Belle of Dirt

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


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Shiny New Toys

It’s seedling time!

I spent a good part of today getting seeds started in the table top greenhouse Mister bought me for Christmas. Together with the HUGE greenhouse he gave me for Valentines’ Day, I’m SET for the season. A man who truly knows where my heart lies… in the dirt. LOL

We’ve been saving up our plastic water bottles for a couple of weeks. Had a whole box full under the kitchen sink- they were starting to overflow the box and roll out on the floor. I’d have to punt water bottles at random while doing dishes or making dinner. I cut the tops off about half-way down and use the bottom portion for planting seeds.

If anyone has any brilliant ideas for a use for these cut-off tops, I’d love to hear it. You can only keep so many about for funnels.

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Mister was kind enough to mount a bracket under the cabinet where my table-top greenhouse sits, to hold the grow light in place. It wasn’t a have-to thing with this set up, the photo on the box shows the light sitting directly on top of the greenhouse itself. I feared that it would wind up melting the plastic when left on for a long time or get knocked off and wind up broken. Those grow lights can be expensive! It gives TONS of light, even mounted a couple inches above the box. Much more than the light through the window or the grow bulb I had rigged up the previous year. This was a nice kit- the lid sits up almost a foot high, so the seedlings have plenty of room to grow, there are vents in the top that can be opened and closed. I’m not sure exactly where he got it, but I found one on Amazon that looks very much like this one for around $50, light included: Table Top Seed Starter Kit

There are some really pretty Victorian style ones if you’d rather have something elegant that isn’t plastic. I’m happy with this, it gets the job done, it’s washable and it will do a fabulous job growing strong seedlings. I’ve always had issues with not enough light in the past. Our only window with southern exposure is in our office. It’s tiny, the cats love to knock off the few plants that are in there, it’s not the most optimal place to start seeds. No cats here, it fits on the counter and did I mention… I really love the light. There’s something really inviting about it, like with real sunlight.


I’m doing several different sorts of tomato this year, as I couldn’t decide which I liked best. I have a yellow cherry, a roma, a beefsteak and a roma grape that we’re going to try. I’ve been saving up bell pepper seeds from the peppers we get from the grocery store, they worked fine last year. They aren’t quite true to the original, but actually had a stronger (but still sweet) flavor. Peppers LOVE heat, so I may keep some of those plants in the greenhouse this year and see how they do. We also have a package of carrot seeds that Burpee sent as a free gift. We’ll be starting cucumber and snow peas, but I direct sow those into the garden at planting time instead of starting them in the house. Peas don’t mind a little chill and cucumbers grow extremely fast and produce long before other plants that are direct-sowed.

I use a basic seed starting mix (which is mostly made of peat) to fill the bottles. The reason you use this instead of potting soil is that it’s sterile- meaning there shouldn’t be weed or grass seeds sprouting in it and competing with your plants. Also, it’s very light, fluffy and holds water well, so those frail little starter roots don’t have to fight through heavy dirt to get moving. I filled  over thirty bottles with a single bag.

The Popsicle sticks I saved from ice cream bars. I love these things, they are great for stirring paint, apply glue or plaster, scraping sticky things and work great as plant markers. I just write on the ends with a permanent waterproof marker. The last time I started seeds, I used bendy straws. Whatever you have handy is fine, so long as it’s waterproof and you can write on it. I’ve used bits of foam egg carton, plastic bottle, straws, peeled tree branch, you name it.

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This is the final set-up, all planted and sunning on my counter. I noticed that the the light spreads quite a bit past the sides of the greenhouse. I think I may add a couple more bottles on one side with a  pear and cherry tree seeds I want to play with. If I don’t cut the tops all the way off, they’re like single mini-greenhouses. Might as well take advantage of that light! 🙂

I’ll post more progression pictures as things start to sprout. One note on water- don’t drown your seeds! They only need a bit of a drink to start with, then check them every day to make sure they don’t dry out, but don’t let them just sit in water. It can rot delicate roots very quickly if they get too wet. I don’t have a heat mat under mine, so they don’t get quite very warm and dry out quickly. The clear bottles aren’t organic like peat pots, toilet paper rolls or as convenient maybe as plastic cell flats- but they are really nice for checking on whether the plant needs water at a glance (the peat is darker when it’s wet) and how the roots are coming along. If there are seeds near the side, you can even see them break through the seed coat and sprout. My daughter loves to watch this happen, she thinks it’s amazing.

She helped plant and water all the seeds. She even tagged a couple of the sticks for me. 🙂
She’s a wonderful little garden helper.

I was serious about those water bottle tops. I would love to hear your ideas or suggestions. I hate putting useful stuff in the trash!

-B

 

 


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Spring Fever

It’s in the upper 60’s today in JANUARY. I have spring fever already! There are seed catalogs pouring in by mail and my husband bought me a table top seed starter for Christmas, so I’m ready to go.
This year we’re starting a couple of new fruit trees, a grape vine, some strawberries and several different types of blueberry. I’ll write more about each of those as I start the projects and get them in the ground.
Today I ordered most of my seed from the three websites that I frequent most. I’ve had good luck with plants from all three of these. Burpee is my favorite and usually sends me the best coupons. The other two tend to carry unusual things that Burpee doesn’t, like special hybrids and a larger selection of fruit trees. I like to browse the paper catalogs and then order online. You can get to their websites at BurpeeGurneys and Jung Seed.

I garden in Zone 6, in Mid-Missouri. Our last frost date is about the end of April. I usually begin seeds indoors sometime in mid-late February for plants that I’ll be starting inside. Last year, we went on vacation in early May, which is when I usually start putting in my garden, so I waited until we got back to start things. Direct sowing in Mid-May was fine, I didn’t hit frost or lose any plants, but some things we planted took SO LONG to produce that the season was almost over before we saw anything from the plants. The watermelon we planted didn’t produce watermelons until almost September. It was late July before we saw tomatoes.
I have a lot of patience, but I have to admit, direct sowing really tested it last year. So it’s back to seed starting inside for me. I usually start at least peppers and tomatoes inside, so that the plants are almost a foot tall before being transplanted outside in late April or the first of May. The cucumbers and peas I’ll direct sow; they grow SUPER fast, so they don’t really need that extra couple months to get a jump on the season.
While I wait for the ground to warm up, I’ll spend nice days finishing my fence and starting some new hugelkultur mounds for the fruit trees and grapes. I’m also going to be doing some landscaping around our picnic table/firepit.
I’m off to enjoy this weather while it lasts, looks like we’re back to snow next week!

Enjoy shopping and planning those spring gardens! That groundhog had better not see his shadow Tuesday, or I’ll be gunning for the little sucker. 😉

-Belle


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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


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Victory Gardens and Daylight Savings

GrowVitaminsFrontDoorI have spring fever and I’m procrastinating working on my books today- plus I’ve still got some “Spring Forward” lag. I’ve actually heard a rumor that Missouri is considering doing away with the observance of daylight savings time. I wondered why exactly did we begin observing DST? So, I did some reading. Turns out, I couldn’t find an absolutely definitive answer, but many references cited World War I and II. In order to reduce the use of fuel used for artificial lighting, people began turning the clocks back in fall.
I read that half of Indiana observes DST and half the state doesn’t. Yeesh, how annoying would that be if you lived on the dividing line?4.2.7
What interested me amidst the DST debate was the mention of Victory Gardens. Apparently, in World War II, citizens were encouraged to grow vegetable, fruit and herb gardens to reduce pressure on the public food supply. People dug up their yards and even spaces in public parks to contribute to the production of food in the US, United Kingdom and Canada. Victory gardens could be found in backyards, on rooftops in the cities; many vacant lots were borrowed to use as cornfields. Lawn areas in Hyde Park, London; around Riverside in New York City and Golden Gate in San Francisco were all plowed and planted to publicize the victory garden movement.

During World War II, many farmers were drafted into the military and especially in Europe; farms were destroyed as the war moved through those areas. In 1917, the U.S. formed the National War Garden Commission overseeing the Victory Gardens campaign. Over five million gardens were planted, producing more than $1.2 billion in homegrown food by the end of the war. 20 million Americans tended Victory Gardens; they accounted for almost half the produce being consumed in the U.S. during World War II.
Even Eleanor Roosevelt participated in the effort, planting a Victory Garden on the White House grounds. Posters and public service booklets proclaimed “Our food is fighting!” All that produce helped lower the price of vegetables needed by the U.S. War Department; the money saved could be spent in other areas of the military.
One of the reasons for implementing daylight savings time was supposedly to aid in the tending of the Victory Gardens. With many of the men at war and women stepping in to temporarily fill jobs left behind, many women were at work during daylight hours. Extending the amount of evening daylight available, gave them an extra hour after work to tend their gardens.
SowSeedsOfVictoryThere are a few examples of Victory Gardens left in in the United States; Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston, Massachusetts (now mostly planted with flowers) and Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis (Still veggies!) have remained active since WWII.

In recent years, the idea of the Victory Garden has resurfaced somewhat; a few have been replanted in public spaces, a websites and blogs such as http://www.modernvictorygarden.com/ promote their own Victory Gardens and encourage others to join in planting their own. In March of 2009, a garden was again planted on the White House Lawn, the first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s, to raise healthy food awareness. Many health conscious families are starting gardens for the first time, in an attempt to cut back on the hormones, pesticides and chemicals present in processed and even fresh commercial fruits and vegetables.

Now there’s one more great reason to garden… I’m doing my patriotic duty! 😉
(As if I EVER need an excuse to play in dirt.)
-B


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The Edible Garden

EdibleGardenI recently created a board for my Pinterest account titled “The Edible Garden.” On it, I intend to post articles and tips related to growing all things edible in your landscape, from garden veggies and herbs to fruit trees, bushes and nuts.

We’ve lived in our current house for almost 12 years now, but up until this past year I had never put in any sort of vegetable garden. I grew a couple tomato plants one year, that’s been it. I thought gardens were a pain in the butt. I expected constant maintenance; watering, picking, hoeing and pulling of weeds, fighting insects, the list of “why nots” in my head went on and on. I wanted landscape plants that came up year after year, were drought tolerant, deer and disease resistant and the only bugs they really attracted were bees or butterflies. I wanted flower beds that I didn’t have to maintain much, just run the edger along the landscaping every couple of weeks and call it good.

I changed my mind about planting edibles the year before last, when my daughter became a preschooler and took a keen interest in watching our 4 0r 5 strawberry plants each day for red berries. It wasn’t just a random walk by, “Oh! There’s a strawberry on that, I’ll pick it.” She made an EVENT out of going into the yard, just to check them each day. She even pulled the weeds growing around them and made sure the bugs didn’t get on them while she was watching. She’d yell in excitement and run inside to show me every. single. red berry found, before popping it into her mouth and raving over how wonderful that tiny, single berry was. Then our dog dug up all the strawberry plants. Every last one. My daughter was devastated. I managed to salvage two of them by putting them in pots (outside the fence where they were safe from doggie paws this time), but they didn’t grow but a couple strawberries the rest of the season after the shock of being dug up.

Later, we were picking out salad stuff and tomatoes in the produce section at our store when she mentioned that the entire area looked like a big garden. I told her that most of that stuff could be grown in a garden- Ok, all of it. But I have no idea how to plant Jicama or even what it tastes like- she asked me if we could start our own garden and grow our own vegetables, especially strawberries. That year, we put in two kinds of pepper plants, roma and cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries. She was as diligent and enthusiastic about checking all those plants each day as she had been checking our few yard strawberries. The garden was an endless teaching tool, about how plants need a certain combination of soil, light and air to grow. I taught her responsibility, it taught her to take care of living things and we had fresh produce to snack on when out in the yard the entire summer until frost.

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Last Year’s Garden 2012

This fall, I cleared out the ENTIRE flower bed along the side of our house; we’re reserving all of that space for edible garden. My plan is to fill that one huge bed with enough veggies and herbs that we’ll slash our produce bill in half this summer. Next year, I plan to add some more fruits (besides strawberries) and maybe even some nut trees. We are going to be busy all spring, planting, supporting and reporting- to those few of you that read this blog. I’ve ordered $100 worth of seed and plan to build a couple more raised beds; we may have enough produce to feed several families!

My daughter’s enthusiasm was my primary motivator for building and expanding our garden, yet I found that last year it was wonderful to walk out to our little garden, pick a few peppers and use them for our dinner. The flavor of anything we grew was unmatched by produce I’ve bought in any grocery store. They don’t keep as long, but if we were careful to leave things on the vine until we needed them, that seemed to resolve some of the waste. I don’t take a lot of stock in the organic versus non-organic produce argument. That being said, there’s no doubt that avoiding some of those pesticides (which I don’t use unless it’s an emergency- as in blister beetle invasion) and wax will be a good thing. My parenting magazines all rave that avoiding pesticides on produce is the best thing for little developing brains. They praise organic produce for minimizing this pesticide exposure. There was even a list, which one titled, the “Dirty Dozen: 12 foods with the most pesticide residue of special concern” in this February’s issue. The offenders on this list were: strawberries, apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, domestic blueberries, potatoes, green beans and kale. Most of the above, my family eats on a regular basis. Several of the above listed, we’ll be growing in our own garden this year, so I know exactly how they will be handled and exactly what will be used to care for them before my little one puts them on her plate. We’re even trying some of the new corn this year, that’s supposedly bred just for containers. Corn prices last year were outrageous with the Midwest drought and most of what I saw in the store didn’t look fit to eat anyway. Canned corn is loaded with salt, frozen is loaded with sugar. Avoid all that and grow your own.

So that’s how I went from planting butterfly bush and the occasional marigolds to an entire produce section in my front yard. If this year proves as successful as last, I’ll continue to expand with new plants and more space each year. Do you have a home garden? What are you planting this year?


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Winter Gardening

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape- the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show. – Andrew Wyeth

IcyTreesWait a minute… winter gardening? What is there to do besides read gardening books and wait for spring to arrive? Unless you’re hibernating with the bears, there’s plenty you can do during the winter months to get you ready for spring planting.

Like the above quote suggests, winter is an excellent time to really take a look at the bone structure of your garden. Like the bones in a face, your garden’s foundation will show through, support and give shape to everything layered on top of it. Architectural elements support the greenery, flowers and fruits of spring and summer.

Moderate winter days are a great time to walk about your yard and consider your  landscape  plan for the coming year. Is a too large plant overwhelming a small space? Does a certain spot lack interest, need repairs or maybe additional WinterBonessupport?
Now is the time to plan and take care of it, before the area is covered in vigorous growth and becomes an issue in the middle of your busy growing season.

If you’re hiring a  landscaper this year; schedules tend to be less chaotic during the winter months and you can set up your installs for early spring, before the rush begins.

If you haven’t already; clean and sharpen your garden tools, clear out junk in the shed, pick up extra gloves and start browsing those seed catalogs. When I can’t get outside during icy or especially cold spells, I love to shop and plan for what I’ll be doing when it does warm up a bit. Seeds may arrive as soon as early February for starting indoors- 8 weeks or so before the last frost. Order early so you can avoid delays and get the best selection!

I like to prune and clean out brushy areas on mild winter days. It’s much easier to see the underlying structure of a tree without leaves blocking half your view. Also, pruning during the cold months helps protect trees from contracting some fungal diseases and pest issues that are prevalent during the wet spring or hot summer months.  Our red-oaks are prone to oak wilt in this area- the disease is dormant in below freezing temperatures and MUCH  less likely to be passed from tree to tree through infected wood or cause stress to a tree susceptible to infection.

icedberryIf the plant flowers in spring, wait until after it finishes blooming to prune. Vigorous winter pruning of a spring blooming plant means it won’t bloom again until next spring; already, there are small, tight buds forming on several of my blooming shrubs and trees. The early bloomers, like forsythia, burning bush, saucer magnolia (a cold-hearty cousin to the trees in the South) and wisteria shouldn’t be pruned or cut back until they finish flowering in mid to late spring. Pruning may be especially necessary to trees following ice storms or heavy snows, due to broken branches.

Make a date with your soil. If you’ve never had a soil analysis done, the tests are relatively inexpensive and getting results now will give you plenty of time to learn about what amendments to add when the soil becomes workable in spring. County extension offices should be able to direct you to soil testing labs; some may even provide free testing.

Spring clean your window space as soon as those holiday displays are stored away. Growing seedlings need ample light, and warmth to be ready for spring planting. Make room for this temporary garden space before your seeds and sets arrive.icicles

You can still amend garden beds for spring, if you didn’t do it in the fall. I’ve been adding cardboard to various areas of my yard and garden since December. Don’t work the soil if it’s frozen or too wet, you can damage the structure. What you can do is add coffee grounds, tea grounds, egg shells, cardboard and leaves until the compost pile begins to warm and the soil isn’t frozen solid. This will give you a jump start on enriching the nitrogen and calcium in your beds as well as helping to warm the soil faster when the snow and ice finally exit stage left.

I’ve also read that a thick layer of cardboard in the fall/winter months can all but eliminate the need to till or weed a garden plot before planting in spring. I covered our beds in late fall with a layer of cardboard and black weed barrier that I could easily remove when I’m ready to start moving seedlings outside. This is my first year trial, so I can’t vouch yet personally for its success. I’ll be sure to post comments or updates this spring when I find out.

Happy planning folks, don’t forget to oil up those shotguns in case Mister Groundhog sees his shadow next week! 😛
-Belle