Friday, May 28, 2010

Updates on my Provident Garden

As promised, it is Friday and I am back to post some updates on my gardening efforts. I have loads of photos.

So I spent around six hours last Saturday working on the gardens. I've planted:

  • pumpkins
  • scallop squash
  • three types of cucumber
  • peas
  • tigger melon (yes, that is Tigger as in Winnie the Pooh)
  • carrots
  • zucchini 
We've still got to put peppers, eggplant, lettuce and tomatoes in the ground. Oh, beans too. I'll do most of that tomorrow. 

As I worked, it quickly became clear that the chickens were going to destroy my planting beds and tear up any seedlings. I had to come up with a way to keep them totally out of the gardens. I think what I worked up will function well and is not too terribly ugly. Here: 

I put up some tall poles on the edge of the garden. These are left over from the portable carport we used to have that got torn to bits in one of Utah's windstorms. I also lined the entire garden plot with plastic wicker fences that are about eight inches tall at their tallest. I anchored the poles to the fence in several spots. Then I stretched a bunch of bird netting between the poles, tying it off tightly and using garden staples to get the netting close to the ground. From fifteen feet away, our garden looks like what you see above. Here's a corner: 

You can sort of make out the netting. I wove some of my heavy duty twine through the top of the netting and tied it off tightly in order to keep the netting from sagging too much. You can also sort of see the planting beds. This is where the cucumbers, squash and zucchini are planted. Should see sprouts in another week. 

Here's the other end of the garden: 

You should be able to see some mesh, as well as the pumpkin plants. The sun is about 1/2 hour from hitting those pumpkins full on. 

The chickens seem to be able to make out the mesh easily; they haven't even tried to go into the garden since I put it up. Here they are-- earning their keep. We haven't had a problem with pill bugs or earwigs since the chickens began spending their days roaming the back yard. 

Since Annemarie can't stand earwigs and pill bugs are a bit of a nuisance, I'm accepting this pest elimination by the chickens as a rent payment along with their eggs. 

We were also having a problem with the chickens spreading the compost hither and yon. Here's what I did to fix that: 

That's just a piece of plywood that I had sitting around. It took me less than five minutes to get this door up. No hinges, just a stake pinning the plywood against the compost frame: 

So it's easy to move because it's lightweight and isn't attached. The stake is far enough in the ground that I'm not going to trip on it: 

Look at that luscious compost! 

Now, one of the issues that needed to be dealt with was how I could protect the garden and still allow access to we homo sapiens. Easily done. I stuck another pole in the ground. I stretched the netting around the corner pole and tied it off to the new pole. Then I made a barrier from the fence to a point a few feet away from the pole. Now we just use a large piece of wood to fill the gap when we want to keep things closed and just move the wood to get in. 

It's working well!

Last, I wanted to share an image of my front yard and flower garden. 

Our phlox- the pink/purple stuff off to the right-- is just about finishing its blooming cycle. We have four salvia plants, this corner one is blooming like crazy and the other two in the front are getting going as well. There is a huge salvia in the middle of the phlox, but it usually goes later in the season. Salvia is the tall purple flower right in the corner. 

We are eating strawberries, harvest chives and parsley, enjoying the yellow/red of the stonecrop, and are stunned at the size of the daisy patch. 

The grass, yes, is lovely. I mow every week so I can mulch without a problem. I water for a long stretch about twice a week. Also, it's hard to see them, but we have some nice irises that are gearing up to bloom in front of the house. 

So that's the update. We are a little late with the garden this year, but we have high hopes of catching up in the next three weeks. 

Incidentally, we have about 25 tomato plants. I'm selling 14 of them, $5 a piece. They are all heirloom. I have a sign out front (it's behind the big salvia). This is a nice way to make a little bit of packet cash

Next time I'll post a clip of how my three-tiered compost works. I'll also discuss strategies for keeping slugs our and getting rid of them and snails when they show up. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A quick guide to transplanting tomato seedlings


Yes, it's been a while. Exhaustion had its way with me, but I'm fighting back! I thought I could probably just post a bunch of videos and photos of when I transplanted my tomato seedlings.

Now, I did this about one and a half weeks ago, or on May 15. That is about two weeks later than I usually would do this- but what can I say? Life is sometimes complicated.

In a normal year, my tomato plants would actually be in the ground already. This year, I was lamenting the fact that they weren't until yesterday. You know what happened yesterday, right? Northern Utah was plastered with tons of snow. Yes, on May 24, we had snow here.

So I was glad my tomato plants were not in the ground. They should be in the ground in about another week or two. That will be fine.

Anyway, I really like to keep costs down, so here's what I do for planting pots:

Once the pots are ready, you want to get a layer of dirt in there and pack it well, mainly so that the dirt doesn't just spill out the holes you just cut. Since I tend to have a lot of seedlings, I do this as an assembly line in order to be efficient.

Here's the simple process:

Next, you want to just start planting:

When everything is transplanted and placed back on the windowsill (or shelf, depending on where you are setting these), water them well. What does 'well' mean? You can water them so water comes out the bottom.

Then don't water them for a week-- or at least as long as it takes for the dirt to look quite dry. I've said this countless times, but I am happy to say it again: This wakes up your seedlings' roots.

Okay, so here are my tomatoes, all transplanted and arranged on May 15 (about 10 days ago):

And here they are today:

Not bad, eh?

Anyway, here is probably a good place to announce a revision to this blog's approach. Instead of trying what seems to be impossible at this point: a post every day, I will post stuff here on at least Tuesday and Friday.

See you Friday! I will share with you some of the things I've put in the ground and how I have protected our planting patches from our chickens.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A change and then stumps...

Okay, I was going to post every day- and I did alright, but the fact is that I can't keep up! What with family needs, finishing my MA write-up and defense, working on my latest novel (have a personal deadline I need to keep), working, looking for a job, and actually DOING the gardening, I just don't have the time.

I will post twice weekly.

Here's this week's post. It's about stumps. Granted, if you needed to clear stumps from your gardening area, you probably need to wait until next year now, but this article will help-- whenever you get to it.

So keep in mind that just because you have an unsightly trunk doesn't mean you are an ugly elephant.

Maybe we're talking about the trunk of an old tree on your property!

If you do have a tree stump on your property, there is one single best way to remove it. First, get a heavy chain, ala Jacob Marley. Second, wrap one end of your strong chain snugly around the stump. Third, attach the other end of the chain to your heavy duty truck. Fourth, drive.

Fortunately, this is also the most enjoyable way to remove a tree stump.

However, there are a variety of impediments to this method of removing a stump. Perhaps you lack a heavy chain, a tough truck or it might even be possible you don't have the space to work with for this approach. If the method described above is impractical for your situation, rest easy; there are plenty of other approaches to this job.

The bad news is that most of these other methods are not as fun and they require more work.

Method #1: Stump Killer

This method is listed because it takes the least effort. You can very easily find and purchase some stump killing chemicals from your local garden center or large DIY store. Follow the directions closely, being very careful not to spill the chemicals on the ground or other plants.

The directions usually include these steps:

*Drill several holes into the stump, usually from sides near the top, going in and down at a slanting angle.

*On a clear day, pour some stump killer into the holes.

*Wait a given period of time. Your stump will be killed from the inside out.

*After the time period is up, you should be able to easily yank the stump out. It will probably be rotten and brittle.

You can also put saltpeter into the holes. This stuff is usually a powder and you have to add water to it to help it dissolve into the stump.

Method #2: Stump Grinder

This is another fun approach, but it's sometimes difficult to find one of these machines that is available to rent.

If you can find a stump grinder, often fabricated by Vermeer or Carlton, you need to read the operator's manual carefully so that you don't put yourself or others in danger. You also want to make sure the stump isn't near buried lines or pipes.

Using a stump grinder is quite simple. This machines vary in appearance and mobility, but the good ones have a wheel at the front that is lined with carbide-tipped teeth. This wheel spins at a high velocity and you guide it into your stump and down into the roots. Most machines can go about twelve inches down into the ground.

You have to start with a stump that is not very high-- say six to eight inches at the most.

When the stump grinder is done, you will have loose soil and loads of wood chips. Use your hands or rakes to remove the chips, dump some soil in the space, and you are ready to put in grass or garden.

Method #3: Elbow Grease

Now we're done with the easy and fun approaches. This last method requires diligence and planning. If you go after your stump willy-nilly with a shovel and pick-axe, you are going to waste time and energy.

First, it is best if your stump is tall, say four to six feet. So if you are taking down an entire tree, don't cut it down close to the ground. Leave some height. Of course, if you are dealing with a stump that is only a couple feet tall or shorter, you will have to go with it. You won't have the leverage that height lends you, but you can still get the job done.

Second, you need to understand that trees have more than one type of root. There are the branching roots that extend in all directions from the base of the tree. These branching roots have smaller vein-like roots. Then the tree has a heart root. This is also called a tap root or flat root, depending on the tree. This root tends to go fairly straight down.

You want to get at that heart root in order to remove the stump completely and with as little work as possible.

Here's the procedure:

*If you have grass or foliage near the stump that you want to preserve, cover it with a tarp. Put your dirt and other debris on the tarp as you go.

*Use your spade to clear as much dirt away from the base of the stump as possible. You can go about 1 to 2 feet out from the stump. You might end up with a hole that has a large diameter, but that's going to be okay. You want space to work.

Go down as deep as you can with the spade. Use it to chop smaller roots and find and clear dirt away from larger roots.

*Get your pick-axe and chop the roots you've identified. Chop them in two places: as near to the tree as you can safely reach and about a foot out. You do this so your spade has plenty of space to work in clearing away more dirt.

*Use your spade and pick-axe to remove more dirt and whatever rocks you might find. As you get more than a foot down, start trying to clear dirt away from the base of the tree that has been under the ground. You are looking for that heart root.

*Keep following this procedure, going around the trunk and identifying and chopping roots, then clearing away dirt.

*After a few rounds of this, if your stump is high enough, push on the top. Start wiggling it back and forth. If you don't have a high enough stump, get a pry-bar or long crowbar and find a place to jam it so you can get some lift on the stump.

Don't try to pry or leverage the stump out in one go. First try to get some wiggle, then more and more movement until the stump is moving fairly well. If you have wiggle but cannot just pull the stump out, you are still after the heart root.

*Clear more dirt away, then angle your pick-axe so you are chopping at the root heading straight down from the stump. Chop at that root and then wiggle the stump more. You will soon find that you are getting more movement.

*With steady work, you will reach a point where you can pry or leverage the stump right out.

I followed this procedure with a tree last year and left about five feet above ground. With that height, I was able to leverage the tree out after only one or two rounds of chopping at roots; I didn't even have to find the heart root.

Of course, if you do have a heavy truck, a strong chain and plenty of space, you can skip all of this and be done in time for a cold lemonade and the basketball playoffs.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Too busy!

I'm supposed to post here every day. The last few days have been way too busy for me to be able to take the time. I should have time tomorrow.

See you then.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Little update- moving along soon

So it's the middle of May and we still don't have much in the ground. Why? Because of weather and time issues. Over the last two weeks, we have had probably 40% rainy days and the temperature has been quite lame indeed.

We also need to get the garden tilled. We've never waited this long- and the truth is that we never wanted to wait this long. Again, it's been an issue of time and circumstance.

I don't think it will be a big problem. Okay, I hope it won't be.

Here are two pictures of the garden in its current state.

Yeah, it looks pretty good actually. All this rain at least has kept the dirt and the organics working together. Remember that you need to keep your compost and garden patches moist in order to encourage worms to show up.

Worms are friends.

In any case, we've got peas in our neighbor's garden patch. Her name is Donna. She's getting a little seasoned so she doesn't garden any more. Usually she invites a local family without garden space to use her plots. She couldn't find someone this year, so we're going to put our peas and tomatoes over there.

Here's a shot of our seedlings-- not so small anymore. I transplanted pumpkins, as you can see.

I will transplant tomatoes tomorrow night, probably film a segment and use that clip as my post tomorrow. You see, I used to be able to depend on Saturday as the day I could get a bunch done, but other things keep getting in the way, not the least of which being weather.

So I have to make time in the evenings to do these things. Which means I have to cut into my writing time. That's okay, all will get done.

I hope your gardening is going well. Remember that one of the best ways to keep weeds from being a massive pest is to nip them in the bud. As soon as you see them, take a hoe or a claw to them and yank them.

More tomorrow. Don't forget to follow, share and come on back!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The power of mulch

Two things that turn some folks off of gardening are weeds and insect pests. But fear no more! There is often a very simple, natural solution to both of these problems. I'll explain how choosing and using a good mulch will both control and eliminate problems with weeds and many pests. But first, what is mulch? Mulch is organic matter that has been broken down some. You often see it spread around the base of trees. It is not big chunks of bark, but is rather cuttings of plantlife of all kinds.

Mulch is a wonderful, natural way of controlling weeds. When you spread it on yourgarden, it keeps the soil cool and also helps keep your plants' roots cool. It also helps maintain the soil moist. As for weeds, mulch basically doesn't allow weeds to grow. It gives them no room and no sunlight. In essence, a good mulch will choke out weeds so that you don't have to break your back pulling them.

But how can mulch deal with the pests that plague our plots? Firstly, having mulch around the base of your plants and on open ground has been shown to confuse pests. Slugs and snails have trouble navigating through mulch, and other pests find it hard to get through the mulch and at the roots of your plants.

Furthermore, if you choose a light colored mulch, like cedar or even straw, the sunlight will reflect off of it and bugs seem to hate that. It repels them in droves.

So now it comes to testimony. I have never once used any kind of pesticide or herbicide on my flower gardens. I got lucky in that I met an organic gardener early in my own gardening career. She taught me the value of good mulch. So I have used it and have only had the occasional problem with grass encroaching (I don't have much in the way of borders around my plots.). In essence, mulch is one of a gardener's best tools.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A little bit about slugs.

Slugs were once the bane of my gardening existence. They chewed on my corn plants, left gaping wounds in my squash leaves, and decimated an entire crop of peas. After ranting and sobbing, I asked around to find out what worked to keep out slugs. Here is what I learned and what I now use. And it works.

*Don't use salt. Yes, it is fun to watch the nasty beasties shrivel up, but salt is not actually good for the soil. So don't use it.

*Beer works. Yep. It is true. Get a shallow tub and either bury it or do something else to help the slugs get into the booze and leave the tubs out for a few days. When you go to check on them, you will find that slugs can be alcoholics too, but that they have drowned more than their worries in their beer.

*Egg shells. This is all around the best way to go. They are easy to gather and easy to use. Basically, just put your used egg shells back into the carton until the carton is empty of eggs and filled with cracked shells. Then set your carton outside for a week or so. Maybe put it in a shed or something. When the shells are dry, dump them in a trash bag and stomp them to bits. Now you basically have glass for slugs. Spread this stuff around the base of the big plants and at the edges of the beds of raised plots. Basically you are making a wall of shattered glass that will slash the slugs and snails to bits. A bit bloodthirsty? Yes. Are we willing to kill for our gardens? Absolutely.

Some other methods of slug control include using a special kind of slug-repellant soil and even hair clippings. But those are both too much work and the soil can be quite expensive. So just stick with egg shells.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A bit about bugs

A responsible gardener will make sure to be informed about how to keep their garden healthy. If that gardener is also wanting to stick with organic, they will need to learn many of the tricks of the organic trade. One of these tricks is knowing bugs. What not nearly enough people know is that there are many creepy-crawlies that actually do your garden a lot of good.
First off is the common earthworm. Not only good for fish bait (although I have never caught a fish with one), these little critters can make your soil incredibly healthy. You don't even have to pay any money for them. All you need to do to have these beauties working hard on your soil is toss vegetable and lawn cuttings on your garden and keep it wet. The moisture will attract the worms and they will munch those cuttings and turn them into rich soil. So keep your garden moist!

Another little guy that is good for your garden is actually referred to as a gal. It is the ladybug, sometimes called the ladybird. You know the kind. They are small, have rounded bodies that are usually some shade of red and polka-dotted, and they are good luck! These tiny, tickling bugs eat whiteflies and aphids like mad. To attract ladybugs to your garden, be sure to keep cup-shaped flowers and plants around. If ladybugs don't come to your garden, you can go to a nursery and pick some up! They're actually quite cheap. 

The third crawly that is good for your garden is truly creepy. It is the spider. We are not talking about black widows or brown recluses. Just your regular spider. Let them make their home in the leaves of your garden and they will eat just about any other bug around! The little pill-bugs (wood lice) don't stand a chance! Just take care to not harvest at night! Sticking your hand into a lush tomato plant and having a spider drop on your fingers will just about turn your hair white!
A final bug that will do your garden some good is the praying mantis. Yes, they offend us because the female eats its mate's head, but let's get past that, shall we? These long, unusual-looking bugs will chow down on regular meals of garden pests. So every time you see a mantis, pick it up and give it a comfy home in your squash plants or flowers.
Enjoy your bugs.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

When to transplant seedlings

Okay, so the time has come to discuss the transplanting of your little seedlings into larger pots. Doing this right will encourage your seedlings to grow larger and have their stems thicken. Your seedlings need this growth in order to be ready to go in the ground.

Now first, you are not too late if you haven't transplanted your little seedlings yet. You want to get them to the point of transplanting in the next week or so, however.

I just recently transplanted the pumpkin seedlings we have.

Here's what I started with:
One of those pots has 2 pumpkin seedlings and the other has three.

What are the red cups for you ask? They are my larger pots. They are just under 4 inches across and they are nice and deep. I call them perfect pots for seedlings that need to grow up and get ready to go in the ground. Here's how I prepare the cups for dirt and seedlings:

 I just used scissors to poke a couple of holes in the bottom in order to allow for drainage.

Notice also the bag of potting mix in the first picture.

It doesn't technically have potting mix in it. It has compost dirt mixed with regular soil in it. It's a handy bag.

I decided to do this inside because I could sit down and work at chest height, which makes my neck and back more happy then hunching over outside.

So with everything ready, step one was to put a little bit of dirt in the bottom of each new pot. Here:

There's not much dirt in there. Maybe an inch, with a little crater hollowed out in the middle.

Your next step is to remove the seedlings from their pots. If your seedlings have their roots tangled up, it's not a problem. Here's a video showing what you can do. Warning: this is of me so you have to be subjected to my face and voice now.

Now you want to get those seedlings planted firmly in their new pots. Here's a still image of the technique:

You hold the plant up straight in the pot with one hand and with the other hand you arrange soil around the stem. Notice how deep the plants are going in these pots. Here's a video with more detail:

So once you've got all of the dirt in there, just pack it firmly, being careful not to squeeze the seedling's stem. Then water until the water is coming out the bottom.

Then don't water for a few days. I'd say let the top couple of inches get pretty dry. This'll stimulate those roots. After that, water every few days and keep your seedlings in a nice sunny area.

Oh yeah. Be sure to have your assistant label the transplants to keep things straight.

Next time we'll transplant tomato seedlings.

Since I didn't post yesterday,

I will put up two posts today. 

But first, let me explain. No, it would take too long. Let me sum up. 

(If you get the reference, you get a pat on the back!)

So I have been blasting away at my MA project write up. If you don't know what MA means, it is my Master of Arts degree. I have completed all of my course work, and now I must finish the write up and defend and all of that. Last night I finished the first major draft of the write-up. It's about sixty pages long. Because I had to get it done last night, I opted to stay focused on it until it was done. Then it was really late and bed called. 

Two posts today. One now and one later! (Is anybody else suddenly thinking about chewy candy?)

The first one is what I will call the icing on the cake of soil cultivation. Did you know that one of the best ways to fight weeds in your garden is by cultivating healthy soil? Here's what I've learned. 

You see, I am an avid gardener. I love to have my fingers in the soil and I particularly love to have my kids join me in the garden. But I am by no means a pro. My neighbor from two doors down, on the other hand, is very much a pro. The other day I was complaining to her about the weeds that spring up from all the elm tree seed pods that fly around during the spring. So she said she never really has a problem with weeds. Stupefied, I listened as she described how she controlled weeds.

Shirley is her name. She told me that keeping the soil healthy and cultivating and nourishing it is the surest way to control weeds. Here is what she does.
Every Autumn, when the season is over, she has her husband till the garden up, with all of the dying veggie plants and some steer manure mixed in. He tills the garden well, breaking up the clumps and loosening it well.

Then, come Spring, Shirley has her husband till the garden again. This turns any nascent weeds upside down and kills their root system stone cold dead. After that, Shirley and her husband, Ted, top the garden soil with the bottom of their compost heap.
All of this activity keeps the soil's natural nutrient balance perfect, and also gets rid of the weeds that sometimes sprout from flying seeds. Furthermore, the soil promotes spectacular flowers and veggies. When these veggies and flowers grow strong and healthy, they basically do not allow weeds to come around and take up space.

As a final note, we are also glad we have chickens. When those elm seeds go flying and end up on our ground and garden plots, we let the chickens loose. Those happy hens gobble the elm seeds up-- nipping the problem right in the bud!

I'll see you later today. Remember: you can follow this blog and use Google Reader to keep up to date with the feed. You can also just use whatever RSS feed you already use. But don't keep it to yourself! Share!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Another important issue for lawn health: Aeration

Okay, so now is a good time for aeration. You might have even had someone come to your door to convince you to pay them to aerate your lawns.

I hope you accepted.

Here's why.

The next time you go to a garden center or a DIY store's garden section, peruse the aisles that deal with lawn care.

As you walk down the aisle of the garden center your eye might be caught by an amazing looking device. It looks like a boot with spikes jutting out of the bottom. Is it an armored soccer or football shoe? No. It is a lawn aerator. But what is the difference between these spikes and the plug method of aeration? And which is better for your lawn? Let's explore some of the going wisdom about this issue.


A spike for your lawn is exactly what it sounds like. It jabs deeply enough into your lawn to get through the grass's root system. Theoretically, this allows air, water and fertilizer access to the roots of your grass, thus making the lawn healthier and greener. However, spikes simply don't cut it on lawns planted on heavy clay or even in very loose soil. Why? Because clay is very resistant and will often seal right up as soon as you slide that spike out. And looser soil will just fall back into the hole, filling it right back up. Spikes take no dirt and no grass out, like plugs, but instead they just make an iffy hole.


Plugs are, once again, exactly what they sound like. They are tiny cylinders of your lawn that are cut and pulled out by a machine. These cylinders leave behind small holes which don't collapse much, if at all. And if loose soil collapsed into these small holes, that would be fine, there would still be a hole left, as the plugs remove a small quantity of soil and grass. What is more, the plugs are left on your lawn to break down and actually provide some nice natural fertilizer for your grass. A small drawback of having plugs taken out for aeration is that these little plugs are indeed left all over your lawn. So for a day or two your lawn might look like a tiny gopher was building a metropolis under your yard. However, the plugs deteriorate fast with water and traffic. And the holes that the plugs leave behind provide good, reliable access for fertilizer, water and air to the root system of your grass.

Which do I recommend for your lawn's aeration? Plugs, all the way. A local grass care company should be able to plug your lawn in a matter of minutes, usually for no more than $20. So leave the insane cleats at the garden center and hurry home to call the aerator guy.

Monday, May 3, 2010

And now for something completely different

Okay, not completely different, but somewhat. I thought it would be nice to take a break and share a narrative I wrote about an early gardening experience I had. It was a, shall we say, learning experience.

It was April and the last snow of the season had come and gone. The back yard of my home in central Utah was beginning to show signs of life, with the green of grass warring with the yellow of budding dandelions. My garden plot was looking good. Really good. I had taken pains to put it to bed properly at the end of the previous season, and I had been planning this year's garden for five months! Five months of sketching designs and plans, layouts and trestles for beans. And now the time was fast approaching.

I turned to my wife. "Hey," I said, all innocent and completely ignorant of the pain I was about to commit myself to, "why don't we plant some corn?"

"Great idea." She squinted in thought. "Is it hard to grow?"

I shrugged. "No way. Everybody does corn."

Three weeks later I was ready. I had tilled the plot again, mixing in some nice steer manure and keeping it watered to get the worms excited. On a perfect, sunny Spring day, with a packet of seeds in hand, I dashed outside and planted four rows of corn in the southern end of the garden. I splashed some water on the five by ten foot area of future cobs and then moved north up the plot to put in some beans and zucchini.

Two weeks later I stared morosely at the bare plot. No corn sprouts. None. No future maize. Glaring at the dirt, then the sky, I asked, "Why?" Nobody answered. I jerked open the shed door and dug through my box of seed packets, finally coming up with the packet of corn seeds. Having only cursorily skimmed the planting instructions, I had not actually read all of the information available. Two lines down, I found the problem: Plant in warm ground in a sunny area.

I looked up and glared again. But this time, I glared at the trees that shaded the southern end of my garden for about six hours of the day. Muttering to myself, "Too early. Planted them too early. Gotta have warm ground," I made my way to my healthy tomato plants and took solace in their rough stems and fuzzy leaves. I broke a leaf off and inhaled that wonderful sharp aroma of the tomato plant's foliage. Recharged, re-energized and renewed, I weeded around my zucchini then went inside.

"Yeah, so we planted that corn in the wrong place," I said, stepping through the back door into my small home. "Needs to be in direct sunlight."

"What do you mean 'We'?" my wife asked, grinning at me.

I muttered something witty and rude and stalked off to the kitchen, in search of a drink of water. "Yeah, well we'll give it some time. Maybe as it warms up and stuff it'll grow okay."

My wife, Annemarie, gave me a hug. "You'll make it work." She loves that I love to garden. She enjoys it too, but she allows my seasonal obsession to run amok and she enjoys the fruits of said obsession. "Besides, we're in Utah. It's sunny here."

With greater hope, I was back outside every day of the next week, checking for sprouts. It was on a Thursday that it happened. I was sure it wasn't grass. The shape was wrong and it was too far away from the edge of the lawn. "A sprout!" I hollered, bringing my kids running and my wife walking: she was carrying the baby.

"Yay!" my two oldest boys shouted. "Corn sprouts!"

And it was true. There were several tender green shoots poking out of the tough Utah soil. I was elated. We were gonna have corn!

Two months later we were giddily eating raw green beans, raw peas, fresh zucchini and yellow squash, and were pretty sure our pumpkins were going to be big. But the corn stalks were two feet, maybe three feet, high. No sign of the fuzz that comes out the top for pollinating. No sign at all. And the stalks were thin and the roots were visible at the base of the stem. I had no idea what to do.

Then it happened. I came home from work on a blustery day that promised rain. I was beaming at the cloudy heavens, pleased that the sky was going to water for me. I walked in the front door, kicking off my boots and settling into my prized blue easy chair. My two oldest boys came dashing up. I held out my arms for hugs and kisses, but they stopped short, their eyes wide.

"Dad," my oldest boy, Thomas, intoned, "bad news." He was a well-read six and an oldest brother, both of which he took seriously.

His younger brother, Hintze, nodded in agreement. "Bad news!"

"The corn fell down," Thomas said.

Heat and cold tingles fought over my spine and face. "What?" I yelped, my voice cracking. I leapt to my feet, dashed through the house and flung the back door open wide. "No," I whispered. It was true. My small field of light-emerald, three-and-a-half feet high corn was leaning. No, more than leaning. Some of the stalks were practically horizontal. Slipping my feet into my work shoes, I hurried to the corn.

"See?" It was Thomas, coming up behind me, "It fell down. The wind did it."

I nodded, numb. But, never one to give up, I set to feverish action. I waded gently into the garden, my hands tenderly lifting each corn stalk back to its vertical position. The wind blew. The corn fell again. I cursed the wind and straightened my corn plants again, daring the wicked southwestern gusts to come again. They did; the corn fell. Muttering dire imprecations for all things stormy, I strode to my storage shed. My gardening twine in hand, I (seriously) gently roped each and every stalk up, tying the rows to firm anchors on each end. Now the wind blew impotently. My corn was going to live! It was going to thrive! It would provide loads of delicious, nourishing staple food for my family!

By the end of August, it was clear my corn would provide very little, if any, delicious, nourishing staple food for my family. The tallest stalk in my tiny field reached no higher than my neck, fuzz and all. Small nubs were growing here and there on the healthiest of the plants, but they were not developing well. In the end, we got five little cobs. Kernels had formed over maybe seventy percent of the cobs' body.

But I couldn't believe that this disaster was due only to insufficient sunlight. As a regularly successful gardener, I knew that sunlight was vital, but my corn looked well, malnourished. It looked like I was promised I would look if I drank coffee as a kid: stunted.

I read the back of the seed packet again. Plant in warm ground in a sunny area. The crumpled packet also informed that the corn would be ready for harvest in eighty-two days. It further informed me that the seed company had a long tradition of good seeds. But it did not explain why my corn looked like it had been on a forty day fast.

It turned out that my corn had indeed been on a fast. A forced fast. A fast caused by my ignorance; one caused by my eagerness to plant and unwillingness to study and learn about my crops before I planted them. I wound up asking a garden club I had just begun attending if they had any idea why my corn had been such a spectacular failure. The patron of the club smiled, not at all condescendingly really, and asked me if I had used nitrogen.


"Corn is basically a fruitful grass," he rumbled. "Grass absolutely needs nitrogen. You can get nitrogen pellets at the seed shop."


He nodded, taking a bite from a club member's home grown apple. "You've gotta have it. Otherwise, your corn won't come out."

"Nitrogen." Embarrassed at my ignorance, I buried my face in a plate of blueberry cobbler.

So what did my garden teach me? After long days of staring at bare ground and then obsessively urging my puny stalks to grow? Followed by weeks of wishing the corn cobs would finally form and thinking that corn was supposed to be taller, wasn't it? My garden taught me to look before I leap. To take a few minutes and get educated about what I am planting. My garden taught me to ask around and to talk to people in the area who have experience with vegetable gardens.

You know what? My garden also taught me that gardening is also about community.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Since it's Sunday

I'm going to post an article I wrote recently that provides a solid overview of organic gardening practices and principles.

Organic gardening can be broken into these areas: Soil, Plants and Nurturing.

The basic idea of organic gardening is that chemicals that are harmful to the environment and potentially prejudicial to humans and animals are not used. So when you are preparing your soil, you basically just want to keep from using any chemical fertilizers.

Manure, that lovely waste product of equines and bovines, is the best fertilizer out there. What's more, you want to try to get manure from animals that have been fed on alfalfa, rather than on grain such as corn. This just yields better, more balanced manure.

You can get bagged steer manure from your local gardening center usually. When you've gotten some manure, the method of application is simple. Simply spread it over the top of your garden area. If you are doing container gardening, go ahead and put it on the top of the soil in the containers. You are looking for a layer of a couple inches of the manure.

With the manure spread out, you are ready to mix it in. So if your gardening area is small enough, do this by hand. Try to get about six inches down into the soil. What you do is dig down and then turn over each spadeful, breaking up the dirt clumps as you go. This will mix in the manure and loosen up the soil.

If your garden area is big, say larger than 75 square feet, you might want to use a roto-tiller. These are heavy-duty machines, but they save you time and do a good job.
Now you are ready to move to plants.

One of the hallmarks of organic gardening is the art and science of companion planting. This type of planting does three things: maintains soil/nutrient balance, encourages plants to support each other, and repels common garden pests.

First off, you can do as the American Indians did and plant corn, squash and beans together. Beans provide nitrogen and potassium to the soil, which corn needs since it is basically a grass. The tall, strong corn stalks provide poles for the beans to climb. The squash fills in spaces and shades the ground.

Another companion set is the tomato/pepper, onion and marigold set. If you plant your tomatoes and peppers with onions in amongst them and a border of marigolds, most common garden pests will keep away. Spiders will still show up, but these lovelies are wonderful because they eat bugs too!

The only other organic issue regarding your plants and their arrangement is the choice between organic seeds and non-organic. The truth is that organic is in the nurturing, not the seeds. So you can get any kind of plant you want and still raise an organic garden.

This is not to say that some organic seed and plant choices aren't worth it. If you can get heirloom seeds, your plants will actually provide seeds for each year's garden. This will not happen if you get regular old hybrid seeds and plants.

Your goal is to avoid all toxic pesticides and fertilizers. We say toxic because you can actually get mycelium (mushroom)-based pesticides that are in no way harmful to soil and animal (and human!) life.

As for fertilizer during the growing season, don't use Miracle-gro. Get another bag of manure or make a compost pile. Then, when the season is in full swing, spread the compost mulch or the manure around the base of your plants. Then just water as usual. The nutrients from these organic fertilizers will get the job done.

And that's pretty much it for this session of Organic Gardening. One final note about organic gardening is that it pays to be creative. Try new arrangements and experiment with lightweight row cloth to keep wicked pests away from your plants. For example, lightweight, water and sun permeable row cloth will keep quail from your lettuce and peas. So build a little framework and put some row cloth down. This is better than getting some nasty chemical that wards off quail.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Okay, chickens today.

Raising chickens is all around a good thing. Today we got seven eggs, so it can be a tasty thing too! But were those eggs cheap?

That's the question I want to answer here today. 

Getting started with chickens is where the majority of the cost you will expend will happen. Your chickens will need a place that they can stay during the night where foxes, raccoons and rats cannot get to them. This is the same whether you are in suburbs, the country or even in the city. 

Your chickens will also need a place that they can lay their eggs, equipment for food and water, and if you have  a coop you will want to have something to cover its floor. The also need a sheltered place that they can roost when they go to sleep. You will also need a place to store their food and whatever you will use to cover the floor of the coop and the laying boxes. 

So I'm going to show you what we've done. Our city has an ordinance that allows for a few chickens, so we've gone ahead and gotten some. We raised four of the seven from chicks-- the other three were given to us by some friends who had too many. 

I won't go into raising chicks today, but I will discuss and show what we've done to maintain the chickens. 

We decided that the chickens needed a coop where they could be safe from nightly predators. I spent a lot of time looking for ideas and materials for this coop. We at first thought we might build them a nice house for them to chill in during the evening-- they could wander the back yard during the day. However, building materials and such were pretty expensive- so I decided to do a coop. 

I first looked into getting a dog run that I could stretch chicken wire over as a roof. You need a roof because predators like raccoons and rats can climb. Heck, having a floor is a good thing too. We thought a run of about 4-5 feet wide and 8-10 feet long would do well. You can buy these prefabricated at DIY stores like Home Depot and Lowe's. 

They were over $200. Add to that the cost of chicken wire and such and it's getting pricey! 

But we needed something like a dog run, because we needed to be able to get in and out of the coop easily to get eggs, change water, provide food and do other work. 

So I thought about building a coop with 2x4's and chicken wire. 

2x4's were a little pricey too. 

Then I had this idea that I could build a frame out of pvc, then use zip ties to fasten chicken wire to the frame on all sides, the bottom AND the top. I drew a blueprint, gathered measurements and checked prices. The zip ties were a friend's idea, actually. I could frame a doorway pretty easily and build a door with the pvc too. 

The total would be just over $100. This was the best option. 

So I built the coop: 

Notice it has a door. Most mornings, we head out and wedge the coop door open and build a quick barrier of compressed board between the open door and the house wall. This allows the chickens to come and go between our back yard and their coop as much as they want. 

They don't wander much beyond the back yard. Sometimes they will hop a fence, but it's rare. 

Anyway, take a look at that coop! It's about 8 feet long and four feet wide. The door is just over 2 feet wide. The coop has chicken wire all over and we bungee the door closed when locking the chickens up for the night. 

Notice two white, upside-down buckets with red bottoms. One is their feeder and the other is their water. They usually find bugs and scraps in the back yard, compost and garden plots for the majority of their food, but we like to make sure they have enough to eat. A well-fed chicken is usually a good layer. 

See- they wander: 

Inside the coop, the chickens have a roosting shed: 

The shed is 1/4 inch ply wood, 2x4s, some corrugated roofing and some 1 inch closet rods for roosts. I spent less than $50 and was able to build this shed and the storage shelter I'll show you in a minute. Here's a heads-up, I built the top, sides and back as separate pieces, then assembled the roosting shed inside the coop. 

The chickens roosted in this through the entire winter and had no problems whatsoever. Winters here are plenty cold. We used an electric dog water bowl to make sure they had plenty of un-frozen water through the season. 

Inside the coop, they also have laying boxes: 

This is an old kitchen cupboard. You're looking at what used to be the back. We nailed the doors closed, made the openings in the back much smaller, and fastened rag strips to the openings too. Chickens like a nice private place to lay eggs. 

Using this cupboard- which was taking space in our storage basement- was my wife's idea. It was brilliant. 

And here's the storage shelter: 
The tarp is there because the storage shelter is essentially the same design as the roosting shed- it has an open front. Here's the easy way we get in and out of the storage shed- we hook an the tarp on a nail: 

And here's the inside: 

You just don't want your food or material for the coop's floor to get wet. In a few weeks, we will go find a good straw bale and it will get stored in here too. 

So that's pretty much the set-up. 

Materials for all of this ran about $180 or so. Food is not expensive, although you want to figure in gas cost. The chickens only start laying at about 5 months old, if I remember right. 

The point here is that the eggs are not actually cheap. They are delicious. The experience with the chickens is beyond value for us as a family. You never get in a bind and have to go borrow eggs from a neighbor. 

And you know what? The chickens are keeping the back yard completely pest free. No earwigs. No pill bugs. No ants even. 

We'll talk about chicken care and maintenance in the coming days.