Why Growing Dry Beans is So Awesome

holding a bowl of hot vegetable soupDo you love soups in the winter?  I sure do, a pot of soup on the stove heating up the house with its yummy smells filling the air. Dried beans are a must have for winter soups.

Today is a pleasantly cool rainy fall day, perfect for listening to some favorite tunes, enjoying a cup of tea and shelling beans, humming and dancing while the shelled beans pile up in a bowl, ready to be planted next spring and eaten this winter.

When I shell dried beans, I keep some of the biggest, plumpest out for planting the following year.  The rest are put into jars for eating.

There are literally hundreds of varieties of dried beans, so choose the ones you like to eat. Are you into Minestrone soup, then grow Cannellini beans. Into nachos, then grow pinto or black beans.  Love making chili, grow some Kidney beans.   Beyond these pretty well known favorites there are loads of other types to try to make you own unique winter soup.

Christmas Lima Beans
Christmas Lima Beans

A couple lesser known of favorites I like to grow are Vermont Cranberry and Christmas Limas.  Vermont Cranberry is a bush bean, where Christmas Limas are pole beans.  They are both beautiful and both make your soup broth a rich warm burgundy color.

You can find lots of varieties of dried beans that grow as bush beans or pole beans, depending on which you prefer to grow.  I like a bit of both. Bush beans yield faster, but I get a larger harvest from pole beans.  Check the Days to Maturity on the varieties that look interesting to you. This will tell you if you’ll have enough time to grow them until they dry on the plant.  If you are in the south, this is usually not an issue. Northern gardeners whose number of hot summer days are shorter may want to stick to shorter days to maturity bush types.

Dry Beans
Home Grown Dried Beans

When looking at seed catalogs for bean varieties, note that some beans are good both fresh and dried.  This can be a good use of garden space, as you can have a round or two of fresh green beans, then let the rest go for dried beans.  This way you get two types of beans from one plant!

Bon appetit, I’m off to enjoy my first cool weather soup made with home grown beans.


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Why Grow Your Health?

Grow Your Health logo 2014For three years now I have been honored to be a part of the team who put on the Grow Your Health, Gardening, Local Food and Wellness Festival.

There are several reasons for our participation in this local annual event:

First off, we are passionate about spreading the word of growing your own food. Gardening is a great way to get outside, off our computers for a few, and get back to our roots –  sometimes literally –  in the case of carrots and radishes. Grow Your Health is a great venue to talk gardens and empower people to garden.spring greens in deck house close up

The festival is also about local food. This local festival gets community members together with local farms and healthy food providers in a fun environment.   Connecting folks with our local farmers and practitioners enriches our local economy. It also allows each to expand their community support system. Families supporting family farms was part of how this country was built and these relationship nurture the heart of everyone involved.

The third focus of the festival is wellness, not only of our bodies through various support systems, but also the wellness of the planet that supports us all. The movie we are showing this year, GMO OMG talks primarily about the potential effects of genetically modified organisms in our food, but the business of growing these has major impacts on the wellness of planet earth.

Helping the neGrow-Your-Health-2014-kids-gardening-class-3xt generations learn about healthy practices for themselves and their planet, how to connect with the planet through gardening and knowing where their food comes from is part of the family value this festival can provide. Each year we strive to make the event better for families to attend, more fun for children and provide everyone who attends an enriching community event.

Come out and join us, Saturday, March 28, 10:00 am – 5:30 pm.

Stop by the Prior Unity Garden Booth and sign up for the raffle to win some prizes.

As part of the class lineup, Russell will be part of a Gardening Q&A at 11:00 am and Debby will be teaching Small Space Gardening at 1:30 pm.

We’ll also have spring plants and other cool stuff.


GET TICKETS – Adults $10 in advance, $15 at the door – Children under 16 FREE

deb and russ at the booth – Debby Ward,Founder & Owner of Prior Unity Garden & Management Team Member, Grow Your Health – Gardening, Local Food & Wellness Festival


Grow Your Health Festival 2015

gyh banner1

We'll have baby lettuce, kale, chard and arugula plants for your spring garden.
We’ll have baby lettuce, kale, chard and arugula plants for your spring garden.

Come celebrate spring at the Grow Your Health – Gardening, Local Food and Wellness Festival on March 28, from 10:00 am – 5:30 pm. W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax VA.

Come take classes on gardening, food and wellness. I’ll be teaching Small Space Gardening and Russell will be teaching about building healthy living soil.

Watch the movie, GMO OMG, enjoy local artisan food and stop by our booth and get your baby spring greens plants !

More info

Get a ticket NOW

Come by the Prior Unity Garden Booth at the Grow Your Health Festival and say hi !
Come by the Prior Unity Garden Booth at the Grow Your Health Festival and say hi !

Do You Know Quality Seed and Where to Get It?

Seed Catalogs
Catalogs from some of our recommended companies.

The easy answer is to purchase your seed from one of the companies on our Recommended Seed Company List. This works great if you have come to trust our process of evaluating companies.

I am not an “activist”, it is has never been my interest or my bent, yet I do “vote with my dollar” and so choose to support companies who have the values I consider important. To that end, each year I research companies, read a pile of seed catalogs and compare varieties and plant lists of those folks I know and trust and those I don’t.

It has become clear that in addition to the current 13 criteria we use to evaluate a company, two more need to be added. Here are our additional criteria and why we added them. See the first 13 criteria.

  1. Does the company sell varieties that are owned by companies who engage in genetic modification of seeds?

One company in particular, who was on our list for years, has staunchly continued to offer a small percentage of varieties owned by Monsanto. Granted, most of these varieties were not bred by Monsanto, but were bred and owned by companies who Monsanto bought a few years ago. For those like us, who do not want to support companies who engage in genetic modification of seed, the act of buying from a company who buys from a company who engages in genetic modification of seed, is indirectly supporting companies who engage genetic seed modification. Prior Unity Garden does not support this activity. Therefore any company who buys seed from companies who create GMO seed will not make our list, even if they have signed the Safe Seed Pledge.

You may be thinking, but if they signed the Safe Seed Pledge, then they are not selling GMOs, right ? Generally speaking, you are correct, they are not selling genetically modified seed, but they can still sign the Pledge and sell seed that is not genetically modified from companies who make GMO seed. Doing this practice now excludes a company from being on our recommended seed company list.

  1. Does the company actually grow the varieties they sell?

Seed Packets from some of our recommended companiesThere are ‘seed houses’ who are resellers of seed only, buying seed wholesale and reselling it. They may grow some of it, but do not really have field trials, so are not really in touch with the varieties they are offering.

We have found the seed quality and reliability from these companies to swing wildly and these companies do not have people you can talk with about growing specific varieties they offer. While this may be fine for some folks, we find it frustrating when evaluating specific varieties for growing traits our clients have requested. In effect, you become the testers. Because we want to recommend the highest quality seed companies how offer the highest quality seed, we will not be putting companies on our list who do grow all or most of the varieties whey offer. These companies simply cannot support what they sell to the high degree other companies can.

In some cases, a company will offer seed from a variety of local farms and this is a practice we love seeing as it supports small local farms and seed. In this case, the seed house may not trial every variety, but their partner farms are growing seed and this practice has proven to be an excellent marker of quality seed, in part because the farm’s name is on the seed. These companies do make our list. Granted, most of them also test all or most of the varieties they offer.

  1. Who owned the company?

As large Agribusinesses buy out smaller companies, this question is becoming more important. It used to be seed companies be handed down through generations of a family. Now, it is good to know and sometimes difficult to find out. Often the Agribusiness does not want their ownership known.

Call the company, see what is written in the catalog and website. The point here is avoiding supporting agribusinesses who engage in generic modification of seed.

Companies who are owned by large agriculture businesses will usually sell varieties they own, so knowing what those varieties are, helps you discern if you want to support that business or not.

You can make the process easier and let us do the research for you. See our list of Recommended Seed Companies and/or the rest of our Seed Company Criteria.


Grow More Kale !


Red Russian Kale
Red Russian Kale

Several years ago we planted open pollinated Red Kale seed we bought from Territorial Seed Company.  In the years since, this kale; and none of the others we grow, have naturalized at Prior Unity Garden.  We started allowing some of the plants to go to seed, after having overwintered.    Spring planted, we harvest leaves all spring, summer and fall.  After letting these same plants rest over the winter, we harvest a little in very early spring before allowing them to go to seed.  The resulting seed has proven to be extremely hardy.

Starting Seed

We start kale indoors in flats in February and August.  The February started plants will be hardened off to be transplanted out in March.  The August started plants will be hardened off to go out in September or October.

Seed can also be direct sown in spring and late summer to early fall and germinates best between 55º & 75º F.  Plant ¼ and inch deep.

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Spring vs Fall planting

Spring planting gives you luscious greens in spring and early summer.  Late summer or early fall sowing will give you greens until the plants go dormant for the cold of winter. Some traditionally say, plant fall crops after the 4th of July, although we find there are still too many bugs around and it is too hot to start them outdoors then.  Starting them indoors where it is cool and bug free works best for plants you want to plant in fall. The beauty of fall crops is you have less bugs trying to eat your kale before you do.  Like some other cole crops; think collards, their leaves will sweeten up with light frost, because the various types of sugars in the plants increase the plant’s tolerance to freezing.  Producing sugar is the plant’s natural freeze protection.

Winter & Overwintered plants

Kale will overwinter naturally here without protection, although they will not continue to grow.  Plants grown with the protection of a hoop house, cold frame or greenhouse can continue to grow during the winter months due to warmer temps of the enclosed environment.

Overwintered plants will tend to bolt sooner in the warmth of spring than spring sown plants.  This is why overwintered plants are good to use to save your own seed.


We prefer to transplant seedlings when they have four or five true leaves that are at least two inches long.  If your seedlings have stretched for light indoors, and have really long stems, you can bury part of the stem when transplanting.  Do not bury as deep as you would tomatoes, but bury up to a half of the stem to give you a bit stronger stemmed plant.

We companion plant our kale, giving each kale plant about a one foot area.

What Kales Like & Where to put them in your garden

Kale are cool weather crops that like lots of nitrogen in the soil.  If you have an area you have built up with so much green matter, manure or compost,  it grows huge tomato plants with hardly any tomatoes, it is a good candidate location for kale and other leaf crops.

If you are growing kale in cold months, give it a place with sun.  If you want your kale to hang in there year round, plant them in a place what they get shade in the hot part of a day in summer.  We plant some of our kales in areas that are completely shady in summer.  The baby plants get plenty of early spring sun before the leaves are full on the trees, and again as the leaves fall in autumn.

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Saving Your Own Seed

To save your own kale seed, let the plants go to flower.  They will look beautiful in your garden with tall spires of little bright yellow flowers.  Allow the seed heads to form and begin to dry on the plant.  When the seedpods are almost dry, but not yet busting open scattering their little round black seeds, carefully cut the stalks and put them, seed heads down, into a paper bag.  Place them in a cool dry place and allow them to continue to dry and lets the seeds fall into the bag.  Keep seed refrigerated until you are ready to plant them.  If you want your kale to naturalize, allow the plants to go to seed and fall from the plants wherever the wind takes them around your garden.

Red Russian Kale in Bloom at Prior Unity Garden
Red Russian Kale in Bloom at Prior Unity Garden


Cabbage Moth on Kale
Cabbage Moth on Kale

The two main pests we have had are cabbage moths and harlequin bugs.  If you go out one day and literally overnight your kales are almost gone, look for green caterpillars, the color of green kale leaves, or for tell tail black poop near the center of the plant where the tender newest leaves used to be.  These are the larve of the cabbage moth, the little white moths that flit so harmless looking around your garden as spring warms the days.  The most used organic control is keeping your baby plants under row covers to keep the moths off your baby plants. The months want to lay their eggs on your kale (and other cole crops).  The other most used organic control is Bacillus thuringiensis, found in a product called Dipel® DF, which is OMRI listed for organic use.  Crop rotation helps to some degree, although in small home scale gardens, this helps to a smaller degree than on a larger farm, garden or homestead.

Small Cabbage Caterpiller
Small Cabbage Caterpiller
Cabbage worm and cabbage worm poop
Cabbage worm and cabbage worm poop

Harlequin bugs are a type of stink bug.  They may be beautiful, but they will literally suck the life out of your kale.  Hand picking them as soon as you see them is the best natural control.  We keep buckets of slightly soapy water around the kales to put the harlequin bugs and green caterpillars in as we hand pick them.

Harlequin Bugs infesting Kale
Harlequin Bugs infesting Kale
Harlequin bugs mating
Harlequin bugs mating
Harlequin bug eggs
Harlequin bug eggs
Harlequin eggs close up
Harlequin eggs close up

One other pest occasionally shows up on our kale – white flies.  They started to show up when we started getting unusually hot springs with little air flow.  The best way to control is with Safer’s® Insecticidal Soap soon as you see the very first ones. If you catch them early, you can get rid of them, miss them and all your kale with have a little white cloud of them when you touch the plants.

The good news ? Deer, squirrels and chipmunks do not eat kale or other cole crops !

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Eating Kale

Green Smoothie
Green Smoothie

Kale is extremely high in Vitamins A and C.  It also has vitamins B6 and K, and several minerals including magnesium and high amounts of calcium.  It is also a good source of copper, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus.  Kale is low in calories, has no fat and is high fiber, making it good for everyone.

Most people think of kale is one of those savory crops you cook a long time, like collards.  We think of it as the ultimate raw energy food and love them as a staple in raw green smoothies.

To make a green smoothie, put some fresh filtered water in a strong blender, such as a Vitamix® or Blendtec.  Add your favorite fruit and a few leaves of kale and enjoy an energy and nutrient packed lunch !   You can make them ahead of time and take them anywhere, to work, hiking etc. Use bananas, mango or avocado to make your smoothie creamy.  We love Banana/Mango/Pineapple in summer.  Berry rich ones include blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, gooseberries and a few currents for tartness and high vitamin C content.  In the fall, apples and pears make super sweet smoothies and we found that peach/nectarine and blackberry combos are divine in summer !  A strong blender is needed to break down those strong kale leaves and the reward is getting your dark green leafy veggies in a yummy sweet way !

Bon apatite and happy growing !

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Solutions to Summer Tomato Problems

Summer Rainbow of Tomatoes from Prior Unity Garden

Its fresh garden tomato time !

Some of our tomatoes have reached over 7 feet and others, that were pruned by the deer, are growing wide and bushy instead.

Yet, as we enjoy our tomatoes, we sometimes have problems in our tomato garden, so here are some solutions for you:

PROBLEM: I’ve got big green bushy plants, but almost no blooms and no fruit.

SOLUTION: You may have fed your soil or plants too much nitrogen (compost, compost tea, manure, fertilizers).  For faster blooming, add bone meal.  To build your soil long term,  add rock phosphate to add phosphorus to your soil.  Home compost usually has enough phosphorus though, as it can be found in banana peels and egg shells. You may also want to back off on watering if you have been giving them lots of water, allow them to stress a little and think they need to reproduce, aka bloom and produce fruit/seed.

PROBLEM: I’ve got green healthy plants, and plenty of blooms, but no fruit.

SOLUTION: If your plants have plenty of flowers but no fruit, there may not be anyone pollinating your plants.  Perhaps lawn chemicals have been used in your area that have killed all the bees and other pollinators. Perhaps there are either too many or too little pollinator attracting plants close to you.  Try adding pollinator attracting plants around your garden.  Add some herbs, even in containers that can be moved where you need them.  Blooming thyme and oregano attract bees for example and will also give you fresh herbs for the kitchen.  Yarrow is a beautiful native perennial that attracts not only pollinators but many beneficial insects. You can also hand pollinate with a small dollar store paint brush.

PROBLEM: My tomatoes are splitting.

SOLUTION: Tomatoes split when there is an inconsistent amount of water. Fruit will split if the plants get lots of water after a dry spell.  Provide plants with more consistent watering schedule.

PROBLEM: My tomatoes seem to rot before the are really ripen.

Russell with our now over 8 foot chocolate cherry tomato plant

SOLUTION: This can easily happen in our humid hot summers. One solution is to pick them when they are still a bit hard and not completely ripe.  Although we resist doing this at Prior Unity Garden because we want them to be really completely vine ripened, it is easy to put them in a sunny window sill for a two or three days to finish ripening, and frankly they seem to taste as good and sometime better because there are no rotten spots.  Another solution is to look for stink bugs on your plants and tomatoes.  Stink bugs will puncture a hole in your fruit and suck it,  leaving a small hole that you probably won’t notice till you go to pick the tomato and feel it is soft on one side, or see a rotten section with a hole.  Hand pick the stink bugs or use Insecticidal Soap.

PROBLEM: My tomato plants have yellow leaves.

SOLUTION: They may need more nitrogen, so add compost, compost tea or manure. It is possible they have bugs eating enough to stress the plant, check for them.  The plants may have Fusarium wilt, a fungal disease that thrives in hot temperatures.  People will often advise destroying whole plants if you suspect this, but first, try removing all the stems with yellow leaves.  Do this every day for a few days and see if the plant revives, this will often extend the life of the plant and provide you some harvest.

PROBLEM: My tomato plants have brown leaves.

A Tasting Tray of 19 varieties

SOLUTION: There is brown from lack of water and brown from other things.  If you haven’t watered at all this summer, water.  If you have watered, the browning is likely from a wilt or bacteria.  Again, remove all the stems which have the browning leaves for a few days.  At the end of the season, if you suspect a fungus or bacterial problem, remove the whole plant off property.

PROBLEM: My tomato plants aren’t growing.

SOLUTION: Plants do not grow if there is too much heat or cold.  With our excessive heat, it is likely they are too hot to want to grow.  If you suspect this, try providing shade cloth.   Alternatively, perhaps they are in a place that does not get enough sun.  Considering another location next year may help this.  In both cases, patience is needed and you still may get some tomatoes.  Another solution may be watering them if you have not been since we are in Moderate Drought according to the US Drought Monitor.  Another solution may be to add compost, compost tea or manure to feed the plants if your soil is nutrient deficient.

Hoogle Bed Update – Beauty is food too !

After building the bed (see last post) Russell built a bamboo border with extra bamboo we had around, lined with various materials unused by someone else.

(Bamboo is often easy to come by – if you see a stand in someone’s yard, knock on the door and ask if you can take some – they are usually grateful !)

We shifted the dirt to fill the box and then Russell put old decking someone was throwing away around the top edge to finish it off.  The result is our long term soil building self watering in ground bed with a finished beautiful look.

We planted potatoes and flower bulbs and marigolds as an experiment.  The potato foliage has died back, looking like it we would expect in the fall.  Potatoes in other areas of the garden still have green foliage.

Beauty is food too and this bed feeds us with a finished bed we enjoy each time we walk out front or come home – plus – great flowers we enjoy outside and cut for inside too !

Planting Tomatoes Early for a Longer Harvest

You can plant your tomatoes early to east tomatoes in June and get a longer harvest season with these easy steps:

1. Start your tomatoes indoors in flats the end of January or early February.

2.Transplant your tomatoes into larger containers at the end of February.

3. Plant them outside, in walls’o’water in mid to late March.

You can get walls’o’water from several of our recommended sources from our website.

We planted our first 10 tomato plants out last weekend.  Remember when you transplant to put about 1/3 of  the stem, or at least up to the bottom set of leaves into the ground so the plant will grow a larger and stronger root structure, better able to support a large plant loaded with fruit.

Put the wall’o’water gently over the plant and fill with water.  During the sunny days, the water heats up and gives the plant it’s own greenhouse to protect it from cool spring nights.

Tomato plant started indoors and ready to plant
Hole for the tomato
Tomato Planted
Wall o Water

Jicama Seedlings are the biggest

Jicama Seedlings at Prior Unity Garden

Upon checking in on the seedling babies this morning, the jicimas are the biggest.  We do not grow many of them, but they work really well in 5 gallon bucket containers in our roof garden, so we grow a few.

Jicamas  (Pachyrhizus erosus) are a root vegetable native to the Americas. They have a cool refreshing crisp taste that is wonderful in salads or as the base of a cooling summer salad.

Although they require a long growing season, folks say, 9 months, we have had great luck with them on the hot sunny roof and think they grow fine in our area (zone 7b now, we had been zone 7a)

Jicamas are a vine with pretty purple flower, but do NOT eat the flowers, leaves or seed pods as they are toxic !  It amazes me how such a yummy root can come from a plants where I cannot eat the rest.

After the plants get to be a few feet long, around three feet or so, you can trim them so they are bushier if you like.  We do not tend to do this, since we are growing them on the roof and not up there looking at them all the time, we want maximum energy to go into root production.

Who has seeds:

Bountiful Gardens: http://www.bountifulgardens.org/products.asp?dept=43

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds: http://www.kitchengardenseeds.com/cgi-bin/catview.cgi?_fn=Product&_category=131

Both have signed the Safe Seed Pledge !

Jicama Seedlings at Prior Unity Garden