Author Archives: gardening4squares

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.


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.

Bumper Crop

About a week ago, I caught my youngest daughter picking raspberries and popping them in her mouth.  She was enjoying them and we only had a few ripe at the time.  This morning I looked out the kitchen window and saw a bunch of red dotting my raspberry bushes.  I grabbed a container and headed out to pick.  On the way, I was distracted by the peas and realized I hadn’t harvested any in a few days.

After picking a small container full I reversed course and went back into the house to grab another container for the berries.  When I approached my raspberry patch I was amazed at what I saw.  More ripe berries than I had ever seen in the 3 1/2 years we have lived in this house.  I started picking, swatting at the japanese beetles that would occasionally buzz my head trying to protect their turf (they haven’t actually been bad this year, might be because I killed HUNDREDS of grubs when setting up my kitchen garden – a thought that still causes me to retch when thinking about it).  Soon I fill my container and head in to give them to my husband to rinse (there were a lot of fat happy bugs all over and around the berry bushes).  I dump the berries in the colander and head back out.  Soon my container is full again and my husband and I are totally amazed at how many we managed to get in one harvest.  I really should have weighed them, but I was already drooling over the plump red fruits.  My guesstimate is that I picked about 2 pounds of raspberries this morning, give or take a few ounces.  It totally filled one of my bigger plastic containers.

The best part is that there are still a lot of mostly ripe berries out there that I will be able to pick in a few days.  I’m not sure I’ll get quite as many as I got today, but I’m hopeful that we’ll come close.

Kitchen Garden Plan, or the Petal Potager

After admiring Ceae’s (Folia link) beautiful kitchen garden, I realized that ever since I became a homeowner 12 years ago, I’ve wanted a vegetable garden that is part of my backyard (not just raised beds) and I got cracking on designing something that would work.  Growing up in my parent’s home, they were on again/off again gardeners.  They had a plot at the back of their house that was about 10′ x 18′ and would often grown peppers and tomatoes and the chives from my grandfather’s house.   One year when I was in college, I decided it was time to revive it after years of it getting overgrown with grass and weeds.  I spent a weekend double digging (in clay soil!) and in the end, grew a lovely patch of tomatoes and sweet & hot peppers.  I spent a lot of time in the garden, watering & weeding it.

Finally, we are in a house that feels permanent.  Our first house was a starter home and we knew we wouldn’t be there long.  I also had a newborn and a toddler at the time.  Our second house would have been fantastic for a garden, but we had absolutely NOTHING in the way of landscaping in the back yard and I was frozen with indecision.  We only stayed there 4 years.  We are entering our 4th year in our current house and have no plans on moving soon.  The existing landscaping is, for the most part, fantastic.  Yet there is still freedom for me to play and experiment.  This year is also the first year of having a garden in the time we’ve been homeowners.  Oh sure, I’ve had the random tomato or two, but I never really put much effort into making vegetable gardening a big part of my life.  I decided to start with square foot gardening, but I think that those methods are going to be adapted to be used in a permanent kitchen garden next year.  I’ll still keep my square foot boxes, and probably use them for smaller crops (like lettuce & onions).  By my estimations, the plan I posted below should give me about 60 square feet of gardening space for vegetables & herbs.

I really like the idea of the design.  It’s close to the house, it gets full sun until late afternoon, and if I decide to scale back on the vegetables, it would still work very well as a flower garden.  Also, if I decide to add on I can keep encroaching on the backyard adding “petals” as I go.  There is currently daffodils next to my SFG and those shouldn’t pose a problem since they usually fade by the time my last frost date comes around (the greenery can be tied down to eliminate any potential shading) and the Ozark blue star on the other side could be relocated fairly quickly and easily.  There is a spot that used to house yarrow (have no idea what happened to it) and upon moving it, I could put my second SFG next to the first one.

Depending on how long the weather holds, and what my schedule and budget looks like, I may just get started on it this week.  On Folia, I said that I wasn’t going to remove the turf, but I think I changed my mind.  In order to get things relatively level and even with each other, I think that is the best way to proceed.

From Backyard

Chicken with White Wine Sauce

Part of my motivation for growing vegetables this year is to force encourage myself to cook more often.  I am SO out of practice with cooking and lately if it wasn’t something from a recipe, I’d shy away from making it.  Well last night I was in the creative zone, and I decided to try to cook something on the fly.  I was inspired by the Pollo Arrosto alla Romano from La Sorella Di Francesca here in town.  A few weeks ago I went there for lunch with my parents and was very impressed with the food.  Chicken can tend to be boring and pretty much the same anywhere you go.  Well at La Sorella the chicken was spectacular.  I had never had anything like it.

So yesterday I got some bone-in chicken breasts and went to work.  The following recipe is what I came up with.  Keep in mind that I was doing this on the fly so the amounts are very approximate.  If I can recreate it I will try to get the measurements more accurate.  The dish at La Sorella di Francesca isn’t a flour based sauce or gravy, and I’m not sure there is wine in it, but I was not looking to imitate the dish, just get a little inspiration from it, and I think I did.  While the sauce is nearly thick enough to be considered a gravy, it is more grown up and nuanced than the plain stuff.  I surprised myself with how well this recipe came out and wanted to write it down so I could at least have a place to start when I want to make it again.  This kind of dish is exactly the kind of thing I hope to come up with when I have fresh veggies and herbs from my garden to use.

4 chicken breasts (bone in)
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter

White Wine Sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp butter
1/8 cup flour
1 small bell pepper, cut in small strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 green onions, finely chopped
1 tsp rosemary
1/4 tsp thyme
1 can chicken broth
1/4 cup white wine
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Heat olive oil and butter in large fry pan.  Brown chicken breasts (5 minutes).  Transfer to baking dish and transfer to oven.  Cook for 1 hour, turning every 20 minutes.

3. In small saucepan, saute garlic and onions, do not overcook.

4. Add peppers and saute until tender.  Add rosemary and thyme to moisten and release flavor.  Set aside.

5. Wipe out fry pan and heat olive oil and butter.  Add flour to create a roux.  Lightly brown.

6. Add chicken broth and white wine.  Adjust to taste (either reduce chicken broth, increase white wine, etc.)  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Cook for 5-10 minutes, being careful not to boil.

7. Whisk in reserved sauteed vegetables and herbs.

8. Remove chicken from the oven.  Add drippings to sauce/gravy and whisk.

9. Serve and enjoy.

I supposed you could take the cooked chicken and put it in the fry pan with the sauce, turning to coat, if you so desired.  I was going to, but my daughters are fairly sauce averse, so I decided to spoon it on top.

Will It Never End?

Apparently we got a dusting of snow overnight. I’m so sick of it. Knowing what I was going to find, I went in the backyard yesterday to check my soil in the SFG closest tot he house. The soil is still frozen pretty solid. I even had it covered during that last storm when it rained buckets the entire day. The other SFG’s soil is still loose and fluffy. I think the difference is in the amount of sun. I’m just hoping that it will get warm enough for long enough in the next couple weeks so I can work it and sow my peas. I NEED to get something in the ground. I guess it doesn’t help that the tines of my pitchfork are all wonky. A few years ago when we moved in, I removed English Ivy from a 6’x6′ square that is separate from all the other landscaping. It was well established and the network of roots under the soil was incredible. Some of the roots were thicker than my thumb and strong as hell. I managed to hook a couple tines under a root and bend them. It’s surprising I didn’t break the handle of the pitchfork.

What do you use to work your soil if it gets hard and/or clumpy? I know if it’s frozen I pretty much have to wait, but I’m tempted to keep at it to try to break it up and encourage it to thaw. I still need to work in the peat moss. I couldn’t find it in the fall (most of the garden centers were bare bones at that time) and I didn’t find it until fairly recently. I think if I could get even one day where it thaws, once I work in the peat and vermiculite, it will be fluffy enough to not freeze as easily.