Geeky Gardening: Welcome to My Gardens!

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors
Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

Welcome to the first installment of what I hope will be a fun series of posts involving…you guessed it! Geeky gardening. Why geeky? I mean, don’t old ladies and homebodies garden? That doesn’t quite follow what might be most people’s mental image of  “gardening.”

I suppose it all depends on the mindset. Like most things, context is key. As has been discussed elsewhere, there is more to geekery than comics or video games or Dungeons & Dragons. You don’t have to be into tech. You just have to be into something. I’ve know people who loved jewelry or rocks or theater or art who are every bit as geeked out about that thing as I am about board games and fantasy novels and Hello Kitty. So, gardening.

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors
Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

Ever since I moved into my very own house, gardening has been important to me. In fact, I picked this house especially because it had so many possibilities in the tiny yard. I’ve fit gardens into every nook and cranny of this place.

Why does gardening get my geek on? Well, it’s related to my love of fantasy. I’ve always associated nature with fantasy, I’ve always felt really close to the things that I’ve always imagined when I’m in the woods or a garden. Not a weed-killed, overly fertilized, bark-mulched garden, but a natural-ish, native flowery, bird-and-bee attracting garden. It’s easy to imagine that the birds and bees are fairy friends, and that there is always something just out of sight, in the corner of my sight, but never quite “there.”

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors
Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

There is also the science aspect of gardening. What plants grow in the shade versus in the sun? Which plants like each other? Which plants will kill each other? How much water do these need? What animals will they attract? What type of soil would work the best for them?

And then, of course, there is the artistic aspect of things. Should each garden have a theme? Or should things just run wild? What types of stones or statues should go there? What colors should be there?

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors
Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

There are no right or wrong answers to most of these questions. Even the ones that seem obvious, like should this plant be in the sun or shade, have variables. A full sun plant can be in a somewhat shady spot, but might be smaller. A shady plant can go in a sunny spot if you water it enough. The possibilities for gardens are endless, and you can have a garden of any shape or size, even in something as small as a shoe box.

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors
Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

So stay tuned! I’m going to try to post a new article in this series regularly as my gardens progress through the seasons and as I “finish” each one over the summer. Next up: Gnomes!

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors


DIY Vermicomposting III: Harvesting the Poop

Harvesting worm castings can provide nutritious, organic material for your garden. I harvest worm castings approximately every 90 days and can yield 1-2 quarts of vermicompost. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Harvesting worm castings can provide nutritious, organic material for your garden. I harvest worm castings approximately every 90 days and can yield 1-2 quarts of vermicompost. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

If you have your worms happily buzzing in your homemade worm bin, and you’re seeing some happy worms through signs of their reproduction, after about 3 months, you might be ready to harvest some of the worm castings for your garden. After all, this is the point of the exercise.

Vermicompost is the end result of all of those worms processing through your kitchen scraps, shredded paper, and other organic material. It resembles plain old dirt, and shouldn’t have an odor. If you have one of those fancier worm bins, harvesting the poop will be quite simple, because the worms will migrate between bins as the food is available. You simply lift out the fully processed tray and work the castings into your garden.

However, with a DIY bin made from a plastic tote, you will have to get your hands dirty. With my bin, I tried to keep the fresh food to one side or the other of the bin, so I could constrain my harvesting.

Some tips for successful harvesting of a DIY worm bin:

  • Spread out lots of newspaper or other floor covering, this could get dirty.
  • Have a shop light or other kind of portable light handy, this will help keep the worms together for easier harvesting. If you don’t have a light such as this handy, you can work in a brightly lit room, or even outside. Be careful working outside, the worms can dry out quickly.
  • Make sure you have enough time to complete this task from start to finish. I needed about 60 minutes of focused work to do my own bin. You can’t walk away and leave the worms out for too long. They’ll stay in a ball and that’s stressful for them. Remember, happy worms make more worms.
  • A plastic boot tray or shallow plastic bin (such as an under-bed bin) lid is perfect for the picking and sorting tasks.
  • Have small buckets available for the worm castings. Preferably with a lid. If you’re harvesting in the off-season, the castings will keep till spring/summer.
  • Want to do it like the professionals? Get a sifting screen!

Worm Poop Harvesting Steps

Set up the light on one side, and dump the contents of the worm bin onto the tray. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Set up the light on one side, and dump the contents of the worm bin onto the tray. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
  • Remove the large food debris and clumps of unprocessed shredded paper first.
  • Dump the processed contents of the worm bin onto your tray. Feel free to put the large pieces of food and clumps of shredded paper right back into the bin. The worms will join back soon.
  • Have the light on one side. This will force the worms to the opposite side of the pile of castings.
  • Start picking through the castings, trying to pull out as many worms as possible. I would get baseball-sized handfuls at a time. After pulling out as many worms as possible, the clump went into the harvest buckets.
  • Loose worms can go back into the worm bin with the large pieces of food and clumps of shredded paper
  • The majority of worms will be working their way away from the edges of the pile of castings, towards the center of the pile. Continue to pull clumps of relatively worm-free castings into your collection bucket.

In time, you’ll end up with a pile of worms with just a little bit of castings left.

The end result after filling two buckets with castings. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The end result after filling two buckets with castings. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

You’ve done a great job! You can certainly toss this pile back into the worm bin and call it a day.

However, if you’re really ambitious, continue to pick out castings until you have nothing left but the worms.

MMM....worms.... Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
MMM….worms…. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The worms can go back into the bin, and you can go back to keeping up with feeding them and keeping the bin moist.

As for the buckets of castings, you can cover the containers and keep them in a dark place until needed. If you have some stray worms in the castings, it will continue to break down what you already have. Or you can add it to your garden right away. Mix it into the top couple inches of your garden soil for a great organic fertilizer.

Happy Vermicomposting!

Seed Science

Image By Rebecca Angel.

Science is about questions, getting dirty, observing, discovering, and having more questions. For many of us taught in traditional schools, science “lab” was about following directions and if you didn’t get the correct result, you were wrong. That is a great way to kill anyone’s curiosity or love of true science. Don’t let that happen with your kids!

Your child’s education may include a fantastic science program or not, but you can always do fun things as a family. It’s spring (it may not feel like it, depending on where you live, but technically…) and that means planning a garden. I’m no green thumb. That’s my husband, but the kids and I are involved throughout the growing season.

This year, my son (15) decided on a science project that involved growing seeds. He wondered about chamomile tea and if it was good for plants. Some websites said yes, but were really vague. He decided to do his own study.

We went to the garden store and spent a minimal amount of money on basil seeds (because they can be transplanted in our garden or grown inside in pots afterwards. And I like basil!), potting soil, and a few containers.

Next he planted the seeds in three groups:

1. Potting soil that will have plain water every day.

2. Potting soil that will have brewed (and cooled) chamomile tea every day.

3. Potting soil mixed with chamomile that will have plain water every day.

Originally, he only had groups 2 and 3, which led to a discussion on why you want a “control” in your study.

It’s been a couple of weeks and they are just starting to sprout. Guess what he’s found out so far? Light is far more important than anything else he’s doing. The seedlings closest to his light source are doing the best. Does that mean his experiment isn’t good? Not at all! He’s learning that there may be other factors that affect his outcome. This will lead to a better experiment next time. And that’s real science learning.

For your own experiment, let your child look through your spice or tea cabinet and choose something they think will help or hurt plants. Let them plant some seeds and take care of them. Will they spill dirt, take up space in your house, and need reminding about watering? Probably. But science isn’t neat and helping them succeed is worth the inconvenience.

Remember: Success is simply completing the experiment, regardless of the outcome. Look at the results together and chat about what worked in their design and what would make a clearer result next time. You don’t have to be a scientist yourself to have a conversation about it—just be curious and observant.

 Here is a lot of good information on what seeds need and how to plant them. And here’s a video on seed starting:

What are other easy seed experiments you have done (or want to do)?

Fund This: Feed Your Inner Gardening Geek With the Nourishmat

The Nourishmat is a reusable mat that can grow vegetables, herbs, and flowers in small spaces with minimal time and effort. Image: Nourishmat.

Welcome to another edition of Fund This, GeekMom’s bi-weekly series that focuses on places to invest some of your hard-earned cash. We are looking to highlight a few of the most interesting projects on crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and many more. Ready to make someone’s dream a reality?

I don’t know about you, but every year, I have green dreams of a grand garden. Then, there are problems. If I’m lucky, I end up with one good plant—two, if I really work at it. The rest of my efforts either never make it to the outside or end up dying within the first week. The Nourishmat turns that one good plant into a lot of little plants.

That’s because the Nourishmat can grow 19 herb, flower, and vegetable plants, all on one 4-by-6-foot mat. Everything is sectioned out and the kit comes with 82 pre-planted seedballs, which should yield tomatoes, cilantro, carrots, kale, and so much more. It’s like growing an entire salad in one spot.

Build yourself an Hominosaur buddy. Image: Tinysaur.

Perfect for those with minimal space and/or gardening skills, the Nourishmat even has the option for built-in irrigation, so you never have to worry about watering. It’s scalable, reusable, and pretty wonderful overall.

However, it takes a bit of green to make the Nourishmat grow and flourish. That’s why the company is seeking $70,000 via Kickstarter. To get in on this unique gardening community, you’ll need to pledge a minimum of $89, which will reserve you one basic Nourishmat. If you’re looking for something smaller, there’s also the Herbmat, which houses a mix of eight annual, bi-annual, and perennial plants. Take a peek at the options on Nourishmat’s campaign page, which is live through Wednesday, July 31, 2013.

If you’re looking for a little something to proudly display on the mantle, try checking out Tinysaur. This company has a ton of teeny models, most of which are dinosaurs. Herbert Hoover has been building these small-scale kits for some time. Now, he’s looking to give the people what they want, and apparently, they want something called the Hominosaur.

Better known as Tinysaur: The Tiny Human Skeleton, this kit will allow crafty types to build a skeleton that’s two inches tall when assembled.

When trying to fund the product, Hoover decided upon a Kickstarter goal to match his tiny product line: $1,000. At last peek, he had tripled those funds. That could have something to do with the perks, which include dinosaurs, display cases, and extra heads. All of the money collected will go to production, packaging, and shipping. That said, there’s still time to snag your own model mini-me, since he will be taking pledges through Sunday, August 4.

Eat Like a Geek: Pesto Five Ways

My own pot of basil. Image by Natania Barron

As summer comes to a close, the hot weather and humid temperatures mean that basil goes crazy. We grew ours from seed this year, and what started out as little tiny sprigs of fragrant smelling leaves are now threatening to take over the entire herb pot. Here in North Carolina, the weather is ideal. And while I won’t go all Isabella and her pot of basil on you, I will say that basil happens to be one of my favorite herbs in the world. I adore it. And the best way to keep basil tasty for a while, I’ve found, is pesto. If you can make a jar of pesto, you’ve got concentrated flavor and dozens of options.

So in lieu of a detailed recipe, I give you five recipe boosters and some fun facts about basil.

Whatever pesto recipe you use, it’s typically a combination of basil, oil, garlic, cheese (like Romano or Parmesan) and salt and pepper to taste. I like Jamie Oliver’s recipe but I use walnuts instead of pinoli (pine nuts) nuts because they’re much cheaper (I also adhere to his school of measurement–you know, “a handful” being my language).

Got your pesto? Good. Now, you have no excuse. Here’s five simple recipes. Continue reading Eat Like a Geek: Pesto Five Ways

The USDA’s New Plant Hardiness Zone Map – Evidence of Climate Change?

The new USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map is more detailed than ever before, and through the USDA’s website, users can click to county-by-county higher-resolution maps. Image from

Just in time for you to order your plants and seeds for this growing season!

This month the U.S. Department of Agriculture publicized their new plant hardiness zone map.  This is the first update to the map since 1990, but thanks to incredible technological advances in weather measurements since then, users can expect a much higher resolution and more accurate product.  Click through to check out the map’s interactive features!

Stick to native plants and your local ecosystem will thank you. GeekMom Kathy uses her stalks of corn to allow beans to climb. Photo by Kathy Ceceri, used with permission.

Calculating the hardiness zones isn’t rocket science.  The zone is based on the average lowest temperature range a particular area reaches.  This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the coldest it’s ever been.  Unlike past maps that used average minimum temperatures from the past 13 years, this time the map is averaging the past 30 years.  In addition, with more temperature measurement capabilities than ever before, users can expect more detailed data, with more refined delineations between zones, particularly along coastlines and near significant changes in elevation.

This map also introduces two new zones, 12 and 13, which are expressly for tropical and sub-tropical regions (namely, the Hawaii and Puerto Rico areas of the map).

On average, most of the U.S. has shifted by one-half zone on the warmer side.  Does this mean climate change is forthcoming?  Well, don’t base your conclusions on this map; there isn’t enough data.  The USDA wants to make it clear that their map is not indicative of climate change:

“Climate changes are usually based on trends in overall average temperatures recorded over 50-100 years. Because the USDA PHZM represents 30-year averages of what are essentially extreme weather events (the coldest temperature of the year), changes in zones are not reliable evidence of whether there has been global warming.

The new (map) is generally one half-zone warmer than the previous (map) throughout much of the United States, as a result of a more recent averaging period (1974–1986 vs. 1976–2005). However, some of the changes in the zones are the results of… more sophisticated mapping methods…which has greatly improved accuracy”.

Another thing to keep in mind.  Shifts in these zones will mean growers will be tempted to introduce plants that aren’t native to their homes.  While this may make a great conversation piece in your front yard*, I ask you to exercise extreme caution (and fellow GeekMom Laura wants to caution you also).  Native plants are best for your home landscaping.  Introducing new plants can introduce imbalances in local ecosystems.

*This statement is coming from a girl who lives in a rental house decked out in front with Chinese fringe flower shrubs and hibiscus plants.

In Praise of Sunflowers

Photo of the last sunflowers
I kept the last sunflowers of the season, even the droopy ones, because I wasn't quite ready to let this lovely sign of summer go.

Sunflowers grow so easily where I live that the plants volunteer every year where the parents dropped their seeds the summer before. The variety in my garden springs up eight to ten feet with leaves bigger than my hands. They’re very dramatic, and I love them.

But, early in the summer my sunny garden plot was ravaged by a well-intentioned plumber who was rescuing our household from sewer line collapse. Even with the gaping hole and trampling boots, many of my sunflowers survived, most with crazy, bent stalks.

Sunflowers are a symbol of loyalty. I couldn’t give up on them and simply yank out the unruly ones. Even though I knew their regal form was compromised beyond repair, I left the flowers in their trampled state. (My friends and neighbors were far too polite to express how appalled they were by the sight of my poorly groomed garden. I suspect they put up with the mess in exchange for the fresh tomatoes I’ve been handing out like candy.) The finches loved the wild tangle. The squash climbed the sturdy, if bent sunflower stalks.  And we had cut flowers all summer.

In fact, the sunflower heads were more profuse than ever. It’s almost as if getting beat up early in the season made them even more determined to propagate. And true to their namesake, this was one flower that withstood the blistering sun. Despite the two-month drought we suffered, the crop has been bountiful.

Over the last week, now that the weather has finally begun to cool, I’ve been clearing the spent stalks. And I keep finding what I think is the last of the flower heads. The ones pictured here, cut on Sunday, really are the last of the season.  I’m so grateful for the shift in the weather and the turn of the season, but so sad that these are the last of the sunflowers. They always make me smile.

Do my kids care? No. Did they even notice the sunflowers looked different this year? Probably not.

Now that they’re teenagers, busy with their own lives (cross-country, band, homework, bicycles, friends) our garden is no longer a place where they go to learn from me, their geek mom, and the original geek, mother nature.

Our garden is where I go for my own pleasure. It’s my sanctuary.  Mine alone. And there are many times I crave the quiet and the peace.  But as I write this, I realize I’m also sad to be in the garden alone, a place that is really meant for sharing.

You see, once upon a time my kids and I planted seeds together and watered and watched and wondered at every new life that sprang forth. In fact the last of this season’s sunflowers, the ones I’m worshiping today, are descendants of seeds we planted together many sun cycles ago. And every once in a while, when one of my teens finds a moment of pause amidst his or her swirl of activities, I spot them gazing out the glass door at the birds who gather where I’ve set the basket of dried sunflower heads.

We’ve seen the last of this year’s sunflowers. It’s good to know they’ll be back.


12 Smart Ways To Make Healthy Foods Fun

make meals fun, picky eaters, family mealtime, getting kids to eat, healthy mealtime for kids,

You want the little darlings to eat what’s good for them — and like it. You know power plays, bribes, and other control efforts don’t lead to healthful eating habits in the long run. So what’s a parent to do? Here are some great sure-fire options.

Shrink it. Kids tend to appreciate things on a scale that makes them feel larger. Every now and then, let your children eat from tiny dishes. No need for a tea set; you probably have the right sizes in your cupboard. Use the smallest appetizer plate for a dinner plate, a custard cup or ramekin for soup or cereal, and a shot glass or other tiny vessel for milk or juice. Baby forks and spoons are perfect miniature utensils. Smaller dish size automatically scales down portion size, meaning kids will actually have room for second helpings. Encourage them to serve themselves. They can refill glasses using a tiny pitcher, creamer, or even a small measuring cup with a spout. I know teenagers who still think that eating with tiny dishes is a hoot.

making healthy eating fun, picky eaters, getting kids to eat,


Focus on companionship. When eating is about companionship, it builds positive associations between healthy food and togetherness. Relaxed conversation also de-emphasizes who eats how much of what. Kids who eat family meals regularly tend to have better dietary behavior as teens. And family discussions also boost brainpower.

better family meals, children healthy eating,
CC BY-SA 3.0 WellspringCS Flickr

Offer fruits and veggies for the first course. This is one way to take advantage of hunger to develop lean eating habits. Fruits and veggies are brimming with nutrients but low in calories, so a first course of produce makes sense. Plus, studies show that this method spurs kids to eat more veggies during the meal as well. Try offering different fruits and veggies while you’re cooking, or whenever appetite hits. Liven it up on occasion with a variety of dips and spreads.

raise healthy eaters, getting kids to eat well,

Continue reading 12 Smart Ways To Make Healthy Foods Fun

Crocus Sighting: Happy Vernal Equinox

photo of crocus
Crocus spotted on the University of Chicago campus.

The calendar and the position of the earth in its orbit around the sun mark the official start to the season. There are other signs, too. When the ice melts, the last spit of snow comes and goes, and the garden center opens, it’s impossible to ignore the first stirrings of spring.

Sometime last week I saw a friend’s Facebook status: “crocus sighting!” What a thrill to read. So, of course, I started looking for mine. We used to have a few purple crocus near our front door, but I haven’t seen them this year. ACK! I’m guessing that when we built a new limestone garden wall the crocus bulbs got trampled beyond recovery.

photo of uprooted iris
Oops. One young iris bulb got uprooted by accident while one of my kids dutifully raked winter debris away from the garden wall.

Thankfully, other flowers are on their way. Here in Zone 5 the hyacinth and iris are making some effort, and I expect a show of color from them in the next couple of weeks.

Last week Patricia Vollmer made me envious, in a good way, with her gardening post, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”. She and her family put together a fairly ambitious container garden and made it look fun and easy.

Not everyone lives in a climate zone where we can put in vegetables now, but it’s certainly time to dream and plan. So far, most of my planning has been structural: build a cold frame and lay out loose pavers between beds.  We’ll see how far I get this weekend.

Even if you are an urban dweller, have less than ideal space, or feel like you have a black thumb, there are gardening strategies that are completely doable. Gentle inspiration can be found at You Grow Girl. Gayla Trail forced a beautiful iris danfordiae to bloom a few weeks early by potting bulbs in a south-facing window. You Grow Girl also has useful resources, like seed germination guidelines.

I can already taste the tomatoes. Here’s to new beginnings. Happy vernal equinox!