DIY Gardening: Starting Seeds in Recycled Egg Cartons

Good news: Ellen Drews is joining us for another gardening tutorial! Last spring, Ellen shared her DIY container gardening technique (pictured below). Today, she’s going to teach us how to start our own seeds in egg cartons! Have you ever done something like this before? I can’t wait to give it a try!

Before we get to her wonderful post, I did want to take a second to let you all know that Anne and I leave for Greece tomorrow! (Follow me on Instagram to see some pictures of our trip.) We will be home in three weeks, and I’ll be back to blogging in late July with more projects, recipes, and some pictures from our trip. I’ve got an exciting collaboration and giveaway coming your way later this summer!

Without further ado, Ellen:

As a backyard vegetable gardener in Somerville, Massachusetts, I am always cooking up ways to feed my gardening addiction on a tight budget. I love finding ways to use recycled materials to grow my vegetables safely in the city. This year in my container garden, I decided to see the process from start to finish. I was going to start my own seeds in my own DIY greenhouses: egg cartons!

Starting seeds indoors is an important concept for vegetable gardening. There are some vegetables that prefer to grow right where they’re planted (i.e. cold-tolerant plants like spinach, or delicate root-crops like carrots). For these crops, I put seeds directly into my container garden as soon as the soil has thawed.

Other plants must be started indoors and then transplanted to the outdoor garden as seedlings, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and basil. These warm-season crops evolved in hot climates with longer growing seasons and so they have a long, leisurely lifespan. Where I live in New England, we can have frosts as late as Memorial Day, which would most likely kill a seedling before it had a chance to bear any fruit—the ultimate prize of the tomato plant. Starting tomato seedlings indoors as early as April allows you to get your plants going so they will reach fruiting maturity by midsummer.

Seedlings are available for purchase at farmers’ markets, grocery and hardware stores, and big-box stores like K-Mart. However, there are awesome benefits to starting from seeds:

  • Choose varieties! There are thousands of beautiful heirloom seeds out there and many cool ones are available through seed companies with the mission of saving these varieties (Seed Savers Exchange, Hudson Valley Seed Library, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds are some of my favorites).
  • Save money on fancy organic seedlings and use the seeds you already have. I’m still using seeds that I bought or traded two years ago (with proper storage, seeds can last up to 5 years).
  • Avoid the pitfalls of buying cheaper, mass-distributed seedlings at stores like Home Depot and K-Mart. Devastating diseases can spread across the country via these discount seedlings. For example, in 2009, late blight on tomatoes spread across the east coast because many people bought tomato seedlings from K-Mart, Walmart, and Lowe’s—all of which carried a fungus originating in a handful of greenhouses in Alabama. (Read one article about it here.)

So, now that you’re convinced that starting your own seedlings at home is a good idea, I’ll show you how I started mine this year!

Starting Seeds in Recycled Egg Cartons

Materials:

  • Plastic or cardboard egg cartons, empty (avoid Styrofoam or heavily inked cartons)
  • Nail or awl
  • Organic potting soil or mix (Look for varieties that contain compost. You want your seeds to access as many nutrients in their little cells as possible.)
  • Seeds!
  • Spray bottle or watering can with a gentle sprinkle

Step 1: Using the nail or awl, punch three holes in the bottom of each egg cell to allow excess water to drain.

Step 2: Fill the egg carton cells with the potting soil. Use your fingers to gently press divots into each cell and re-fill the divots with more potting soil. You want to give your seeds as much material in each cell as possible without compacting the soil. For many weeks, the nutrients in the soil will be all they will get so you’ll want to fill ‘em up!

Step 3: Put 1-2 seeds in each cell, following the directions on the seed packet for how deep to put them (it will be under “seed depth”). Cover with a light topping of potting soil.

Step 4: Soak the cells with water using a spray bottle or a gentle sprinkle of water. You want water to drip out of the holes at the bottom of the egg carton to ensure that you have really soaked all the soil. BUT you also want to be careful that you don’t dislodge the seeds or compact the soil so it’s important to be gentle when watering!

Step 5: Place egg carton seed-trays indoors in a sunny window or under grow lights. Seeds should germinate in about a week! I also got fancy and used the lid of the egg carton to create a greenhouse effect over my seeds. The plastic roof kept moisture in and trapped some heat from the sun. I also punched holes in this “greenhouse” roof to keep things from getting way too humid in there.

Here’s what my tomatoes and tomatillos looked like after they grew up a bit! Now that it’s June, it’s a bit late for starting tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant like I did here, but it is a great time to start seeds for fall crops such as broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, chard, fennel and kale.

And here’s what my garden looks like today!

Leave a comment if you’ve found other ways to use recycled materials in your garden!

Note: All photos were taken by Ellen Drews.

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Mini Caprese Frittatas

A few weeks ago, I brought these homemade mini caprese frittatas to a brunch with some coworkers. They went over so well that I thought I’d share the recipe with you here! These frittatas are perfect for this time of year, with fresh basil and cherry tomatoes quickly coming into season. They’re delicious served hot or at room temperature.

Mini Caprese Frittatas

Prep time: 15 minutes | Bake time: 22 minutes | Yields: 12 mini frittatas

Ingredients:

  • 6 eggs
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp pepper
  • 1 tbs pesto
  • 1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella
  • 12 cherry tomatoes

Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat a standard 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray and set aside. Cut cherry tomatoes into thin coins and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, milk, salt, pepper, and pesto. Whisk until fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Pour the egg mixture into the muffin pan, filling each cup approximately 1/3 full.

Bake for 10 minutes. At the 10-minute mark, sprinkle mozzarella evenly over each muffin cup. Put back in the oven and bake for 10 more minutes.

When the frittatas have cooked for a total of 20 minutes, place cherry tomatoes on top of each frittata. (The frittatas might be puffed up, but that is okay.) Once the cherry tomatoes are added, turn the oven to broil for the remaining two minutes.

Let muffin pan cool for five minutes before transferring frittatas to a cooling rack. Eat promptly, or at room temperature. Enjoy!

From Scissors & Sage

A Morning at Quail Hill Farm

Last weekend, Anne and I took a drive out to Amagansett, NY to see my family.  It’s that time of year when you try to squeeze in that final beach vacation or time spent with loved ones before the fall rolls around.  My aunt, uncle, and twin cousins live in a cozy house tucked away on a dirt path, removed from the hustle and bustle of the Hamptons but close to the beach.

Early Saturday morning, my aunt Melanie took a few of us to Quail Hill Farm, the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm she belongs to.  I have memories of going to this farm from when I was a kid, eagerly scouring dirt patches with my cousins to dig up potatoes from the ground.  Digging for potatoes proved to still be one of my favorite activities, but going back now, I realize just how much this farm has to offer: Quail Hill Farm is one of the original CSAs in the United States!

We were amidst the veggies, herbs, and flowers for a few hours, and we entered a trance-like state from the sheer happiness of gathering food straight from the source.  (The feeling reminded me of the days when I worked at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.)  We weren’t the only ones out there, either.  Our morning excursion included friendly community farmers, each teaching the other how to cook this, and how to identify that.  No one was texting; no one was snapchatting.  We were all enjoying the beautiful weather, the pretty wildflowers, and each others’ company.

Below is a sampling of pictures that represent the treasures that we picked.  Keep reading for a full list of what we found!

We harvested:

  • Curly parsley
  • String beans (green, purple, white)
  • Hakurei turnips
  • Heirloom carrots (orange, purple, white)
  • Fingerling potatoes
  • Italian eggplant
  • Japanese eggplant
  • Cucumbers (green, white)
  • Peppers (green, purple, red, orange)
  • Heirloom tomatoes (cherry, grape, black cherry, green zebra, peach, red zebra, San Marzano, pear-shaped, pink)
  • Zucchini
  • Artichokes
  • Garlic
  • Onions (yellow)
  • Lettuce (green and red)
  • Cabbage
  • Wheatberries

Also:

  • Wildflowers
  • Sunflowers
  • Fresh bread

Here we are at the end of it all!  It is certainly an experience we will all remember for a long time to come.  Do you belong to a CSA?  Do you grow your own produce at home?  Respond to these questions and share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Container Gardening With: Ellen Drews

Today’s blog post comes from a dear friend, Ellen Drews.  Ellen is a banjo-playing, bug-loving, and plant-praising kind of gal.  She has recently moved to the Boston area, and has hit the ground running managing several community gardens.  From Ellen:

As a resident of densely-populated Somerville, Massachusetts, and a manager of three community gardens in Lowell, I have been putting a lot of brain power towards the challenge of growing delicious, seasonal vegetables in places with contaminated soil—or no soil at all! In my opinion, no one should have to pass up the fun and tasty rewards of vegetable gardening just for lack of workable land. So why not grow food above the land—in containers! Well, that’s what I did in the parking area behind my apartment. And my landlord keeps telling me he can’t wait until “we” are reaping the bounty.   I guess he’s expecting me to share.

farm

Container gardening offers many benefits: soil in containers warms up earlier in the spring, so you can plant those heat-loving tomatoes, peppers, and basil a bit earlier than you could in the ground. Containers can be put in locations with ideal sun exposure. And containers offer less territory for weeds and pests to take up residence—often resulting in healthier plants.

There are also a couple of limitations that container gardening brings that are important to be aware of:

  1. Vegetables grown in containers cannot spread their roots very far to find the perfect mix of nutrients in the surrounding soil. Everything they need must be present right there in that compact space. Therefore, it’s necessary to fertilize your containers a few times during the growing season with yummy compost or organic fertilizers.
  2. Soil in containers dries out easily, especially if the container has the proper drainage it needs to avoid root fungus. Dry soil is of no use to a growing plant—the plant requires water to exchange nutrients at the roots. What’s more, if a young vegetable seedling goes through the stresses of repeated “droughts” or under-watering, it will never reach its full potential!

But some of us have day jobs—so how can we keep our containers at the perfect, constant moisture level without running outside to water them every few hours? Easy! Build self-watering containers.

Self-watering containers are somewhat misnamed. They don’t water themselves infinitely—you will still have to go out and water your plants every couple days to every day on hot, dry days. However, wicking action will draw water through the soil from a reservoir below and will reduce major moisture fluctuations in the container. Your job is to make sure that the reservoir always has some water in it, and the container will do the rest! You can buy self-watering planters, but DIY containers are easy to make and much cheaper.

Self-Watering Container Garden

Materials:

  • 2 five-gallon food-grade plastic buckets (available at hardware stores, or for free at many restaurants!)
  • 4-6” piece of PVC pipe or PVC fence post
  • Drill and drill bits (1/4” bits work best – anything on the larger side is good for making drainage holes)
  • X-acto knife or sharp clippers
  • Sharpie marker
  • Organic potting soil (if it contains compost, great! If not, get some granular fertilizer like PRO-GRO to mix in for nutrients. I used Coast of Maine organic container soil.)
  • Seeds or seedlings of your favorite veggies (look for varieties like “compact” or “bush”)

What to do:

  1. Start with one bucket—this one will be nested inside the other, and will hold the soil and your plants. Turn it over and use the drill to cut out a big circle in the bottom of the bucket. You may need to use the X-acto knife or clippers to fully punch out this circle.
  2. Then, drill about a dozen “air holes” randomly throughout the bottom of the bucket. These holes will allow air to penetrate the soil and will drain excess water into the reservoir bucket below.

PVC spacer

  1. The piece of PVC pipe or fence post will serve as a “spacer” between the two buckets, holding them apart and also forming the “wick” part of the container where garden soil comes in contact with the water in the reservoir. Drill several holes throughout the PVC spacer, making sure that about 4-5 of the holes are within a 1/4” from the bottom edge of the spacer. This way, it will be able to draw water, even if the reservoir level is fairly low.
  2. Position the spacer in the middle of the second (hole-free) bucket and nest the other bucket on top of the spacer. Mark where the bottom edge of the inner bucket reaches with a Sharpie on the outer bucket. Drill out a hole that meets the edge of the inner bucket about 2” across and 1” tall. This will be your access point for re-filling the reservoir and for checking the water level with a finger!

sharpie mark

  1. Remove the inner bucket and fill the PVC spacer with potting soil. Pack it gently to remove any large air pockets, but don’t compress the soil too tightly. The spaces between the soil particles will allow water to wick through the spacer and up into the soil of the inner container.

inside bucket

  1. Nest the inner bucket over the spacer so that the circular hole in the bottom lines up with the PVC spacer. Fill the inner bucket with potting soil.   The soil inside the bucket should be making direct contact with the soil in the spacer, so that it forms a continuous wick throughout the bucket. Fill to within an inch of the top rim of the bucket—you want your plants to have as much soil as possible in the limited space so don’t skimp out on filling up the bucket.

finsihed containers

  1. Water the soil until it starts to drain into the reservoir below, then fill the reservoir using the side access hole in the bottom bucket. Now you are ready to tuck in some seeds or some seedlings and watch them grow!

kale scallions

I’m growing kale and scallions in one self-watering container, and I’ll put a tomato plant into the other container, now that we’ve passed the last frost date for Boston.   I’ve also got beets, arugula, lettuce, and nasturtiums growing in other found containers like a milk crate and a Coca Cola rack. What else can you turn into a container for gardening?  -Ellen (with a slug)

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Note: All photos were taken by Ellen Drews.

Mother’s Day Card Crafting

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With Mother’s Day around the corner, I thought I’d share a card I made for my mom last year.  I tried to think outside of the box on this one, adding dimension with the twine and paper banner.  When I was little, I spent a lot of time picking wildflowers from the front yard, making tiny bouquets for my mom.  I wanted to remind her of those days with this card!

But do you want to know the secret “ingredient”?  I stamped the wildflowers with BRUSSELS SPROUTS!  It worked like magic.  All I had to do was cut the sprouts in half and dab them in an ink pad.  I stamped the yellow flowers first, and then the purple.  Next, I adhered the twine with Elmer’s glue.  The last step was to cut out a paper banner to write “happy mother’s day” on.  I decided to make a matching envelope, so I added a white circular sticker and stamped a few more wildflowers on the label.

Who knew you could find a creative use for Brussels sprouts?  I wonder what else is hiding in my refrigerator…

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