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Aiyo A. Jones

Beginning Urban Gardener

Beginning Urban Gardener

I’m from New York City, having little gardening experience. All I used to know about gardening was that if you planted a seed in the ground and watered it, then something was supposed to happen. 

Now, I’ve grown so much food, I've had enough to give away! 


Bowl of Banana PeppersBack in 2015, my wife and I purchased the Garden Tower II (GT2). My wife wanted to purchase this vertical container garden mainly because you can grow root vegetables in it. The GT2 has 50 pods to plant in and a vermicomposting system. It didn’t take much for her to convince me that we needed to invest in this product, so after getting our tax return money, we bought the GT2. 

To start growing, we purchased seedlings. Growing from seed hasn’t been my strong point, and we wanted some quick results. I had already done lots of research on growing plants, but I wanted to test some of the conventional gardening wisdom to see what was true and what wasn’t. Being willing to experiment on my garden was a big eye-opener.

For starters, we discovered that we didn’t need to spray our garden with anything, not even with organic sprays. I spent a few moments every morning inspecting the garden for pests and picking them off. I later discovered that wasps loved to eat cabbage worms! So, instead of looking at wasps as my enemies, I saw them as my allies. Whenever the wasps raided my garden, I just stepped inside the house and let them do their thing!


Comparing Garden Containers

Eggplant growing in GT2 next to eggplant growing in small container

2 large eggplant fruit next to 2 small eggplantsAnother discovery was seeing how important composting was for the plants. I did an experiment using eggplants in the GT2 and eggplants in conventional pots. The eggplants in the GT2 grew much larger and healthier than the ones in conventional pots.


The eggplant fruit produced by the eggplants in the GT2 were actually edible and nearly free of blemishes, whereas the eggplants in the conventional pots produced small, hard, and ugly fruits. The eggplants in the GT2 had access to compost, whereas the other eggplants did not.



Discovering Compost Critters

Perhaps the biggest discovery was the black soldier fly larvae. For a few days, I noticed that the compost contents were quickly reducing in size. Then I’ve discovered these maggots in my compost tube. After researching about them and seeing them in action, I fell in love with these guys! Unlike red wigglers or European night crawlers that eat veggies and fruit scraps, the black soldier fly larvae ate almost anything, including meat and cheese (two of which would usually be forbidden to add in a compost pile).



Because of my success with the GT2, I started a Facebook page called “The Back Deck Harvest.”  The page has a ton of photos of my experience with the GT2. I simply post what I’m doing in the garden. No silly memes, no articles, nothing but my work in my vertical garden.

The GT2 was a great investment. We have grown tomatoes, lettuce, eggplants, squash, peppers, basil, kale, mustard greens, bok choy, cilantro and parsley, and have even revived a few dying marigold plants I bought. We have eaten the fruits of our labor and have shared our fruits with others. We went from growing barely anything to growing a big crop of food on a small deck of 90 square feet. 





Gifts for Gardeners

Gifts for Gardeners

Planning gifts for gardening enthusiasts?  Here are some practical and fun items that will help your beloved gardener start 2016 off right. 



Books, Calendars, and Apps


1.    Tools

See here for a list of great tool ideas for gardeners. Gardeners will love hori hori, seeding tools, nitrile-palmed gloves, buckets and bags to organize tools, small wheelbarrows, kneeling pads and seats, broadforks, and more. b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_1779.jpg

   The best tools are often Japanese or Italian steel-bladed tools. Japanese tools can be specialized but are often beautiful, ergonomic, and durable. Simple design lines are helpful for keeping your tools clean. Wooden handles are beautiful, but often break down faster than plastic handled tools.  It is always worth investing in a better quality tool that is likely to last generations. 

   Besides cutting and aerating tools; watering cans, rain barrels, and drip irrigation systems might be on your gardener’s wish list. If your gardener has a small container garden, a watering can may be enough. Rain barrels, downspout diverters, and hoses are helpful for small gardens (as long as your state and municipality allow them). Drip irrigation and wicking supplies might be better for larger gardens and dry land garden systems. 


2.    Supplies

Besides durable tools, there are lots of things that gardeners enjoy this time of year in the way of supplies. Seeds, plant markers, pots and trays, heating mats, and grow lights extend capacity in the garden and are all appreciated. Plant markers—especially reusable ones for seed starting and annuals or more permanent metal markers for perennials--can help one remember what is what. Lights can help the gardener through the winter or starting seeds in the spring. Look for low energy lights to grow under. 

    Why not gift your gardener with unusual varieties and heirloom seeds? There are exciting discoveries and beautiful plant varieties found each year. Remember to check zone and light requirements for your gardener. 

    Soils and soil amendments might not be exciting to some gardeners, but there are a range of them to include in a fine gardening practice. Seaweeds and foliar feeds may be new to your gardener and helpful in creating beautiful, healthy plants in the summer. Seed starting soil blends along with trays, heat mats, seeds, and a grow light might be the perfect package gift. Why not put them together in a harvest basket? 

   Besides these, a small greenhouse or wrap (also called a fleece) might be perfect for starting seeds or protecting a Garden Tower


3.    Books, Calendars, and Apps

 This category ranges across many subjects, but every gardener should have access to information. Thomas J. Elpel wrote a fun book to help us understand plant classifications: 

b2ap3_thumbnail_gift-books.jpg Botany in a Day. It’s a small book and just as fun as his children’s book: Shanleya’s Quest. 

Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed is a great primer on seed saving, care, and starting.

   Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower and The Winter Harvest Handbook are two classics that bear a wealth of information and help the gardener and market farmer plan the coming year.

   For those interested in permaculture, Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden is great for a beginning book. Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook is a dense and practical approach to suburban permaculture practice[i]. Rosemary Morrow’s Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture is also full of practical approaches to permaculture design.

   Maria Thun’s Gardening for Life: The Biodynamic Way is a classic (albeit esoteric) introduction to this particular approach to gardening.

   Every gardener needs access to a calendar. Many people swear by the Farmer’s Almanac. The land grant university in one's state probably has an online calendar or planting guide accessible through the extension office. Here is one example.  Besides informational calendars, gardening journals to help a gardener plan, observe, and record the garden’s yearly activities is a thoughtful offering. 

   Apps are popular and several are geared to help you know when to plant in your area and to help one choose plants that will suit one's garden space—even helping you imagine what your designed space will look like through the season. In this case, a gift certificate to the app store might be just what is needed to round out a gift. 

   Remember, gardening not only produces beauty and food, but health and well-being to a gardening friend. What better gift could one give someone in the holiday season? 


[i] In the interest of full disclosure, Peter Bane has been a mentor and colleague for the past ten years. 


Soil and Bioremediation

Soil and Bioremediation

When it comes to food, soil is where it’s at. There’s the adage: healthy soil=healthy plants=healthy people. It’s true! That’s why nutrient dense foods are as important to identify as organic or local foods. Growing your own in an active soil food web is key. 

We focused on what goes into healthy soil in a blog from May this year…and there’s more. Many of us live in urban or rural areas that have damaged and contaminated soils: oil spills, herbicides, asphalt and concrete bases in the soil, etc.  In fact, it might be safe to say that most of us have something to consider in our environment. This blog isn’t meant to be a “doomer downer” entry, but to introduce to you some techniques to heal our soils:

  1. Microbial remediation uses the bacteria and other microbes present in a healthy soil food web. Composting and applying compost as well as increasing the variety of plant species present are two of the keys.
  2. Phytoremediation uses plants as the primary processors of toxins. Plants can extract the toxin (and then be removed themselves) or break the contaminant down, or bind it up.
  3. Mycoremediation uses fungi to process contaminants. These are especially good at long-chain carbon substances (such as those made from oil).

These three techniques alone, or in combination, can do much to work with natural processes to break down or bind up toxins.  Remediated landscapes are then much healthier for people, plants and animals to be in.

Don’t go it alone! More research and working with specialists in the subject can help you to assess and formulate a plan for how to address an area safely.  Healing a damaged landscape can take years to fully realize.

Community groups together with municipalities are more appropriate to make decisions for larger common spaces. Many municipalities and states mandate capping the damaged soil with clean soil brought in from outside. Just like throwing a rug over your dirty floor, capping is not a complete solution. While, it is an understandable approach given financial and time constraints, it might be worth suggesting alternative test plots using remediation and proceeding carefully from there.

If you want two sources to inspire you, please do check out Earth Repair: A grassroots guide to healing toxic and damaged landscapes by Leila Darwish (2013) and the work of Paul Steamiest of Fungi Perfecti. Both are cautious, optimistic, and passionate about transforming our landscapes into healthier places for future generations. 

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