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5 Things Absolute Beginner Gardeners Should Know

5 Things Absolute Beginner Gardeners Should Know

Gardening is a huge subject, and the volumes of knowledge you can attain over time are immense. You can read, you can try and learn by your mistakes, and you can get advice. And, you can be totally overwhelmed by something as simple as figuring […]

Green Your Holidays with Fabric Wrapping Paper

Green Your Holidays with Fabric Wrapping Paper

The holidays are always an exciting time around here, but I always hated the waste of the season—especially wrapping paper and bows. Now, each year we have our gifts under the tree without any wrapping paper, tape, or plastic ribbon: we use fabric! When my […]

Why Grow Dent Corn?

Why Grow Dent Corn?

Reviewing your seed catalogs in the (finally!) rainy autumn, you see the beautiful colors that dent corn can come in–blue, red, even rainbow “Gem”–and you don’t know why you’d want to grow corn you can’t eat fresh. What’s the point? Why colorful cornbread, of course!

Dent corn varieties are grown to be consumed dry, not fresh. Popcorn is similar, in that it should be dried, but not all dent or flint corn can be popped well, just as not all popping corn would make good meal or flour. Dent corn is used for cornmeal and polenta, others work best as flour. Blue corn flour is even considered more nutritious than yellow corn flour!

Grinding Dent Corn by hand
My son grinding Bloody Butcher corn for our cornbread.

We have a Victorio hand-crank mill, but there are attachments for mixers or even for blenders to make the job a lot-less time consuming. For our family, we don’t grind corn often, but when we do we delight in the fun colors and different flavors of home-grown corn meal. My kids also loved the opportunity to watch the corn turn into meal as they turned the crank.

Bloody Butcher skillet cornbread cooked and ready to go into the oven.

We made skillet cornbread for Thanksgiving this year from Bloody Butcher corn (such an awesome name!). The final product is not pink, unfortunately, but is definitely a different tone than ordinary cornbread, with dark crimson flecks.

I’ve never seen cornmeal for sale in any color but yellow, so I find grinding our own colorful meal to be a fun benefit of growing our own. And, since we keep the kernels whole in storage, they will keep indefinitely, so one harvest will keep us in Bloody Butcher cornmeal for years to come!

Predatory Plants, Half Moon Bay, California

Predatory Plants, Half Moon Bay, California

Amongst the drool-inducing nurseries along Route 92 in Half Moon Bay is a sign that seems almost out-of-place between the more trendy, Sunset-style stores. Succulents, Native Plants, and…Carnivorous Plants? If you venture inside, you will find no Little Shop of Horrors, but a sparse space […]

Cuore di Bue Tomatoes

Cuore di Bue Tomatoes

One of my new-to-me plant varieties this year has been the Cuore di Bue Tomato, a paste/sauce variety. The insides are dense, with oxheart-style lobes, and have very few seeds. As with any plant variety you attempt to grow, the fruit is a result of […]

Raising Swallowtail Butterflies

Raising Swallowtail Butterflies

My kids, especially my seven-year-old son, asks me if we can get a pet all the time. The requested animals range from fish, to hamsters (“they poop every 5 minutes!” he says, like it’s a positive attribute), to a new dog (since ours died in April). I don’t want any more pets to take care of, clean up after, or (in the case of small animals that die) dispose of. That is the beauty of raising butterflies: almost no mess, they stay with you only a short time (much of that in their chrysalis), and then they fly away. The perfect temporary pet!

Swallowtail Butterfly in enclosure
Newly emerged, a swallowtail butterfly slowly explores the enclosure as its wings harden.

Of course, there’s more benefit to having a butterfly in the home, including bringing the outside inside, engaging kids in the garden, talking about insect life cycles, reducing any squeamishness around insects, and teaching about respecting creatures by not touching delicate ones. And, who doesn’t love looking at a butterfly up close?

Close up Swallowtail Butterfly wings
Close up of the wings of a Swallowtail Butterfly

Butterflies are also important pollinators in the garden, and aiding them in their delicate transition could make the difference between survival and becoming a snack.

Finding Swallowtails

The Swallowtail Butterfly starts its life on plants in the carrot family called “Umbellifers.” This family includes carrot, dill, and parsley, and indeed the caterpillars are sometimes called “parsley worms.” Another plant in this family is fennel. As you may know, wild fennel is an abundant weed in the Bay Area, and the very worst weed in my yard and garden. Despite my most violent and merciless eradication efforts, I often have to cut down huge trees of the stuff. When I do, I employ the kids to help me search the stalks and fronds for Swallowtail eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalises. Those that we find, we place in a special enclosure with a plate underneath (most enclosures have a soft base), and a container of water to keep some cut fennel alive for the caterpillars to eat.

If you do bring a caterpillar into your home, be aware that you should always cover the water with foil or plastic wrap to ensure a very clumsy caterpillar doesn’t become a very drowned caterpillar.

Caring for Caterpillars

All the caterpillars need is fennel or dill fronds to eat. They should be fresh, so when one stalk wilts, bring in a new one and then remove the old ones when the caterpillar moves to the newer stalks. The caterpillars will eat (and eat and eat), and it is adorable, and then they will poop a lot. Luckily, all they eat is fennel, so it’s pretty dry and boring poop, but it is spherical and will roll off of surfaces.

When the caterpillar is plump and full, it will choose a sturdy place from which to hang his chrysalis. Starting out, this will look like it just glued its feet to a stalk or wall of the enclosure and made itself a thin seat belt to hang from. Slowly, the chrysalis will turn solid green and then a light brown. It is fairly sturdy, but don’t jostle the chrysalis. Keep the enclosure safe, away from direct sunlight, for about two weeks, but be sure you’ll be checking in regularly. Butterflies are fairly quiet, and you don’t want to miss noticing the emerged butterfly.

Releasing the Butterfly

The newly-mobile butterfly will need a few hours to get its wings ready for flight, but once it emerges, plan on releasing it in a few hours. When you see the butterfly attempting to fly, you’ll know it’s ready for the big wide world.

Swallowtail Butterfly just before release outside
Our latest butterfly, just before flying away. You can see the open chrysalis just to its left.

If you need to leave the butterfly in it’s enclosure for a long period of time, such as if you have to go to work, leave some cut citrus fruit or a small container of sugar water (large ones might allow an awkward new butterfly to drown!) in the enclosure. However, you should plan on a release as soon as possible after the wings are ready.

Housing a caterpillar and releasing a butterfly is a wonderfully fulfilling activity for kids and adults alike, so keep an eye out for those adorable caterpillars when you are hacking that fennel!

When life gives you blackberries…

When life gives you blackberries…

…make a Charlotte Russe!* Part of my yard has been going wild since my kids were born, and there is a thicket of Himalayan blackberry coming into season. I’m never content to make jam or jelly, and you can only have blackberry pancakes 3 or […]

Harvesting Cauliflower: Not for the Squeamish

Harvesting Cauliflower: Not for the Squeamish

Organic Gardening is incredibly rewarding, but there are those moments when you question the amount of work you put into it. Harvesting heads of cauliflower is one such moment. When to Harvest Cauliflower, when ready to harvest, are fully sized at about 6 to 8 […]

Save Your Baby Plants from Slugs and Snails

Save Your Baby Plants from Slugs and Snails

Slugs (and Snails) eat baby plants. They love tender infant beans and cucumbers and totally ruin all that hard work you did weeding and composting and planting. So many plants are just easier to direct-sow into the ground or pot, and starting beans inside seems so asinine given how well they do in the ground. It’s just those darn slugs, screwing it up for everyone. There are products like Sluggo and beer traps, and other things that may help keep the slimy buggers under control by killing them. I even tried using cabbage collars, which have copper embedded in them, but they are flimsy and on first big windy afternoon, I found them on every plant BUT the ones I had placed them on. They also only work on sprouted, established plants. But no worries: I have found the best way to protect baby plants from slugs and snails. It’s cheap and easy to implement, and doesn’t involves killing slugs or snails: I make slug force fields–devices that go around my seeds and baby plants–that slugs just don’t want to touch.
A complete slug force field
A completed force field in the ground, ready to protect some seedlings!

DIY Slug Force Field

You’ll need:
  • scissors
  • a plastic yogurt container or similar container
  • 2 or 3 ground staples or something else that will anchor the force field to the ground
  • copper tape that’s at least an inch wide
  • the lid of the container, which can be used to make the force-field double as a greenhouse for your seeds & sprouts (optional)

Step 1:

Cut off the bottom
Cut off bottom of container
Using scissors or a knife, cut away the bottom of the container.

Step 2:

Poke 2 or 3 holes near the base, about a 1/2 to 1 inch from the base.
Cut holes for ground staples
Using scissors of a knife, cut small holes that will allow ground staples to slide through. They do not need to be pretty!

Step 3:

Wrap the container all the way around with copper tape, in the middle closer to the top. Overlap at the edges, and flatten the tape out as best you can.
Copper tape on the slug force field
Measure your tape before you cut so that you can be sure you have enough with slight overlap at the edges.

Step 4 (optional):

To benefit from a bonus greenhouse add-on, cut a hole in the center of the lid. This works with clear or opaque lids, and it depends on how hot your area gets. The sun in Brisbane can be too hot for tender sprouts in a greenhouse, so I sometimes use the clear lids, but add duct tape to darken the lid. The moisture stays inside, helping seeds sprouts, but I don’t have to worry about roasting the baby plants.
Cutting hole in the lid of the container.
Be careful not to crack the lid, just cut. The hole is crucial to keep the plants from burning by venting hot air.

Step 5:

Insert the staples into the holes, drive the staples into the ground, and settle the force field onto the soil, ensuring the bottom edges are touching or even into the ground. You can pile soil up around the outside if you need to. No gaps allowed!
Installing force field
Carefully put in place in the garden, leaving no gaps between the edges of the container and the soil.

Step 6:

Plant your seeds or transplant seedlings and water. You’re done!

How does it work?

Slugs/snails are gross and wet, as you may have noticed, and their slime contains ions that, when touching copper, creates an electric shock in the slug/snail. The shock is unpleasant, so they won’t keep going when they feel it. Thinner lines of copper may allow them to cross by not providing enough contact, so I always use an inch wide or wider to repel them.

Best Plants for Slug Force Fields

I love these for plants that benefit from being sown in the ground, like pumpkins, cucumbers, squash, and even beans, but it would also work for brassicas like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and any other plants you might otherwise find eaten down to a nub in the morning.


These force fields are pretty maintenance-free. The copper gets tarnished over time, but I’ve used them for more than one season with success. The plastic will eventually break down after repeated years in sunlight, but making them is cheap and easy. While plants are young, you do need to ensure that no pathway forms for slugs after the planting until the spouts are big enough to be safe. That means a stick or leaf that makes a bridge, or something jarring the container so that a tunnel forms underneath. Containment is key!

Using with drip lines

With my drip irrigation lines, I have had to carefully bury them, then bring up the emitter inside the container, and then bury on the other side. I use more ground staples for this, and it makes seed-starting very easy, because if you forget to water the seeds at that critical sprouting time, slugs aren’t your biggest problem.
Emitter placement inside slug force field
Drip lines can be buried, and then emitters allowed inside the force field.
Let me know if you try out some slug force fields in your garden, and I’d love to know if you have any improvements on them!
DIY Slug Force Fields
The Prettiest Weeds Money Can Buy

The Prettiest Weeds Money Can Buy

You’d think the folks that sell seeds would know better than to collect and package weed seeds for sale, but they clearly don’t. There are plants that, in the Bay Area, at least, are meddlesome weeds, and yet companies sell them as ornamental flowers and […]