Mari's Dirty Fingers

A Newbie's Garden Experiment

California Natives

My anniversary is in May.  My husband and I have spent the last few ones pursuing activities we both like.  This year we decided to spend it in and around San Diego picking out new additions to the school’s California native plant garden and learning about Tilapia hydroponics.  My husband has a survivalist/self-sufficient streak that overlaps my gardening/homesteading interests.  I don’t know if our relationship is complimentary or codependent.

Romantic right?  For us it actually is.  My husband and I are usually so busy with the needs and interests of our boys that we run out of time for ourselves.  The two hour drive to San Diego, lunch, coffee with sweets, and the two hour drive back is probably the most alone time my husband and I spend all year. 

Our first stop was to Las Pilitas Nursery in Escondido, California.  This nursery only sells California native plants.  Their website is amazing with all kinds of information on every plant they sell including how many of each plant they have for purchase. 

This place rocks!

This place rocks!

They have an online garden planner that helps narrow your search of suitable plants based on the amount of sun exposure, soil type, and frequency of watering of your garden.  They include pictures of what the plants will look like when they mature.  This is really helpful if like me, you purchase the less expensive one gallon plants.  It’s nice to have an idea of what their full grown potential is.  The folks that run the nursery are amazingly knowledgeable, approachable, and helpful.

The entrance and sorounding grounds are all feature CA native, plants, shrubs, and trees.

The entrance and surrounding grounds feature CA native plants, shrubs, and trees.

Last year the students planted about a dozen plants in our CA native garden.  We had two die, but the rest are now big, beautiful, and blooming or preparing to bloom.  I try to pick plants that produce attractive flowers.  Mostly because flowers are nice to look at , but also because they attract wildlife.  It’s always interesting to see city kids flip out when they see a butterfly, bee, beetle, or hummingbird.  They go nuts when they get a glimpse of our resident Western fence lizard.

This year we will be expanding our native garden and replacing the non-native hedges along the building.  My hubby is slowly removing them.  Here is a picture of some of the new babies that students will plant.  I’ll post some before and after pictures later on.

New plants to add to our CA native plant garden.

New plants to add to our CA native plant garden.

Next week I’ll write about the Tilapia hydroponics talk we attended that same day.

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Tomatoes, Tomatoes, and more Tomatoes

We weren’t very successful with tomatoes in the school garden last year.  Only 2 tomato plants  were planted; one cherry and one beefsteak.  The cherry tomatoes produced okay but the teacher did not cage them and they spread all over the garden box and onto the path.  We lost many fruit to pill bugs, slugs, and rot.  The beefsteak was very productive but it had a little 2 feet tall tomato cage that did little to support it.  Unfortunately,  some parents picked most of the tomatoes before they could fully ripen or be harvested by the students for their salads.

Tomatoes in reused/upcycled pots for our garden fundraiser.

Tomatoes in reused/upcycled pots for our garden fundraiser.

We’re off to a much better start this year.  Students started tomato seeds in February and March.  We used a few in our garden and the rest will be sold to raise funds for garden equipment.  Some of the varieties started: Black Plum, Juliet Hybrid, Persimmon, Large Red Cherry, Sweet 100, Brandywine, and Fox Cherry. We are  trying a variety of different plant supports this year.

For the Black Plum we are using a trellis.  

  • Tomato info: indeterminate tomato (continues to produce fruit throughout the growing season) grows 4-6 feet and produces brown/black plum sized fruit good for salads and drying.
  • The trellis is made from a metal EMT conduit frame and nylon garden netting.  Here is a good Trellis How To by Brian Sell at Living Well Now.  We made ours in a similar manner.
We are using twine and pruning to train this tomato to grow up the trellis.

We are using twine and pruning to train this tomato to grow up the trellis.

For the Large Red Cherry we are also using a trellis.  Tomato info: indeterminate tomato that grows about 8 feet tall with small cherry shaped fruit used fresh in salads.

For the Sweet 100 we are using a tepee.

  • Tomato info:  indeterminate tomato grows 4-6 feet and produces small cherry shaped fruit good eaten fresh and in salads.
  • The tepee is made out of four 6 feet tall bamboo poles tied together with twine at one end.
Tomato teepee. Students will add twine around the legs as tomato grows.

Tomato teepee. Students will add twine around the legs as tomato grows.

For the Persimmon we are going to use a remesh cage.

  • Tomato info:  indeterminate tomato that grows 4-6 feet and produces large yellow orange fruit good fresh, for slicing, canning, and in salads.
  • Here is an excellent Remesh Cage How To video by Emily at My Square Foot Garden.  We followed her instructions to make ours.
Remesh cage in action.

Remesh cage in action.

The school garden is accessible through the open parking lot during the hours the school is in operation.  I’m sure the  parents probably think, “Where’s the harm in taking just one tomato.”  The thing is, our school has close to 800 students.  It only takes a small percentage of their parents taking ONE veggie each to empty those boxes.  I’m going to have students make “Do not Pick” signs, or something along those lines.  If the parents see the signs in their children’s handwriting they may resist the temptation.

Please leave suggestions for the wording of the signs.  Something to the point but not rude. We’re not at the rude stage yet.


School Garden Salad

The weather in Southern California is pretty fantastic, so we decided to celebrate it with a salad.


  1. Tangerine slices (left over fruit from school  breakfast)
  2. Strawberries from the garden
  3. Lettuce from the garden
  4. Carrots from the garden
  5. Nasturtium flowers from the garden
  6. Salad dressing made from  tangerine juice and pinch of salt


Our school has a “breakfast in the classroom” program. We keep uneaten fruit to slice up in our Friday salads. The students really enjoy the sweetness with the leafy greens. We have tried apples and pears and this time tangerines.

Peeled tangerines to sweeten the salad

Peeled tangerines to sweeten the salad

We made a sign to make sure we would have ripe strawberries.  The delicious strawberry smell from that one little box is quite tempting.

In preparation for the salad.

In preparation for the salad.

The ingredients are a little bit different every time we make a salad depending on what’s growing.  No radishes this time but we did have carrots. The kids were also fascinated with the idea of eating the nasturtium flowers.

Students collecting ingredients for the salad

Students collecting ingredients for the salad

Students love picking food they grow themselves.  Sometimes I see them after school giving their parents tours of their garden.

The harvest

The harvest

The kids wrote in their garden journal while I prepared the salad.  After all that hard work, we finally got to eat it! This  particular salad was very well received.  Many asked for seconds and very little of it ended in the trash.  One small victory for veggies and fruit.

Garden Salad

School Garden Salad


Touring the School Garden

9 boxes and a flower garden

9 boxes and a flower garden

Let me give you a tour of the garden as it looks right now.  Each garden box is assigned to a different classroom and is in a different stage of prepping, planting, and harvesting.  Many are covered by bird netting to protect them from bird and human pests.  We are in planting zone 10, so we are busy all year round.  I’ll write a separate post describing the demographics of this urban school and the importance of a school garden for this area. Today is just about showing off what a great job the students have done!

Box 1  Planted 3/21/13

Radish, pole beans, carrots, cilantro, loose leaf lettuce, Black Plum tomato, and zucchini

Second Grade Box

Second grade box

Box 2  Planted 2/15/13

Loose leaf lettuce, radish, carrots, beets, onions, Ibes bush bean (indigenous to Yucatan, Mexico)

Second Grade Box

Second grade box

Box 3  Planted 3/13/13

zucchini, Thai basil, bush beans, beets, carrots, radish, lettuce

Second Grade Box

Second grade box

Box 4  Planted 1/10/13

Radish, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choi (yellow flowers), and a volunteer sunflower

Third grade box

Third grade box

Box 5  Planted 11/15/12

Strawberries, loose leaf lettuce, carrots, radish, onions, and volunteer nasturtium

Second Grade Box

Second Grade Box

Box 6  Planted 1/15/13

Peas, loose leaf lettuce, carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, strawberries

High garden box is wheelchair accessible for the special education class.

High garden box is wheelchair accessible for the special education class.

Box 7  Planted 3/6/13

Zucchini, soy bean, Thai basil, bush beans, carrots, radish, lettuce

First Grade Garden Box

First Grade Garden Box

Box 8  Planted sometime in December 2012

Brussel sprouts, carrots, peas, lettuce, radish, nasturtium, and some purple flowers

Third grade box

Third grade box

Box 9  Planted sometime in December 2012

Kale, lettuce, carrots, Narcissus flower, and some purple flowers

Third Grade Box

Third Grade Box

The Corn Field  Transplanted 3/11/13

Corn Field

Corn Field

The California Native Plant Garden

Original plantings May 2012.  Additional plantings March 2013. I will make a separate post for the natives once everything is in full spring bloom.

California Native Plant Garden

California Native Plant Garden

Hope you enjoyed the tour and I wish you happy gardening!


STRAW berries! Now I get it.

This is my first time growing strawberries.  I looked up a ton of information before I tried planting them with the school kids.  Telling them our strawberries died because I didn’t know what I was doing would suck.  I used for most of my information. The major things I learned from my research were:

  1. Plant varieties of strawberries known to do well in your area
  2. Plant them according to your zone (Zone 10 December-February)
  3. Prepare your soil (strawberries like it acidic)
  4. Mulch to avoid fruit rot

Following these tips I bought Eversweet and Temptation strawberry varieties.  I amended the garden bed with acidic soil for berries.  The kids planted them in late November.  The plants looked healthy and grew. We began to see flowers.  Everything was perfect.  For a while. Then the weather warmed up and the plants began producing strawberries.  Unfortunately many rotted on the plant before they could ripen.

Many strawberries got moldy or leathery before they could ripen and picked.

Moldy or leathery strawberries before ripening

Yikes! I needed to fix this ASAP.  I went back to my notes and realized I still hadn’t finished mulching my strawberries.  I had kept the branches of my Christmas tree in the garage because pine needle mulch makes soil more acidic and therefore would be good for the strawberries.  I started mulching after Christmas but then got busy with other garden stuff and hadn’t gotten around to finishing.  Bad move.

The “straw” in strawberries points to how important mulching is to this fruit.  Most of the problems and diseases that spoil strawberries are caused by the fruit touching the soil.

Strawberry bed before

Strawberry bed before

Well, I had to try to fix my mistake.  I started by removing all the old leaves and bad fruit.  Hopefully this would help improve air circulation and reduce the spread of mold.  Then I mulched  everything with pine needles.

Strawberry bed after

Strawberry bed after

I made sure all the remaining strawberry leaves and fruit were completely off the soil and on a soft pine needle bed.  It’s only been a week,  but the remaining strawberries are ripening just fine.  It looks like I dodged a bullet and won’t have to give the kids bad news after all.


Strawberry growing well on pine needle mulch


The Updates are Coming! The Updates are Coming!

I like visiting blogs as part of my gardening research. The big websites have valuable tried and true methods, but I love the innovation and experimentation of individual  people.   What I don’t like about some blogs is that you only see the enthusiastic beginnings of projects and never the end results.  I’m as interested in the failed attempts as I am in the successes.  There are lessons to be learned with both.  So, here’s where all my  pre-spring manic gardening attempts are as of today.  You can click on the bold title to link back to the original post.

Children of the Corn

Recap: Started corn indoors on 2/21/13 in newspaper pots for later transplanting in school garden.

Of the 45 corn seeds, only 37 germinated  (82%) and survived to be planted in the garden. We cleared a 7′ x 7′ section of lawn and mixed in a couple of wheelbarrows of compost. At almost 3 weeks old the corn roots were just starting to break through the newspaper pots.

corn growing

Corn at 2 weeks

Future home of the Corn

Future Home of the Corn

Students planted corn about 1 foot apart and then gave them a nice deep watering on 3/11/13. The teacher also planted some of the corn.  She is convinced she has a black thumb and says she kills everything she plants. She is very excited (but doubtful) to see the corn grow. 

Corn ready for transplanting

Corn ready for transplanting

Corn Field in the Morning Sun.

Corn Field in the Morning Sun

Prepping for March

Recap: Started tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash indoors in anticipation of warmer spring weather.

This update is mostly about yield.  I read that eggplant and peppers are difficult to grow from seeds and have low germination rates.  They require 1-3 weeks and 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit to germinate.  I kept my seeds covered with saran wrap under a 60 watt bulb. Here is a picture of what germinated (below).  Some eggplant and pepper seeds germinated after a few days and others are still emerging after 2 weeks.  All the squash emerged and will be planted into the ground next week.

Column Left to Right: 1-2 Eggplant, 3-4 Grand Bell Pepper, 5 CA wonder Bell Pepper, 6 Zucchini Squash

Germination Rates:

Eggplant 5 out of 12 (42%)

Pepper Grand Bell Mix 6 out of 12 (50%)

Pepper California Wonder 3 out of 6 (50%)

Zucchini Squash 6 out of 6 (100%)

Germination rates were actually higher but some plants died a day or two after they sprouted, so I’m not including those.  Even though the rate for eggplants and peppers are low, it’s still a great deal to grow plants from seed. I paid $0.25  for each seed packet at the Dollar Tree and I will end up with 12 plants for the school garden that would  normally cost me a few dollars each.


The Black Plum tomatoes where done in 2 batches. The first batch was started in egg cartons then transplanted to milk carton pots after the first true leaves appeared.  The second batch was sown straight into the milk cartons.  As you can see, the transplanted batch made for small weak plants while the second batch are all bigger and stronger.  If you have the space then I recommend you start individual seeds in larger containers over egg carton transplants.  I have never tried using commercial seed starting plugs so I have no opinion on those.

Left side: sown in egg carton then transplanted to milk carton. Right: sown straight in milk carton.

Left side: sown in egg carton then transplanted to milk carton. Right: sown straight into milk carton.


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I’m Gonna Make You Purty

cleared grass and newly planted native plants

cleared grass and newly planted native plants

There was a different principal last year at the school where I do my garden volunteering.  She was very supportive of developing the neglected garden into a teaching tool.  She pretty much gave us the thumbs up for all the ideas we came up with.  She gave us permission to rip out 200 square feet of  lawn to make a CA native plant garden using donated cement cylinders and free mulch.  She let us pull out another section of lawn to make pumpkin and watermelon mounds.  The only thing she ever complained about was the untidy look that the garden area had.

The vegetable boxes and paths where overgrown with crab grass.  Many of the trees, shrubs, and bushes were in desperate need of trimming.  Weeds were growing and flowering all around. We did eventually get all of that cleaned up with the help of students, parents, and teachers.  Even so, I wanted to do some additional beautification to serve as a Thank You for all the principal’s support.

The first thing I did was make garden signs using scrap pieces of wood and craft paint.  I bought some cutesy painted wood decorations and glued them on.  The most time consuming part was brushing on the 3 coats of urethane because they needed 2 hours between coats to dry.




Cute right? The CA native plant sign tells visitors what’s going on in that area. The top most picture is from when we first planted almost a year ago.  The plants are much bigger now and are starting to bloom.  I can’t wait until the spring starts and the plants really start to show off.

With the vegetable garden sign I was trying to give the kids a sense of ownership and pride.  I thought this was important because there had been some vandalism in the garden.  There was graffiti on the benches where the kids wrote their journal observations.  Parents would take the tomatoes and lemons before the students could harvest them.  Once, someone walked through all the garden boxes compacting the soil and killing some young sprouts.  From the small size of the footprints it was probably one of the school’s students.  I decided to make smaller signs with the name of the teacher whose class worked that box.  Signs also had to be made asking that the vegetables not be picked.  Overall the parents and students have been much more respectful of the garden.

Steve protector of garden

Steve protector of the garden

I also wanted to include the students in the garden beautification.  We made a scarecrow named Steve.  The students decorated his shirt, dressed, and stuffed him.  We are going to work on getting Steve a scarecrow girlfriend to protect the corn that we just planted this week.

There’s a lot of other stuff on the planning board.  I want to put up a couple of picket fences to keep parents and kids from trampling on our veggies.  We’ll reuse some old fences that need repainting.  I’ll get the kids to paint them.  I also want to make some of those great topsy turvy pot towers.

Do you have any neat ideas for the garden that can be done with a whole bunch of school children?  If so, please share them in the comment section.

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If I Charged Them, They Wouldn’t Be Able to Afford Me

Photo: Spent the last few weeks helping with art lessons. Our art gallery is up in the hallway.I’m a stay at home mom.  I’m not an especially good house wife though.  I shun most domestic duties.  I figure that if my family are fed tasty healthy food, and everyone and their clothes are clean, then I’ve done a pretty good job.  Please don’t look under the beds.  I don’t recall the last time I passed a broom down there.  The truth is, if you find me cleaning frantically,  I’m probably expecting company or I’m crazy mad.

So what the heck do I do all day?  I volunteer at my son’s school.  A lot.  I help with the new in-classroom breakfast program.  I  make copies, correct papers, laminate stuff, gossip, etc.  Lately, I’ve been pulling groups of students to work on art projects.  I like being at school.  I know the teachers and administrators.  I know how my son is doing academically and socially.  They get free labor and I get the inside scoop.  It’s a good deal.

Overgrown Box

My son’s teacher last year was on the garden committee.  His class would go out to the garden once a week and I would volunteer to help out.  I quickly realized that the teachers had too much on their plate to properly plan and maintain the school garden.

The boxes were overgrown with crab grass.  The kids would try pulling it out but it just  grew back with more vigor.  The drip lines were all out of whack.  Some boxes were bone dry while others drowned the plants. The outings were sometimes chaotic because the teachers did not have time to plan the outside activities.  I’m going to blame standardized testing for that.  Did you know that LAUSD does mini tests to see how kids are going to do on the big standardized test?  They do this 3 times a year.  I see it as wasted instructional time.

Anyways, I slowly started taking on more responsibility until I became the Garden Lady.  With the help of my trusty sidekick, Juancho Pansa, we dismantled, sifted, weeded, mulched, repaired, trellised, and trimmed that garden into shape.  My dad helped fix the faulty drip line system.

Now I give mini gardening lessons in the classrooms and plan a lot of the planting.  I try to come up with ways of making the garden beautiful as well.  We made a scarecrow and garden signs. I think it’s important that the students have a sense of ownership and pride.  They love picking their veggies and they really do eat them.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes.  Like me, these kids are city kids.  Many live in apartments and don’t have opportunities to grow any kind of garden.  In school they get a hands on opportunity to learn about growing food.  Last year only 3 classrooms worked in the garden.  This year all 9 garden beds will be used by 8 different teachers.

Picture of all beds weeded and all paths mulched in January.


Picture of boxes February 25.

All but 2 garden boxes planted with maturing winter veggies.

All but 2 garden boxes planted with maturing winter veggies.

So what am I trying to say (other than look how awesome I am)?  I’m not a good housewife, but I have interests and talents that have value.  I don’t really have a green thumb.  I have a computer, time to look stuff up, and people that are willing to help me.  I have found a way to be helpful while totally doing what I enjoy.  I think everyone is good at something.  If you could share that talent with others then please do so.  If you could do it in a classroom then your kids will be the beneficiaries of your good deeds.  If you don’t have kids then find a different way to help and please stay out of the schools because that’s just creepy and illegal.


Prepping for March

Tomatoes at 4 weeks

Tomatoes at 4 weeks

So March is around the corner.  Gardeners in my zone (plant hardiness zone 10) are all a flutter with the prospect of their spring planting.  I’m going to start some veggies indoors.  One reason to start seeds indoor is that some plants just do better sowing inside and then transplanting outside.  Another reason is that you have more mature plants going into your garden in March than if you started them outside.  It gives you a head start on your growing season.   I already started several weeks ago with tomatoes.

I will be starting peppers and eggplants inside this week.  I’m going to be preparing my garden beds while my seeds are germinating indoors.  I’ll reuse some single serving milk carton containers that the school kids save and rinse out for me.

Here are the seeds I’m going to start indoors (4 for $1 at the Dollar Tree).

seeds 2seeds 1

The pots are made by  cutting the tops of the milk cartons with scissors and making drainage slits at the bottom with a box cutter. Then they are filled with a mixture of Bumper crop, compost and perlite, but you can use whatever soil mix you want. Follow the package instructions for sowing depth of each seed type.  I label the plants with large popsicle sticks, cover with saran wrap, and place near a window.

Preping for March

I’m planting way more than the school garden and my own garden will need.  We are planning to sell the extras at a garden fundraiser later this year.  As you can imagine, there is no garden budget from the school or the district.  The teachers and parents purchase almost everything needed in the garden.  Our compost, mulch, and some seeds are donated through special contacts or grants.  Hopefully the plant sale will raise enough money to purchase child sized shovels, new watering hoses, and other needed equipment.

If you have any interesting ways of reusing objects in your garden, please share in the comment section below.  I’m always looking for new things to try.

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Children of the Corn

In the Mayan origin story, God tried making people out of mud and wood but these peoples sucked and he destroyed them.  Then he made people out of corn and we were pretty cool and here we are.

corn people

As you can tell, corn was pretty important to the Mayans.  Fast forward a few generations to me trying to figure out how to grow corn at my son’s school.  I have a few problems:

  1.  I’ve never planted any before
  2.  Corn is planted in March in my zone but take 90 days to harvest, which means end of May/beginning of June
  3.  Josh’s school year ends the first week of June

I’m not supposed plant before March because it’s too cold, but if I wait until March then we will be harvesting the last day of school which realistically would be pure insanity. Not to mention that I want to clear the corn and plant pumpkins and watermelon that last week so they will be ready to harvest the next school year.

Solution: start them 2 weeks earlier indoors and transplant them in the garden in March. This will give me a 2 week window to harvest and replant new crops.

This is the corn I’ll be starting indoors.

photo 1

I made newspaper pots using a toilet paper roll mold. Corn is not supposed to do well when transplanted from plastic pots. They have a long tap root from which many smaller roots grow from. If the tap root is damaged during transplanting then the whole plant may die or be weak sauce. The idea here is to give the tap root room to grow and then plant the whole paper pot into the ground. The roots should grow through the paper.

photo 2

I filled the paper pot with Bumper Crop soil builder.  I’ve never tried a seed starter soil. It’s more expensive. Bumper Crop is pretty chunky stuff but I’ve had small tomato seeds germinate without a problem. It has tons of good stuff in it like Dolomite. I don’t know what Dolomite is but it sounds pretty bad ass.

photo 3

I put in a corn seed in each pot and covered them with an inch of soil. This is what 45 of them looks like.

photo 4

I covered them with saran wrap and placed them in a sunny spot. I’ll update the progress.

photo 5