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Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

Did anyone else feel like THIS last weekend?

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Yeah… us, too!

We spent all of Saturday playing outside. We finally got into the garden, too. Tootsie and Pookah raked leaves, Silverback mulched them and helped move our composter, and I dug, pulled, cut, and shovelled ’til I couldn’t move my aching bones.

It was awesome!!!

I love the first day of culling out the flower beds and turning over the new, dark, earth. I have big plans for this area this year.

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Pretty icky, now, huh? The picker bushes LOVE this area. I pulled them all out and Silverback helped me lay down some black plastic to solar kill the weeds. The garage wall will make a nice back drop for a flower garden on top of this stone wall. You can’t see it, but it’s there under the weeds.

I can’t wait to post pics of it when it’s done.

And we FINALLY got our peas into the ground. Along with some lettuce and spinach. Carrots are next!!!

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I hope you had the chance to get some fresh air and play in the sunshine.

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I See Green

Signs of germination

Signs of germination

If you were betting on Kohlrabi to be the first to germinate (admit it, some of you will bet on anything), you won! This morning, I saw several tiny green specks emerging from the soil. It’s important to note how TINY they are, because this is the point which the sprouts need air and light.

Holding in the moisture at this point will kill the sprouts. As it was, I removed 2 furry little sprouts that were too small to see last night. We planted these guys Monday night and they germinated in less than 5 days. Pretty quick, I think!

We will move them to the light table, give them 16 hours per day of light, and keep them watered until they are ready for transplant.

Now we’ll keep a close eye on the other members of the cabbage family, our Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. They are likely to be next.

MARCH IS STARTING OUT VERY GREEN. DOES THAT MEAN IT WILL BE A LUCKY SEASON?

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were planning to start our seeds the other day and I was about to go dumpster diving for containers when I got “Monday-ed.”  By that I mean that somehow dinner got ruined (don’t buy discount tortellini, okay?) and we had to order delivery. (Note to self: be more prepared for last-minute menu changes) As a bonus, Pizza Hut puts their wings in these nifty metal trays perfect for lots of things! Yes. I save them. Don’t judge.

So here we are creating masterpieces with dirt. I sprung for the Jiffy Mix because we had so much luck with it in the past. The girls had marigold seeds they collected last year and a gift of Lilly seeds from Pookah’s friend (thanks!). While they were busy planting those, I worked on Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi. It’s easy. Just put water and seeds in the starter mix. Detailed instructions here.

Pookah & Tootsie starting flower seeds

Pookah & Tootsie starting flower seeds

We put a single seed type into each container and then wrap with a plastic bag to keep the moisture in. Pookah wants to remind you how important it is to label each container. Then place them in a warm spot where you will remember to check them daily. Guess where we keep ours.

Always place them where you will remember to check daily for signs of germination

Always place them where you will remember to check daily for signs of germination

You can see the condensation beginning already. That moisture is not going anywhere. And now we wait…

Actually, we have some cleaning up to do. We made a fabulous mess.

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Last year, life was a little crazy. We spent more time at the farmer’s market then in our own garden. We managed to produce a few tomatoes and green beans, and put up some jam, but mostly we picked from the local crops and daydreamed about the future.

How great is it that we get a do-over each year? So, here we are again! My brother and niece have already started their flower crop, maybe they’ll give us a tour! (hint hint) It’s very inspiring when people begin to talk about seed starting in the middle of winter. It’s so horribly drab and bitter cold here in the north. It’s the time of year when people start to mumble that they’ve had enough. A little sprout of green is a cheerful reminder that Spring is on its way. Thoughts of sun-warmed earth fill my head as the seed catalogs arrive in the mail.

Today, Tootsie grabbed a catalog and begged to help me garden. She is now running around the house in Dora garden gloves shouting: “Mommy! Get me a plant!”

Tootsie is ready for spring.

Tootsie is ready for spring.

It will take a little more effort and organizing to get back into the swing of things, but now that we have our team together it’s time to start some seeds!

Are you planning? Are you sprouting? Are you ready for a new season?

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I’ve been told that people see dirty pictures of me on the internet all the time.  No, not the X-rated kind.  I mean literally… covered in dirt.  It’s just something I do.  Don’t judge, okay?

But not all dirt is the same.  You should know what you are growing your food in, both for the quality of your plants and the safety of your family.  You can start by having your soil tested.  Talk to your local garden center about this.  In Pennsylvania, you can purchase a kit from the Penn State Extension office in your county.  Find it here.  A small fee applies.  When you receive your results, take them to your garden center for advice on amending your soil to maximize production.      

Many home gardeners will tell you that the best soil comes from composted horse and cow manure.  So, we set off on an adventure to find some and our friend offered as much as we wanted for free.  I think you’ll find that most equestrians and farmers are happy to give it away.  So, we enjoyed a beautiful sunny day with an old friend and her horse, Man.  The girls got to ride him, pet him, and feed him, and I got my bucket of poop “to go.”  Score. 

Meet Man. Isn't he handsome? He and his friends are fertilizing my garden this year.

If the thought of this makes you cringe, relax.  We scooped from the compost pile, where micro-organisms have broken down the animal waste into dirt… black gold, actually.  It has none of the aromatic qualities of fresh manure, but all of the nutrients to grow healthy plants.  In fact, I rode many miles with the stuff strapped into the passenger seat next to me and I can tell you there was nothing offensive about it.  

Happy greenhouse strawberry plants, side-dressed with compost

Another method of natural fertilizing for the home gardener is composting.  Compost is simply decaying organic matter.  You can transform vegetable peels and weeds into nutritive soil by giving it the right conditions to break down.  Not only does home composting save money by providing good quality soil for free, it is a great way to recycle items that would have ended up in your trash.  There are a multitude of ways to set up your compost system – bins, piles, worm farms, leaf mulch, and more, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to introduce you to what we do here.  

A home compost bin is easy to make and maintain if you know just a few simple “rules.” 

  • For best results, it should be covered for warmth, moisture retention, and for protection from pests. 
  • It must be moistened regularly. 
  • And it must be turned occasionally to aerate. 

Dos and Don’ts for the home composter

  • Use fruits and vegetable remnants from your kitchen and yard waste. 
  • Never place animal products or fats (like cooking oil) into your compost.  It will introduce unwelcome contaminants as well as attract pests. 
  • Never use yard waste that has been treated with chemicals, including store-bought mulch.  
  • Try to use a balance of green ingredients (such as fresh vegetation & kitchen scraps) and brown ingredients (such as dry leaves and thin twigs).
  • Whenever you add fresh ingredients to your compost, use a pitchfork or compost turning tool to mix it in.
  • Add moisture.  Your mixture should be light and fluffy, but moist and not muddy.

When treated properly, it will not produce an odor like garbage. It will smell like dirt. 

Establish an area for composting that is convenient for you.  If you know you won’t walk your kitchen scraps to the back acre, then choose a spot near your house and within convenient reach of a water source.  My first mistake was placing our compost bin too far from the house, making it difficult to water.  It helps to have a covered container in the fridge to collect your scraps, or purchase a countertop compost container.

To make your compost area, you can use something like this Earth Machine.  It is pinned to the ground with plastic screws.  (if you buy a compost bin that does not secure to the ground, it will blow away, I promise)  I’m sure an inventive person can create a homespun version from an old trash can.  Frankly, I’m surprised we didn’t!  We acquired this one as part of an educational course.  I simply open the top, mix in fresh scraps, add water, and voila!!  Out comes pretty dirt from the bottom drawer.  Easy.

My Earth Machine

To use your home-made, nutrient-rich soil, scoop from the bottom.  Sifting with a screen makes it more beautiful and allows you to return unprocessed material to the bin, but it’s not a necessity.  Spread a layer over your garden in the early Spring to prepare for the planting season.  Mix it in when transplanting anything.  Side-dress plants, shrubs, and trees anytime.

If composting with worms is something you are interested in doing, find a great article on building a worm farm here.  We are big fans of worms around here and their castings make a wonderful natural fertilizer.  Some of us think they are fun to play with, too. 

Composting is fun, economical, environmentally friendly, and a great science lesson for kids.  I do hope you try it if you haven’t already.  Some municipalities even have community composting programs, where non-gardeners can participate.

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We’ve been grateful for the opportunities to play outside so often this year.  Winter was incredibly mild and now our planting season is beginning.  It seems we’ve skipped the cabin fever phase altogether.  We can only hope the karma truck isn’t parked outside, ready to dump a big POOF of snow on us.

Today was a lovely, quiet day with Tootsie.  We wandered around the yard, clearing debris, and scratching at the dirt.  Look what we found!

It won’t be long before we see crocus and tulip flowers, too.  The garlic and onions are already coming up and the rose bushes are full of leaf buds.  Just scratching and decluttering and uncovering the rich soil under the leaf mulch is a gardeners first joy of the season.  I love preparing the beds on cool sunny days far better than weeding overgrown patches in the humidity of August while battling an army of persistent insects.

We planted our peas and sprinkled some spinach seeds on the ground. 

Tootsie in the garden

Little hands can help, too.

We checked out the greenhouse, which is so often a playhouse for the girls.  It looks straight, but needs a good wash.  There are already some anxious weeds flourishing (which we yanked) and the strawberries are springing to life.  It has been so warm, we may set the earliest berry-picking record!  The raised beds Silverback made for me last year made everything simple.  They are ready for a layer of compost and we’ll be planting in there very soon!   

Did you get your rake out yet?  Scrape away the remnants of winter and sprinkle on a layer of compost.  The season has officially begin!

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Last Spring, while we were expecting Tootsie to come along in the middle of June, I didn’t know how much energy or time I would have to maintain a garden.  I wondered:  even if I got it started, how would I keep it weeded?  I envisioned a mass of wild grasses choking out my vegetable plants.  But someone recommended the book  Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew and I took her advice.  (Thank you, Becky)  I found the book at the library and skimmed it quick for the basic idea.  It changed the way I garden!

Instead of digging up a large area at once and planting everything in rows, the square foot gardener divides the garden into smaller, more manageable areas.  Each square foot is assigned a number of plants, according to their size.  I was surprised at the suggested numbers per square, it seemed like a lot in some cases, but the point of the book is to create an efficient, compact space.  Not only was I able to cram more vegetables into our small space, but I was able to work 1 square at a time, using just the hand tools, which saved me energy and time.  Working step by step, preparing the area for each variety of veg, I didn’t concern myself at all with the weedy area assigned for another day.  As I worked along, I appreciated how much this system would benefit a person of limited physical ability.  I thought about some of the mature folks I’ve spoken to over the years who “used to garden” but find it physically overwhelming now.  As for me, in my condition, I would not have had a garden at all last year.  This year, I’ve decided to use the same technique on a larger scale.

So, if you want to give it a try without looking at the book, you’ll essentially do something like this:

2 ft by 2 ft squares divided into quads

That’s my interpretation of it, anyway.  My squares are side by side because I only have a 17′ x 3′ space to work in, but you could make a 4 foot by 4 foot raised bed and divide it up as such.  I used all scrap wood and I have to admit, I probably could have looked harder for more of those nice, flat, 2 foot boards, but I’m short on time these days.  The boards should be something you could step on to get to the back of the garden.  In our case, we don’t have that kind of depth to be concerned about.  Do you see how they control weeds and keep you focused on a small area?  I did take advantage of the space in front of those short boards by planting marigold seeds.  If you don’t have marigolds in your vegetable garden, consider adding them as an organic method of insect repellant.  They look cute, too. 

After dividing the space, we assigned plants. 

To calculate how many plants per square, look on the back of the seed packet.  If the suggested plant spacing says:

  • 12″ apart, plant 1 per square
  • 6″ apart, plant 4 per square
  • 4″ apart, plant 9 per square
  • 3″ apart (or less), plant 16 per square

Here’s the visual:

Broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts require 1 full square.  Green beans can be sown 9 per square, so we chose 3 non-connecting squares for 3 different varieties.  Assigning squares in this way also makes crop rotation easier.  Next year, just move your vegetables to a new square.  It’s important that you wear pink tulle during the process as this contributes to the collection of loose soil and dry leaves.  

these transplants get 1 square foot each

You can maximize the squares by allowing companion plants to share space.  We tucked some herb seeds in the center of each quad, then we rolled out the soaker hose.  Here’s what it looked like when we unfurled it.  It will calm down after a while, but it’s probably wise to lay it out in the sun for a day or two so it’s not a real wrestling match to set it down.

make watering easy

I recommend getting a soaker hose.  We bought this 50 foot long one from The Christmas Tree Shops for $6.99.  It’s totally worth it to not have to drag a hose out every day.  Poor watering techniques create roots that reach for the surface and weaken the plant.  Always water deeply to anchor those roots in the ground.  Watering and weeding are your biggest time-consumers, whatever you can do to make those 2 things easier on yourself will really pay off in the long run.

I hope seeing what we’ve done in our small garden encourages you to give it a try.  You really don’t need a lot of space to enjoy gardening.  Learning to work the space you have is key.  This is just one of many techniques that allow you to grow more food in less space.  Think outside the box.

Related article:  From Seed to Kitchen, Phase 4  

A note about watering your garden: 

A soaker hose is a hose with lots of tiny holes in it that allows the water to drip gently on the ground, preventing muddy splashes, puddles, and plant damage.  It “soaks” the ground.  It comes with one end that has a connector to fit your regular garden hose (or spout) and the other end has a cap.  The cap can be removed to connect another hose.  You lay it (pins are available to hold it in place) on the ground around your plants and leave it for the season.

When we first transplant the plants or seeds into the garden, we water daily to promote downward root growth.  Silverback turns the spout on his way to the car in the morning and I run out in my jammies to shut it off in about 20 minutes.  I’m a little surprised we don’t have this automated yet.  🙂  A hose timer would be helpful.

We also watch the weather, if rainfall is expected, we don’t waste water. 

As the plants become established, less watering is necessary and we rely more on mother nature.

Morning is the best time to water, for several reasons. 

  1. less evaporation, less waste. 
  2. less likely for the heat of the sun to scorch wet foliage. 
  3. night watering leaves plants susceptible to mildew and fungus.

Also, watering the ground – not the leaves – helps prevent damage and mildew.  So, if you choose not to use a soaker hose, be sure to aim low with your garden hose each time you water.  Keep the flow low so you are not blasting up mud or pushing the plants around.

 

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