Making Something Simple Seem Complicated

TomatoesOrganic Gardening magazine is one of the subscriptions I look forward to getting in my mailbox.  The latest issue has a whole article on tomatoes with a few different contributors.  I like growing tomatoes as much as the next person, and I’ve had my share of successes and failures.  But I still keep at it hoping for the best.   With the current trend of gardening and local food is still on an upswing, I feel as though encouraging everyone that has even the littlest of space to try to garden is called for (even if all you have is a sunny balcony, you can plant tomatoes in a container and grow a variety of herbs).  My biggest beef came with this quote from chef Alex Lee.  It was even highlighted on the page:

“Successfully growing tomatoes begins with a ‘classic compost pile’ made with the right mix…”

Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but it sounds awfully like “this is the RIGHT way to do it”, which can be a discouraging sentiment to hear.  Not everybody has room or access or materials for a compost pile.  In reading Gayla Trail’s book Grow Great Grub, she has a fantastic photo of somebody growing tomatoes in an alley.  That is the way to do it!  Work with what you have.  If you haven’t grown tomatoes before, buy a plant or two, find a sunny spot and plunk them in the ground.  Or if you don’t have access to actual earth, get a container, fill it with dirt, and plant it there.  Water regularly and check for predators (bunnies, bugs or neighbors) and usually by mid to late summer, you will have tomatoes.

Gardening doesn’t have to be complicated or scientific.  There are people that like to make it that way, but it isn’t necessary.  There also isn’t a wrong way to garden.  There is your way.

So buy a plant (or two or three), find a patch of earth and put it in.  Tend to it and it will be sure to reward you.

Why I Garden

With gardening still in an upswing of popularity due to the growth of the organic and local food movement, I started to think about what motivates me to garden and what I get out of it, other than dirty clothes and sore muscles.

At it’s most basic, gardening to me is like performing magic.  Like Jack and his magic beans, I plant a tiny little seed (or multitudes of them) and at the height of the season I have a plant that is thousands of times bigger than that little seed that started it all.   It takes me back to my childhood, completing something and taking it to my mother and saying “Look what I did!”.  Every time a sprout peeks its head above the soil, I get a little giddy.  The success of getting an actual plant from a tiny seed never gets old.  Even now, as an adult, I often drag my kids or my husband out into the garden to point at a little seedling and with a huge smile on my face say, “Look what I did!”

Another big part of my garden is the solitude that it offers me.  I am a loner by nature, and gravitate toward individual type pursuits (reading, knitting, most crafty stuff).  There’s something very soothing and spiritual about spending a cool, quiet morning checking on my plants and pulling weeds in complete silence.  There is a time during the day after all the kids have gone to school and those that work outside of the house have set off to their jobs when everything seems to be in sync.  The mild morning sun slowly warms up the air, the dew is still clinging to the grass, there’s something very clean and fresh about the quality of the air.  Then I start to hear everything around me.  Cardinals dart in and out of my yard, calling to each other around the block.  Occasionally the hawks will voice their displeasure about me being in the yard and invading their turf.  The squirrels and chipmunks come out to explore and forage, often chasing each other up, down, and between trees.  Bees and wasps often come to visit, sometimes landing on me to see if I’m a flower, resulting in a gently wave of my hand to encourage them to move on (more the bees than wasps, I kind of wander away from the wasps until they leave).  Everything looks so…green in the morning.  And there is a feeling of oneness I get with nature at that time.  My breathing slows and my ears perk up and I soak in everything using all my senses.  Even the feel and smell of the soil & compost.

There is a big anthill at the edge of my garden (carpenter ants), and it’s amusing to watch them carrying a piece of mulch back to their nest.  They work so hard, sometimes struggling under the weight of the wood they picked, but they don’t ever give up.  I only hope they keep going after the mulch and not the bottom edge of my planting bed, but honestly, I’m not that fussed.  I invaded their turf, not the other way around, and I try not to forget this fact when a rabbit has decided to nibble on my plants or birds try to filch my berries.

Gardening to me is not really about mastering nature or subduing it.  It is about becoming a part of it.  Celebrating the cycle of life that often plays out in my garden.  There are births (germination), deaths (some premature) and naughty children (invasive plants), but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Why do you garden?

My Dream Came True!

Back near the beginning of the year, when I put together the plan for my dream garden, I never thought I would wind up installing it this year!  After a lot of planning, research, and cost analysis, I got the OK from my spouse to move forward with my plan.

First, I plotted out the section of yard I wanted.  This wasn’t too hard as I was just expanding and squaring off the section I expanded last year.  Then I removed the existing mulch and pulled the sod and put it aside under plastic to kill it (most of it wasn’t desirable grasses).   While pricing out materials at one of the big box stores, I found some 2x2x8″ bricks on clearance, so I picked up a fair amount of those to use for edging.  I did my best to level the garden area and installed the edging as level as possible.  This proved a little tricky considering the grade slopes ever so gently away from the house, but I managed to make it work.  Weed barrier was laid down and secured and next came the boxes.

Math is not necessarily my strong suit, and I took a fair amount of time to work out how to make the least amount of cuts for my raised beds.  Off to the big box store again for lumber and hardware – corner brackets that cost more than the lumber!  These materials camped out in my garage for a couple of weeks while the weather decided what to do.  I finally had a few good days coming up in the forecast, so I bribed my husband to help me cut the lumber so I could go to work in the garden the next day.  Once again, I spent an hour or so making sure the corners joined in a way to not get something like a parallelogram and I went to work.

Now that the boxes were done and roughly placed, I needed to figure out the best way to fill them and mulch the paths.  Filling came first and I found a local dirt guy who also sold a compost that sounded lovely  – chicken & horse manure, mushroom compost and a few others I can’t remember.  So I ordered a combination of soil and compost and had it delivered.  I started filling the beds and realized that there was no way I was going to be able to complete the job by myself, and rain was predicted for the next day.  That soil HAD to get in.  Luckily, my neighbor and his teenage son took pity on my and using two wheelbarrows, managed to get the rest of the fill in the beds.  The best part, was finding this guy:

This would be Lord Voldewart or, The Toad That Shall Not Be Named.  He hitched a ride on the truck and got unceremoniously dumped on my driveway, then scooped up and dumped out of a wheelbarrow.  He now has his own tank, fresh water, and fresh food.  He’s one happy toad!

About a week later, I scheduled mulch to be delivered and installed in my backyard.  The landscaping in the back is along the entire perimeter of the yard, plus the back of the house and my garden area.  The guys edged my beds and installed the mulch.  I finally had a proper garden!  Since then I have installed grids for square foot gardening (using a vinyl folding “door” that I found at the hardware store, it has narrow slats that I could remove and cut to length – even better, I can write on it with pencil) transplanted my thyme, oregano and parsley, planted my onions and garlic, and sowed everything else directly in the planting beds.  In the past two weeks, I have installed trellises and kept an eye on things.  Nearly everything has sprouted and some things are doing fantastic.  The herbs are VERY happy in their new location and I have radishes that I will be harvesting any day now.  In the two beds I used last year I am planting strawberries and romaine lettuce.  The one I planted lettuce in was an afterthought.  I wasn’t planning on using it, but I needed to do something with extra compost/soil so it got filled, I figured I might as well put it to use.

I’m also impressed that everything I dug up, divided and transplanted is not only surviving, but thriving and doing extremely well.  The daffodils bloomed right on schedule, the geranium looks like it was there all along, and the Ozark blue star is starting to bloom.

Today I spent a fair amount of time weeding.  While the compost was a great find, I have discovered that it was absolutely riddled with seeds.  Some are clover, which I’m tempted to leave as a green mulch, some look like radishes, some look sort of like carrots, and others look like weeds and grass.  I figure if I pull a bunch this year, next year it shouldn’t be as hard.  I’ve left a few that look like something useful just to see what comes out of them.

Speaking of pulling, I completed the first blitz of garlic mustard eradication.  I’m pulling more as I find it, and had a disheartening discovery.  It seems as though it is running rampant in my neighbors yard, and being that he’s elderly, it’s not going away anytime soon.  I’ve considered mentioning it, but honestly, I would wind up getting stuck pulling it all, and I’m just not willing to put in all that extra work for the next few years.  I’ll be happy if I can keep the stuff in my yard under control.  Next time I see the person that does his yardwork, I may mention it.

So this is what my garden looked like when it was finally installed.  Parts of it are much greener already, and nearly every square foot has a sprout (or more) in it.  There are also more trellises along the outside of the longest bed and on the right hand side.

I’m off to research chemical free ways to eradicate massive anthills.  I may have mentioned before that our entire neighborhood seems to have been built on an established carpenter ant population.  Unfortunately, they like to make their hills near my edibles.  Every year there is one near, or in, my raspberry patch, and this year I have a bonus one adjacent to one of my planting beds.  It’s quite fun watching them carry mulch to their home, they are amazingly strong little guys.  I’ve heard some judiciously applied boiling water may do the trick, but whatever I do, I have to be careful not to splash or otherwise harm my tomatoes.  If anybody has any viable solutions, I’m all ears.

Dream Garden

Nothing like cold temps and snow to get me thinking about what I ultimately want to do with my garden!  Last post had a plan for my existing garden, but after some estimates and shrewd requests for materials, it looks like my dream garden is going to work out.  I made this plan the same day as my previous one, and I can’t stop thinking about it.  Something about it feels very “right”.    The little bit of enginerd in my blood is also charmed by the straight lines and neatness about the plan.  I’m going to do my damndest to make this work this spring.  We’ll see what happens.

Boredom is the Mother of Invention

I was playing around with my garden plan yesterday.  Originally I was looking to expand my potager and come up with phases to eventually nearly eliminate the lawn in the backyard.  My plan expand started to fall apart when I started worrying about cost – soil, compost, peat/coir, mulch, not to mention physical labor – it started to add up.  So I downsized my plan so it would fit into what I have right now.

Tomatoes will stay where they were last year.  I was researching on whether rotation was necessary and it seems for the small home garden that it is not unless disease becomes a problem.  I will try peppers again this year, and will try quite a bit from seed.  I made a mistake last year and probably started my seeds a month too early.  Everything got leggy and I got burned by a late frost, so I wound up having to purchase replacement plants.  I’m still considering wintersowing.  I don’t know if it’s too late to start or not.  I figure if I can’t find enough containers for it, that Gladware would do.  I just don’t really want to futz with the setup I had last year.  Plus my house tends to be dark, drafty, and cool – not the best combination for seedlings.  In fact, today I’m going to dig out my seeds, possibly get some soil and get my containers going.  Given that I’m looking to plant many multiples of marigold (which are damn easy to start from seed) and herbs, instead of going broke I can potentially get what I need through wintersowing.

What is it about this time of year that triggers gardening fever?

Fresh Herbs in Winter

Was making a beef stew recipe I found in Cook’s Illustrated and was stopped cold when I got to the part about adding fresh thyme. We’ve had quite a bit of snow here lately and easily have 6 inches or more on the ground.

Still, I donned my boots and coat and trudged back to my square foot garden in the back. Brushing back the snow I first found the parsley. And how could I not, it seems entirely unpeturbed by the snow and cold. It was bright green and beautiful (I’ll try to take a picture later).

Right there in front of it was the thyme. The longer sprigs were’t looking too great, but after disentangling it from the parsley, I found a few that look as fresh as they do in the spring.
Discovering how hardy these particular herbs are make me want to start figuring out where the are going to go this year in the garden. I’m thinking using rosemary & thyme as a border of my potager.

Any suggestions for other herbs that are hardy and relatively compact?

Raspberries (Round 2)

Raspberry2
Of the many things we were fortunate to inherit with the purchase of our house three years ago, one of my favorites is the raspberry patch in the back yard.  When we moved in that first spring, our neighbors informed us that there were rasberries at the back of our property.  The back was so overgrown that I had a difficult time distinguishing the raspberry plants from the weeds.  The berries had yet to even flower, so I looked for the tell-tale “thorny” stems and cleared out the patch.  The first year we didn’t get too many, considering they hadn’t been taken care of for quite some time, and I also wanted a season of observation so I could figure out what we had and where.  Between researching raspberries, and my observations throughout the summer, I determined that we had an everbearing variety.  What luck!

The beauty of everbearing raspberries is that there are two distinct “seasons” in which you can harvest.  The first harvest develops on the canes that are entering their second year.  I do my pruning in the spring, when it is easiest to tell what are old canes and what are second year canes.  Old canes have more of a grey, dried wood look to them and should be pruned down to the ground, they will not bear fruit.  Second year canes, which will give you berries sometime in early to mid-July, will have a reddish-brown color to them, and they have stuck around from the previous year.

Second Year CaneNote the reddish-brown color of the cane.  This is indicative of a second year cane.

Second Year Cane (dying off)Notice how the end is turning gray?  By next spring the entire cane will be gray and ready to be pruned down.  It is done producing fruit.

First year canes will be the new canes that start growing in the spring.  I find that after a few good harvests in July, there is about a month or so of downtime until the first year canes start producing fruit.  Today was the first day I was able to pick a few ripe raspberries.  Depending on the weather and sun conditions, I should have a decent harvest in about a week or so.  There is a good amount of fruit on the canes and I imagine that I’ll have 2-3 big harvests before they start fading into the fall.

First Year CaneA first year cane with ripening fruit.  Notice the green color on the cane.  Leaf damage by Japanese beetles is evident.

In my opinion, the best choice for raspberries are the everbearing, especially if you have a houseful of berry lovers.  I suppose the main reason for planting and keeping single-bearing plants would be to try different varieties.  If you haven’t grown raspberries, and you have a nice sized, sunny patch that could use some plants, I would suggest you try some type of berry.  Since I don’t grow them, I can’t comment on blueberries or blackberries, but if they are anything like raspberries, they are easy to grow and tend to, and every year it seems the patch grows a bit and gives us more berries to enjoy.

As a final note, many people strongly suggest trellising your berries in some way.  Mine never were (they are not planted in any kind of orderly fashion) and I have had no major issues with them.  Some of the plants toward the middle of the patch can be a bit challenging to reach, but they are definitely worth the effort.  I have had no problem with disease, however my biggest issue is with Japanese beetles.  If left unchecked, they can decimate a patch in an amazingly short time (which I discovered that first summer).  Last year I went out every morning and evening with a bowl of soapy water and removed as many as I could by hand.  This year I don’t have as many (possibly due to my work last year), but I anticipate more next year considering my laissez-faire attitude about removing them this year.