Baby Steps to my First Garden

In the world of “time is money,” “never-ending to-do list,” combined with “everything can be purchased sitting on your couch, delivered right to your doorstep,” why would anyone grow their own vegetables? What if I try, and find out I have a “black thumb”?  Why go through all the trouble?          

I grew up in Hong Kong, and despite it being one of the most densely populated cities in the world full of skyscrapers, we always had access to fresh whole food at affordable prices.  Fruits, vegetables, and yes, even fish swimming in a tank.  My mom would shop at these outdoor markets (see photo) every morning and prepare both lunch AND dinner for my family.  It was a ton of work, but she didn’t mind as she believes “food is medicine,” and joked that she would rather pay for delicious food than a doctor’s visit. 

Fast forward several decades later, after living on restaurant take-outs in my 20s to survive 80-hour work weeks, I finally took a more serious interest in food following the birth of my twin daughters. As a working mother, I realized I may not be able to cook two meals for them every day. But I want to pass on grandma’s wisdom “food is medicine” by exposing them to fresh whole food.  The fresher, the better; and my common sense told me it doesn’t get any fresher than grown right in one’s backyard. Not to mention food grown locally on a small scale and traveling very few miles (if any in this case!) has a much smaller carbon footprint, preserving the planet for our future generations.  The problem was I had never grown anything, and I couldn’t even keep a house plant (cactus) alive!           

To calm my nerves, I took baby steps; no clearing out a big plot on our lawn, not even building any raised beds, just a few containers.  To increase my odds of succeeding, I experimented with a variety of seeds (beets, bok choy, sugar peas and swiss chard) and containers (ceramic, plastic, even fabric).  The bok choy was a success (see progression from August to October in pictures below) and objectively speaking, the best I have ever had in my life!

Most recently, as the temperature kept dropping, I started wondering if winter will ever end.  One day while finishing up some salad greens and cherry tomatoes, I decided to give those plastic containers, along with leftover soil and seeds, a second life.  It took a few trials (e.g. how high to fill the soil, which window sill is best) to produce these little plants.  They are beautiful to look at and give me something to look forward to – spring – even though clearly it won’t be enough to fill my stomach!  For those of you who are unsure about making a leap into gardening, –  for fresh food, your health and our planet –  I encourage you to give these baby steps a try!        

Plant Garlic in the Fall

Just like tulips and daffodils, garlic bulbs need a cold cycle to grow well.  Get your garlic cloves in the ground 3-6 weeks before the ground freezes and you will be harvesting garlic next June!

Here are some tips we learned from Hudson Valley Seed:

Plant your garlic in early to mid-October.

Plant in location with:

  • full sun in spring and early summer
  • rich and fertile, well-drained, soil
  • free from weeds

Break apart heads of garlic into cloves.

Plant cloves root side down (pointy side up), 2″ deep, at least 6″ apart, in rows 12″ apart.

Water and cover with mulch.

Mark your rows.

In the spring you will see your garlic begin to come up as soon as the soil warms. Rake back the mulch to encourage the soil to warm faster.  Weed and water well, add compost, and cut off the garlic scapes since they will draw energy from the bulb (and taste good, too).

Harvest garlic when about 1/3 of the leaves are dry and brown – sometime in June!

Growing Spinach

A delicious leafy vegetable that works well in any salad or cooked on its own, spinach has a vast array of benefits including improving eyesight, boosting metabolism, working as an anti- inflammatory, and helping to maintain blood pressure.

Did you know you can still plant spinach now for a fall harvest?

According to Epic Gardening, it is important to plant spinach at least one foot apart, so that there’s space for it to fill out. Plant in rich, well-drained soil.

Spinach seeds won’t germinate if the soil is too dry, so make sure– especially at the outset– that your soil stays damp. A spot with light shade is best for spinach; aim for three to four hours of sun a day. If your leaves are turning yellow, it may be a lack of nitrogen in the soil, so try adding a sprinkling of coffee grounds around the base of the plant.


Falling For You… Leaves are a Great Resource


Why rake or use noisy, air polluting leaf blowers to get rid of leaves when you don’t have to? Why spend money on mulch and fertilizer when you can make your own out of those same leaves?


When chopped up by your lawnmower, or by a designated leaf-mulching mower, leaves will fertilize the soil as they break down.

Any lawnmower can do the job. It is recommended that you cut the lawn no shorter than 3 inches, and just mow over your leaf-filled yard a few times during the season.


If you just can’t stand the look of mulched leaves, or feel that your leaf-mulch cover is too thick on your lawn, then you can add mulched leaves into garden beds, flower beds, or around trees by raking them – or by using a bag on your mower to collect them.

Want to reclaim an area of your yard with poor soil? Cover it with leaves and let them sit all winter. By the spring the bottom of the leaf pile will be converted into rich soil, and you can use the middle and top layers as mulch, or dig that great material into garden beds as a soil amendment.

Less Leaf Blowing!

While you are leaving your leaves on your lawn, you are also cutting down on the use and gas powered leaf blowers, a huge health hazard and noise polluting nuisance.  Click here to see the new Town of Bedford flyer about leaf blowers.

For more information visit Leave Leaves Alone where you can learn more about leaf mulching and the damaging impact leaf blowers have on our health and our community.

Winter is Coming: Planting for Fall & Beyond

by Lori Fontanes

I know it’s hard to imagine when the mercury is still hitting 90 and the tomatoes are going strong but the end of summer is actually the perfect time to think about winter and even next season.  With the hardest work in your vegetable garden mostly over, just a little more effort can pay off in fall salads and a head start on next year’s bounty, too.


Compared to spring, timing the planting of seeds and seedlings for a late autumn harvest can be tricky.  If you start too soon and the heat persists, your cool-loving radishes and lettuces won’t thrive and may bolt if it gets too hot.  Start too late and you may get pea vines but no pods before snow and frost kick in.

But now that winter in Westchester County often holds off until December, if you start cool weather seeds in August or September and make sure they’re well-watered and located in shadier spots, you should be able to get a second round of cool season crops.  Follow the seed packet guidelines to decide which plants are suitable and which month to start; choose heat-tolerant varieties for best results.  If, despite your efforts, the plants seem to find the heat or light too intense, you can also try suspending pieces of agricultural shade cloth over them.  (See Supplies, below.)

At the other end of the thermometer, once the heat dies back and before a hard frost, you could consider cold frames or crop covers to eke out a few more weeks or even months.  Crop covers won’t be effective in extreme conditions but you can keep the cold frames on the ground all winter.  If using frames, it’s best to position them where you want them and plant directly into the frame.  (You can cover already growing plants with cold frames, too, but you need to take into consideration the footprint of usable space.) Once in place, start by leaving the cold frame’s lid open all the way then lowering as daytime temperatures also drop.  Just make sure to monitor the weather as the plants can over-heat or fungal issues can emerge if the lid is too low on unexpectedly hot days.  I also use a weather app with notifications to make sure I get frost warnings in time to cover my delicate seedlings or pick those last tomatoes.


Of the dozens of crops I’ve grown in my backyard, there’s only one with a peculiarly long, fall-to-summer lifecycle: cultivated garlic (Allium sativum L.).  Seed garlic cloves are planted just prior to winter, then rest without rotting in frozen soil and slowly awaken during the longer, warmer days of spring.  As you may notice with your ornamental alliums or even onion grass, garlic gets going early and sends up those first green leaves as soon as the snows melt.  A few months later, you’ll be able to harvest the scapes and around July, the bulbs.  It’s a really long journey but since you don’t have to baby them like many other veggies, it’s not a lot of work and worth the wait.  Their biggest requirements are healthy, fertile soil (they’re heavy feeders) and time.  So, order yours soon as some varieties sell out quickly.  If you miss out this year, you can place your order next summer for fall 2018 shipping and planting for a summer 2019 harvest.


There’s one more way to maximize cool crop yields that doesn’t involve two plantings or waiting eight months to eat– that’s right, just ignore winter and keep growing straight through. Growers in our part of the country and even further north use greenhouses and high tunnels but you don’t have to get quite that farm-geeky (unless you want to!).  A few cold frames or maybe a small polytunnel can also protect your cold crops during the worst of winter.  Not all cool weather plants will make it but if you keep both seedlings and soil covered, you stand a chance with mâche or cruciferous crops such as kale and broccoli.  Plant mâche seeds in the fall and this super-slow grower will putter along until ready for harvest in March or April.  Plant crucifer seedlings (your local nursery will have suitable varieties in September or October) and if properly coddled (and with a little luck), they won’t go to seed in March but will continue their interrupted growth into spring and summer. 

In recent years, our winter temperatures and snowfall have been extraordinarily variable so it’s difficult to know exactly what to expect with your edible experiments.  The number one key to success is to cover the soil and protect it from the drying effects of cold and wind.  In addition to crop covers and cold frames, I also use straw bales as windbreaks and insulation. You can pack the outside of the cold frames with the bales and use broken-down straw from the previous season as part of the growing medium within the frame.  Some people even surround their raised beds with bricks or stones to capture a bit more of that winter sun.  And, then, before you and your plants know it, spring greens will be right around the corner.


  • Cold-hardy seedlings and seeds for autumn
  • Cold frames or crop covers including shade cloth
  • Weather app on your smartphone
  • Loose straw and straw bales for soil and plant nourishment and protection


  • Garlic bulbs for next summer harvest
  • Mâche seeds and broccoli seedlings (can overwinter if pampered)
  • Peas, radishes, lettuces, spinach, kale, short variety carrots


Coleman, Eliot. Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Around. Chelsea Green Pub., 1999.

Engeland, Ron L. Growing Great Garlic: the Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers. Filaree Productions, 1994.


Straw bales–ask the seller to make sure they’re okay for edible gardens. Try Benny’s Feed Barn in Bedford Hills.  Remember you want straw, not hay.

Crop covers and other suppliesTerritorial Seed Company, Growers Supply

Shade cloth– Gardeners Supply Company

Writer/backyard farmer Lori Fontanes reports for Acres USA and other agricultural publications and speaks about food, environmental and wellness issues in Westchester County.  She also serves on the City of Rye Conservation Commission/Advisory Committee and Rye Sustainability Committee.  Follow her on Twitter @LoriFontanes.

Tips for Enhancing Soil from Doug DeCandia

Enjoy these informative videos featuring Doug DeCandia of the Westchester Grower’s Alliance.  These videos show Doug’s approach to improving the soil with bionutrients to enhance his garden, naturally!

Be sure to check out Doug’s YouTube channel for more helpful videos or attend an upcoming Bionutrient Food and Farming Meeting at Westchester Land Trust.

Sow What Now? Best Bets for June Sowing


May 31, 2017|

Planting too early in the spring is one of the most common garden mistakes. But this time of year a different misconception among new gardeners is equally unfruitful: Not planting because they think it’s too late.

Whether you’re just getting your first seeds in the ground, or you’re starting the process of succession planting, June is still a great time to sow seeds.

Best crops for direct-seeding during the month of June:

  • radishes
  • lettuce
  • beans
  • cucumbers
  • basil
  • cilantro
  • Swiss chard
  • zucchini

Make sure that the crops you sow now will give you plenty to harvest by checking the days to maturity listed for the variety. All of the crops listed above grow well through the summer months, mature quickly, and will offer a good harvest even if planted later this month. Not surprisingly, most of them are considered warm-season crops, but even some cool-season crops, including lettuce and radishes, can still do well when grown throughout the summer. You’ll have the most success with these by paying attention to irrigation, planting in a corner of the garden that gets some afternoon shade, or by harvesting when plants are slightly under full size. Summer lettuces can be harvested as baby greens instead of mature heads to help ensure that the leaves remain tender and without bitterness.

For more garden tips, visit

October Cover Crops

Doug DeCandia, a local farmer with the Food Bank for Westchester and organizer of the Bionutrient Food and Farming in Westchester group, and Ellen Best, a member of the Bionutrient Food and Farming in Westchester group, have created some great videos to help farmers and gardeners improve their soil and grow better food.  This month, we have included a couple of these videos below with great tips about early and mid-October cover crops to help your garden stay productive and nutrient filled!

Cover Crops

Cover crops are planted at the end of a growing season with the purpose of protecting and enriching the soil for the next harvest cycle.  The healthier your soil, the healthier your plants will be the following season.

  1. In this first video learn from Doug which cover crops to plant and why.

2. In this second video Doug demonstrates how to plant cover crop seeds.

3. In this final video, see the growth of cover crops planted before winter for early spring vegetable planting.


Chop and Drop and Inter-Crop

Doug DeCandia is a local farmer employed by the Food Bank for Westchester and organizer of a group called Bionutrient Food and Farming in Westchester whose members focus on improving soil to grow food and other environmentally friendly farming methods.  He and one of the group members, Ellen Best, have created some great videos to help farmers and gardeners improve their soil and grow better food.  We have included a couple of these videos below with great tips on weeding and smart ideas about which vegetables to plant together as you think about next year.

Chop and Drop

While the summer may be winding down, the heat certainly feels like it is here to stay! Don’t let that keep you away from your garden for too long. With many vegetables still ripening, it is crucial that you don’t let weeds overtake your garden.

Doug has some helpful tips to keep your weeds under control without spending hours in the sun. Instead of meticulously weeding your garden and throwing them all into the compost, let them fertilize your plants! Doug has a simple mantra to keep you going: pull, cultivate, and leave in place. Some people call it “chop and drop” which is essentially letting the wild plants decompose right there around the ones you intend to grow. For the full details on how Doug keeps weeds under control, click below.


You might also be starting to reflect on your summer season and thinking about what you would change for next year. This is the perfect time to consider inter-cropping your plants. Inter-cropping is the practice of planting and growing different vegetables together, allowing them to play off of each other’s strengths while simultaneously making your garden stronger against plant-specific pests. Doug planted his green beans and fennel together, and now they’re thriving. He will also show you how planting the “three sisters” (corn, squash and beans) together works so well. Check out Doug’s full video below to see what crops to plant together and when. 

And if you want to see an update of where the “three sisters” are today, check out this more recent video. For more information, this article contains some interesting charts listing what to plant together for use of space, healthy soil, and pest control. What inter-cropping will you do next year?

If you are not yet a member of the Bionutrient Food Association and would like to join, or would like to learn more about the organization, its efforts and its mission please visit,

Keeping a Garden Productive – All Summer Long

Many vegetable plants thrive in the summer months, but many gardeners find it challenging to keep a garden productive through the intense heat of July and August. Here are a few quick tips for keeping a garden productive…all summer long.

1. Keep Harvesting

Many garden vegetables are annual crops — they’re on a mission to set fruit and produce seeds before the season ends. It’s well known that crops such as zucchini, cucumbers, and green beans will slow their production once they have fruit and seeds nearing maturity. The best way to keep these plants productive is to harvest often and regularly. Have a summer trip planned? Get a neighbor to harvest while you’re gone and return to plants still in full swing.

2. Have No Compassion

Vegetables have a finite life span, and unfortunately, sometimes it’s shorter than anticipated. This can be due to pest or disease problems, or sometimes you just have a planting that never established well due to poor seed quality, low soil fertility, or unfavorable weather conditions. And of course, there are just some crops that quickly get past their prime once the heat sets in. But no matter the reason, nursing those crops will rarely bring the bountiful harvest you were hoping for. The best use of these plants is as food for your compost pile! So don’t be afraid to just rip them out of the garden, which has the added benefit of freeing up new space. See tip number 3.

3. Keep Planting

Don’t let the heat fool you…it’s still a good time to plant. Crops such as radishes, arugula, and Chinese broccoli can be sown repeatedly through the summer to keep a steady supply of young, tasty vegetables coming into the kitchen. And crisp fall crops, such as carrots, beets, and rutabagas need to be started soon, too. Try to sow seeds just before a rain, or make sure to stay on top of watering until all of the seeds have germinated.

4. Keep Weeding

Because your garden vegetables are established and growing vigorously this time of year, they now have the competitive advantage over any recently germinated weeds. Letting the weeds get away from you now likely won’t impact the productivity of your vegetables this year, but it will cause more problems for you later — if you let them drop seeds. The easiest way to keep a garden productive (think ahead to future years…) is to simply stay on top of the weeds all summer long.

5. Harvest Early

If you’re taking the time to keep your garden productive all summer long, harvesting early (in the morning) will get you the best return for your work. There are all sorts of post-harvest methods to quickly get the “field-heat” out of summer harvests, but the easiest is to simply avoid harvesting when it’s hot. Vegetables harvested in the morning and brought inside quickly will stay fresher much longer than those harvested in the heat of the day.