A Shady Problem

FrontWalk2003When we moved to this property over 15 years ago, the previous owner had lost it to repossession. I guess he decided he wasn’t letting the bank have anything that wasn’t in the original deal, so he tore the back porch down that he’d built, ripped the gutters off the house, etc. The yard was pretty much a blank slate of clay and rock, barren of even weeds in most places.

The front walkway has evolved over the years with the yard, but I’ve never really found quite the right solution for it. The first couple years, we just threw down straw to keep from tracking mud in the house. Then I let the weeds grow and just trimmed them short so that you could tell where you were supposed to walk of you came in the front door. I had built a concrete walk for the back, which we used and the front walk remained ugly and ignored for years. My first attempt at building a raised bed from rocks was under this window. I planted it full of elephant ears, which was really pretty, but then they got so big after a bit that they were hanging over the walk. Then we had an especially cold winter and the elephant ears were no more.

I finally got around to leveling at some point and building a  walkway. At first, the sides were only filled with gravel I’d robbed from the driveway. I sprayed the weeds that popped through with Roundup once a season. I was mostly content with that for a couple of years, but every time it rained or snowed, rocks from the edges of the walkway wound up scattered all over the place. I finally got sick of raking them back into place and put landscaping bricks around the edges to separate the walkway from the surrounding area. I took the gravel out when the brick went in, thinking I would plant some sort of perennial garden in the two strips along the walk and it would look fabulous in a couple year’s time.

FernWalk 005So I bought dirt, mulch and about $60 worth of seeds, planted everything and then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. And… it rained for a freaking month straight. Most of my dirt packed down and stayed in the beds, but nothing else did. The seeds washed away or drowned. The mulch wound up in the driveway and eventually down in the woods. I was left with barren dirt beds that the house was now digging a trench in each time it rained, because we’ve never put gutters back on the house.

I didn’t want to fill it back in with gravel, but that flower bed has been a real pain in the ass before, even when there was no real sidewalk. I’m limited as to what will grow in this strip along the house. Until 10 am, it gets no sun. Then from 11am-12 noon it’s full sun. Around 1pm, it’s back in full shade until the next morning. Right around the corner of the house, FULL SUN. Elephant ears was one of the few plants that tolerated those conditions well. Hostas did ok… sometimes they would get sun scorched though during those couple hours around noon.

This past summer we spent a lot of time down in our woods, riding the four-wheeler, looking for rocks for the fire-FernWalk 002pit, planning a camp-site. I already knew there were thousands upon thousands of ferns in our woods, I’d just overlooked them as a usable resource. I made trips to the woods with buckets, brought up a few ferns and stuck them around the back edges of the sidewalk with some flowering clover. They have been very happy there all summer and are filling in nicely. I decided today that I’d do the same with this ugly, washed out, shady problem spot. Except instead of just ferns and mulch, I also added larger river rocks to stop the rush of water off the house from flooding this bed and sending everything down the walk into the driveway when it rains.

FernWalk 004There are two different kinds of ferns in our woods- a tall, delicate kind that grows on thin stalks (I think this is a Bracken Fern?) and a broader leaf kind that sends up curly fronds that flatten out as they mature (Christmas Fern). I’ve seen both reach a foot in height and spread. It took 4 buckets full to give me enough plants for this bed, probably about 25-30 ferns in all. If I’d had to pay for these, this would have been a MUCH more expensive project.

Same with the rock, I made 4-5 trips to the dry creek beds in our woods for rock. Not that I don’t have rock near the house, I have plenty. But the ones in the creek bed have that riverbed, old, worn, fossil look that I wanted with the ferns. I mostly took ferns in the path that were in danger of being run over by the ATV anyway. As you can see from the picture, I left PLENTY of them in the woods. I also brought back some rotted tree and leaf compost.

I dug holes in the bed and planted the ferns, mixing up the two kinds. Mostly I kept the broad leaf ones near the back. This is the part of the flower bed that takes the most abuse from falling water and since the other kind were more delicate, I placed them in front near the sidewalk.FernWalk 006

I had some cardboard boxes saved that I hadn’t burned and used this between the planted ferns as a weed barrier. Cardboard is one of the best free weed barriers you can put in your garden/flower beds. It breaks down over time, but doesn’t shred like that black plastic yuck you get from the garden centers. Worms love it and it holds moisture at the root level of your plants.

Placing the river rocks was sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. I just fitted them in where they looked best to me. Again, I kept the bigger rocks right under the roof-line, since they’ll be taking the worst beating from falling roof water.

FernWalk 008

I saved the compost and what little mulch was left in the bed to toss on top of everything. It falls down between the rocks and hides the cardboard where it might show through between rocks and plants.

Anytime I’m building a new bed like this and especially with transplants, I give it a REALLY good drink right after planting and water it well for several days after. This helps get air pockets out of the soil that can dry out plant roots, helps the soil settle back in so it doesn’t get washed out by heavy rain and encourages the plants to establish to their new space quickly. FernWalk 009

 

Once they’re settled, these ferns will need next to no maintenance (The ones I planted in spring are doing wonderful without any intervention on my part all summer). When I dug them up from the woods today, they were growing out of rocky, dry soil that didn’t look like it had much nutrient value. Most of the websites I’ve visited for fern care recommend well drained, humus rich (humus is compost- hence the rotted tree I brought back with them) soil. I dump chopped up dead leaves on mine whenever I get a FernWalk 011chance. I figured that was the closest mulch to what they are adapted to in nature.

 

Now that I’ve finally established a working plant bed for the shady side of the sidewalk, I’ll have to come up with a plan to fill in the other side. Phlox would be the lazy fix. Maybe I’ll do some research…

 

-B

Oops, I Forgot My Wisteria is Insane.

This is a post where you get to learn from my poor planning and lack of foresight. Or if you’re a more experienced gardener, you can just say, “Tsk. Tsk.” or “I feel your pain.”garden 003

A couple years ago we made these great wooden planter boxes out of leftover boards from the back deck rebuild. I planted tomatoes in them two years in a row and they did wonderfully. I’ve occasionally had to trim the wisteria vine behind them back to keep it from getting down onto the tomato trellis. There was a storm that blew hard enough to lift the entire wisteria vine and flop it over to the other side of the trellis a year or two ago. We had to use our pickup and a tow chain to move the trellis back in place, the wisteria itself was too heavy to re-locate back where it was, so I was forced to cut it back severely. It didn’t bloom the next year and I was sad. I was afraid I’d not see it bloom again for years; sometimes new growth on a Chinese wisteria can take 10 years before it will produce blooms!

garden 004This year though it bloomed like crazy, the bumblebees were back, the birds are nesting in it and all is right with the world. Except…
Because the bulk of the plant now grows towards the driveway and not the yard, the way it did before the storm relocated it, it now almost completely covers the planter boxes we built by the fence. I wanted to grow peppers in them this year, but the wisteria grows somewhere at a rate of 6 inches to a foot every day I think… once I’m sure it grew 3 feet in about 5 minutes when it realized I wasn’t keeping an eye on it.

I fear that one day it will eat our house.

Anyway, the planter box that had once been in a nice sunny spot for growing vegetables was now in almost complete, deep shade 90% of the day. It got a little morning sun, but that was it. AND the wisteria continues to grow. If I don’t cut it back every week, it will reach the ground and start traveling towards the cars. I’m sure of it. Maybe I can train it to go do my Wal-Mart shopping for me?

So today, because of poor planning and a Wisteria that grows like Kudzu, I had the pleasure of emptying out the entire planter box, moving the frame and then putting all the dirt back in it. It took me almost as long to move it as it did to build it in the first place, but I’m fairly certain it will get plenty of sun in its new home. I dropped it on the front corner of the what is slowly becoming our new vegetable garden. garden 001
Anyway, lesson learned and I thought I’d share. If you’re thinking of building a structure like a raised bed, make sure you plan it away from plants that may grow very large, or especially aggressive growers (like wisteria!), unless you don’t mind your structure being taken over by Jumanji nightmare vines. A little planning and consideration for the future look, size and scope of a project could save you a lot of trouble later!

Ok gardeners. You can stop smirking and shaking your heads now. 😛

-B

Brown Lawn in Summer? You CAN keep it GREEN! Ask me how!!!

We moved to our current home in March of 2001. My husband looked at the yard and saw a barren mess; dusty in summer, brown in fall, mud-pit any time in rained. It has taken me over a decade to coax the natural beauty out of this place and turn our yard into a spot to relax and play, rather than just a space we have to walk through in order to get to the cars from our house.
Our soil is about 90% clay, 10% rock and anything growing in it when we got here was weeds or crabgrass. This picture was taken sometime around 2003, when I had already put two years of constant work into the yard. I begged plants from anyone and everyone I could get them from. I tilled and tilled and tilled some more, picked up rocks, tried to fertilize, spent a fortune on grass seed. Used a mulching mower… all those things I’d heard were supposed to give you a nice yard.backyardbefore

My greatest frustration was the lawn. I couldn’t get grass to grow, no matter what I tried. I bought bag after bag of seed, all promising a beautiful, lush green lawn and guaranteed to grow. I covered the yard in straw. I covered it in mulch. I covered it in chopped up leaves. I dumped compost on it several years in a row. I even bought bags of potting soil and poured those on the yard in desperation, determined that I would have grass SOMEHOW.
It didn’t happen. Everything I tried worked for a while- I would have beautiful, promising patches of green- only to watch them die the next year, or get choked out by the masses of crabgrass as soon as it emerged in late spring. I finally just let the crabgrass take over and mowed it. At least it was green… until late summer anyway.

It wasn’t until around the time I had my daughter (she’s 5 now) that I finally sat down, did the research and figured out how to get real grass in our lawn. I didn’t want my little one playing in a yard full of rocks and crabgrass, I envisioned her tiny feet walking barefoot in a thick green carpet green- so full and deep that she could tumble over and it would cushion her falls. Children playing in our yard previously had been hurt on the tiny little rocks that seemed to appear year after year from just under the surface of the soil (ahem-dust). I’d rake them off; a new crop would replace them the next year. There was also the matter of our yard dropping off into a steep ravine; a dangerous 10 to 20 foot spill into larger rocks and blackberry briars. My husband and I fenced the yard. We did it with garden fence and T-posts, since a wood or chain link fence wasn’t in the budget. Then I tackled the crabgrass.

I had learned from years of trial and error that you don’t till clay soil to plant in it. It just turns it up- it dries out, loses all its nutrients and becomes little hard balls of concrete and dust. I had planted irises around the edges of the yard to help keep all my soil amendments from washing down the hill, but it was still in pretty sad shape. I’d learned the grass seed wasn’t going to ever give us the lawn we wanted. I found my salvation in an online nursery that sold Zoysia grass plugs by the 100-count.

Infomercial-style claims aside, this stuff actually works wonders folks. I took the pictures below today. It’s the 1st day of August; Missouri is once again under a moderate to severe drought and 99% of the lawns on my street look like the one on the left. They are dried out, crunchy and turning to dust. In the August heat, seeded grasses like annual rye grass or Kentucky blue go dormant. These cool-season grasses can’t hack it when the heat and dry is on; they take a nap and go brown. You get pretty, green grass in the spring months and early summer with these. I’ve seen sodded yards do the same.
Grasses like Zoysia and Bermuda grass are grown from plugs, not seed. We actually burned our drill out using it to put in all those tiny little holes for our plugs when I first put in the lawn, but I’d go buy a new drill again, it was worth it. We spent about two days, putting in 200+ plugs. It was a pain in the butt and I had serious doubts that the effort would pay off. Everything I’d tried up to that point had ended in crabgrass. The Zoysia didn’t disappoint. The first year it spread enough to cover the entire planted area sparsely. It didn’t quite give me the thick, toddler fall-breaking carpet I’d hoped for when our daughter was two- but it’s there now. The picture on the right, I took of our yard today. I’ve mowed it a total of 3-4 times since the beginning of the summer season and I’ve watered it ONCE. No kidding. Once.
This stuff can tolerate heat and drought like nobody’s business.CheesyGrassAd
I did do my best to shade this yard so my daughter doesn’t have to be coated in sunscreen every time she steps outside. It gets full sun in the morning hours, but is in shade most of the afternoon and especially during the hottest part of the day- from 2 till 5pm. Zoysia spreads like mad, but it doesn’t grow very high and get stalks like regular grasses, so I have to mow about half as much as my neighbors do.

I do apply a pre-emergent crabgrass killer/fertilizer in the spring and I de-thatch in the fall and spring while I’m raking the leaves out of the yard. I pull the occasional dandelion or weed, but the grass chokes most of those out and they seldom get a foothold. Sometimes the dog leaves yellow spots if she pees too much in one place. In spring I’ve watered these areas down a bit more, so the burned spots can recover. (Female dogs are harder on lawns that males- since they tend to put all their pee in one spot, rather than spreading a little here and there.)
For maintenance, that’s IT. I don’t dump a bunch of chemical fertilizer on it half the year. I don’t spray for weeds or bugs. I don’t mow very often, in fact I have to trim the area outside the fence much more often than I do the yard. I wish my flower beds and the sidewalks were HALF as easy to maintain. The best part about these warm season grasses though, is still having a green gorgeous lawn in August when everywhere around us is dead and brown. During the severe drought a couple years ago, I watered the yard 3 times. My trees and flowers I had to water daily.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE… If you’re sick of looking at brown grass, order your Zoysia plugs NOW in time to plant for fall and you too can have that gorgeous, green lawn that will be the envy of your neighbors in the hottest days of summer! 😉
And now for the fine print, or that stuff they say really really fast at the end that nobody really pays attention to.

 

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Hugelkultur

Walking through the woods a couple weekends ago with family, we came across an area of Pa Pa’s property that we hadn’t visited before. It was a far corner along the property line, the woods there so thick and close that the light was dimmed at least by half by the canopy above.

HugelkulturMound

Very old Hugelkultur mound

The wood’s floor was deep and spongy with leaves- even the usually prolific Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper wouldn’t sprout; mosquitoes were abundant, we could smell the leaf mould and wet permeating everything. Many scrubby cedars stretched up to the canopy, struggling for light but found little in the understory of taller trees. As a result, only the branches at the very tops still remained green and held needles; all the lower branches within reach were dead or dying and brittle to the touch. We pushed through to the edge of the property line and began to back track, when we came across several large mounds of earth in our path.  The mounds were 3-4 feet high and about 10-12 feet long. Rocks were piled on top of one of them as if to mark that spot. The larger two mounds were planted at the foot of a big cedar, this one towering over its straggling, sad looking younger cousins.

Shawnee are common in the St. James area and I had already spotted multiple thong trees pointing in the direction of a dry creek bed nearby. My sis in law speculated that they might be burial mounds. Under that darkening canopy, with sounds of water, critters chewing away at the rot and squirming about under a foot-thick carpet of decaying leaves and spongy wood- the idea of burial mounds seemed not only plausible but very likely. We also kept hearing something near us like footsteps or small rocks being tossed… but each time we stopped to listen, we heard only insects chewing and the whining hum of mosquitoes trying to feast on our ears.

I climbed to the top of one of the mounds so that I could look at it from a bird’s eye vantage point- it occurred to me that this would be rather irreverent if these were graves. Looking down on them though, they looked less like burial mounds. They reminded me more of  my Great Grandma’s old root cellar. We found four mounds in sets of two. They were placed with a space between them almost equal to the width of each mound. The tops of the mounds were squishy; the soil rich, deep and covered in moss.

We walked in the direction the thong trees were pointing after examining the mounds. Most of the thongs were in mature oaks that I’d guess their age to be about 80-100 years. By the way, I found this little guide from Missouri Conservation most helpful in guesstimating the age of  trees without counting rings: http://mdc.mo.gov/your-property/your-trees-and-woods/backyard-tree-care/how-old-tree

After traveling downhill for a bit, we came to what I expected to find, which was a creek bed. It was dry though, no active spring feeding into it. We wanted rocks to take back with us and had ridden down to that part of the property on Pa Pa’s 4-wheel drive mule, but I wasn’t sure that I would make it down to the stream-bed through all the thick undergrowth and trees. We opted to backtrack to the field and look for the source of the stream instead. We found it, at the bottom of a wide ravine that allowed a perfect size space to park the ATV in.

BigAssRockAt the top of the stream bed, there was a dam. It had been built of stacked rocks, earth and chunks of concrete that I noticed were decorated with bits of glass. The dam was about 5 feet at its widest point and spanned the bottom of the ravine like a bridge. The rocks I found there had mineral deposits that reminded me of the formations you see in the caves around here- I took one back to the house and Thurman said it had a lot of iron oxide in it and a fair amount of pyrite. It was a REALLY heavy rock for the size that it was. I also brought back another monster rock, which Miranda had to help me lift into the back of the mule. I’m still trying to decide where in our yard I want to park it. For now it’s sitting near the frog pond, since that is as far as I could carry it myself from the trunk of our car. :-p

When I got home, I decided to do a little research into what those strange hills in the woods might be. My husband read a fair bit about Shawnee burial mounds. I started looking at different types of root cellars. It was during my browsing of root cellars that I stumbled across pictures that looked EXACTLY like our mounds. 3-4 feet high, paired in sets of two, at the base of large trees. The word under the caption was Hugelkultur, which is a German word for “Hill culture.”

There has been a lot of interest in recent years regarding perma-culture, or permanent, sustainable methods of gardening or small scale farming. I’ve heard gardening called a “retired person’s” hobby, it’s coming back into vogue thanks to the popularity of survival-ism and prepping. Hill culture is method of lasagna gardening, which is layering different materials for your garden bed and planting right on top of the layers, then allowing all the materials to compost there in place. It’s less labor intensive than building compost piles and turning, watering and caring for them every day. The material breaks down slowly, feeding the plant roots on top as it turns into compost. The mounds we found in the woods would have broken down over time, spreading out and losing height as the bulky inner layer decomposed. After I read how Hugelkultur mounds are built, I understood why they felt spongy when I stood on them.hugelkultur

The inner layer of a Hugelkultur mound is bulky, rough material- such as tree trunks and limbs. Over this you would add a layer of a slightly lighter compost material- straw, chopped leaves, grass clippings, sod, large vegetable scraps, newspaper, cardboard, etc. Soil amendments can be added on top of this layer. I’ve read that the first couple years, nitrogen rich additives may be needed, since the tree trunks will absorb most of the free nitrogen in the pile until they reach saturation and begin to break down. Blood meal is great for this and relatively inexpensive. If you have access to manure, it’s full of nitrogen. Plants in the Legume family will also add nitrogen to the surrounding soil.
On top of all this bulk, you would add your actual soil. I have mostly clay and rocks here, so I’d probably use a mixture of purchased garden soil from the nursery, cut in half with some native clay. Clay is wonderful for holding nutrient value, it just sucks for drainage. Add plants, then mulch well as the final layer.

hugelkultur_how_to_imageThe mounds are built in pairs at an angle where the sun will pass over them side to side; some pictures I saw used  trees as a wind break on the north. Some left the space between the mounds empty so that every part of the hill was easily reachable. Others used the middle space for extra compost and added this center to the tops of the mounds as it broke down; this would give the hills a constant source of renewal and nutrient build up.

I’ve already chosen a spot in our yard where I intend to try this out. Even though I have a commercial drum-style composter, I would love to see if Hugelkultur gardening is as pain-free as its proponents claim. I already build raised beds for practically everything I grow in our yard, since few plants really love the rocky, clay soil. Plus, tilling clay only serves to dry it out and completely strip it of any nutrient value. A tilled garden simply wouldn’t work well in our yard. I tried it a couple times, then my tiller was retired to the shed up the hill after about 3 uses, it will likely see a revival only if we move.

I know our local Amish and Mennonites are genius when it comes to growing anything- if you’ve ever had one of their tomatoes from Farris Fruit Market in Camdenton, you’ll stop in there JUST for those. The Amish on Pa Pa’s property would have been the ones who built these mounds. I’m guessing they might have also dammed that spring, maybe to create an artesian well, in order to water their gardens.  I’ll post more pictures when I get back up to St James and can visit the mounds with a camera in hand. When I build mine, I’ll try to do a step by step write up on what I put into them and post later on whether or not they were superior for growing plants or not.

This site has some really excellent information about Hugelkultur and a ton of photos if you’re interested in learning more. http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/ It also shows the progression of the mounds in graphic form, from year one all the way up to 20 years.

http://gardenhillbilly.hubpages.com/hub/Gardening-Without-Fertilizers-Tips# also has some great how to’s and tons of info on Hugelkultur gardening.

 

Beetlejuice… Beetlejuice… Beetle…

FatCatDoorstop

Fat cat doorstop.

Nah. I’m not going to chance it. 🙂

We aren’t under attack by a half-mad pervert from the underworld, but have experienced a strange spectacle around here the past several days. My daughter found the first of our green invaders in the office, running right past the cat’s nose as she watched them trundle along their merry way. (*Note to self- “Cat cannot be depended on as anything but a doorstop.”) I caught a shiny green, very fast moving beetle the size of the cat’s paw in a wad of paper towel and tossed it out the back door. We resumed watching TV; a few minutes later I caught movement out of the corner of my eye- another beetle to catch and remove. As an added bonus, every single one I handled gave off a noxious smell and I had to scrub my hands with dish soap afterwards to get rid of the scent.

A few minutes passed, we saw one running across the living room floor. A few more minutes, our daughter reported another one in the office. I went to squash an empty soda can, couldn’t figure out what was banging around in it- thought someone had put trash in it- looked in the can- it was MOVING. Not trash. Another beetle. CATBeetleThere was a beetle on the movie cases. A beetle in our bedroom. A beetle on the living room windows. A beetle on my daughter’s bedroom curtains.
All of these sightings and removals were in the span of a couple hours. I was starting to wonder if there is a panic button to summon emergency exterminators.

While I spent a good portion of those two hours removing beetles, Tom was doing a little research on Wiki. Our unwanted house guests are called Caterpillar Hunter Beetles. The shiny, iridescent green beetles were brought over to New England from Europe to control gypsy moth populations. They have strong, sharp mandibles for killing and chewing their prey so should be handled with care. They will bite if trapped in clothing or handled- I was unlucky enough to get one inside my shirt while they were swarming our house. The resulting dance/jump/strip in driveway probably would have been quite amusing to our neighbors had they been watching. >.<

On the web, I’ve also seen them called Fiery Beetles. Their primary diet is caterpillars of all kinds- you don’t want these guys in your milkweed patch if you’re trying to draw monarchs to your yard. They are wonderful controllers of those nasty little bagworms (Eastern Tent Caterpillars) that can decimate a tree in hours after they hatch out of their tents. During his research, my husband assured me that they should be most welcome in the garden since they destroy other damaging insects. I would usually tend to agree, but when I went outside the evening of the house invasion, I could HEAR them crawling there were so many. The entire office side of our house looked like it was moving. The flower bed beneath the streetlight on that side of the house was moving. I couldn’t avoid stepping on quite a few that were all over the sidewalk.

Run little caterpillar!

Run little caterpillar!

I started having flashbacks of Stephen King’s Creepshow- that horrible bit with the cockroaches invading the guy’s apartment… I wanted to turn off the streetlight in hopes that they would see light elsewhere (Sorry neighbors!) and go there. I couldn’t even get to the switch- there were no less than 10 beetles crawling all over it and each other. I went back inside, a little bit freaked out; Tom reminded me that I could also turn the streetlight off by flipping the green breaker in our utility room, thankfully the light and pond pump are wired to their own breaker. I turned off the lights inside and out, shoved rolled up towels under the office and bedroom doors and hoped I wouldn’t wake up with beetles crawling on my face.

BeetlePoop

Yes. I took a picture of poop.

The next morning I went out to walk the dog and cringed as I stepped out the door, preparing myself for the swarm… it was gone. Not a single beetle in sight, except for the few we’d crushed on the sidewalk the night before. I walked the dog and on my way across the driveway noticed two piles of poop. It wasn’t made by deer, I’d seen plenty of that in the woods and knew what it looked like. The really noticeable thing about this poo was that it was very shiny. It was completely LOADED with bits of caterpillar beetle shell. I found another poo further up our driveway that was the same. Again, we searched the web, looking at poo pictures until we matched our deposits up with some raccoon leavings. Apparently raccoons will eat beetles. These particular raccoons must have STUFFED themselves with beetles, they were so full they didn’t even make it out of our driveway before they had to do their business. I know some of you in the city detest raccoons because they get in your garbage. They were my little saviors this week. My only worry is that they might come back and decide to try a little frog out of the pond. We like our frogs and don’t want them eaten.

There are still more than a few beetles left- enough to be beneficial to the garden without being outright creepy and a nuisance. I’m not big on spraying pesticides- with a small child and dogs in the yard and garden, I prefer to let nature perform its own checks and balances if possible. We don’t kill spiders if we can avoid it, I adore all our praying mantis, and ladybugs are most welcome as long as they bite the aphids and not me.

It occurred to me that I wrote last year or the year before about blister beetles on the tomato plants… perhaps this is going to become a yearly feature- the beetle write up.

I’m wondering why I can’t be swarmed by something charming… like butterflies or dragonflies???

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. 😉

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

Ghetto Greenhouse Part II

IPlastic Bottle promised an update when I transplanted seeds… I’m a bit late since I actually did this almost 3 weeks ago. I did save the pictures though, so I can still run through that bit. My daughter is at school and I didn’t want to be covered in joint compound and drywall dust to go pick her up, so I have almost an hour to write! 🙂

So seed starting next steps…

We drink a lot of bottled water and Gatorade which comes in plastic bottles and yes, I know, it’s terrible for the environment- but, I reuse mine for all sorts of things instead of just tossing them in the trash. Seed starting time for instance, I save bottles for several months and use those for my transplants instead of buying seed starting kits at the store. It saves money and it helps recycle many of those bottles that would otherwise wind up in trash. Clear plastic bottles make excellent seedling starters for several reasons; they are thin enough to cut through with household scissors and don’t require special tools, they hold water well without disintegrating like paper pots or peat pots, they are the ideal size for individual seedlings, are easily transportable if you’d like to give some plants away (which I do every year) and best of all, you can actually SEE the root development on your plants. There’s no questioning whether the root systems are well established and ready to plant, all you have to do is take a look. It’s also fun to be able to show my daughter all parts of the plant so that she she can see how they grow, not just the leaves and stems above ground, but all those essential roots too.

1) I prefer the 20 oz. Gatorade bottles for my transplants, but I use 17 oz. water bottles as well. The Gatorade bottles have a wide mouth, so I take the tops off, cut the bottle just above the label and turn the top upside down inside the the bottom. (Like in the photo) I filled both the top and bottom with soil. I’ve seen some gardeners cut the bottle closer to the middle, put soil only in the top portion with the roots sticking out the mouth and use the bottom to fill with water- makes a sort of self watering planter.
The water bottles I just cut the tops off above the label and only use the bottom 3/4 of the bottle as a container.

teaspoon and straws2) Roots are the single most important thing to the success of seedlings. Mine were a little leggy from starting off with not quite enough light, so I buried them deep,  leaving all that extra stem below the dirt. Tomato plants will just grow roots along the extra stem and give you a better root system. I used the seed starting soil again from Miracle Grow, since it claims to support and help create  healthy roots. I used a tablespoon from the kitchen to lift the seedling’s root ball out of each egg carton cell. You have to be VERY gentle when transplanting seedlings. The stems and leaves are  soft and delicate, not like those already hardened-off, ready to plant greenhouse plants you buy at the nursery. They’ll get there, but right now they need a little extra TLC when moving them about. The spoon helped me lift out the entire root system of each seedling with minimal handling of the stems and leaves. Those seedlings that didn’t have great roots established or were smaller, weaker plants I didn’t transplant. There are SO many plants when you start from seed, you can afford to be selective and choose your strongest and best growers.  I put only one or two seedlings per bottle, depending on how large they’d grown in the egg cartons.

3) As you transplant each seedling, you want to make sure and label them. I’ve used cut up pieces of the egg carton tops in the past, I forgot to save them this year. >.<
I’ve seen quite a few gardeners use Popsicle  or craft sticks, writing on them with a permanent marker. I didn’t have any of those handy; what I did have was a huge bag of bendy straws that had only cost me about $1.48 for the entire bag. I bent the straws, wrote my tags on the bent part and stuck the rest of the straw in the dirt.
Added bonus, the straws acted as little stakes to support the floppy plants until they grew into their new homes.
Tomato SeedlingObviously, you can tell pepper plants from tomato plants by their leaves fairly early on. If you’re planting more than one variety of tomato or pepper though, as was my case, you might have a difficult time discerning which is which until they start to flower or fruit. If you’re giving plants away or want them in a very specific place in the garden, you don’t want to have to play a guessing game, so label everything. Unless you like surprises…

4) Once the seedling is planted in the bottle and labeled, you’ll want to give it a good drink. I use an old Tide liquid laundry soap bottle with a few holes poked in the cap. It works better than the huge water pitcher I use for my house plants, giving enough control to water the seedlings thoroughly without drowning them. If you’re concerned you’ll overwater, poke a couple drainage holes in the bottom of your bottles. Make sure to sit them on trays or in troughs if you do that though! I used the black garden trough that was the bottom of my greenhouse and commandeered a plastic crate from the closet; pepper plants went in one, tomatoes in the other. Segregating them keeps them out of trouble. For some reason, my tomato plants try to wrap themselves around other plants if they’re too close. They’re territorial little buggers.
The reason for the big containers is to make it easy on you when it’s time to start the hardening off process. You’ll be moving your seedlings in and out of doors (unless you have a greenhouse or cold frame) and it’s much easier to carry large tubs than move 30 or more individual plants. Even using trays last year, I had some near deaths when plants decided to base-jump off the trays while I was walking.
The tubs are also real life-savers if you need to move your plants FAST. Mid-Missouri is notorious for strong spring storms from March – May. New seedlings break in strong winds, are crushed in torrential rainfall and torn to bits in hail storms. If you live anywhere near the middle of  the country, you know storms can come on fast and be unpredictable. Being able to move your plants quickly can save you from starting over.

5) I removed the plastic cover over my ghetto greenhouse when I transplanted to bottles. They have plenty of soil around the roots now to hold water, they didn’t need the extra protection of plastic over them. Keeping the cover on will filter your light too, which can make them leggy. Even with the additional light source, my seedlings always seem to be slightly leggy plants. One thing I have found to help remedy this is to have the window open as much as possible so they get a breeze. I also put a fan on them sometimes, it makes them feel pretty when their hair blows in the breeze. Ok, in truth, I do this to make them stand up and grow a backbone- a slight breeze during the hardening off period, strengthens the plant’s stems. You don’t want wimpy plants that lie there and look pitiful when you move them out to the garden.TomsPeppers
Until the hardening off period, I keep the light on them as much as possible and just check the soil with a finger to see if they need water. The clear bottles are handy in that respect as well, you can see if the soil is dry past the surface and how far down. I’ve been adding water about every 4-5 days.

6) Pepper plants like HEAT, so I won’t be moving these little guys into the garden for a few more weeks. I’ve read that pepper plants shouldn’t be transplanted outdoors until the ground temperature has reached around 65 F. This means that it should be staying in at least the 50’s during the night. If transplanted too early in cold soil, it can stunt the pepper plant’s growth, the leaves may turn yellow and the plants look sickly. Tomato plants aren’t as particular, but you shouldn’t put them out until all danger of frost has passed.
This year has been an especially cool spring and most of my landscape plants are off to a slow start. Last year, I had my entire garden in the last couple weeks of April; I’m thinking this year it will be more like the 2nd or 3rd week of May. Even if you do make the mistake of moving your plants out too early and you aren’t great at knitting tiny sweaters, you can heavily mulch and /or cover them during especially cold nights. (Plastic shower curtain liners make great frost covers, need to change yours?)
As long as it doesn’t kill the root, the plant may recover and do well once it gets the heat and sun that it needs.

I’ll write the final bit of this series when I move my transplants outdoors. In the meantime, I’m saving up all my eggshells and coffee grounds. Tomato plants need calcium to avoid blossom drop, a common tomato plant issue (eggshells) and leftover coffee grinds are a great green material for the compost pile.

-B

Forsythia

Forsythia BushThe bright yellow cascades of bell-shaped flowers on my forsythia bush join daffodils, hibiscus and magnolias as one of the early bloomers of spring. I’ve watched people at Lowes buy these plants en masse, wondering to myself if they realize just how large they will grow if left untended.

Forsythia are such a common bush in this part of the Midwest that I’ve seen them growing wild and taking over the entire fronts of abandoned houses. This was one of the first plants I introduced to our barren yard when we bought our house in March of 2001. I worked with a nurse that had a massive bush in her yard and was willing to part with a few of the new sprouts, “Take all you want. PLEASE.” She told me. From three tiny new starts with some good roots, I was rewarded with three good sized bushes in only a few years. Ten years later, the bush receiving the most sun (and possibly the best soil) is now the size of a car. I have absolutely no idea which cultivar of forsythia my yard is sporting; there are about 12 different types, all originating from Asia.

Forsythia are very forgiving and easy to grow, even for the most novice gardener. They do require some pruning to maintain shape; some cut them into hedgerows of squares or rectangles to use as a privacy fence. I always thought this looked rather odd and very unnatural however, I prefer them a bit wild and rambling. Forsythia drop tiny winged seeds in fall, yet in the twelve years I’ve had my three, I’ve yet to see a rogue bush sprout in the woods from seed. They can propagate by cuttings of green wood after they flower; the easiest way to get some (other than potted from a nursery) is to simply dig up some of the side shoots of an adult plant with a bit of root. Forsythia can be encouraged to create rows and spread simply by anchoring limbs to touch earth; roots will sprout from the anchored branch and begin to grow another plant next to the original. They can also be trained to espalier on a wall or trellis. In planting beds, they will need constant pruning to keep the growth habit in check; otherwise they can easily overwhelm the bed in a couple of seasons, growing up to 9 foot wide and 15 foot tall on a single bush.Forsythia Flowers

Forsythia are great plants for borders and slopes, they aren’t particularly selective of soil type, are deer resistant and the branches make gorgeous vases of cut flowers. The tight buds can be brought inside in winter and put in a vase of warm water to force blooms. The recommended care requirements list a minimum of 6 hours full sun, zones 4-9, occasional application of fertilizer and moderate watering. I can vouch for them being fairly drought tolerant; they showed little stress compared to other plants last year during the worst drought I’ve seen since we’ve owned our property. Mine are also planted in rocks and clay, I’ve never personally bothered with fertilizer, just the occasional application of mulch in the fall.

I don’t use my plants for anything other than ornamental purposes, especially since I’m not sure of the particular species. The Chinese use the species Forsythia Suspensa as a fundamental plant in herbology. The fruit is boiled and the essence is extracted for use in treating skin infections and boils, intestinal worms and to control menses. The roots have been used to treat colds, fever and jaundice; essence of the leaves and twigs are said to be useful in treating breast cancer. Laboratory studies have confirmed forsythia to have anti-tumor, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammation properties.

Here in the Ozarks, our forsythia are simply the heralds of spring. I watch them in anticipation of warmer days ahead; as soon as I start to see the tight buds open up a bit, I know spring is just right around the corner. J