Belle of Dirt

Missouri Ozarks mom, mover of earth, photographer, plant enthusiast


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Non-garden related VD

Pinterest DogBecause people have garden-related VD all the time, right?
In this case, the VD is for Valentine’s Day- or in other words, that day of the year that I now forgo a romantic lunch or dinner dates with my husband for school parties involving preschool crafts, paper valentines and games like tossing bean bag shaped hearts. And I wouldn’t change a thing. Really. No, really.

Ok, maybe one little thing. Like Alice, I often give myself good advice, but I very seldom follow it.
I browsed through Pinterest, looking for creative ideas to spruce up the old Valentine’s box that were a bit more exciting that tissue paper and stickers. My daughter spotted an adorable dog that looked like it was cut out from felt shapes. I clicked the link and it went to a picture. No tutorial. And I was pretty sure that the thing was a bit TOO perfect; maybe a little Photoshop for good measure? Or perhaps that parent had an airbrushing paint gun and a machine to precisely cut all the shapes. I thought that perhaps I should go back and find something else, maybe one that came with instructions, but the child wanted “THAT ONE.” It was decided.

It was felt shapes glued to a box, how hard could it be really?

I realized I only had 5 sheets of felt available, and out of those only 3 colors would work for our dog. No big deal, I have old t-shirts that I’ve trashed in the yard. I hacked up a red one to use for the dog’s collar and accents. I didn’t have nearly enough of any one color to cover the back of the box, so I got some metal pipe tape out of the tool drawer and taped the box up with that. It’s shiny. What kid doesn’t like shiny?
I cut out the shapes and started gluing things on; so far so good. The face and the body all went on without any trouble, the collar only needed minor adjustment. It took me a couple tries on paper to get the heart shape with 3 perfect circle toes for the feet. I wound up drawing the heart shape, then using a water bottle cap to get the circles perfectly round. I used a straight pin to pin the paper pattern to my felt before cutting any felt. I only had one sheet of brown, so I had to make sure I didn’t make ANY mistakes or it meant a trip to Wal-Mart. Which meant I had to shower and put on real clothes, not house clothes. And shoes. And brush my hair. You get the idea.

Puppy Valentine BoxFeet shapes all cut out, I went on to try and glue the toe pads and hearts onto the foot. The fabric glue claims it will bond any fabric to most other materials instantly, you need only hold it for a few seconds, then let it dry to full strength over several hours. I worked on this box for 5 1/2 HOURS. The glue never stuck. It did dry though; it made the fabric all crusty, it stuck to my fingers. My fingers stuck to the felt, to the box, to the couch, to the table. The felt would not, for whatever reason, stick to itself. So I got out a needle and thread and hand-sewed the pads on.
Then I had to get the feet onto the body. Same problem. The white felt wouldn’t come off the box without tearing. It ACTUALLY STUCK. So I sewed through the box and all and stitched them on to the body.

It went pretty much the same with the facial features, the ears, the little heart (broke my thread and then the needle on that bit) and the bone bow. I sewed it all. I bled. I broke needles. I broke thread. My daughter was supposed to help with this project. She lost interest and wandered off to play computer games around the 11th time I glued myself to the couch.

All in all, even though it turned out to be a lot more work than I’d anticipated, the box didn’t turn out too bad at all. I varied it a bit from the original, with long, droopy ears instead of short ones. I prefer large dogs to purse dogs and the one in the original Pinterest post screams Pug. Ours looks a bit more like a mutt. I added my daughter’s name to the bone-bow so that other parents will know which box to stuff her Valentines in.
I’m very grateful for several things because of this project: I’m glad it’s almost spring and I’ll soon be able to get back to projects that are a bit more to my talent. Dirt, rocks and growing things. I’m glad it turned out as well as it did and that I gave my daughter her puppy box instead of telling her, “Sorry kid, it’s last year’s box for you.” I’ve learned that if you make things without instructions, it might be better to REALLY think things through prior to going at it with the glue. This would have been a project 3 hours shorter, had I only sewn this stuff together, THEN stuck it to the box.

That’s our box, in all it’s glory. And I’ll be sure to post this to Pinterest, so perhaps some other unsuspecting, glue challenged mother may learn from my adventures. :)

-B


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Just a quickie

No, I’m not dead.
LinnCreekFrozenI’m still in the throes of house remodeling and soon to be in house seeking mode. (I hope. Fingers crossed.)
I took a couple winter water shots today and thought I would share. This winter has been brutal compared to previous years, I’m a little afraid to see what plants didn’t survive the sustained cold. I suspect my crepe myrtle and Boston Ivy have both suffered. Although BOSTON Ivy should be used to long, cold winters, right? Ha. What’s in a name anyway?FrozenLake
I haven’t seen the main channel of the Lake of the Ozarks frozen over on either side for years; this year it is actually frozen in Osage Beach and on the West Side. I have heard rumors of idiotic people who drove VW Bugs across the coves in winter when I was a child. I’ve never witnessed this personally. Even in the coves, I’m not sure I’d risk it. It does make for interesting photos though.
I’m hoping house business will be finished sometime this summer and I’ll have a fabulous new yard/garden to blog about and Pin away about.
The lake photo is from Old Hwy 5 at the bridge. The other I took of the creek in Linn Creek from a friend’s bridge.


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My slackeresque treatment of Dirt….

Belle's YardThose of you that actually read this stuff on a regular basis may have noticed there hasn’t been a new post in quite a while. Or maybe you’re as insanely busy as I am and you’re just waiting for fall TV to start back up so you can fall into the couch at night and sit in a zombie-like coma in front of your favorite shows. Whichever the case may be, I wanted to let readers know, I’m on an extended leave for a while, but not gone forever.
We are in the process of moving. I’ve been in our current house since March of 2001 and lived in the Lake of the Ozarks area pretty much my entire life. The furthest away were the couple years I lived in Richland, Mo and Stover, Mo- both are 1/2 hour’s drive or less to the Lake.
I’m still not going to be FAR away from Lake of the Ozarks. We’re going to be looking for something near the Jefferson City/Columbia Mo area. Even though that’s only an hour from Osage Beach at most, it’s still a big move for me. I spent a week or so freaking out about it, then I looked around at all the things that needed to be done before we sold our current house and realized I didn’t have time to freak out anymore- I had to get BUSY.

And I have been.Mexican Sunflower

My entire week and sometimes a large part of the weekend has been engulfed by demolition, drywall, construction, painting, sanding, scraping ceilings, etc. I haven’t mowed our grass in weeks, in fact- the only time I really manage to get any yard time at all is when I’m watering the garden or picking tomatoes and peppers. Nothing new is going in this fall, since I don’t plan on being her next year to take care of it. I’ll make time to dig up some of my favorite plants or those that have some sentimental attachment and clean things up so it all looks neat- that’s about the extent of my landscaping and garden plans until the move. Which means not much to write about on Dirt for a while.

I didn’t realize how many projects I had started and not finished until delving into this house, room by room, making sure everything was move-in ready from top to bottom. There are little things- like I started replacing the ugly gold tone doorknobs with brushed nickel and only about half of them are done. Then there are big things- I scraped, skim coated and painted the ceilings in rooms I had remodeled previously, but not throughout the entire house. Which meant, I still had the utility room, our bedroom and the kitchen/living room to scrape, coat and paint. I’m 2 for 3 already, but it’s been a HUGE undertaking. Add to this that I must spend at least some time with my kiddo and doing normal routine stuff like making sure we have at least 1 pair of clean underwear each and something besides condiments in the fridge to eat… I’m ridiculously busy right now.

SunflowersDirt will be back. I just need some time to get things fixed up here, take some pictures (Have you seen the photos realtors take of houses they sell??? They suck. It’s no wonder they sit on the market forever.) and get my move on. Hopefully when that’s all done, I’ll have a whole new yard to start projects in that I still won’t have finished 12 years later. ;)

These are a few shots of our current garden. I plant my veggies right in the raised bed next to the house and pond, mixed in with marigolds, climbing roses, butterfly bush, Mexican and regular sunflowers. The loads of pollinators that come to the Mexican sunflower and butterfly bush help the veggie plants produce far more fruit sometimes than we can eat. A setup I must remember and try to duplicate at our new home!

Have a great fall folks, I’ll be back as soon as possible.

-Belle


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Camping at Table Rock Lake

This 4th of July weekend we camped at Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri.

I’m a native lake girl myself, having lived at Lake of the Ozarks my entire lifetime. I’ve watched our lake go through many changes over the years, some good and some not so great. In regards to water quality, I didn’t realize how MUCH our lake had changed until my recent visit to Table Rock. I’m sad to say there’s no comparison.

Table Rock is absolutely gorgeous. It is an Army Corps of Engineers Lake, which means it’s maintained very differently from our privately owned Lake of the Ozarks. The water is so clear in fact, that they scuba dive here; some claim you can see the bottom as far down as 40 feet. From my personal experience, the water clarity IS incredible. There’s limited building and docks along the shoreline. A two-layer rock shelf wrapped the shoreline around the entire campsite area. I was able to walk with our dog along that shelf around the entire cove, in calf-deep water. We stopped several times to sit on the shelf and cool off in the breaking waves. I was taking photos of the boats and bridge, but Olivia became something of a celebrity to passing wave runners and pontoons, they were stopping on the water to take pictures of her and wave at us while we walked. We checked out some stacked rocks along the shore and chased a few minnows.

Our campsite was only a few minutes’ drive to downtown Branson. The $16 sites had water available, you can also get them with electric and other amenities. We went to the nearby pavilion to charge batteries and cell phones when necessary. The toilets are unfortunately not plumbed, but for outdoor toilets, they were very well cleaned and maintained. There are shower rooms on site and a marina if you need to restock ice or pick up essentials. We didn’t rent a boat or do any diving, but there are plenty of rental options available if we’d been interested.

Great place to for camping and the water was amazing. I’d absolutely go for a return visit!

http://www.news-leader.com/article/20130501/LIFE06/305010138/table-rock-lake-clear-water

http://mostateparks.com/park/table-rock-state-park


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Camping at Fiery Fork

Fiery Fork Conservation Area

This weekend, I went on my first camping trip in probably 25+ years.
My brother in law, his wife and children are all heavily involved in Boy Scouts and are old pros at the camping scene; but due to some pretty rough experiences camping as a kid, my idea of camping since I’ve been an adult has been a stay at the Ramada Inn. I know this may seem odd, considering my affinity for dirt, rocks and growing things- but the thing is, I love to work with nature, I just don’t know if I love to SLEEP in it. However, my recent camping experience was no where near the nightmarish memories of my youth and I think I’m even willing to do it again!fiery fork 005

The Fiery Fork Conservation Area is just east of Climax Springs on North State Highway 7, if you blink at Granger Lane, you’ll miss the sign. Last summer, the fields below the campgrounds were planted with sunflowers that were higher than my head (doesn’t take too much, I’m only 5’5″). There are several creek areas; it is the Fiery Fork Creek that the park is named for, all winding together to empty into the little Niangua River. Camping at Fiery Fork was my idea. I had driven down there a couple times last summer and discovered it was a really pretty area, not too busy compared to other parks in the Lake Area and conveniently, only about 5 miles from our house. In other words, close enough to go home if I couldn’t commit to spending the night under the stars.

Last summer, at the peak of  the drought, the river was only thigh-deep and much calmer, the water clear enough to see the gravel fiery fork 008bottom. Someone has tied a rope swing to the trees across from the river access; a sandbar that is usually large enough to park a couple cars or launch a canoe from. When the water is in its normal, more tranquil state, the riverside is the perfect Country-Time Lemonade Spot. This weekend was the end of a  very rainy couple of weeks; the river was crazy-full and running very fast, it looked like there was a fair amount of storm debris in all that muddy water too, so we didn’t attempt to swim in it, but took the kids to the creek instead. They explored, saw minnows, held a tadpole, slid around on the moss-covered bridge and collected rocks.

At the campsite, we made Smores around the campfire, grilled hot dogs and breakfast burritos. The campsites are primitive, which means no electric hookups or potable water- but the sites are large and an outdoor toilet is available near each campsite grouping of 4-5 sites each near the river. There is accessible parking near the toilet area and a paved ramp to the wide gated doorway. No sink or running water, take wet wipes with you!fiery fork 009

We had an entire camp area to ourselves, due to the earlier rainy weather, but Saturday evening was clear, sunny and only upper 70′s. The campsites have a metal fire pit with a grate attachment over them for cooking; some of the campsites are right on the Little Niangua; we opted for the wooded area near the creek crossing, it turned out to be the perfect spot for my 4 year old and her cousins to play. The kids set up a badminton net at the adjacent campsite and played a few games before our evening meal.

fiery fork 012The Missouri Department of Conservation site mentions hiking trails from a quarter mile up to a mile and a quarter, marked in blue paint on the trees to find your way. Some of the trails intersect with state and county roads or private property. Hiking wasn’t high on the list of things to do for my camp-mates or the kids, so I just took a few short walks near the campsite and by the Fiery Fork Creek; there is some really gorgeous scenery to look at.

Overall, it was not a bad camping experience. I did discover that a sleeping bag would be a wise purchase before spending a night outside again, I forget that temps in the upper 50′s are REALLY cold if you don’t have a house to protect you! Bug repellent comes in very handy here as we found many, many ticks. I managed to avoid being bit; just wear light colored clothing so they are easy to spot, that way you can remove them before they bite. Missouri woods are full of deer and other wildlife that ticks like to munch on; with all the rain this year, they are especially prolific.fiery fork 032

Bring some firewood with you if you want a fire for warmth, or charcoal for cooking if you don’t have a propane camp stove. The park service makes brochures available at the campsites with rules and regulations of the area. They request that visitors do not cut trees or limbs to get fire wood. We brought along enough for ourselves plus the next 4 or 5 visitors and there was some wood at our site already where the previous occupants had left some as well. So… if you forget your wood, you might check neighboring campsites.fiery fork 013

I heard whippoorwills on and off all night, an owl or two and one lonely coyote howling. Fiery Fork Creek was home to frogs, tadpoles, tiny minnows, crawdads and water snails. It  flows over the road and drops off the other side in a rocky waterfall ending in a small deep pool below before continuing on towards the Little Niangua. Most parts of the creek I was able to walk in Wellies that were just under knee-high without them taking on water.

There was thick forest all around us, but fields across the road and the creek running along and behind the camping area. The Conservation department keeps the grass mowed in and around the campsites. I may have to return to the creek later this summer and do a walk-through to explore more. I love following and exploring creeks in summer, but there are increasingly fewer places to do this around the Lake without encroaching on private property.fiery fork 022

I think what I liked best about Fiery Fork  is that it’s enough removed from the Osage Beach tourist mecca to offer a little quiet exploration, but close enough that it’s convenient to drive to. You can truly immerse yourself in nature here without loud boat engines or wave runners to interrupt the peace and quiet. There aren’t any shops or billboards, there are views of filtered light through tall trees, clear water and plenty of woods and fields to enjoy. :)


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Garden Planting Time! (Or Ghetto Greenhouse Part III)

ready to plantOk, HERE is the planting article I started to write before I got distracted by the raised planting bed subject.
Only our peppers and tomato plants were started in the house and transplanted as seedlings, everything else I sowed directly into the garden as seed. The seed planting was fun with the kiddo, but I learned the hard way not to let her handle delicate new vegetable plants, even ones that have been well hardened off. She broke several before I found her an alternate job to do. I left the broken ones in their original plastic bottle containers. Maybe they’ll grow new leaves, maybe they won’t. As you can see from the pictures, I didn’t have any shortage of tomato plants, so I wasn’t too upset about the loss of a few.

These were the plants that I started from seed back in February or March. In the past couple weeks, when it FINALLY stopped snowing here and the night temperatures were above 50F, I began the process of hardening off the plants. Pepper plants shouldn’t be transplanted to the ground until the earth has warmed to at least 50F; to do so earlier could kill them or hinder their growth until warmer weather comes. Tomato plants are a bit more forgiving, but you have to cover or shelter them if there is any danger of frost.
EggshellsHardening seedlings off basically entails getting those house-protected seedlings acclimated to being outdoors in a less controlled environment. The absolute best time to put them out is a cloudy day with a slight breeze. The breeze helps the stems to stiffen up so they can support the plant’s top growth and the cloud cover helps keeps the sun from scorching them. They’ll love all that sun later, but when they first come out from inside, they are a bit sun-shy. If you don’t have cloud cover, just sit them in at least partial shade. I put mine out for a week before transplanting them to the garden, starting off with only a couple hours and working up to 6-8 hours a day. The day I planted was also partly cloudy, which was helpful to avoid a lot of stress during transplant.
I don’t use my plastic containers more than one season. I’m not absolutely sure whether or not those water or Gatorade bottles are BPA-free and since I’ve read that the chemicals can leach into soil or be absorbed by plants when the plastics begin to break down, I just cut them off the roots and toss them when I plant. Cutting them off also means I don’t have to disturb all those tiny little roots any more than absolutely necessary.

I dug the holes, making them deep enough to plant each seedling at least as deep as it had been in its container- deeper for all the tomatoes, since they will grow new roots along the buried stems. Soil additives are the perfect task for little helpers; I had a bowl full of crushed eggshells and another of used coffee grounds to add to each hole. I instructed my daughter to get a big handful of eggshells and put it in the bottom of each hole. Coffee is a good green soil additive and gives the plant a nitrogen boost; we followed the eggshells with a handful of coffee grounds.PlantTomato
I’ve planted my tomatoes with crushed eggshells since my first attempt at growing tomatoes resulted in about 25% of them getting blossom rot. Blossom rot is fairly common in tomato plants and can often be prevented with good watering practices and adding calcium to the soil. Since eggshells release their calcium slowly, I add some to the hole when planting and top-dress more around the plants throughout the season. You can also save water from boiling eggs, cool it and use it to water the plants. They are also a great slug and snail deterrent; they don’t like to drag their soft little bodies over all those sharp edges. I don’t add extra fertilizers or plant food to seedlings, since I already grow them in soil amended with Miracle Grow Garden Soil and home-made compost.
After my daughter broke several plants trying to separate them from each other, I put her on additive and seed planting duty so I could pull the delicate plants out of their containers- I told her this was a Mommy job since it required sharp scissors ;) – once the plant was in place, I helped her scoop some dirt back into the hole and pat it down very gently (don’t break the stems) to hold them in place. If you have trellis or stakes to add, you’ll want to do it NOW while your plants are small, even though it may seem unnecessary until they actually need the support. Add it later; you may damage the roots when you jam the spikes or stakes into the ground or snap off the vines trying to weave them through your supports. I have a sort of permanent trellis attached to our house of thin, bendable wire. I originally planned these to support climbing roses, so they are quite strong and support cucumber and tomato plants well. I found I preferred them to cages, since they keep the plants spread out, the fruits are easier to get to, there are less areas for bugs to hide and plenty of air circulation to prevent fungus or mildew. Whatever you use, make sure it’s going to be strong enough to support fully mature plants with fruits on them. I was surprised at first how HEAVY they can actually get!

GardenPlantsSince I was planting full size plants and not direct-sowing seeds, I went ahead and added mulch around the plants. Mulch really helps new seedlings retain moisture since they don’t have deep, established roots yet. The chunky pine mulch also helped some of my floppy plants stand up a bit straighter until their stems strengthen enough to support themselves. I skipped the mulch over the areas where we put just seed, to make sure the new seedlings are able to get enough light and heat to germinate. Once the plants are up and established, I’ll weed around them and add mulch then.

At the height of summer, it easily reaches the 100 degree mark here; I usually have to water at least every third or fourth day if there’s no rain to supplement. Too frequent watering won’t encourage your plants to develop deep roots and they will dry out quickly and have little support for bushy top growth. Soak them really well when you do water. Aside from this, there are really no hard and fast rules on watering; check your soil and watch your plants, a little common sense will tell you whether they are dry and need a drink or not. Morning and evenings have worked best from my experience; mid-day burns off quickly and seems to shock the plants that get doused with cold water when they’re really hot. I’ve read lots of advice about not getting the leaves wet because it causes fungal diseases, etc. This is fine advice if you can avoid it, but if you get the leaves wet, it’s not the end of the world. Rain doesn’t JUST water the roots of a plant when it falls.GardenPlanted
It helps to plant things like lettuce, broccoli and other plants that bolt in hot weather behind your trellised plants to provide them with some shade. Our garden area gets blasted with full sun from around noon-thirty until 4-ish in the afternoon, so the sun really beats down during that part of the day. I’ve noticed that my tomato plants will look a bit wilted during the really brutal summer days, but they always perk back up in the evening when it cools off a bit. I’ve read somewhere that this is a normal defense-mechanism of the plant and nothing to get excited about.
So I guess that’s finally it for the starting plants from seed subject; since I’ve seen them from package into the garden and it’s all maintenance from here. I’ll try to remember and post at least a few photos of our garden once it is well established and producing. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for no beetle horror stories this year in the meanwhile, but we’ll see. ;)


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Raising Dirt

Raised BedThis article originally started out as a planting guide for those seedlings I’ve been raising, but then I realized there might be a bit I could say on the subject of where those seedlings will be going once they are ready to move outdoors. Most of you already have your gardens in for this year, unless you live in the northernmost climes. Here in Missouri, I normally have my garden in and established for several weeks by the middle of May; however, it was still snowing the first week of May this year so everything got a late start.

I garden mostly in raised beds, so this article will be relative to that form of gardening. If you are planting directly in the ground, then obviously there is a bit more prep work involved. The soil here, unless you venture into the woods, has very little or no topsoil and is almost all rocks and red clay. It isn’t impossible to grow plants in with a lot of amendment and effort, but it’s certainly not the easiest in the world to work with. For trees, bushes and large landscape plants, I cope with the clay. When it comes to planting flowers and vegetables though, I prefer my raised beds.

I’ve seen raised bed kits in the seed catalogs and in garden centers at the hardware store. You don’t need a fancy kit to build a raised bed and they don’t have to be very high to be beneficial. My first raised bed, the one I use for most of our vegetable garden, was built from rocks I dug up in the yard or found in the surrounding woods.
I learned by watching my dad, who built a raised area in Mom’s yard for her above ground pool to sit on. He started with a layer of large rocks that he buried slightly in the ground, and then added dirt to the top of the first row of rocks. He then added another layer of rock on top of the first and backfilled that with still more soil. It’s sort of like building steps, but with rocks.
In our area of the country, you don’t even need mortar to hold your beds together; the clay will usually serve that purpose. I will say this- if you aren’t using very large rocks and/or you will have small children or animals around the beds, then you may want to use some sort of mortar or landscaping adhesive to hold everything steady. My 4 year old kicks rocks out of the flower bed all the time, so far I just pick them up and put them back in place.
Her dad built a raised bed of her own this year; I had asked for a raised planter next to our composter for extra vegetable space, he added a small rectangle next to mine for her to plant. Both boxes were built from lumber scraps, held together with L-brackets in the corners for strength. We put a few veggies in hers; some garlic bulbs and snow peas, but mostly Mexican sunflower and marigolds. I wanted things that were almost foolproof to grow; she’s been out to check her bed every day since we planted it and was thrilled to find tiny seedlings sprouting after last night’s rain.
Planting things in raised beds is a lot like container gardening, except your containers don’t have a bottom. I’ve seen all sort of materials used; lumber, landscape timbers, railroad ties, concrete blocks, rocks picked up from the yard, old tires, lined cardboard boxes, stacked clay pots and so on. Mostly, choosing a material to build a raised bed is a case of aesthetics. Pick what suits you, your style and your yard. One note of advice however; I’ve seen many pins on Pinterest of people growing vegetable and herb gardens in beds of railroad ties, treated lumber (guilty- although the lumber I used it almost 10 years old) and concrete blocks all of which can leach chemicals into the soil and from there into your plants. If you’re planting for food and the chemicals concern you, consider avoiding these for your raised bed frames.HardwareCloth
We have so much rock here that gophers and moles haven’t been a serious issue, but I’ve noticed further north where the soil is much looser and the topsoil deep, the underground critters are fairly rampant. If you’ve noticed a lot of activity in your yard from root-munching rodents, you might want to lay down a sheet of wire mesh and build your bed on top of that. You can find it in most lawn and garden centers on a roll near the poultry netting and garden fencing. The ¼ inch stuff works brilliantly for this; it’s small enough that most rodents can’t get through, but allows worms, water, air and soil to pass through. I stole this photo from Google, as I would have had to go up to our storage shed where the old rat cage is and take pictures of hardware cloth. We lined the outside of a bookshelf with it as a cage for our fancy rats. They chewed through the bookcase; but couldn’t get through the hardware cloth. It will protect your carrots and potatoes in exactly the same way from gophers and rabbits.
Depending on the soil you intend to use, you may want to put down a drainage layer on top of your hardware cloth. I used native soil and leaves to fill about half my container, then store-bought garden soil and my own compost on top. You can layer fall leaves and small bits of sticks on the bottom for drainage, then a heavier layer of soil and finally compost and lighter materials on top if you like. Top it off with a layer of mulch once your plants are established. You want the beds to be able to drain, but not so fast that you have to water constantly. Raised beds will dry out a bit faster than a garden planted directly in the earth, so keep this in mind when planning your watering schedule.
A little tip I picked up from Paul James, the garden guy that used to do Gardening By The Yard on HGTV, is that a little fall prep for raised beds and even for in-ground gardens can save you a lot of hoeing, tilling and digging in the spring. I saved all my cardboard boxes for a couple of months, starting at the end of the summer. In the fall after I’d cleared the dead plants from my garden, I put down a thick layer of cardboard over the entire area. So I didn’t have to look at cardboard boxes all winter, I covered the boxes with a layer of black weed barrier cloth, anchored by landscape pins. The cardboard breaks down over the winter months. It allows water to penetrate, but helps to keep the earth beneath it soft. If you’ve never had the pleasure of dealing with clay soil, you have NO IDEA how helpful that is. If you have, then you know that clay turns to concrete when it’s dry and tar-like muck when it’s wet. The cardboard breaks down into the soil, loosening up the particles of clay and making it much more workable. It also speeds up the breakdown of leaves or mulch left on top of the garden, adding more organic material to enrich the soil. Where I didn’t have cardboard, I piled up the leaves and left them in place until spring. Rake them off when you’re ready to plant and you have soft, black, workable soil. No tilling, hoeing or hauling of garden soil necessary. Dried leaves help acidify the soil as well, good to know if you’re growing acid-loving plants like blueberries. An added benefit of the cardboard/landscaping fabric layer was that it kept weeds and crabgrass from sprouting and helped to heat up the raised beds for planting a bit faster than the actual ground temperature.
RaisedBedsThis same trick works for an in-ground garden, although it may require more than a single season to see the dramatic results I got in already soil-amended raised beds. The reason there is good top soil in the woods around my house and not in my yard is thanks to the bulldozers that cleared the land before they built our house here. They scraped off every ounce of topsoil and left all the exposed clay and rocks on the surface instead. Conversely, the woods that weren’t disturbed have years and years of leaf buildup on the ground, rotting slowly and turning to rich, dark soil underneath. Trees in the woods create their own mulch and compost. Tilling up the earth exposes the soil to air and water that can rob it of nutrients. It dries out the topsoil layer that protects what’s underneath. If you want your garden to grow big, healthy plants then you have to put back some of what is lost when you clear and till the soil.
MULCH ALL THE THINGS.
I can’t even stress how important this step is and it’s one that is often ignored. Mulch is a young plant’s best friend. It holds topsoil and soil amendments in place, it prevents erosion, and it protects the upper layers of soil from sun scorch. Mulch helps plants and soil retain moisture, so mulched plants need less watering. Organic mulches break down over time and enrich the soil composition, adding nutrients and helping to break up soils with tightly packed particles like clay. In sandy soils, they add bulk and keep the water from just running through. I’ve read studies that claim some types of mulch even encourage your plants to grow faster because of the increase in certain light spectrums when reflected back up to your plant. Tomato plants especially, are said to benefit from red-colored mulch.
I tend to favor pine-mulch; not because it does anything special, I just love the smell.
So… for a post that was originally supposed to be about garden plants, I rather ran off on a tangent. Then again, you can’t have healthy plants without healthy soil. No matter where I start, it always seems to come back around to dirt.  :)

-B

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