I have lived and breathed it now for several weeks in preparation of the last spring frost (May 9th) and an intensive time of planting. With a deadline, we really had to make every moment count, which is why those days of rain can be frustrating, even though we really need them, and those days of sun demand our full attention. It's also why, by the end of the day, I'm practically hobbling around like a 90-year-old woman. Don't worry. I've been taking it slow and not doing anything that the baby doesn't like. But, I've been working steadily doing the things I am capable of...and it's oh, so tiring.
With the exception of one 10sqft triangular bed which is too wet to dig currently, we have all the beds prepped (double dug) and ready to go. We seriously could not have gotten as far as we have without some major help from my dad. He has been here 8 days in the last 2 weeks and has worked like a machine digging those beds.
We have been using a mixture of gardening advice in designing this garden. It is basically a "square foot garden", but from hearing about the instructions in his new book, it is far from true to that method. But, it has given us structure. We have 44 beds that are 8'x4'...the size chosen to aid in being able to reach easily into the center of the bed for weeding and harvesting, yet still allowing ample room for paths for ease of use. We set up 32'x4' beds last year and it was a little frustrating to have to walk so far to get to a path when you wanted to get to the other side of the bed. I know, I know...lazy bums, right? But, if this garden produces like I'm hoping it does, and if I garden for the rest of my life with it in basically the same format as it is being set up today, I don't want to be cursing the length of the beds.So, each bed is constructed of 2"x8" untreated lumber and then is "double dug". Double digging essentially means that you remove the top 12 inches of soil and then loosen up another 12 inches down, then replace that top soil. You can add whatever soil improvements to that topsoil as you put it back in. This keeps the topsoil on top, as it should be, and yet allows you to have 24 inches of loosened soil for your plants' root systems. The entire process is described in John Jeavons' book, How to Grow More Vegetables..., and it really isn't as difficult as it may sound. And yes, I know the wood will eventually rot. But, I did not want to have treated wood in contact with the soil growing my food. Some people have used cement blocks for their beds, but I was worried about the moisture-sucking power of cement. That left me with wood that will rot...I have to decide whether to replace or let it go when that happens.
In addition to the 44 rectangular beds, I also have 2 small triangular beds. Our garden area has a corner cut off of it, due to anticipating a driveway turn there, so we had some extra room. I could've left it empty and just had a wider path there, but what would be the fun in that? So, I built 2 triangles. They are just the right size for a kid to double dig on his own, though it's small size required removing the bed frame while digging.
Once the bed is dug and the soil is raked back into place and level, I take twine and staples (the kind you hammer in) and mark off the square feet. Of course, this step isn't mandatory and I don't know if I'll end up liking it, but I'm trying it this year, at least. So far, I'm happy with it. It allows me to plant in exactly the spot I wanted to, without straying or having to continually remeasure. If you'll remember, I have a notebook with each garden bed drawn out and the exact placement of each plant I intend to plant. So, when it's time for the onions, for instance, to go in, I can just walk out there with my notebook and my onions and place them in the 4 different beds that they'll call home.I mark each planting with a labeled popsicle stick. It helps with knowing where to water when seed haven't sprouted yet and it will tell us what we're looking at without having to look it up in my notebook. Above, you can see my stick labeled "Mars Onion".
The first few times we watered, when we had only a few things in the ground, we watered by cup, a la Mel Bartholemew's instruction. However, we quickly realized that watering would take hours every day with that method with the amount of square feet and plants we're talking about. We now water with a fancy, long-handled spray wand. It is a gentle spray and allows the placement of water where I want it so there is less waste. And the long handle means I don't have to bend down to do it. Since we have well water, we don't have to worry about chlorine contamination and the like when we water.
There are a few beds that require a little different approach. For instance, it was recommended to cover corn with a chicken wire cage to protect it from birds. We have 6 beds fully devoted to corn and 2 beds that have corn on the southern 3/4ths of the beds. So, I built a lid of sorts for the bed out of 2"x2" wood and stapled chicken wire to that. I nailed some scrap wood to each side of the bed to help keep the lid in place. The lids will obviously be reuseable year after year and they will be easy to lift up to tend to the bed.
On some beds, such as watermelons or pumpkins, where the plant needs lots of room for spreading out, I've covered the soil with carpet. This is essential a really thick mulch. It will prevent weeds from growing and, as a side benefit, provide a nice soft ground to spread on. I cut holes in the carpet for the plants to be planted in. Again, I don't know how I'll like it. I'll let you know. Much of this garden is an experiment, really. It is fun to be able to try out some of these different methods out there and figure out what works and what doesn't.
I start many of my seeds indoors on a makeshift plant shelf. It is a garage-duty shelving unit with grow lights rigged up to it. As you can see, I've also been a little "creative" with my pots. I've been pleased with my seed-starting results this year. I was a little disappointed with the germination rate of my tomatoes, but otherwise, all have done really well. Even my herbs, which are supposed to be tough to start from seed, are coming along nicely.
Other plants, obviously, go straight outside. The anticipation of those things coming up is so nerve-wracking...did I just plant 200 peas to have none actually sprout?Nope...looks like they're coming up! They just take a while. I planted some of the vining peas (the other variety I planted doesn't need something to climb) around sunflowers. Again, it's a bit of experimentation. Some of my peas will go up a more traditional trellis, but these puppies will be vining up some huge sunflowers. You can see how they are planted in a circle, anticipating a sunflower to grow right up the middle of them.
Potatoes apparently like to grow in rows. And while I appreciate wanting to have things one's own way, the potatoes and I needed to reach a compromise. So, I planted them in rows within the beds. They are planted closer than what many traditionalists might advise, but I'm taking a gamble. Right now, they are there in the center of the ditches. As they grow, I will continue to scoop more dirt on top of them until eventually, they are growing out the top of a mound.Last year, I tried a "Lasagna Gardening"-type of potato planting, a.k.a. "the lazy way". I laid down pads of wet newspaper, put the potatoes on that, and then covered up with a very thick layer of hay. While I was pleased with the way the hay held in the moisture and the plants did grow nicely, I had very little yield. I'm hoping the potatoes are happier this year...in the soil.
And this is my peppermint. I was a little leery of adding such an invasive plant into the garden, but I hope that I've come up with a solution to keep it contained. I sunk large scraps of metal left over from roofing the barn (it was roofed by the previous owners and the scraps were among some of the items discovered in the barn when we moved in) in the ground about a foot deep, sectioning off a corner of one of the beds. I'm hoping this will prevent those runners from spreading too much. Mmm...I can't wait to try some peppermint tea!
I am working on finishing a couple of things still.
First, the paths. What to do with the paths was the subject of much discussion around here. I would've loved to have put brick pavers down throughout the garden. However, since we did not discover a buried treasure chest full of gold while digging beds, that was out of the question. It would've cost over $2000 to do. The square-foot method (or at least the old method...I don't know what the new book suggests) is to put down wood planks. It would be neat and tidy, but still quite expensive given the magnitude of the project. Plus, they would rot. And rot even faster than the beds, since they'd be in full, 100% contact with the ground. Rock was out because if we ever needed to change a bed placement or anything, it would be a nightmare to remove. I wasn't keen on the idea of letting grass grow in the paths because of the invasive nature of much of the grasses. I don't need to plant weeds...I'll get enough without it. And leaving it dirt isn't an option at all because dirt quickly becomes mud and clayey dirt becomes mud 5 inches thick stuck to the bottom of your shoes. Straw was something we tried out, but with our wind, the straw didn't stay put very well. Plus, it gets a little slippery when wet.
So, we finally settled on putting weed block (the black cloth-like stuff) down and covering it with wood mulch. I've laid 36 bags of mulch plus the wood chips from a little yard cleanup down so far. We probably need another 60 bags or so. Here is a finished corner of the garden for you to see. We've laid bricks (also just found around the homestead) around the outer edges at about 1-foot intervals to help hold the cloth and chips in place through some of our windier days. It's a nice, finished look, don't you think?
The other thing that needs to be completed is all the trellises. You can see in the above picture on the top 2 beds that there are T-posts at each of the northern corners of the beds. These will hold some wire fencing up across that back of the bed for vining plants. I have 15 beds that will have trellises. I have many more T-posts to put in and all the fencing to attach.
And, I do have some garden fencing to finish. We have 2-foot high chickenwire running around the perimeter which is in place. It, amazingly, is enough to keep the chickens out of the garden. We are also hoping that it will keep out the other critters that like to nibble, like rabbits. We intend to run a couple of strands of electric wire on top of that. Our plan is to then run a 2nd perimeter fence a few feet outside the first, with another strand of electric fence on that. The idea is that deer don't like to jump something really wide when they can't come down in between. The alternative is to build a 10' high fence, which wasn't going to happen. I don't know if it'll work. But, we'll try it. Last year, I had several mornings where I found deer tracks through the middle of my garden. I really would prefer to not do all this work just to feed the local wildlife, you know? Once again, it's an experiment.
Here is the garden, in up-to-the-moment completeness. There is still much to do, but it is such a relief to have the beds all dug and ready. Whether I finish the fence or paths, the seeds and transplants can still go in the ground on time. Standing on my front porch and looking across the expanse of the garden, I'm both excited and exhausted. It will be a big job. But, good, honest work never hurt anybody, right? And, the reward is amazing.
So, what are we planting?
- Cabbage (Glory of Enkhuizen)
- Celery (Tendercrisp)
- Peppers (Sweet Chocolate, Quadra Asti Giallo, and Jalapeno)
- Tomatoes (German Red Strawberry, German Pink, Nebraska Wedding, and Opalka)
- Berries (Red Wonder Wild Strawberries and Wonderberries)
- Peas (Lincoln and Sugar Ann)
- Lettuce (May Queen and a Rocky Top mix)
- Spinach (Bloomsdale Long Standing)
- Onions (Red Zeppelin, Copra, and Mars)
- Herbs (Cilantro, Yarrow, German Chamomile, Feverfew, Toothache Plant, Spearmint, and Peppermint)
- Beets (Chioggia)
- Carrots (Tonda di Parigi, St. Valery, and Atomic Red)
- Radish (Purple Plum and German Giant)
- Potatoes (All Blue, Carola, Desiree, German Butterball, and Yellow Finn)
- Cucumber (Telegraph Improved and Boston Pickling)
- Flowers (Baby's Breath, Marigold, and Mammoth Sunflowers)
- Corn (Baby Rice Popcorn, Painted Mountain Flour Corn, and Black Aztec Sweet Corn)
- Summer Squash (Lemon and Black Beauty Zucchini)
- Winter Squash (Spaghetti and Butternut Waltham)
- Pole beans (Rattlesnake)
- Pumpkins (New England Sugar Pie and Connecticut Field)
- Melons (Hero of Lockinge and Thayer)
- Watermelons (Orangeglo and Blacktail Mountain)
- Bush Beans (Golden Wax and Henderson's Lima)