Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Raise the Beds! Holla!

This weekend, we built our raised beds. There are 3: one 4x5.5 ft, one 3x20 ft and one 3x10 ft as shown here:

We used the basic instructions that can be found everywhere these days: the latest Better Homes and Gardens, Square Foot Gardening book and Pioneer Woman's blog. We used untreated pine (treated pine, while no longer treated with arsenic, is treated with chromium which the jury is still out on) but seriously considered Trex (a recycled plastic/wood fiber product), but that was a bit more than we wanted to spend at the moment. When the pine rots out (I've heard it should last at least 3 years if not more) then we'll probably replace it with Trex. We also used 8" deep boards instead of 6 or 4 inches.

The stakes have a dual function: help support the pine boards from the pressure of the soil and to create a bunny fence (chicken wire will be nailed to it).

Here's a bit of the garden plan:

And, here is how I'm SFG'ing the beds. Nylon string + nails.

If I had to do it over again, I would follow the SFG advice with just having beds that you can't access on all sides be 2 ft deep. Yeah, rebellion didn't work out so well...Turns out it is really hard to plant in beds that deep.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Strawberries Ahoy!

Today we picked up the materials needed to build our raised beds. This year, we are trying out the Square Foot Gardening (SFG) method because it makes sense to me (mostly. I am still skeptical about everything only growing in 6 inches of "soil".) and it seems easier to build raised beds than working our heavy, clay soil into something that can sustain plant life. Grass barely grows! And, it seems like the next logical step from the container gardening we did last year.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we will be constructing these beds (to be blogged) and, because I'm an avid planner, I started to map out what can go where. So far, my "to plant in ground" list includes, pending plantlet survival, (some herbs will be in pots so they can be over wintered indoors):

7 basil plants
1 rosemary (to be bought)
2 parsley
9 hot peppers (yes, this is a ridiculous amount. We will not grow this many next year)
4 sweet peppers
1 bergamont
1 lavender
6 tomatoes

And we've got 3 beds: one 3 x 10 ft, one 3 x 20 ft and one 4 x 5.5 ft. Yes, I am aware those 3 ft deep beds are not SFG-regulation. This is my act of rebellion, deal with it. Anywho, as I started mapping out what I have for plantlets in the are (for example, a tomato/pepper plant goes in 1 sqft, 4 basil plants per sqft, etc.) I realized we've got way too much room. Waaaaayy too much. Solution? Lop off 5 ft or so of the 20 ft bed and turn it into a strawberry patch. I am almost more excited at the thought of homegrown tomatoes than homegrown strawberries. ALMOST. And y'all are aware of my feelings towards tomatoes.

So What Do Strawberries Need To Thrive?

First off, there are 3 types of strawberries: june bearing, everbearing, and day neutral.

June Bearing: Produce one large crop per year during a 2-3 week period in the spring. They usually come in early, mid-season and late varieties. This type sends out a lot of runners, but has larger fruit than the other types.

Everbearing: Produce 2-3 crops of fruit during spring, summer and fall. They do not send out many runners.

Day Neutral: Produce crops throughout the growing season. They do not send out many runners.

Strawberries like to have water, but not too much. And they like (full) sun, but will tolerate a bit of part-shadeness. Lucky me...the part of my bed that is becoming the strawberry patch gets closer to 6 hours of sun now (I imagine it'll be more like 8 in the summer), which is the shadiest part of the garden. And, even awesomer? They are perennial in Zone 7 (at least some varieties are). Meaning, plant once & harvest for years to come. I've read that they only last for 5 years or so, but that's totally fine for me. Who knows, my untreated pine beds may be rotted out by then!

Warning: Strawberries are basically a fruit-bearing weed. They can take over. Hence having a bed (meaning there will be wood between the strawberries & the rest of the bed) for them & them alone. Essentially, the mother plant sends out runners (think plant arms) that are called daughters. If you snip off these daughters, you don't have them taking over quite so badly. And some say that snipping off the daughters makes the plant concentrate more on fruit production and thus making a tastier berry. We shall see.

I'm also going to build a little cage over my berries to protect them from the poaching of unscrupulous robins. We've got some feisty, fear-nothing robins that I'm sure would eat our berries just to spite us...Hateful birds.

I am going to plant a mix of june bearing, everbearing and day neutral to see what works best for my site. Anyone have any tips/tricks for strawberry growing?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

An Awesome Garden Can be Free-ish

Sorry I've been a bit MIA lately. I've been away for work quite a bit in the past 2 weeks. However, the seedlings (almost all of them) have at least another set of leaves. Some have THREE sets of leaves now! *sigh* They grow up so fast! ;)

Today, thanks to a cancelled flight, I had the opportunity to finish reading The Green Gardening Guide by Joe Lamp'l. What it really underscored for me was that you don't need to spend a ton of money for a gorgeous garden, whether it be full of veggies, flowers or foliage. Which I knew in my heart of hearts but forget every time I walk into a garden center and am seduced by various fertilizers, specialty tools, etc. You.don't.need.all.that.crap. Seriously. Resist the urge. Save your pennies for a nice bottle of wine or a craft beer to enjoy after an afternoon in the garden.

Let's review what plants need to thrive: Appropriate amounts of light, rich soil, and water. Sun light is free. Rich soil can be free too.

Say what?!? Free awesome soil?

Compost my friends, compost. Don't landfill those veggie peels or coffee grounds or fall leaves, throw them in the compost pile! First off, nothing, not even organic matter, decomposes in our landfills so get the idea that the landfill is like a ginormous compost pile out of your head. (Which also means that you should not be seduced by biodegradable packaging or anything else. But I'll save that rant for another day.) Secondly, compost piles can be super low tech: a pile of stuff on the ground. Personally, we use a black trash can with holes drilled into it. Working compost into the worst soils, including Virginia clay, make it rich, well-draining, and awesome. Because compost is black gold. I love that Lamp'l points out that when you fertilize your plants, you're really feeding the soil. And since good, rich soil is composed of lots of microorganism, earthworms & insects, don't use a fertilizer that feeds the plant but kills the stuff that makes your soil good (like, ahem, conventional fertilizers). That's like one step forward, two steps back!

Think your soil might be deficient in something? Contact your local extension office. Often soil tests are free or cheap (like $10).

Let's move onto water. Water for the garden can be free: rain. If you build a rain barrel (or buy. This is the option we are going to do), you can dramatically reduce the extra water you purchase to water your plants. The Green Gardening Guide lists things you should consider when making/buying a rain barrel, so make sure you know that before you proceed. Want to buy even less water for your garden? Use gray water. Have a bucket in your shower that captures the water that comes out before it's hot. Have a bucket in your kitchen sink for when you're washing vegetables. Empty these buckets into your rain barrel & "VOILA! " even more free water.

Now, plants...you've got your free sunlight, soil and water...what about plants? First off, if you're wanting to garden on the cheap (and don't want to spend a ridiculous amount of time tending your garden), PLANT WHAT WANTS TO LIVE THERE. Plants are like cats...you're not going to be able to get them to do anything they don't want to do. If the plant likes full sun, don't put it in shade, it will be more prone to pests, won't perform very well, and you'll be constantly fighting an uphill battle. Instead, plant something that thrives in shade! You won't have to deal with pests (plants are also like people: if it's healthy, it can fight off an invader better than if it's sick) and it will be almost maintenance free. I mean, there are not pesticides going on in the rain forest & stuff seems to get growing well in there...

Trust me, I have learned this the hard way. Spending a lot of time trying to convince a dahlia it might like part-sun, only for it to be covered with powdery mildew and produce all of 2 flowers before it decided to die was not fun. It was frustrating, in fact. And time consuming. So, if you don't have full sun in your yard, don't even wander over to that side of the nursery. Embrace your part-sun (or shade) -ness!

And, you can get free plants. How do I know? I just got some last weekend via Freecycle. In spring & fall, you'll see lots of posts from people dividing their hostas, liriope, daffodils, etc. or riping up bushes they don't want. You may need to dig them up, but that's a small price to pay for free plants! So, join your local Freecycle today!

Another idea? Starting plants from seeds. There might be a bit of start up costs if you're not blessed to have a sunny window or a warm climate, but those are just a one-time thing. Wanna go even cheaper? Seed swap with friends and neighbors. Or exchange cuttings. Many plants (basil & mint definitely come to mind) can be propagated by placing cutting in water (like what I did with my ivy trellis project).

In short, getting down to the "roots" of gardening, really organic gardening, isn't expensive. In fact, it can be waaaaayy cheaper than conventional gardening since you depend less on fertilizers and pesticides, both of which can be pricey AND it can be waaaaayy less time consuming since you're planting what will grow in a spot rather than what you WANT to grow in that spot.

Food for thought.

(hahahhahhahahaha! I crack myself up! hehehehe)

Friday, March 20, 2009

From the Ground Up: Seed Starting (Part 3)

You may remember in Seed Starting (Part 1) I germinated my peppers differently than the other vegetables and herbs. It was a bit of an experiment. Essentially, I placed the seeds between moistened paper towels, rolled them up & put this plant "sushi" into a plastic ziptop bag. I then placed it in a warm spot (on my seed warming mat).

This method was certainly easier to do. No initially getting dirty! No clipping off the weaker plantlets! No constantly spritzing the soil! However, these seeds did take longer to germinate than the other seeds that had a similar germination period (at least on paper). That said, I think I'll be doing more seeds with this method next year because another plus is the greater ease of sharing.

With seeds initially placed in the soil, you can't really separate out plantlets. I mean, you CAN, but it disturbs the roots and there's a potential for killing them. This way, you can just cut off pieces of the paper towel & give them babies to friends & family!

Anywho...you're ready to plant when your "sushi"'d seeds look like this (excuse the fuzzy photo. the seed room doesn't have the best lighting):

Start off as the traditional method by sanitizing containers and filling them with moistened, fresh potting mix. Then, use a pencil or pen to make a little hole. Place plantlet (root side down!) in the hole and use your pen/pencil to cover with potting mix. Keep soil moist and place pot in sunny spot (or, in my case, under grow lights).

In other news, my tomatoes are starting to get REAL leaves, not just the ones that were inside the seed. And, when I went to Home Depot today, I bought strawberry plants. In case Merrifield runs out. I am weak. I resisted buying additional seeds though!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Update: Seeds!

I am freaking giddy. Most of my seeds have popped up...weeks early. I'm thinking this is due to my use of the seed warming mat. Since they've popped up, I've had to build my light source. I bought the Jump Start Grow Light Kit online.

My kit was shipped without a light bulb! Bastards. I needed a T5 light bulb. Home Depot didn't have them in the size I needed (4 feet). However, Merrifield had them. Woot! My bebes went a day or two without light. I hope that's OK!

We'll soon see...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Project: Gardening Journal

(Inspired by You Grow Girl)

I had found the perfect journal for my Gardening Journal. It has grid paper in it so that we we build our beds, I can sketch where everything is planted! In my journal I'm chronicling when each seed sprouted, how things went, when fruit starts to appear, etc.

I'm doing this, basically, because I have a horrible memory (and love to craft). If I don't write it down, it's like it didn't happen! Also handy? I made little pockets in the journal with scraps from card making to hold my extra seeds, to be used next year unless someone wants to trade!

I'm a momma!


Seeds have sprouted! Success!!

So far, my Unwin's Dahlias (Not tuber dahlias. Pictured above.) and Red Rubin Basil have popped up. Both packets say that they are supposed to germinate after 5 days (it's only been 3). Testament to the warming mat, methinks.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

From the Ground Up: Seed Starting (Part 2)

Today was wickedly warm. Like 70*. Considering that last weekend it was hovering around 40* for the high, this is practically sweltering! And, spring is totally in the air. My eyes are itching & my nose is running. Oh, and my crocuses have flowered & daffodil leaves are popping up everywhere.

A serendipitous day for seed starting, no? After you've considered everything that needs considering:

Method One.
Step 1: Sanitize containers. Use a 9-parts water, 1-part bleach solution. I then rinsed the containers (I'm using old pots plants came in, yogurt cups and a mushroom container. The last 2 the handy husband punched holes in the bottom for drainage). Cleanliness is key!
Step 2: Wet the potting mix. Easy peasy.

Step 3: Write the name of the seeds & the date you're planting on a tag. Before you forget! I'm using wooden ones, but sanitized Popsicle sticks or even a toothpick with a label flag would work.

Step 4: Plant! Put you moistened soil into the container. Press it down to get out the air pockets. either spread seeds all around the container (if you're using a large one) or place 2-3 only in the pot (if you're using a smaller pot & don't plan on transplanting later). I've done both, but shown here is the latter.

(Notice the 3 little seeds in the middle?)

Step 5: Sprinkle! Sprinkle a bit of dry potting mix over you seeds. Then spray (to moisten) with a misting spray bottle. Next, sprinkle a bit of milled sphagnum moss to keep fungus at bay.

Step 6: Place pots in a waterproof tray, stack and place on seed warming mat. I've got 2 trays, so I covered them in plastic wrap & stacked them so that I just need one mat. At the seed starting class I took, the instructor assured us this would work. Instead of plastic wrap, you could use any vegetable plastic bags (the kind you get from the grocery store for separating produce) on single post.

Step 7: Wait. Once the seeds start to sprout, remove the plastic wrap. And once they get their first set of true leaves, transplant. That's a topic for another post! Cross your fingers for me that my babies emerge!!

Method Two.
Another method to starting seeds that works well for peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, & anything of that family is this damp-paper-towel-sushi-in-a-plastic-bag method.

Step 1: Damp paper towel. Fold into quarters, and sprinkle on seeds. Don't forget to label!(Sorry for the poor photo!)

Step 2: Roll up in zip top bag.

Step 3: Wait. When seedlings emerge, transplant into pots similar to the process of Method One, Step 4. Notice that I still put the paper-towel-sushi-in-a-bag on the heated trays.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Project: Ivy Propagation & Garden Trellis

I have a love-hate relationship with ivy. I love it because it's the only thing I can keep alive all year in the hanging baskets in my uninsulated, not terribly sunny enclosed porch. I hate it because, when it's left to its own devices, it takes over. And by "taking over," I mean, pulling down our fence. I'll get back to that in a second.

However, I also want something tall & green for the front of our (part shade) yard. The shrubs/trees I've found for that area run $150+ and usually require full sun. In other words, sub-ideal situation all the way around.

But then I had a Big Idea! What about a trellis tripod put in a decorative pot with ivy covering it? The ivy would be contained in a pot (I'd make sure of that!), would stay green all year round, tolerate the light level AND it'd be mega cheap. However, I don't understand why anyone would pay for ivy. I mean, it's a glorified weed! Propagation, therefore, was my only option.

(pssssttt...This is the trellis tripod I found at Luckett's Store.
I love that place! They have more of these if you want to do this project too. Or you could make your own out of cedar or other wood that would be durable outdoors. Imagine it in a decorative pot to be discovered...The whole thing will be about 5.5 ft tall once it's in a pot.)

And, as luck would have it, ivy is ridiculously easy to propagate. So, before our fence came down (the one the ivy was pulling down), I snipped a few 6" pieces of the ivy. Stripped the leaves off of half the stem & place it in water.

I change out the water every few days. Actually, the ivy doesn't look half bad in a vase! Below is a look at the roots that have grown after one week (the second picture is a close up of the ones growing near the leaf). Once the roots are about an inch long, I'll plant them in the pot & start training them up the trellis.