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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Valentines Day

For years I’ve told my husband that I don’t want a vase full of dead flowers for Valentine’s Day, or jewelry that will likely gather dust in a box somewhere. Instead, he has always bought me plants with the roots attached or some other garden-related gift. One year it was a little pond, one year a bunch of hyacinths, daffodils, etc. in a bowl. Those I still have and they are over 10 years old.

This Valentines he didn’t get me plants with roots. So what’s better than plants to get a Belle of Dirt? A place to PUT plants into DIRT, that’s what! He spent this weekend putting together a new greenhouse, just in time for seed starting and spring planting.

It’s freaking huge! He added a couple of fold up tables for me to use as potting benches. I have a place to keep my tools now, and store bags of mulch or dirt until I use them and pot plants. Plant potting has been one of those thing that I’ve always done on the back porch, balancing things on the railing and dropping my trowel in the yard AT LEAST 3-4 times.
I’m hoping this greenhouse will give me a great place to rehab a couple things that need a little extra help, I may even try growing my peppers in it this year instead of in the garden. (Peppers LOVE heat)

Thank you Mister Man. You made her entire spring! 🙂

Loves him,

Girl who plays in dirt


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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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Garden Planting Time! (Or Ghetto Greenhouse Part III)

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

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

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

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

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


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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


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Busy Little Bee

Tell me what you’ve been up to… busy little bee.
I will always and forever associate that line with Gladiator, which is why it still gives me the creeps when I hear it. So the growing season is over, I’ve put away my mower and collected the milk jugs from around all the trees. (I’m sure the neighbors were relived at that one) I’m far from doing a whole lot of nothing though.
Winter and fall are my moving, planting (yes! planting) and cleaning up seasons in the yard and garden. It’s a great time to do planning when everything is stripped down to the bare bones and you can really visualize what works and what doesn’t. I do my pruning and lot of planting this time of year too, so long as the ground isn’t frozen, trees, shrubs and even some bulbs can be planted this time of year.
I’ve been burning brush, raking leaves, prepping the garden and moving lilies this past month. I’ve taken pictures of a couple projects to share soon. I just need a spare moment to sit down and write! No new photos of yard or projects today, but  if you’re curious about the face behind the blog, I did update “The Dirt on Dirt” with a picture of myself. 😉