Category Archives: Gardening

Seed Savers Exchange: They’ve Arrived!

It's finally time to get some seeds in the ground and they have just arrived! We're still at risk for frost here so at least for the time being it's going to have to be an indoor operation to get this years crop going.

With Seed Savers Exchange giving a quick delivery I have finally gotten to start planting my garden, indoors albeit.

I’m working as a goal this year to reduce my food budget by planting a sizeable garden that will keep producing until the end of the growing season.  The little parcel of land that comes with the townhouse we are renting doesn’t get enough light to really be of much use for food production of any scale but for $35 and 6 hours of volunteer work I have been able to secure a community garden spot within walking distance of my house.

To get seeds to turn into transplant vegetable starts doesn’t take very much I have discovered. A cold fluorescent light hanging from the ceiling on a chain gives an adjustable height light source that will cost less than $35 dollars for the whole setup.  I bought start-up trays with covers that provided extra moisture for plants and a spray bottle to occasionally blast them with mist.

A Compact fluorescent light, a tray or even yogurt containers and some potting soil is the recipe to and early garden.

This year when I planted my seeds I didn’t even cover them with soil in their trays. One of my eccentric professors, Elizabeth Howley, explained to our class that the soil is really just their to provide even moisture to the seeds. True to form the germination rates have been nearly one hundred percent for me so far.

These trays and optional greenhouse covers can be purchased almost anywhere this time of year.  Just stumble into any store with a garden center and look around.  Prices for the trays wont be more than a couple of dollars.

My step for this week is to create a detailed plan to reduce my food budget for this year.  To start working towards this I have mapped my garden and will need to make a crop schedule.  I have bought a few varieties of storage onions and garlic that should last in storage and I have started succession planting greens for early spring.

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Overwintering: The Year Round Experience.

Black opal

I bought this African Blue Basil last year. After waiting for seeds to be produced for the entire summer, I learned that this plant is a hybrid and has the reproductive potential of two mules. With a little cloning this plant has lived on the last three months in my bedroom.

Looking out the window I can finally see the sun’s arch reach over the neighboring apartments, a signal of the approaching spring. Pretty soon gardeners all throughout the Northern Hemisphere will be elbows deep in dirt preparing for another year of foodstuffs.

This year, instead of heading to the nearest Home Depot for the cheapest seeds I can find, I’m utilizing one of the coolest concepts that I have heard of in a long time. I am buying my seeds from a company called Seed Savers Exchange(SSE).

So what I’m buying brand name seeds?

The Exchange realized that as agriculture become more standardized the plethora of seeds that were saved within families for generations were being lost.  The mechanical mass extinction event was taking place and the exchange felt it had to act. The company started an exchange based seed bank.  Members throughout the world share their seeds with the company and other members around the world. Through the organization members are encourage to either buy and sell with each other. SSE also sells to the general public although it only offers an sampled selection of the vast variety of seeds at their disposal.

The seeds they save are all heirlooms, meaning they have been reproduced continually for at least 50 years.  Although these seeds are going to prove to be more expensive than my old shopping habits, I’m going to be winning in the long run. Since all of these will be non-hybrid plants, the seeds will be viable for saving and hopefully regrowing next year.

This weeks step is to buy heirloom seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange

Digging In: Maintaining a small garden

This is my battle gear: Gloves, water, a hand hoe, a regular hoe and a wheel hoe. All effective tools depending on the space you have.

Love is a battlefield, so is growing food. Every inch of every corner in a garden there is something that helps your future food to fail. The ground isn’t full of Charles Manson bugs that are stuck in kill mode but nature is a vicious place and even on the smallest levels competition is fierce.
Your favorite tomato plant isn’t the only green life looking for precious sunlight, water and soil nutrients. Weeds in all shapes and sizes will try to hoard the nutrients that you may have worked so diligently to put in place.
Even if you manage to keep a weed free garden, bugs and small animals will be more than willing to pillage your fresh food source without giving thought to the fact that you have poured days into the planning, preparation and maintenance of this small patch of earth.
Bugs and weeds seem like small obstacles compared to the 6 foot tall 170 pound enemy they have found in me but they are not. Already this year I have had one garden nearly devoured by slugs. I had pledged to not use harmful chemicals and, as if they had overheard me make this comment, they attacked in hoards. Eventually I found a way of fighting back the bastards with beer baths but not before they had taken out over half of my transplants, leaving a stunted food supply and a lot of wasted energy.

I was lucky enough to stay on top of weeding in that garden but I have seen the results of what unwanted suneaters can do.  The first year I was working on the farm, the weeds that were growing around our asparagus became so tall that while I was chopping down a “weed” taller than myself, I accidently leveled a birds nest.  We hid the birds nest in a nearby blackberry patch, giving them protection and hoping that the mother would come back to her crying children.  We pretended the story ended happy when after three days we found the site was abandoned.

Luckily in my past few years I have gained some knowledge to stave off the advancing hoards out to attack the best laid plans or gardeners.

Keep plants Hydrated

I admittedly don’t know too much about watering plants, I just know that they need it.  My strategy is to make sure the soil never gets too dry.  To do this I dig underground about an inch and see if it’s moist. If it is I consider the plants to be well hydrated (transplants are an exception, they need immediate watering after being planted and routine watering for the next few days until its positive that they’ve taken to the new spot). If the spot is dry I’ll usually use a hose with a sprayer attachment to dampen the ground.  The best times for watering are in the morning and evenings when evaporation is less likely to occur.

This is a harlequin beetle. After teaming up with a group of squash bugs and caterpillars, these critters managed to keep our cabbage heads about the size of a fist. Crushing them gives a satisfying crunch though.

Controlling garden pests

Usually I don’t see the world in terms of black and white but when it comes to garden creatures I separate them into two categories, good and evil.

The good inhabitants like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds I will go through great lengths to maintain.  The evil critters such as squash bugs, harlequin beetles and slugs I will do everything in my power to destroy.

The method of attack depends on the enemy.  For a lot of insects I have found insecticidal soap to be extremely effective while having a minimum impact on the soil and planet in general.  The recipe I use for this is simple combination of dish soap, vegetable oil and water. The proportions are as fallows.

4 tablespoons of non-antibacterial dish soap

1 tablespoon of oil

1 gallon of water.

Mix these all and pour into a spray bottle.  When applying the “pesticide” keep in mind that it only kills what it comes in contact with.  Avoid spraying good insects and cover all parts of the plant.  I have found that many foes like to hide on the underside of leaves or around the root so these parts of the plant deserve special attention.

Slugs are plant predators that take advantage of the gardeners weaknesses.  Where most animals attack during the day when it’s dry, slugs prefer night raids and rainy days, times when most people aren’t really wanting to be out in the yard.  In order to take out these particular pests a change of strategy is in order.  I have heard of some people vigilantly searching under rocks and in other moist places carrying out seek and destroy missions.  They will hunt and kill every slug or snail they can find in the hopes that their attacks will reduce populations enough for the plants to outlive the assaults.  My favorite strategy is much less hands on.

I cut the bottoms off of 20 oz bottles, about two inches, and burry them in the dirt to where they are level with the ground.  After that, I fill them about half full with beer.  Slugs can’t resist the yeasty goodness that comes with a cold one.  After that I cover the beer traps with plastic strips cut from milk jugs, propping them up with small sticks to give the greedy creatures a way in.  Once they discover the beer they will find a way in, get drunk and drown.

Pest management is never a matter of total war.  You will never kill all of the enemies unless you move to less sustainable methods that impact both your food and your soil.  The conflict isn’t about total evisceration anyways. The war against insects only needs to be carried out to the point where the plants can survive their attackers.

This is a wheel hoe. With an 8 inch blade attached, this tool makes weeding in between rows easier than dropping the blade on a guillotine.

Weeds and the territory battle

Since plants are stationary, they are stuck in a bitter struggle for survival. When weeds get out of control they steal necessary resources from everything planted around them.  This theft of nutrients may help support one form of life but it won’t help anyone put food on the table.  If you actually want to preserve some of the investments of time and money that have been put into a garden I find that frequent weeding is essential.

My favorite tool for fighting weeds is a hand hoe.  Light and sharp, this tool cuts the heads of anything trying to pop up into the garden, but care should be taken. I can’t count the number of friendlies I have decapitated on the war against weeds.

Another essential is a good hoe.  Hoes save both your back and free-time.  There are literally dozens of hoe variations and which is best depends on what type of space your working on.  Mother Earth News came out with a great article about hoe varieties and use’s that did more justice to the subject than I ever could.  The link to that article is at the bottom of this post.

If you have your garden planned out with plenty of space between rows than I would suggest using a wheel hoe.  After one day testing this tool out in the field I was hooked on it like a bad drug.  It didn’t take much effort and even when the soil was moist it uprooted more weeds than I could have imagined, all without being gas powered.  A bonus to this tool is that you can get a cultivator attachment (I just learned about this from a comment on the cultivating section of the Digging In series).  When the next season rolls around you just take the weeding head off and attach a cultivator for a sturdy multipurpose tool.

Gardens do a lot of work on their own but when outside forces start landing on the breaches and working their way to the interior, good maintenance initially can save you a world of frustration and swearing later on.

Mother Earth News article on hoes

Another article on wheel hoes

Digging In: Planting a small garden

Waging war against the menaces that have surrounded one of my jalapeno plants. The handy tool I'm using it call a hand hoe and has quickly become my favorite tool for the ground war against weeds.

After I cultivated the land and waited for what remained of the grass to die, the process of seeding began. The garden has been growing for nearly a month now so it’s probably a good time to describe the ways I started planting my future food.

There are two ways of trying to get food from a tiny seed that I use, direct sewing and transplanting.  It’s true that you can get food without ever having to get dirty via hydroponics but it’s not very cost effective and takes a lot of skill and know-how that I just don’t have.

A radish's eye view of the garden. I have never had luck transplanting any root vegetables. These are direct sown.

Direct sewing is by no means a technical term, it means putting the seed in the ground.  How deep you should plant the future food  depends on what your putting under. Depths usually range between 1/8 of an inch to an inch-and-a-half.

Transplanting takes a little more work but reaps greater benefits in the end. Instead of throwing your seeds into the ground, watering and hoping for the best, when you transplant you grow a small plant in controlled conditions before releasing them into the wild and murderous world that young plants struggle to survive in.

A plant that hasn’t yet been put into the garden is called a start-up.  To create a start-up you can either use the blister packs that they sell at places like home depot or dixie cups with holes cut into the bottom, to allow for drainage.  I’ve gone with both store bought and the cup method in my garden at home. After you have the container you need to fill it with potting soil, regular soil compacts and won’t let water drain properly.  After putting a few seeds in each container all the seeds need is regular watering and some time. Soon you’ll start having your own transplants ready without spending the $3 dollars they would cost at Lowe’s.

In order to keep the cost down, try buying seeds late in the season.  A lot of seed packets get discounted once summer starts and if you wait a little longer you can buy cheap start-ups too.  We bought a flat of jalapenos and bell peppers for a dollar because the owner of the local feed store was tired of taking care of them.

Another way to avoid seed costs is to split the price of seeds with someone else.  I almost never use all of the seeds in a packet, my operation is too small to plant everything.  This year a friend, Aaron and me started trading seeds with each other.  I ended up with a lot of new plants without spending any extra money.  Sometimes when someone has an abundance and I have nothing, I’ve just asked for seeds they won’t use and I’ve gotten them.  Why waste them when someone else could use them?  My personal feeling is that if you take, though, you should also give, as a result I like to share the harvest with whoever helped contribute.

For a garden map I planted stakes into the ground and then made a small map showing what is planted at which stake. Simple but effective.

Either way you choose to plant, a few things are good to remember, I learned them both by forgetting.  When I planted my first garden I forgot to leave space to walk between the rows. As a result I ended up killing more than a couple of plants by stomping around like a drunk ballerina, ironically I was trying to avoid stepping on anything.  My kale and tomato plants would testify to this if they were still here.

Another thing I like to do is keep records of what I have planted and where.  Record keeping will help avoid plucking up your good plants when you’re trying to weed out the bad.  I’ve found that keeping track of when I planted and when I harvested is also extremely helpful.  The expected harvest dates on the back of seed packages are only estimates and depending on your soil and location only experience seems to be able to tell how soon something is going to be be popping up.

Coming up: Weeding and the best tools for waging the ground war.

Digging In: Cultivating for a small garden.

Not everyone has access to a tractor but as far as cultivating goes there probably aren't too many quicker or more efficient options.

It’s been hot lately which means the soil has been dry and easy to work, a blessing when it comes to tearing up a plot to grow a garden in.  In my experience cultivating, it is almost impossible to start upturning the earth when your working in a sticky sludgy ooze. So for a while I was playing the waiting game to actually start digging in.

Last week sometime I took advantage of the hot spell that we’ve been experiencing ( days of 90 plus) and dug in.  This time around I used a tractor to work the soil with.  I know that the goal of this garden is to show that planting can be done in a small city space and using a tractor is very counterproductive to that goal. But in the past two years I have used three different types of tools for cultivating, a tiller mounted on the back of a tractor, a Rear Tine rototiller, which is about the same size and shape of a lawnmower, and a human powered small garden cultivator.

When I was planting my home garden in Oregon earlier this year I used the small garden cultivator to tear up my 8×8 garden space and then used it again to plant 3 flats of Zinnias, but after the long days of work here in Tennessee the tractor called and I answered.

This is a rear tine rototiller. Automatic rototillers can shred the time it takes to cultivate a garden, however, this super time saver comes at a price.

Like I said though, it’s not an easy task to get a tractor in the city and especially into a community garden plot or apartment garden.  You might find a mob of people chasing you because you tore through there property to get to a spot and the 15 mile per hour max speed of the machine your using probably won’t be able to keep you ahead of the crowd for long.  You may get a few of the rioters with the front end loader but you’ll probably lose the fight ultimately. In the city the best options are rototillers and hand cultivators.

A rototiller is excellent for small to medium sized gardens.  Many are self powered and according to my uncle, the farm owner who has used many varieties of tillers, rototillers do a finer job of tilling than its cousin, the mammoth tractor.  It’d be hard however to till much more than an acre with any type of hand-pushed rototiller or even “self-powered” varieties that still require a lot of pushing and tugging to maintain a good line.

This is the down and dirty, cheap but effective manual cultivator. Running $25 this is perfect for small gardens

Small garden cultivators are perfect for the size of garden I’m working on right now.   If you don’t have room to store a rototiller or if they would cover your gardening area in a couple of pass overs with the one to two foot wide machine then I would definitely suggest using the garden cultivator.  They require elbow grease and aren’t for the lazy, but neither is gardening. A huge advantage to these types of cultivators is their price.  A small garden cultivator will run you around $25-30 dollars depending on where you shop. Even the smallest rototillers start at $200, a large investment for a micro garden.

If you are like me and trying to start a garden on a budget, then it’d be worth searching around for a friend or parent who already happens to have one of these tools around.  If all that you can get is a automatic rototiller then that seems perfect, but none of these options are terrible for borrowing.

Digging In: a crash course in gardening

  1. I chose this spot to dig in because it gets hit by sun at least 8 hours a day and was a former pasture for our chickens. Chicken poop loads soil with nitrogen and acts as a natural fertilizer. I can't gurantee the same for the human equivilent.

Three days ago I broke earth near one of our corn fields to plant a few rows vegetables in what I call the experimental garden.  The point of this garden is to show how little effort and money can be used to make a garden that will at least supplement store bought food.  Generally speaking the bigger the garden, the more food that will be produced and as a result the more money saved from not having to buy carrots and radishes at your local WINCO, or Whole foods, depending on which end of the grocery chain spectrum you come from.  But for many people, especially those who live in the city, a large garden isn’t possible.  For this reason I only made this garden 10 feet by ten feet.

The first major thing I had to do was find a spot to plant in.  From what I’ve been able to gather so far is that gardens are a bit like real estate its all about location, location, location.  You pick the wrong side of the house to plant in and you’ll find yourself with a bunch of dead seeds filling a hole in the ground, mixed with a bit of sweat.

The best places to start growing food depends on what you plant (I admittedly don’t know very much about flowers and won’t really talk about them because it wouldn’t be much more then hot air and empty print). Most vegetables enjoy a lot of sun and will fail to produce much more then disappointment if they don’t get it.  If a spot gets more then six hours of sunlight a day  it is considered Full Sun.   There are some food-plants that survive with less sun and they can thrive in Partial Sun.  A spot is considered Partial Sun if it gets between 4-6 hours of light a day. There are more than these two categories, but for vegetable gardening these are the two that are really important.

This website offers a deeper description of all the different amounts of sunlight that different plants need.

“Sun, Shade or Perhaps Something in Between”

For this project I wanted Full Sun.  I have a limited time to get from planting to harvest and need strong, fast growing plants.

Here’s a good generalized list of what plants need how much light.  This website also has a lot of insight into starting gardens in general.

http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/CoopExt/4DMG/VegFruit/muchsun.htm

I am admittedly breaking some rules in my attempt to get up quick and get out.  I have radishes, spinach, arugula, and two types of lettuce that I’m putting underground.  The lettuce will grow but this late in the season it’s going to come out bitter. However, lettuce grows quick and I have a little under 50 days here in Tennessee before I need to start cutting off heads and pulling up radish for my return trip home.

I would suggest looking up the website to some master gardeners or colleges with agriculture programs in your area to see the best times to grow in your region.  If there isn’t anything near you, or if your too eager ( I fell into this category my first time around.  I just wanted to get something in!), you can always just read the packet and get a good idea of what you can plant and when.

Tomorrow I’ll explain the process that goes into turning your ground over to get something that you can actually plant in.