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Cats in the Garden

Cats in the Garden

Our cat is indoor-only, but our neighbors have a couple of active kitties that we often find napping or hunting in our garden. We usually enjoy seeing them and maybe offering them a pet, but sometimes I wish they would stay away. You can love […]

Distilling Water for Finicky Plants

Distilling Water for Finicky Plants

When I wrote a while back about the Carnivourous Plants Store in Half Moon Bay, I mentioned that we took home a sundew for ourselves. Our cool little plant monster happily enjoyed some fruit flies and ants as snacks, and we kept the dish below […]

Start Seeds in Pots You Already Have

Start Seeds in Pots You Already Have

When we think about starting seeds, images come to mind of those flexible black plastic packs, peat pots, and professional seed-starting flats. All those things work great, but so does just about any container that can hold dirt. If you’re serious about gardening, you know that you need to start a LOT of seeds to give your garden the best chance for success, so that means lots of containers. If you want to start seeds on the cheap, try using items, mostly recycling anyway, that you already have around the house!

Toilet Paper Rolls

A simple how-to for making toilet paper rolls into free-standing pots.

The small size and compostable material of toilet paper rolls make them perfect for starting seedling that will need to be repotted shortly after they sprout. Tomatoes, brassicas (broccoli, kale, cauliflower), and some herbs, like basil, are perfect candidates. The trick is to cut 4 evenly-spaced slits one-third of the way up the tube, then cutting slits in the middle of each of those flaps halfway up, and then weaving them together to form the bottom. Filling them with soil will help make them more sturdy.

Pros: Good size for repottable plants, compostable so you don’t need to take the plants out to repot.

Cons: Paper can grow mold, bottoms can fall apart if they get and stay too wet, too small for plants that get big fast.

Paper Egg Cartons

Very similar to the toilet paper rolls, egg cartons are compostable and a good size for small seedlings. While you don’t need to do any prep work to use cartons for seed starting, you will need to cut them apart when you transplant.

Pros: Good size for repottable plants, compostable so you don’t need to take the plants out to repot.

Cons: Paper can grow mold, too small for plants that get big fast.

Disposable Paper Cups

Noticing a theme here? There are two main differences between disposable cups and the two options above: 1. You need to poke holes for drainage in certain types of cups, like waxed ones. Coffee cups you may collect should not need holes.

Pros: They come in different sizes, so the larger ones can give you more flexibility in holding larger plants, compostable so you don’t need to take the plants out to repot.

Cons: Taller cups start to break down over time and lose structural integrity or tilt to one side.


Turn that pile of newspaper, copy paper, or packing paper into compostable pots. If you don’t want to spend money on a pot-maker, you can fashion one yourself from other sturdy items that you have around the house.

Pros: Pots are compostable so you don’t need to take the plants out to repot.

Cons: The newspaper will break down over time and lose structural integrity or tilt to one side, you need a pot-maker to make them.

Newspaper + Strawberry Baskets

Double up some newspaper, press it into the basket, and then fill with seed-starting mix. Voila!

If you’ve got newspaper and strawberry baskets, as well as no pot-maker doohickey, this is a great solution. You get a good-sized pot held in place while you’re starting seeds, and you can very easily remove the newspaper and soil and plant when you transplant.

Pros: Pots are compostable (once you remove the basket), and baskets are reusable over and over with new newspaper.

Cons: You must be careful when you transfer the plants from the baskets since they will have little structure of their own.

Plastic Tubs

Take care of your digits when you cut holes in plastic tubs. I recommend a pointy, triangular file or other tool that won’t slip.

If my husband ever divorces me, it will be over my extensive collection of yogurt tubs. They are so versatile. Tiny ones are great for holding water when you’re painting. Short ones are perfect for making Slug and Snail Force Fields. And the big, 32oz ones are my transplant pot of choice for tomatoes and brassicas. You will need to poke drainage holes in the bottom. I use a pointed wood file, but carefully-wielded knives or scissors can usually do the trick.

Pros: Come in multiple sizes for different plants, sturdy.

Cons: You need to remove plants from them for transplanting in the garden, your spouse may question your hoarding.

Bonus: Lids can serve as water trays underneath the tubs!

And More!

These cool packing materials came in my beer-of-the-month club, and look perfect for some larger tomato or pepper plants.

Plants don’t care what shape or material their first homes are made of, as long as they get ample light and water and (eventually) nutrients. Use what you find around the house. Boxes, packing material, food containers, etc, will all work great. The only parameters are making sure the containers are clean, are the right size for your plants at the stage they are in, and that the container will hold up until transplanting. 

A Different Kind of Winter Harvest

A Different Kind of Winter Harvest

Snow is not a normal sight in the Bay Area, which is why it’s quite common to trek up the mountains to Tahoe. The white stuff is quite fascinating to my kids, who had never seen it (or played in it) before. To me, a […]

The 3 Essential Gardening Tools

The 3 Essential Gardening Tools

Gardening, as you may already know, can get prohibitively expensive–but it doesn’t have to be. There are tools you need and tools that are nice to have. For most gardens in the Bay Area, these three items are the bare minimum you can expect to need […]

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 out when a tomato is ripe.

For those of you new to gardening, I want you to know that while wisdom will come with time, you can be a success if you just stick to some simple concepts.

  1. All plants are not equal.

    Yes, I know you want GROW ALL THE THINGS, but if you are just starting out, you should probably skip the finicky plants, or ones that require a lot of tending. Some plants just love to grow, and will be easy to sprout and keep alive until harvest. Some plants will wilt and whine and fail at the hint of a hot day. Many plants just DO NOT like our weather here in the Bay Area (depending on your microclimate).

    SOLUTION: Start with the easy plants.

    A good start are the plants in my article 5 PLANTS TO GET THE MOST GARDENING BANG FOR YOUR BUCK. Others that thrive in most of the SF Bay Area include garlic, potatoes, parsnips, sweet peas, grapes, and berries.
  2. Every Season is Different.

    Some years are colder, or drier, or more bug-ridden, meaning a plant that did great last year may be kind of pathetic this year. I had one year of giant cauliflower heads, and then the next year I got a few little weird ones. Nature is a fickle mistress, and this can be frustrating given the effort you’ve put into your garden.

    SOLUTION: Grow a variety of plants.

    Don’t just grow tomatoes, or beans, even if you have different cultivars of each. Be sure to give yourself some backup plants, just in case there’s an issue. This will help you keep your interest up in the face of disaster. Don’t let your backyard crop become a dust bowl metaphor: diversify!
  3. Your Plants will Die.

    Bugs, animals, weather, weeds, etc. will affect your plants. Even those tiny sprouts you were so excited about can succumb to evil snails or fastidious cats using your freshly-dug garden beds as litter boxes.

    SOLUTION: Learn to accept that some of your plants will die.

    You don’t want to hear this, you want to rail against the dying of the light, but it’s the sad truth. The sooner you can see your limp, broken plants and say “that’s gardening,” the faster you can move on to helping keep your other plants alive. These experiences will also help you learn what works and doesn’t work in your garden. Losing so many of my plants to slugs and snails led me to create my slug force fields and now I (and my plants) suffer less. You will learn, too.
  4. You Don’t Need to Spend a Lot on Equipment.

    Despite what Sunset Magazine or other ad-selling gardening media may say, gardening is about 90% soil, 5% seeds, and 5% equipment. A lot of what you need is also generally useful for around-the-house tasks anyway, so purchasing a bunch of specialized gear is a waste. Also, plants don’t care what you look like when you’re out in the garden.

    SOLUTION: Keep it simple and only buy what you need.

    Gloves, a hand shovel, and a watering can may be enough if you’re keeping it small. A larger shovel and saddle hoe can help if your garden is a bit larger. You can wear old clothes and rain boots when it’s wet and messy. You can grow seedlings indoors in used yogurt containers with holes poked in the bottom. Old cardboard boxes make great weed barrier material.
  5. Container Gardening Works…Until it Doesn’t.

    There are some really beautiful displays of container gardens out there on the internet. Such success! Upside-down tomatoes! Corn in a bucket! Lemons in a teapot! (just kidding) But seriously, unless we’re talking HUGE containers, most plants are going to be cramped and sad in containers. The upside-down tomatoes are especially depressing—I know those roots want to SPREAD. Your plants will be stunted and root-bound unless the roots have room to grow appropriate for their variety. Some plants can work, like strawberries and herbs, but the pots sold for them are not big enough. Also, Pro-tip: Any plant you buy in the store, you should expect to have to re-pot immediately.

    SOLUTION: Look at a resource like square foot gardening to see what kind of space your plants actually need, and only plant in containers that they will fit in.

    You can go smaller if you don’t have the room, but you will not get the yields of a free-range plant. Or, go for herbs, small peppers, garlic, beans, and other plants that have a smaller root system, and be sure to keep them happily watered.
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! […]

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 that proffers 3 distinct products: Venus Fly Traps, Pitcher Plants, and Sundews. I brought my kids with me to see the undoubtedly “cool” plants, and to pick up a sundew to help us tackle our intermittent fruit fly issues in our kitchen at home. My 7-year-old was a bit underwhelmed, probably expecting giant man-eating vines straight out of Hogwarts, but while these plants are meat-eaters, most are very small, and even downright cute.
A collection of adorable Sundews
As I examined the array of sundews, not knowing how to pick one (since they all looked exactly the same), an employee walked over and gave me friendly advice on care. Sundews are native to swampy locales, so I need to keep water in a tray that the plant’s pot sits in. Also, while the plant will catch its own snacks on its sticky-top tendrils, I could supplement it with some live insects I happen to catch (meaning I am now a supervillain to the ant scouts that find their way onto my countertop). It’s like having a plant for a pet! It was almost strange to find a store with such a small array of products, but it makes sense for Carnivorous Plants. They focus on their specific products, and so are the best source of both the plants themselves and knowledge on how to keep them happy and healthy.
My sundew, a close up of its deadly (to insects) leaves

If you go…

Predatory Plants (The sign says Carnivorous Plants) 12511 San Mateo Rd Half Moon Bay, CA 94019 Hours: Fri-Sun, 10am – 5pm Predatory Plants Website Parking is free and plentiful, but be aware that making a left turn into the parking lot, or making ANY turn out of it can be tricky and requires patience. There is a lot of traffic on Fridays and the weekend on Route 92, and that’s the only times the store is open.
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 […]