Hello there! This page is always in progress. Check back to see what’s new.
I’m slowly creating mini-pages that pull in all of the articles on popular gardening topics.
- Seed Starting 101: Everything you need to know to get started growing seeds in a small space and on a budget!
- Lettuce and Salad Greens Growing Guide: Growing resources (including lots of containers), plus ingredients to grow, recipes, and more.
- Tomato Growing Guide: Tips for growing tomatoes in containers, raised beds, and in the ground as well as great varieties worth growing, and delicious ways to preserve and eat this favourite summer crop.
- Herbs and Edible Flowers Growing Guide: Growing resources (in pots and in the soil), plus a comprehensive list of plants to grow, ways to preserve, cook with, and use herbs, and a whole lot more.
Over the years some of the most common questions I’ve received have been about the products I use. I’ve always been mindful of how much product promotion I provide on this site because I know from experience that it doesn’t take a million dollars in fancy gadgets to grow a garden. A few essentials: a good quality digging tool that will stand up to difficult soil, well-balanced potting soil for container gardeners, and a bucket to haul water are all that’s truly required to get the job done.
That said, a few good tools can give you that extra, ready-to-rock, can-do confidence and make the the hard jobs a little easier.
Cobrahead Precision Weeder and Cultivator:The Cobrahead is my desert island gardening tool. It is the first and often the only tool I grab as I am heading out the door to one of my more distantly located gardens.
I was sent an early version of this tool to review back in 2002 and have been using it religiously ever since. It’s a hardcore weeder; it digs a mean hole for planting; it will cut through the hardest, most compact soil you can find (I should know, I’ve tried it all); it fits in a bag and doesn’t weigh a ton; it’s could be used as defense should you ever find yourself alone in your community garden plot after dark.
Fiskars Pruning Stik Tree Pruner: I’m an urban gardener. I garden in small, Lilliputian spaces so it came as a surprise when I realized I needed a gigantic gardening tool like this one. Over the years, weed tree growth along the edges of our community garden were encroaching on our space and casting more and more shade onto some of the plots — mine included. We used the 12′ Tree Pruning Stik to get at the tallest, most offensive branches and it has made a world of difference. The tool is light and can cut through surprisingly thick branches like butter.
We can make our own fertilizers and compost to nourish our garden, but I also realize that not everyone has access to certain nutrients, especially when starting in a new space. There are times when it is worth it to buy a good organic fertilizer or mineral from a reliable source.
Potting Soil: Unfortunately, not all potting soils are created equal, and if there is one place you should put your money as a container gardener, it’s into good quality soil. The best mixes contain organic matter such as compost, rice hulls, wood chips, and/or worm castings to provide nutrients; perlite, vermiculite, and/or sand to prevent compaction and increase drainage, and coir or peat to absorb water.
I had the good fortune of trying out Organic Mechanic potting soil on a trip to Pennsylvania and it is an incredible, peat-free mix. If I had access to it here in Toronto, I would be a very happy container gardener.
Sea Kelp: I use sea kelp regularly through the growing season. It’s high in Potassium, which is helpful in growing resilient plants that can withstand periods of stress; an essential if you’re container gardening.
For outdoor gardens and pots, I like the versatility of dried kelp meal. You can add it straight to the soil or brew it into a tea to be added when you water.
I prefer concentrated sea kelp liquid when fertilizing indoor plants because there is no chance for me to forget about the brew and produce a vile-smelling tea.
Of course, you can also make your own potassium-rich fertilizer using comfrey harvested from your own garden. It stinks to high heaven, but is worth the suffering.
[Links: Urban Harvest Kelp Meal]
Silpat Baking Sheet: I have to admit that I bought my Silpat on a whim one day while perusing a fancy kitchen gadget store. “What is the fuss all about?” I wondered.”The price is a bit steep.Is it really all that?” Yes. It really is all that. I can’t believe how I often I pull it out in place of parchment. I rarely compost the parchment I use because it is often coated in oils. So I’m putting a lot less paper into the garbage can and saving money too. Nothing sticks to it. It’s obviously great for cookies, crackers and other thin baked goods, but I’ve also used it to make fruit leather from a glut of summer peaches. Just peel and slice the peaches, cook into a sauce on the stove, and slather it evenly onto a silpat-lined cookie sheet. Bake at a very low temperature until you can pull the fruit leather off like plastic. Delicious.
[Links: Make Oven Dried Plums]
I’ve been canning and preserving for over a decade in a tiny, apartment kitchen. And I haven’t killed anyone yet! If I can do it…
The following resources will get you started canning and preserving your produce at home. I recommend starting out with a fool-proof pickle that is high in acid (and therefore an inhospitable environment for botulism to form), and work your way up from there. You’ll find recipes and some instructions on this site by searching the tags canning or preserving. More in-depth canning instruction along with a few recipes can be found in my book, Grow Great Grub: Organic Food From Small Spaces.
Books on Canning and Preserving: The Ball and Bernardin (in Canada) Complete Book of Home Preserving along with the Blue Book Guide to Preserving are highly regarded as the most popular tomes. If you want hardcore, indepth information on canning everything under the sun, these are the books for you. I have to admit that I find them a bit dry and have never made a single recipe from these books, but my mistake was waiting until I was well experienced as a canner before picking them up.
I personally recommend Well-Preserved by Eugenia Bone. Her writing is conversational and entertaining, and is written from the perspective of a New York apartment dweller with real-world ingredients and realistic, small-batch quantities.
Water Bath Canner/Kettle: Do yourself a favor and get yourself a water bath canning kettle that comes fitted with a rack. Sure, any ole large cooking pot will work, but a water bath canner is concave on the bottom and made to fit properly over your stove’s element. It has a tight-fitting lid that won’t let heat escape during the canning process (this is essential for safe canning). A rack keeps jars in place and prevents the nerve-jangling racket of jars clanging against one another.
Home Canning Kit: I have been canning for more than a decade and can say with authority that if you are planning to can even once, it is worth investing in a kit. I tried canning without it in the beginning and came away blistered, burned and terribly frustrated. Think of it as a preventative measure. The fact is you can probably get by without the jar opener and the tongs but the funnel, lid lifter, and jar lifter tools are as essential as the canning kettle itself.
Food Mill: Don’t get me wrong, you can make sauce without a food mill. For years I relied upon a wood and metal chinoise bought at a garage sale for 5 bucks to get me through making a year’s supply of tomato sauce in a day. It was tough and messy labor, squishing, and pounding hot tomatoes through the press. Somewhere in my head I had it that a food mill, which clearly costs more than 5 bucks, was not worth the money. And so we labored on year after year, jar after jar until finally, one day, I broke down and took the plunge. What was I waiting on? The food mill is only about a thousand times easier and cleaner than the chinoise. We use it to make a year’s supply of apple sauce in the Fall, too. Totally worth the investment.
Did I mention it is also essential for making the BEST homemade heirloom tomato soup you will ever eat?
Weck Jars: Probably the most common canning question I get is about the pretty Weck jars featured in some of my photos. Before I tell you where to buy these pricey gems, a word of warning: Weck jars are not made to fit standard canning equipment including jar lifters. The larger Weck jars area total pain in the but to can with, but I will admit that the result is worth it. Plus, every part of the jar that touches the food is glass — they’re safer over the long-term. They may be expensive, but think of them as a life long investment that you’ll be using over and over for years to come.
My suggestion to beginners is to stick with the smaller-sized jars — they do fit standard canning tools — and then work your way up to the difficult, larger jars.
People often ask about the camera equipment I use to take the photos featured on this site and in my books. Well, if I had my choice it would be all film, all the time. I am a film lover through and through. I especially love medium format; square please.
Unfortunately, this is neither affordable nor practical, so these days I save the film for personal work. Now and again there is cross over and a film or Polaroid photo will show up here. Perhaps I should post those images more often…
Thankfully technology has improved over the years, especially at the consumer level, and I have come to better appreciate digital. Know this: you can take a good picture with a crappy camera. I’ve used a wide assortment of incredibly cheap, bargain basement, practically falling apart cameras (I once had a camera pretty much explode during a shoot) over the years and you know what? I can include some of the photos taken with those camera in my list of personal favourites.
The Nikon D90 is the camera I use most often. It’s pretty good for the price and even shoots decent video, although I will admit I use that feature most for lazy note taking. It’s my secret for remembering new plant names and varieties! We’re Nikon users around here, not because we think it’s better than the competition (okay, maybe it is) but because my partner Davin got a Nikon film camera first and the brand stuck. That and the fact that my first digital SLR, the was the best consumer grade model for its price point at the time I was looking, way back when.
Save yourself the heartache and buy the body only when you purchase a digital SLR. The kit lens is… not great. I recommend a macro lens for botanical close-ups such as the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG Medium Telephoto Macro Lens or the Sigma 50mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro Lens when you want to get a little more into the shot. This one is a peach for food photos, too. Yes, there are much nicer macro lenses out there, but the Sigmas are affordable and I’ve never had any trouble with them. I used to shoot super-wide garden photos with the Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC until I dropped it on pavement while changing lenses at a Botanical Garden last fall. That sucked.
I’m currently enjoying this fixed lens Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX for both garden and food photography.
I LOVE books, oh yes I do. I don’t really review books on this site so much as recommend the ones that are really inspiring me. I generally stick to the topics of gardening and cooking here, but occasionally veer off into other areas when a book is just too good to disregard. If you’re curious about the fiction books I am reading or plan to read, I have a personal Good Reads account that I keep fairly up-to-date. You can also search for books that are mentioned on this site via the Books tag.
Disclosure: Some of the above links lead to sites that I have affiliate relationships with (i.e. Amazon.com). What that means is that when you link through to the site AND make a purchase, I collect a small fee. Please know that this has no bearing on the items I promote. I would use and DO use all of these products myself, and only recommend products that I have had a very positive experience using.