Herbs for Inside

January 30th, 2010

Starting Herbs at Home

Last week we looked at window planters for herbs, now let’s talk about getting your herbs started. Yes it’s January, and there is no way we will be starting these outside. Most of us have been led to believe that in order to start herb seeds, you need fancy equipment and lots of time. While it’s true that when growing plants from seed professionally, having lights, multiple flats with cells, special soils and maybe even warming pads work wonders, the truth is that before commercial sprouting of seeds, folks started their own seeds in their homes for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years and we can too.

Get the pot or planter you selected (because you read last week’s blurb on planters and went out and bought some that will fit on your window) and put some stones in the bottom for drainage, put a little fabric over the stones, and add some moistened commercial seed starting mix-ha ha small joke, not so easy to get that. Make your own by mixing 50% peat moss with 50% potting mix and fill your pots/planters with this stopping one half inch to one inch from the top of the pot.

Next, sprinkle your seeds lightly over the soil. For a 4”- 6” pot, you can sprinkle 3-6 seeds just to give you an idea of distribution. If you use less you run the risk of failed germination, more will give you a whole lot of sprouts, which is the lesser of two evils really. Cover the seeds with maybe an eighth of an inch of soil mix. Press the mix down with your fingers, and gently water or even spritz with water (you don’t want to drown the soil and have the seeds float to the top).

Take some saran wrap or similar product and cover the pot over. Seal it by putting a rubber band around the pot to hold the plastic wrap down. Next, set the containers in a sink filled with 2 inches of water until beads of moisture appear on the soil surface or until you are sure the soil is good and soaked. If a self watering pot, fill the well to capacity. Put the pot in a saucer if you did not get a self watering pot, and water the plant daily by filling the saucer with water or less often if there is still water in the saucer the next day. Seeds need moisture to germinate!.

Make sure you have the pot in a nice south facing window, or at least one that gets a few hours of sunlight a day, as the seeds sprout, they will look for light and you will want to cut back on the water somewhat. Probably you will want to water half as often, but this really is determined by how fast the soil dries, more soil can wait longer, less will need more frequent watering. When the seedlings touch the plastic, remove it. When the seedlings reach 2 inches tall, thin those started in small pots to one seedling per pot, or one seedling for every 2”-3” if a larger pot, by snipping off all but the strongest-looking seedlings.

For more on herbs and related links, follow our fan page on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/pages/New-Rochelle-NY/Greener-by-Design/150120836420?ref=nfReady to Germinate

Pots & Planters for Indoor Herbs

January 25th, 2010

Growing Herb Indoors: Pot Selection

Picking up where we left of last week, its 54 degrees today as I write this column. However, by the time you read it, it will be closer to 36 and any hopes of gardening this week will be dashed on the jagged rocks of winter despair.  A centuries old practice that sees an increasing revival as people epicurean adventures expand, and pocket books remain watched, it growing herbs indoors.

Growing herbs indoors will add a little green to your home and fresh herbs that you can harvest in a pinch. These can be grown in any sunny window, but most folks prefer the kitchen for ease of access.  Some say the sky is the limit when choosing containers for your herb garden but certainly not if it’s going to  be your window sill. Other limits are pots that are food safe. Some glossy colored pots may not be food safe as they may contain lead based coloring. Of course you can use plastic pots, or terracotta is excellent as it breathes.

We have a couple of 4” x 8”  wide terracotta rectangular planters that fit perfectly on the window sill over the sink and when in use have housed beans and grass sprouted by our industrious little herd. The problem with ours is drainage, they don’t have proper saucers, but the window box format allows more soil for rooting as opposed to individual round pots which though sweet, do dry out faster and can limit plant development. There are some great lines of self watering fiberglass planters on the market that can be ordered in custom lengths available through Brookstone (www.brookstone.com) and Flower Window Boxes (www.flowerwindowboxes.com).

Of course if you forgo the window sill experience and  have a nice large bay window you can put some full sized pots in, your yields will be much higher and there will be a lot more room for variety. We will be posting more information on herb gardening on our facebook fan page. Search Greener by Design and on facebook and become a fan for ongoing updates on this topic. In fact there is an interesting link to a video on hydroponic window gardening made easy up there from last week.


Dreams of Spring: Vegetable Garden

January 19th, 2010

Veggies and Small Spaces


It’s particularly warm this week which generally inspires a little spring dreaming. Of course we will be back to ice and snow soon enough, it is only January after all, but in the mean time, let’s roll with it a little. I have wanted a vegetable garden forever. Ai remember one year in Brooklyn, growing tomatoes on my roof. I neglected them somewhat but at the end of the summer I had some amazing tasting tomatoes and of course more than I could eat all at once. Being a single guy, I made tomato sauce and it was incredible! Of course it would have been better if I had peeled the tomatoes first, live and learn.

So I have been researching small vegetable gardens and came across an article on the gardener’s supply website : www.gardeners.com. The whole article is a clever ad with links to gardener’s supply products throughout, but fortunately it’s a great little piece and deals with issues we in the ‘burbs come across all the time.

First is the vertical issue, many of us have small spaces, due to the size of our property, or just difficulty in finding un-shaded space. One tool for growing veggies more vertical is a product they call the “vegetable ladder” this also doubles as the tomato ladder by the way, a three post triangular upright with cross pieces that support foliage and veggies that is really quite simple and clever.

They also note that sub-urban and even urban gardens can be shared with locals like raccoons, skunks, and bunnies and recommend fencing them in. Really aggressive bunnies need buried fencing, but friends who grow veggies in Pelham tell me we don’t have any that hungry…yet. Another recommendation is some kind of weed barrier to reduce weeding, always an excellent recommendation. These can be U-pinned to the soil and mulched over to help hold the mmat down and reduce evaporation.

Studies show that raised beds are more conducive to vegetable production as they tend to be warmer, better aerated, and provide better drainage as well. So if you’re interested in a small plot, even 8’ x 8’, you will want to pick a relatively sunny spot that you can tend regularly. For more information on vegetable gardening, go to the greener by design fan page on facebook. We will be posting links to videos and articles for the next week or two. Just put “greener by design” in your facebook search box and it should come up.

All Them Holiday Lights!

December 13th, 2009

Sustainable Holidays

The Holidays challenge the growing eco-friendly consciousness of our society. It is very hard to drive at night without loving the holiday lights so many homes sport and at the same time, one must wonder how much more carbon is being released into the atmosphere, how much more pollution, and how diminishing resources are effected by our current practices of firing up our communities every holiday season..

This column would never suggest to NOT celebrating. At the same time, in a society that is based primarily on non-replenish able energy sources whose usage degrades the environment it is hard to justify all the disposable sets of lights we use and the amount of time they are left on. Incidentally, the same argument carries over to landscape lighting and in all honestly I have balked at adding landscape lighting to my home for exactly the same reason.

Until we complete the conversion from a petro chemically based society to one  that relies on solar, wind, methane, and whatever clever new ways of harvesting clean energy emerge, we are all compelled to use less and use it wisely and so  compromise is to live by the “less is more” philosophy. If you already have your lights, buy a timer for them. Don’t let them run all night, instead set them to prime viewing hours, well after dark, and off before midnight or earlier. There are a huge variety of timers out there and they will increase the longevity of bulbs,  and save you money on electricity.

Considering limiting your displays on time to very short or no hours on weekdays, when folks are wrapped up in their day to day experience, and longer hours on the weekends, when more holiday visiting and travel occurs. Limit the number of lights you use. This is the antithesis of the “do your house up to beat the Jones’” philosophy. Only have lights in key areas that are the focal point of yourself and neighbors. Use LCD lights. Incidentally the LCD approach is a great landscape lighting compromise as well. LCD strands cost more up front, but use significantly less electricity than traditional strands and last more than ten times as long. Higher end LCD displays change color, and can be programmed with music.

Install your displays a little later, resist decorating after Halloween or even the day after Thanksgiving, and take it down early. This is the come late leave early approach to going to parties you ambivalent about applied to displays.  Finally, there is the no lights approach. Honestly my family is extremely resistant to this one and it is almost an impossible sell. You might pull it off with heavy use of natural (mulchable) greens and maybe  using candles in some way shape or form, but candles will require some real creativity to make it work without setting the neighborhood on fire.

Gardening in December

November 29th, 2009

December Gardening

You can still plant in December. Plants are going dormant and they don’t mind being planted in this phase. Transplanting is also permitted, though I would avoid moving larger plant material, particularly evergreens. As long as the ground is not frozen, plants can be tucked into it for the winter. You can still plant bulbs for that matter, and they are on sale now that it is the end of the season.

Avoid pruning at this stage in the game if possible. Cutting plants while they are going dormant gives them a mixed signal since pruning stimulates growth, while trees and shrubs are in the process of slowing down. Perennials on the other hand may be cut back to the ground , and hydrangeas and grasses may also be cut back if that is your desire.

“Wilt pruf” your evergreens if possible. Wilt pruf is the brand name of a particular anti-desiccant.  Evergreens stop absorbing moisture as they shut down, however, they continue to lose moisture to the wind throughout the winter. If you have particularly exposed evergreens, or specimen plants you would like to protect, this is the ideal time to spray them (while temperatures are above forty degrees Fahrenheit).

Take the last of your leaves and start a leaf compost pile in an unused corner. Leaf compost is very high in beneficial fungal content and once composted  can be spread around trees and shrubs, or can be used to make compost tea with in the spring, both excellent ways to increase beneficial microbial and fungal activity in your soil.

Ways to Compost

November 22nd, 2009


Composting Revisited

About a year ago, I started composting only after recommending this technique through this column for at least a year prior to that. Why did it take so long?  The answer is, unlike most of humanity, I don’t do change so well. However, I am finding that if I keep positive change on the forefront of my consciousness, it can be executed incrementally thus the adventure in composting began.

We have a stacked composter. Compost needs to be turned regularly to stay viable, some folks like rolling barrels, I like to see what’s going on so I purchased a series of six inch high square, interlocking wall units. When stacked up, my composter reaches a height of about thirty inches, and I can move the composter by un-stacking it, restacking it next to my compost pile, and shoveling the compost into the newly stacked square unit thus turning the whole pile over, or more important, separating partially composted material from fully composted material (on the bottom). The fully composted material is dark, rich, soil like material, ready for distribution in the garden or use in compost tea, while the partially composted material is, well, just plain nasty if you’re not into this sort of thing.

So here’s the rub, after a year of composting household greens, there is not much compost to show for it. Granted, I have made regular withdrawals of composted material for brewing compost tea, but being an American, I want more! Many clients of my clients have been composting their leaves and missing the important turning the pile part of the composting process. They end up with stacks of dry, un-composted yard waste. Additionally, whole leaves are slow to compost. And require a good deal of space before they reduce to a manageable size. However, shredding the leaves with a lawnmower, or a mulcher will reduce the size of the leaves by ten to one.

Leaves added to a home composter like mine that is being used for kitchen green waste composting will break down much faster if shredded first, and when mixed with the existing green waste compost, will provide a much richer composted product than either kitchen waste of yard waste will on their own. A recent NY Times article on composting indicated that leaf compost is much higher in beneficial fungal content that helps roots absorb nutrients, while kitchen greens composting is much higher in nutrients particularly nitrogen. Composting the two together can yield an especially effective product if done in a balanced way.

There are way too many leaves on most of our properties to compost in this manner and we still contend that most leaves can be mulched into your lawn, or mulched and used as shrub and perennial topdressing, saving money in organic material down the line, not to mention breaking the insane energy wasting process of hauling leaves away for composting for re-distribution. If you are already composting, look at mixing it up. If you’re not composting yet, start this fall. It will pay for itself in a healthier garden and you will be doing your part to start to create a culture that knows no waste.

Green Uses of Sickly Trees

November 9th, 2009

Recycling Cut Trees

A reader recently wrote:


I enjoy reading Richard’s articles in The Pelham Weekly.  They are one of my favorite things about the paper and I’ve saved quite a few of the articles over the years.

 I have a question about what I can do ‘green-wise’ with the remnants of a very large oak tree.  We tried to save it but it couldn’t be saved so it will be taken down this week.  I’ve thought about perhaps keeping some slices for a bench and/or a table and some pieces for firewood.  I suppose the tree removal company will chip a lot of it up.  Do you have any other suggestions?

 Thanks for reading this, and I look forward to reading more of your articles in The Pelham Weekly.


Katy Mayer


Dear Katy and Readers,

I took down an oak that had died in my back yard a few years ago and kept  about ten feet of trunk  intact, still rooted to the ground thinking I was going to do something green and creative with the trunk. I thought maybe I would shape it into a giant fist (to show my irreverence, or maybe release my inner panther). Then I thought maybe I would carve a totem to honor the first settlers in the land. Finally, I settled on a giant chair, or maybe it was a throne, the seat of the “Baron of Benedict place”. I got out my collection of chainsaws. I lasted about an hour and had barely made a dent in the old hardened wood. 

In the end, I cut the stump into smaller pieces and I’m finally using them as steps in a play area I built for my daughter (out of properly milled wood). Moral of the story is, leave chainsaw carving to folks who really know it. Attached are pictures of odd an beautiful things that can be made with tree trunks and stumps. Perhaps the tree company can help you craft them! If not, wood form old trees does generally get composted, and/or turned into firewood by these companies. Waste disposal is just too high in our area to do otherwise which is a good thing. Please make sure you plant a new tree for the one your taking down. Our tree canopy in Pelham is precious and the source of a good deal of our higher property values, as well as the basis of a stronger, more layered ecosystem, and help keep save energy by keeping our homes cooler in the summer.


Soil Compaction in Lawns

September 26th, 2009

Soil Compaction, Over Seeding and Aeration

After a summer of kids and dogs pounding on the lawn and with temperatures dropping, fall is really the time to aerate and over seed the lawn.

Aeration is a process where holes are punched into the grass and ground allowing better gas exchange, loosening the soil and helping water floe to root zones. Though there are all kinds of gimmicky aeration devices, like the infamous clip on soles with 3” spikes coming out the bottom that you’re supposed to walk on your lawn with, only core aeration really is effective. Core aeration is a process where a cone like device pulls a soil core up and out of the ground as opposed to spiking the ground which has been proven far less effective in aerating root zones and dealing with compaction.

Compaction is a real issue in many lawns and an interesting, a piece in the New York Times on the lawns at Harvard showed that after a couple of years of compost tea applications, many compaction issues were relieved as microbial activity increased and broke down the elements contributing to compaction. A combination of aeration and compost tea are highly recommended for dealing with compaction issues.

While core aerating and turning up all that loose soil, over seeding at the same time will fill in those spaces made by the aerator, and the loose soil form the cores will help the seed to germinate. And sprout. Grass seed germinated and started out in the fall will come in much more strongly in the spring and be far less likely to fail in the heat of the summer than grass seeded in the spring.

If you have a particularly weedy lawn ( more than half your lawn is weeds) thanks to this year’s heavy moisture get rid of the weeds first either by hand removing or spot spraying weeds with a broadleaf herbicide. If the first application does not knock the weeds out, hit them again a week later. Wait at least one week after applying herbicides to aerate and over seed

By the way, herbicides are the antithesis of compost tea, they kill microbes in the soil contributing to compaction which favors weeds over grass. However, if you spot spray the weeds only you will minimize damage to the soil culture and by upping the compost tea, you can restart the microbial activity in these areas.

Fall Pruning and Trimming

September 20th, 2009

Fall Pruning

I was “garden coaching” with a couple that are client/friends the other day. The area they wanted help with was fall pruning of trees and shrubs. This was a lovely experience with a terrific couple able to express differences and commonality while having fun together, a real lesson for those of us with overly sensitive egos! He likes to prune heavily while she is more cautious, which may be a Y chromosome issue as I tend to be heavy handed myself. Fortunately, pruning, shearing, and trimming require both qualities.

Distinguishing between what needs what is the first step. Generally, little leaf shrubs like  privet, taxus, and perhaps even forsythia  and burning bush can take a good shearing with a hedge clipper of some sort. Hemlocks would be the exception to that rule (there always seems to be one) requiring careful hand pruning. Larger leaf, slower growing plants like rhododendron, lilac, and hydrangea for example really prefer hand pruning as do almost all ornamental trees.


When shearing in the fall, a good rule of thumb is to remove no more than a quarter of the plant. Maybe a third if the plant has not been cut at all in some time. Remember that cutting a plant stimulates growth, which is OK in the Fall but you don’t want to over-stimulate, as the season is winding down and all plants are storing energy for their winter hibernation. If you want to really go at it, and completely reshape the fast growers, winter or very early spring shearing is advised, preferably before they leaf out much. The early you perform a hard cut, the more new foliage you will get to fill in the inevitable bald spots that will result from a hard cut.


When fall pruning, you are dealing with slower growers and want to be conservative. Feel free to remove deadwood of course, also “suckers” or “water sprouts”. These are little shoots coming out of the main branches inside the tree or shrub. Usually not much light reaches them and they almost use as much energy as they generate sapping the plant of energy it could be expending elsewhere. On trees, look for crossing branches. Crossing branches are branches that are touching and rub against each other when the wind blows, rubbing the bark off of the branch and making it more vulnerable to insects and disease. Remove the smaller branch whenever possible unless you feel the smaller branch is ornamentally more appropriate to the shape of the tree.

Weedy Lawns

August 29th, 2009

Coming Back to Weeds

It has been one of the coolest, wettest summers on record and the weeds are loving it! By the end of July, we all had clover and dandelions all over our lawns. This month, crabgrass is making a comeback along with sedge and plantains.

Before chemical weed control and fertilization, clover was considered desirable because it fixes nitrogen in the soil (which is good for grass) and generally has a symbiotic relationship with grass. In fact, folks used to buy grass seed mixes with clover seed mixed in on purpose (gasp). Unless it’s a particularly wet year, clover won’t outrun your grass and even then, if you let the grass get tall in the heat of summer, that will allow the grass to keep the clover to at bay.

Crab grass is easily controlled with proper watering. Crab grass likes light daily water, fescues and Kentucky blue grass like heavy water every three days. Control the water and you master the crab grass. Plantains prefer compacted soil that is alkaline, aerate your soil and mind your PH and there will be minimal plantain which used to be used in salad by the way. Dandelions, also once used in salad like, acid soil and lots of moisture, and again can be controlled with proper ph and water management.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that all this soil management is a big pain in the neck and you want to apply a chemical weed control to just wipe out all these plants because we like our lawns to be outdoor carpets. To be clear, I am not a big fan of a lawn that is more “weed” than grass myself, but I do think people can be a little extreme about having perfect lawns.

So you want to wipe out the weeds chemically. The bad news is that all herbacides only work well in dry weather. If the weeds are fat with water and happy, they don’t absorb the herbicide and it is far less effective. Most of us will think that the herbicide just needs to be a little stronger to work. This is a HUGE mistake. The label is the law and if you are applying the herbicide at a rate stronger than recommended, you are not only breaking the law but risking the herbicide running off into long island sound, hanging around in your soil, and poisoning the local fauna.

You will need to apply your herbicide several times AT THE RECOMMENDED APPLIED RATE to get rid of the weeds in a summer like this one. In wet weather, spray the weeds every week to ten days preferably NOT before precipitation is expected and not immediately after it rains. Give the weeds time to get thirsty so they absorb the herbicide, but don’t wait too long because if it rains immediately after your application it will all wash away and you will need to start all over again as well as risk interrupting the natural cycles of the ecosystem.

Remember that herbacides will also kill your soil culture. They will wipe out all the good microbes and fungi that help plants digest nutrients from the soil. Once you are “weed free”, if you want to minimize your ecological impact, get your soil tested, amend the ph, aerate, add composted materials  to the soil, spray with compost tea, and overseed three or four times a year. Maybe go after those weeds by hand so they don’t get away from you again (a stitch in time will save nine and all that). Start using proper watering and cutting practices so you don’t get in a weedy bind again.