Saturday, May 10, 2014

A place for pollinators

If I could give a bee a hug, I would. I love the little guys.

The Nerd and I love to sit on the front porch in the morning, sipping coffee, and watch the bees bop from flower to flower in the front garden. Bees matter. We know that. And we're a thousand percent dedicated to making our yard a save haven, an island sanctuary surrounded by a sea of lawns treated weekly by the Chemlawn people.

One of this year's major projects is to add two pollinator flower gardens to the end of the new patio. This is the second dedicated pollinator space. The first is out front, near the apple trees. They do double duty. They're pretty, because they're filled with flowers that bloom from spring to frost, and they bring bees to the garden to help pollinator our food plants.

The plan for the new flower/ bee gardens in the backyard: two seven foot long, L-shaped raised beds. We're hoping to fill them with inexpensive and free perennials from the annual Central Ohio plant swap, although I did buy three echinacea ( coneflower), two Jacob Cline monarda (red bee balm), two Iceland poppies, and one oriental poppy. I also transplanted a small purple salvia from the front yard into the bed.

It took five,  5/4 x 6 inch x 12 foot cedar boards to make each raised bed. My out of pocket for each was about $70. I lined the bottom of each with cardboard, to act as a weed block. Then, I filled each one with a two to three-inch layer of crappy leftover soil from when we excavated the patio. I covered that with a thin layer of straw. Then, I emptied the compost bin and spread a thin layer of not quite but mostly-finished compost over the straw. I topped it all off with about six inches of Zoo Brew Compost from Price Farms Organics.

Bed one, during construction.
The first bed, in place, before the ends were sunk into the ground.
Getting everything in place, including the cardboard.
First, a  thick layer of cardboard. 

The thin layer of not great soil. 

The thin layer of straw. 

And in goes the stuff from the compost bin.  
The finished pollinator garden, filled with Zoo Brew and echinacea.

The great potato tower experiment

Grandpa Ray used to grow potatoes in trash cans. He'd plant the seed potatoes in a shallow layer of dirt at the bottom, and every time the sprouts got more than six inches long, he'd bury them up to their necks in dirt. At the end of the season, the trash can was full of dirt and the tops of the plants would be hanging over the top. When it was time to harvest, he'd tip the can and pick out all of the potatoes. "It sure beats digging around looking for them," he'd say.

I'm with grandpa. I don't like digging around looking for potatoes, and I sure as hell don't like cutting spuds in half with my shovel by accident when I'm trying to find the darn things. I tried growing potatoes in trash cans like grandpa did, but my first few tries weren't great. I either planted too late, of the trash can was too dark of a color, and it roasted my spuds on hot sunny days.

So, this year I'm growing potatoes in potato towers. I've heard mixed reviews. Some say they're a disaster, others say the yields are less than or the same as growing them in the ground. Well, we'll see. We planted three pounds of Rio Grande storage potatoes in three towers, and one pound of Adirondack blue seed potatoes in a small 4-foot square garden bed.

Here is how I made them. I used coated chicken wire from the hardware store. I cut it, then looped it into a tube with a diameter of about 3 to 4 feet. I clipped the wires together with small clamps from the wood working department. I used landscaping pins to secure them firmly to the ground.

Then, I made a thick "nest" out of straw in the bottom. Remember potatoes + sunlight = disaster, so excluding light is very important. I then filled the nest with compost. Once my seed potatoes had sprouted, I planted a ring of them in the compost. I then pressed more straw around the outside of the tower, and filled it with another 4 to 6 inches of compost, enough to cover the spuds. 

It's been three weeks and the potatoes are finally sprouting. As the season progresses, we'll have to keep topping off the towers with straw and compost. At the end of the season, in theory, we should be able to open the towers and let the bounty of spuds fall out. But we'll see!

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

The heart break of garden farming.

The neighbors think I've lost my mind. There was that time two summers ago when they caught me throwing a brick at a wild rabbit while waving my arms and screaming frantically. (They immediately went inside and slammed their back doors, but hey, that rabbit had it coming. It had sawed off and eaten my third round of pea seedlings). Then today, they caught me standing beneath the swirling cloud of expletives I'd spouted in the backyard, fists shaking, f-bombs flying girlishly from my lips.

I lost the seedlings. Almost all of them. I cursed. A lot. I cried. Yes cried.

That's what I get for buying a cheapy temporary greenhouse for sunning seeds. One perfectly sunny day and blammo. One wind comes through and the whole thing blows over, sending my seedlings upside down, onto the ground. Dead and lost forever.

I'm trying to take it in stride, but I raised those suckers. They were my babies. I lovingly watered them, pricked each one's tiny body from the earth and gently transplanted them into large pots. (Okay, maybe I wasn't so gently, poking them into the dirt with the end of a dull No. 2 pencil, but still). Watered them, and rotated them under the indoor grow lights.

Sigh. But now, they're gone. Forty gorgeous early jalapeno peppers, two trays of lettuce plugs, all of The Nerd's slim red cayenne peppers. The pasilla bajio peppers I was going to grow for our friend Josue as a surprise. The rows of borage and comfrey. The last of the Iraqi Aswad eggplant seeds,the last of the Corne de Chevre heirloom pepers. All of them, caput. Sigh.

What's a girl to do but start over? It's April now, and the last frost date is maybe five weeks away. I've lost a month of growing time, but I'm trying not to let it set me back. It's not too late to start more; they'll just be much much tinier when I set them outside for the summer. Or so I tell myself.

The stakes seem much higher now that I'm fully dedicated to feeding the family, to making a real go at this backyard farming thing, getting more serious about starting interesting, rare seeds by myself rather than lugging home plants from the big box store.

Godspeed, fair seedlings. Until next year.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Spring is finally here. April 9 garden round-up

Spring is finally here. For reals. It was a harsh winter, so I have been very nervous wondering which of my plants actually made it through. I spent a lot of time lovingly planting asparagus, currants, strawberries, and all manner of perennials last year. They're all still babies, so I worry. Moms can't help it, even garden moms.

Today, I found the first asparagus poking through the straw mulch. Fingers crossed the other 24 plants also survived.

The bee balm has sprung up again. This plant drew a hummingbird last year, so I'm extra happy it's back. I'll be planting more nearby in our soon-to-be-built pollinator garden. Its leaves don't look like much, but the flowers are beautiful. They look like giant red fireworks. 

The Egyptian (perennial) walking onions survived the winter. I'm trying to establish a very large perennial onion patch (take that, grocery store!), so this is good news. These plants were freebies from a member of the Central Ohio Plant Swap, so I'm extra happy they lived. Hopefully, I will have some to share later this summer. 

The black currant bush has its first leaf buds. I planted this last year, hastily and in a marginal spot, so fingers crossed the little guys does well this year. 

The Victoria rhubarb is alive and well. I can't wait to make pie or jam with this baby. 

And finally, the chives are bushy and awesome. We planted these in the herb garden, as well as around the base of our apple trees. In theory, planting garlic and chives around apples keeps apple scab and some other diseases at bay. Supposedly, the apple trees drink up some of the garlicky goodness, pests can't stand the taste or smell, and disease can't grow as well. We'll see if that's true!

In other news, the horseradish has sprouted too!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

It's been a brrrrr cold but productive week

Ehrmagod it's freezing outside. I feel like I need to take a bath in a boiling tea pot just to warm up today.

But this week wasn't all bad! We did get a few warm sunny days, and each hour of those felt like a little slice of heaven. Those sunny days also gave me an opportunity to get a few things going in the backyard. Such as....

First, I reseeded the lawn with Dutch white clover. This is the second year in a row we've reseeded the lawn with clover in March. The clover will still sprout if it goes through more cold weather, and the freeze thaw cycle of spring actually helps work it down through the grass without having to use a slicing seeder (this according to a few people I know who own organic lawn companies).

Why clover? First, I hate grass and lawns, but I also live in the real world where that is expected in our fancy-schmancy suburb. Second, clover USED to be part of standard lawn grass mixes, not considered a weed. It's a legume, and as such it fixes nitrogen in the soil, and actually helps to feed the grass surrounding it. It also is good for soil structure, because it's roots are deeper than grass roots, and good soil likes to have roots through many different layers.

It is also a drought tolerant, low mow alternative to grass. But the real reason I love clover is that the bees love clover. Adding it to the lawn has been great for our native bee populations, which frankly, don't have a lot of pesticide-free organic yards to hang out in in our neighborhood.

The clover had an added benefit last year, as well. After the world's most awesome cat, The Cheat, died we were overrun with rabbits. We had no idea how much benefit he provided to our garden until he was gone and our backyard went total Watership Down. The first year after his death, we lost half of our crops to rabbits. I was not happy. Last year, they walked right past the garden, heading right for the clover patch. Apparently, clover is more delicious than salad greens. Hells yeah. More clover please!

The Bean and I also built this low hoop frame over one of our raised beds. It's the first of many, I suspect, and only cost about $12 in materials. This is our first experiment in row covers and season extension. Potentially very exciting. Or a total disaster. Too soon to tell.

I transplanted dill, broccoli, purple cauliflower, and various other seedlings this week. They and the greens seem to be doing fine under the lights for the most part, but I am anxious to start planting. Can't wait for this cold weather to pass! 

On a sad seed note, I used the last of my heirloom pepper seeds to plant a flat, and Slinky the kitten decided it'd be awesome to daredevil jump from the dining room table into the seed starting greenhouse. She landed right on the rare peppers, looked at me, got scared and when she jumped out seeds and potting mix went flying in all directions. Ugh. I had to order more seeds. So much for saving money using up last year's. 

And finally, on this week's list of great accomplishments was setting up the cheapy greenhouse I got on clearance at Big Lots last year. I figured it'd be great for seed starting/hardening, and would give me a chance to see how much I would use a real greenhouse before I invested in a more permanent one. I loved it when it was set up, but then check out the last pic to see what happened to it four days later when a giant wind storm blew through here. I sure am cursing a lot more now that I'm trying to 'farm'.!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Coffee grounds as compost and soil additive

I ain't proud. I regularly pop by the local Starbucks. I take home as many bags of used coffee grounds as they will give me. I mean, they're free! That totally fits my gardening sweet spot. Free and useful? Sign me up.

Once I get them home, I pop the grounds right into my compost bin. Or if it's fall and I'm making a new planting bed, I put them right on top.

I didn't use to be so happy about coffee grounds. They  have a reputation for being acidic, and unless you're growing blueberries and azaleas, not many plants L-O-V-E love acidic soil. Then I did some homework and discovered I was all wrong.

Apparently, once you brew coffee, it is no longer acidic. The pH is close to neutral, according to the geeks at Oregon State University. It can also be used as a pathogen and weed-seed free substitute for manure in compost. Coffee grounds are rich in nitrogen, boosting bacterial activity in the compost pile. They are also rich in copper, potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium.

Some studies by Washington State University show coffee grounds used as a mulch can also suppress some fungal wilt problems, but they can also thwart seedling growth, so watch out.

Another plus: worms love coffee grounds, and as gardeners, we should all love worms.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Evolution of our garden

It's not always easy to know where to start when it's time to plan a new garden. Sometimes, you just don't know what you want or what color your thumbs are until you're already half-way through the growing season. So where do you start? I suppose it depends. Here is how we started.

We've lived in Ohio for about seven years, and in that time we've gone from six tomato plants tucked along the side of the house to a 1,000 square foot growing space, fruit trees, and a basement full of home-canned foods. I never in a million years saw this coming.

When we first started gardening, I really just wanted to see if I could grow a decent tomato for my terminally-ill dad, who more than anything, loved a good tomato. It worked. The next year, we planted more tomatoes, and we had so many. We instituted a 'no tomato left behind' policy, so my mother-in-law taught me how to can. The third year, we felt we had mastered tomatoes, so we planted even more, then added slim red cayenne peppers to the mix, so The Nerd could dry them and eat them on food all year long. That went well.

Then, a friend gave me a copy of Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," an account of her family's attempt to live on only-local food for an entire year. It changed the way I thought about food and where it comes from and what is sprayed on it, and made me think:  "we could do that."

The garden grew every year after that, and when we finally had two kids and were bursting at the seams in our house and decided to move, we specifically bought a house with twice the yard space as we had before.

The first year in the new house, we watched. I spent most of my time figuring out where the sun was and what was already growing there before breaking ground. We did plant two apple trees, because we wanted to get a jump on the handful of years it takes to get a real crop.

\We're now starting our third spring in the new house. 
-Year one, we watched and planted apple trees
-Year two, we hand-dug and installed a new patio and built and laid-out a large raised bed garden.
-This year, we're working on extending our harvest seasons and mastering more crops (we've got tomatoes, peppers, beets, and squash down pat.). This year, we hope to master carrots, greens, and melons.
How did we decide what to grow?
-We chose foods that we could preserve either via water-bath canning or drying, for year-round eating. We started with a few then worked our way up to more variety. We now can 100 percent of our tomato products, in the form of pasta sauce, diced and stewed, and pizza sauce. We also can 100 percent of our jam, and 100 percent of our yearly applesauce, about one quart a week). We also grow and dry 100 percent of our cayenne peppers for the year.

-We also perused the list of fruits and vegetables that we like that cost the most to buy at the store, and chose to grow the ones that would save us the most money.

-We grow what we like to eat. No sense in growing kohlrabi if you hate kohlrabi or don't know what to do with it. We also try to grow one new or fun thing every year. That's how we ended up with 200 pounds of luffas last year.

For beginning gardeners, I'd suggest taking your time. It's too easy to jump in all at once and try to grow a million new things. It's too easy to fail if you take on too much. I understand the temptation though, every season gone is one you'll never get back, and it can be hard to wait. But I think if we'd done it any other way, we might have quit.

Mastering one or two key crops first --the tomatoes and peppers-- gave me the confidence to try and try again when it came to new crops. I've failed at many, but haven't quit, and each year, I've used what I've learned to do a better job and make a nicer and more productive garden. Nothing happens over night!