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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Safeguarding Your Home From Flooding

Flash flooding can literally happen in an instant, and even nonviolent, slow-moving thunderstorms can overwhelm creeks and rivers, leading to serious flooding. Regardless of the cause, flooding can jeopardize your family’s safety and well-being.

Flood Control Measures to Consider

It may be impossible to prevent flooding, but flood control is possible. Follow these practical flood control tips to limit potential damage inside and outside your home:

  • Keep gutters clean and make sure downspouts drain water away from your house.
  • Maintain clear paths for storm water to travel, ensuring that storm drainage ditches are free of sticks, rocks, and other debris and can alleviate overflow that damages homes and surrounding property.
  • If you can, install a small floodwall or use sandbags to regrade your yard.
  • As a flood control precaution, install check valves and backup sewer valves to prevent water from backing up in your home’s drains.

Planning and Preparation Help Reduce Losses

Considering flood control as you perform routine maintenance on your home is the first step in safeguarding your family and property in the event of a flood. Being prepared for flooding if or when it occurs is just as important.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross, and theU.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend these steps and precautions:

  • Know your home’s projected flood elevation and place electrical sockets and other components at least 12 inches above that point.
  • Situate your furnace, washer and dryer, and other appliances on concrete blocks or otherwise raise them so they, too, are at least 12 inches higher than you home’s projected flood elevation point.
  • Create a flood plan and “flood file” with must-have information, such as your insurance policy number and agent’s contact numbers, and friends and relatives you can contact in case of emergency. Keep the file in a safe (high and dry) place, and let caregivers and babysitters know where to find it.
  • Stock a waterproof box with at least three days’ worth of canned foods, bottled water, medications, first aid supplies, a battery-powered radio, flashlights, and fresh batteries (or a hand-powered generator), basic cleaning supplies, some cash, and any other essential items you will need in case of an emergency. If you have pets, remember their needs as well.

Flood Safety Tips to Remember

Unfortunately, the best laid plans and flood control precautions can’t prevent flooding. To keep yourself and your family safe during a flood:

  • Never walk through flowing floodwaters; even seemingly shallow flows can be powerful enough to knock adults off their feet.
  • Never drive through flowing floodwaters. Most flooding deaths occur in cars. If you are in a car during flooding conditions, get out and head (on foot) for higher ground.
  • Avoid contact with downed power lines.
  • Be wary of wild animals — when flooded out of their homes, they may take refuge in yours.
  • If advised by authorities to do so, turn off the main gas supply and power switches to utilities and do not operate them until an electrician has inspected and approved the system.
  • Until you know your water supply is safe, boil water for drinking and food preparation.
  • When in contact with floodwaters or cleaning items that have been in contact with floodwaters, wear boots and gloves, and wash your hands frequently, using soap and clean water.
  • Mold can grow quickly. Remove wet items immediately to prevent mold from developing in your home.

Flooding is a topic everybody, especially homeowners, need to know about. Armed with the proper tools and information, you can minimize the effects of flooding on you and your loved ones.

Common Mistakes Growing Tomatoes in Containers

Growing tomatoes in containers is almost always an adventure. It can be incredibly rewarding or flat out disastrous. Sometimes epic failure can happen for reasons beyond your control like tomato blight or a ridiculously wet or cold summer. But there are some common mistakes (trust me, I’ve made all of them, much more than once) that if you can avoid them, will vastly increase your chances of growing tomatoes in containers successfully.

Small Containers

When it comes to tomato containers, bigger is better. The bigger your container, the more soil it will hold. The more soil you have, the better the soil holds water. Also, the more soil the more available nutrients for your plants. Consistent water and food are two of the most critical elements for happy, healthy tomato plants and large harvests.

Too Much Water

Watering your tomato plants properly is probably the main key to tomato success. Too much water and the plants drown, too little and you get blossom end rot. Inconsistent watering will also get you blossom end rot, split tomatoes, and stressed plants. So here’s a critical thing you must do for tomato success (and the most difficult if you are using conventional pots instead of self-watering). You want to keep the soil in your pots consistently moist – not wet, but damp. Before you water, check if your soil is already moist.

To do this put your finger into the soil about an inch or two (a good way to do this is going to your second knuckle). Add water if the soil feels dry to the touch at your fingertip. Don’t forget drainage too. Make sure your pot has large holes in the bottom so excess water can drain out. Pot feet are also a good idea if you have your pot on a patio or non-porous surface.

Add water until it drains out the bottom of your pot. That way you will know that all of the roots, even those at the bottom of the pot, have gotten watered.

Another great way to control water to your containers is to use a self-watering container, such as a grow box. I’ve had great success with Earthbox and The Grow Box brands.

For more info on keeping plants from drowning.

Too Little Water

The amount of water your tomato plant needs will depend on a few things including the weather. The Wind, heat, humidity, the size of your pot and the kind of potting soil you use will affect how often you need to water. By mid-season, a large tomato plant may need watering at least once a day – sometimes twice. Also, when you water, make sure to really soak your plants – if you just give them a sip, the water will only wet the top layer of soil. When you water, try to water the soil directly, not the leaves, because wet leaves can lead to fungus.

Don’t bother with water crystals they are expensive and tests have shown that they aren’t particularly effective.


Putting lots of plants in one pot may seem like a good idea, but it usually is counterproductive. Unless my pot is tremendous (more like a raised bed) I only put one tomato plant per pot.

To get an idea of minimum size, I have successfully grown one huge tomato plant in a large reusable grocery bag and that’s about as small as I’d go per plant.

Not Enough Sun

Tomatoes are sun lovers and need full sun – which means that they need unobstructed, direct sunlight for 6-8 hours a day – no cheating or skipping. Many people (myself included) chronically overestimate how much sun an area gets. Really figure this out – either with a watch or a sunlight meter – before you plant up your pots. Also, the amount of that hits a spot can change dramatically over the growing season, so check every week or so to make sure there are no obstructions blocking the sun.

Chilly Tomatoes

Along with the sun, tomatoes like warm temperatures. While it might feel like you’re getting a jump on the season by putting your tomatoes out early, they will not really do anything until it is consistently warm.

If you do want to get a jump on the season, you can either cover your tomatoes with clothes, or plastic when it’s cold or do what I generally do which is to put them on carts and wagons and haul them in and out of my garage until temperatures warm up. Also, don’t forget to harden off your seedlings.

Starting Your Plants

Tomatoes are heavy feeders and need to be fertilized if you aren’t using a pre-fertilized potting soil. Most potting mixes have very few of the nutrients that your plants require to grow and be healthy so you will need to add those nutrients to the soil or stimulate the ones already there if your mix is heavy on compost. There are many fertilizers to choose from but I use either an all-purpose, organic slow-release fertilizer or one designed especially for growing tomatoes or vegetables, which I mix into my potting soil. In addition, I use a diluted fish emulsion/seaweed liquid, once every week or two. I also sometimes add calcium, either in the form of lime or a liquid calcium. If you start seeing black at the ends of your tomatoes, you probably have blossom end rot, and that can be from watering issues and/or a lack of calcium in your soil.

Choosing the Wrong Variety of Tomato

I disagree with conventional the wisdom here that recommends growing tomatoes with “patio,” in their name. I think that most patio tomatoes taste, well, more like patio pavers than tomatoes. I love growing huge luscious tomatoes and sprawling cherry tomatoes. To me, tomatoes are all about taste and texture and I don’t want to bother growing them if they aren’t totally delicious.

Here are some of my favorite tomato varieties.

Growing Tomatoes Upside-Down

A lot of people swear by growing tomatoes upside-down. Not me. I have tried it several ways and haven’t found any to be all that great. I see the point of growing tomatoes that hang – just not upside down. If you want to know why, here’s an article on the Upsides and Downsides of Upside-Down Tomatoes.

Staking or Caging Too Late

This is one of my chronic mistakes.

I always forget how fast tomatoes grow and don’t stake or cage them until they are huge and unwieldy. It is much better to set up your cages or stakes before your tomatoes get too big. Here is a video on how to build a bamboo tomato cage .

Balcony Gardening for Beginners

Learn more about growing a successful flower garden when you have zero in-ground planting area, and transform a space for a couple of potted plants into your urban paradise.

Flowers for Balcony Gardens

Flowers that thrive in alpine or rock gardens are also ideal candidates for balcony gardens. Like alpine environments, balconies are exposed to unbuffered winds, and the succulent leaves and low profile of these flowers protect them from desiccation and breakage. Alpine flowers also get by on less water, making themlow maintenance and less likely to drip on neighbors below. Include Armeria sea pink for a cushion of bright pink flowers in late spring. Delosperma hardy ice plant produces daisy-like flowers over a long period. Dianthus flowers will cheer you with a spicy fragrance. The penstemon may attract passing bees and butterflies.

If you aren’t ready for the commitment of perennials, choose drought-tolerant annuals that don’t need fussing to thrive. Vinca flowers are self-cleaning; no need to deadhead. A Million bells are petunia look-alikes but won’t look like something the cat dragged in after a rainstorm.

Choose Balcony Garden Containers

Before you choose containers for your balcony garden, you should determine if you need permission to start your garden, learn about balcony garden regulations, and, if the plan is ambitious, consider a consult with a structural engineer for safety.

High-quality poly-resin garden containers and urns are indistinguishable from glazed pottery or stone, but weigh just a fraction of the real thing. In addition to lightweight garden pots, you can make your containers weigh even less by placing Styrofoam peanuts or empty milk jugs in the bottom half of large pots instead of soil. If you prefer to use only natural materials in your pots, fill the bottoms with coco coir, which provides excellent drainage and breaks down slowly.

Balcony Garden Design

The trick of balcony garden design is to create enough diversity to be interesting without looking cluttered or chaotic. Choose one or two colors and keep all of your flowers in that color family. You can go for a hot color scheme of red and yellow, a cool scheme of purple and white, or contrasting colors like blue and orange.

Include hanging baskets for vertical accents. A bracket that hangs from a wall is a safer way to hang baskets than a freestanding metal tree, which may topple in high winds. In this small space, bypass the cheap plastic hanging baskets and plain brackets and invest instead in ornate pieces that compliment the architecture of your building.

Thunbergia and firecracker vines will stay in bounds. If you get permission to attach a trellis to a wall, set it at least one inch away from the wall to discourage rot and mildew problems.

Care for Balcony Garden Plants

Watering is usually the number one challenge for balcony gardeners. The possibility of unexpected muddy showers won’t thrill your neighbor beneath you. Adrip irrigation system is the best way to give potted plants only what they need, without much more than some condensation beneath the container. You will need a gravity fed irrigation system with a reservoir of at least five gallons. Other balcony watering ideas include using capillary mats or drip caps that attach to your recycled 2-liter plastic bottles.

The small space of a balcony garden makes pest control methods that are usually laborious seem feasible.

Handpicking is a viable way to control any insect large enough to be handpicked! Put on your gloves, and drop all offending beetles, caterpillars, and slugs into a bucket of soapy water. Nip pests in the bud early, as infestations blossom quickly in such a small area.

As you prune and groom your balcony garden, think about buying a kitchen composter so you can turn clippings and veggie scraps into black gold for your plants. Bokashi models promise quick results with no smell.

When winter arrives, balcony gardeners must make a decision about how or whether to save plants. For the gardener with annuals, it’s fun to start with fresh specimens each year. If some of the flowers are expensive exotics, you may be able to overwinter them in a sunny window. Hardy perennials may survive the winter in their containers; large containers with excellent drainage are the key to success here. Finally, you can take cuttings or divisions of large perennials to overwinter indoors. This challenge is part of the fun of balcony gardening.

5 Tips for Starting Seeds Indoors

Starting seeds indoors can be frustrating, exhilarating or sometimes a little of both. As someone who has killed hundreds, maybe thousands of innocent seedlings, I’ve improved my success rate dramatically by using these tips.

Let There Be Light: For seedlings to grow properly, they need light. And lots of it. Even if you have a south facing window, chances are that you don’t have enough natural light to grow healthy robust seedlings.

If seedlings don’t get enough light they will be spindly and won’t make it to healthy adulthood. Don’t be alarmed though, setting up an artificial light system can be easy and not expensive.

I have a simple set up in my basement using inexpensive metal shelves. I have attached shop lights using “S” hooks and the chains they came with, so they can be raised as the plants grow. Sometimes if you’re growing several types of plants under one light, one side of your shop light will have to be higher than the other, as plants grow at very different rates. I have fitted the shop lights with one cool and one warm fluorescent bulb. I also plug these lights into inexpensive timers, so I don’t have to keep track of turning them on and off. Once the seeds have germinated I set the lights to go on for 14 hours during the day. I also keep them as close as possible to the seedlings – two to three inches at most.

It’s amazing how much better and faster seedlings grow if the lights are that close.

Use Self-Watering Seed Starting Systems: I will never start a seed in a small peat pot again. They just dry out too fast. Self-watering seed starting systems are becoming increasingly popular, and there are many to choose from.

I’ve tried several and my hands down favorite is the APS Seed Starting Systemfrom Gardeners Supply. I’m also very partial to my own design of a free, self-watering seed starter that you can make from a supermarket pie plate and some string.

Use a Good Seed Starting Medium: One might think that given all the seeds that grown in the ground and do just fine, that you could grow your indoor seeds in garden soil. Bad idea. Seedlings are very susceptible to a dreaded fungus called “damping off.” You know you have it when all your seedlings are fine one minute and the next day, they have keeled over, dead as a door nail. With all the work starting seeds requires, it makes sense to give seedlings the best chance for survival by using a sterile planting mix.

Feed Your Seedlings: Most sterile planting mixes don’t have don’t have any built-in nutrients at all. For awhile seedlings get all nutrition they need from the seed itself, but when you start seeing leaves you’ll want to feed your seedlings with a diluted solution of liquid fertilizer.

Ventilation and Wind: Seeds are really meant to be planted outside in the elements. They are designed to get sun, rain and wind. By planting indoors you are really attempting to fool Mother Nature and many of us are planting our seeds in our basements, the part of the house that is probably least like the natural world, with air that doesn’t move.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that moving air is an important factor in helping seedlings to develop a robust root system and strong stems. To approximate wind, try setting a fan on low near your seedlings. If you do, you will get sturdier plants. I also gently run my hands along the tops of my seedlings for a couple of minutes a day to give them even more of a workout. Be aware though that a fan will dry out the soil more quickly so you really have to keep on top of making sure the soil stays moist.

Read the Seed Packet: Most seed packets have a wealth of information. First, they will tell you how deep to plant your seeds – a critical piece of information. Most packets will tell you if it’s even ok to plant the seeds you are considering indoors – some plant just flat out don’t like to be transplanted and are better off started in the container garden in which they will live.

The packet will tell you how long it should take for the seed to germinate and how many weeks before the last frost you should start your seeds. Keep the seed packet for the life of the plants. Chances are there will be information that you will need at some point (particularly if you’ve thrown the packet away).