Sunday, April 26, 2009

Every Day is Earth Day in the Kitchen Garden:
How Do You Make Yours Even Greener?

I Make Free Plant Markers from Sour Cream & Cottage Cheese Containers

This Earth Day post is a little late (although I did miraculously get one up on time on Farmgirl Fare called Every Day is Earth Day-and I'm Eco-Chic Who Knew?), but every day really is Earth Day if you're a vegetable gardener. Is there any better way to connect yourself to this amazing planet than by getting down on your knees and wallowing around in the dirt and then gobbling up your efforts? Not while you're still down in the dirt, of course—though I do admit to enjoying a nibble here and there when I'm working, especially if there are any cherry tomatoes to be had.

Growing your own food is a great way to 'go green,' but during all of the recent Earth Day hubbub, I started thinking about the many simple ways you can make your garden even greener. Using organic methods to deal with pests, fertilize, and care for the soil is the obvious big one, and that's really important to me.

I think the sometimes extra effort and loss of bounty is worth it, and I'm thrilled that the White House now has an organic vegetable garden and even a honeybee hive on the lawn (thank you, Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International for your tireless efforts toward making that dream a reality!). Of course the pesticide industry has already complained to Michelle Obama that they're offended by the Organic Garden at the White House. I'm still shaking my head in disbelief.

Not having any garbage pick-up on the farm (you can read more about what that's like here) means that we go out of our way to reduce, reuse, repurpose (don't you just love that word?) and recycle—which often has the added benefit saving money as well. Here's a short list off the top of my head of some of the other simple ways—beyond putting food on the table—that my kitchen garden is extra eco-friendly:

Fertilize with manure from the sheep, donkeys, and chickens.

Keep five compost bins full of kitchen and yard waste, though when you have ravenous chickens, the food scraps are usually just eggshells, coffee grounds, and orange peels. Tried composting before with no luck? Don't give up! Amuse and inspire yourself by reading about my early composting trials and tribulations.

Grow open-pollinated heirloom varieties so I can save seeds for planting the next year. If you save seeds from hybrids, you won't always end up with exactly the same variety, plus I love the idea of growing vegetables that have been around for 150 or more years.

Mulch, mulch, mulch! This is probably the most important thing I do in the garden. Mulching vegetable beds with something as simple and handy as grass clippings—or even the weeds you just yanked out—keeps more weeds from growing (which saves tons of future weeding time), helps the soil stay cooler during summer, helps keep roots moist after watering, and eventually breaks down into an all natural soil amendment.

Repurpose unused indoor stuff for outdoor use. Forgotten metal strainers become compost sifters (more on this in a future post), while old bedsheets and blankets are perfect for throwing over plants in cold weather.

Shop yard sales, flea markets, junk and thrift stores, and even antique malls for garden goodies. The vintage shovels and pitchforks I've amassed over the years not only appeal to my sense of design, but they also work great, were mostly real bargains, and didn't require the outlay of natural resources that manufacturing new ones would have. These are also good places to stock up on old bedsheets and blankets, as well as pretty garden pots.

Think creatively when it comes to unrecyclable household trash. Cracked plastic buckets that no longer hold water can still carry weeds, rocks, and compost. Rusted (hello, humidity!) baking sheets make handy trays for seedlings and other things, and old metal pots not nice enough to be donated to the thrift store can be used as planters or for carrying soil amendments, compost, etc. Yogurt, sour cream, and cottage cheese #5 plastic containers become weatherproof seedling markers when cut into strips.

Those annoying blue styrofoam containers that fresh mushrooms are sold in make great seed starting containers. (It's almost impossible to find containerless, bulk mushrooms for sale in Missouri, which unfortunately means I probably have about 100 of these stupid things by now.)

Use things beyond their expected life span. Just because something isn't still 100% perfect doesn't mean you have to toss it out and replace it. Floating row covers are advertised as lasting only a season or two, yet some of mine, which I don't treat all that well, lasted over 10 years (though I have to admit the new stuff I bought last year doesn't seem to be nearly as tough and tear-resistant).

The covering on my homemade greenhouse (which I first used on my greenhouse at Windridge Farm) has lived a dozen years beyond its supposed life expectancy, thanks in part to throwing an inexpensive poly tarp over it during the summers (which also keeps it much cooler inside) and because I don't mind a few rips and tears here and there.

I'm also still using the same black plastic seed starting plugs and trays (some are pictured above) that I bought in bulk in 1995 (including these cheap little containers from a restaurant supply store that each have their own mini-greenhouse snap on lid); when they tear or crack, I simply double them up.

With its broken buckets, peek-a-boo greenhouse covering, and weed-mulched beds, my garden may not be picture perfect, but you can't tell come harvest time. I know there are more things that I'm not remembering because they're so second nature to me by now, but I'll add to this list as I think of them.

In the meantime, how do you make (or hope to make) your garden greener? Please share your eco-friendly thoughts, tips, and ideas with the rest of us!

© 2009, the frugal foodie farm blog where we've discovered over the years that using less and doing without means you actually end up with more.


  1. I've been starting seedlings in toilet paper and paper towel tubes, then planting the whole thing in the ground once they're well-started.

    I used boxes that had been used to ship me something as flats to hold the tubes, set on emptied feed bags to keep water from dripping through.

    I had some chicken wire I took down from a fence. I untangled and straightened it and it's the wall the peas are climbing.

    I'm going to try to use fallen tree branches for supports for the tomatoes, but I'm afraid they'll soggify too quickly (this's Florida humidity, after all). We'll see.

    Our compost piles, of course, consist of horse manure picked out of the pasture, mixed with kitchen refuse. Most any horse farm will be delighted to give horse manure away for the asking, if anyone reading is interested.

    I'm about to make, for a "scarecrow," a windmill for the garden--mostly out of the fan blades from a dead box fan. I bet I can find a use for the rest of the fan, too.

  2. Hi Galadriel,Thanks for the inspiring ideas, especially the one about using chicken wire as a pea trellis. And now you have me thinking about what I might be able to do with the several dead box fans laying around the farm.

    I love everything you're doing - but most of all I love the word soggify. It's the perfect way to describe a lot of what goes on here in Missouri during the summer! ; )

  3. I'm working on composting more of my non-recyclable paper. Soak it for a little while, and then tear it into strips, and it goes in the bin. I added a rain barrel this year, and I'm looking for a second inexpensive compost bin. I have room for one, now that we took down the ornamental tree in the backyard. But that's a story in itself!

  4. We're going to try to catch our roof rain in plastic rain barrels, and use it for watering the garden. We also have a mulcher attachment on the mower--instead of bagging.

    Compost! Compost! Compost!

  5. I'm trying to go organic in my gardening and yard maintenance. I have a compost pile but really want a compost bin. I use newspaper and cardboard as weed blockers on my garden and flower beds. I'm looking for an organic mulch but really haven't found anything yet. I have a long way to go, but reading sites like your and all the comments will help me learn things to try.

  6. I love your blog! Thankyou!!

  7. Before I mulch, I lay down the packing paper that protected shipments we received and old newspapers. Is the ink bad for the soil? I also do most of the things you mentioned. Why is it so fun to reuse things instead of buying new?!

  8. Though my compost efforts are still resulting in archaeological grade strata ::sigh:: I keep at it! I do my own seeds and use just about anything to start them in that will work.

    I use vinegar on weeks growing in the seams of my driveway and brick porch instead of herbicide also. It works like a champ.

  9. What a brilliant kitchen garden blog. Great source of inspiration.

  10. I just went over to your compost story. I'm looking for my second bin now! I may be the only person in my city neighborhood with two compost bins, but it'll be worth it!

  11. Wow, I'll be interested to follow your blog as a newbie in vegetable gardening! I keep trying to get organic but I keep losing the fight to bugs.

    One of my latest loves have been the peat pots! In South Florida, where I live and the root knot nematodes thrive, protecting the root systems of my plants has been quite a challenge. Peat pots have been a great help to me! But I have seen a neat little gadget that makes pots from newspaper. Have you ever tried it?

  12. I do most of the things you list...and this year my son broke his window blind in his room, so I cut up the vinyl slats for plant markers. They're working out so well.

    I plan to expand the list of seeds I save this year (also love the heirloom varieties) to include tomatoes, lettuces & other greens, cukes, summer squash. I always save bean and herb seeds.

  13. We bought a bag of vermicompost. I appreciated the fact that the seller at the farmers market encouraged us to put a small amount at the bottom of each seed hole, rather than use it liberally throughout the who bed.

  14. Because I am clumsy and my garden is a funny shape, when I transplanted my seedlings I stuck a stick by each one as a I wouldn't step on them.

    We got Easter candy on sale this week (mmm, nearly-free chocolate) and included were some chocolate roses. I'm going to use the stems as seedling markers in the future.

    I hate throwing made things away, I really do. So much effort and resources went into bringing them to my house, and I try hard to find uses, especially for things I get a lot of. I was so delighted when I found the website that suggested starting seedlings in paper tubes (all right, a use for those, beyond "give them to the dogs").

  15. Thanks to my mom, the Super Pack Rat and Repurposer, I have lots of weird ways to reuse around the garden.

    Keep birds off newly sown seeds with cast-off pieces of wire mesh fencing.

    Set out tempting beer baits for slugs and snails in bowls made from the bottoms of plastic water bottles filled with old skunky beer.

    Make plant markers from wire clothes hangers and cut up soda cans.

    Cover new bean seedlings (before they hop on the lines) with plastic strawberry baskets.

    Cover the soil around the bases of squash plants (vine borers, anyone?) with leftover plastic wrap.

    Screw spray attachments onto old soda bottles when the original cheap plastic bottle snaps in your hand on a cold morning. (Not that I know or anything)

    The list goes on...

    BTW: Thanks to you, I now cut up my old #5 containers for seedling markers. Thank you, Susan!

  16. A great use for those styrofoam mushroom containers is to cut them into small chunks and use in the bottom of pots for drainage. This works great especially for large pots, reduces the amount of soil needed and makes the pots much lighter than they would be full of dirt and rocks for drainage!

  17. i couldn't agree more with you - there is such a notion in our culture that things must be perfect, shiny, new or they must be thrown away. well worn, well loved, imperfect, but perfectly functional items don't need to be thrown away! patching, mending, making do - these are ways to REDUCE and REUSE!!

    Thanks for all your lovely ideas! happy belated earth day to you, too!

  18. It's my first year having a garden (container), and I live in a small apartment in the city, so things are a little different here. But, I:
    -am using food grade containers left over from the bakery I work at.
    -am using aluminum cans and plastic soda bottles for seedlings.
    -am sharing the plants I start with friends instead of tossing unwanted ones or taking on too much work.
    -will be using found wood/objects as support for the plants that need it.
    -not using any fertilizer.
    -ideally i won't use pesticides, but i may cave when the aphids hit...

    I've been enjoying your blog!

  19. Hi my name is Kylie and I live in Australia, My hubby and I do back yard permaculture we Have a chook tractor ( chickens in a 2 metre x 1 metre portable cage) they never come out and are very happy "girl" we generally get three eggs a day from three chooks and we mulch on wherever they are at that point so instead of using hay (we have found that the seed grows and then we have unwanted hay growing in our vegie) so we use suger cane mulch. when they are moved we rest the bed for about a week and then our dogs eat what the girls have buried and the wild birds have their fill too. we are going into winter and I just harvested three large gourds I want to paint on and about nine/ten pumpkins it hasn't been a good summer as we have been in a 10 year drought (and the bush fires killed everything, we have also been on water restrictions) but we catch what rain we can in plastic bins and we got about thirty tomatoes and one cucumber some corn . but winter is different I don't have to fight the snow as it doesn't snow here just a bit of frost.

    oh yeah love your blog

  20. Love your Blog. I'm in southern NJ and it has been raining for days and still more to come.

    Needless to say our Organic Garden is coming alive. I can't wait for the rain to end so I can spread my compost around the plants. I've been shredding paper from my recycle bin and laying it between the rows of vegetables to use as mulch.

    Keep the great info coming. I'm definitely going to follow you!

  21. I've been trying to start my vegetable garden as cheaply as possible and as a result, it's turning out to be pretty green and organic. Funny how that works huh?

    I just made juice carton plant markers, I use all my kitchen scraps for compost as well as manure from my bunny, coffee grounds to keep the snails away and the non-edible packets in snacks for lime.

    I'm glad I found your blog today though and I'm looking forward to reading more! :)

  22. I actually sort of did a post about this, except I called it woodchuck gardening. Because being green also means being cheap most of the time. And maybe a little trashy, but, as Finny commented on that post, the best gardens have a Land of Lost Toys look to them.

  23. Here's a good site with lots of info on gardening if you want to check it out.

    Help Gardening

  24. I don't know where you are in Missouri, but I can buy bulk button mushrooms at (gasp) WalMart, in Farmington and Fredericktown.

    Love your blog--you sound like a woman after my own heart!!

  25. thanks for sharing your story of starting a farm, amazing! for now we get our organic produce from a local san diego farm and our superfoods shipped to us :) still all raw and organic :)


  26. Mmmm. Great tips.
    Mulching is something I've GOT to get better at. So many benefits... and yet, I never seem to get around to it. I know my soil loses moisture... I know, I know.

    Composting, on the other hand, makes me feel SO VERY GOOD. I keep doing it, despite initial struggles and failures. I've taken to grinding my eggshells and chopping up my banana peels (so that I don't wake up in spring to black gold with... chunks :)). Every year, it gets better. And I love "repurposing" my trash for a greater good!

    Love the blog. Keep 'em coming.

  27. Thanks for the sour "Free Plant Markers from Sour Cream & Cottage Cheese Containers" idea. I purposely didn't buy the plastic markers and used wooden popsicle sticks. I'll remember that if I run out...of the 3000 sticks for a small gardener!!!! Love your blog, keep it up!

  28. Hello,

    I'm wondering how to keep the plant labels from fading? After a couple weeks - I can't read what the label says - the water or sun fades the writing. I use the craft sticks because I think they are better than plastic. I would like a good solution for labeling plants so I can see it and re-use it.




March 2013 update: My apologies for the inconvenience - I know word verification is a pain - but I've had to turn it on to help stop the ridiculous number of anonymous spam comments I've been getting every day. Thanks for your understanding.

Welcome to! Thanks so much for taking the time to write. While I'm not always able to reply to every comment, I receive and enjoy reading them all.

Your feedback is greatly appreciated, and I especially love to hear about what's going on in your own garden. I know, too, that other readers also delight in reading about your garden successes, failures, helpful tips, and lessons learned. Feel free to leave comments on older posts!

I try my best to answer all questions, but sometimes it takes me a few days to get to them. And sometimes, I'm sorry to say, they fall through the cracks, and for that I sincerely apologize.

I look forward to hearing from you and hope you enjoy your visits to my kitchen garden!