We are loving eating BLTs (Bacon, Lettuce + Tomato with Mayo on a slice of bread) fresh from the garden with tasty hydroponically-grown heirloom tomatoes! (So juicy!)
And this rare variety from Russia called Beauty Lottringa makes a tasty AND beautiful plating! Can you believe that each tomato has less than five seeds in it?! WOW! I personally love how each slice looks like a red flower.
I’m still debating on whether to sell this variety because of the low seed count, but I may end up doing a giveaway, so be sure to visit store.growyourhealthgardening.com and sign-up for our email updates and tips to be the first to hear when our new hydroponically-adapted line of seeds release or if we do a give-away on this particular variety.
Do you love BLTs as well? What is your favorite slicer variety?
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.
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!
I was listening to a podcast by one of my favorite market growers from Alabama, Noah Sanders, and he had a guest on from Kaleva, (Northern) Michigan, Craig Shaaf, from Golden Rule Farm who mentioned that he put red dye in an empty soda bottle and it helped his tomatoes mature earlier than anyone else’s tomatoes in the area while also sighting a Clemson University Study.
So, being that we drink a lot of sparkling water in our house, I had an empty liter lying around (we typically repurpose these for terrariums in cold hardy annuals but that’s a something to discuss for another day), so I filled it with some water and added several drops of red food coloring to it and sat it on my indoor Tower Garden near some micro dwarf unripened cherry tomatoes I was growing. Low and behold, two days later, the cherry tomatoes closest to the red-colored water began to ripen from the bottom up!
Red reflective Far-Red light encourages tomatoes to ripen.
Studies using Red Plastic Selective Reflecting Mulch (SRM) Show Increased Yields for Certain Plants
Research originally started during the 1980s and led to development of SRM-Red, a selective reflecting mulch that has been available commercially since 1996. Plant physiologist Michael J. Kasperbauer, who retired from the Agricultural Research Service‘s (ARS) Coastal Plains Soil, Water and Plant Research Center at Florence, S.C. found that plastic colored-mulch’s controlling factor is not the colors themselves, but how the colors adjust the amount of blue light and the ratio of far-red (FR) to red light that plants receive reflecting from the ground upwards.
The studies used a red plastic mulch (also referred to as Selective Reflecting Mulch, or SRM for short). It is similar to black plastic mulch used frequently by growers to help warm the soil, prevent erosion, and retains moisture. The red plastic mulch is often thinner than most black weed block and allows more light (and sometimes weeds) through it.
But red plastic mulch’s true strength is in its ability to reflect certain red light waves back onto the growing plant, thereby accelerating fruit production and increasing overall yields. Past ARS work showed that red plastic mulch produced larger tomatoes and produced 20% more than black plastic mulch counterparts and the red plastic mulch also sweeter-smelling, better-tasting strawberries.
Similar results were found on peppers and eggplants as well as with lettuce.
ARS’ also tried the red plastic mulch with cotton, carrots and basil. They found that color of the plastic mulch can affect the roots, stems, leaves and seeds, as well as the fruits, of many other food and crop plants.
Research on cotton showed that cotton fibers grew longer in bolls exposed to increased FR-to-red light ratios. Another study, on carrots, showed that concentrations of nutrients and compounds such as vitamin C and beta carotene in the roots of food crops could be changed by reflecting the right waves of color onto the plants’ leaves.
What’s more, in studies with basil, the amounts of blue, red and FR light reflected onto developing leaves affected their size, aroma and concentration of soluble phenolics. The phenolics are natural compounds, including tannins and pigments that can induce color, some flavors and odors, and antioxidant activity.
Basil leaves developing above red mulches had greater area, succulence and fresh weight than those developing above black mulch. When grown above yellow and green mulches, basil leaves developed significantly higher concentrations of aroma compounds and phenolics than did those of plants grown above white and blue mulches.
The concept of colored mulch sprouted when Kasperbauer wondered whether phytochrome was equally distributed in leaves. He became curious about what would happen if light impinged on the leaf’s lower, rather than upper, surface. “The plant response was the same, no matter which surface received the light,” says Kasperbauer. “Although that experiment seemed somewhat unconventional in 1962, it became highly relevant about 22 years later, when we determined that red and FR reflected from the soil surface could act through the plant’s phytochrome system to enhance yield and quality. That led to our colored-mulch work.”
Red Plastic Selective Reflecting Mulch (SRM) helps to Deter Nematodes
What’s more, tests done by USDA’s plant physiologist Michael J. Kasperbauer and Clemson University nematologist Bruce Fornum showed that nematode damage can be lessened by red plastic mulch. They did an interesting study where they planted tomatoes into sterile soil — some rows covered in black plastic mulch and some covered in red plastic mulch. They then inoculated both rows with 0-200,000 nematode eggs. Their findings showed the black mulch produced 8 pounds of tomatoes whereas the red mulch produced 17 pounds! That’s roughly a 113% increase in yield battling the same conditions.
USDA’s Agricultural Research Service found that red plastic mulch suppresses root nematode damage to tomatoes because the light reflection keeps more of the plant’s growth above ground. The plant’s energy goes into developing fruit and foliage, rather than roots. Nematodes feed on roots. The far-red light reflection to the above-ground plant draws away nutrients from the roots – and nutrients away from the nematodes. Fewer roots mean less food for nematodes. Less food = fewer nematodes.
Things to Consider When Using Red Plastic Selective Reflecting Mulch (SRM)
Carefully secure red plastic selective reflecting mulch underneath your plants so that there is at least a foot on every side of the plant in it’s mature stage of growth.
Do not place the red plastic selective reflecting mulch in walking paths as it is thinner than other weed blocking materials.
Consider placing a weed block material underneath your red plastic SRM to help limit weeds from growing underneath.
Drip irrigation will be necessary underneath
Two other Bonus Tips for Boosting Flavor in Tomatoes:
Place 1-2 TBSP of pure natural Molasses in a gallon of water and stir well to dilute it down and place into a spray bottle and spray your leaves. This will aid in bringing out flavor in your tomatoes.
When your tomatoes are about 18″ tall, a little bit of stress at times can really boost flavor as well. Spray your plants about every 2 weeks with 1 standard strength 325 mg uncoated aspirin tablet mixed in a gallon of water and mix well until the aspirin is completely dissolved and then spray the tomato leaves with the aspirin solution (Salicylic Acid) to trigger tomato defenses. This will especially really beef up your Beef Steak varieties and boost the flavor profile as well.
Find Red Plastic Selective Reflecting Mulch for your Tomato, Pepper, Eggplant, Basil, Cotton, and Lettuce (and more) Crops
Thank you for a fantastic year! We have wrapped up another season and are preparing for the next even as I pause to write this I am working on our own plans for the upcoming growing season.
Let’s begin with the essentials. What is your goal in growing your own food?
As we coach others in growing their own food for themselves and their families, I’ve realized that each person has a different reason for growing food. And that’s actually the first thing to sit down and reflect upon… what motivates you to grow food?
I’ll use myself as an example to get the wheels turning for you hopefully…
“I grow food because…”
• My spouse and I need to eat more greens and veggies to be our healthiest. Having greens and veggies growing in our home and in our yard brings a convenience that the store just can’t provide. We jokingly say that we “shop” from our own produce aisle right outside our door — and once you get a taste for that kind of freedom there’s no going back. Nurturing those that you love the most is my main motivation!
• We want our children to learn to eat these same foods so they will develop good healthy habits. We know that children who participate in growing their own food tend to eat that food because they are more connected to it.
• We want to know what is on our food. We had relied on convenience-based foods for too long. Couple that with food grown for mass market and we had those chemicals going into our body. How do I know? Because I was diagnosed with PCOS many years ago and research has shown these chemicals are also hormone disruptors. As we’ve grown our own food and limited chemicals in our environment, PCOS symptoms have decreased. So, if I grow my own food, I know what is literally, going into my body and those that I love. And that brings not only health, but peace-of-mind.
• We want the maximum nutrition from our food. When I realized that the produce I was buying had traveled thousands of miles and was on average 10-days old by the time it hit our plates and mouths, I knew from other studies that the plant was losing nutritional benefits with every day it went from point A to point B and point C. Further, the produce that is mass-marketed is not picked at it’s peak maturation (because travel time to market has to be factored in.) Since it’s picked early, it is not at it’s maximum nutrition. If we grow our own, we can pick at it’s full maturity and consume right away, thereby getting the MOST nutritional benefit from what we are eating.
• We save money in the long run. Growing your own food does have a cost, (so does eating nutrient deficient food) but when you have a family of seven and five of those eating male adult portions, organic greens, fruits and vegetables quickly add up and end up being more expensive than the effort to grow yourself. One head of organic lettuce goes for about $4 a head in our local grocery store. If instead, I purchase one pack of lettuce seeds, for that $4, I get about 25 pelleted seeds. If I plant a few seeds every week, I would have continuous lettuce and if 20 of those pelleted seeds grow to maturation, I would have saved $40 over the course of time. What could I do with an extra $40 in my pocket? Buy more seed!
• It provides our family with food security. When we went through the Covid Pandemic self-quarantine, we quickly realized what a blessing it is to have the know-how to grow your own food and the tools in place to have that fresh supply of food. It brings peace-of-mind knowing that we could provide food for our family without worrying what other germs might be on the food we were purchasing, who had handled it previously, if it had been cleaned properly, or if there would even be food available. All those concerns others were experiencing, never affected us, because we had already altered our way of living so it was a natural flow to our day and lifestyle. What’s more, any extra in our harvests can be saved for future use through freezing, canning or dehydrating with a little planning. Some call it homesteading. Some call it self-sufficiency. It’s just our new normal and we’ve learned to re-prioritize things in life to accommodate our desire to produce good clean nutritious food.
• Growing our own food provides for those in need. Even with a large family, we purposely plan for extra to share with widows and those who may not have as much. We are to treat others the way we would like to be treated. I may not always have extra money to give to someone, but I can certainly share from my harvest to encourage them emotionally as well as meet their physical need of food.
• It naturally lends itself to grow our family-run Seed Company Business. Seeds can be collected from the food that we grow for our family to utilize. Nothing is wasted. What’s even more important is intentionally choosing a home-based business model that fits our goal of being the primary ones to raise our children which includes at the fore-front educating them. A farm and garden is a great tool for teaching valuable life skills and helps our children grow into healthy adults.
• Growing our own food fits into our lifestyle and supports our other food systems. As we prune and process, any excess can be given to our chickens and good green waste given to our worms. The worms provide worm waste which believe it or not provides beneficial bacteria for our plants. It is all interconnected and with a little tweaks to our daily routines, is totally feasible.
• Gardening brings enjoyment to life — it helps us try new things and satiates our love of always learning something new. Take for instance our 2020 challenge. My son and I decided to try growing watermelons in the shape of a heart… and it worked! We are tweaking a few things and will try again next season hoping the next watermelon variety will have fewer seeds.
So, before you trying growing your first seed, determine WHY you want to grow food in the first place. This will help direct you in the next step… HOW to determine what to grow (based on your “why”) and your available growing space.
Under a sky the color of pea soup she is looking at her work growing away there actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans as things grow in the real world, slowly enough. If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water, if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food, if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars, if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees, then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.
Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground. You cannot tell always by looking what is happening. More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet. Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet. Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree. Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden. Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses. Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving. Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in, a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen: reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in. This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always, for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
If you have a specific question that you would like to ask, feel free to add in the comments below and we will be sure to answer them in the next Facebook Live Wednesday Walk Through Event mark your calendar for Wednesday, June 24 at 7 am Eastern (Atlanta, GA).
New to growing your own food in a Tower Garden? First off, kudos on your decision to take control of your own health and it all starts at the foundational level of the food we put into our body. It actually can go even deeper than that… it all starts with the parent plant that made the seed that we collect and then grow and then harvest to put into our body. But I digress…
When considering what to put into your Tower Garden, there are certain vegetables and herbs that grow well together. I have grouped these plants based on shared PPM (parts per million) values. You will need a PPM meter to measure what your water’s PPM is with the nutrient solution added.
When determining our list below, we look for areas where PPM levels share common ground (see blue vertical bars to highlight overlapping plant PPMs)… Note: this PPM reference chart is available in full for all our Tower Garden and hydroponic clients, but here’s a little snippet:
Note that some plants can tolerate higher levels of nutrients than mentioned here as these are ideal ranges for growth. You’ll know when a plant is getting too high a level when the edges of the leaves get a brown tint (called tip burn). Otherwise, know that these plant groupings are going to grow together fairly well at certain PPMs and that you can push some of the plants that are below the PPM level to the next level up in some cases…
based on the PPM of 775 and a pH of around 6.0, you could grow these plants together using the Tower Tonic Minerals Formula Parts A&B: Arugula, Artichoke, Basil, Calendula (petals of flower are edible), Cilantro/Coriander, Dandelion (leaves edible & root used in tea), Fennel, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Menarda (Bee Balm), Mustard Greens, Nasturtiums (leaves & flower are edible + plant deters some insects), Oregano, Pansies (flower petals are edible), Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Violas(petals of flower are edible), Watercress.
based on the PPM of 1000 and a pH of around 6.0, you could grow these plants together using the Tower Tonic Minerals Formula Parts A&B Artichoke, Basil, Chives, Fennel, Kale, Leek, Lemon Balm, Menarda (Bee Balm), Mustard Greens, Oregano, Parsley, Peas, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Watercress
(Lettuce/Romaine may grow in this range as well, just watch for tip burn on the leaves — some varieties may tolerate the PPM level)
based on the PPM of 1265 and a pH of 6.0, you could grow these plants together using the Tower Tonic Minerals Formula Parts A&B: Artichoke, Beetroot, Bok Choy, Broad Bean (Fava Bean), Carnation (2′ tall, but petals of flower are edible), Cauliflower, Celery, Chives, Cucumber, Kale, Leek, Marjoram, Menarda (Bee Balm), Mustard Greens, Parsley, Peas, Purslane, Pumpkin, Spinach, Summer Squash, Strawberries and Swiss Chard, Turnip Greens, Water Cress, Watermelon, Zucchini
based on the PPM of 1490 and a pH of around 6.5, you could grow these plants together using the Tower Tonic Minerals Formula Parts A&B: Beans, Beetroot, Bok Choy, Broad Bean (Fava Bean), Celery, Eggplant, Endive/Chicory, Chives, Cucumber, Kale, Melon, Mint, Okra, Hot Peppers or Sweet Bell Peppers (Note: Planting both near each other may result in cross-pollination if outdoors and open-pollinated by bees and your sweet peppers can get a bit of heat in the flavor department. If growing indoors and hand pollinating blooms, you should be fine.), Purslane, Pumpkin, Spinach, Summer Squash, Strawberries, Swiss Chard, Tomatillo, Tomato, Turnip Greens, Watermelon, Zucchini
Remember to put larger plants like kale and those that vine like peas, cucumber, and nasturtiums towards the bottom and you’ll need a support next to the Tower Garden where the vines can continue to grow out and fruit. Taller plants go towards the top (like Celery and Rainbow Swiss Chard).
based on the PPM of 1990 and a pH of around 6.5, you could grow these plants together using the Tower Tonic Minerals Formula Parts A&B: Beans, Beetroot, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Dill, Hot Peppers, Sweet Bell Peppers, Tomatillo, TomatoKeep in mind that your squashes, watermelons, tomatillos, and tomatoes are going to be heavy “feeders” meaning they will drink up water and nutrients during the hotter summer days.
Okay, so now you have an idea of what plants have similar growing PPM characteristics. Select one PPM group based on vegetables and herbs you like to use every day!
Keep in mind that for most of us, lettuce has to travel quite a ways if you’re purchasing it from a big box store especially. 70%+ of all romaine is grown in Salinas, California. That means that romaine has to travel roughly 3,000 miles to get to my plate here in Atlanta, Georgia. They say on average it takes 10 days for a harvested romaine to get from the farm to our dinner plate! This is unacceptable! Especially since we know from industry studies that due to respiration rates of plants, nutrient availability decreases within the first 24-48 hours! That translates into you losing out nutritionally on the very purpose of eating that salad! So, with that in mind, simply starting by growing greens is a great place to start. I also like greens because of they mature in 4-6 weeks meaning you get to see your success (and enjoy the fruit of your efforts) earlier rather than later.
The other thing to consider regarding a salad is the number of varieties you have probably never tried because the grocery store only carries 3-4 options. I have found that some of my best salads incorporate a variety of greens and textures. Have fun exploring greens you’ve never tried before — you might find you really like them fresh off of your Tower Garden. I had always shy’d away from Bok Choy in the grocery store because it looked limp and lifeless, but when I grew it in the Tower Garden it was super tasty and I learned that I could keep harvesting for 2 months until the plant flowered. Now it’s something I always plan on growing because it can be added to soups, quinoa, and salads.
If doing a greens selection to grow on your Tower Garden, I like to recommend my clients include a nasturtium on the lower part of their Tower Garden because a) you can eat both the leaves and the flower, b) most people have never tasted a nasturtium because they are not found readily in the grocery store and most often found on the fine diner’s plate, c) they are so pretty to look at on your tower and d) they are companion plants meaning they are good to grow next to other plants to help deter certain pests… When planted alongside cucumbers. eggplant, tomatoes, or squash plants, nasturtiums may repel cucumber beetles, whiteflies, aphids and squash bugs. There are other edible flowers in this range that would be fun to explore if you’re willing to be adventurous.
If you decide to do a vining crop with a higher PPM, keep in mind space (tip: put a trellis next to where the plant’s port is and it can grow off to the side. These vining plants are often water hogs and love the sun, so plan accordingly for anything planted above them — those plants will also need to be heat tolerant. I always recommend including a flowering plant as it will attract pollinators and pollinators (aka: bees) will plump up your fruit and leave your flowering plants in a better state than how they found it.
Tomatoes are the most popular thing to grow. Ideally, you’ll want to look for varieties that have compact traits, but if you do have room next to your outdoor Tower Garden, make sure you can handle the growth habit on a trellis. My favorite tomato is an heirloom variety, Cherokee Purple, and it’s vining can reach up to 10′ or more if it’s given the nutrients it loves. (And BOY do they taste AMAZING!!!!) Cherry Tomato varieties are going to be prolific, so plan a space to support their growing needs to you have airflow and are able to easily keep pests from moving in on your crop.
Tip: If you are putting large vining plants in the lower ports of your Tower Garden. Plant to the left, right and on the back side leaving the front port open. (You may want to cover that port with a rubber disc like this.) The reason for leaving the front port unplanted is you need access to your water reservoir opening and some vines take over and make it difficult to reach it.
And my last thing to highlight is the pepper — remember that if you are growing outdoors and have hot peppers and sweet peppers both growing in your Tower Garden, you may get some cross-pollination through open-pollination and your sweet peppers might be hotter than their parent plants. It’s a good idea to just pick either hot peppers or sweet peppers if growing outdoors. Now if you’re growing indoors under lights, you can plant both hot and sweet in the same system in ports on opposite side of the Tower Garden because you will have to self-pollinate your flower buds anyway (turn a fan on to give your tower a light breeze or hand-pollinate with a toothbrush or paintbrush).
This should get your started. If you’re looking for Seed Providers, you can check out our article here.
PS: If you want a printable version of the information above to print off and to use as a reference in your garden journal, simply click here: Growing by Common PPMs.
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