Last night, I just wasn’t feeling inspired. I’ve been doing a lot of behind-the-scenes writing for the book (which is still months out but which is, terrifyingly, now available for pre-order), so my creative juices were running thin.
So, I did what any self respecting modern writer would do – I took to Facebook to ask you guys for your questions. I stuck around for over an hour, answering as many as I could before it was bedtime. This impromptu “Ask Me Anything” was so much fun! I really enjoyed it, and I’d love to do it again.
I’ve collected some of the questions off the Facebook page, to preserve them here where hopefully they will help other people. There’s no rhyme or reason to these – just snippets of a wonderful conversation.
Kat: “OMG – Soil blockers. Have you ever? How often do you water? How do you not kill seedlings? HELP.”
Erica: “I have, and they aren’t for me, though some people love them. I prefer 2″-square pots (50 cell) set in heavy duty propagation trays. I bottom water and let the moisture wick up. And I still sometimes kill seedlings.”
Jacquelyn: “Is hard alcohol gluten free? How do you incorporate native plants into your urban homestead? What cocktail should I make this weekend?”
Erica: “Depends on the base grain, potato vodka certainly is. I worry less about native and more about “well adapted,” and you should totally make the Sage Brush (a few times, if necessary) which I will publish a recipe for on Friday, but which you can find in the cookbook The Herbal Kitchen beforehand if it’s an emergency.”
Ted N Brenda: “I want to learn to grow my own vegetables as I live off the grid. I have no common sense when it comes to gardening and the brownest thumb you’ve ever seen. How can I turn my life around and grow some lettuce? Maybe I should just buy them at the store like everyone else?”
Erica: “Oh, Ted N Brenda, I want to give you a hug. Here’s the thing: plants want to live. All you need to do is set them up for success. They need something to grow in, light to eat, moisture to drink, and air (around their leaves AND roots) to breathe. If you want to grow veggies, learn to think like a plant and then everything will be easier.”
Kitty: “If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers…”
Erica: “He probably didn’t live in Seattle?”
Cyndi: “I’m starting to garden with my first graders. We bought a greenhouse from Solar Gem, and besides that, I have a LOT of space I can use. Our hope is to (someday) be able to donate to a local food bank, or Farms 4 Life. Thoughts for success? Suggestions of where I can go to ask for donations? We need lots of soil, gravel, mulch, tools, gloves, seeds, starts, cedar for raised beds, etc. We’re a public school. Thanks!”
Erica: “What a wonderful goal! Many local nurseries/municipal composting places/ big box stores etc. would be good to approach. I’m sure many local places would be happy to partner with such a positive project for the community, but the big national companies (Home Depot, Lowes) tend to have funds more earmarked for this kind of thing.” (Related: The 5 Best Vegetables To Grow With Kids)
Jennifer: “Which whiskey is currently in your glass?”
Erica: “None! (Shocked?) Drinking a homebrewed Rye-PA brewed by my husband right now.”
Teresa: “Unusual perennial plants for the forest garden? Like, ramps?”
Erica: “Ramps are typically wildcrafted, and have a bad rep because of it. If you can get a domestic ramp thing happening, chefs will LOVE you, and pay. In the meantime, Raintree Nursery’s catalog is the garden porn to browse for food forests. Think Aronia, Medlar, groundcover blueberry…amazing!”
Erik: “If you were starting over at a new house, where/how would you start?”
Erica: “I started at this one by opting to shove my actual house all the way to the North to make as much room as possible for sunny garden space. I’d do the same again. Other things I feel like I got right and would want to repeat: a walkable, like-minded community (no f’ing HOA), reasonable/ tolerable/ ignorable restrictions on gardening / line drying / livestock.
And if I were to do everything again from the beginning, I would bring in experts in edible landscaping (N.W. Bloom EcoLogical Landscapes comes to mind) so I didn’t have to spend 10 years undoing the work of a landscaper who said, and I quote, ‘Grass is low maintenance. Let’s plant lots of grass!’”
Gwen: “This is the best blog ever!! I love the back and forth comments.”
Erica: “My readers are the most badass mofo’s ever and I love them. When I stop wanting to chat gardening with my readers, I hope I stop blogging.”
Gina: “Not a question, but I like your posts about how to prepare what you grow. I’m an avid gardener but unskilled cook. I didn’t realize there was more to cabbage than soup or cole slaw until your post last week.”
Erica: “Thanks! If you ever have some weird veggie you don’t know what to do with, holler. I mean, not to sound like an elitist, but I forget people don’t know how to prepare kohlrabi. I really like the nudges to provide content people will find useful.”
Gail: “How to garden when the weather is unpredictable? And, it would be nice to hear someone from the gardening community address the changes in the weather and climate change.”
Erica: Here you go.
Kate: “How do you remember what plants need to be fed/pruned/attended to and when. Watering. Rain barrels. Do you have them? How did you make them? Best edible perennials for shade or part shade, or just shady perennials for bees and beneficial insects?”
Erica: “100% truth? I remember to do garden chores because I have a blog that shames me into it. Otherwise, I’d be hopeless. Rain barrels in the Pac NW are basically useless. It’s an entire post of info that boils down to: the cheapest place to store water is in the soil. In the East it’s a different story.
Best edible perennial for partial shade is evergreen huckleberry (hat tip to Tenth Acre Farm for helping me figure that one out.) For bees, anything called “salvia” is a good bet.”
Denise: “How did your hugelkultur experiment work out? Would you do it again?”
Erica: “Totally. Those beds are some of my most productive. I’d 100% recommend them.”
Hillary: “How about: What keeps you going? How do you keep from feeling overwhelmed with all the details of your animals and food growing and preserving?”
Erica: “I have the most amazing life ever and try to remember it. I get to talk to like minded people about my GARDEN and call it a kinda-sorta job. I mean, if that doesn’t get you going, you’re kind of a dick, know what I mean?
But specifically, I really enjoy projects. I try to tackle things one project at a time, and then I just smack myself around to handle daily maintenance, which I don’t like to do, but which makes my life way better. Also, and I’m not kidding, I assigned my daughter to the birds. She does that.”
Meg: “Best summer cover crop?”
Erica: “Tomatoes? 😉 I’d go with annual crimson clover.”
Sarah: “I try to rotate plants in my several raised beds, but last year I did a less than thorough job of harvesting my potatoes, and as a result, I have tons of volunteer potatoes coming up. I was planning on growing something different in that bed this year, but I am wondering if I should just leave the potatoes. Worried about disease. Also, I already ordered seed potatoes for planting elsewhere this year.”
Erica: “I’d leave the potatoes. You’ll have the earliest harvest ever. Disease? I mean, yeah, maybe it’s a risk – but maybe we all make this more complicated than it needs to be. You know what happens when potatoes get diseased? Lowered yield. When you start to see that, change plots.”
Sophie: “How are your fruit trees doing in your orchard culture?”
Erica: “Pretty ok, but it remains an experiment. I’m not convinced the diversity of ripening makes up for the decreased yields from the hard pruning and close planting. But of the 5 original “quartets” I’ve planted, only 1 tree has been cut down, and not because it wasn’t thriving – it was just in the way when the layout of my garden shifted. Another one tree is slated to be cut down for failure to thrive if it doesn’t pick up this year. It’s a plum that seems unable to compete with it’s fellow plums. All apples and pears have played well.”
Kyle: “I would love a blog post on all the stupid little details of building a cloche.”
Windsor: “I’d love to learn more about potatoes so that I can grow a bumper crop of them this year.”
Erica: “I like French Fingerling and Yukon Gold. Also Makah Ozette if you like a good story. All the fancy methods of growing potatoes I’ve tried have been crap. I recommend – in the ground, in decent soil. An old compost heap is an excellent choice. Start with virus free spuds if you can. Oh, and many modern varieties don’t benefit from hilling, so check to make sure you are growing an indeterminate potato before you put in the work.”
Nicole: “Totally not related to your garden or culinary marvels, but does your son (finally) sleep through the night? Mine is 18 months, and I’ve been reading through your old posts about his sleeplessness, and mine is much the same. It’s such a relief to know I’m not the only one, and I’d love to find out how your sleepless saga is going!
Erica: “Yes! Reliably, from 8 to 11 in his bed, then more-or-less peacefully in ours until 5 or 6. Which I know sounds like shit unless you are currently not sleeping at all. That’s why I celebrate the progress we’ve made! He’s 4 now, and I’m no longer crazy. It does get better, I promise.”
Victoria: “Is there a way to revitalize an asparagus bed? It’s around 10 years old. For the last two seasons, the harvest has been pathetic but the summer fronds are quite dense.”
Erica: “Look for the female fronds. They’ll make berries after frond-time. Dig them up and dispose of them. This will increase spear yield and give more room to the boys to spread out. Also, sprinkle pee on your asparagus. It’s a heavy, salt-tolerant perennial. There are few crops more happy being peed on than asparagus.”
Meadow: “How do I naturally “control” weeds and slugs! I have tried and tried and tried.
I am pulling up grass around my garden and placing mulching or something … Copper. Nope. Beer, nope. Egg shells. Nope. And good grief don’t ever add worm food water or dirt it attracts slugs Armageddon.”
Erica: “Ducks! Ducks think slugs taste like ice cream. If you can’t get ducks, Sluggo is your best option. Buy it by the huge tub at Costco this time of year. That’s what I did pre-ducks. Apply every 2 weeks or so.”
Kate: “Do ducks decimate your seedlings?”
Erica: “They are far easier on the garden than chickens. A 2-foot fence is sufficient to convince them to waddle elsewhere. They’ve never hopped into my raised beds, and they don’t scratch.”
Heather: “I have too much shade. I’m going to try to hide a few plants behind the rose bushes in the front yard. Can you give some ideas about how to garden in the shade or garden in a style that will fool my HOA.”
Erica: “How anal is your HOA? Like, will they freak if you plant ANYTHING without approval?”
Heather: “I don’t think so, they drive by pretty often, but they don’t have binoculars and how much can they really identify from the street? Plus, I’m slightly elevated, so that gives me the advantage. is it funny that I feel like I’m talking to a garden celebrity?!”
Erica: “Hah! That’s hilarious. I am NOTHING without my readers, so I am just happy people have questions for me to ponder.
OK, here’s your game plan: attractive perennials. I’m going to highly recommend blueberries and currants. They are small-scale and lovely and many people have NO IDEA they are edible if they don’t see the fruit in plastic. Honestly, if your HOA enforcers are pretty lax, you could claim blueberries were deciduous azaleas and they’d never know. Other considerations: herbal groundcovers and hedges. Think rosemary hedges, thyme, sweet woodruff, or groundcover raspberry. These will be great and very sneaky. Avoid plants that look really messy in the off-season (most annuals. No corn or tomatoes or other highly recognizable “farm plants” – go with perennial berries and no one will be the wiser. Good luck!”
Margaret: “How to preserve potatoes. Root cellar is out. Dehydrate? Freeze? Can?”
Erica: It’s a bit controversial, but I LOVED my pressure canned potatoes this past year. Used every quart and will do more next fall – so convenient to have them already peeled and cooked.
Carolina: “How do I rid my plants of infestation. Amaryllis leaves are dying due to some kind of insect sucking the leaves and leaving them yellow and some black dots.”
Erica: “Step one: identify the infestation. Inside I assume, likely mealybugs or mites. If so, rubbing alcohol or vodka on a q-tip applied strategically (on the bugs) or a dilute soap spray should kill off the infestation.”
Zenaida: “Watering! Any new strategies for delivering water to the garden? I am reading Steve Solomon, and realizing that I overwatered last year, which apparently is as bad as under watering. I am hand watering right now, but that won’t do when the transplants go out.”
Erica: “Are you in the Pac NW? If so, don’t water now. No need. Ground water is sufficient through late May/June except for transplants. All mature plantings should be totally fine until high summer. Our soil is still saturated – you can see this if you dig down a few inches before watering. That water wicks up through capillary action. BUT – do water your transplants in very, very well when you move them to the garden.
Rachael: “How do I get moving in the garden when it feels overwhelming?”
Erica: “What feels overwhelming, specifically? Weeding, planning, planting?”
Rachael: “Planning and planting, mostly. We built 4 big raised beds last year, so the weeds aren’t really a big deal. but figuring out rotating with planning, and is it too late to put X in and will y and z be compatible, etc.”
Erica: “Oh ignore plant rotation and companion stuff. Seriously. You aren’t 9 million acres in Iowa. Your yard is not an evil monoculture. Or, do this: one bed in brassicas, one in roots, one in tomatoes and peppers, one in leaf crops. Rotate every year. Done. Where are you, geographically? If the Pacific NW, you are perfect for planting now. Don’t make this too hard. You can TOTALLY do it.”