Gardens Across America

With gardening season under way in all but the coldest of zones, we have gathered a gaggle of gardeners from around the country and asked them to share some tips with us. The slide show is a peek into the beginnings of their space for this 2011 growing season.

Mike Lieberman  - California - Balcony Gardening
Mike prides himself in learning gardening the old fashion way, trial and error. He says, "I might have a vegetable garden, but I grow food." Follow what Mike is growing on his blog,Urban Organic Gardener.

Simran Sethi  - Kansas - Yardshare
The award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas has decided to share her big backyard in Lawrence. Read "Sharing the Yard" on about the beginnings of her yard-share last year. Find out more of out what Simran is up to.

Tess and Jack Kenney  - Wisconsin - Mushroom farmers and more
Tess, an active member of Victory Garden Initiative and the Kilbourn Gardens in Milwaukee, and her husband Jack are growing mushrooms, onions, asparagus, blueberries and more and are also composting in a newly built bin. Read Tess' organic food posts on

Wendimere Reilley  - Florida - Backyard Aquaponics
The Health Chic, herbalist, author & TV host, growing lettuce and more in her backyard aquaponics systems. Check out what the Health Chic is creating.

Anne Dailey  - Maine - Big garden (really big)
Writer, activist and aspiring agrarian, gardening on a 30 x 40 plot with two fruit trees and some berries too! Keep up with Anne on her website.

Mike Lieberman, CA

What is your favorite part about this time of the year for gardening?

My favorite part about this time of the year for gardening is that nearly everyone around the country is starting to grow something. Whether it's the experienced grower who's been doing this for decades or the first-timer who is scared to kill all of their plants.

It's exciting because it starts conversations and gets people talking about food, growing it and the importance of it. How it affects us on many levels and what we can do about it. I believe that it's the best way to get more people interested or at least thinking differently about our current food system and what's going on.

Are self-watering containers really better than planting in regular containers?

My only experience is with self-watering containers, so I'm a bit partial. Let me put it this way, I took a two week vacation and when I came home nearly all of the plants were still doing great. Not sure if they would have if I used regular containers.

Simran Sethi, KS

What is your favorite part about this time of the year for gardening? 

Well, this is the time for birth and rebirth. The perennials start to bloom and the ground is ready for new veggies.

Yard sharing! What a great idea. Why did you do it and what benefits have you seen from sharing? And how can a person find a shared yard?

I did this because I have a big yard and very little experience in terms of what to do with it. I know a lot of people with incredible expertise here in Lawrence but not all of them have land. Sharing the yard made sense. I am sure there are yardshare websites. People can also just ask around. I asked friends which is how I ended up with my first share. (This is year two.) This year, I asked someone who works at our local food coop and completely lucked out. Her name is Lily and she also helps manage many of our school gardens. Lily and her friend Sally are putting in (all organic) beets, onions, yukon gold potatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, carrots, heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers, winter squash, okra, peppers and herbs. I have another friend Daniel (co-founder of the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture) who is bringing me organic tomatoes, eggplant and herbs and another dear friend who just brought me red kale. All these people I love are in my yard, close to me, feeding me.

Tess and Jack Kenney, WI

What is your favorite part about spring for gardening?

Like most, I would suspect, we love the Spring because it signifies a reawakening and revitalization, and, especially here in Wisconsin where the winters are long, the arrival of gardening season means we can begin to plant our vegetables organically, watch our fruit trees grow and bloom and anticipate mother nature's abundance towards the end of the season. Just a day ago, we planted two new apple trees to go along with the two we already had and one cherry tree.

What does it take to grow mushrooms? What kind will you be growing? (And what has happened since you became involved in the Victory Garden Initiative?)

As for the mushrooms......we've learned that Elm or maple trees are the best from which to get logs for mushroom growth. We search local parks for downed and cut wood. The diameter of the log dictates how long the log will produce mushrooms; that is, a six inch diameter log should produce mushrooms for six years so the wider the better. We growing shitake and blue oyster mushrooms using spores that are inserted into 1" deep holes drilled into the logs. It's best to leave about 2" between each hole. After inserting the spores, wax is used to plug the holes and keep other bacteria out. The logs should be kept damp and out of the sun. The logs should produce mushrooms within about six months to nine months.

The mushrooms grown in logs are said to be five times more nutritious than those organic kinds that can be purchased in a store.

In addition to what is happening outside, we have planted lots of seeds and are presently repotting them to larger containers. Still too cool in Wisconsin to put them into the garden, but soon. Before the Victory Garden Initiative came to our home and put in our backyard beds neither one of us had gardened in years. But since the blitz two years ago we have added another 8×4 foot raised bed, four apple trees, a cherry tree and four hazelnut bushes. We have strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. We also participate in a community garden (Kilbourn Gardens - 123 beds) across the street. Did the Victory Garden Initiative blitz change our lives - that would be a very happy yes.

Wendimere Reilley, FL

What is your favorite part about this time of year for gardening?

Spring gardening in Florida is amazingly inspirational. After the hot and humid summer, brief Fall (where most of us are too busy with football to garden) and an extremely cold winter (anytime you have to turn the heat on is "cold" to us) Spring finally arrives. It seems like every year at the start of Spring I say that I am not going to plant anything new this year. The yard is overgrown with weeds and decay and it all seems overwhelming. Then, like clockwork, leaves appear on my blackberries, the daisies which I thought were long dead magically show signs of life... you get the idea. I look at the calendar and can't bear the thought of not attending my favorite garden festivals where I will buy fresh herb starters, edible flowers and some native plants.

Are aquaponics for everyone? Can a person just set that up in their backyard? What are the benefits?

Anyone can set up an aquaponic system -- you need a pond, pump and some fish. We use tilapia and gold fish. Your systems can be small and simple or very extravagant. The one pictured can be constructed for under $500. I prefer aquaponics to hydroponics because you don't need to purchase expensive liquid foods and fertilizers or other chemicals. Once you get it going an aquaponic system is very low maintenance. The biggest issue is keeping your fish alive. Tilapia do not do well in cold weather. Also keep in mind that once you harvest your crop you need to replant immediately or just let everything go wild- just don't pull it all out or there will be nothing growing to filter the water for the fish. It's the one time you don't have to weed.

Anne Dailey, ME

What is your favorite part about spring for gardening?

Winter for home gardeners in the Northeast is a mixture of pleasure and pain. Pleasure because your mailbox fills with colorful seed catalogs promising a bountiful and beautiful crop, and you've got ample time to plan out an over-ambitious garden. Pain because your garden is covered with snow and you are just plum sick of root vegetables. But Spring...Spring brings the reality of gardening to bear. The snow has melted, reminding you of all the work you have to do but at this time of year, before much of that work actually starts, what will feel overwhelming in a few short months just feels invigorating and exciting! Seeds have arrived, and their promise is now tangible - more than a colorful photo or vivid description in a magazine. This is the time of year when I can almost taste those crops, almost feel the dirt on my fingers. I should also mention that this particular Spring there is the added bonus of Spring-dug parsnips! Last fall I decided to leave about 3/4 of my parsnip planting in the ground for the winter. It was the first time I'd given that a shot, and I'm now reaping the delicious benefits of that decision. You really do learn something (or 100 somethings) each year

I know you just got your seeds... what is important to look for? Where did you get your seeds? How can one determine what will grow in their space (did you try some last year that were better than others)?

I'll admit that this season I've broadened my horizons a bit when it comes to selecting seeds. Last year every variety I planted was an open-pollinated heirloom and I remain a staunch supporter of the importance (and deliciousness) of heirloom seeds, those who save them and those who sell them. Last season, though, I worked all summer and fall on a local organic farm, where the farmers grow a mix of heirlooms and hybrids and maintain that both are important to their business and sustainability. Then this winter I took a job a Johnny's Selected Seeds, a long-standing and respected seed company here in Maine. Our catalog has many organic, heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, but we also have a strong breeding program, and offer just as many hybrid seeds. Being a fan of nuance and diversity, and having listened to some good arguments for including a few hybrids, I decided to mix it up a bit for this season. Most of my garden will be heirlooms, but I'll be growing a hybrid sweet corn, a cucumber and a radish. They sound like good varieties, well-suited to my climate and bred for taste, not for shelf-life or the ability to survive a cross-country trip in a tractor trailer. Since I wouldn't be saving the seed myself anyway, it seems a reasonable choice.

I think it's important to note that hybrids are not the same as a genetically engineered varieties, which Johnny's does not sell and I would never plant. I find myself explaining this on the phone with customers quite frequently, so in the interest of disseminating accurate information, here's a quick guide:

open pollinated  - a non-hybrid variety that can reproduce itself in kind. i.e. grow some nothstine dent corn, save the seed, plant it the next year and you'll get nothstine dent again.

hybrid  - the offspring of a cross between two or more varieties, usually of the same species. A hybrid will not reproduce itself in kind. Plant a hybrid sweet corn and the next year you'll get a mutant, which may be delicious or entirely terrible.

genetic engineering  - the mechanical transfer of DNA (the stuff in cells that carries the genetic code, the recipe for the plant). This kind of transfer, which may be outside of the plant species, is most certainly not natural and poses great potential biological, cultural and economic risks.

The good seedsmen behind the companies I order from are more informed (and sometimes more opinionated) than I on this subject. Here are a few of their statements and definitions.

Most genetically modified seeds at this point are not geared towards home gardeners. We're talking about sugar beets, dry corn for things like high fructose corn syrup and animal feed, alfalfa and soybeans. Nevertheless, we all eat so we should all care, and do our best to be well informed. I'd predict we'll see more and more genetically engineered seeds appearing on the market in the next few years.

I've decided that the best course of action is simply to do my research and purchase seeds from small companies whose missions and practices I trust. There are new seed companies starting up all over the country, and chances are there's at least one near you. Seek them out, ask them questions, and give their varieties a chance. If we all work and grow together we can ensure that our gardens remain diverse, beautiful and bountiful.