Dill

Overview: Dill is a light-tasting herb, useful in many dishes: fish, chicken soup, potato salad, dips, pickles. It’s easy to grow, helpful to pollinators, and excellent as a companion plant. 

Seed Starting: Plant seeds ¼ inch deep, spaced about 8 to 10 inches apart, after danger of spring frost (Source: University of Minnesota Extension). Direct sow, as dill does not like to be transplanted. This plant will readily reseed, offering easy harvests year after year.  

This is a dill plant with a yellow flower umbel on top
Flowering dill

Growing Advice: Dill will reach 2 to 4 feet tall and be 1 to 2 feet wide. It has feathery foliage and sends up several yellow flowers, reminiscent of Queen Anne’s lace. Dill, Queen Anne’s lace, carrots, and others are all in the umbelliferae family [Source: Farming While Black].

Pollinators love dill. It is a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies!

Harvesting: Harvest the feathery leaves to use fresh in many dishes. Dill also leaves dry and store nicely for future use. Let the big yellow flowers go to seed to have “volunteer” dill plants next year. Or save the seeds to make dill pickles.

Dill Potato Salad Recipe (from Spend with Pennies)

Ingredients:

  • 3 pounds potatoes white or red skinned
  • 1 ½ cups celery diced
  • 3 tablespoons green onion finely sliced
  • ¾ cup mayonnaise 
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons fresh dill minced
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard

Steps:

  • Boil the potatoes until tender (approx. 15-20 minutes). Cool and cut into bite sized pieces.
  • In a large bowl, mix all ingredients except the potatoes.
  • Combine cooled potatoes with dill mixture and refrigerate at least one hour.

Lettuce

Overview: Lettuce is an easy-to-grow garden staple that prefers cooler temperatures.

Seed Starting: Lettuce can be direct-sown into gardens or containers. Several hours of sun and some shade (particularly in the afternoon) will be welcome. Cover seeds with fine soil no more than a quarter inch deep. Some folks even scatter lettuce seeds on the soil surface and gently tap or rake them in. Give newly-planted seeds a good watering. 

This is a bowl of mixed greens, including speckled lettuce, red lettuce, and arugula.
Salad mixes include a variety of flavors, colors, and textures

Depending on the variety, lettuce can be spaced 6-12 inches apart. If using a salad mix, consider scattering seeds closer than that and harvesting leaves here and there to thin plants out. 

Because lettuce tolerates and even prefers cooler temperatures, it can have two crops. Plant the first about 2 to 4 weeks before the last spring frost and the second in early August in New England. Lettuce can also be started in small pots and transplanted at these times. 

Growing Advice: Lettuce does not like to dry out. Give it frequent waterings. Lettuce may be munched by hungry slugs and other opportunistic critters. Keep an eye on the growing lettuce and visit the “Managing Pests” section of this blog as needed. 

Harvesting: Pick whole heads of lettuce or harvest leaves here and there to keep the main plant growing. Lettuce will “bolt” (grow tall and send up seeds) when the temperatures soar. At this time, lettuce can become bitter. However, harvesting leaves in the cool of the morning and soaking for a few minutes in ice water can reduce the bitterness. Store cleaned lettuce in the fridge in plastic bags or repurposed containers to preserve freshness. 

Salad Recipes by Lisa

After washing lettuce a few times to remove dirt and critters, rip up the leaves into bite-sized pieces. 

Experiment with seasonal pairings:

  • Lettuce with watermelon chunks, feta, pistachios and balsamic vinegar is divine. 
  • Consider trying raspberries, gorgonzola, walnuts, and a dressing of your choice as well. 
  • On a hot summer night, salad with grilled chicken and any available garden veggies hits the spot.

Carrots

Overview: Carrots come in a variety of colors, are easy-to-grow, and store nicely after harvest. 

Seed Starting: Carrots prefer rich, sandy soil and a sunny location. They can also grow well in containers. Regular varieties prefer a soil depth of 10-12 inches. Short varieties, like “Scarlet Nantes,” “Chantenay,” or the unusually round “Parisian,” are perfect for more shallow gardens. 

Three orange carrots sit on the grass.
Three orange carrots from the Merrimack Garden

Sow carrot seeds directly into soil, ¼ inch deep, in rows about a foot apart (source: Farmer’s Almanac). Thin carrots to about 3 inches apart once they’ve sprouted. Clip off little seedlings to be thinned (perhaps using nail scissors) because pulling them up might also disrupt the carrots you want to keep growing. Almost all seed starting advice says to keep seeds moist after planting, but it really is true with carrots. 

Growing Advice: Carrots can even be grown twice a year in New England! Plant a spring crop (starting a few weeks before the last frost date) and a fall crop in late summer. 

Harvesting: Carrots often show their “shoulders” to give a preview of how wide they are. Harvest early for “baby” carrots or wait for a bigger carrot. Carrots take 60-80 (or more) days until harvest. Try to be patient. 

Carrots store well (with their tops snipped off), in a sealed bag in the fridge. Consider using the tops to make pesto! 

Recipe for Carrot Cake

Try this Southern Living carrot cake recipe that Chrissy Teigen loves. Dr. Perks made it near the start of the pandemic and agrees its delicious.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour 
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups grated carrot
  • 1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
  • 1 (3 1/2-ounce) can flaked coconut
  • 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Baking Steps:

  • Step 1 Line 3 (9-inch) round cakepans with wax paper; lightly grease and flour wax paper. Set pans aside.
  • Step 2 Stir together first 4 ingredients.
  • Step 3 Beat eggs and next 4 ingredients at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed until blended. Fold in carrot and next 3 ingredients. Pour batter into prepared cakepans.
  • Step 4 Bake at 350° for 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Drizzle Buttermilk Glaze evenly over layers; cool in pans on wire racks 15 minutes. Remove from pans, and cool completely on wire racks. Spread Cream Cheese Frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake.

Kale

Overview: Kale is a cold-tolerant, versatile green, useful in salads, soups, “chips,” and as a steamed side dish. Kale can have two crops in New England: one planting before the last spring frost and one planting at the tail end of summer, with a harvest lasting into fall. 

This image is of green and red kale leaves.
Red Kale and Blue Curled Scotch Kale grow well in the Merrimack Garden

Seed Starting Advice: Kale can be started indoors under grow lights or on a sunny windowsill about 8-10 weeks before the last frost (end of March is good). Or, direct seed it in late April. Same goes for mid-to-late August–either direct seed or start in pots. Choose seed starting soil or a potting mix and plant seeds about ¼ inch deep. 

Growing Advice: Space seedlings about 12-16 inches apart. Slugs may attack young seedlings. If starting seeds in pots, it helps to wait until they’re about 2-4 inches tall before transplanting. Collars made of toilet paper rolls or paper cups may also protect young seedlings. (photo needed) Common pests include the cabbage worm. Pick off worms (which often color match to the kale) or consider an organic spray of Bt (which will kill other types of caterpillars such as monarchs) or Neem oil.

Harvesting: Pick just a few leaves off a plant as needed and watch the plant continue to produce for months. Baby kale is excellent for salads. Some cooks will even massage the leaves to soften them. Kale that is older, more leathery, and even ruffled will be great for kale chips. (Flatter kales tend to stick to the baking sheet.)

Recipe for Kale Chips (from Lisa)

  • Wash the leaves and rip into bite-sized pieces.
  • Dry them well. If you have time, let the leaves sit in a bowl in the fridge for hours of even a few days.
  • When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 300.
  • Use a tablespoon of olive oil and two dashes of soy sauce for about 3 cups of kale leaves. Rub the oil and soy sauce into the kale leaves, spreading the mixture well.
  • Next, place kale leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet.
  • Bake for about 12 minutes.
  • Leaves should be crispy but not be too dried out. It also works well to check at about 10 minutes, remove already-crispy leaves, and let the rest bake for 2 minutes or so longer.

Keeping Your Garden Safe from Pests

If you prepare your soil well, follow the plant spacing guides, and water as needed, you’re already off to a good gardening start. This post offers advice on how to tackle the next big problem for gardeners: pests. 

One of the main reasons vegetables gardens or flowers are unsuccessful is that pests have successfully feasted on them. This post is divided into fencing for the bigger animals and other methods to curb the insects. 

First, the good stuff: embrace spiders, snakes, birds, toads, bees, and many other bugs in your garden. You can all work in harmony together. 

Good Fences Make Good Gardeners

Even if you don’t “see” pests around, there’s a good chance they’re in your yard or visiting your deck. Deer, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, chipmunks, voles, woodchucks, and others can steal a harvest or hurt plants. 

If you start a large garden, consider adding poultry wire or other fencing to the perimeter. Sinking the fencing a few feet into the ground will also help. For a few hundred dollars and a bit of labor, you can have some peace of mind. 

If you choose not to fence, check your plants daily (especially when they’re young) and react quickly to noticeable damage. It is possible to spray deterrents (like “Liquid Fence” that will keep some animals away. However, these sprays often smell bad (not great for patios/decks with seating) and need to be reapplied after rain. 

Barriers, Sprays, and Hand-Picking: Battling Insects and Fungus

Insects can be hard to see and tricky to identify. Google lens might tell you what you have: spider mites, vine borers, cabbage worms, tomato hornworms, etc.  

For larger, slower insects (e.g., caterpillars, beetles), picking them off and dropping them into a bucket of soapy water can do the trick. This can be time-consuming, but it’s quite effective and doesn’t harm the broader ecosystem. 

Neem oil is a good general-purpose organic spray that can take care of aphids, mites, and some other insects. 

Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis kills caterpillars by paralyzing their digestive systems. It is organic and is considered (by most) to be harmless to humans. This spray will kill cabbage worms–but it will also kill monarch caterpillars and those other “beautiful” butterfly larva. It’s best to use any spray pest control sparingly and in targeted areas. 

A brick raised garden bed holds small garlic plants in the front. At the back of the garden bed a round tent of white floating row cover keeps young plants safe in the early spring.
Floating row cover keeps
young plants safe.

Row covers are another organic method for keeping pests separate from plants. Dr. Perks is currently trying this method to prevent squash vine borers (aka clearwing moths) from eating her squash plants. 

Additional Tips and Tricks

Crop Rotation: Planting different types or families of vegetables in different spots year to year can help prevent pest damage. Pests (like squash vine borers) overwinter in the soil. Moving a pest’s buffet to a different garden bed or space the following year may slow the pest down. 

A dangerous fungus (verticillium wilt) will also build up in the soil and harm plants like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and eggplant. Verticillium wilt causes yellow foliage, wilting, and even death. If you had fantastic tomatoes one year and pitiful tomatoes the next, verticillium may be why. Rotate these crops to different beds annually. 

Companion Planting: Companion planting refers to planting two or more types of plants near one another for at least one plant’s benefit. For example, the Merrimack Garden has onions planted near kale and broccoli. Onions are said to give broccoli better flavor. We also have basil planted near tomatoes to repel tomato hornworms. 

Gardening is a lot of trial and error. Pay attention to your plants, do your best to meet their needs, and if that doesn’t work…try again next year! 

Merrimack Seed Library: Getting Started

We’re excited that you took home some seeds from Merrimack College’s Seed Library! This volunteer-run Seed Library works in concert with the Merrimack Garden (located at 27 Rock Ridge Rd.). Feel free to pop by the garden any time. We have a host of annual vegetables and perennial plantings.

A chalk board sign welcomes people to the Merrimack Garden. We have lettuce, strawberries, blueberries, apples, asparagus, corn, beets, carrots, potatoes, chives, kale, broccoli, rosemary, thyme, lavender, onions.
The Merrimack Garden welcome sign highlights the 2021 offerings
A hand holds a ripe strawberry.
One perfect Merrimack Garden strawberry

Our Seed Library will be open from early March through the end of November in the McQuade Library lobby (just to the left once you walk in the doors). We will have a rotating offering of seeds that suit the particular time of year.

If kept cool and dry, the seeds you take home should last for at least a year. Once you get growing, please tag @Merrimack_Garden on Instagram or email Lisa Perks (perksl@merrimack.edu) if you have any photos to share! 

This image is of a book shelf with garden-related books on the bottom and a seed library on the top in a card catalog-type box.
The Merrimack Seed Library on its birthday

This first post gives some general advice for starting and maintaining a garden. Click the links below for your type of seed to learn more specific growing advice. If you have more questions, feel free to do what some of the best gardeners do: Google it. 

Seed Starting

Many seeds can be planted directly in the ground. Others may need to be started indoors (under grow lights or on a sunny windowsill) during the colder New England months to get a jump on the growing season. Check out the seed-specific blog posts linked below:

Getting to Know Your Merrimack Library Seeds (more links to follow)

Site Selection

Plants can be grown in many ways: raised beds, straight in the ground, in pots or containers. 

The first main step is to find a site that gets a good amount of sun. Six to eight hours a day is ideal. Be creative: this may mean you grow plants on a deck, rooftop, front yard, driveway, etc. 

Part-shade can support greens (kale, lettuce, etc.), herbs, and shade-loving flowers. You could also consider growing mushrooms if you have shade! 

Types of Gardens

Consider whether you want to build raised beds or an in-ground garden. To build a raised bed (which means you raise up the soil level), you can use lumber, logs, bricks, rocks, a kit, or something else. Just avoid using treated wood that could leach chemicals into the garden. Alternately, do an in-ground garden (with no border holding up the soil) and simply mound up the soil.

The Merrimack Garden includes a growing army of wooden raised beds.

Many towns offer free compost (usually from yard waste or leaf pick up). Or purchase compost, loam mix, or topsoil (in bags or a large delivery) to build up a bed. 

Container gardening can be done in pots, five gallon buckets, grow bags, reusable grocery bags–even a repurposed kiddie pool! Just make sure whatever container you have has good drainage. 

One additional thing to remember is that the container garden growing medium should be light and fluffy. Regular soil is too heavy for containers and doesn’t drain well. Find a bagged container potting mix or make your own with one part compost, one part vermiculite or perlite, and one part coco coir (a more sustainable alternative to peat moss).

Watering

If starting seeds indoors or in tiny pots before putting them in the garden, water the young seedlings daily. Container gardens also dry out quickly. Giving container gardens a soaking (at the base of the plant, not at the foliage) once every day or two is generally wise. 

If you’ve recently put baby plants outside into the garden (or you’ve planted seeds directly in there), give them a good daily watering about every day or two for about two weeks. Once they’re established (maybe 2ish weeks in their new spot) they can go longer between waterings–a soak every 3 days or so in the absence of rain. 

Trouble with Garden Pests? Check out this post.

Looking for Houseplant Advice? Check out this post (forthcoming).

Garden Memoirs Wrap-Up and Merrimack Garden Expansion

The lull between planting and harvest time is perfect for reflecting on the busy spring we had in Garden Memoirs class. Dr. Perks taught ESS 3600, an Environmental Studies + Arts and Literature class, for the first time in spring 2019, working with a fantastic group of students from a range of majors. We went from struggling to identify the significance of honeybees in the opening scene of our first book, Farm City by Novella Carpenter, to talking extensively about the symbolism of hatching a new flock of heritage turkeys at the end of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It was a rewarding semester, full of human and plant growth.

In addition to honing our critical reading and writing skills throughout the semester (with blog posts, reflection papers, and literary criticism), we also engaged in a lot of food- and garden-related work, some of which is recapped here.

Follow our garden progress on Instagram at ‘Merrimack Garden!’

In the warm, communal space of the 47 Lounge during the colder months, we practiced food preservation skills. During one memorable class, we made over a dozen jars of dill pickles, crafted sustainable beeswax wraps, and perused garden catalogs to help plan our garden.

Jar of dill pickles with snowy background. Photo by Lisa Perks

On another busy class period, later in the semester, we made two apple pies and fresh cheese. Even more exciting: we ate all of our delicious food the next time class met.

Two apple pies cool and cheese curds separate from whey. Photo by Lisa Perks.

All three of our books emphasized raising animals for meat, eggs, and/or milk. Daisy, Lily, and Speckle (three chicks raised for egg laying), visited Garden Memoirs class and the Humor and Media class (pictured below).

Three chicks visit the animal-whispering students in Humor and Media class. Photo by Lisa Perks.

Once the ground thawed, we began work on what would be our proudest accomplishment: expanding plantings at Merrimack’s Rock Ridge Rd. garden site. We tested the soil, analyzed what had been planted the previous year (rotating the crops to prevent disease), extensively researched plant growth habits and disease susceptibility, thought about our community’s needs, and mapped out our plantings.

Pete, Brayden, and Ben identify last year’s plants. Photo by Lisa Perks.

After a trip with Stephanie and Danny (pictured below) to haul our raised-bed cedar lumber back to campus, we were ready to get building.

Stephanie and Danny with the cedar lumber. Photo by Lisa Perks (pictured in shadow).

And after a memorable, rainy-day trip to Lake Street Garden Center, we were ready to get planting. (See Jaiden’s blog post about the experience getting blueberries + apple trees, and check out our garden-themed playlist for the van ride.)

Spring planting photo by Stephanie Sartori
Worm heart photo by Stephanie Sartori
Blueberry planting photo by Stephanie Sartori
Watering impatiens photo by Stephanie Sartori

The plants have had over a month to settle in and grow. We’ve added other annuals and a team of volunteers for summer care. Plantings include strawberries, blueberries, apples, cucumbers, lettuce, pumpkins, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, potatoes, and a selection of herbs.

The garden is there to feed anyone in our community. Stop by Rock Ridge Rd. to enjoy the plants, pull some weeds, and eat some food! Our Merrimack Garden Instagram account will have updates on what’s ready to harvest. Here’s a look at the progress as of June 9th, 2019.

Lettuce and dill planted by young women in the Lawrence Math and Science Partnership program. Photo by Lisa Perks
Early blueberry photo by Lisa Perks
Littlest Perks planting peppers and zinnias
Pumpkins planted by young women in the Lawrence Math and Science Partnership program. Photo by Lisa Perks
Everbearing strawberry photo by Lisa Perks

High-Yield, Low Work “Perennials”

This inaugural Warrior Fresh post highlights three easy perennials that should be in more gardens. First time gardeners often plant annual vegetables. For the cost of a few vegetable six packs, you can put in pest-resistant plants that offer food for decades.

Raspberries

My family’s first foray into growing berries seemed off to an abysmal start. I received 12 black raspberries canes (Allens and Bristols) for my birthday in September of 2010. My husband and I hastily dug up some grass and planted them in “garden beds” that were about a foot wide and contained no added nutrients. Because of our shoddy work, only 3 plants survived that winter in western New York.

But this story has a happy ending: those 3 plants thrived, growing long canes that gracefully bowed over and took root to produce many offspring. I may have watered them twice in my life. I never pulled a weed and only cut back canes when they became too disorderly.

At peak harvest time, the berries would rain into our baskets. We gathered gallons: freezing some, baking a pie or two, but mostly eating them fresh. Any scrapes from wayward bramble thorns were well worth the sweet rich taste of berries that cannot be bought in a store .

A Perks harvest of black raspberries and red raspberries from Fairport, New York in 2014.

Asparagus

“Half a pound from a crown.” It’s not the start of a British nursery rhyme; it’s the yield from an asparagus plant. After we moved to New Hampshire in 2016, I quickly readied a bed for these perennials. Ten Jersey Giant and ten Purple Passion asparagus crowns arrived in the spring and sent up their ferny fronds. The crowns cost roughly $30.

Dew-covered asparagus ferns taking in the morning sun in 2018.

I’ve faithfully weeded, fertilized, and mulched while the asparagus plants built their strength for two summers. The harvestable part, the spears, emerge early in spring and can be cut before opening into ferns. 2019 is our year for fully mature plants and a big harvest–up to 10 pounds. That’s worth $30 in the grocery store (well, $29.90 if you’re really precise). Ten pounds is way more than my family can eat…so my friends are in luck come April. With proper care, these asparagus can produce for up to 20 years.

Garlic

It’s not a perennial, but allow me this exception to the rule. Here’s how growing garlic works: you buy seed garlic in the fall, break a full head of garlic out into individual cloves (ideally, with paper wrappers still on), plant cloves about 2 inches deep (pointy side up), throw some mulch over top, watch sprouts emerge in spring, harvest in summer. To keep the cycle going, just select several of your biggest cloves to plant again in the fall.

Deer, squirrels, woodchucks, (and vampires) leave them alone, so no fencing is needed. And I’ve never had another pest, fungus, or blight bother my garlic plants. Plus, you can make a pesto from the curly garlic scapes that grow out of the plant early in the summer.

Attleson Farm garlic scapes. Photo by Eli Duke.

Biding its time underground through winter, spring, and summer, each little clove eventually matures into a full head of garlic. When several plant leaves have turned brown (usually mid-July in New Hampshire), gently dig up garlic and let it “cure” in a cool dry place for a few days before storing for months. We’re still eating this year’s harvest.