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Category Archives: home and garden

Christmas Trees and Trappings Can Fan Fire Risk

The risk of burns increases over the holiday season because people are cooking more, putting up potentially flammable decorations and using fireplaces and candles.

“We see a significant increase in burn patients between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Your holiday, which should be full of joy and celebration, can quickly turn tragic,” Dr. Jeff Guy, director of Vanderbilt Regional Burn Center in Nashville, Tenn., said in a Vanderbilt University news release.

Many of these injuries are easily preventable if people are cautious and eliminate potential dangers that could lead to burns.

Guy outlined a number of ways to prevent burns and have a safe holiday season.

Staying in the kitchen and being attentive while cooking can prevent most cooking fires. Keep pot holders, wooden utensils, towels, food packaging and anything else that can catch fire away from the stovetop.

Use turkey fryers outdoors and keep them a safe distance from the building. Never overfill a fryer with oil and never leave it unattended.

When you buy an artificial Christmas tree, select one with a “fire resistant” label. When buying a real tree, check for freshness. It should be green, the needles should be hard to pull, the trunk should be sticky with resin and the tree shouldn’t lose many needles when it’s hit.

Keep fresh trees away from fireplaces and radiators and keep the tree stand filled with water. A well-watered tree is usually safe but it can take just a few seconds for a dry tree to be ablaze, Guy said.

Check new and old sets of Christmas lights for broken or cracked sockets, frayed wires or loose connections, and discard damaged sets. Don’t overload extension cords and never use electric lights on a metallic tree.

Don’t burn wrapping paper in the fireplace, because it can ignite suddenly and burn intensely. Place candles away from trees and other decorations and in locations where they can’t be knocked over. Never leave candles unattended.

Tips to Prevent Burglaries

Ever wonder if your home is a target for burglaries — if burglars look hungrily at your poorly lit, flimsy front door? View your home the way a burglar would, and think about what you see. Boosting your home security will give you peace of mind, and help prevent a robbery.

How to Make Your Home More Secure

You don’t have to barricade your doors and windows to keep burglars out of your home. But you do need to make sure that your home is protected, with no weak spots where burglars can enter or hide out. Here are some ways to strengthen your home security:

  • Door security. Use solid metal or wood doors with deadbolt locks, and hinges without removable pins when possible. If you have sliding glass doors, secure them with screws that keep them from being lifted off their tracks and lock them with a deadbolt lock. Make sure all doors in the house, including patio and side doors, are secured at all times.
  • Close the garage. Keep your garage doors and windows closed and locked, including those doors leading from the garage into the home.
  • Light your home. Make sure doors and windows are well lit. Exterior and interior lighting is important for deterring burglars. No burglar wants to get caught trying to break in through a door or window with a light shining brightly on him or her.
  • Lock windows. All windows on the main floor of your home — which are probably pretty easy to get into — should be securely locked. Also secure all screens and storm windows, and basement windows as well.
  • Protect upper floors. If you home is two stories or higher, don’t underestimate a burglar’s ability to climb up to get inside. Keep trees trimmed away from windows to prevent climbing in, and make sure there is no access to a ladder. If upper windows have locks, use them; if they don’t, consider installing them.
  • Trim shrubbery. Don’t give burglars a place to hide by allowing landscaping to get too lush or overgrown, blocking windows and doors. Keep all trees and bushes around your home neat and trimmed.
  • Talk to neighbors. If you are concerned about home security and burglaries, talk to trusted neighbors. Neighbors can do more than lend a cup of sugar — ask them to let you know if they see anyone suspicious around your home, and offer to do the same for them.
  • Fence in your yard. A fence, particularly one with only a narrow gate, may deter burglars. A fence makes it more difficult to get in and out, especially lugging big, awkward items like a TV out of your home.
  • Consider a burglar alarm. An alarm can certainly scare off burglars and offer you peace of mind. A loud alarm will sound when your home is broken into, and some alarms automatically call the police or a security company when triggered.
  • Take a self-defense class. If you’re worried about how to react if an intruder breaks in, consider taking a self-defense class. You’ll learn how to surprise a burglar, and have him heading for the door — and you’ll feel more confident in your abilities.
  • Get a dog. Most dogs make a lot of noise when they hear something suspicious, and the last thing a burglar wants is for people to be made aware of his presence.

Home Security When You Travel

You may be particularly concerned about home protection while you’re traveling or on vacation, and rightly so. Burglars look for good opportunities, like plenty of time to break in without worrying about someone coming home and disrupting them.

Take these extra precautions before heading out of town so that you don’t leave your home vulnerable to burglary:

  • Make sure all doors and windows are securely locked.
  • Leave lights on inside and outside your home, such as front porch lights, and side and back door lights.
  • Turn on a radio to make it seem like someone is home. Better yet, install a timer to turn on lights and a radio or TV at specific times of the day.
  • Instead of boarding your dog, leave Fido home and hire a pet sitter to care for your dog – and your home.
  • Have mail and newspapers collected every day, or stop delivery ahead of time.

What Kids Should Know About Home Security

Security measures should become second nature for every member of the family, even the youngest ones. Try these strategies:

  • Teach children to be careful about keeping doors locked, and not be careless about forgetting to lock or close a door or window here or there.
  • Make sure children know not to open the door for strangers. This can never be repeated enough.
  • Once old enough, kids should know how to operate the burglar alarm system, and have it on when they’re home alone.

Home security is a family affair. It takes everyone’s involvement. No matter how safe your neighborhood, don’t be careless around your home — someone may be waiting to take advantage of it.

Simple Ways to Prevent Fireworks Injuries

Many Fourth of July fireworks-related injuries could be prevented with some common sense, according to experts who advise people to avoid using fireworks at home — even if they’re legal.

“There’s no such thing as completely safe fireworks,” Dr. Andrew Sama, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said in an ACEP news release. “A few minutes of well-intentioned fun can result in lifelong disabilities.”

Every Independence Day, an average of about 200 people end up in the emergency room with fireworks-related injuries, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Most of these injuries are burns and nearly half of these incidents involve people’s hands and fingers. The CPSC notes that 34 percent of fireworks-related injuries affect people’s eyes, head, face and ears.

Although sparklers may seem safe, they carry hazards as well. A sparkler can burn at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is as hot as a blowtorch, according to the release.

The ACEP recommended the following fireworks Dos and Don’ts to ensure people’s safety this year:


  • Anyone using fireworks should be supervised by an experienced adult.
  • Only buy fireworks from reputable dealers.
  • Be sure to read fireworks labels and follow directions carefully.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher or bucket of water nearby.
  • Light fireworks one at a time.
  • Discard fireworks as directed.


  • Young children should never use fireworks, including sparklers.
  • Never light fireworks inside or near other objects.
  • Do not stand over fireworks while lighting them and back up immediately after lighting them.
  • Never point fireworks towards people.
  • Never try to re-light fireworks that fail to ignite.
  • Do not wear loose clothing while using fireworks.
  • Fireworks should never be set off in glass or metal containers.
  • Never carry fireworks in pockets.

“The safest and only thing you should do is watch a professional fireworks display managed by experts who have proper training and experience handling these explosives,” Sama recommended. “Have fun and enjoy this great American holiday. As always, we’ll be ready to treat you, but we don’t want to have to see you in the ER.”

Guide to Eating Healthy in an Emergency

In the case of a hurricane or tropical storm, your family’s physical safety is your first concern, so it’s important for you to prepare an emergency plan in advance. But even if your home is not directly hit by a storm, your neighborhood or community could be affected for several days or longer by power outages, blocked roads, and damage to grocery stores, gas stations, and other businesses.

Hurricane disaster experts with the National Hurricane Center, the Red Cross, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency advise each household to put together a preparedness kit that includes such basics as a flashlight, a radio, batteries, maps, a first-aid kit, a manual can opener, medications — and, of course, food and water. But exactly what foods should be included?

Healthy Meal Plans

Every household should stock up on healthy, easy-to-store food items, but it’s especially important to include diet-specific foods for any family members who have high blood pressure, diabetes, gluten allergy (celiac disease), or another health condition that requires a special menu.

Read the shopping lists and sample menus below for choices that can help your family eat healthfully during an emergency; these lists include options for those with diabetes, high blood pressure, a heart condition, food allergies, and more.

Hurricane Healthy Meals Kit

To start, plan to create a “hurricane healthy meals kit” that includes essential nutrients from three of the five food groups, says Stacey Whittle, a registered dietitian and co-owner of Healthy by Design Nutrition Specialists, in Santa Monica, Calif. “The most important group is protein, then vegetables and fruits, and then so-called fillers, or starchy items.” A balanced meal would include something from each group.

In an emergency, the top priority is to get enough calories and stay hydrated. “You need to stay fueled and focused and not get sick,” Whittle says. She suggests that the hurricane healthy meals plan provide three meals a day, spread out as evenly as possible. Each meal should have a protein source as its main component, as well as something from each of the other major food groups.

Shelf life is another consideration. “Keep foods that require little or no cooking, water, or refrigeration, in case utilities are disrupted,” says Mitali Shah, MS, RD, LDN, a clinical and research dietitian at Boston Medical Center’s Center for Endocrinology, Diabetes, Nutrition, and Weight Management.

“Plan to have at least a three-day supply of food on hand,” she says. “Canned foods and dry mixes will remain fresh for about two years, but date all food items, and use and replace food before it loses freshness.”

While you’re stocking your pantry, remember to include plastic utensils, paper plates and cups, and cooking fuel, such as canned sterno or propane for a camp stove.

Healthy Proteins: Canned tuna, chicken, and salmon are healthy protein choices, with a portion size equaling half of one can. Other good proteins include beans, boxed tofu, nuts, seeds, and nut butters.

Pick “superfood” proteins and you’ll get the added nutritional benefit of omega-3 fatty acids, says Caroline Apovian, MD, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center and associate professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. “Sardines or?tuna fish packed in water, salmon packed in its own juices, and walnuts all have protein plus omega-3s, DHA, and EPA,” she says.

Low-sodium canned goods are necessary for those who have high blood pressure, plus they’re a better choice for all family members because salty foods can cause excessive thirst, and water for drinking may be limited in an emergency. “If you’re on a sodium-restricted diet, you can rinse the canned food in a colander before eating it,” says Shah.

Protein powder is another excellent source, since it can be mixed with water and provides good nutrition and filling calories, says Whittle. Lactose-free, gluten-free, and rice-based protein powders are available for those who have dietary restrictions; whey protein and soy protein are also available. “Protein powders can be hard to mix without an electric blender,” Whittle says, “so your kit should include a BlenderBottle, a plastic container with a wire whisk for mixing.” Two protein shakes and a serving of tuna or beans would provide sufficient protein for a day.

Healthy Fruits and Vegetables: Fruits and vegetables have a high fiber and water content — important for maintaining digestive health — so be sure to have these foods on hand. Eat any fresh fruit and vegetables first. Frozen fruits and vegetables are a good second choice, and if power is lost, they’ll keep in the freezer for 24 to 48 hours.

Canned foods are generally a less nutritious option than fresh and frozen foods, but Apovian recommends that you include unsweetened canned fruit, shelf-stable applesauce, and dried fruit in your healthy meals kit.

As always with canned food, throw out any cans with damaged seals or dents, which can pose a danger of botulism. And remember to put a manual can opener in your kit.

Healthy Fillers: It’s important to include starches in a balanced meal. The potatoes in your refrigerator drawer are actually edible raw; in addition, they’re a good source of potassium. Dehydrated potatoes are another option. “They have added milk and butter, so you only need water to make mashed potatoes,” says Shah.

High-fiber, low-sugar cereals can be stored for a long time, and fortified cereals — those with added vitamins and nutrients — will help you and your family meet your daily nutritional requirements. Crackers are a good staple to have on hand, but choose a high-fiber, low-sodium option, such as rye crisps. Rice cakes are another nutritious choice — they’re good eaten with nut butters.

Whittle recommends energy bars as “fillers” because they offer a lot of healthy calories in a small package. Her pick for the hurricane healthy meals kit is Larabars: “an across-the-board bar which would suit pretty much everyone.” Larabars are vegan, have no gluten, and are packaged to last up to a year. For diabetics, Whittle recommends ExtendBars, which are available in a low-sugar (10 grams) version, and a little-to-no-sugar (0–1 gram) version; both bars are low on the glycemic index (GI).

Food Safety

If you are without power for longer than two hours, perishable food in your freezer will be safe to eat for up to 24 hours if the freezer is half full, according to guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If the freezer is full, food will last as long as 48 hours. Packing items close together in your refrigerator and freezer and keeping the doors closed as much as possible will help food stay cold longer.

Thawed frozen fruits should not be eaten if mold, a yeasty smell, or sliminess develops; thawed frozen vegetables can be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower for a maximum of six hours, according to, a Web site managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The site also advises that fruits and vegetables be washed in clean water and dried before storing.

More guidelines on food safety are available on the In an Emergency page on and on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service Web site. Both sites offer printable charts that list the shelf life of commonly refrigerated foods. “It’s one of those things that needs to go on the refrigerator as the ’emergency reference food checklist’,” says Shah.

The CDC recommends packing such items as dairy products, meats, eggs, and spoilable leftovers in a cooler or chest filled with ice. A food thermometer should be included in your hurricane healthy meals kit — it can be used to test foods requiring refrigeration. If such foods reach a temperature of more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours, they should not be eaten. “Remember to never taste food to determine its safety,” cautions Shah.

Eating Well When the Power Goes Out

If you end up losing power, these healthy meals can be prepared without a heating source:


  • Bowl of dry cereal w/ canned evaporated skim milk or milk from a cooler with ice
  • Nutrition bar with canned fruit or apple sauce


  • Nut butter sandwich (or with crackers)
  • Tuna/chicken/salmon salad (with mayo from a cooler with ice or a balsamic vinegar dressing) on bread or crackers
  • Bean salad (mix of canned beans) dressed with olive oil, vinegar, and seasonings
  • Pre-prepared soup (from a thermos)
  • Rice and beans with vegetables (if you know a blizzard is coming, make rice ahead of time)


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).

7 Common Container Gardening Mistakes

Since I have made every mistake possible, many more than once, the following list of 7 common container gardening mistakes is just a start, and is in no particular order.

1. Filling a large container in the wrong place: Ever tried to lift a large container garden filled with dirt and plants? I have, and it can be overwhelmingly heavy. When using a large or unwieldy container make sure to place your pot where it will live and then fill it – you’ll save your back!

Also, if you know you are planting shallow rooted plants in a very large container (for example, herbs, annuals, succulents), you can fill the bottom third with empty plastic bottles and cover them with plastic screening. You can also use a product called “Better Than Rocks,” to take up space. It will make your container lighter and less expensive because you won’t need as much potting soil.

2. Overwatering Your Plants: To avoid over-watering your container gardens, use containers that have drainage holes – lots of them. Also, make sure to read the moisture requirements for your plants and then follow them. Before you water, check if your soil is moist. To do this put your finger into the soil up to your second knuckle. If the soil at your fingertip feels dry, water your plant.

If you do over-water, leaves may turn yellow and fall off, or your plants may get limp. If your soil is too wet, move the container to a dry, breezy spot until it dries out.

If you have the room, you can also move your container garden into a garage or sheltered spot to dry it out, particularly if the weather is continuing to be wet.

3. Underwatering Your Plants: Most container gardens need watering at least once a day in the heat of the summer.

Many, especially hanging planters or small containers, need watering even more often because there is less soil to hold moisture. 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. Water until you see it coming out of the bottom of your pot.

Lots of people use water crystals but they are expensive and some tests have shown that they aren’t particularly effective.

If your plants do dry out, don’t despair; even the most pathetic, limp, plant might revive with a good drink. If the container is small enough, submerge the whole thing in a bucket of water until the air bubbles subside. For a large container take a skewer or stick and gently poke holes deep into the soil to allow water to reach the roots. Then water generously.

4. Awkward plant to pot ratio: Make sure to consider the proportions of your plants to your container. A large container stuffed with short plants can look stunted. If you need a rule of thumb (and remember that rules are meant to be broken) try to have at least one plant that is as tall as the container. Also try plants that will spill over the sides.

5. Buying weak or sickly plants: Buying plants at a reputable local nursery is a good place to start in your quest for healthy plants. You have a greater chance of getting plants that are disease and pest free and well cared for than at a big box store. At a nursery, you can often get a wealth of information and advice from knowledgeable staff. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to help you pick out a good plant.

If you can’t resist the prices of buying plants from a big box store (and occasionally, who can’t?), try to buy them on or close to the day they’re delivered. Don’t be shy to ask someone who works there which day new plant stock arrives. Delivery is usually the same day every week.

Here are some suggestions for how to save money on container gardening.

6. Fear of pruning: When your container gardens start looking leggy or ragged, don’t be afraid to cut them back.

You may want to put them in an out-of-the-way spot until they re-bound, but chances are they’ll come back healthier and happier with a good haircut.

7. Selecting plants with different requirements: Make sure that all the plants in your container garden share the same sun, soil and water requirements. You can find out this information from your seed packets or plant labels.

Vegetable Container Gardening For Beginners

Vegetable container gardening can bring joy and bounty. The simple pleasure of biting into a tomato still warm from the sun, picked and eaten on the spot is almost unbeatable. You can grow just about any vegetable in a container and you can also save serious bucks by growing your own veggies.

However, vegetable container gardening can be a frustrating and expensive endeavor if your plants don’t thrive and produce.

The following list of basic tips apply to most vegetables and will help you and your plants get off to a good start.


Most vegetables need full sun – that means at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. Most people way overestimate how much sun an area really gets, which is easy to do. For your veggies to thrive, you will need an accurate assessment so either take out your watch and time how long the sun directly hits the spot where you want to put your vegetable container garden, or use a sun calculator to get an accurate, not optimistic assessment.


Vegetable plants need water and some like tomatoes need lots of it. However, you don’t want to drown your plants. The goal is to keep your soil moist but not wet. To figure out if your plants need water, stick your finger down into the soil, about an inch, or up to your first knuckle. If the soil feels dry, add water, and if you’re not sure, wait and check later in the day.

At the height of summer, you probably will have to water at least once, sometimes twice, a day. Proper watering may be the single most important and hardest part of vegetable container gardening.

More on watering your plants


If you live in a really hot zone you may have to shade your plants in the middle of the day in order not to fry them.

Also, it’s best not to use metal containers or dark colored plastics or ceramics, because they can heat up and cook your plant’s roots.

On the flip side, many vegetables don’t like cold soil, so if you live in a cool climate, make sure not to put your vegetable container gardens outside full-time, until you know the temperatures are warm enough. For many plants the soil needs to be at least 60°F. Using a meat thermometer is a good way to find out the temperature of your soil. Always make sure to harden off your plants before you put them outside.


Quality potting soil is really important for vegetables. Don’t use soil from your garden, because it will compact in your container and won’t drain water properly. Also, one of the reasons to garden in containers is so you won’t have to deal with weeds. Chances are pretty good that if you use garden soil, you will be importing weeds into your container. I use organic potting soil because studies have shown that there are many benefits to growing produce organically, including better taste and a higher percentage of antioxidents and phytochemicals.


Plants need food to thrive, and their food is fertilizer. If your soil doesn’t have fertilizer already mixed in, you’ll want to add fertilizer.

I use an organic granular fertilizer and mix it into my containers from top to bottom. Every couple of weeks I will add diluted liquid fish emulsion or liquid seaweed to give them the nutrition they need. Another great way to add fertilizer during the growing season is to make or buy compost tea.

More on feeding your plants


Drainage is key to keep plants from drowning. You want your pot or container to let excess water out of the bottom, so your plants won’t sit in water or soggy soil. Make sure your container has one large hole or several smaller ones. You can usually drill holes if the drainage is insufficient. Also, if your pot is sitting on a hard surface, the hole can plug up, so elevating your pots with pot feet is also a good idea.


Choosing a container can be daunting.

You can use almost anything for a garden planter as long as it is big enough and has good drainage. Keep in mind though, that the larger your container, the easier it will be to maintain. The more soil a container can hold the more moisture it will retain. I don’t bother with containers that are smaller than 12” and I am much happier if they are at least 18”. Bigger, really is better here.

For looks, I love wooden containers for growing vegetables. I like the way they look and you can get really good-sized containers that aren’t too expensive, or you can make your own.

Growing vegetables in self-watering containers works wonderfully well. My favorite container for growing tomatoes is an Earthbox. They are large, easy to use, are incredibly durable and make giving plants the right amount of water a cinch.

Plastic or glazed ceramic containers are fine too. You can even use terracotta, but it is harder to keep your plants moist, because the clay tends to suck the water out of the soil. To help solve this problem, I either line a terracotta pot with plastic, or use a plastic pot as a liner

For an inexpensive container try a five-gallon, plastic bucket from the hardware store, or make an unusual container from something you have around your house, like an old laundry basket or a toy bin. As long as it’s big enough and has good drainage, you can really use anything.

I’m also a huge fan of straw bale gardening.

Seeds or Seedlings

You can start your veggies from seed or buy seedlings. There are some significant advantages and disadvantages to each. Starting your own seeds is much less expensive than buying seedlings, after some startup costs. Another great reason to start your own seeds is that you can grow hard to find varieties and can also grow your seedlings organically. However, starting seeds isn’t for everyone. You absolutely cannot let them dry out or they’re toast. Conversely, if you give them too much water, they keel over dead. To avoid this, you can make a self-watering seed starter.