Having an off year in the vegetable garden. Highlights and lowlights

Over the previous two summer growing seasons, I have blogged about my non-expert experiences building and growing my vegetable garden while attempting to put into practice a lot of things I’ve learned via osmosis working here at the Home and Garden Information Center (view past posts I’ve written to see my progress).

I didn’t write about my exploits during this year’s season since my ambitions were not particularly great or new, as I expected we would be too busy with our baby to put more than a large amount of effort into the garden. My wife started some seeds last year, but was too busy to do so this year, and we wanted to have a permanent rodent fence and gate, so that building project bumped back my direct-sowing and planting schedule.

The year turned out to have more lowlights than highlights, but put all together in one blog post here, I think there’s enough to provide some interest and learning.

Highlight: permanent garden fence and gate constructed

If you’ve tracked my blog posts over the last few years, you’ve seen me go from two store-bought raised beds stuck in the middle of the yard, to what I’ve built now: 3 total beds (one built from scratch), a gravel surrounding space, hand-crafted collapsible trellis and tomato support, and new for this season, a permanent rodent fence with gate.

Gravel garden area with wood fence
New, more secure and better-looking wood fence.

Our previous fencing, which I took down each season, was just garden stakes with wire fencing around the perimeter of our gravel area. This type of fence allowed a lot of grass to grow into the inside of the area via the base of the fence, making things look sloppy. The construction of the wood fence fixed the junction of the wire fence to our gravel base border, eliminating this problem, and making the whole garden look more like a designed, permanent fixture, rather than something sloppily put together.

I’m happy to report that we had 0 notable creature infractions in our garden since the permanent fence has gone up!

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Cover crops for climate-resilient soil: Try it, you might like it

Cover crops are so important for improving soil and protecting the environment that it’s public policy in Maryland to use federal funding to subsidize farmers to plant them. Nearly ½ a million acres across the state are enrolled in Maryland’s Cover Crop Program. Cover crops protect Maryland’s farm fields from soil loss over the winter and scavenge the soil for the fertilizer nutrients that weren’t used by corn and soybean crops and might have moved into groundwater and surface water. 

Cover crops are typically planted from late August through October and include grasses like winter rye, winter wheat, barley, and oats and legumes like crimson clover and hairy vetch. Plants in the legume family, together with special soil bacteria, transform nitrogen from air into a plant-available form. Tillage radish (a type of daikon radish) and other plants are also grown as cover crops. 

Cover crops improve soil health and help make soils more resilient to the climate crisis. They

  • increase soil organic matter and carbon sequestration by feeding soil microbes with sugars and other root exudates 
  • improve soil structure and the strength of soil aggregates which lowers erosion risks
  • increase water holding capacity which allows crops to withstand drought better   

Cover crops use the sun’s energy (when food crops aren’t growing) to produce biomass- roots, shoots, and leaves. The cover crops are killed in the spring. Nutrients in the decomposing plants are eventually available for uptake by the roots of the vegetables and flowers we plant. This reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers, whose production requires fossil fuels.

What’s good for ag soils is also good for garden soils! 2022 is the Year of Soil Health for Grow It Eat It, the food gardening program of the UME Master Gardener program. This infographic by Jean Burchfield introduces the idea of planting cover crops, a key practice in building healthy soils: 

Infographic about cover crops

Photo of seed packets
UME Master Gardeners distributed 5,000 crimson clover seed packets for residents to plant in flower and vegetable beds this fall.
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Diggin’ into plant-based diets

As gardeners, one of the many actions we can do at home to mitigate climate change is to grow and eat some of our own fresh produce. Meat and dairy products account for an estimated 14-16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Having a home or community garden gives you access to nutritious foods that can be part of a more plant-based diet — one that’s healthy for you, and the planet! Today’s guest post on this topic is from University of Maryland Extension Family & Consumer Sciences Agent Beverly A. Jackey.


Following a plant-based diet is very trendy these days. Whether it’s an environmental reason (reduce your carbon footprint) or a health goal (decrease the risk of some chronic diseases), many people, including myself are consciously reducing their consumption of animal products.

What does it mean to follow a plant-based diet? That really depends. Some interpret it as being a vegan or vegetarian. Others view a plant-based diet as being broader, including more plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and grains, and also fewer animal foods, like meat, fish, and dairy. It’s not necessary to give up all the animal foods you enjoy; however, you can consider decreasing the portion sizes so these foods are no longer the main attraction on your plate. 

Ever since attending a 2019 nutrition conference, I’ve been inspired to consume more plant-based foods. It’s unlikely I will give up my glass of cold, fat-free milk in the evening (with one cookie); however, I do consume at least three meatless meals per week, eat smaller portions of chicken, fish, and lean beef and pork, and I load up half of my plate with vegetables (see my grilled vegetable recipe). This summer, my deck garden provided enough delicious red tomatoes to enjoy almost every day on salads. Since making these changes, I’ve maintained a healthy weight and blood pressure and feel good about doing something for Mother Earth. 

Are you ready to ‘dig in’ and adopt a more plant-based diet? Here are some tips that helped me get started.

  1. Go meatless one day a week. Beans, lentils, and nuts are great sources of plant proteins and add fiber to your diet, which makes you feel full. Instead of adding meat to my pasta, I toss it with grilled vegetables. If you like chili, peruse recipe websites for a bean-based chili that appeals to your taste buds.

  2. Combine vegetable proteins. Quinoa is a perfect protein, meaning it contains the 9 essential amino acids your body needs daily. You can also combine other plant foods to get that perfect protein. Some of my favorite combos are black beans and rice, chickpeas and pasta, and whole wheat bread and peanut butter (with some jelly).

  3. Re-think your meat portions. You can still have meat at your meals, but in smaller amounts, like 3 cooked ounces (the size and thickness of a deck of cards). Many meals like soups (winter) and salads (summer) are full of vegetables and whole grains, but I add a small piece of protein, like a leftover grilled and shredded chicken breast or a few slices of pork tenderloin.

Try this recipe for Easy Grilled Vegetables!

Selection of vegetables:

  • Red, yellow, or green peppers – cut in half and seeded
  • Yellow and green squash – sliced length-wise, about ½ inch thick
  • Eggplant – sliced width-wise, about ½ inch thick
  • Mushrooms – whole cleaned
  • Onion – sliced width-wise, about ½ inch thick

Additional ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons, minced garlic
  • Fresh chopped or dried herb (parsley, thyme, basil, etc.) for garnish

Instructions:

1. Mix oil, salt, pepper, vinegar, and garlic together.

2. Arrange vegetables on the grill or in a grill pan (medium heat). Note: depending on the size of your pan you may need to work in batches.

3. Grill vegetables for 6-8 minutes, brushing with oil, and vinegar mixture.

4. Remove vegetables from the grill or grill pan and place them on a platter. Drizzle the remaining oil and vinegar mixture on the vegetables. Sprinkle herbs over vegetables and serve.

By Beverly A. Jackey MS, RDN, LDN, Agent, Family & Consumer Sciences, University of Maryland Extension (UME). This article was published originally on the UME Breathing Room blog, which covers topics on health, wellness, nutrition, and financial management.

Knowing when it’s time: Season’s end

The last Brandywine

I took out my tomato plants this week. It’s a lot earlier than I’d normally do it, but I had my reasons (which I will discuss below). Picking the last fruits and chopping down the stems made me think about all the decisions we make as gardeners, and how a lot of the questions we Master Gardeners get are about those choices. We might get asked at this time of year, “Am I supposed to take out my tomato plants now?” Maybe with an undercurrent of “Will I get in trouble with the garden police if I do it? Or don’t do it?” but in any case with uncertainty about doing the right thing. And the disappointing answer we long-experienced garden gurus usually give to questions like that?

“Well, it depends.”

Or, even more frustratingly: “It’s up to you.”

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What is so special about legumes? 

a collage of three photos shows alfalfa plants growing in a high tunnel
Alfalfa (a legume) with nasturtium growing at the edge of a high tunnel. Photo: A. Bodkins

There is a whole group of plants in the Leguminosae (a.k.a Fabaceae) plant family and are referred to as legumes, a word that many people may have heard but may not know the special details about. Have you ever heard that legumes make their own nitrogen or that they are plants that never need nitrogen fertilizer? Well, both those statements are true! 

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Maryland gardeners are adapting to climate change

How are Maryland gardeners adapting their gardens and green spaces to climate change? We posed this question to our colleagues in the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and several of them shared examples of everything from composting and food gardening to planting trees and native plants, installing rain gardens, and more.

Action on climate change is needed on a large scale, and our individual actions at home and in our communities all add up too. Check out our Story Map showcasing the variety of ways Marylanders are adapting their green spaces with climate change and sustainability in mind. Then take our quick poll at the end of the Story Map and let us know: Are you doing climate-resilient gardening?

Screen shot of the climate-resilient gardening story map

View the Story Map

Learn more:

By Christa K. Carignan, Coordinator, Digital Horticulture Education, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Read more posts by Christa.