Gardening For The Taste of It

Why do I garden? To be sure, I do it because I want to be able to supply my family with the freshest, most sustainably and naturally grown food that I can buy.  I also do it because I love to get outdoors and dig in the dirt; it’s a great way to exercise, be exposed to sunlight and beneficial microbes.  It’s also THE best place to gather my thoughts and communicate with God (hmmm…that gives me another idea for a future post!).

But, I also garden for another simple reason: taste – if you grow your own, you know what I’m talking about.  Nothing compares to the taste of perfectly ripened, fresh from the garden produce that you grow yourself!

After all of these years of gardening, I’ve come up with six crops that I absolutely LOVE the home-grown version of, and are MUSTHAVES for planting in my garden every year.  Won’t you follow along and see if you agree?

  1.  Heirloom Tomatoes.  I love heirloom tomato varieties.  They are sweet, juicy, smoky and fruity, and come in a variety of amazingly beautiful colors and shapes.  While they may not be as prolific as their hybrid counterparts, what they lack in production is easily made up for in taste – there’s nothin’ quite like the taste of a home-grown heirloom tomato, in my opinion.


loads of tomatoes


2.  Potatoes.  If you’ve ever grown your own potatoes, you know what I mean.  From the minute you start preparing them, you can tell you’re in for a treat!  They have a wonderfully crisp texture, when you cut into them. When cooked, they are creamy and buttery, with out-of-this-world flavor.  I haven’t found one person who has ever tasted a home-grown potato and doesn’t have a story to tell about its wonders.


3.  Tree fruit.  Apricots, plums, nectarines, peaches, pluots, and apples are some of the tree fruits I grow out at Whit’s Acres.  Like candy on a branch – that’s what I’d compare these babies to when they are perfectly sun-ripened and ready to eat.  Each heirloom variety has its own unique smell, taste, and texture – things that make them even more of a priority for me to have in my garden.

4.  Beets.  I know.  Do you hate them?  I used to, too… until I tasted one freshly harvested from my garden and roasted.  Wow!  So sugary sweet, with just a touch of earthiness.  And the beet greens?  Fabulous!  Mix them together with some fresh shallots and an orange juice-garlic vinaigrette and you’ve got one pretty amazing salad.  I love these things!


5.  Beans, the kind that you can dry.   Oh, man.  If you haven’t grown your own soup beans, you’ve got to get them in the ground next chance you get!  Once again, the texture and taste of home-grown dry beans are incomparable.  They are silky smooth in texture and provide a depth of flavor that you just can’t get anywhere else.  My favorites to grow are black-eyed peas and rattlesnake beans.  They are so easy to grow and produce like crazy, too!

dry beans

6.  Brussels Sprouts.   I know.  They’re an acquired taste, right?  Maybe, if you’ve only ever had the store-bought kind.  Home-grown ones, on the other hand, are quite addicting!  They are amazingly sweet with a more subtle cabbage flavor.  My favorite variety is “Falstaff” (not pictured here), which is super sweet, mild, and a bit nutty tasting.  They are getting more and more difficult for me to grow here where I live, due to warmer weather patterns, but I will not give up on growing them, because the homegrown varieties just don’t compare with any others that I’ve ever tasted.  They are that good!

brussels sprouts

How about you?  What fruits and vegetables do you grow for taste?  What do you grow that is far superior in taste, texture, and smell to anything you’ve ever purchased?  What other crops would you add to this list?

Let Volunteers be Your Guide for When to Plant


A question I am often asked is, “when do I plant?”  It’s an important question.  Different plants require different growing conditions and should be grown at different times. Without a doubt, one of the keys to a successful garden is knowing when to plant all of the different varieties that you will be growing.  But, how does one determine when to plant?

Well, there are a few different ways this can be done (I’ll save the best way I’ve found ’till the end)…

First, you can make a trip to your local nursery or home and garden center and look to see what they currently have for sale. Typically, they stock plants based on growing seasons.  However, you should just use this as a general guide, especially in the spring, when the ground and air temps may not be warm enough for planting in your specific area.  I can’t tell you how many people I know who have lost their entire investment, in the spring, by planting too early just because the plants were available in the nursery.  Also, they often don’t stock vegetable transplants year ’round.  Just because they’re not available in the nursery at the moment, it doesn’t mean it’s not the right time to put them in your home garden. Typically, home and garden stores make transplants available one time per year, in early spring.  There are many vegetables that can be put into the garden right up through the fall, like lettuces, cabbages, peas, and oriental greens, but you may not find them for sale in your local stores.  So, yes, see what’s available at your local nursery, but don’t use it as the only method for determining when to plant.

cool weather seedlings

Next, you can go by the instructions on the back of a seed packet.  Some seed packets have very general (and sometimes confusing) instructions.  It may show a map with color-coded zones and planting times.  If there are a lot of different climates in your state or county, it can be tricky to pinpoint, exactly, which zone you fit in just by looking at the small map.  Also, the range of planting dates can be quite large – i.e. if you are in zone x, plant between early February through April – that’s a pretty wide range.  It can be a bit of a guessing game when you use these types of seed packets.  However, there are some wonderful heirloom, organic seed companies that provide planting instructions with great detail on their packets, including whether or not the seeds need overnight soaking, cold stratification, or scarifying, which can make all of the difference when it comes to successful germination.  These types of packets also base seed starting time on your first and last frost dates.  For example, the packet might say something like, “start seeds indoors four weeks prior to your last frost date.”  This really helps you to zone in on a particular planting date for your seed starting.  The key here is knowing your first and last frost dates so that you get those seeds in the ground at the right time.

This leads me to another tactic, which I greatly employ in my own garden planning – a vegetable planting guide.  There are a variety of different guides that you can reference and download on the internet.  Some are designed for specific hardiness zones, counties, and regions, others are more general in nature.  Some cover very basic garden vegetables, herbs, and flowers, others get into more specific types of plants.  Some are very visual, others more technical.  I keep several different types of guides on hand to help me with my planting times.  I like to use simple, at-a-glance-type guides at the beginning of the gardening season to quickly plan out what I’m going to get started and when.  When I get closer to the fall, I prefer to use a more technical guide that includes a “days to harvest” column so that I can count back from my final frost date and know when I can safely sow or plant out my final crops.

Finally, a method that I’ve really come to appreciate in helping me know when to sow and plant (and the one that I’ve found to be the most reliable) is using volunteer seedlings as guides.  Whenever I see a baby plant growing, it indicates to me that it’s the right time to sow brother and sister seeds of that variety. Here’s why:  that seed has been lying underground for some time, waiting for just the right conditions to spring to life.  It’s presence in the garden indicates that there must be ideal conditions for it to be growing, and, therefore, it’s time for me to begin sowing or planting out more of it (the exception being warm weather varieties that show up late into the season, when there won’t be enough time for them to set fruit for harvesting).  The key to using this method is letting some of my plants from the previous season set and drop seed.


(with potatoes or garlic, I  leave some of the harvest in the ground, for plants where the seeds are contained inside of the fruit, I  allow the fruit to mature, then leave it to decompose right in the garden bed. Bugs, insects, animals, wind and water can also disperse seed, setting up the opportunity for more volunteers to pop up later on.  If you compost, you may also find volunteers there.)

Each year, there are variances in weather conditions in my area – variances that home and garden centers, seed packets and charts can’t predict, but I can almost always guarantee that I’ll be planting at the right time if I do it in conjunction with volunteers that I see sprouting in my garden!

Won’t you give it a try?


Taking My Time With Cold Seed Stratification

It’s that time of year again…indoor seed sowing time!!!

I’ve already sprouted and potted up brassicas, sown lettuce and pea seeds, and am getting ready to start on the nightshades, herbs, and annual flowers.

This year, in addition to all of the annual fruits and veggies that I’ll be starting from seed, I’m also going to try my hand at starting some perennial trees, shrubs, and berries indoors.  If I’m successful, I’ll save a ton of money on landscaping and will be able to supply my family and customers with even more healthy food and herbs from the garden.

I say “if” because these particular perennials that I’m starting are a little more difficult to get going than your typical annual seed.  They can’t just be planted straight out of the seed packet into a seed starting medium.  Instead, most of these seeds require a period of stratification before they are sown.  Seed stratification is the process whereby seed dormancy is broken in order to promote germination.  

There are  different types of stratification.   According to Gardening Know, “Some seeds require a warm and moist treatment, while others require a cool and wet treatment. Even still, other seeds require a combination of both warm and cool treatments followed by a warm treatment, or a combination of warm and cool moist followed by a dry cycle and warm period to germinate.”

Does this sound confusing?  Intimidating?  (It used to scare me off, so I kept my distance from these plants for a long, long time).  

However, I’ve grown much more comfortable with the seed starting process over the years, so I figured why not take on the challenge of seed stratification this year?

I hopped on over to one of my favorite heirloom seed sources, Bountiful Gardens, and placed an order for some of their wild cultivars: Serviceberry, Hawthorne, Bearberry, Hardy Kiwi, Chaste Tree, Schizandra, and a few others.

When the package arrived, I found out that most of my seeds were going to require cold stratification, which is the type of stratification used for “plants or trees that require time in the ground over winter in order to germinate” (Gardening Know How).

It was a little overwhelming at first, making my way through all of the instructions included with the seeds, but after digesting it all, I found that the process, although a little time consuming, was relatively easy to complete.

Here’s what I ended up doing…

First, I picked up some plastic containers at the local Dollar Tree.  These little ones, that came in a package of four, fit the bill perfectly…


Then, using cotton balls as my medium, I created a moist, but not wet, layer on the bottom of the container…



Next, I added the seeds…


Then, I covered the seeds with more moist cotton balls…



Finally, using the information on the seed packet, I calculated the date when the seeds would finish their cold stratification period, wrote it on the seed packet instructions and calendar, taped the seed packet instructions to the container, and placed the container into the refrigerator to be left alone until the recorded date at which time they’ll be removed from the refrigerator and then sown, indoors, just as I sow my other annual seeds.



Some of the seeds can take up to a year to germinate after sowing, so this project is going to take some patience, but as the words from one of my favorite Wes King songs, Slow Miracles, says,  “the best things in life take time”, don’t they?

Curious about which perennials require cold stratification?  (I was surprised to find some of the plants I grow on this list, like lavender and catmint – I’ve never used cold stratification on these seeds before, but now maybe I will).  Head on over to A Garden for the House for a nice list of garden perennials, and Wild Ones for some great information and a chart on native, wild plants, like the ones that I am growing.

Transplanting, Instead of Culling, Makes Me a Much Happier Gardener

Ever had a hard time thinning or “culling” those extra seedlings that spring up from over-sowing or volunteering?  It’s very common, in my garden, to find seedlings that are way too tightly packed together.  Even though I know it is the absolute right thing to do, I can’t tell you how it pains me to remove these sweet little gems from my garden.


The other day I was working in a bed of lettuce that I had sown a few weeks prior – one that I sowed an over-abundance of seed in to ensure better germination rates.  It was now time for the weeding and thinning to take place.

I like to let my seedlings grow a couple of sets of true leaves before starting the thinning process.  Crickets and grasshoppers around our homestead love those first little, tender leaves and often chew them right off, leaving nothing but the stem and roots, essentially killing the plant, but they don’t tend to bother them once they get larger.  So, rather than thin early and risk losing what’s left to these pests, I leave them to grow until they are large enough that the pests won’t bother them and then begin the thinning.

As I started the process of locating the lettuce among the weeds, to my happy surprise, I also noticed that there were a ton of carrot seedlings scattered about – no doubt from seeds that had dropped off and germinated earlier in the year  from a carrot plant that I’d let go to seed for the purpose of seed saving…


If it were spring or summer, I’d thin any unwanted plants by gently pulling them up or cutting them off at the soil line and then toss them aside. But now that it’s fall, and the days are shorter, the weather is cooler, and the ground is staying saturated longer,  I’ve decided to try and salvage as many seedlings as possible.  I know it’s a risk with the carrots because transplanting can cause the roots to fork, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take to save these dainty little volunteers!

Digging up a clump of soil – plants, weeds, and all – I take care to pry the weeds away,  and then I gently divide the seedlings…


Although I try not to disturb the roots, I find that in this cooler weather the plants don’t mind having their roots exposed as much.

Then, using a hand trowel,  I pry open up a small area of soil, slip the transplants into place (evenly spacing them out as I go), and give them a good watering to get them off to a good start in their new homes.



What a joy it is to have a few more beds of lettuce and carrots growing, now.  It makes me very happy!

So, if you’re like me, and you absolutely can’t bear to sacrifice all of those perfect, albeit not so well placed, vegetable seedlings that you’ve sown or have volunteered, and if it’s the right time of year, you might just want to consider taking the time to transplant them into another area of the garden where they’ll have adequate space for proper growth, ensuring happier, healthier plants.  Knowing that you’ve save those little beauties, I’m sure you’ll feel a lot happier, too!🙂

Learning From Loss and Counting our Blessings Out at Our Happy Homestead

It’s chick hatching season out at Whit’s Acres, and with it has come a month full of anticipation, expectation, stress, life and loss.

egg on new straw

Each time we hatch a new batch of chicks, I’m reminded just how fragile and precious life is.

I am always amazed at the privilege and responsibility we have to help bring new life into this world.

It doesn’t always go as planned.

Sometimes things go wrong.

Life and death decisions are made.

Lessons are learned.

New insight and understanding is gained.

I think there’s something inside of just about every human being that says, “If there’s something I can do to save a life, I have to try!”

Yet, there is truth in the way of nature.  I know.

Out of the eleven eggs that were viable in our incubator, we have five brand new healthy, happy, incredibly cute chicks — now that’s something to celebrate!

five new chicks

On the other hand, six of the baby chicks didn’t make it.  Four died in their shells.   The other two?  Well,   I couldn’t just stand by and watch them struggle hour after hour, not being able to push out of their shell.

Oh, I’d read all of the books and forum posts that said to “Never help a chick that is struggling to hatch out of its shell — if it can’t make it out on its own, then it’s not going to be able survive if you help it out.”

But, I’d also read a few posts and watched a couple of videos of people saving these struggling chicks, and testifying to how that chick would have surely died if they hadn’t intervened and how it was now thriving with the rest of the flock.  Oh, sure, these kinds were the exception, but something inside of me kept telling me I had to try.

So, I did.  One of the little chicks who’d been struggling for over 24 hours to emerge from its shell finally arrived, exhausted, after I helped finish “Unzipping” it.  He only lived for about an hour after he hatched.  The other chick managed to live for nearly a week.  He had problems from the very beginning – a ruptured air sac, spraddled legs,  but I kept hoping that he’d improve, and so I continued to care for him, hand feeding and watering him, isolating him from the other healthy chicks and comforting him by holding him in my warm hands and making him a fuzzy “sleeping buddy” to comfort him when I wasn’t around.  It was so cute to watch him nuzzle his head under those yarn pom poms, like a baby chick snuggles under the mama hen.  But it wasn’t enough.  He was just too weak.  I was sad to say good bye, but thankful to have known him and to have learned a little more about animal husbandry in the process.

little runt

Sometimes I think, “Maybe I’m just not cut out for this farm life.”

There are no guarantees.

There are so many struggles.

It’s a difficult, sometimes stressful life.

It doesn’t always go as planned.

But every loss is an opportunity to learn…

And, every success is a  reminder of the great and wonderful blessings and privileges God has given us out at our Happy Homestead, Whit’s Acres.

Constructing My First, But Definitely Not Last, Keyhole Garden

You don’t have to live in the desert to benefit from a drought-tolerant composting garden.  Constructing a  “Keyhole Garden” is a great way to bring a creative, sustainable garden into your life, no matter where you live.

A keyhole garden is, essentially, another type of raised-bed planter. It is especially designed to work well in places that have poor soil and bad weather, namely scorching heat and elusive rainfall.  The method was “developed by a humanitarian aid organization in southern Africa, where resources are scarce and the climate unforgiving” (

With this year shaping up to be one of the worst on record for rainfall here in Central California, I’ve been taking advantage of my winter gardening “down time” to look into gardening methods that will help me conserve water and still be able to raise bountiful crops, this summer.  The keyhole garden looks very promising for helping me to do just that.

Take a look at how I constructed this drought-hardy garden…

First, I measured a 6-foot diameter circle to define the inside wall of my garden, and constructed the exterior wall using cut up timbers from dead trees that we had lying around the property.  I also cut out a small notch in the circle so that I can access the wire basket that I am going to place in the center.  (One of the principles of permaculture and sustainable agriculture is that you make use of available, recycled materials that you have on hand, rather than purchasing items from an outside source.  If you don’t have access to timbers, you could use rocks, metal, bricks, or any other material that can support the weight of wet soil).  By the way, keyhole gardens do not have to be round.  Here is an example of a 10′ x 10′ keyhole garden that I found on the web.  It even comes with a planting guide! timber exterior wall Next, I created a one-foot diameter tube out of chicken wire that is going to be filled with compostable material, like kitchen scraps, that will be placed in the middle of the garden and provide it with moisture and nutrients.  The garden will also be watered from this juncture.  Watering from the middle of the garden is supposed to force the plants to send their roots down deep and over to the tube, conserving water in the process. chicken wire tube Following that, since we have so many problems with gophers around here, I lined the entire bed with chicken wire… 100_4396 Then, I lined the bed with pieces of cardboard.  These will decompose as the garden matures, helping to nourish the soil and bring in lots of beneficial worms and insects.  I also set the wire tube in place at this point… 100_4399 Then, I followed this with a thick layer of dead leaves, which are abounding around our property at this time of year.  (When I make my next keyhole garden, I will lay down a “green mulch” layer first, though, following the lasagna garden method of alternating green and brown layers.  Green layers consist of things like herbaceous weeds, grass clippings, and animal manure; brown layers consist of things like dead leaves, straw hay, wood chips, and newspaper)… 100_4400 I thoroughly watered the cardboard and leaves, and then I added a layer of hummus (a mix of compostable materials that has not yet reached the finished compost stage) on top… 100_4402 Finally, I added a layer of top soil (taken from gopher mounds around the property, which are actually a great source of top soil because the dirt is really clean and typically weed seed-free, since it’s coming up from a couple of feet underground – who knew those guys could be so useful???) gopher holes

100_4403 Well, that’s it.  Pretty simple, huh?  All that’s left, now, is to build a ton more and figure out what I want to plant inside of them.  Any suggestions?

Edibles With the Best Return on Your Investment

“All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial”, declares the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:23.  This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible because it helps me to stop and consider, more carefully, whether or not a decision I make is going to be profitable in my life.  For example, it is perfectly lawful for me to spend time on the internet, but (and I’m sure you would agree)  it would not be beneficial for me to spend all of my waking hours blogging, posting, pinning, emailing, reading, gaming, and tweeting on my computer.  I can eat chocolate to my heart’s content, without the slightest fear of my home being raided by police officers, but I wouldn’t get very far before my gall bladder violently arrested me for substance abuse — eating chocolate is definitely not beneficial for my health, as I’ve sadly come to learn.

Deciding how to spend one’s time and what to eat aren’t the only ways to apply this verse.  Another great way to use it is in planning this year’s garden.

Many gardeners dream about self-sufficiency, growing all of their own produce, and becoming less dependent on the local grocery store for their favorite fruits and vegetables.  What they may not realize, however, is that while it is completely lawful to plant any of the grocery store varieties that they are so familiar with, it may not be profitable, especially for those with small gardens.  For example, so many people tell me that they want to plant corn in their backyard gardens.  They love the taste of fresh corn on the cob, and can’t wait to get it growing.  “Well”, I say, “there really isn’t anything in the stores that compare to homegrown corn, but you have to grow a lot of it, if you’re going to get a good return on your investment.”  “It takes a lot of stalks to get good pollination rates, and high quality, open-pollinated, non-GMO, non-hybrid, non-treated seed only produces 1 – and if you’re lucky, 2 – ears of corn per stalk”, I tell them, and “Corn takes a lot of water, is a heavy feeder, takes a long time to grow, has a very small window of time for harvesting, and a short shelf life, too”.  With all of its negatives, I often wonder why I continue to grow it myself!  Corn is one of those crops that is completely permissible to grow but questionable as to its profitability.

The good news is that there are quite a few crops that not only are lawful, but beneficial to grow in your garden because they give you a great return on your investment.  

Here are some of my recommendations…


dinosaur kaleCHARD

rainbow chard


green leaf lettuce


spinach, garlic border



The value in these crops is that you can continually harvest off of them during the growing season.  Unlike corn, which produces 1-2 ears per stalk, and then you uproot and discard the plant, these plants allow you to harvest individual leaves or stems, and then leave the rest of the plant in the ground to continue growing and producing for you – some of them for the entire year, and some (like the herbs and chard) for years to come!


snow peasGREEN BEANS

beans and potatoesTOMATOES

loads of tomatoes


cucumber tunnel


cocozelle zucchini


winter squashes for baking


ancho pepperEGGPLANT

Ping Tung Eggplant


charentais melon

The great thing about these plants is that they grow on bushes or vines and produce a lot of fruit per plant over a long period of time – a lot of bang for your buck!








ornamental strawberry


green globe artichoke

These crops take a couple of years to start producing, but they have great staying power, and longevity of harvest.






colorful carrots

These crops are profitable for the gardener because they don’t take up very much space, and you get a lot of seed for a small investment.

So, as you plan out this year’s garden, look over your seed catalogs, where all vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers are permissible and ask yourself, as you make your selections, “Will this be beneficial?”  If the answer is, “yes”, then freely proceed.  If the answer is, “No” or “I don’t know”, then either move along, or find a reason why it would be beneficial or profitable to you.  Financial gain is not the only measure of profitability, after all.🙂

What fruits, vegetables, herbs, or flowers would you add to this list?  Is there a plant that you love to grow even though you get very little return on your investment from it?  Which plant gives you the greatest return on your investment?