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Megan with her bees.

Being around Megan Horst for just a few minutes makes me want to get solar panels, plant more food and change the world into a more sustainable place.

She grew up in Milwaukee in a family that gardened, had a big raspberry patch and liked to shop at thrift stores but didn’t label themselves as environmentalists.  After graduating from Eckord College, with an Environmental Studies/Social Work degree, she went into Peace Corps in Honduras where she worked in sustainable agriculture and natural resource preservation.

Convinced that urban planning was the best way to pursue her goal of promoting a more sustainable world she got a masters degree at the University of Washington.  She soon focused on sustainable food systems as it is, in her words “the center of the Venn diagram of all my interests”. (Some of you may remember her “Growing Green” thesis project that inventoried local public lands suitable for community gardening.)

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Bountiful backyard

Currently she’s a PhD candidate working with professor Branden Born on urban planning and food.  She teaches an experiential learning class each quarter called the “Sustainability Studio” that shows students how to be change agents.

Visiting her house it’s clear that she puts her beliefs into practice.  There are solar panels on the roof, a large garden, bees and chickens in the backyard and more growing beds and fruit trees along the side of the house.  I was especially interested in the aquaponics system her husband Christian is building and a wicking bed growing kale and flowers in their greenhouse.

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If you’d like to see what articles she’s published check out her Linked In site.  To hear her thoughts on urban ag and where it’s going give a listen to the video below.  And hey, did you know that Costco is now selling chicken coops?

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Aquaponics in the making

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This is where the plants grow in the water from the fish.

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Side yard

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Greenhouse with wicking bed

A Visit with Elaine Corets

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Elaine’s farmlet

In just four years Elaine Corets has transformed her city yard into a place of food and beauty.  She is using a low till method and instead of weeding she “edits” the volunteers that appear; moving salad burnett, mache, bachelor’s buttons and mint, to name a few, to more pleasing places.

I love the way she makes use of branches from her yard for low fences, bamboo to trellis her raspberry canes and free wood chips to mulch and keep down weeds.  Each time I visit I get ideas for things I want to try in my own yard.

In addition to being a great gardener Elaine is incredibly creative in the kitchen; fermenting salsas, making a rich quince paste and all sorts of delightful infused vodkas.

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Bamboo trellised raspberry canes.

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Rocks are used for texture and to create borders.

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No space is wasted; this is up against the back steps.

March Barter Fair

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Spring eggs

“I will trade you a basket for that garlic aioli.” I said with conviction.  “Done!” said the woman next to a row of promising jars.  This month’s Backyard Barter fair was held at the Ballard library and featured a range of delicious and interesting things to trade; tangy pickled brussel sprouts, Elaine Corets’ quince paste, nutty chocolate cookies, strawberry starts, fresh multicolored eggs and cocktail additions from Beth of Mama Know Her Cocktails fame.

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Kombucha and more

The first hour is spent looking over everyone’s wares and negotiating trades then the second hour is when the fun really begins and the bartering heats up and gets going.

Returning home my family and I had a feast with fresh sandwiches with an aoli spread, salad with pickled beets, canned Asian pears and of course, nutty chocolate cookies.

The next fair is on Sunday, April 13th from 11:00 to 1:00 pm and will be held in south Seattle at Second Use.

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Tipsy olives from Mama Knows Her Cocktails





Seed Starting

Here’s some more information on starting seeds.  Right now is a great time to get seeds going for warm season crops like tomatoes and for cool season crops that need a little boost like collards.  While cool season crops can be direct sowed soon I find that doing starts let’s me get a bit of a jump on the season and beat the slugs too.

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I put a lot of seeds in one pan to start with then plant them out.

I have started sowing a lot of seeds in a cake pan with holes in the bottom then prick these out into larger cells once they have sprouted.  This way I can pick the strongest plants and know that each cell will be filled.

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Dampened start mix.

To prefill the cells I add water to the soil mix and shake it up until the soil is damp.  Wetting seed starting mixes can be a real pain but this seems to help.

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I pour the mix down the middle then sweep it into the cells.

Once the mix is damp I dump a lot down the middle of the cells then use my hand or a board to sweep the mix into the cells.  Next I lightly tamp the soil down with the bottom of another seed tray.

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Chopsticks are just the right size for making a seedling hole.

To plant out the seedlings I make a hole with a chopstick then carefully separate out the seedling touching only the early leaves and not the stem.

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All set!

Once the seedlings are replanted place them in a bright window under a grow light.  Here is a good way to set this light up using what you can find at the local hardware store.

Time to Make Wreaths

The days are getting longer and the snow drops are blooming.  It’s time to make wreaths.  You can make wreaths out of any kind of flexible thin branches.  Here’s how to do it. snowdrop Time to Make Wreaths

Snow drops!

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Find a weeping willow tree that you can trim.

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Cut then bundle the thin branches for easy transport.

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Take one end and loop it around the other end.

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Add in new twigs and wrap them around the previous one. Tuck in the ends.  Wrap until you get the thickness you want then hang up or set aside to dry.

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Here’s a much looser wreath made with beech twigs.

Have fun!

More space for planting!!  About this time every year the gardening fever seizes me and like a mad woman I stagger out into blowing wind and streaming rain and search for ways to get just a bit more out of my little yard.   The dog has made it clear that his area is off limits.

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“You are so not planting in my pooping and playing area. Don’t even think about it.”


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Pots are a quick way to boost space.

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Washing tubs or wine barrels can hold a lot of peas.


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Making a rock circle then filling it with dirt gave room to plant this rhubarb.


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If you haven’t taken over your planting strip yet then go for it. Check the City of Seattle food site to get a free but needed permit.


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Horse troughs are heavy and can be a bit pricey but they provide a lot of space. Drill holes and put in a layer of gravel for drainage.


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Growing vertical is a great way to go.


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Cut drainage pipe is a free way to go.

Get creative and see what you have laying around; even cardboard boxes can be filled with dirt.  Do be careful that whatever you are using though does not have anything toxic that will leach into your growing soil.

Time to Harvest Nettles!

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Young nettles

Nettles are an amazingly versatile plant; the young shoots are high in protein and vitamins, the older plant can be used to make fiber and the leaves and roots can be used at any time to make a green dye.

Right now is a good time to harvest the young tender leaves.  To find this valuable plant, look for blooming Indian Plum and sniff the air for Skunk Cabbage; nettles like a similar slightly boggy environment.  As with any wild harvested plant don’t take it all and make sure the plant hasn’t been sprayed with anything.  Put on a good pair of gloves and cut or pinch off the top section with 5 or six leaves.  Nettles protect themselves with formic acid and other stinging substances that can leave a good welt that will burn and itch for quite a long while so be absolutely sure to wear the gloves!

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Freshly harvested nettles

Once you have harvested the leaves blanch them to remove the sting.  To do this put the leaves in a colander then dip in boiling water for 40 seconds and plunge into a sink of cold water to stop the cooking process.

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Just blanched nettles. Put some salt in the water to keep the dark green color.

Once they are blanched they can be frozen or used like a spinach.  Here is a recipe for a traditional nettle soup and here are several other ways to cook up your harvest.

Once the nettles have flowered and the stems are long and fibrous you can harvest them to make yarn or string.

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Picture is from http://buzzardbushcraft.blogspot.com/2011/08/zen-and-art-of-cordage-construction.html

A lovely green dye can be made at any time.  Here is what the yarn looks like:

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Picture is from: http://blog.knittingcouple.de

Good luck and happy nettling!

Spring Flowers!

This is one of the rainiest Marchs on record but on the bright side the flowers love it!  I started taking more pictures with the camera on my iPhone and just got a clip on macro lens.

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Lenten Rose

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I love the vibrant blue of the Scilla flower.

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Magnolia after a rain.

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Up close Red Currant

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Irish Bell

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Up close Scilla

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DSC 2604 240x300 pH is pHundamental for GardeningWhen I first started gardening I tossed seeds in the soil and hoped they would grow. Over the years I’ve grown a bit more scientific and have added a pH testing kit to my set of tools.

The pH scale measures how acidic or basic something is. Seven is neutral–numbers less than seven are acidic while numbers greater are basic. An acidic soil is common in areas with high rainfall and is called sour while a basic soil is common in dry areas and is called sweet.

So why does this matter to gardeners?

- Many plants and soil life prefer either acidic or basic conditions
- Diseases affecting plants tend to thrive in soil with a certain pH range
- The pH can affect the availability of nutrients in the soil.

Plants generally get maximum benefit from nutrients in the soil when the pH is between 5.5 and 7. The majority of food crops prefer a neutral or slightly acidic soil (pH 7). If a soil is too acidic you can add ground limestone. This replaces calcium and magnesium washed away by rain. Amending the soil with compost to help the soil resist a change in the pH is also helpful.

For more information on pH testing click here.





What’s in That Soil?

DSC 2483 What’s in That Soil?

This soil looks great but how well will plants grow?

My soil certainly looked good; rich brown, crumbly with a nice loamy smell but what was really there?

Do I have lead in my soil? Does it have nutrients to grow healthy plants?

This year I finally got my trowel out, shot out of the house on a cold February day and dug up samples from several of my raised beds. Once back inside I mixed the soil together then wrote a 10 dollar check, completed the soil testing lab order sheet, dropped the bag in a box and shipped it off to the University of Massachusetts.  You can also get free testing by King County.   While they don’t test for contaminants they do test for Nitrogen, Phosphate, Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium, Sodium, Sulfur, Organic Matter, pH, and Cation Exchange Capacity. They will give you feedback on your soil and give suggestions on what you can do to promote healthy plant growth.  If you live in the Asarco plume zone you can get free testing that does include contaminants. 

Waiting for the results was kind of like waiting for medical lab tests to come back. I agonized–would my soil be healthy? After a couple of weeks I got an e-mail with the joyful results that there was no lead or other harmful things and lots of nutrients to help the plants grow. If I’d known it was this simple I would have done it years ago.

Before you start growing edibles in your backyard, be sure to get your soil tested; it will put your mind at ease!