Happy Earth Day! Beginners Guide to Getting Your Garden Growing

It’s Earth Day, a few weeks into Spring in the Northern hemisphere, and no time like the present to get your garden going — even if (and perhaps especially if) you’re a total gardening novice.

Fear not. Even if you’ve never grown so much as a pansy, the following steps will get you and your garden up and running.

Select your site. Ideally your plot will get 6-8 hours of full sun per day. If such a site is not available, be sure to buy crops specifically intended to grow in the shade. If you don’t have adequate flat space, explore other outdoor space like patios, pass-throughs, or decks. You can still get a lot of usable space by planting in large boxes and having plants climb up trellises, which many love to do. Your space needn’t be too large. A 10×10 foot plot can support a few rows of different crops. Often gardeners get overly ambitious and plant more than they can reasonably maintain. If your site is traveled by munching animals, such as deer, you will want to construct some kind of fence around it.

Prepare the soil. Use a pitchfork to loosen the ground, preferably down to about 8 inches. Clear the surface with a heavy-duty rake. Break up dirt clods and pull weeds. These can be added to a compost, if you’ve chosen to compost. If you wish, you can buy packaged soil for a nice even top layer that will have some nutrients in it, especially if you suspect your soil is poor. (You can always take a sample into your local garden-supply store for an opinion.) Either way, some sort of packaged fertilizer should be added as well. A general mix for new plantings is usually good, but the folks at the garden center may have more specific advice based on your soil and what you’d like to grow, as well as how much organic matter you want to add. Always water thoroughly before adding fertilizer. (And have kids wash hands after handling.)

If possible, plan some paths in your garden. They will make it easy to water, weed, and harvest without stepping on plants. Some people cover the paths with tanbark or other material (available at garden-supply stores) to mark them and to discourage plants from taking root there. Make sure you have a good path for your hose and a water source.

Plant the seeds or seedlings. For most people, this part is especially fun. Follow the packet instructions for seed spacing and conditions. You may want to lay a line of string as a guide, or create a furrow. Some stores carry seed tapes, which you just lay down in a straight row. Tapes are great for tiny hard-to-handle seeds like carrots, which can be difficult, even for adults. Large, easy-to-plant and -grow seeds include nasturtium and pea. If you’re planting bedding plants, be sure to give each lots of room to spread out and grow. Try to anticipate the heights of your plants to get the tallest ones into the back. And don’t forget to grow something that you’d like to see or eat!

Fertilize. If you didn’t add fertilizer to the bed while preparing the soil, you’ll want to add a little bit while planting. There are fertilizers on the market that are designed specifically for new growth. Your local garden center is the best bet to point you toward a good fertilizer for your garden and conditions. Many people fertilize plants again at about six weeks into the growing process.

If you are gardening in containers, get the biggest containers you have space and money for. Check for adequate drainage holes. If you don’t have good drainage, you can add netting or pieces of broken pottery to the bottom of the pot. You may also want to add perlite, which will aerate the soil while helping it retain moisture. Fertilize as you would in a garden plot.

Water your plants or seeds. New transplants and freshly planted seeds like lots of water. The best kind of watering is done gently and deeply, so that the water soaks through to the growing roots of the plants. Once your plants are established, you will probably need to water every other day or so when the weather is sunny. (Plants in containers usually need water more often than plants in the ground.) If a plant droops during the day, or the soil feels dry more than a couple of inches down, it needs water. It’s best not to water in bright sunshine because the sun can evaporate the water or even cause burned spots on the plants.

Keep up the good work. Continue watering and caring for plants as needed. This can include pulling out obvious weeds and cutting back any growth that has died or become unattractive.

Be sure to harvest what you’ve grown. Sometimes I’ve been so proud of my work and/or not sure when to harvest that I’ve let plants go past the point when they’re edible or useful and all the way to seed. Take a chance and cut and enjoy what you’ve done. More will usually grow back!

Get comfortable. There are lots of items available to make gardening more comfortable. I suggest knee pads, if you’re going to be doing a lot of kneeling, a sun hat to protect your skin, and old shoes you don’t mind getting dirty or gardening clogs made specifically to get wet and dirty. (A pair of gardening clogs lasts for years. They’re also very comfortable and you can leave them outside.) Most people like gardening gloves and there are a range of them on the market. I find them irresistible to buy at gardening and hardware stores, with their cute patterns, but I almost always end up taking them off and getting my hands really dirty — the better to feel the plants, the dirt, and what I’m doing.

Have fun entering one of the oldest and most rewarding hobbies around!

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Photo Friday: World’s Favorite Tulip

As many readers know, I am an inveterate, unabashed, unapologetic lover of tulips! The most recent burst of rain and wind pretty much took the last petals of our tulips, but they were glorious again this year. A full report is coming. For now, there are these, Darwin Hybrids that really are called World’s Favorite.  Bright, large, dramatically colored — they did not disappoint. Neither did the great blue sky I found them under one recent day.

I hope you’re enjoying Spring in its full flower!

Have you seen and photographed something unusual, whimsical, beautiful, or otherwise interesting in your travels? Has anything surprised you or caused you to pause? Or have you simply experienced a small, lovely moment that you wanted to capture? If so, I hope you’ll share with us by leaving a comment with a link to your photo. I look forward to seeing it!

Photo by Susan Sachs Lipman

You might also like:

Photo Friday: Signs of Spring
Photo Friday: Gather ye Rosebuds
First of Spring: Larkspur, CA

Fool your Family with Easy April Fools Day Pranks

Though we all love a good laugh year-round, April Fools Day offers some great opportunities to crank up the pranks. Here are a few simple pranks that are great for all ages and use simple kitchen ingredients.

Why do we even celebrate April Fools Day?

Even though the Julian calendar, which we use, was adopted in 46 B.C., many Europeans were resistant to the change — really resistant, as it turns out. For centuries, their New Year coincided with Easter and other Spring celebrations. In the 1560s, France’s King Charles IX finally decreed that the New Year should officially begin on January 1, and Pope Gregory in Rome followed a full 18 years later. It is said that the Europeans who hadn’t gotten the memo on the date change continued to celebrate New Year’s in April, thus they were considered fools, and the source of our modern day pranks.

In France, the fools got paper fish hooked to their backs. These are vintage “Poisson d’Avril” (April Fish) postcards:

Other theories hold that April Fools Day arose from the Spring renewal festivals that have long been held throughout the world. These have wonderful names and customs – Hilaria in Rome; Holi, the festival of color in India; Hock-Tyed, a randy event in Great Britain.

The Museum of Hoaxes site has more information about April Fools Day in history and literature. The infoplease site casts some doubt on the calendar theory and posits another, from Boston University History Professor Joseph Boskin, who explained that a group of court jesters told the Roman emperor Constantine that they could do a better job of running the empire, so he let a jester named Kugel be king for one day. “It was a very serious day,” Boskin said, and his story was run by the news media in 1983.

There was one glitch: Boskin himself had made the story up — in great April Fools Day tradition.

Fun and Easy Food Pranks

So, what are some fun and easy April Fools Day pranks that you can pull on your family? I’ve often used mealtimes to turn the tables and have some fun with food pranks, many of which will be a treat to eat even after the joke’s over. All of these are quick and easy to pull off, with ingredients available at most grocery stores.

Fishy Fish Sticks

What you’ll need:

Log-shaped candy bars such as Twix, Mounds, or Kit Kat, or wafer cookies
Shreded or toasted coconut, or crushed graham crackers
Peanut or other nut butter or corn syrup

How to do it:

If you are using shredded coconut, toast the coconut by placing the shredded pieces on a baking sheet and baking at 350 degrees for 2-4 minutes, or until it is light brown with some white shreds remaining. Allow the coconut to cool and then spread it, or the graham cracker crumbs, atop a sheet of wax paper. Roll the candy or cookies in the peanut butter or corn syrup until they are lightly coated, and then roll the coated candy/cookies in the coconut/cracker crumbs. (Note that some candy bars may have to be cut to more closely resemble the shape of a fish stick.)

Sweet Potatoes

What you’ll need:

Vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt
Butterscotch or caramel sauce

How to do it:

Place a scoop of ice cream or frozen yogurt on a plate. Top with butterscotch or caramel sauce. Let the sauce drip down to resemble gravy.

Different Dog

What you’ll need:

A banana
A hot dog bun
Peanut butter
Vanilla yogurt
Red and yellow food coloring

How to do it:

Place the banana into the hot dog bun. Mix drops of red food coloring into a couple of spoonfuls of peanut butter until the color of the peanut butter resembles ketchup. Mix drops of yellow food coloring into a couple of spoonfuls of yogurt until the color of the yogurt resembles mustard. Generously spread the “condiments” over the banana to make the hot dog.

Not So Fried Egg

What you’ll need:

Lemon or vanilla pudding or yogurt, or a canned peach half
Marshmallow sauce (used for sundaes)
Piece of toast (optional)

How to do it:

Spoon a generous amount of marshmallow sauce on a plate or a piece of toast. It will spread. Finesse it with a spoon into an egg-white shape. Place a small, neat spoonful of pudding or yogurt, or the canned peach half on top of it so that the whole resembles a fried egg.

Smile and Say “Grilled Cheese”

What you’ll need:

A pound cake
Buttercream or white frosting
Red and yellow food coloring

How to do it:

Cut the pound cake into slices to resemble bread. Toast them in an oven (on a cookie sheet) or in a toaster oven just until they turn golden brown. Once they’ve cooled a little, stack two slices for each sandwich and cut each stack in half diagonally. Mix drops of the red and yellow food coloring into the frosting, stopping when the frosting appears like American cheese. Carefully spread a generous amount of frosting onto the bottom slice, then gently press the top slice over it. This will make the frosting ooze a bit over the sides of the “bread”, so that the whole resembles a melted cheese sandwich.

A Stiff Drink

What you’ll need:
A package of flavored gelatin.

How to do it:

Dissolve the gelatin according to box directions. Pour the gelatin into drinking glasses and place a plastic straw in each. Refrigerate the gelatin until firm, then watch when someone tries to drink their “drink”.

A Meaty Dessert

What you’ll need:

A meatloaf recipe
Mashed potatoes
Cake decorators’ icing

How to do it:

Combine the ingredients for the meatloaf recipe. Before baking, divide the mixture into the two round cake pans and pat it flat. Bake as usual, shortening the cooking time to adjust for the thinness of the meat loaves. Prepare the mashed potatoes, adding a little extra milk to them and whipping them until they are fluffy. Once the loaves have cooled a little, place one of them onto a plate and cover it with a thin layer of mashed potatoes. Place the other meatloaf on top of the potato layer, and finish frosting the “cake” with the remaining potatoes, swirling them with a knife to imitate cake frosting. Decorate the top with a fun April Fools’ message.

Backwards Meal

Even if you don’t have time to make or buy special food, you can serve a meal backward, starting with dessert. Or you can have a whole backwards day where meals are concerned. Even a few drops of food coloring can instantly change a bowl or oatmeal or a scoop of mashed potatoes.

Have fun and get silly! Happy April Fools Day.

Photos: Wikimedia, Blogger of the Beach, Susan Sachs Lipman

Photo Friday: Tamalpais Motel at Dusk

I’m not sure quite why I can’t resist lingering over a neon roadside sign at dusk. Nor why I find some to be just a bit forlorn. Perhaps it’s the gulf between the sign’s bright promise — in this case evoking our local mountain, given the Native American Miwok name meaning “coastal mountain” — and the reality of a motel, or a bar, or an eatery that’s seen better times. Or maybe it’s just the time of day, the light, the glory and wonder of neon, and the beckoning of the open road, none of which ever grow old.

Have you seen and photographed something unusual, whimsical, beautiful, or otherwise interesting in your travels? Has anything surprised you or caused you to pause? Or have you simply experienced a small, lovely moment that you wanted to capture? If so, I hope you’ll share with us by leaving a comment with a link to your photo. I look forward to seeing it!

Photo by Susan Sachs Lipman

You might also like:

Photo Friday: Ghost Sign
Photo Friday: San Francisco Storefront

First of Spring 2011, Larkspur, CA

Woman in electric blue Mary Janes reading a paperback while walking

Bunches of boys on bikes

Cucumber seedlings set out at the market

Small girl with flower-ringed bun being walked to ballet

100 year old pocket park

Metal chairs on front porches

Cupolas, a flag in the breeze

Dinner special on restaurant chalkboard

Old couple walking with canes

Smell of wild onions

Crack of baseball bat on ball

Dappled sunlight

Hope

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Happy Equinox and Supermoon!

Ready for a change of season? The March Equinox will occur on Sunday, March 20th this year, marking the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere and fall in the southern hemisphere. The exact time is 23:21 (or 11:21 p.m.) at Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is 4:21 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, 7:21 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time).

Equinox” means “equal night” in Latin and, twice a year (in March and September), the sun shines directly on the equator, and the length of day and night are nearly equal in all parts of the world.

In addition, the full moon that heralds the Equinox on the night of March 19th will appear especially large and bright, due to its closer-than-usual relation to Earth. This supermoon, or perigee moon, is due to rise in the east and be the biggest in almost 20 years. If you are blessed with clear skies tonight, you will probably want to have a look.

The Farmers Almanac calls the March full moon the Full Worm Moon and notes:  “As the temperature begins to warm and the ground begins to thaw, earthworm casts appear, heralding the return of the robins.”

Northern Native American tribes knew this moon as the Full Crow Moon, when the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter. They also used Full Crust Moon because the snow cover became crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night.

The Dakota Sioux named it the especially poetic Moon When Eyes Are Sore From Bright Snow. The Full Sap Moon, marking the time of tapping maple trees, is a Colonial American variation. More than one other culture calls it the Windy Moon. In Medieval England it was known as the Chaste Moon.

I’ve long been quite entranced with the full moon names and their variations. Of course, they reflect both the need to mark passing time and the way that time was experienced by people who were living close to the land. Lunar time-keeping pre-dated our modern calendars (and some calendars, like the Jewish and Chinese calendars, are still lunar-based.) The Farmer’s Almanac has a good list of Native American full moon names and how each came to be.

Other, even older, cultures have had moon naming traditions, too. This site lists full moon names from Chinese, Celtic, Pacific Island, Native American, Pagan, and other cultures.

Lots of people garden using the phases of the moon. The good news is that there isn’t one best time to plant — Each aspect of planting has an associated moon phase, based on how much moisture is pulled up through the soil by the monthly pull of the moon (much the way the moon influences the tides.)

The time just after the full moon is an especially good time for planting root crops, as the gravitational pull is high (adding more moisture to the soil) and the moonlight is decreasing, contributing energy to the roots. For this reason, the waning moon is also a good time to plant bulbs and transplants.

The Farmer’s Almanac offers a wonderful moon phase calendar for the U.S. that allows you to plug in your location and get the exact time of your local full moon.

Enjoy the new season and the supermoon!

Photos: NASA (Moon), Susan Sachs Lipman

Photo Friday: Signs of Spring

Wherever you look in Amsterdam in late winter, there is something .. well, cute. Picturesque. A harbinger of the Spring season to come. The first tulips appear on corners and in big flower markets, their heads still tightly closed. At the same time tulip bulbs are available for sale for those who still wish to get them into the ground.

And of course there are the bikes — flower- and basket- and sometimes person-bedecked. Whizzing by and parked, sometimes two and three deep, in all weather, on the bridges that rise gently over the lovely canals.

Have you seen and photographed something unusual, whimsical, beautiful, or otherwise interesting in your travels? Has anything surprised you or caused you to pause? Or have you simply experienced a small, lovely moment that you wanted to capture? If so, I hope you’ll share with us by leaving a comment with a link to your photo. I look forward to seeing it!

Photo by Susan Sachs Lipman

You might also like:

Photo Friday: De Kaaskamer Cheese Shop
Photo Friday: Carnival in Venice
Tulipmania: Parts One and Two
Daffodils: Bunches of Spring Sunshine