are bred to withstand some of the gross fungal infections that are so common in our area mid-summer. I've never found a variety (or an organic technique) that totally keeps the disease away, but by seeding hybrid tomatoes, I can usually get a few extra weeks out of them mid-summer. However, it's fall tomatoes where I get to have my fun. Usually, fall in Memphis means a slight reprieve from the high humidity and blazing temperatures, and it's usually a great time to grow heirloom crops that don't do so well for me in the height of summer. Last week, I seeded Berkeley Tie-Dye, Cherokee Purple, Blue Gold Berry, Brandywine, and a few other fun heirloom varieties. I'll plant them outside in a few more weeks. 

I also planted my next round of sweet peppers, zinnias, and beans. I can't keep the geese away from edamame during their nesting season. They love it! By mid-summer, though, they've chilled out enough for me to plant some of their favorite foods, so I got some edamame in the ground. I planted a miniature sweet pepper that takes fewer days to mature than standard varieties in order to maximize fall harvest time. I've been enjoying zinnias this summer that have a muted color palette: apricot, light lime, cream, and white. They're starting to succumb to a fungal infection, so in a couple of weeks I'll rip them out, and I'll transplant bright, festive, multi-colored zinnias and sunflowers that will be ready to greet the girls when they come back to school in the fall. 

What's going on in your garden right now? Drop me a line in the comments, on my social media pages, or send me an email! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Color party in the garden!

Color party in the garden!

Solar Powered Girl Power

Have you ever been so bowled over by the brilliance of a teen that it leaves you speechless?

This past fall, I was busily tucking tiny kale seeds in to the warm soil of the Hutchison farm, when a freshman girl wandered in through the gate. 

"Hi, Mrs. Riddle! My name is Elizabeth. I've designed a solar-powered vegetable wash station that will allow us to capture the gray water from the sink into a cylindrical chamber that will clean the water using a small motor and a UV filtration system. Would you like to see it?"

Me: [blink, blink]

"I've created a budget for it and preliminary blueprints."

Me: [jaw falls slightly agape.]

Pulling myself together, I ask her which class this is for, and who's giving her credit for this.

"Oh no," she says, "I'm doing this just for fun."

For fun, I later find out, in between her classes, quiz bowl competitions, and running tech for two school plays, but I digress.

Working with our director of facilities, Elizabeth fine-tuned her idea and got her plan and budget approved. This week, she's coming out to campus (during her summer vacation!) to build her brainchild. I'll show y'all the completed project once she's finished, but I was too excited to keep the lid on this for any longer. 

Here's to brilliant young women! 

 

 

Things get better.

On May 28, 2015, I got my foot tangled up in a lawnmower and kicked off the worst year of my life. 

FullSizeRender (3).jpg

The first thing I felt, after the panic, was embarrassment. I was sitting there, half-naked on the ground waiting for the ambulance to arrive (I'd ripped off my shirt to wrap around my foot to try and stem the flow of blood), and through the pain and the terror, I remember feeling just plain stupid. HOW could I have so flagrantly ignored the safety rules that I would never have let my employees or students disobey? I had my boots with me at the farm that day, but I decided that those blisters that the boots gave me were getting too obnoxious, and I'd just finish mowing this last little area IN MY CHACOS.

The worst part was, I'd paid for my flippant disregard of safety rules before. I've dropped a T-post driver on my foot. I've accidentally kicked the sharp end of shovels as I ran in flip flops through my fields. I still didn't learn. I felt like a complete fool.  

Fast forward through 18 days in the hospital, seven surgeries, and weeks at home in recovery, I lost my big toe and my foot was being held together by pins and a device called a wound vacuum that still gives me nightmares.

See that stack of papers? Trying to work from the couch. Photo by Jenny Brandt.

See that stack of papers? Trying to work from the couch. Photo by Jenny Brandt.

At the time of my accident, my husband and I ran a non-profit training program for aspiring farmers together. We had big, overly-idealistic dreams about saving the world through the proliferation of sustainable farms. Between us, we made up half of the executive staff. Needless to say, neither one of us were able to give our attentions to work, and the employees were beginning to burn out from pulling all of the extra weight. (They were admirable and heroic, but even heroes need a break!) I threw myself into physical therapy to get back to work as soon as possible. I consulted with students by phone while bed-ridden. I graduated from wheelchair to walker to crutches to a slow walk. By the end of June, I was able to do seated farm chores with my foot propped up, like seeding or veggie processing. By mid-July, I was slowly working my way back into the fields. 

I perfected the art of seeding with my foot propped up.

I perfected the art of seeding with my foot propped up.

I was finally back up on my feet in the fall, only to be pushed back down again. As I mentioned, I used to train aspiring farmers. Farming is really hard work, and the truth is, most people can't hack it. During this time, a small group of former students who had failed out over the years for a variety of reasons got together and decided to harass and stalk both my husband and me. They embarked on an online disinformation crusade that would make the Russian intelligence service give them high-fives. This lasted for close to a year. Anyone who has ever been through prolonged harassment knows what kind of damage it can cause. At the time, I honestly would have preferred to lose another toe than endure the onslaught of relentless harassment. 

The team.

The team.

I'm not sure what makes people suspend better judgment and act in ways that are purposefully malicious. I don't know if they got it into their head that their failures were so fully a result of a moral or professional failing on my fault, that they felt justified in doing what they did. I even tried to empathize with the people that were hurting me, put myself in their shoes, and rationalize their behaviors. It's impossible, though. There is no justification for harassment. None.

Dealing with months and months of harassment was almost more than I could bear. I became pregnant with twins, then lost one of the twins. I was still losing weight from the stress of the harassment well into my second trimester. I was scared. We would triple-check the locks at night and make sure all the curtains were pulled. I was scared to go to work. I was scared of losing my other twin. Every day, every mundane task, became a whirlwind of anxiety. 

But you know what they say, about the night being darkest just before the dawn? 

I think it's true. 

There came a day when I was sure I couldn't face another moment of false accusations, name calling, and malice. I couldn't take another day of feeling like that stress that I couldn't escape was killing my other baby.  

That day, a friend reached out to me to tell me about a similar situation she had been through. Another friend dropped soup off on my front porch.

The next day, another friend reached out just to tell me he cared. A little bit at a time, things got better. Terrible, stupid accidents happen, mothers lose and grieve their babes they'll never meet, and human beings do cold-hearted, myopic, and selfish things. And things can still get better.

Neighbors and friends brought me a hand bike to use while I couldn't use my feet!

Neighbors and friends brought me a hand bike to use while I couldn't use my feet!

As it got better, I was able to better realize that they only reason that I was able to walk through this storm at all was through the love and grace of those friends and family who were there through the entire journey. They brought me smoothies in the hospital when I couldn't eat solid food. They hung up a porch swing at my house so I could sit outside while I was stuck at home. They threw me a surprise birthday party. They poured money into a GoFundMe to help me cover my bills, even though the whole damn accident was my fault. They came to my house EVERY DAY to change my wound dressings. They took my husband out for a beer to give him a break. They knitted me socks to keep my healing foot warm. They hugged me when I was sad. They walked my dog. They spoke up for me when I was being harassed. They gave me grace to be imperfect in the face of adversity. They welcomed my child. They never let me forget that I was loved.

May 28, 2015 was the start of a year I didn't think I could survive. But things got better. They get better.

The funny thing is, the year of trial by fire helped me better realize who I want to be, the friendships I want to cultivate, and what I want to do. It made me who I am, and I like who I am. I still carry the scars of that year, both obvious physical scars and deeper emotional ones, but even scars fade. I never thought that this could be true, but right now, save for an occasional night of uninterrupted sleep and a whole and healthy foot, there is nothing about my life that I would change. I am truly happy. I am content. I love my husband more than ever. Our child is the light of our lives. My friends and family are my rock and my joy. I love my job. I love who I am. I love my community.

I share my story to say don't give up. You're not alone. It gets better. When they try to bury you, just remember that you're a seed. 

You had a good run, lefty. 

You had a good run, lefty. 

When Should I Harvest Garlic?

Back in February, I told y'all all about how I fertilize, weed, and mulch to prepare for an awesome garlic harvest. Well, that magical season is upon us, so now I'm here to show you how to know when it's the right time to dig up your precious garlicky treasures. 

I grow two different kinds of garlic, hard neck and soft neck. I like to grow soft neck varieties, because you can make garlic braids from them. I like hard neck varieties, because the cloves are usually a bit bigger, and they also send up garlic scapes. 

There! That's a garlic scape.

There! That's a garlic scape.

Scapes are the blossom that the hard neck garlic plants send up just a few weeks before it's time to harvest. They are DELICIOUS. If you grow hard neck garlic, you should definitely pinch off the scapes and cook with them. They're divine. 

Usually, 2-4 weeks after you've harvested your scapes, the bottom leaves of your garlic plant start turning yellow and withering. With soft neck varieties, you'll see this yellowing without having the scapes tip you off first. When about one third of the leaves turn yellow, I know it's time to dig up the garlic. 

So here's how I do it. First, I always pull one or two bulbs up and cut them open, just to make sure I can see the cloves and everything looks like it's ready to go. If it looks like the cloves are fully formed, I go through my raised bed with a potato fork and loosen up the soil really well. Then, it's time to pull. Pull from the base to make sure you don't break off the stems. 

I move my garlic to the shade immediately and begin spacing them out on tables or hanging them up in my shed. Do not wash or trim them first! I gently tap the dirt off and hang them up just as they are. Your garlic needs 2-3 weeks in a cool, shady, well-ventilated room in order to cure. When garlic cures, the outside dries up, while the inside cloves are still moist and flavorful. After it's finished curing, you can wipe off the remaining dirt and trim the leaves and roots off.

After my soft neck garlic cures, I'll walk you through the process of making garlic braids. Stay tuned! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Hanging up garlic to cure

Hanging up garlic to cure

Growing Young Entrepreneurs

The school where I work has a fantastic new program called Hutchison Invests. The program trains young women in social entrepreneurship, providing valuable services like business incubation, mentoring, and internship matching. Hutchison Invests is directed by an incredibly talented colleague of mine, Kim Ware. 

Kim reached out to me several weeks ago wanting to collaborate on a project for her young entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurship and eco-friendly gardening seem to go hand-in-hand. We put our brains together and decided that we'd ask the girls to come up with a marketing plan to sell some of the honey that I was pulling off of the hives at the school farm. The girls took to the project like, well, bees to honey, and their results astounded us. 

These young women researched federal, state, and county health requirements to ensure that we were in compliance with all regulations. They designed a honey label that met those standards. They designed their own packaging. They researched honey pricing and helped determine what our break-even point would be. Then, they filtered, bottled, and labeled an initial prototype batch of about fourteen pounds of Hutchison-made honey, and took it to the Buzz Shop, our on-campus gift store.

The girls had already prepared a pitch to share with Bess, the Buzz Shop manager. Two of the girls prepared slides with consumer benefits, along with a proposed price (and class commission for their stellar marketing work!) Bess agreed to carry the honey, and they sold out in THREE HOURS. 

The girls are finishing up their exams this week before they leave for the summer, but they are already making plans about expanding their honey line this coming fall, and potentially adding other hive products like beeswax candles and lip balms.

It's a joy to work with such impressive young women and innovative colleagues.  We're going to be restocking our honey soon, so if you're in the Memphis area, make plans to come to the Buzz Shop this summer to try some of this honey for yourself. There can't be a more delicious way to support the work of young entrepreneurs. 

IMG_1072.JPG

Grow More by Interplanting

This is the time of year when we apire to garden greatness. We look at our freshly turned soil, the rising temperatures, and the glorious plants and seeds on sale at our local garden centers. We usually manage to sneak off to a plant sale unsupervised at least once, and we come home with more plants than we have space. (We've all been there, right?) If you've accidentally bought more plants than your garden can hold for the umpteenth year in a row, maybe this post can help you out.

I maximize the space in each of my raised beds through a process called interplanting. Instead of dedicating separate precious square footage to spring crops and summer crops, I plant many of them alongside one another. It's pretty easy to do. 

Mature radishes surrounding a tomato seedling

Mature radishes surrounding a tomato seedling

Here are some ways you can interplant your garden:

An interplanted bed of peppers, lettuce, and pole beans

An interplanted bed of peppers, lettuce, and pole beans

  • Are you looking impatiently at the seedlings in your tomato bed, trying to hurry them along? It will be weeks before they really spread out, so utilize the real estate surrounding them for quick crops like radishes. I planted radishes among my tomato seedlings and zinnia seedlings. Right about the time that the tomatoes and zinnias start growing up and out rapidly, it's time for the radishes to be harvested. 
  • I also like to take advantage of shade provided by vertical-growing crops like pole beans. In this bed, I planted pole beans along one side and peppers along the others. It will be several weeks before the peppers really spread out, so right down the middle, I planted some lettuce seedlings. The lettuce will be kept cooler in the afternoon sun from the shade of my pole bean trellis. By the time the peppers start encroaching on the space in the middle of the bed, it will be time to harvest the lettuce. I also trained pole beans to climb up over my low tunnel hoops and planted kohlrabi underneath. Again, the shade from the pole beans will extend the growing season for the cool weather-loving kohlrabi. 
  • You can also interplant with flowers. This season, I planted two rows of cosmos seedlings into my raised beds. I knew it would be several weeks before they would take up the space in the middle, so I transplanted some sunflowers down the center. I've harvested the sunflowers, and the cosmos are just now flushing out. 
Sunflowers harvested from the interplanted bed (pictured behind) of cosmos.

Sunflowers harvested from the interplanted bed (pictured behind) of cosmos.

Make the most out of every nook and cranny by pairing slower growing summer crops with quick growing spring crops. 

How do you make the most of limited square footage? Do you have any interplanting tricks? Share them below! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Zinnias and radishes

Zinnias and radishes