And we have our winners! Congrats to tattoo winners: Jim H, Jonquil Alexia, KnowThankYou, and Cindy; and the grand prize winner of the book is Karrita!

UPDATE! I’ve got awesome news! Amanda’s book has been released a full month early and is now available on Amazon. Of course that means we can move up the drawing for a free copy so that the lucky winner can get it in time for Christmas! So rather than wait until December 15th for the drawing, I’ll do it this Sunday, December 2nd at noon! Yep! So jump to the bottom of this review to get the rules for entering and enter before noon Central Time on the 2nd!

Amanda Thomsen (aka Kiss My Aster on Twitter and Facebook) is what I’d call a punk landscaper and garden designer if we’re using the broader meaning of punk. The punk ideology is really about doing it yourself and doing it to your individual aesthetic, mainstreamers and corporatists be damned. And that’s how the music was too, in the beginning, before the record companies saw dollar signs and co-opted everything. But that’s another soap box.

This soap box is all about Amanda’s drive to empower the newbies, the rebels…the rest of us; giving gardeners and home owners the right and the courage to do things their way.

Gardening should be fun yet there are too many books that make it seem not so. Throw in the word landscaping and it’s easy to see how a new home owner or gardener might simply pave over the yard and lease out parking spots.

This is why Amanda was compelled to create her first solo book, Kiss My Aster, and why Storey Publishing felt the time was right for the little guys to have a coach and cheerleader like her.

Amanda has chunked tomes of landscaping advice into a non-linear format similar to the old Choose Your Own Adventure books she grew up with. Turns out this is a perfect form for the way today’s younger readers seek and absorb information. She also keeps all the advice succinct while including games to make it fun and memorable.

Her snarky humor combined with the quirky illustrations encourages readers not to worry about doing it right or being perfect. The landscaping lessons end up being just right for each reader no matter where they start in the book.

There’s very much a fun, Yellow Submarine-type quality to the illustrations that include a talking pink unicorn, Mr. T-shaped topiary, a lava lamp in a worm burrow, and yes, giant mushrooms ;-P

While experienced landscapers and gardeners will find this book humorous with a bona fide ring of truth, garden newbies will also find it inspiring, helpful, to the point, (e.g., no unending paragraphs about the benefits of juniper), and fun.

If you consider yourself independent, different, not like your neighbors, this book is written specifically for you. It’s full of advice and guidance enabling you to do it yourself or with the help of a team. And it will give you the freedom to think outside the boxwood hedge.

Photos are excerpted from Kiss My Aster © by Amanda Thomsen, Illustrations © by Am I Collective/Bernstein & Andriulli, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Interview with Amanda

This past summer I had an opportunity to interview Amanda about a lot of things including her upcoming book. I also followed her on a tour of her new house and very large yard. She pointed out a creek bed where she planned to break a landscaper’s rule by planting an invasive to manage erosion, her plans for disposing of the dated lava rock around the foundation, and her latest thrift store find; a cool 70s outdoor fireplace.

SV: Who did you have in mind when you first came up with the idea for this book?

A: As always, I am my own target audience. The cool thing about this book is I never pitched it to anyone. Someone at Storey said “hey, I think your blog is really cool” years and years ago. “I work for Storey and I’m keeping my eye on you.” We got to be kinda friends, we met in Boston, she wanted to know if I had ideas for a book. Well sure, I had plenty of ideas, crazy ideas for books. And so we met and talked and I liked her so much and she was so young and hip and cool and into gardening and organic farming. She’s like the coolest target audience I could ever think of. If I could amuse her, then I could probably amuse anybody. And that’s how this entire book ended up this way.

SV: So you didn’t think about demographics and target audience…

A: No, what I did think—and this is sort of a dorky thing to say—this book is gonna be something they could put on a table at Urban Outfitters; it’s gonna be that cool. That was my one thing. That it would hit this younger audience.

SV: When I think about this book—the way that it’s structured, the style of illustration—it seems very appropriate for almost any age but especially younger gardeners.

A: Absolutely! I was hoping 20s, X and Y, millennials. I showed this book to my dad—he’s like 65—and he saw the unicorn and was like “who’s this book for? Kids?”

Q: But you’ve got bits of humor in here for everybody, the gnomes, unicorns,…

A: My sense of humor is a range, I love old movies, there are references to Mr. T. They did edit out some of the really young references.

SV: So they did edit your book?

A: Oh yeah, there was a page on watering called “Where your hose at?” and they did change it to “Where’s my hose?” And the page after making a short flagstone path was on making a real mortared stone path and it was called “harder and longer” and they did change that.

SV: How do you feel about those changes?

A: I won so many, there’s so much in here that’s just so flippin’ cheeky that I can’t believe I got away with it. They wanted over-the-top so I wrote over-the-top. Anything they took away (giggles) was probably for my own good. They did let me keep the topiary of Mr. T. (SV: for reals, there is a topiary of Mr. T, I saw it.)

SV: So let’s talk about the illustrations. Why illustration when so many gardening books are based on photography?

A: Well look at it, it’s so awesome. I wanted to do a hundred other things because I couldn’t conceive of spending this much money to get something like this. My original idea was to have the illustrations be like IKEA instructions in 13 languages, I thought that would be really funny and they were like, “we don’t get it”, so it just kinda morphed into this style kind of naturally.

SV: I love the lava lamp in the worm den.

A: The illustrators were just so insane. I’ve never spoken with them, just sent the briefest of notes. They gave the publisher lots of ideas. The illustrators did a really good job of keeping my flava’, you know?

I’m so glad I ended up with these guys, I just love them.

SV: And it sounds like they loved working on this too, I read on their blog.

A: What’s interesting is, there’s this twistiness of the concept and how it’s written but the illustration is fun, it’s not morbid in any way. Every page is fun. Here’s two of my favorite pages: “The Hobo Deck Style” and “The Hobo Garden.” I did have to explain that to the illustrators, they were like, “whaaaat’s a hobo garden?”

SV: The squirrels are great, you’ve got them in several places in the book.

A: When it was originally going to be a graphic novel, it was going to be me and a drunken squirrel fighting about how to do things and he was gonna do things wrong. So I asked for the squirrel to be included in as many things as possible.

SV: This book flows differently than others, it’s not linear. Can you tell me how you came up with the idea for it not being a linear book?

A: I wanted to make something interactive, and I thought about the ones I knew that were interactive, the Choose Your Own Adventure books. And I thought well, planting your yard is an adventure and I just came up with the idea. I thought it was too complicated for me to do, to weave everything together, and then the publisher said, “you just write the stuff, we’ll weave it together.” I wrote the book from beginning to end and they made everything match up.

SV: So someone picks up this book, how do they decide where to start.

A: They can start anywhere. There’s not really a table of contents but there’s this worm burrow at the beginning so if you wanna just do vegetable gardening, there’s a vegetable gardening worm burrow and you can do any of those pages. Or you can start reading from the beginning and at the bottom of every page you can choose where to go next.

SV: Did you have a particular goal with this book or did you just want to write a book?

A: To write more books. I don’t know why, I just want to. And I’m not a particularly driven person but I enjoyed this. The big story behind this book is that the day I found out it was a go was the day I peed on a stick and found out I was pregnant. And from there the race was on. I had a year to write a book and 10 months to have a baby. So it was a very interesting year. I also got a big promotion that year. Writing this book was so fun. I’m not going to say it was effortless. I don’t consider myself a writer, I’m an amusing person to talk to and I can pretty quickly tell you what kind of tree to plant in your back yard. That’s pretty easy to do and I just wrote it down.

SV: What’s your favorite part of the book?

A: I love the games. I’m really proud of the bingo and the cootie catcher. There’s mad-libs, match-em-ups. One of my favorite things that I didn’t do, is the last page, the little garden party. It was all the illustrators’ idea.

SV: Most gardening books I’ve seen are reference tools with the exception of fiction like The Orchid Thief.

A: Yeah, I’m hoping this is somewhere in between. There are personal stories in here and a lot of parts that are conversational.

Contest over. Win a copy of Amanda’s book, Kiss My Aster (and maybe an official tattoo!)

You have 3 ways to win this groovy book!

Remember folks: You must list a separate comment for each of the three to be entered multiple times! I’m noticing folks entering once with 3 things in one email.

  1. Follow Amanda on Twitter and comment below that you did so.
  2. Follow Storey Publishing on Facebook and comment below that you did so.
  3. Answer this question in yet another and separate comment: What would Amanda recommend, asters or mums?

Deadline: December 15th December 2, 2012, noon, Central Standard Time

Eligibility: US residents only, sorry.

On December 2nd 15th, I’ll use the Random Number Generator to choose one winner of the book and then four winners of the tattoos. These are temporary stick’em tattoos, not real ones dude.

Storey Publishing just released the book so they assure me they can send the winner their copy before Christmas if we do the drawing sooner. releases the book in January of 2013 and will send the winner a printed copy at that time So you must include a real email address when you leave your comments so I can contact you if you win. No email and I’ll run the Random Number Generator again and choose someone else.

You may also order the book at Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.

Stalk Amanda at these links:

Good Enough Gardening Podcasts:
Check out her Ryan Gosling gardening meme:

See what else is germinating at Storey Publishing:

Contest is over and we have a winner! See end of article for who won! (Don’t forget to read the giveaway guidelines at the end to win one of these babies for your very own!)

Oh baby, yeah. Power tools! Nothing like an efficient tool to make gardening a little easier, right?

Troy-Bilt rocks a winner, again.

The TBC57 Cordless/Battery-Powered Cultivator is a new item from Troy-Bilt for 2012. The lithium-ion battery enables you to work farther from an electrical source as there are no cords to manage. The 9-inch width and up to 5-inch depth keep the device appropriate for tight spaces, trench edges, squeezing between shrubs, breaking up surface crusts, etc.


Peter summed it up nicely when he said he experienced immense satisfaction after using the cultivator to clear out the 30-foot patch of violets and baby weed trees in the side yard. There’s just something really satisfying about using a power tool to do in 15 minutes what would take an afternoon bending and pulling thousands of weeds by hand. That said, raking up pulled weeds is always a good idea so they don’t set root again, starting the cycle over.

Here’s the side yard before and after comparison, un-raked of course:

Cleaning up your mess.

Remember: Click on photos to enlarge.

Yeah, a rake is good for removing the weeds that the cultivator rips out but you will get some longer bits and vines wrapped around the tines. In our case, we also captured a coat hanger (I know right?). You can pull stuff out of the tines fairly easily but if stuff is really wound tight, you’ll need to remove the tines to do a thorough job. Little springy clips pop right out and allow you to slide the tines off one at a time. Just remember which way you want to put them back on.

And sometimes you’ll get baby weed trees pulled and wrapped up in there if you don’t pull those before cultivating. We really ran this thing through its paces and didn’t prep any areas beforehand.

Set up is very easy.

I did it without gardening gloves and no chips to my manicure. The only perplexing issue were the two overly large cotter pins that were not mentioned in the manual or the quick reference sheet. I also watched Troy-Bilt’s own set up video on YouTube and there’s no mention of what these pins are for. I may just use them as earrings or something.

The way to adjust the tine depth is to adjust the wheel setting. The instructions are pretty easy to understand on that point. No biggie there.

One thing I love about this cultivator: it’s fairly lightweight at the same time as being quite powerful. I was able to manage it myself without use of a male. It made me feel a little more independent.

The only thing I really wished for was a short-person’s adjustment on the handle length. As you can see from the comparison photo of my 5’5″ frame to Peter’s 5’11” frame, the arm/elbow angle is different for squats like me. And because I exercise my mouse hand more than my biceps (I know, my problem), I did have some issues grasping the unit the same way that Peter was able to. Peter thinks it’s because I’m a weeny but I do contend that an adjustment notch on the handle would have helped me. Not a deal breaker, just woulda been nice.

Not your mama’s D batteries.

The lithium-ion battery came partially charged so we popped it in the charger for a full blast. You can easily check the power level by pressing the little red button to see how many green LED lights you get. One full charge is good for 1500 square feet and the charger will fast-charge the battery fully in just two hours (wish I could say the same for my iPhone). You’re not going to use this on a large scale farm but it’s perfect for the typical homeowner.

Check the battery’s charge and insert into the cultivator until it clicks into place.

Remember, before taking apart the tines for serious cleaning, be safe and remove the battery.

What’s so great about Troy-Bilt?

It’s no secret that I love Troy-Bilt products. I also hate to give bad reviews so I do have a tendency to only review products that I’m pretty sure are a good bet. Yes, Troy-Bilt did contact me about reviewing this exact model of cultivator and I did not buy this model myself.

If you check their website, you’ll find they are investing significantly in lithium-ion battery powered tools. In fact, all their lithium-ion tools have interchangeable batteries so really, all you need is one battery and charger. This is great from a budgetary and eco perspective. Couple that with the fact that they generally don’t produce failures. And they take any criticisms to heart, working to improve products all the time. This is why I like them.

Wrap it up.

Tilling and cultivating are two different things. To help alleviate confusion, please read my addendum at the end of this post.

  • Does every homeowner need a tiller? No.
  • Can many homeowners benefit from owning a cultivator? IMHO, yes.

Tips for when to consider cultivating your soil:

  1. You need a more efficient way of dislodging weeds because you have a lot of ground to cover and hand-pulling ain’t gonna cut it.
  2. You have a bad back.
  3. Cleaning up grass overgrowth from trench edging around flower beds.
  4. Cleaning up surface soil between shrubs and closely spaced plants.
  5. Easy way to prepare raised beds by mixing in compost — it’s much easier to maneuver than a tiller.
  6. Your garden soil has developed a hard crusty surface, impacting oxygen and water penetration.

I can’t wait to try this cultivator on the Creeping Charlie in the back yard!

Congratulations to Kelly Reckas!

I’ll be emailing you shortly Kelly to get your shipping address so Troy-Bilt can get your new cultivator to you post haste! You can follow Kelly on Twitter @kellycrochets or her blog.

4 ways to enter to win a TBC57 Troy-Bilt Lithium-Ion Cultivator of your own!


  • Deadline: September 23th! At 12:00 (noon) Central Standard Time, I’ll draw a winner using the Random Number Generator.
  • You must be a USA resident for shipping purposes. Troy-Bilt will ship the unit directly to the winner.
  • You may enter one or more of the following ways. Each comment you leave will increase your odds.


The difference between tilling and cultivating.

Even experienced gardeners often use the terms interchangeably. Essentially, it’s a matter of depth and purpose, here are the differences:

Tillers turn soil at huge depths, usually at least 10-12 inches. This can disrupt established ecosystems but it can also be needed to amend soil that is so barren, it lacks any significant value to gardening. Deep tilling is also a great way to clear a spot for a garden while working in cotton burr mulch and compost to amend clay soils. Just remember, deep till good soil sparingly, if at all, because every turn of the blade releases nitrogen that you’ll have to replace with compost and disrupts soil ecosystems. However, heavy clay soil can benefit from amending with mulches and composts. It can take many years to improve poor soil. Alternatives to using a tiller to clear areas of a lawn for gardening include solarizing the section and/or lasagna layering. I’ve used both and they work very well.

Cultivators stay nearer to the surface (up to 5 inches for this Troy-Bilt model) and are more appropriate for surface hoeing quickly and more efficiently than you can accomplish with a manual hoe. They are also great for working in fertilizers in the top couple inches of soil without disrupting deeper eco-systems. AND, they will break up that surface crust that builds up over time and impacts rainwater runoff.

Effects on earthworm populations (for my vegan buds).

According to the University of Illinois Extension Service, there are approximately 2700 different species of earthworms. Having worms in your garden soil generally means you have healthy soil. They prefer to live where there is food, moisture, oxygen and appropriate temperatures. They won’t stick around without these ingredients.

Let’s go over a few key facts about earthworms.

    • Surface soil and litter species – Epigeic species. These species live in or near surface plant litter. They are typically small and are adapted to the highly variable moisture and temperature conditions at the soil surface. The worms found in compost piles are epigeic and are unlikely to survive in the low organic matter environment of soil. (Most commonly found in compost piles and leaf litter.—JMM)
    • Upper soil species – Endogeic species. Some species move and live in the upper soil strata and feed primarily on soil and associated organic matter (geophages). They do not have permanent burrows, and their temporary channels become filled with cast material as they move through the soil, progressively passing it through their intestines. (I expected to see a lot of shallow dwelling worms when we tested the cultivator but in the entire side yard, I only saw one. I don’t know for sure but am wondering if the vibrations from the cultivator sent them deeper into hiding until we were done. I must look into this more.—JMM)
    • Deep-burrowing species – Anecic species. These earthworms, which are typified by the “night crawler,” Lumbricus terrestris, inhabit more or less permanent burrow systems that may extend several meters into the soil. They feed mainly on surface litter that they pull into their burrows. They may leave plugs, organic matter, or cast (excreted soil and mineral particles) blocking the mouth of their burrows. (Don’t cultivate your soil at night, yo.—JMM)
  • Where do they go when it’s really hot? Worms need moist soil and between temperatures 55-70F to survive. Various websites list a variety of temperatures but this seems to be the optimal range. During hot weather, they will seek out more damp locations to survive, often burrowing deeper into the soil.
  • Do they really make more worms if they are cut into pieces? Well, many earthworm species do have the ability to regenerate segments that are cut off but most require at least half of the body to be undamaged in order to accomplish this feat. Different species have differing numbers of segments which affects their ability to regenerate. Manure worms (a.k.a, red wigglers) have about 95 segments whereas nightcrawlers have about 150. Different segments serve different purposes. If a bird snaps off the tail end of a worm, often that worm will just generate a new end and the end the bird took will die if not eaten. (Read more about worm earthworm regeneration.)

So, if you do your research, check the weather, etc., you should be able to determine the optimum time to cultivate your soil without mass genocide.

Vegan gardeners!! I have great news!

There IS a veganic fertilizer now available, it works, and is named Grow Veganic. If you’re impatient to order, go here:, otherwise, read my review below.

What is a veganic fertilizer?

Vegan + organic = veganic which also means:

  • No animal meals: no blood/bones/feathers/fish
  • No manure (see below for why this matters)
  • No hormones
  • No GMOs

Does it work?

I received a test bag of Grow Veganic’s Steady 5-1-1- fertilizer, a slow-release, pelleted form on June 6, 2012. Of course, knowing that it would take a while to try it out and therefore review it, I immediately sprinkled a liberal 4 handfuls in a giant pot of some suffering coleus on the front porch. Why were they suffering? Well, I was cheap and planted them in decrepit (overused, nutritionally depleted potting soil from the past two years) adding straight-up coir to top off the pot. It’s a HUGE pot so I didn’t really have the funds to buy enough of the good stuff to fill it. Seeing as it’s also a pot , therefore lacking in earth worms, this meant that it wasn’t going to provide the coleus with much in the way of nutrition. The plants were doomed.

I wish I’d taken a before shot but I did not. I can tell you that the coleus came from clippings I had in a juice glass in the kitchen window. Meaning, they weren’t more than 8 inches tall to start. And they were all wet roots, starving for nutrients.

At about one month in is when I really noticed an explosion of growth. (See the left photo below.) And because Grow Veganic is slow-release, these babies continued to grow to fearful heights the rest of the summer and now, into fall. (See the right photo below.)

Left: plants easily went from cuttings to this big. Right: still expanding with no tip cuttings on my part.

Who creates Grow Veganic?

Sunizona Family Farms is a 20 acres small farm in Southeast Arizona. After launching as a conventional farm, they quickly developed a passion for organic farming. As they say, they then had an “aha” moment realizing they could provide nutrients without animal by-products. They now offer a fully veganic CSA, the first one I’ve heard of. Knowing they couldn’t ship their produce to everyone, they began packaging their own fertilizer so anyone anywhere can grow veggies with a clear conscious. You can order it here.

Why does this matter?

Both organic and conventional fertilizers typically rely on by-products from animal agriculture, usually factory farms (CAFOs). If you’re a vegan, or if you just don’t want to use animal-derived fertilizers, having an animal-free option can be important.

Additionally, a team of researchers at University of Minnesota recently demonstrated that antibiotics commonly administered to animals on CAFOs are absorbed—by way of manure fertilizer—into several vegetables such as green onions, corn, lettuce, cabbage, and potatoes. While they did not test all vegetables grown by home gardeners and farmers, the research results were enough to question the safety of manure used in food crop production. In addition to the ethics of CAFOs, I for one don’t want that in my food.

There are several studies conducted by UofM, here is one of the two I’ve read (both are essentially the same; testing for various antibiotics uptaken into various crops, with varying results depending on the specific antibiotic class.): Kumar, K., Gupta, S. C., Baidoo, S. K., Chander, Y., and Rosen, C. J. 2005. Antibiotic uptake by plants from fertilized soils. J. Environ. Qual. 34:2082–2085 (2005). NOTE: At the time of the research, K. Kumar, S.C. Gupta, Y. Chander, and C.J. Rosen, were with the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, and S.K. Baidoo was from the Department of Animal Science and Southern Research and Outreach Center, University of Minnesota. I have not followed up to see where they are currently.

So, for folks who don’t eat a lot of vegetables, this may not raise a red flag. But to those of us who do or are vegans, … well, it’s something to consider.

[UPDATE: After reading Colleen’s excellent post on the relationships between corporations and bloggers, I felt the need to update this post since it is a gift guide that lists products I am recommending. My update is at the end.]

Buying gifts for vegans may be challenging enough but what if your favorite vegan is also an avid gardener? What do you need to know?

First I’ll list some of my favorite groovy gifts that I think are perfect for gardeners, especially vegan gardeners. Then I’ll give you a few pointers to help you stay out of trouble while shopping for your favorite vegan gardener. And BTW, I’ve listed some extremely affordable items and some that well, shall we say, may be so nice you’d get lucky this season ;-P

Snarky’s Top 10 Great Gift Ideas:

1. Ethel Gloves

Click for close up.

Ethel Gloves makes a special vegan gardening glove that I actually own and absolutely love. It’s the Garden 4X, a tough and classy glove that even I can’t wear through. I’m really hard on gardening gloves, typically going through 2 pairs in a season. My fingertips generally poke right through because I like to make holes for seeds with my hands rather than a trowel. But after a full season, my pair of Garden 4X black bamboo gloves are holding up just fine. No sign of letting my middle finger loose in the dirt. These gloves also use vegan latex that does not use casein during manufacturing. A very thoughtful gift for a vegan gardener. (And if black isn’t your vegan’s style, all their other colored bamboo gloves are also vegan, they just don’t have the reinforced fingertips that the 4X does.)

2. Seeds!

Click for close up.

D. Landreth Seed Company is the oldest continuously running seed house in the US and one of the oldest companies. In fact, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were both Landreth customers! Landreth ran into financial hardship this year and most of the gardening world has fretted about it for months. So any gift you buy from them will go towards saving this American institution. I’d recommend the catalog of course, as it’s a work of art and full of gardening information. They also have little “Seeds In A Sack” that make great stocking stuffers. They’re all awesome so there’s no way I can single out just one. Besides, you know your gardener best: would they like the Olde Fashion Zinnias collection, Antique Vines for the Garden or Heirloom Tomatoes?

3. German Design

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Weck canning jars are a totally BPA-free and beautiful option for organic gardeners. Yes, I said BPA-free. You know that white rubbery liner in the lid of traditional canning jars in the USA? Yeah, that—don’t go lick it now—it’s made with BPA. The Weck jars use an old fashioned rubber and reusable gasket instead. How well do they work? I’ve heard stories of German great grandmothers still using their jars from the beginning of the last century and they haven’t killed anyone yet. The only problem with these jars is that I don’t want to use them as gifts. No, I’m kinda selfish that way. Oh, if you’re in the Chicago area, you can buy these at Green Home Experts.

4. Garden Art for the Kitchen

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Vetegabowls makes insanely cool food serving bowls that look exactly like garden fruits and vegetables! They are slip cast and glazed to match the colors and actual textures you’d find in a cantaloupe, tomato, grapefruit, onion, honeydew melon, oranges, etc. I adore these bowls and think a set of these would be an awesome gift. (DH, that’s a hint dood, just in case that wasn’t clear ;-)

5. Gear

Click for close up.

Autonomie Project Inc. has a lot of great products but I’m especially excited about their new fair-trade and vegan rain/gardening boots! The rubber in these boots is certified by the FSC for sustainable forestry and the makers receive a fair trade premium on their wages. When looking for gardening boots, remember these things: they are often labeled “rain” boots, consider the calf fit (if your vegan may have large calves, best to skip this item or buy a gift certificate), and the pattern/color.

Fun gardening socks from Garden Shoes Online come with lady bugs, bees, turtles and sunflowers. The more colorful selections are also vegan because they’re made with nylon, CoolMax® and Lycra® rather than latex. Latex is made with casein from cow’s milk so steer clear of anything with that fiber as well as wool and silk.

6. Books

Veganic Agriculture Network has a nice book list of tomes that would be appropriate for a vegan gardener. If you can’t score an out-of-print copy of Veganic Gardening by Kenneth Dalziel, I’d snag Growing Green which is also a source of info for organic gardening without animal products.

7. Luxury

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Moxie Organix has some really nice soaps and lotions that would help a gardener maintain soft hands after a long day digging in the soil. Lavender or rose petal would be great scents for a gardener.

8. Sprouting Supplies

A brick or two of coir fiber makes a great gift for the gardener who starts seeds indoors for Spring. The bricks are small enough to even fit in a stocking while causing a lot of funny head scratching over what could that be? I get my bricks at Green Home Experts in Oak Park, Illinois. When checking your local source, compare pricing with sizes (big box stores sell smaller bricks for a full brick price) and compare the source of the coir itself.

Chamomile tea, believe it or not, would be a nifty stocking stuffer for a gardener because not only can they drink it when pests are bumming them out, it’s a great fungal deterrent. In fact, many professional growers spray it on the soil’s surface to fight Damping Off in tomato seedlings. A great little crafty gift could be a box of chamomile tea bags and a spray bottle. You could even craft up your own Healthy Seedling or Fight Damping Off label for the bottle.

9. One-of-a-Kind Glass Garden Sculptures

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Barbara Sanderson is a glass artist specializing in hand-blown art glass for gardens. Her Fiddlesticks and Flowers are amazingly beautiful. You can often find Babara at various flower and garden shows around the country as well as art shows. She’ll work with you to combine glass, water, light and gardens to create lovely and stunning outdoor spaces. If you can’t afford her larger works she also creates Christmas ornaments and other holiday glassworks. Her Halloween pumpkins are always groovy and I’d love to have some of her originals in my garden.

10. The Holy Grail of Gifts!

The Holy Grail of Gifts!

And finally, the Holy Grail! Whether you wanna be rewarded with sex from xmas until New Year’s Eve or simply awesome food for the rest of your life, I’d totally recommend giving your vegan the new Blendtec’s Total Blender Designer Series. It’s a super badass blender that can handle anything your organic gardener can grow. Seriously. But check first to make sure your vegan hasn’t already ordered it or that ‘other’ brand of blender. The Designer Series model is so badass, it includes the WildSide jar which is a patented 5-sided jar allowing a better vortex during blending and wider at the base for easier removal of thick nut butters, a nearly 4-inch diameter blade, and a new touch interface like on the iPhone. AND a 7-year warranty! Oh yeah baby, it can handle just about anything including those twigs and leaves you think your vegan eats.

And THAT my fine fiends, is the best of the best, the most unique, and perfectly vegan-friendly gifts for organic gardeners!

Read onward for some tips on what to avoid when shopping. It seems tricky sometimes but it all makes sense, I promise.

Things to watch out for:

  • Leather gardening gloves and leather tool pouches: Many gloves have leather palms or are fully constructed from leather, a big no-no for vegan gifts. Also, most tool companies like Felco, Fiskar and Corona sometimes bundle leather pouches with their pruners. Best to just buy the awesome pruner and ignore any bundles that include leather.
  • Manure or animal ingredient plant foods: Not that you’d give your gardener crap for xmas, right? But anyway, you’re going to have to read the labels on these. Avoid brands that include manure or feather, fish, bone, and blood meals. Best to stick with plant-derived ingredients like kelp or seed meals like cottonseed. It also goes without saying that most vegans will also be organic so steer clear of chemicals like Miracle-Gro (the cosmic blue stuff).
  • Pesticides: This is a tricky area. Some vegans may be ok killing insects while others are not. Safer to just not go there.
  • Animal hide journals or notebooks: Garden journals are quite popular these days and are awesome gifts for keeping a diary of what’s been planted. However, I’ve seen a few that are leather bound. Look for a label that says, “man-made materials” or go with canvas or paper coverings.
  • Boots or garden shoes: Again, watch out for leather. A gift certificate from a place like Zappos may be safer than actually trying to find a poly boot that fits the foot of your vegan Cinderella, depending of course on how well you know that foot.
  • Wool socks: Garden socks can be a really fun gift, many come with ladybugs and flowers woven into them and are quite charming. Just read the label to ensure there’s no wool or silk. Bamboo would be a nice fiber to find and is soft and resilient. Or see the links above for cool and fun socks.
  • Vermiculture or ‘Worm bins”: Best to steer clear of this as well. Not all vegans would be happy with worms in captivity although some are. Unless you know your vegan gardener well, safer to look for other gift ideas.
  • Homesteading Books: Watch out for homesteading books that include chapters on raising cows for milk, beheading chickens or butchering pigs. Go for books that focus on veggies and such.

So, now that you’re prepared, what are you waiting for? You’ve only got 12 more days until Christmas! Get the compost out!

Snarky’s Product Relationship Disclosure (or rather, more info than you wanted to know)

Below I will note any relationship I have with any of the companies making the products I’ve included in my gift guide for gardeners:

  1. Ethel Gloves: Over the years, they have sent me several pairs of gloves either through events or as awards when I entered contests. None of them lasted more than a month or two because I wore through the fingertips. I guess I use that middle finger on my right hand a little too much. When I saw them at the IGC in 2010, I asked about the 4X. They explained that the fingertips are reinforced for people like me (my words, not theirs). I tried to buy a pair but they didn’t have change for a $50 so they gave me a pair to try out. I have now used them through 14 months with none of the middle finger issues I had previously. Yes, these gloves were free to me but when they do eventually wear out, they will also be the only pair I buy.
  2. D. Landreth seeds: They have never given me anything for free. I buy their seeds and love them. They don’t even know who I am.
  3. Weck Canning: They have never given me anything for free. I bought their jars last season for canning relish (which was awesome BTW), and I love these jars. I feel safer using them over the regular jars with traditional metal lids and they are way prettier.
  4. Vegetabowls: They have never sent me anything for free and they didn’t even know I was including their bowls on my list until I emailed them after posting. I just love their bowls. I hope they don’t mind me using their photo.
  5. Autonomie and Garden Shoes Online: Neither company has ever given me anything for free. I searched high and low for fun garden things that are vegan-friendly to include in my list. The boots have the added benefit of being FSC certified. But alas, I am a large woman with large calves and have yet to find any boot that fits me but I thought these may be great for other gardeners, who are skinnier.
  6. Books: There are not a lot of veganic gardening books in print or out of print. Given the less than stellar options, I’ve listed two that come recommended by another reliable source, Veganic Agriculture Network. Currently, I am on a waiting list for the out of print book.
  7. Moxie Organix: Yes, I have used samples of their soap at the Vida Vegan Con in August. They included their samples in our hotel kits so we didn’t have to worry about hotel soaps containing tallow. I loved the soaps enough to wrap the used samples gently and schlepp them home on the airplane.
  8. Sprouting supplies: no corporate brands here but I use both of these recommendations when starting seeds indoors for spring.
  9. Barbara Sanderson glass sculptures: Barbara has never given me anything for free. I have purchased her glass ornaments as client gifts in the past and they are truly beautiful. I love the quality of her glass.
  10. Blendtec: Blendtec has never sent me anything for free. I have borrowed “that other blender” from a friend and it overheated repeatedly when grinding sopping wet cashews. I also have two friends who purchased Blendtecs this past year and they use them, with no problems, for grinding nuts . Therefore I became a Blendtec Affiliate and ordered the newest Designer Series model for myself as soon as it was released to the public. I am anxiously awaiting its arrival right now and will test it immediately to compare it to the older models my friends have.

Just a few mere days ago, Seeds of Change launched their Sowing Millions Project with the intent to outfit home and community gardeners with enough free organic seeds to encourage organic gardening and eating. Luckily I heard about this in time to fill out the form for my own set of 25 seed packs before they ran out.

Also, for those of you who have never ordered from Seeds of Change, their seed packs are resealable zipper bags! AND they’re recyclable!

Here’s what they sent me:

  • Tomato, Thessaloniki
  • Tomato, Oregon Spring Bush
  • Tomato, Gold Currant Cherry
  • Tomato, Red Currant
  • Tomato, Porter Improved
  • Cucumber, Northern Pickling
  • Watermelon, Early Moonbeam
  • Chili, Peruvian Purple
  • Chili, Rio Grande Hot
  • Celery, Red Stalk
  • Amaranth, Greek
  • Lettuce, Formidana
  • Lettuce, Four Seasons
  • Lettuce, Rouge de Grenoblouse
  • Lettuce, Thai Green
  • Radicchio, Early Palla Rossa
  • Radish, Round Black Spanish
  • Catnip, Lemon
  • Balsam
  • Dill, Mammoth
  • Chives, Garlic
  • Calendula, Red Splash
  • Snapdragon, Rocket Mix
  • Balloon Flower
  • Tobacco, Scherazi

After talking with another gardener who also received her order this week, it appears that we got different things. So time to think about swapping a few seeds here and there to expand our selections.

I’m VERY excited about all of these!

Timber Press recently held a contest on their blog for the worst of hell strips. For the uninitiated, a hell strip is that part of your yard where nothing grows. It can be hit with too much sun, poor soil near pavement, frequent dog attention, drunken humans and a host of other maladies.

After careful consideration, I determined that I have three hell strips with three very different sets of criteria. Below are photos of mine. Click to enlarge any photos you want to see close up, carnage abounds.

Dogwalkers That Suck:
Hell Strip by Sidewalk in Front Yard

I finally roped this area off in a vain attempt to make it known to dog walkers that my yard is NOT a dog park. You can see how the arborvitae hedge no longer runs all the way to the sidewalk? Yeah, that's because the dog urine killed the first shrub. Now we have a giant weed tree of unknown type sprouting in its place.

I have the additional problem of mixed shade/sun as shown here. This area gets total shade until about 3:30 (in June) when part of it gets a blast of direct sun through the trees while the shrubs maintain a fully shaded section as you can see. Perfect for weed growing which seems to be the only thing that grows here.

Bowling Alley:
Hell Strip Along Neighbor’s New Sidewalk and in My New Clay Soil

About two years ago, my neighbor had a new sidewalk poured between our houses. Now my property extends exactly to the edge of his new sidewalk. The pouring of cement caused the soil in this area to turn into a grey clay. Fortunately, the parallel hosta row was already established and the sidewalk didn't kill it but now I can't really add anything without repairing the soil. Couple that with the sun/shade challenge you see here. In early May, this area is full shade. As the sun rises through June, we get this shady strip.

Garbage Man Can:
Hell Strip Between Our and Our Neighbor’s Garage

I didn't realize this area was a problem until a neighbor coordinated an alley clean up two weeks ago. Prior to the clean up, the dirt mound you see here was filled with 7-foot tall weeds and weed trees. I painstakingly pulled as many as I could without DH's help with the reciprocating saw but a lot of weed trees remain between the two garages. This spot is nestled between our and the neighbor's garages and became a collecting place for bagged dog shit and trash from the nearby 7-eleven. And you can't see it from the photo but there's a wood pallet still leaning against the garage and the garbage men evidently refuse to take it. The utility pole provides alley dog-walkers a spot to spa their dogs. I really didn't enjoy cleaning this area out, it stunk something awful and the soil is filled with broken glass and trash bits. Interestingly, there are other alleys in Oak Park that are beautifully landscaped and I just don't know how they do it. Car exhaust, dogs and other critters, trash. It's a challenge.

In April, I was approached by Troy-Bilt to see if I’d be interested in reviewing one of their products. Since I’d had such a good experience with their tiller last year, I said “Absolutely!” I hate being put in a situation to deliver a negative review and I was certain that wouldn’t happen with a Troy-Bilt product (and it didn’t BTW).

I also think that due to home owners’ increasing awareness of organic gardening and environmentally sound lawn care, folks are likely to consider taking a more hands-on approach to their own landscaping. And one of the biggest challenges for the DIY landscaper is dealing with the sometimes HUGE quantity of tree limbs, leaves and brush that a single plot is capable of producing. Even in an urban environment where grassy areas may be small or nonexistent, tree limbs can still pose a challenge to keeping your area tidy.

This is why I chose to review Troy-Bilt’s chipper/shredder model CS4325. I chose the non-vacuum version because I felt a vacuum may pose more challenges in an urban setting where it may accidentally take up non-plant related materials such as broken bottles, used condoms and the ever present rat carcasses ;-P Not to mention having to maneuver it around tight corners  or narrow pathways often found in urban hamlets.

But if you have a lawn and are interested in the vacuum model, head over to Kylee’s review of one of the other Troy-Bilt models. Between the two of us, I think you’ll have a wider view of Troy-Bilt’s various chipper/shredder features.

Unpacking from the Crate.

Yes, a girl can do this. It isn’t that hard. Although I had my husband (a.k.a. Hipster Pete) do the work so I could photograph and videotape, this unit is really not that hard to maneuver or use.

unloading chipper/shredder from box

Click to get a closer view of the unloading effort. Use heavy duty box cutters and watch out for staples.

  1. Cut away the double walled box while leaving the unit on the shipping pallet. There is NO WAY you’re going to lift this box off the crate or lift the unit out of the box. You’re going to have to cut down one or two side walls and roll the unit out.
  2. Watch those staples, don’t let them scrape your arm or hide on the floor near your car tires.
  3. Once the cardboard is removed from one or two sides, just roll the unit off the pallet, easy peasy.
  4. Remove all components from the hopper (red tow bar, white catcher bag, goggles, tow bar pins, 2 manuals, 1 quart of oil).
  5. Now grab a lemonade and read the manuals to familiarize yourself with the components and safety requirements.

Overview of Chipper/Shredder.

While it is a large, heavy, shiny, butch thing, the wheels are big enough to make it easy to roll, and the starting cable—while a tough pull—is not so tough I couldn’t get it started first try.

Diagram of Troy-Bilt CS4325 Chipper/Shredder

Click on diagram to enlarge. The biggest reason for the chipper/shredder not starting is that folks leave either the white bag or the tow bar in the hopper. These gotta come out first, THEN the unit will start.

Hopper: This is the large upper area shown in the diagram. It is for ½-inch or smaller twigs and we found that you could put several through at once.

Chute: The smaller angled chute is to the side. There is a latch where you can pin it up during storage and lower it for actual use. This chute will take up to 3-inch diameter branches.

Engine: There is a separate manual for just the engine. This manual covers all the maintenance and technical stuff associated with the engine. The engine has its own 800 number for technical assistance.

Tow bar: The tow bar ships inside the main hopper along with all the other accessories and it’s painted red like the hopper. I initially saw the bar and tugged on it but it didn’t budge so I thought it was part of the hopper. Of course the unit wouldn’t start with the tow bar inside. You must remove it first.

Bag and attaching it: The bag is HUGE! Yes, you could fit maybe two bodies in it if they’re chipped. To attach, snuggle it over the entire area around the lower exit chute making sure the bag is secured over the knobs. Tighten the bag’s belt as much as possible. Arrange the bag out straight from the chipper/shredder so the chips can fill it without any obstructions or twisted fabric. I can’t stress enough that you need to secure this bag. IF it comes off during operation, you’ll have wood bits blown at least 3 car-lengths away not to mention all in your hair. Trust me on this.

Make sure the bag goes completely around the exit chute components and tighten it as much as humanly possible.

The Chipper/Shredder in Action.

We tested the chipper/shredder on 4 huge bundles of branches/twigs/brush that had been gathering for a year in a hopeless ‘compost pit’ that I dug. Our neighbor to the North also contributed many branches from his red bud and crabapple while our neighbor across the alley brought over several small trees that succumbed to a recent renovation project.

Just a portion of the branches, twigs and brush we'd collected.

We used about 1.25 gallons of regular unleaded and that enabled us to clear out all the stuff that had gathered in the corner of our yard: about 10 x 4 x 4 feet of crammed branches, twigs and woody brush some of which was damp from being on the lower part of the pile. Add in the neighbors’ large branches, then we threw in some huge green weedy things just to see what would happen.

All in all, 3 households put this beast through its paces and in about an hour, we had whittled everything down to 2 very large garden carts of very fine mulch.

In a nutshell, this thing is a beast. Amazing power and never failed.

Test results:

Challenge Result
Damp brush/twigs No noticeable difference in handling
Grassy stuff and leaves Ate it like a champ
Woody branches up to 3-inch diameter Gobbled every bit


  • The unit is wide; measure before you try maneuvering it around tight corners or through gates.
  • Wear ear plugs, seriously.
  • Wear the goggles supplied or others that you have. There will be a lot of airborne particles and the chips do fly.
  • Wear sturdy gloves like Ethel Gloves.
  • Don’t reach into the hopper or chute while the unit is running. Follow the safety guidelines in the manual.
  • Don’t let kids put sticks in the unit. Sticks can whip around, smacking them, and a child looking into the chipper chute is not a good thing.
  • Run it at full throttle, don’t attempt to save gas by running it with the throttle halfway. This can result in jammed wood and wood chips that aren’t as small as they should be. Full throttle ensures those flails are fully extended (more on that in a minute).
  • Some branches will need to be broken down to fit into the hopper or chute if they are wide, forked branches. I kept my Felcos handy and DH used the table saw for any branches that forked off beyond the 3-inch maximum diameter. Keep in mind, the hole down at the bottom of the large branch chute is only 3 inches wide. Stuff must fit through there to get shredded.

Here's an example of a branch that won't fit. While the branch itself is 3 inches, the Y-formation at its end is not. This one must be further cut down in order to feed through the chute.

  • While you can most likely shred green weeds, I don’t recommend it because that’s a great way to spread weeds throughout your yard. I’d just let those things compost or something where the weed seeds or rhizomes will be killed.

Greens and browns do appear to be possible but I'd be careful of shredding weeds that contain seeds or live rhizomes. You wouldn't want to spread weeds throughout your yard.

Flails: Get Medieval on that Rubbish.

While traditional medieval flails often came in contact with humans, modern flails in chipper/shredders only do the same in movies like Fargo. And while they share a name, they are totally different in design.

While an effective tool for Buffy, medieval flails are NOT the same as the modern flails in a chipper/shredder.

Troy-Bilt chipper/shredders use flail “blades” to demolish your yard waste and the flail assembly is incredibly efficient. You should know that they’re also noisy. Especially when you turn off the unit. Flails consist of a lot of little blades that are folded neatly together until the engine is started, then the flails are fully extended while running. When you turn the engine off, the assembly slows down and the blades fold back together and make a lot of racket—this is normal. Honestly, they sound like Buffy is in there wreaking havoc but not to worry. NOTHING is falling apart; the blades are just collapsing into their stationary position. It will sound like metal chunks are flying about and you’ll probably look around the ground for loose bolts and change but this noise is perfectly normal.

Why Do It Yourself?

There is an increasing trend among communities to charge home owners for collecting yard waste. Not only do many folks now have to buy special yard waste bags, they also have to purchase yard waste stickers to put on the bags. Each week I see dozens of full yard waste bags with little official stickers lining our alley as folks attempt to keep their yards clean without composting or mulching. AND, there is evidently a market for stolen stickers as we have had our large trash stickers stolen if we put them out too early.

Why Waste Good Yard Waste?

Honestly, I don’t get folks who don’t compost or mulch. Seriously, it’s 2010 and we should have moved beyond trying to ‘dispose’ of grass clippings, leaves and tree branches. In fact, we had an alley clean up this past weekend, sponsored by our Village Hall. And get this, I offered to take all tree branches and leaves so folks wouldn’t have to bag and sticker everything and leave it curbside for 4 days—only ONE taker. Yes, it’s true; only one person among all the homes backing to our alley took me up on the offer. Others said they’d rather bag. (And don’t even get me started on the chemicals that the Village Hall of Oak Park made available to everyone who wanted to kill weeds in the alley! What was it Hemingway said about Oak Park? Oh yeah, “town of wide lawns and narrow minds.”)

Even so, I can very easily see a situation where MORE environmentally aware and organic neighborhoods band together and share a chipper/shredder to take advantage of their own compostable materials. Chipper/shredders are also great tools for hard-core gardeners and large-scale community gardens too.

The Environmental Factor.

Yes, this is a gas-device and (regular ole unleaded is fine). And yes there are electric chipper/shredders available but they don’t have the power to handle the big stuff and certainly don’t chip to a 1/10 ratio. Even if you tried a 2.5HP electric chipper, it’s not going to have the torque of a gas-powered engine.

I figure we’d use a chipper/shredder less often than a lawn mower or snow blower. And since I have nothing against snow, our old Honda mulching lawn mower poses a higher environmental impact than a chipper/shredder would.

Also consider that depending on where you live, electricity may come from nuclear power plants OR wind turbines. Most municipalities don’t have a choice for green energy. So you have to decide between your own local electricity source and petrol. It’s really personal from both a sourcing/green perspective and a use/efficiency perspective. If you don’t have woody shrubs or trees, save your money and use your lawn mower to mulch leaves and grass. But because I live in a heavily wooded suburb, I’ll be using the gas powered—just making sure I don’t buy gas from those morons at BP—and run it only when needed.

Side note: We still love our Honda mulching mower BTW. Honda was creating mulching mowers way back when everyone else was still deciding if mulching while you mow was good for your lawn.

Gas Has an Expiration Date.

Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Matt from Troy-Bilt educated me on this fact: gas actually does get old and it’s not very good for engines at that point. If you’re running a lawn mower weekly you won’t need to worry until the end of the season. But if you’re only running a chipper/shredder once or twice a year, listen up: buy a gas stabilizer and blend it with your gallon of gas BEFORE you put the gas in the tank. The tank can’t blend the two very well so blend beforehand.

My Overall Recommendation.

I have absolutely no complaints about the Troy-Bilt CS4325 Chipper/Shredder. It did everything that was expected of it. The manuals could be better designed for ease of use but the info you need is all there.

I’ve been thinking over the past week, trying to come up with any criticisms I have of the unit. I honestly don’t have any…wait, oh yeah, it doesn’t bake bread ;-P

My Own Stupid Moment.

I did feel incredibly stupid after leaving the tow bar in the hopper thinking it was part of the hopper because it was stuck and painted red. I even searched through the other materials looking for the tow bar and assumed I got a box that was missing one. It wasn’t until Troy-Bilt’s area manager came out and pulled the tow bar out of the hopper did I realize that thing was actually the tow bar. Yes, I felt incredibly dumb in front of the area manager. I’m sure he was wondering if I even knew the different between the choke and the throttle. But he was insanely nice about the whole thing.

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