Grow Better Bell Peppers (Capsicum annuum)

Have you seen the picture on Pinterest and Facebook that says bell peppers with three lobes are “male” peppers and those with four lobes are “female”?  Well, it is very popular right now and very, very false.  This is one of those times where you can’t believe everything you read.  All peppers (and all of their family members-tomatoes, potatoes and egg plants) come from plants that produce flowers that have both male and female parts.  These flowers are called “perfect” flowers in the botanical world.  Because of this, there is absolutely no need for “male” or “female” fruits.  Each little flower has all it needs to produce a fruit full of seeds that will in turn grow into plants that produce more “perfect” flowers.  While there are plants out there that do produce only male or only female plants, bell peppers are not one of them.

Bell-Pepper-Myth

I don’t know who originally posted this, but it is 100% incorrect.

This is just one of many false “horticultural facts” that I see on the internet.  I could literally do an entire post on them.  However, I am going to move away from this and tell you some real, verifiable facts about bell peppers.  First, bell peppers are the most commonly grown pepper in the United States.  According to the National Nursery survey, 46% of gardeners grow them every year.  Second, according to the same survey, bell peppers are the third most popular vegetable grown in American gardens.  Third, the bell pepper is the most consumed pepper in America.  According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Americans eat 9.8 pounds of them per year.  And finally, bell peppers are the only peppers in the genus that do not produce capsaicin.  Capsaicin is the compound that makes most members of the genus Capsicum hot.  In my opinion, it is this missing capsaicin that makes these peppers appeal to so many Americans.

Bell Peppers are relatively easy to grow and they are relatively pest free.  They have the longest growing season of any of the annual vegetables that you will plant.  Transplant them as soon as the threat of freeze has passed and you will be able to harvest fruit until the first killing frost.

Big-Bertha-Bell-Pepper

Big Bertha did great in last year’s garden!

In my opinion, the hardest part of growing bell peppers is finding the right variety for your area.  Through the years I have grown many different varieties.  Some have been much more successful than others.  Some of the better ones for my Zone 9 garden have been “Big Bertha”, “Blushing Beauty” and “California Wonder”.

This year, I am growing a variety called the Better Belle Hybrid.  I ordered my seeds from Tomato Growers Supply (http://www.tomatogrowers.com/) in January and grew my own transplants.  I ordered “Better Belle Hybrid” because (according to their website) it is a thicker walled and earlier producer than the original Better Belle.  It is a vigorous, long season producer of green fruit that will turn red on the vine.  Basically, I ordered it because it claims to have everything going for it that I look for in a bell pepper.

Bell-Pepper-Bush

Bell pepper foliage can be brittle. Because of this I never “pull” the peppers off of the vine.

Growing -  Bell peppers require full sun so place them in the sunniest part of your garden.  They also need at least an inch of water per week.  When it gets really hot, I up that to about an inch every four days.  Bell peppers love rich, loose, well-draining soil that has been thoroughly worked with compost.  If you want to ensure the biggest, firmest and most thick walled bell peppers consider adding dolomite (rock dust that is high in calcium and magnesium) to the soil before planting.   If the soil, sun and water are right, you can expect to start harvesting your first peppers 45 to 60 days after transplant.  Bell peppers are always the first pepper to produce in my garden.  Peppers will produce well until temperatures go  above 90F, then their production will fall.  However, if you add more organic material at this time and continue to water, your peppers will continue producing right up to the first freeze.  In fact, my plants generally produce more in the fall than they did in the spring.

Last year I planted my bell peppers on April 13.  These three bells were my first harvest on June 2.  That is just 50 days from transplanting to harvest.

Last year I planted my bell peppers on April 13. These three bells were my first harvest on June 2. That is just 50 days from transplanting to harvest.

Harvesting-Bell peppers can be harvested anytime they look like a bell pepper. However, they are immature at this point.  That is no problem unless you want red, yellow or orange peppers (depending on variety).  To get these beautifully colored peppers you will have leave them on the bush until they change colors.  Just be aware that the longer you leave the pepper on the bush, the more pests it will attract.

A ripe bell pepper will snap right off into your hand when it is ready to be picked.  However, the limbs of pepper plants are brittle.  If you try and pull a pepper before it is ready you can get a lot of foliage along with your pepper.  For this reason I always use a sharp pair of shears or scissors to harvest my peppers.

Hornworm

Hornworms ca n decimate peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and egg plants

Pests-Aphids, cutworms and hornworms can all be a problem for peppers.  Aphids can be controlled by regularly applying a good shot of water to the underside of the leaves.  Cutworms can be controlled by “wrapping” the stems of the young plants in cardboard.  Simply cut a toilet paper or paper towel roll into three inch sections.  Split these up the sides.  Loosely wrap this around the base of your plants after transplant.  Stick an inch or so of the tube into the ground and leave an inch or so above ground.  Hornworms are always a double problem for me.  I know they can wipe out my tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.  However, they are the immature form of the hummingbird moths that I love to watch feed on my datura.  Regardless of my fondness for hummingbird moths, I pull all hornworms that I find and quickly squish them.  If you have a bad infestation you can apply BT but is only effective if applied when the caterpillars are small.

One of our favorite bell pepper uses.  Slice thick, saute, and drop in egg.  Top with cheese and more sauteed peppers

One of our favorite bell pepper uses. Slice thick, saute, and drop in egg. Top with cheese and more sauteed peppers

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Amazing Aloe Vera Collection at Hilltop Gardens

When I was young, my mother (and all the other mothers on our block) kept a pot of aloe vera on the back porch.  Every time I got a sun burn, my mom would go outside and snap a couple of leaves off of her plant and use the cool, viscous fluid that oozed out of the leaves to sooth the burn.  I think that since she used aloe vera as a medicine, I never really learned to think of it as an ornamental.

aloe_vera_water_drops

Water droplets on one of the over 200 aloes at Hilltop Gardens

This past Spring Break, I discovered (in a very big way) that aloe vera is as pretty as it is “useful”.  Sally and I spent her time off exploring Hilltop Gardens in Lyford, Texas.  Hilltop Gardens is the only Botanical Garden in the Texas Valley.  It is also home to the largest public collection of species aloes in the U.S.  Hilltop Gardens sits on the oldest commercial aloe vera farm in the U.S.  The company that owns the farm is the market leader in aloe production.  Because of their success growing and transforming the aloe vera plant into a variety of health and beauty products, they wanted to build a beautiful place to showcase the beauty and variety of the plant family that has been so good to them.

hilltop_garden_aloe_collection_1

The farm and botanical garden at Hilltop Gardens is a certified organic operation.

The garden is under the direction of Paul Thornton.  In addition to maintaining this beautiful space, Paul also had a hand in designing it.  According to Paul, Hilltop Gardens has become “his dream job”.  Paul was an excellent host and tour guide and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay.  He is a walking encyclopedia of aloe knowledge.  One of the most interesting things that he shared with us was the fact that aloe vera is mentioned several times in the Bible. He also said that there are carvings of aloe in the Egyptian pyramids.  According to Paul, “Aloe’s health benefits have been known and used for thousands of years.  The ancient Egyptians called it “the immortal plant” and they offered it as a gift to their deceased pharaohs over 6000 years ago”.  Another thing that I found interesting was the fact that even though humans have been growing it and using it for 6000 years, there are no known wild populations of the plant.   What we all know as aloe vera only lives in cultivation.

Paul_Thornton

Paul Thornton is the head horticulturist at Hilltop Gardens. He is a great host and posses an incredible knowledge of the aloe family.

Aloe vera is a succulent.  Because of this it thrives in environments like ours (Zones 8-11) that have limited or unpredictable water supplies.  Aloe vera is a very tough plant that can adapt to a lot of soil types (as long as they are well draining).  It is also fairly resistant to most pests.  Aphids can attack it but that usually only happens when the plants are grown too close together.  If grown properly, aloe vera will produce beautiful, tall flower spikes.

aloe_vera_flower_3

I was amazed at the variety of shapes, forms , and flower types of their 200+ aloe plants

When growing succulents in pots, you should allow the soil to dry out between each watering.  This makes aloe an easy choice for those of us that live in places where high summer temperatures make it almost impossible to keep the soil in our outdoor pots moist.  Aloe reproduces readily.  This is another great reason to try some this year.  Aloe vera will quickly produce lots of “pups” or off-shoots.  These pups can be used to make more potted plants or you can transplant them directly into your flower beds.  They will quickly grow into a large, showy, upright mass of thick, spikey leaves.

hilltop_healing_garden_gate

This lovely gate welcomes you into the “healing garden”.  The healing garden recently received an Award of Merit from the Texas Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

If you are looking for something to do that is a little out of the ordinary, go to their website and plan a visit.  As part of the gardens, Hilltop offers onsite bed and breakfast accommodations in a Spanish style mansion.  Sally and I stayed there and we were very impressed with the lovely décor, the heated pool and the excellent service.  If you have ever thought of spending a few days exploring the Texas/Mexico border, then Hilltop Gardens is the perfect place to settle while you enjoy all of the vibrant cultural offerings of the Rio Grande valley.

The heated pool is one of many features that you will enjoy if you stay ion the bed and breakfast accommodations at Hilltop Gardens

The heated pool is one of many features that you will enjoy if you stay in the bed and breakfast accommodations at Hilltop Gardens

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Landscaping Incomes in Texas by Mark Hartley

Linnaeus-Teaching-GardenIf you make your neighbor’s garden beautiful, will you earn more income than he does?

The work we do outside in our gardens is, for most of us, a labor of love. But some of us do turn this love into a full-time gig. If you decide to turn your hobby into a full time profession, the question then becomes: will my love of landscaping pay the bills or am I just going to wind up doing it for love.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics breaks down landscaping services into the category of “landscaping, lawn service, and groundskeeping.” The latter two careers can very logically make one think of young males earning cash for the summer by cutting lawns, or those guys who steer a little too close as you’re teeing off at the local golf course. The distinction here is that the careers tracked by the federal agency are “first-line supervisors” who answer “inquiries from potential customers regarding methods, material, and price ranges; and preparing estimates according to labor, material, and machine costs.”

Tulsa-Landscape-2I have a feeling that even the amateurs among us do these first-line supervisor services quite voluntarily with our neighbors.

The BLS statistically tracks the more manual labor aspects of groundskeeping in a separate category. So the feds see the distinction too. Landscape architects are yet another professional category (but since their training is more formalized, the BLS statistics for that occupation is not considered below).

BLSmapTexas ranks third in the country in employing these landscaping supervisors (see map below), trailing only California and Florida. Landscaping is a big business in Texas, employing more than 6,800 first-line supervisors.

 As mentioned above, I was wondering how the income earned by landscaping supervisors stacked up against the median household income in the Texas cities listed below. The percentages beside each city indicate how much below or above the median household income that the income of landscaping supervisors are. The higher the percentage, the better the chance that the income is more than just a labor of love.

Texas_Landscape_StatisticsAs you can see, the average landscaping supervisor earns less than city’s median household income in 11 of the 17 Texas cities above. The percentage under the median in Corpus Christi, Houston, El Paso, and San Antonio is slight, and remember that the median household income can, and often does, involve multiple incomes.

Nacogdoches_LandscapeSo it can be a good living supervising the makeover of an urban home garden that transforms the beauty of a neighborhood.

 As for College Station and Beaumont, the financial incentive appears to be even higher. I think we need to petition Jay to show us some of the gardens in College Station and Beaumont!

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Growing Tulips in Texas

Not sure why I love tulips, but I do.  And, I am not alone.  I saw a survey the other day that said tulips were second only to roses as the most loved and most recognized flower in the world.  No matter how much I love them though, they always break my heart.  My relationship with them is like a bad romance.  Each fall, they promise to do right by me.  I take them back into my home (again), kick the moldy vegetables out of the crisper for them, wrap them in the breathable bags they love and then keep them cool and dark for the next five months.  Come February I place them is the richest, loosest soil I can find.  I buy them lovely accessories and plant companions for them so they won’t be lonely.  Then, come March, they break my heart (again) by blooming on squat little stalks with spindly petals that never last. 

Texas_Tulip_1This fall, Sally and I bought a cute little antique wheelbarrow at an auction.  Despite my experience I thought, “Won’t that look great full of tulips?”  So, with the wheelbarrow still in the back of the truck, I went to my local nursery and bought another bag of tulip bulbs.  I took the wheelbarrow home and drilled my drain holes.  In January, I filled the wheelbarrow with potting soil and planted 24 alyssum plants around the rim.  Then, I took the tulips out of the refrigerator and prayed.

Texas_Tulip_2I am very happy to report, this year the tulips finally did right by me!  Their stalks are tall and jaunty.  The flowers are an amazingly beautiful pink.  For the past week it has been a true joy to come home and have these lovely ladies waiting for me at the back door.

Texas_Tulip_3While I am so proud of my tulips this year, the Lord made sure I did not get too prideful or boastful.  Two weeks ago he sent a massive, late season ice storm that killed all of the alyssum that I had planted to enhance my lady’s beauty.  I guess this is appropriate as it is Lent.  We would not want me to become too prideful during this season of preparation.

Texas_Tulip_4If you are not afraid of a broken heart, my experience has shown me that you can grow tulips in Texas.  Buy them early in the fall and keep them refrigerated for months.  Then plant them in early February in deep, rich soil.  Keep the soil moist and pray for a cool spring.

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Home Gardening Statistics

Infographic from “The Mother Nature Network”

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I am a numbers guy.  In my real job, I create and maintain computer applications that analyze all of The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s numbers.  Because I crunch and report numbers all day, every day, I am kind of a nut about them.  So, when I found a website that that had numbers relating to gardening, I was ecstatic.  All of the statistics that we are about to discuss came from a very cool web page on the Mother Nature Network.  MNN got all of their stats from the National Gardening Association.

The Average Gardener - According to the National Gardening Association, the average gardener in the U.S. is female.  She is over 45 years old and there is a 79% chance that she has a college degree or at least some college education.  She spends an average of five hours a week working in her 600 square foot food garden.  Each year she spends about $70 on her hobby and harvests $600 worth of food.  In my recent interview with Central Texas Gardener, Linda Lehmusvirta asked me if gardening was worth it.  Well, thanks to that last stat, I have scientific proof that at a bare minimum, my hobby is worth at least $530 per year.

Does Size Matter?- Evidently, my little potager is just about average.  My potager is 24′X24′ for a total of 576 square feet.  According to the stats on the MNN site, the average food garden in the U.S. is 600 square feet.  This stat was the one that hit me the hardest.  Was it coincidence that my potager was so close to the average?  Probably not.  I bet the average garden is 600 sq ‘ because that is about the perfect size for a middle aged, college educated gardener to maintain in five hours per week.

Another interesting stat in this line was the reported median size of a garden.  In case you have forgotten, the median is the point in a population where half of the values fall above a certain point and the half fall below.  So, with a median garden size of 96 square feet (or 12′X8′), that means that there are a lot of people gardening in very small spaces.  While this was a little surprising to me at first, it dawned on me that a lot of those middle aged college grads are urbanites that just don’t have a lot of space to garden in.  I say YEAH!  It is better to have gardened small than to have never gardened at all.  My wife’s school garden is based on Mel Bartholomew’s square foot gardening method.  It is only 8′X3′, but her second graders grow a lot of produce in that 24 sq ‘ space.  So, if you don’t have the space or time to grow an average sized food garden, plant some containers or put together a couple of 3′X3′ sqaure foot gardens in your yard or on your patio.

What Does Our Garden Grow? -It should come as no surprise to you that the most grown vegetable in the American garden is the tomato.  Tomatoes are the most grown vegetable in home gardens all around the world.  However, I have to admit I was shocked by number two and three.  Cucumbers and sweet peppers rounded out the top three.  Even though I grow them, I had no idea that everyone else did too.  Probably has something to do with how versatile they are and how easy they are to grow.  BTW, when you read the chart and you see “Tomatoes 86%”, it means that of the total respondents, 86% grew tomatoes in their garden.

Where We’re Growing – According to the survey, no region of the U.S. gardens significantly more than any other.  If you look at the map on the left, you will see that what they call “The South” has the highest number of gardeners.  If you look closely you will see that this is the smallest geographic region in size but 29% of the folks that live in that area garden.  The second largest region is called “The Midwest”.  It is the largest geographically and 26% of the people that live there garden.  23% of the folks that live in “The West” grow their on food. Finally, 22% of “Northeasterners” grow some of their own food.  “The Northeast” may have the lowest per centage of gardeners and yet it has the highest population density in the U.S.  Because of this, I don’t think these folks garden less because they don’t want to, I think it is probably a result of the VERY urban environments that they live in.

The State of Our Hobby – Right now, the state of our hobby is strong!  In 2008,  31% (or 36 million households) of Americans had a food garden.  By 2009, that number had grown to 37% of households (or 43 million households).  I am not sure what drove this increase but it truly incredible.  Whether driven by a desire to eat in a more healthy manner, or the desire to save money because of the economy, over one third of your neighbors are now growing at least a part of the food they consume.

Compared to 2008, 6 million more Americans kept a garden in 2009.  This bodes very well for the future of our hobby.  However, the most encouraging news in that stat is the fact that 21% (or 1.26 M) of that 6 million were first time gardeners.  How exciting is that?  Historically, gardening was a hobby practiced by the middle aged and the retired.  Not anymore!  More and more young people are rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty.  These newbie’s are going to ensure that the state of our hobby is strong for a very long time.

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Tomato Tips and Tricks by Patty Leander

home-grown-tomatoes

Nothing beats home grown Texas tomatoes. Photo by Bruce Leander

There are tomato lovers and tomato haters. Tomato haters are the ones who pick chunks of tomatoes out of their pasta or leave a neat pile of tomatoes on the side of their salad plate (you know who you are, BWL). Tomato lovers tend to reside in one of two groups: those who love tomatoes so much that they don’t care if they get their fix from a can, a bottle of ketchup or a supermarket tomato, and the other camp who eschews bland winter tomatoes and commercial tomato products and opts to eat the juicy fruit in season, fresh from the garden and whenever possible while standing IN the garden! Like most vegetable gardeners I prefer my tomatoes in season and hyper-local – direct from my garden to my table. My penchant for home-grown tomatoes means that I gobble up my last fresh tomato sometime in December and I don’t have a new crop until mid-May, and that’s if I’m lucky, so when spring planting season rolls around I am giddy with anticipation.

jaune_flamme_tomato

‘Tomatoberry’ and ‘Jaune Flamme’ are some of Patty’s favorite varieties for the Austin area. Photo by Bruce Leander

March brings the promise of mild days and warm weather but seasoned Texas gardeners have no delusions about our ideal tomato-growing conditions. We have but a small window of opportunity between our average last frost (mid-March here in Central Texas) and that first string of 90 degree days (June if not earlier) when plants slowly succumb to the heat and pests of a typical Texas summer. We want to plant as early as we can yet we must be prepared to protect our charges if unpredictable spring weather brings a late cold snap. Be sure to have a supply of floating row cover, boxes, milk jugs, buckets or other means of protection on hand to cover tender transplants if frost threatens. Even without the threat of cold weather I like to wrap the outside of my tomato cages with row cover or plastic to protect plants from strong winds.

sideways_tomato

A tomato laid on its side will quickly turn up and grow towards the sun. Picture by Bruce Leander

Row cover can sometimes be found at local garden centers or it can be ordered from a variety of online sources, including Texas Gardener (www.texasgardener.com), Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com) and Johnny’s Seed (www.johnnyseeds.com).

Before planting transplants in the ground it’s important to harden them off by gradually acclimating them to the outdoors. Start by setting them out in a protected spot on a patio or under a tree for an hour or two, gradually increasing their exposure to sun and outdoor temperatures. For best growth and production space plants 3-4 feet apart in the garden. Resist the urge to plant your tomatoes deep. Instead, remove the lower leaves and plant your transplants sideways in a shallow trench. This will keep the roots in the uppermost layer of soil where it is warmer and new feeder roots will sprout all along the stem, adding to the plant’s vigor. The stem will turn towards the sun and straighten out within a day or two.  Water new transplants with a half-strength fertilizer solution and as they grow gently direct their stems to keep them corralled inside their cage – this is much easier to do when they are young. Spray every 2-3 weeks with a liquid fertilizer and sidedress each plant with 1-2 tablespoons of granular garden fertilizer when the first fruit starts to form. Provide 1-1½ inches of water per week, and if possible use drip irrigation or soaker hoses to keep soil from splashing up on the leaves as this is sometimes how soil borne diseases get their start.

Nothing beats the complex taste of hierlooms like "Black Cherry".  Photo by Bruce Leander

Nothing beats the complex taste of hierlooms like “Black Cherry”. Photo by Bruce Leander

Most of the heirlooms that we love to eat take 80-90 days before that first juicy tomato is ripe for picking.  The intense heat of summer is not far behind so be sure to include some quick-maturing hybrid varieties that start producing in 65-75 days as insurance for a successful tomato crop.  ‘New Girl’ (62 days from transplanting), ‘Early Girl’ (57 days) and ‘Juliet’ (62 days) are all good bets. Most heirlooms don’t produce as reliably or prolifically as the hybrid varieties, but their beautiful colors, juiciness and complex flavors are hard to resist.  ‘Cherokee Purple’ (74 days), ‘Green Zebra’ (75 days) and ‘Black Krim’ (80 days) are popular varieties, and some years are better than others. Cherries are always a favorite – ‘Black Cherry’ (65 days), ‘Black Plum’ (82 days), ‘Sun Gold’ (57 days) and ‘Tomatoberry’ (60 days) bring interesting color, flavor and shape to the tomato harvest. If you have the space try experimenting with different varieties.  You just never know when you are going to find that perfect plant that fulfills all of your tomato expectations. When you do I hope you’ll share it with us here at the Masters of Horticulture!

black_plum_tomato

“Black Plun” is another great heirloom for the Austin area. Photo by Bruce Leander

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EarthBox Makes Gardening Accessible by Mark Hartley

EarthBox, Inc., the manufacturer of gardening boxes, touted its community outreach efforts last week, providing examples of how schools and senior citizen groups are discovering the joys of gardening in unlikely locations such as roofs, parking lots, and playgrounds.

Students at a Pennsylvania elementary school grow enough in their Eartbox gardens to feed the entire school on World Food Day each year.

Students at a Pennsylvania elementary school grow enough in their Eartbox gardens to feed the entire school on World Food Day each year.

Molly Philbin, the education director for EarthBox, explained the company’s strategy in a press statement: “Gardening can teach everything from science to nutrition while being fun and rewarding at the same time. And since our EarthBox® container gardening system provides ideal growing conditions without the need to dig or weed, groups find that they can enjoy great yields with very little effort.”

EarthBox produces large yields of high quality vegetables with much less work

EarthBox produces large yields of high quality vegetables with much less work

The rectangular, tub-like containers produced by EarthBox, Inc. features a self-watering reservoir at the bottom of its boxes to enhance “maintenance-free” aspects of gardening.

 While purists desire hands-on maintenance of gardens, EarthBox is appealing to groups who lack the time to devote to every aspect of gardening, as well as limited physical skills.

EarthBox is not just for vegetables.  These self contained gardens grow beautiful flowers as well

EarthBox is not just for vegetables. These self contained gardens grow beautiful flowers as well

For example, an EarthBox garden was designed for senior residents in Florida who are confined to wheelchairs. The engineer behind the design said the garden “offers them a place where they can grow fresh vegetables, socialize, and relax.”

 EarthBox also presented the example of young children ages three to five participating in a nutrition club hosted by a Tampa, Fla., community college. The EarthBox garden focuses on herbs, and the kids tend to the garden, pick the herbs, and learn about the various qualities of the herbs. The club has a weekly “smelling party,” and its president said the young gardeners have a “blast with this weekly activity.”

EarthBox allows you to grow big, beautiful tomatoes right outside your door

EarthBox allows you to grow big, beautiful tomatoes right outside your door

EarthBox also cited the examples of scouting organizations for both boys and girls using the convenient gardens to earn badges.

 Again, the basins produced by EarthBox are not yielding the type of crop output that most gardeners are trying to achieve. But the self-container market continues to reach its demographic niche, and EarthBox has demonstrated that its products successfully kindle interest in gardening among school-based groups, as well as rekindle interest among our seniors.

 The company, which was started in 1994, develops “sustainable” container garden systems for all secondary grade levels in schools. With the national interest in combating obesity among schoolchildren, this type of gardening helps foster to concept of a healthier lifestyle as a result of what’s planted in the garden.

Group several containers together to create a beautiful back porch landscape.

Group several containers together to create a beautiful back porch landscape.

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