seed-catalogueIt has been a wonderful Christmas season here in North Georgia. While many parts of the country are suffering under the weight of major winter storms and frigid winds, we have enjoyed unusually pleasant conditions. In fact, it was 73 degrees on Christmas day.  Today is the 28th and it’s still gorgeous.

After terrible drought that lasted from late spring, we’ve had plenty of rain in December and with the recent warm up, our pastures and lawns are showing signs of life again. It’s such a blessing.

There are many things I love about this time of year, including: eggnog, carols, colored lights, Emmanuel, decking the halls, and getting the mail. Each afternoon I rush to the mailbox in eager anticipation of what the postman has delivered. And most days, among the Christmas cards, seasonal flyers, and bills, is at least one or more catalogs from seed companies around the country. I cherish each one of them, and devour them like a hungry man devours a bologna sandwich.

You see, it’s garden planning season. It’s time to see what’s new and to ensure our tested and true varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers are still available. It’s time to decide what we’re planting, what we’re NOT going to grow this year, and what new things we want to try.

Please, I beg you, don’t wait until April or May and go all impulsive at the garden center. Make your plan now. Order your seeds.  Think it through. If you don’t, I promise, all those colorful plants and seed packets in the centers will mesmerize you into buying all kinds of things you don’t need. After those long winter nights and short days, our resistance is down and the first signs of spring will make us vulnerable to many shiny, colorful, growing things.

Lest I deceive you into thinking I have an iron will and self-discipline of steel, I should disclose that I am as weak as any other man. Even the catalogs have me creating wish lists that would require 40 acres of gardening space.  The photos of delicious looking veggies, beautiful flower assortments, and highly productive trees combined with elaborately written descriptions of the varieties, make my head spin.

Fortunately, I’ve done this long enough, that by the time I’m ready to purchase; I’ve come down from my catalog high and have regained a modicum of reason.

Since I’ve kept notes on what worked and what didn’t from the previous season, I am able to know what I DON’T want, as well as what I do.

If you’re new to gardening, you’ll likely be overwhelmed at all the choices. You think you want to grow green beans, and then you discover dozens of varieties that you have to choose from. Oh and let’s not forget you have to choose, bush, pole, or runner varieties.

And that’s just the beans. Wait till you get to the corn, lettuce or tomatoes.  It’s almost enough to drive you to the frozen food section of your nearest supermarket to fill your cart with frozen vegetables and forget the whole crazy notion of your own edible suburb.

Don’t panic. It gets easier. And in the early days, look for people to help. Ask questions. Read blogs. Watch videos. I am going to do a whole series of short blogs featuring varieties I recommend. Plus, if you go to the contact us section, and join our mailing list, I’ll send you a .pdf of my ’10 Bomb Proof Varieties’ to help guarantee you success.

For now, if you’re not already getting annual seed catalogs, let me give you a few of my favorites. I literally get dozens, but I do MOST of my buying from these places:

Johnny’s Seeds, Totally Tomatoes, Refining Fire Chiles, Buckeye Pepper Company, Victory Seeds (for heirlooms I love this site), and, Burpee. If you are looking for ‘complete’ heirloom variety garden kits, you might check out The Seed Guy.  This is where I bought my ‘Emergency Garden.’ I have one of his packages in my freezer in case of emergency. It’s all heirloom varieties. While it contains many things I won’t grow, the excess is worth it for the great number of things I would turn to in case of ‘Zombie Apocalypse’. There are many other I buy from, and there are a host of honorable seed companies out there,  but these places are where I get the bulk of my seeds and starter plants.  Please feel free to use the comments section and tell us all some of your favorite sources.

In the meantime, Happy New Year. And happy planning.

A Very Simple Barrel System

A Very Simple Barrel System

I absolutely love Aquaponics gardening. Year after year, my Aquaponics system is the feature piece of my garden.  It’s a phenomenal, fun, way to mimic nature by creating a closed loop system that integrates aquaculture and hydroponics.  It’s also addictive.

What Aquaponics is not, however, the future of farming ,as many have labeled it. I am aware that this statement runs counter to many of the YouTube videos and local interest stories all over the internet, but I stand by my comments. I’m also aware that many of my Aquaponics posts seem to be negative towards a growing method I keep saying I love, but stay with me and I’ll explain.

First, Aquaponics is rather expensive to get into. Even a DIY backyard system is probably going to set you back several hundred dollars, while a kit will be at least $1200 and that’s for a small system.  Sure, a creative handyman can probably make something cheaper, but face it, most of us are just not that handy.

Secondly, they are fairly expensive to maintain, especially if you are going to try to grow indoors or all year round.  Growing in the winter, for example, is going to require heating the water, both for fish growth and for maintaining a strong colony of beneficial bacteria. Doing so comes at a price.  It you’re growing indoors, there is also the cost of lighting.

Someone will undoubtedly will suggest Solar power, and I’m all in favor of that. The thing is, a solar unit that will both operate the system and heat water is not an insignificant financial investment.

Our third limitation is the fish. They must be sourced, fed and replaced.  There are not many varieties that can be grown to market size in a single season without considerable inputs, thus reducing the profitability of the method. Tilapia, arguably the most popular fish for Aquaponics, is not cold tolerant and needs to be raised indoors or with heated water in the winter (in most parts of North America). Most cold hardy types require two or three growing seasons and must be over wintered.

Ornamentals, such as Koi,  and Bait fish, like minnows, are hardy options, but breeding them takes some practice and experience so potential profitability may be delayed.

Whatever varieties of fish we choose, they all require food inputs, and that’s another expense. Yes, it is possible, over time, to grow your own fish food, but that is another serious effort to accomplish.

None of these challenges are insurmountable nor are they meant to discourage an potential enthusiast. They certainly don’t discourage me. They do, however, demonstrate that Aquaponics is not the future of farming.

I write these articles to help newcomers have realistic expectations as they get started.  There are many thousands of healthy backyard systems operating all around the world. In some parts of the world, Aquaponics may be a part of a solution to the problems of hunger and water management. There are even a few profitable commercial operations, but the propagandists would have you believe that it’s a simple way to make a living growing fish and veggies together. Reality is a little different.

For those of you who have persevered and made your commercial Aquaponics profitable, I applaud you.  You have worked both hard and smart. As for me, I will stick to my seasonal backyard system that serves as an adjunct to the rest of my crazy integrated garden.

Aquaponics is indeed fun and can be worth the expense and effort.  It is not the future of farming, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon it. Not by a long shot. We simply need to be realistic.

vegetables-basketBeginning in Mid November, I’m going to add a YouTube series especially for New Gardeners. If you’re a first time gardener or homesteader, this will be your new home. Don’t worry, it will benefit you old timers, too.

I’m going to start with my Winter Clean up (Trust me, that will be a major undertaking) and take you through the process of getting a spring garden all started.

I know there is a lot of material out there, but there is also a great deal of misinformation, as well, so I feel compelled to do this. You deserve it.

Along the way, I’ll point you to some really trustworthy blogs and YouTube channels.

For Now, enjoy Halloween. My wife and I are still in Scotland, so I assure you, we’re having a blast.


Gordon Castle's Walled Garden

Gordon Castle’s Walled Garden

Brittan and I are in Scotland at the moment. We’re halfway through a 5 week stay and it’s been awesome. I lived here for 13 years, a long time ago, and it’s wonderful to be back. It really is a most beautiful country.

One of my favorite things has been to visit places I haven’t been or don’t remember, especially gardens and scenic locations.  At the top of the list so far, has been the Walled Garden at Gordon Castle, in Fochabers, Moray.

Even if you’ve been to Scotland, the odds are you haven’t visited Fochabers, or any of the Moray district, for that matter.  Most tourists don’t get past Edinburgh, or Loch Lomond, unless they manage a train journey to Inverness in search of the Loch Ness Monster.

Make no mistake, you can see some awesome sights wherever you go in Scotland, especially if you love gardening. Let me mention two of them during this rambling introduction:

1.       The Royal Botanical Gardens in Glasgow. This is a Victorian garden and has some of the most interesting greenhouses I’ve ever seen. Many of the plants are very old and the aging architecture of the greenhouses will transport you back to before the turn of the 20th century. If you hit the mean streets of ‘Glesga’ don’t miss this treat.

2.       Inverewe Gardens near Ullapool on the West Coast. The drive from Inverness alone is worth the trip to Scotland. The views are breath taking. You will find yourself stopping to snap photos every mile or two. But when you get to Inverewe Gardens, you will swear you have been transported to Eden. I may write more about it later, but I promise you, you’d better take extra memory cards for your camera.

Earlier this week, though, I was introduced to one of Scotland’s best kept secrets, Gordon Castle’s Walled Garden at Fochabers, Moray. I lived within 10 miles of this glorious site for 7 years and never knew it existed. Mind you, it’s only been open to the public a few years, but still…

Fochabers is situated nearly halfway between Inverness and Aberdeen just off the main road between them. During my time here it was on the main road, but a bypass has been built since then. The area has always been one of my favorites. Baxters of Speyside, sort of the ‘Campbell’s Soup of Scotland’ is probably the primary tourist draw, but the Fochabers Woods trails and scenic overlook are also personal favorites. But when friends took Brittan and me to the Walled Garden earlier this week, my heart was stolen, along with my breath.

The castle itself is very nice, but the fact that the estate is still a working farm, made me giddy. The  round bales of hay still fresh and standing in the fields, lent an extra charm to the whole magic scene; open fields surrounded and divided by strategic strips of properly maintained hardwood forests, made for a gorgeous drive back to the Visitor’s Center and  the Walled Garden itself. 

The Visitor’s Center has the mandatory gift shop and café which are in themselves, very nice, if I say so myself, and I so say so myself.

walled-garden-2The gardens themselves stole my heart away. As you can see from the arial photos I downloaded from their website (I was too overwhelmed to remember to snap any), the garden is not overly large, maybe a couple acres, but it is spectacular. Even in mid-October, there were still flowers blooming and fall vegetables growing.

The walls were lined with trained apple and pear trees clinging to them with the garden laid out artistically in a series of beds, making up the centerpiece. At the parking lot end, a roomy chicken coop housed a happy flock of laying hens, which always makes me happy.

There were als a couple large well designed greenhouses, much more handsome than the ones we usually have in north Georgia.  In one of them, a couple dozen tomato plants were still in full production. I was extremely jealous.

In the other house, hundreds of onions (several varieties) and shallots were drying, probably to be used at the castle and in the café.

But, as you might guess, the main attraction for me, were the containers growing a wide variety of hot peppers. Some of the plants were still producing, outside, at this latitude. Scotland, because of the gulf stream is a zone 8, but here on the Moray Firth, plants must be protected from the harsh, cold winds. Gordon’s setting, combined with walls, buildings, and greenhouses provide just such protection.

I recognized Jalapenos, Habaneros, Yellow Ghost, Cayenne, and Moruga Scorpions. There were also some names and pods I didn’t know. On the whole, the pods were smaller than what we grow in Georgia, but they looked great.

I wanted to stay there all day. Heck, I wanted to apply for a job. Gordon Castle, and its walled garden, is my dream farm. I fell totally head over heels.

Scotland is full of gems like this for those who are willing to get off the beaten tourist track. But I warn you, if you are a gardener of vegetables, or flowers, your expectations will change forever. The bar has been raised. I need to start redesigning, now. After all, that’s what winter is for.


first indoor set up. I moved the container off the aquarium and floated herbs in water

first indoor set up. I moved the container off the aquarium and floated herbs in water

For some reason, when the growing bug bites, it doesn’t take note of the weather conditions. The itch it produces wants to be scratched and no amount of Benadryl will help. My advice is, go ahead a scratch it. Start your growing indoors. It’s easier than ever to have an indoor garden, and it doesn’t have to cost the moon.

For obvious reasons, my first choice is always to grow outdoors, but most of us don’t live in an environment that promotes all year gardening. We have that dark, cold season, lovingly called, Winter, with short, cold days, and long cold nights. Brrr….

A hoop or green house will lengthen the growing season, but won’t necessarily extend it indefinitely. So, if you absolutely must keep growing in winter, or, if you have no outside space to grow at any time, then consider moving your garden inside.

Once upon a time, the lighting alone for growing indoors would set off alarms at the power company as well as your local bank. Grow lights were outrageously priced to buy, and extremely expensive to run.

Fortunately, those days are gone. With LED and full spectrum CFL options available, cost is no longer an impediment to indoor gardening.  Space will generally be the limiting factor.

If you have a garage, basement, spare room, or even an unused closet, you’re in business. Even counter or wall space in a studio apartment can be utilized to grow some herbs, cherry tomatoes, peppers, and more.  All that’s needed is a little creative thinking.

I highly recommend starting small. I would use two or three self-watering containers, like Earthbox, and grow some herbs in one, some lettuce in one, and a small cherry tomato like, ‘Tumbler’ in the third.  I might even grow a Jalapeno with the tomato plant. I’ve done that before and It works well. 

Get a grow light for each box, or build a bank of them for the whole set up. You don’t have to break the bank.  You might even make a reflector from some aluminum foil. 

Set the lamps about 4 or 5 inches above the plants and raise them as the plants grow. Keep the light fairly close without burning the plants.  LED and CFL bulbs don’t give off a great deal of heat anyway.

EzGro Hydroponics Unit another indoor option

EzGro Hydroponics Unit another indoor option

Your plants are going to want at least 12 hours of daylight, so either remember to turn the lights on and off, or invest $10 or so in a timer. One of the cheap Christmas light ones will do nicely. You might even have one of those already.

A couple alternatives would be a small hydroponic set up or an aquaponics system.  My first indoor garden was a combination.  I had a tomato and pepper in a self-watering container filled with coconut coir rather than potting mix.  I also had a 20 gallon fish tank with some goldfish.  I floated some basil and lettuce on a piece of Styrofoam in the fish tank, and pumped water out of the fish tank with a small aquarium pump for the pepper and tomato.  It worked really well. 

If you try something like that, you’ll have to top up your fish tank regularly. Make sure you dechlorinate your water first. I kept a 5 gallon bucket of water beside the tank. I would refill it and let it stand at least 24 hours to dechlorinate naturally. There are some excellent fish safe dechlorinating products on the market.

As you become more skilled you can expand your garden. Many people have some good sized systems in their basements or garages. Others just grow a few kitchen herbs on the counter. It’s your garden. It’s your call.

If you have  questions or testimonies to share, please send them via the comments sections. Feel free to include photos of your indoor garden. We’d love to see it. Let us know what your grow, and what doesn’t work for you.



dozen_eggsThe incredible edible egg. We love them and we fear them. Should we eat more of them, or run from them? Are they giving us heart attacks or are they full of good things to make us strong and healthy? Where’s the truth? What should we do?

I want to cut through the propaganda, and give you a high level, short answer and hopefully clear things up for you a bit. If you want to know more, there are plenty of articles, stories and research papers out there to keep you reading the rest of your life.

The spark for this post was a Facebook poster showing the inside of two boiled eggs. One had a deep golden yolk, captioned, ‘organic’. The other was light yellow, with those familiar green hues we’ve all become familiar with from traditional boiled eggs, and captioned, “gmo”.

I will leave aside the photo manipulation and let you do your own homework as to how that was done. Let’s just say, it was extremely misleading.

My gripe is with the labeling. There is no such thing as a GMO egg.  And, in a sense, all eggs are ‘organic’. They are laid by living chickens and laid in a natural way, thus organic.

The organic vs. GMO argument is about the feed given to the hens.  And even then, the photo can be misleading.

In a confined, commercial chicken house, where thousands of hens are kept in tight, controlled conditions, if hens are fed grain based diets, devoid of sunlight, then even if the feed is ‘organic’ the eggs will have pale, lifeless, nutritionally lacking yolks.

Conversely, if hens are free ranging, and have access to fields of GMO corn and wheat, the yolks will be rich yellow, and still be ‘GMO’ fed.

It’s all about sunlight and chlorophyll. That color comes from access to real sunlight and omega 3 rich grasses (Remember, corn, wheat, barley, etc. are grasses when they’re at home).

Eggs from free range hens, are more nutritious, and attractive, than those from battery raise ones, because of the variety in their diet, and because of their access to sunlight and the chlorophylls in the green plants they consume.  These greens are full of omega 3s which are good for you.

The chicken house raised birds, generally produce paler, flavor reduced eggs that are higher in omega 6 fatty acids, which are the ones that block our arteries. 

And remember, chickens are omnivores rather than vegetarians. They eat all kinds of things when left to their own devices, so feeding them a restricted vegetarian diet, whether organic or GMO, is preventing them from the balanced, nutrient rich fare they really need.

So, looking for ‘cage free’, ‘vegetarian fed’, or, ‘organic’ labels on supermarket eggs, means very little. They are marketing gimmicks. Don’t fall for them. They don’t ensure anything for you, other than a higher total at the check out.  ‘Free Range’ is the label you’re looking for. And even that might be misleading.

Raise your own birds, if you can, or buy directly from a farmer or at a farmers’ market for the best results.

I know many of you are raising, or want to raise, birds, but don’t have the space to free range them. Perhaps your community has restrictions that keep you from doing so. If that’s you, don’t worry.  If you make sure you have a nice a roomy, dry shelter for protection from the elements, and a run where your chickens can get real sunlight you’ll be fine.  In addition to a good chicken feed, give them access to some table scraps, and include plenty of lettuce, kale, and other greens and they will reward you with lots of awesome, delicious, and nutritious eggs.  I promise.

Do you raise your own chickens or other birds? If so, tell us about your results? We’d love to hear them?  Got questions about how to get started? Then use the comments section to ask this awesome group of readers.  We’re here to help. After all, we’re all in this together.



Sadly, you'll never see this in my garden.

Sadly, you’ll never see this in my garden.

If you hang around me more than a few minutes, I’m going to figure out a way to bring up the subject of raising food. It might be livestock, but more likely it will be fruits and vegetables. I love growing edibles, one look and you can tell I love eating them, and I love talking about growing food.

There are lots of people who are better gardeners than I am, and maybe one or two who aren’t, but nobody likes talking gardening more than me. Ask anyone.

There are, though, some things I can grow really well, and others that I just can’t grow even if my life depended on it. Today, just for giggles, I’m going to tell you my absolute best and worst.

Let’s start with best, because it’s easy. Most of you already know what it is. My most prolific results come from hot peppers. So far, I have never gotten a bad result from hot peppers. Sweet varieties have been a little more difficult, though I’m getting the hang of them, but the hot varieties are like in my DNA.

I’ve cut back in recent years, because I get so many peppers I can’t figure out what to do with them. Around here where we live, there aren’t many people who like the hotter ones. In fact, we have friends who don’t even use black pepper. As a result, a lot of my peppers end up dried and turned into powder. I have dried cayenne peppers from 2009 in the pantry. I kid you not.

This year I only grew 5 varieties of hot peppers: jalapeno (3 plants), Habanero (4 plants), Thai (3 plants), Yellow Ghost (three plants), and Yellow Moruga (1 Plant) and I have harvested enough to last us years. I will make one more harvest at the end of this week and then simply pull the plants up.

As successful as my peppers have been, there is a fruit I simply can’t grow; cantaloupe. I have NEVER successfully harvested and eaten a cantaloupe that I have grown myself. A couple of years they all burned up, one year the chickens got them all, but the biggest heartache of all was the year I had several one day from a planned harvest and one of my dogs got into the garden and ate all the ripe ones. We know it was her because A. we caught her in the act, and B. she crapped seeds for days.

Do I sound bitter? You bet I am. The truth hurts. I didn’t even try to grow any this year. I will try again….eventually.

So there you have it; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. What about you? Are there things you grow well? Varieties you can’t grow for love nor money? Jump on the comments page and tell us about it. Spill.