Seed Starting in Recycled Milk Jugs @JudysChickens

Last spring, while visiting my friend Mary’s vegetable garden, I spied this group of milk jugs planted with vegetable seedlings.

Mary said she started using recycled milk jugs to start seeds when she saw another gardener doing so. We, gardeners, enjoy learning from each other!

The beauty of milk jug sprouting is once you plant seeds, moisten the soil, and tape up the sides, you can pretty much ignore the emerging seedlings until they are ready to be transplanted; no need for babysitting. The almost closed system keeps moisture in and uses the warmth of sunlight to nudge seeds from dormancy to germination. It is an efficient, green, portable, fun, easy-peasy way to start seeds.

I left Mary’s garden and headed home; I had an idea. A murder of crows had been invading my little backyard corn patch, digging up most of the seedlings as they sprouted.

By the way, the birds were after the kernel, not the green blades which they left behind. Arghhh. This bummed me out because I was nearing the end of my prized stash of Kentucky Rainbow Heirloom Dent Corn from Susana Lein’s Salamander Springs Farm in Berea, Kentucky.

Planting seeds in jugs seemed like the perfect way to grow a quick and controlled crop to replace what I had lost. I cut two jugs in half, filled them with dirt, seeds, and water, and taped them up.

Eleven days later, I opened the jugs and planted the bushy seedlings.

I covered the bed with shade cloth to keep all marauders out.

It took about one minute for a crow to pull out the first seedling when I uncovered the bed. I set up a perimeter of string and dangling, flashy CD’s.

And an owl.

The plants did well. They grew as high as an elephant’s eye.

Eventually, I harvested and cooked the delicious, earthy-tasting ears.

Why do I love this corn? It is unusually savory instead of sweet. I love to roast the ears with a little olive oil and salt and cut the kernels off the cob. YUM!
 

The story doesn’t end there. (Does it ever?)

When I was cleaning out my garden tote in mid-October, I found these moldy, sprouting ears of Kentucky dent corn. I couldn’t throw them out.

I took one and stuck it in a recycled half-gallon jug.

I expected it to rot. Instead, it took off! I was thrilled by the unexpected growth from the individual kernels of corn on the cob. Many months later, the little jug garden is still thriving.

The scientist in me had to see if the sprouted cob was a fluke or if the results could be reproducible. I planted a two-year-old cob I had saved to show students an example of incomplete pollination. It, too, took off.

Plant a Seed with a Child and Share the Thrill of Growing Food Together

Milk jug gardening can be a fun, inexpensive, educational activity to do with children. Imagine how impactful it could be for a child to bring homegrown food to the dinner table, even if it’s only a few leaves of parsley or radish sprouts.

Free seeds for growing food can be obtained from seed exchanges at public libraries across the country.

During COVID, the Nashville Public Library Seed Exchange has let residents check out seeds online and pick them up curbside at one of their branches. This is what the seed bank looks like at one of the branches.

The seeds are donated by local gardeners. Members of one local non-profit, The Herb Society of Nashville, save seeds from their home gardens and get together seasonally to package them.

How to Make  a Milk Jug Greenhouse:

Supplies:

clean, plastic milk jugs (gallon and half-gallon sizes)
scissors
store-bought seed-starter dirt or the richest dirt you can find outside
a shovel or cup to spoon dirt into jugs
blue or masking tape
a marker
seeds
water

Instructions:

1. Using scissors, cut around the base of a clean jug about 4 inches from the bottom, leaving the plastic under the handle uncut to serve as a hinge for the greenhouse’s upper half.

2. Fill the jug with 3-4 inches of dirt. I have had good results using dirt from my garden. You could also buy bags of clean seed-starting potting soil.

3. Plant the seeds of your choice. It is fun to try seeds you may have in the house. I cut open a lemon, pulled out five seeds, and planted them, as well as a few cloves of garlic.

They all sprouted and continue to grow. I transplanted the garlic outdoors.

Months later, the lemon seedlings are still going strong!

4. Dribble water into each container until the soil is damp but not sopping wet. I do not put drainage holes in the bottom so I can bring the containers indoors.

5. Close the hinged top and tape around the cut edges of the plastic. Leave the jug spout uncovered for a little air circulation.

6. Label the container.

7. Place greenhouses outside if warm or inside in a sunny window if cold. After I planted the corn seeds, I went out of town for a week and left them untended. The seedlings flourished in my absence.

Radishes are good to grow if you want to see quick results but know that they do not transplant well. Keep the seedlings growing in the jug and encourage children to snip the greens to put in a salad or use in a sandwich.

Sowing seeds, tending plants, and harvesting food and flowers produce feelings of great satisfaction, joy, and wonderment while nourishing the body, mind, and spirit. Milk jug gardening is a fun and portable way to get started.

Happy Gardening!

Related Stories
How to Build a 4 x 4 Raised Garden Bed
Spring Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
Growing and Cooking Sweet Potatoes!
Lemon Tree Very Pretty
Family Dirt
Asteraceae: My Favorite Family of Pollinator Plants
How To Curbside Recycle

Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

If you enjoyed this post, consider becoming a follower. Be sure to press “confirm” on the follow-up letter sent to your email address.

© 2014-2021 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may not be reproduced without the written consent of Judy Wright.

Asteraceae: My Favorite Family of Pollinator Plants

Warning: Reading this may lead to a fondness for dandelions.

What do these flowers have in common?

Zinnias

Sunflowers

Cosmos

Marigolds

Asters

Goldenrod

Dandelions

Artichokes

Artichokes?

I’ll give you a hint, the artichoke is a bud! If left to mature on the plant, it will produce hundreds of purple, narrow-tubed flowers cradled in one base.

These flowering plants are all part of the Asteraceae Family.

Plants are placed in families based on characteristics they share. These flower heads are all round and have a flat central disc. While each flower appears to be a single flower, all Asteraceae flowers are actually a composite of many small flowers, each with their own reproductive parts, packed densely into one receptacle.

The flowers in the center disc are called disc florets and those surrounding it are ray florets.

As beautiful as flowers are to us humans, flowers are trying to impress insects and birds. Pollination is the primary objective of a flower. Once pollination happens, the flower withers and dies. Pollination activates the fertilization of seeds, ensuring reproduction of the plant. Both ray and disc florets have all the necessary reproductive parts.

Another feature of plants in the Asteraceae family is their sepal-like leaves, called bracts, on the flower head’s underside. Bracts surround and protect the base of the plant where the seeds mature. They are arranged in either an overlapping or a linear pattern.
 

 

I took a few bracts off to see the seeds beneath — they are packed in there!

Rings of new disc florets emerge gradually in an orderly fashion from the disc’s outside perimeter to the center. A cone-shaped arrangement forms as the underlying seeds grow larger and require more space. This was a marvelous insight for me; one of the traits we love about zinnias is how long the flowers last. They last that long to ensure that every ovule (pre-seed) gets fertilized.

If you dissect a flower head, you can see the many seeds at various stages of maturation.

A good visual of a composite flower head is the sunflower.

Sunflowers are a bee magnet. We hear a lot about the benefits of growing “pollinator” plants in a garden. You need look no further than plants in the Asteraceae family for colorful flowers that attract insects.

The end result is hundreds of sunflower seeds to eat and ensure reproduction.

Not all Asteraceae plants have both ray and disc florets. A few species have one or the other. Dandelions, for example, are comprised of ray florets only. With my new appreciation of flowering plants, I don’t think I will be as quick to pull dandelions out of my vegetable garden anymore. After all, my Sicilian immigrant grandmothers picked dandelion leaves to eat. The leaves are a good source for vitamin C. During early times, the cool-weather plants were grown in kitchen gardens for settlers to eat to prevent scurvy.

Artichokes are comprised of all disc florets. The bristles that make up the choke are actually hundreds of very immature flowers.

Knowing this, I forevermore will say a prayer of gratitude when I remove those less edible filaments from a stuffed artichoke. For without the choke, we would not get seeds for more artichokes! THAT would be a travesty.

Studying and photographing the unfolding reproductive cycle of flowers in my garden has been a source of joy, a saving grace, and a silver lining of diversion while living through this crazy pandemic. I am grateful to my mother for instilling in me a love of gardening and to Mother Nature for providing everything I need to grow food in my backyard. I hope to inspire others, most especially children, to experience the peace and thrill of planting a seed, watching it grow, and being a witness to the beauty of the natural world.

A moth imbibing in nectar.

If there are cool-weather plants such as asters, cosmos, chickory, or chrysanthemums in your yard, maybe cut one open and see for yourself!

I am grateful to my fellow naturalist and Instagram friend, Rose Marie Trapani, for sending me a flowering artichoke in the MAIL so I could dissect it. That’s a whole ‘nother story! You can follow Rose Marie @oursiciliantable on Instagram.

Related Posts
How to Build a 4 x 4 Raised Garden Bed
Winter Floral Arrangements Using Greenery from the Yard
Lemon Tree Very Pretty
Family Dirt
Edible Landscaping with Nashville Foodscapes

© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may not be reproduced without the written consent of Judy Wright.

Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

If you enjoyed this post, consider becoming a follower. Be sure to press “confirm” on the follow-up letter sent to your email address.

Growing and Cooking Sweet Potatoes!

I love sweet potatoes!

Sweet potato plants are typically grown from slips as opposed to seeds. The slips are created from baby vines that sprout on stored sweet potatoes.

If you gently detach the vines and place them in a jar with a little water, they will send out roots and start to leaf. Those little plants are called slips.

On commercial farms, slips are planted in late spring or early summer. Sweet potatoes are tropical plants and love the heat of summer.

The next photos were taken on sweet potato planting day at Delvin Farms in College Grove, Tennessee, on June 8, 2015.

Thousands of sweet potato slips were planted.

I have a fascination for farm machines that get a job done in simple, efficient ways. This sweet potato planter is ingenious.

As the tractor moves forward, farmers in the red trailer feed sweet potato slips into a device that drops them in the ground, covers them with dirt, and gives them a sip of water from the yellow tank.

Let’s look a little closer. Here are the guys dropping the slips into a feeder one by one.

At the soil level, a stationary v-grooved piece of metal cuts a thin gully in the dirt. The slip drops into the gulley, and two fixed metal wheels move the side soil around the slip as the tractor moves forward. A squirt of water is given to each plant from the yellow tank. Ingenious, right?!

Beautiful!

In three to four months, the sweet potatoes will be ready for harvest.

In 2012, I planted about 15 sweet potato slips in a 4 x 13-foot raised bed. I had a very low yield, as you can see from the photo below. I never grew them again; they took up too much real estate for the yield. In retrospect, I suspect my soil was too rich from the nitrogen in the compost I added. Nitrogen leads to lots of leaf growth and not so much root growth, something to think about when growing root crops. The chickens, however, were thrilled to scratch for worms and insects in the newly turned soil. That was the plus.

With this not so productive past experience trying to grow sweet potatoes, you might imagine how excited I was to walk out of the YMCA  just as the Y’s landscaping team was converting the entryway garden from summer to winter plants. The summer garden was filled with flowers and ornamental sweet potato vines such as the lime-green Margaritas, the blackish-purple Sweethearts, and the grayish-green, pink-veined Tricolors.

The cool-weather planting consisted of pansies.

What caught my attention was the three mature sweet potatoes sitting on the brick ledge.

Hey landscaping company, I was that crazy, astonished woman who walked by and asked if the sweet potatoes really came out of the raised bed. “Of course,” they said. In all my years of planting window boxes in Boston as a newlywed, I never grew a sweet potato from the ornamental vines. It never occurred to me that the vines would grow vegetables.

That is what I love about growing food — there is always something to learn, and often what you learn is astonishing!

All of this leads to why, on March 26, 2020, I decided to drop a sprouting sweet potato from my larder into the dirt near the raised bed where I was planting unsweet potatoes.

Fast forward to May 16th when I spied a random clump of leaf growth in one of the dirt paths between the raised beds. It took me a minute to figure out the leaves were from the sweet potato I had planted.

Five months later, to my surprise and delight, I dug up five pounds of sweet potatoes; a few potatoes from each of those vines that turned into individual slips!

While digging up the potatoes, I found this spidery-looking thing in the dirt. I’m guessing it was the mother sweet potato.

This variety of sweet potato is so delicious and richly colored, I am going to try and spout it for a potato crop next year. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of the variety.

I washed a few potatoes to use for my favorite quick dinner — Sheet Pan Supper: Italian Sausage, Peppers, Onions, and Potatoes. I forgot to add the onions! The white potatoes came from the yard, as well.

Sometimes I spiralize the sweet potatoes–for fun.

I mix the potato core from the spiralizer and the slinky-like potatoes with olive oil, garlic pepper, and salt, and roast them in a 425º oven. We call this side dish Nuts and Bolts Potatoes.

Here are a few other ways to prepare sweet potatoes.

Mrs. Lombard’s Portuguese Kale Soup

Roasted Rosemary Sweet Potatoes

Roasted Butternut Squash (or Sweet Potatoes), Brussels Sprouts, and Cranberries

Melissa’s Sweet Potato Casserole

Pumpkin (or Sweet Potato) Bread Pudding

Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

Always check my blog for the latest version of a recipe.

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© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

How to Build a 4 x 4 Raised Garden Bed

In the beginning, the naive among us, and that was a lot of us, thought COVID would be a passing thing. I would never have believed I would be unable to visit, hold, and smother my grandchildren with kisses for so many months. In June, when the number of new COVID cases dipped, my husband and I got in the car and drove south, first to Hartwell, Georgia to visit and hug one son and then on to Orlando to see another.

While we drove (and listened to cookbook author Ruth Reichel’s delightful novel, Delicious!), I got to thinking about a way I could stay connected to my grands that was symbolic of times we shared when they lived down the road from us. I thought about this photo that I keep on my kitchen windowsill. You’ve gotta love a two-year-old superhero who wears a diaper.

The photo became my inspiration for a COVID project I hoped would provide outdoor fun for my grandchildren. I wanted to build them a vegetable garden so they could experience the anticipation and joy that comes with watching a seed unfurl its leaves as it pokes out of the ground. That you get to eat the food you grow is secondary to the miracles and discoveries that happen every day in a garden.

Meanwhile, my husband, the builder in the family, was like yeah, yeah … But what is your plan, Judy? Plan? I had no plan. I am more of a make-it-up-as-you-go kind of person. I drew up something for him on a napkin that he translated into a plan.

My Plan:

His:

We went to Home Depot to get supplies.

Here is what we built in one afternoon.

Here is how it looked two months later.

How We Built the Garden

First things first — before you get started building a space for a garden, look for a sunny spot with easy access to water. Next, write up a list of plants you want to grow.

And we’re off…

We bought two eight-foot cedar boards that were 8″ in height. Do not use pressure-treated lumber as the chemicals that keep the wood from rotting will leach into the soil over time.

By all means, let a staff person cut the boards into 4-foot lengths for you. Also, look around for a big piece of cardboard to line the bottom of your garden.

You will need a box of three-inch screws. And, if you are going to divide your garden into squares, you’ll need string and thumbtacks. I would not recommend the twine shown here. It disintegrated within two months.

Next, head to the garden center to purchase soil. To keep costs down, we bought inexpensive topsoil and composted manure for the bottom layers and saved the richer raised-bed soil for the top. You will also need to buy a bag of all-natural “sandbox” sand to help with soil drainage.

The formula for calculating how many cubic feet of soil to buy is as follows. Volume = length x width x height. All the numbers need to be in the same type of units- in this case, feet. Thus, 4 x 4 x .67 (8 inches = 8/12 =.67) equals 11 cubic feet. We bought 12 CF because once you water the soil, it gets compacted, and you need a little more volume to fill it. Soil bags come in cubic feet.

 

If you don’t have a drill, it’s going to be harder to put your raised bed together. You could simplify the process by buying lumber and specialized cement blocks or use a raised-bed kit.

Instructions in Pictures

Planting the Seeds

Stopping to Smell the Flowers

Watering the Garden

One of the discoveries – snake beans that germinated in three days!

Two Months Later

Last week, we planted a few cool-weather seeds.

One day, while the children were on a walk with their parents, they passed this patch of pineapple plants. The homeowner gave them a pineapple and told them to cut off the top and stick it in the dirt to grow their own. I never thought about how pineapples grew.

I think my son and DIL have gotten the “growing edibles” bug because, in addition to planting the pineapple, they have added three fruit trees to their backyard: guava, mango, and fig, and planted seeds to grow cosmos which attract bees and butterflies and my granddaughter. She loves to pick flowers!

Nothing could make me happier than to pass on my passion for growing food to my family. Now, when I FaceTime with my grands, they often take the phone outside to show me their garden. It keeps us all happy and connected when we can’t be together for hugs. My friend, the Reverand Susan Masters, put this notice on her Facebook page. She, like me, is a hugger!

Related Posts:
Edible Landscaping with Nashville Foodscapes
Family Dirt
Fall Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
Putting Your Garden to Bed with a Blanket of Cover Crops

Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

Always check my blog for the latest version of a recipe.

If you enjoyed this post to become a follower, please be sure to press “confirm” on the follow-up letter that will be sent to your email address.

© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.