While harvesting some kale this morning, this little guy hopped off of one of my leaves. If you’re a little squeamish of critters, keep in mind that tree frogs like these help eat aphids and other bugs that want to munch on your plants.
We also have green anoles (a type of small lizard) here in Zone 7 near Atlanta, Georgia. We used to spray 15 years ago and I noticed the anoles disappeared — we took away their food source!
Since then I have come to understand that these critters keep a balance to nature and show a healthy eco system is in place. Plus, my kids love to catch them! What helpers have you found in your garden?
April is “Gardening with Kids Month” where the industry focuses on encouraging young people to learn more about growing food at home. I wanted to join in on this topic, because I feel it’s so important to teach the next generation about how to grow food. And here’s the best part — you don’t have to know everything about growing food to do it. It’s fun to learn together! If you’re interested in gardening with your children, hopefully our story will inspire you in your journey…
A little bit about my background and knowing a little something about gardening with kids…
As some of you might know, I am a mother to five (5) amazing souls — I am blessed, despite battling PCOS, to have identical twin sons who are now 20 years old, another son who is 16, another son who is 11, and a daughter who is now 8 years old.
When my twins were going into 5th grade, my husband and I felt led to homeschool our three boys (our other two littles had not yet been born.) I left a good paying career in marketing to dive into something totally foreign to me… educating my own children. I felt strongly that I only had my children for a season and I didn’t want to be so distracted with wealth-building that I missed the greatest wealth right in my arms — my children.
Thinking back on that time period, I was very involved in our sons’ education. I volunteered at their school and knew the Principal by name. I knew our sons had a lot of potential, but they were struggling in an environment where they were expected to sit at a desk all… day… l-o-n-g. We hit a breaking point, when I learned one day my son had not been out to recess in over a month, I was not only livid, but I knew that to continue doing the same thing and not getting the results you wanted was not the answer. I remember at the time that I got together with a small group of moms from our church to scrapbook each month and it just so happened that when we met that evening at my house that it coincided with learning my son hadn’t had any time to move his body and play at school for over a month. There was this mama in our group that had homeschooled one of her two children that asked, “Erin, have you considered homeschooling your boys?” Gasp! No! Who does that?
Slowly my friend began to share and open my eyes to the possibilities with homeschooling and she eventually took me to a homeschool expo that totally blew me away. There was so much I could do with my boys as far as teaching them that I was overwhelmed with the possibilities. Here I was, a college educated fully-capable woman who thought only trained “professionals” (aka: government school teachers) were equipped to teach children. How blinded I was by my own biases. It was one day while driving down the road when one of our boys in the back seat of our SUV dropped a swear word that my husband and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, “We’re homeschooling.” It was becoming more and more evident that their environment was impacting them more at school that our efforts were at home.
Taking the leap to homeschool felt like I was jumping off a high cliff into a deep pool of water, but looking back over these past decade of living life in this way IT IS THE BEST DECISION I’VE EVER MADE. My children went from doing life in silos, to doing life together. We focused on developing character and growing in relationships just as much as reading, writing and arithmetic. But alas, I digress. Back to how we used gardening to grow our children…
When I began to teach our sons, I saw first-hand what their teachers had complained about — the high distractibility and the difficulty focusing on tasks for any length of time. Even I was a bit surprised at how hard it was for them to get through a subject. Here I was taking out of school because they didn’t fit the mould and at home, I was just making it look like what they came out of doing because that was what was familiar to me. Doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results is akin to insanity, so this SANE mama gave herself permission to step outside the box, society had placed us in and begin to do what was best for my children even if it looked different than what the government school was doing. So I began to deep dive in to figure out how my sons best learned as individuals with the aim to change them from fidgety fifth graders to fantastic focused learners!
At the time, I had joined a homeschool group where one of the moms offered a Classical Education / Charlotte Mason group out of her home where Mom’s met once every couple of weeks on a Saturday to discuss the book, “The Well-Trained Mind” by Susan Wise-Bauer and Jessie Wise. [Get on Amazon]. One of the big take-aways from those wonderful group of mamas with a heart for their children was to simply get children outdoors. And this ended up be the perfect place for me to start with my active young sons.
Tap your child’s natural curiosity and imagination through exploring the outdoors
So one of the big take-aways this Charlotte Mason / Classical Education type group focused on was our ability as a parent to tap into the natural curiosity of our child / children and the outdoors is the PERFECT place to spark the imagination and wonder of a child. One of the ways we can do this is through nature walks. Prior to going on our nature walk (aka hike), we would equip our children with a task to find one object that was simply interesting to them. They were only to collect one item, nothing more. Of course, the beauty of this was it didn’t have to be limited to a hike — in fact, when I had a newborn in my arms, I would send the boys out into our fenced back yard for a certain length of time with instructions to bring back something that caught their eye as interesting. Sometimes it was an oddly colored or shaped rock. Maybe it was a leaf. Or a bug. Or moss and a uniquely shaped branch. Or some other type of critter like a skink. The goal of the exercise was simple — get them out from behind a desk and get their body moving and their eyes open to the world around them.
Something amazing happened. They were able to come in and sit down and stay focused on their task. I was a believer in this learning method. We had found something that worked!
I would call them in and we would set on the back deck or at the kitchen table and discuss as a family what they had found. This helped their linguistics and built confidence talking about what they thought and gave me insight into what they found to be interesting. One son loved moss (interestingly he ended up having a moss garden as a teen) and another son liked a frog (which totally Next, I had a simple set (like 7 colors) of water colors and brushes with water in solo cups for each child and a small 6 x 6 piece of blank water color paper. The instructions were simple… paint what you see. And the most important part — I did it with them. You might be wondering, Erin, why didn’t you have them use a sketch pad and sketch paper? Well, in using water colors, a child learns how different colors interact with each other. They learn how colors can blend and layer upon one another for a certain affect. They learn how to pay attention to detail — to not only the color hue of whatever object they are examining, but even down to how the light hits that object and creates a shadow. It was okay if it wasn’t perfect. We weren’t aiming for perfection — we were simply observing and trying to communicate visually what we saw and orally what we had observed. The two step process of letting them move their bodies, find what is fascinating to them, and then slowing down and paying attention to detail showed me that my children could indeed focus. Without any drugs. Without missing any recess. And learning about the amazing world right out our back and front doors.
Understanding how a child learns and helping them make connections is key
And the beauty of this ‘learning method”, if you will, is you are using both sides of the child’s brain. Very young children in particular are very right-brain hemisphere dominant, especially during their first three years of life. According to the book “The Whole Brained Child: Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” by M.D. Siegel and Ph.D., Bryson, you want to encourage cross-brain learning functions whenever possible. [Get the book] They write, “We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way. For example, we want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work well with their right-brain emotion. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of their brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions, and survival. … What molds our brain? Experience.”
We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way. For example, we want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work well with their right-brain emotion. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of their brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions, and survival. … What molds our brain? Experience.”
When using watercolors and painting, you are tapping right brain creativity, but in giving them the task of looking and remembering detail, you are tapping left brain logic. If you have a child that asks “why” all the time (I remember my mother getting exasperated with me at one point because I was this kind of child), know it’s their left-brain wanted to know the linear cause-effect relationship in the world and to express that logic through language. It is a blessing to have a “why” asking child as they are wanting to make connections and learn!
Siegel and Bryson I think would agree with this outdoor Charlotte Mason / classical education method of learning for they write, “…children whose parents talk with them about their experiences tend to have better access to the memories of those experiences.” So, getting in the habit of engaging a child by focusing on the world outside your front or back door is key in engaging and inspiring these kinds of conversations. What I found over time is when they were older, they were able to have some very grown-up conversations with adults to discuss their experiences and relate to people in a way their peers didn’t seem to be doing. In their high school years, I also saw a richness to what they wrote about as they drew from these memories and made connections to the world around them on a bigger scheme. My middle 16 year old son, who was given time outside from first grade on to explore his world continues to BLOW ME AWAY at times with the connections he makes with literature and history right now as a homeschooling Junior in high school. And he writes poetry for fun… again… I’m blown away by him and his creative mind that taps into the logic of what he is perceiving about the world around him.
Children will watch what you do and follow your lead
I know what I’ve mentioned here is not specific to gardening, but as we were doing every day life, this kind of learning was adapted to what I was doing — growing food. For example one day, my son, Joshua, noticed me saving some seed from some fruit I had processed from the grocery store. I would set these seeds on a tray in the corner of my kitchen to dry and save. Soon, I noticed my seeds were being added to by someone else in the family. Other seeds being added to my drying area. Come to find out, Joshua had taken notice of my actions and he was inspired. He saved seeds I would have never tackled! I remember he saved a mango seed one time and actually grew it into a tree! (It was doing great until it was left outside on a cold night [sad face]). Today, Joshua has graduated for Seed Saving School from the Seed Savers Exchange and is a great help in isolating, pollinating, collecting and processing seed for our Grow Your Health Gardening Seed Co.
Involve your children in what you’re learning or curious about
If your children see you learning and inquisitive, they will see that learning isn’t limited to school — learning is for adults, too — it’s an attitude. And a mind that continually learns is a good thing. I didn’t want to only teach my children reading, writing and arithmetic and science — I wanted them to learn how to learn. I knew if they had the skills to find the information they didn’t know, they could learn anything whether I was there or not. And I had the honor and priviledge of being that example to them from a very young age.
If your children see you learning and inquisitive, they will see that learning isn’t limited to school — learning is for adults, too — it’s an attitude.
—Erin Castillo, Grow Your Health Gardening
When my twins were about 8th and 9th grade, I began to really get intrigued by this idea of hydroponics. I was tired of fighting the Georgia clay soil. I would amend it and invariably it was never enough, because the very next season it always returned to clay. And then I fought the weeds. Oh the weeds! As a busy mom of five at this point, I didn’t have the band-width to be out watering the garden and weeding day in and day out. I was doing good just to feed them three square meals a day and get their lessons done. There just wasn’t enough of me to go around it seemed and so our little gardening patch suffered as a result. But I missed growing food and I was determined to find an easier solution. So, when I say I dove in to learning more about hydroponics, I mean a full-head-long plunge. I watched videos, read articles, purchased books, attended workshops. I immersed myself in learning whatever I could find on the subject online and from the library, new books and old books. (Even still today I listen to podcasts and read to learn more.)
There was a YouTube video by a gentleman that particularly caught my eye. He was growing tomatoes in bato-buckets. It was a gravity fed circular system and it fascinated me. I was astounded at how simple the system was while getting seemingly high production out of the plants he was growing. I wanted to see if what he was claiming was true, so I talked my husband into helping me and the boys build a simple system. As part of their High School Biology class, I incorporated some botany since they were studying the differences between plant cells and animal cells. I had the older boys track the pH levels and PPM levels using some meters I had picked up from the hydroponics store in Atlanta. I was amazed at how the tomatoes thrived and the parsley and basil flourished! And I didn’t have to weed or water a single thing! I just had to make sure my reservoir was full and nutrients and pH were in range every couple of days or so during the hottest days of the season. We had tomatoes and herbs growing until our first snow that year! I was impressed! I was hooked!
We didn’t just stop at the hydroponics for learning… we dove in and even did other types of labs. For example, we did one on how different pots affected root growth through air pruning. In this exercise, our sons learned that roots need oxygen to grow and how air pruning will strengthen a plant through encouraging lateral root development. The more roots your plant has, the more it can uptake nutrients you offer it whether in soil or in a hydroponic/aeroponic system.
The rest is history as some would say… we have explored all sorts of growing systems using water including aquaponics, the Aerogardens, and my go-to-favorite, the vertical garden growing system the Tower Garden (full disclosure, I am a Rep as well because I love it so muchand I want Mama’s to succeed in growing healthy food for their family!) Since this all began, I now hold certifications in hydroponics, aquaponics, seed starting, a graduate from the SSE Seed School and more. Joshua (the son who was and still is a seed saver) can now take any orchid and rescue it, bringing it back to it’s intended beauty. And, as far as I know, he is also the youngest to become a Master Gardener in our county.
And the learning hasn’t stopped with just my sons as they’ve graduated from High School and have moved on to other things. My younger children keep me going. One recent example has come out of a book I read which made me want to get better at growing flowers in my garden. I began to follow a gardener from Virginia (also in zone 7, so similar growing conditions to where I live in Atlanta, GA), Lisa Mason-Ziegler. I picked up her book “Vegetables Love Flowers: Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty“. In this book, she talks about how important the flowers are to the food bearing plants in the garden — not simply for pollination, but for bringing in natural predators and balancing the ecosystem. I would play her Facebook live events while I worked on my own seed starting. There’s always something new you can learn…
Be watchful of what delights your child and then be purposeful…
It was around this time-frame where I was listening to Lisa and working in the garden that my then 7-year-old daughter ran up to me with a clutch-full of Dandelions and wild Violets. Then a thought fluttered through my mind… she loved flowers so much that she brought them to me to share her joy in them. How could I join her in that?If I could combine that desire to pick flowers she had with my desire to grow more flowers … and that led to growing two flower beds last season of sunflowers and zinnias. My husband financially backed my hair-brained idea and generously gave me some sunflower seeds and kits from Lisa Ziegler’s shop for Mother’s Day. I was so tickled to dive right in and do this project with my daughter.
Throughout the growing season, she learned so much about how plants grow and what flowers needed after they were picked to extend their vase life. We even learned how you can use lemon basil or cinnamon basil as filler in your arrangement and it makes it smell divine! My favorite part was when we would go out to pick flowers together she would be stripping off lower leaves and say, “Mom, thank you so much for helping me plant a flower garden.” Kid you not — this is forever engrained in my mind as a special moment we would share. And she didn’t just say it once, but multiple times throughout the season. I knew we were onto something that was working!
In looking back on last season, I think it also gave her something a little bit different than what I was doing (growing food) that she could make her own. It was HER flower patch to pick from anytime she wanted. She may not understand for a long while that I was intentional about all that, but that’s okay. The spark of learning about flower growing has been lit and my job is to fan the flames of learning and supporting that interest. She and I both find great delight not only in bringing bouquets in to our home and making our home environment beautiful, but also sharing with neighbors and those who need encouragement.
As I write this, in our upcoming growing season she is growing more cool season annuals. What’s more, she is dreaming and talking about one day owning a flower and gift shop. Will she do that? I hope so… I love the idea of encouraging entrepreneurship, but what I love more is she is learning about how plants grow and finding joy in the journey. She is learning through gardening. And the best part is, I am blessed to get to do that right along side her. We grow in relationship as mother and daughter doing something we both love — she can be mimicking my example of growing plants, but make it her own by it being her own little patch to nurture and enjoy.
Like Siegel and Bryson mentions in their book, “Spending time with family and friends and learning about relationships, especially with face-to-face interactions, will wire it in yet other ways. Everything that happens to us affects the way the brain develops…This wire-and-rewire process is what integration is all about: giving our children experiences to create connections between different parts of the brain. When these parts collaborate, they create and reinforce the integrative fibers that link difference parts of the brain.”
—Siegel and Bryson “The Whole-Brain Child: Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind
Here’s the main thread through all these years with my children… we had fun growing in relationship with each other and learning about the world we live in along the way. My children are more connected to where their food comes from and why they should eat those greens I put on their plate, because we have reached out the world outside our front door and have brought it into our lives. They have learned a life skill in how to grow food — they can be independent and self-sufficient in a world with a burdened food system where people rely on large scale agricultural farming practices. When Covid hit and grocery stores were bare, we had food growing and didn’t feel fearful. We felt empowered. They have developed some great character traits in patience and now understand the work that went into the food that is on their plate making them more appreciative of others and our hard-working farmers. These are just some of the great things gardening has brought to our family and I’m only getting started…
I’ll stop there for now, because there’s more I’d like to share about teaching children to grow their own food, but hopefully that will give you an idea of a little bit of our journey as a family and how I approach involving children in the garden… more to come… but for now the garden calls me with our 2021 seed season ramping up. (My children are finished with their math and ready for a break so we are all headed outside for a bit.) Let me know if you have learned something through gardening with your child in the comments below. I love to hear from you!
Chat with you again soon…
PS: A special thank you to my help mate and best friend — my husband, who has supported me every step of the way. Love you.
Erin Castillo is a certified hydroponic grower, small-scale farmer outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and owner of Grow Your Health Gardening Seed Co.. She loves to share her passion for helping others grow healthier lives through connecting with people she loves while also growing nutritious food.
We are delighted to share the screening of the newly released documentary, “The Seeds of Vandana Shiva” by Camila and Jim Becket. Watch the short trailer below to learn more about the importance of seeds and why it’s important of who owns rights to seeds.
“Food is a weapon. When you sell real weapons you control armies. When you control food you control society. But, when you control seed, you control life on earth.”
— Vandana Shiva, Activist and one of the pioneers of the Global Seed Movement
Same variety (Cherokee Purple), but the two on the left and right are soil-based seed. Our hydroponic seed is in the middle. We think there’s not only DNA Epigenetic differences that you can’t see, but also a noticeable visual difference.
Tomato World Guinness Record holder, Charles Wilber, talks about the importance of starting with good seed stock. Do you know who grows your seed?
My 20-year-old son, who is also a Master Gardener, has a special interest in orchids. He loves to find an orchid on the sale table at the nursery and restore it back to it’s original vigor. And when his rescued orchid blooms for the first time we all stand in awe of his handiwork.
So, when the Atlanta Botanical Garden announced they would have another Orchid Daze exhibit, he and I had to make a trip to see the Fuqua Conservatory and Orchid Center in all her splendor—and she didn’t disappoint. We took along my littles and our camera to capture some photos to share with y’all, but they all just don’t do the beauty justice.
The Atlanta Botanical Garden touts the largest collection of species orchids on permanent display in the United States. If you love orchids, Atlanta is where you want to go to see rare and amazing finds, offering more than 200 genera and 2,000 species of orchids — the largest and most diverse plant family in the world.
Which one is your favorite? I can’t pick just one!
Did you know? The Atlanta Botanical Garden is home to one of the largest orchid collections at any public garden in the world!
It turns out that we have some Irish in our lineage (about 20% they say), so as one of my oldest sons played his bag pipe I thought to myself… hey! We should offer a 20% off sale on our seeds in honor of our Irish heritage and the work that St. Patrick did to influence his world for the better those many years ago!
This time of year, many a gardener will begin breaking out their seeds from storage and gather up their recent purchases in preparation for the upcoming growing season. With earnest, one cell tray or by one rock wool at a time, life will begin inside the gardener’s abode, protected from the cold weather outside.
Seed starting, used to be an annual event for me until I realized the importance of succession planting. If I wanted to have a continual supply of greens or move from one season to the next seamlessly, a little bit of planning was all I needed to do the trick.
If I was going to do succession planting, I needed to make it part of my everyday planting and tending tasks (even if all it means is a quick glance to check moisture levels or that your “babies” (as I affectionately call them) are growing as they should was the only task that day.) And as an everyday task, it needed to be part of my environment. The end result to succession planting throughout the year? A seed starting station.
If you’re only planting seeds one time a year, I encourage you to read on and challenge yourself to look at seed starting in a whole new light (pun intended). We want to set you up for success for the ENTIRE growing season ahead!
What is a Seed Starting Station?
Okay, I’m probably being “Captain Obvious” here, but a Seed Starting Station contains everything you need to start seeds. If I may recommend a few tips as you consider setting up your own Seed Starting Station:Your Seed Starting Station needs to be in a location where you walk by it at least once a day; two times or more a day is even better. Why? Seedlings need nurturing. Watching that they have proper light, temperature, moisture, and humidity levels are all key to successful strong seed starts.
Your Seed Starting Station need to have the proper temperature.
Temperatures do matter with germination and each seed / plant has different temps they prefer to germinate at and a “sweet spot” temperature range. For example, warm season plants typically prefer to germinate at temps above 65ºF. On the flip side, cool season plants, typically prefer to germinate at cooler temps. Spinach, for example, can be started in a container between two wet paper towel sheets in the refrigerator and after about 7-10 days you’ll see the root emerge. At this point, you can move it into soil or a wet rock wool and allow it to continue to grow into a young seedlings under bright light while maintaining high 60º-low 70ºF temps.
Seed heat mats can be a great tool for warming soil or rock wool when you set a tray on it. Just be careful to not overheat the young seeds. A thermostat on your heat mat can keep it in the proper range. Below is a quick cheat sheet for common veggies of optimal temperatures seeds typically germinate at:
Optimum Range (F)
Source: PennState Extension. Adapted from Kemble and Musgrove (2006) (Soil temperatures should be taken by inserting a soil thermometer 3-4 inches deep into the soil surface and noting temperature.
Your Seed Starting Station Needs Bright Light
Seedlings need a lot of light once they emerge — a nice bright strong light. If you don’t have a green house that can be temperature controlled for heat and cool air, you will need to grow your seedlings indoors. That means you will need artificial lighting intended for growing plants. Lighting could get real technical quick, so I’m going to try to keep it simple. When it comes to lighting and seed starting you need to keep three things in mind to make adjustments as needed to ultimately save money on seeds:
INTENSITY: You need to have enough lighting. • LED bars: 8–10 inches apart from each other • T5 fluorescents: 4–5 inches apart from each other
COVERAGE: You need to place lighting in the sweet spot — not too far from seedlings. • LED bars (like Phillips): 8–12 inches away from seedlings • T5 fluorescents: 5–6 inches away from seedlings
DURATION: You need to leave lights on long enough. 14-18 hrs a day
Your light needs to be bright (this is like the one we use) and you need to have a way to adjust the light so that it is the correct distance from the seedling. And if you’re planting into a hydroponic growing system where your seedling will mature into an adult plant, you’ll want lights that can be adjusted distance-wise from the plant (closer when they are young and further away about 8″-10″ when they are older). If you’re using a Tower Garden HOME or Tower Garden FLEX, these are the lights you will want to invest in as they can be adjusted from the plant as it grows and they have a built in timer making it easy to set it and go about your life never having to worry about the lights turning on and off again.
Don’t rely on a window with sun coming in as it will make your seedlings “leggy” where they stretch for the light and ultimately that makes them weaker plants as they mature. Today’s windows have a UV rating which actually blocks the essential UV light that seedlings crave. The window is designed to protect your home interior textiles such as the furniture, drapes, and carpet from fading — it is not taking into account seed germination needs at all.
Some love to say “You can just start your seedlings in your Tower Garden — I do it all the time.” A couple of cautionary words are needed when you hear or read this advice posted in social media groups. Simply, don’t do it. Seedlings started in this manner often become leggy and are overall weaker plants when they mature. Secondly, you can “burn” your tender seedling with high levels of nutrients that other mature plants may be getting within your growing system, as seedlings don’t require as much nutrients when they are teeny tiny. Remember to, instead, start your seedlings off strong in a Seed Starting Station under bright grow lights. Look for a light that has all the color spectrum of the sun and avoid cheap $20-$30 grow lights as they are just not strong enough for seedlings to thrive. We recommend a grow light like this that has a full-spectrum. A decent grow light for seedlings will cost between $60-$100. I’ve also used my Aerogarden Harvest as a light for seedlings when I don’t have anything growing in the ports.
You’ll want to keep a quick reference to the needs of different seeds.
Not all seeds need darkness or to be covered to begin the germination process. Some require light to germinate like lettuce. Some need to be scarified (slightly chipped) or go through a cold period before they will germinate. We recommend printing off our Seeds That Require Special Treatment Reference Chart and laminating it or sticking it in a 3-ring binder sheet protector to use as a quick reference (or just bookmark our reference page and come back to it as you need to).
Your Seed Station needs to have supplies relating to starting seeds and nurturing stored nearby
Here’s a list of some common supplies I use for soil and a list for common supplies I use for hydroponics.
Soil: • Seed starting tray cells, recycled containers that can be repurposed as small pots, or small paper pots • potting mix or screened peat moss • worm castings (to mix into your potting mix) (Note: don’t purchase and ship during hot months as temps of 85ºF in shipment will begin to kill beneficial bacteria in castings.) • access to a water source and/or some sort of watering can to “water in” seeds • seeds you intend to plant (those that are not in the freezer) • plant tags • permanent marker • and a tray to rest your seed starts on and move them easily from under your grow light to outdoors as temps allow. • heat mat with temp gauge • grow light
Now to the best part. Your own personal produce section!
To have a continual harvest, you’ll want to implement a sequential planting system. Pick a day that you are at your leisure (i.e.: Sundays are usually a restful day for most folks) and put a reminder on your calendar to plant at a certain time every week or every two weeks paying attention to your growing conditions (i.e.: indoor, cool season, warm season) and available space.
Let’s say you want to have a continuous supply of Bibb Lettuce. If you have a 28 port Tower Garden, you can plant 4 rock wools with Bibb Lettuce seed making sure to include a couple extra seeds per rock wool of which you’ll thin down as they germinate to the strongest one. You’ll repeat this process, planting several lettuce seeds into a single rock wool cube, filling four cubes total. As shown in the below planting chart, by week 4, your week 1 seedlings will be ready to transfer into your system. With each passing week, you’ll put the four seedlings that are ready from previous week plantings into the next row up of your vertical hydroponic / aeroponic Tower Garden. By week 10, you will have harvested your row 1 Bibb Lettuce (four ports = four heads of bibb lettuce to feed a typical family of four for a week). Once your lower lettuce has been harvested (pulled out of the port), the following week, replace the net pots and wipe down the port entrance with a cotton ball with alcohol on it and put a new clean net pot in it’s place. You are ready to plant the next set of four seedlings in these empty ports. As you continue to harvest up the vertical garden, you will clean each port and then plant the next seedling into it.
Note, if you are growing outdoors, sequential planting will get trickier, because temperature will be a variable. As temps raise towards summer time, bibb lettuce will begin to bolt (or go to seed) quicker or go limp if it is not a heat tolerant variety. This type of sequential planting works best if growing greens indoors and if the green has a 6-week grow cycle. This could work for Bok Choy and most greens. Consider putting some herbs like chives in the top row… these are cut and come again meaning that once they are a certain height, you can start cutting them 3″-4″ from the base of the plant and they will continue to grow from the center. Keep in mind that at some point, you will need to clean your system and restart the process, but in theory, if growing indoors, plants should continue to grow at a steady rate if you get in the habit of planting enough to fill four ports each week.
BIBB LETTUCE OR BOK CHOY EXAMPLE OF SEQUENTIAL PLANTING SCHEDULE FOR 1 TOWER GARDEN WITH 28 PORTS:
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Trans-plant into Tower Garden…
Week 1 seedlings Btm Row 1 of TG
Week 2 seedlings Btm Row 2 of TG
Week 3 seedlings Btm Row 3 of TG
Week 4 seedlings Row 4 of TG
Copyright 2021 Grow Your Health Gardening
4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Start 4 cubes w/seeds
Week 5 seedlings Row 5 of TG
Week 6 seedlings Row 6 of TG
Week 7 seedlings Row 7 of TG
Week 8 seedlings Row 1 of TG
Week 9 seedlings Row 2 of TG
Week 10 seedlings Row 3 of TG
Week 11 seedlings Row 4 of TG
Harvest off of btm row 1 lettuce
Harvest off of btm row 2 lettuce
Harvest off of btm row 3 lettuce
Harvest off of btm row 4 lettuce
Harvest off of btm row 5 lettuce
Copyright 2021 Grow Your Health Gardening
No matter what you want to grow, evaluate about how long the plant(s) you want to grow take to get to maturity for harvest, calculate when it will be ready for consumption, and enjoy your bounty continuously throughout the season with weekly seed starting in your own personal Seed Starting Station.
Happy Growing! — Erin
PS: Be sure to post your pics of your Seed Starting Station on social media and tag us at #gyhg and maybe you’ll get featured on our Instagram or Facebook channels and get some FREE seeds!
Why you should be growing your own arugula instead of buying from the grocery store or Big-Box Retailer
You know how you go to a fancy restaurant and they bring you your salad course and before they leave your table they offer fresh pepper for your salad and with your permission proceed to grind cracked pepper onto your salad? Think of arugula as your cracked pepper of the salad world.
Why Grow Arugula and How To Use It
I wanted to feature Arugula, because I just don’t think people understand how versatile this plant truly is and that it is beneficial in so many ways. It is chalk-full of beneficial nutrients (which we will cover later in case you wanted to know) while also being low in calories.
It is ideal for new home gardeners in building confidence of gardening skills as it grows quickly from seed (aptly nicknamed “Salad Rocket” in some countries) and can begun to be harvested off of and tossed into salads with other greens when the leaves are still young and small at 2″-3″ in length. (Note: If you leave the center 3-4 leaves, it will continue to produce as a cut-and-come-again plant.) Arugula is often found in the produce aisle in salad greens mix and called “mesclun”.
Mature Full-Grown Leaves and How to Use Them
I as a mother of five know that life can get busy, so if you fall behind on harvesting leaves when small and the plant gets more mature, that’s okay! It will be “spicier” or “peppery” in taste as a mature plant. Take these 6″-8″ long leaves and slice them from tip to base into 1/4″ or thinner strips and sprinkle over your salad or mix in (think of it like your freshly ground peppercorn). Diced leaves can even be added to dishes that call for cilantro or parsley, or mixed into pastas, side dishes, put on top of sandwiches, in wraps and/or added to soups. Its flavor compliments goat cheese, balsamic vinaigrette, tomatoes, olive oil and garlic, making it perfect to blend into dips or spreads.
Arugula can also be added to your basil pesto as added flavor or if you like the peppery flavor, you can substitute arugula in place of basil and make an entire pesto out of arugula leaves. We like this happy medium of a pesto recipe in particular over at PCOSbites. It’s great if you are looking for something that isn’t the same ol’ pesto recipe, but full of nutrients while still tasting delicious. We think of it as the new “elderberry syrup” as an immune-boosting meal for our family.
We also love to add arugula baby leaves to our sun-dried tomato, goat cheese, and pine nut mini pizzas! The kids don’t bat an eye-lash at the greens on their personalized pizzas because these taste so good!
Mature leaves can also be cooked or sautéed much like you would cook collards. With a TBSP of sherry, soy sauce, minced garlic, and vegetable oil + 1/2 tsp of salt and granulated sugar you can have a quick healthy side dish to accompany your sun-dried tomato mozzarella chicken. YUM!
If you don’t plan on eating a salad and just want to move it out of your system to put something else in, simply clean harvested leaves with water and pat dry with paper towels and spread out on a dehydrator. Dehydrate at 110ºF for 6 hrs until it breaks crisp (no moisture left in leaves.) Do not crush leaves, but place in a glass jar with an oxygen absorber and put in your spice and seasoning cabinet. When a recipe calls for pepper or if you’re making a soup, simply add in your dried arugula. BAM! (As Emeril would say…) or YUMMO! (As Rachel Ray would say…) You will get a hint of that pepper flavor as well as all the amazing nutrients that this little power-packed leaf holds.
Tip: After you dehydrate your arugula, don’t crush the leaves. Store the leaves as one piece as much as possible. When you “crush” or break up the leaves, it releases the flavonoids and other beneficial nutrients. We want those to stay in tack until we are ready to consume it in our cooking, so I always encourage folks to hold off crushing your leaves for this reason. This is also why you may notice your home-grown herbs and spices have so much more flavor than the crushed and processed ones from the grocery store.
—Erin Castillo, Owner Grow Your Health Gardening and GYHG Seed Co.
Nutritional Benefits You’ll Get from Eating Arugula
So, we’ve covered how to use arugula. Let’s briefly touch on why you should be eating this green. According to the USDA, a half cup (approximately 10 grams) of raw arugula has about:
0.4 gram carbohydrates
0.3 gram protein
0.1 gram fat
0.2 gram fiber
10.9 micrograms vitamin K (14 percent DV)
237 international units vitamin A (5 percent DV)
1.5 milligrams vitamin C (2 percent DV)
9.7 micrograms folate (2 percent DV)
16 milligrams calcium (2 percent DV)
In addition, this leafy green contains some iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and choline. It also is rich in phytonutrients offering 1,424 mg of Beto-Carotene B
Did you know that one cup of Arugula can meet over a quarter of the daily recommended value of Vitamin K? Vitamin K is essential to blood clot formation and bone formation. Some researchers even believe that vitamin K may be a key factor in bone development, more so than calcium. I want my children to have strong bones as they grow and I encourage them to eat salads daily. One way to help provide their bodies with what they need is to mix in some arugula into their daily salad.
Tip: If you’re having difficulty getting your children to eat greens, involve them in the growing process. Give them a garden that is completely their own area to tend and help them grow plants from seed. As they feel more connected to their food, their natural curiosity will kick-in and they will willingly try the food they have patiently waited for to grow.
—Erin Castillo, Owner Grow Your Health Gardening and GYHG Seed Co.
How to Grow Arugula in a Hydroponic System
In this article, I’ll focus on growing it hydroponically, because that’s my preferred method of growing, but a lot of the same tips can be applied to growing in soil.
You can grow arugula in any hydroponic or aeroponic system. In a vertical garden growing system like the Tower Garden or Farm Stand, you’ll want to place this plant towards the top as you will most likely be harvesting from it continuously and keeping the plant size small.
Starting your arugula from seed: Choosing your arugula variety
If you’re growing in a hydroponic / aeroponic system, we strongly recommend you opt of seed that has already adapted to these growing conditions. Can seed from soil-grown parent plants grow hydroponically? Absolutely, but plants adapt epigenetically each growing season, so you’ll have a stronger healthier plant if you start out right with seed that has already adapted to the growing conditions you want to match. According to growers at the Seed Savers Exchange, seed DNA can hold 5+ years of growing seasons in which it can tap to survive and thrive. Choosing your seed stock source is more important than most realize.
Our arugula seed has been grown outdoors in the cool season of the Southeast in Zone 7 (not mentioning the zone here because it’s a perennial, but to help you get an idea of where the seed is grown so you can best match it to your own growing conditions.) GYHG Seed Co arugula seed can handle heat and humidity to a point before it bolts, but definitely plan on growing this during the cool season and start your seedlings 2 weeks before your last average frost date with the intention to move it outdoors as a transplant.
How many plants should you plant:
If you are wanting arugula on hand to pick fresh and mix into salads, I recommend planting four plants on a rotation (see below charts.) Place in upper level of Tower Garden or Farm Stand.
This is also a seed that you will want to plant on a continual basis on a four to five week cycle, so if you don’t have a Seed Starting Station set up already, you will want to read up about how to get one set up here. We recommend to plant four plants and keep them in your upper level of your Tower Garden or Farm Stand vertical garden growing system.
Start 2 rockwool cubes
Nurture Week 1 seeds
Start 2 rockwool cubes
Nurture Week 3 seeds
Start 2 rockwool cubes
Transplant Week 1 Seedlings into TG
Transplant Week 3 Seedlings into TG
Harvest baby leaves
Harvest baby leaves
Copyright 2021 Grow Your Health Gardening
Nurture Week 5 seeds
Start 2 rockwool cubes
Nurture Week 7 seeds
Start 2 rockwool cubes
Nurture Week 9 seeds
Pull Week 1 Plants. Transplant Week 5 Seedlings into TG
Pull Week 3 Plants. Transplant Week 7 Seedlings into TG
Continue pattern of pulling older plants and transplanting seedlings
Outdoor planting in a hydroponics system: If planting in the spring, you will want to start your seeds indoors or in a greenhouse so that your seedling start will be about two to three weeks old by the time your last spring frost date rolls around. If planting in the fall, you’ll want to factor in your harvest date range and count backwards 4-6 weeks from your frost date.
Arugula likes to live around 45° to 65°F (10-18°C). Plant arugula so that it comes to harvest in cool weather. It may fail to germinate if it’s too warm. Use a UV light system of some sort to grow your seedlings indoors keeping the light source 8″-12″ if LEDs and 5″-6″ away from seedlings if fluorescent lighting.
How many seeds to plant per rock wool: We recommend planting about 3-5 seeds per rock wool cube. Arugula typically germinates within 4-8 days. Be sure to use seed that is packaged for the current growing season as it will aide your ability to germinate the seeds. You can always remove any excess seedlings down to two plants as the plants mature if you are concerned about crowding. Our philosophy is start out with more and thin down as needed (but don’t toss those microgreens you pull — they are healthy for you to eat as micro-greens).
How much nutrients you should give your seedlings: Keep rockwool moist to the touch but not drenched. When you see a sprout, you can add a tsp of kelp to your water and water the young seedlings while giving them bright light from a grow light.
Thinning out your seedling starts: As the seeds germinate and grow, you will want to pull (or also called “thin out”) the weaker seedlings from the rock wool. (Remember, this is not a wasted plant — you can simply enjoy eating it as a microgreen.) You will want to leave leave 1-2 plants per rock wool to grow to maturity.
Transplanting your seedlings into your hydroponic system: Seedlings should be ready to transplant to your Tower Garden or hydroponic system about 2–3 weeks after sprouting. Seedlings plants should be about 1-2 inches tall, with 3-4 true leaves, before they are ready to leave the nest and enter into the hydroponic / aeroponic Tower Garden or other related system.
Finally, remember that arugula plantings should be staggered in roughly 2-3 week intervals in order to ensure a continuous harvest. If doing a spring planting, your growing season will be longer than a fall planting. You can extend your fall outdoor planting season by adding a professional grade heater to your Tower Garden reservoir keeping water temps in the 50-65º F range for the root zone to continue to uptake nutrients — just be sure to cover your Tower Garden outside with a weather protection blanket like this when freeze warnings appear.
Nutrient levels for optimal growth throughout the growing season for arugula:
Nutrients: EC: 0.8 – 1.2 (We recommend Tower Tonic Mineral Blend™ for a well-balanced nutrient solution to feed your plants the proper N-K-P and micro-nutrients. You can purchase a 1 gallon set of Part A and Part B here.)
PPM: 560 – 840 (We recommend Tower Tonic Mineral Blend™ for a well-balanced nutrient solution to feed your plants the proper N-K-P and micro-nutrients. You can purchase a 1 gallon set of Part A and Part B here.)
pH: 5.5-6.2 (pH is essential to help the plant uptake nutrients.)
Light: (Amount of sun or light exposure throughout the day) Hydroponic arugula should get between 10 and 14 hours of light per day.
Arugula Temp Tips: (Root zone temp is essential to help the plant uptake nutrients)
Maximum Temp 75º Degrees Fahrenheit
Optimal Day CycleTemp 65º – 70º Fahrenheit
Optimal Night CycleTemp 60º – 65º Fahrenheit (Note: arugula can handle some frost so long as the root zone stays above 50ºF, so use a water heater in your reservoir if you want to try pushing the limits on it growing in the cold.)
Seed Storage 40º to 70º degrees Fahrenheit
Germination 60º to 75º degrees Fahrenheit
SOIL Growers: Note — Do not grow in soil with pole beans or strawberries. Good companion plants are bush beans, celery, carrots, nasturtium, mint, dill, lettuce, cucumbers, onions, rosemary, potatoes
HYDROPONIC Growers: See first chart on Cool Season Plants on this page for reference of what grows well at similar PPM ranges and pH ranges in a hydroponic / aeroponic system.
Harvesting your arugula:
Make a note of how many days to maturation on the variety of arugula you are planting and mark your calendar or in your gardening journal. When your plants have reached the baby leaf stage, take a sanitized clean pair of hand trimmers or scissors and cut the outer leaves of your arugula plant, leaving at minimum three center leaves to continue to grow. The plant will continue to produce leaves for you but will become spicier as the plant matures. If you don’t want spicier leaves, simply pull the mature plant at 5-6 weeks of age and replace the plant with a new transplant (see chart above). Ideally, your arugula should be eaten within a few hours of harvest; however, if storage is necessary, the correct conditions to prolong shelf life are rapid cooling down to 34°F (we accomplish this with an ice bath of water) and then spin the leaves dry and place between dry paper towels in a sealed lettuce container with and 95-98% percent humidity.
How to store arugula that is not consumed right away:
If you have more arugula producing faster than you can eat, there are a couple of options: dehydrating or freezing. To dehydrate your arugula leaves, place on a dehydrator rack at 110º F for 6-24 hours. When the leaves are crunchy (you can break them in half), remove from the dehydrator and place in a tightly sealed pouch or Mason jar with an oxygen absorber. Dehydrated arugula can be used in soups and ground into a powder to add to pestos, soups, or even on meats for additional nutrients.
You can also freeze your crop in an air-tight bag or container and use in smoothies or defrost and use in recipes that may call for herbs.
Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below and happy growing!
The more plants you begin to grow, you’ll begin to realize the importance of staying organized. As the plant begins to mature, knowing when you started the seed and when it should be mature will aid you in gauging when to begin harvesting or even how old a plant may be and if you should pull it and replace it with another.
We grow hundreds of varieties of plants per season on our property and have found that labeling is essential. Even if you are not planting many plants, knowing what you planted and having a quick reference will be essential to knowing and learning more about your plants. Here’s what we include on our labels and some tips that help along the way:
Use a label that offers space enough to record data/info
Record plant variety and kind
Record start of seedling date
Record anticipated maturity date for when you should be able to begin harvest
Optional: Record any special characteristic that helps to identify it — especially if you have more than one variety growing of the same kind of plant (ie: seed stock source, ppm range)
We love the look of bamboo labels, which is a recyclable material, so if your budget allows, this is a great option. This is cost-prohibitive on a larger scale for our seed production, so we opt to use plastic labels and recycle them. When we are finished using the label, we give them a quick rinse with soap and water and then place them in a sealed jar of 91%-94% rubbing alcohol to soak and process them (clean them) during the winter months. After a bit of soaking in 91%-94% Rubbing Alcohol, you can strip off the permanent ink pen writing when you rub with a cotton ball or paper towel and apply a little bit of pressure.
For those growing in soil, if you have access to an old white window covering blind (the kind you put in the window to shade your home interior from the sun), many Master Gardeners like to cut these down and use them as plant markers / labels using a permanent marker or wax pencil.
Some Tower Garden or Lettuce Grow Farmstand hydroponic / aeroponic home growers will use painter’s tape and write info on that and stick it to the actual vertical garden growing system. We’ve found that if it is outdoors, it can weather and come off if you have a longer season of growth, but it works great if you’re growing indoors. We like this tape and use it for our Grow Order Client Orders that are grown indoors. We like that it is 2″ wide so we can write our client’s name as well as the plant variety, start date, and harvest date all on the same short strip.
Tip: When placing tape on your vertical garden growing system, try to place ABOVE the port as sometimes water can drip downwards from a leaf. And try to only use tape if growing indoors as weather can cause removable tape to loose it’s adherence to your grow tower.
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT use duct tape on your hydroponic / aeroponic vertical growing system. It may be difficult to remove and will leave a sticky residue.
We’ve also heard of some people writing directly on their Tower as well. The challenge with using an erasable marker is if the Tower Garden gets bumped in any way, you may lose valuable information. The other challenge is that a vertical garden like the Tower Garden or Lettuce Grow Farmstand will need weekly maintenance of wiping down the exterior so that you don’t get minerals building up in the nooks and crevices. The other factor is if you’re growing outside, you may want to periodically spray down your plants with a shower level of pressure of water to not only rinse off the exterior of your hydroponic growing system. This not only cleans your tower but also helps to knock-off any aphids or bugs that may be hiding underneath leaves or in plant crevices. If you were to have removable ink on your growing system, you would lose valuable information with the introduction of water.
So, when looking at your foundation of the kind of plant tag or plant label you plan to use, consider how the weather (rain and sun) is going to affect it as well as water and routine cleanings around where it will remain.
Record Plant Variety and Kind
We always list variety first and plant kind in caps on the second row. This makes for a quick visual check when grouping similar plants together as seedlings or when placing in a growing area or hydroponic system.
Record Start of Seedling Date
We like to put our seed start date in the left-hand corner of our label and the harvest date on the lower right. The key here is just to be consistent as it speeds up efficiency when you’re in the garden checking on plants. Our eyes scan when they read and having information in the same spot on every plant tag or label will save you time in the long run. Consistency is your friend when your looking to make things efficient in your garden.
Record the Anticipated Days to Maturity Date
Often you will see in seed catalogs or on seed packets “Days to Maturity” noted. This notation is not determined from seed start date, but is intended as what to expect from the date of transplant. To figure out days to maturity, use the following loose formula:
Days to Germination + 2 weeks + Days to Maturity = When you can expect to harvest
To quickly calculate your harvest date, use the formula above and enter that number into this handy date calculator. (Make sure you use the tab for “Add or Subtract Date”. (See blue line under “Add Days” in example screen shot below.) Begin by entering your date of seed starting and calculate days of germination, plus two weeks for seedling growth, plus days to maturity from seed packet or catalog description. This will give you total number of days. Make sure the Add/Subtract drop down has selected “(+) Add” and then enter a numerical value under “Days” and hit “Enter” on your key pad. Below, you will be given the “Result” date. This is what you will write on your label.
Granted, each plant and growing condition is different (i.e.: plant receives more light and more nutrients and may grow faster than standard days to maturity. Note: If you’re growing hydroponically, realize that plants in general grow 30% faster, so don’t be surprised if you check your anticipated maturity date and your plant is already maturing before that date has arrived.
Record Any Special Characteristic that you want to Remember for Future Reference
When I was starting out growing food hydroponically, I would put PPM ranges on my tag to make sure I grouped plants together that liked the same range. Then I sat down one day and did some figuring and came up with these handy charts for reference. Now, I simply refer to the charts to know what plants go best with each other depending on whether it is a cool growing season or warm growing season. I no longer need to put that information on my label and can use that space for other information.
If I am growing a special collection (ie: Tom Wagner Varieties of tomatoes), I may want to grow those plants together so I can observe their growth patterns and development. An indeterminate or determinate tomato would grow differently from one other, so knowing the growing habits of the seedling I’m holding helps me to quickly place it in the best suitable spot in my garden. A micro-dwarf tomato can grow at the top of a vertical garden growing system like the Tower Garden because it is a determinate and will stay a certain small size that doesn’t need support whereas an indeterminate tomato will need to be trellised from the side and grown towards the lower part of the Tower Garden.
Sometimes we grow the same variety using two different seed stock sources. Diversity is good for strengthening seed stock. So sometimes, I will designate the seed stock source so I can compare plants while in the garden to see which line perhaps has more rigor before I do any cross pollination. In these situations, I just use the first letters of the seed stock sources name as a reference (ie: “SSE” would be Seed Savers Exchange).
Think of the Sun with Labeling
You may not realize, but some permanent markers are not very permanent when those UV light waves begin to hit them day after day. My sweet son had gotten me some permanent markers from the dollar store with his own money as a Mother’s Day gift and I used them on a few labels and they faded within months. I had to go over them with another type of permanent marker. Here are some options that should last through the season:
Another easy thing you can do to prolong your tag’s writing is point it away from the sun — at least until the plant has developed leaves to shield it from the sun’s rays.
The other good practice you can do is implement a secondary label. I’ve heard of some gardeners who grow in soil, bury a second label under the soil level near the plant for future reference. I tend to forget where I bury things if they are not marked, so instead I like to use these Tyvek wrist bands to loop around the plant as it gets big enough. This is especially helpful on plants that take a good while to mature like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. You can create a system of your liking using different colors, but I tend to just stick with neon yellow, because it’s quick to find when I need to find it.
As you tackle your seed starting, I hope this has inspired you to consider what information your plant will need to follow it in it’s journey towards harvest. With just a few simple considerations, you can be set up for success and at the end of the growing season have the information you need to make decisions for the next growing season!
Happy Growing! —Erin
Tips for Hydroponic, Aeroponic, Aquaponic, and Soil-based Gardening Methods