Another way to start a garden

When you get ready to start a garden, it is nice to kill off all the grass, add plenty of compost, get your ground tilled up, and put together a nice garden plot.  Better yet, you could build raised beds and fill them with some high quality soil so you will have fertile and friable soil that is optimal for plant growth.

But what if you don’t have the time or resources to take either of these routes?  Are you just out of luck?  Maybe gardening is just not in the cards for you.  Don’t give up all hope just yet – there is another option.

I saw my uncle use this method when he moved into a new house one spring and didn’t have time to prepare a more traditional garden plot.  I noticed that he had tomato plants growing in several places around the yard surrounded by the grass.

Watermelon plants in holes filled with compost

This year I planted a few watermelon plants this way.  It is very simple.  Just dig a hole about a foot deep and 16 or 18 inches in diameter.  Fill the hole with compost and plant your plant in the middle.  You can cover the compost with mulch to help keep the grass out and just mow the lawn around it.

This is certainly not the most ideal way to grow a garden,  but it is better than giving up on gardening before you start.  Give it a try and see what happens.

Please leave a comment.  Have you ever tried this?  How did it work?  What other non-traditional gardening tricks have you tried?

Featured on Homestead Barn Hop and Tuesday Garden Party.   Check out some of the other great blogs there.


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An alternative method for staking garden plants

Some plants need to be staked for various reasons.  Some need support.  Others just make better vegetables when staked.  It is probably universally agreed that tomatoes and beans need to be staked, but others may not be so obvious.

I prefer to stake cucumbers.  I have seen many, probably most, people just let them spread out on the ground, and I have done it that way before.  However, I think it is better to let them grow up instead so that the fruits don’t touch the ground.  The fruits are straighter, more uniformly shaped, and cleaner.  They don’t develop the white skin they will get on the underside when lying on the ground.  Another big advantage is that they are easier to find.  Frequently when growing on the ground, the perfectly-sized cucumbers will seem to hide under leaves.  When you find them a day or two later, they have gotten too big and aren’t as good.

I have even seen some people stake watermelons, though I have never done it myself.  The fruits must be supported in some sort of mesh bag, for example, the ones onions are frequently packaged in.  That adds a little work to the process, but the fruits are beautiful and, like cucumbers, do not turn white on the underside.

There are many different methods of staking plants.  The most obvious is, just as the name implies, using stakes.  For me, this most common method has been unsatisfying.  The plants must be tied to the stake multiple times over a long period of time.  You have to find some wide, flat material to tie them because string will cut into the vines as they grow.  Most stakes are flimsy and don’t support the vines well.  And it is a lot of work to pound the stakes into the ground when you have a large number of plants.

I have found another method that is quicker, less work, looks better, and supports the plants better.  I wish I could take credit for devising this method myself, but I can’t.  Years ago, my parents had a neighbor who was an incredible gardener.  Unfortunately, he is no longer with us.  I noticed that he had a tall post at each end of several rows in his garden.  He ran a steel cable from post to post down the entire length of the row.  Then he dropped a thick string from the cable down to each plant.  I’m not sure how he attached the strings, but I just wrap them around the base of the plants several times and loosely tie them.  This allows the plants to grow without the string cutting into them.

Cucumbers after four weeks

In the past, I have used 4×4 posts and steel cable.  This method can easily support rows at least 30 feet long.  In fact, I normally plant two rows side by side and run strings from the same cable down to both rows.

This year, I just used steel T-posts and a thick nylon string because my rows are much shorter.  I put the posts about 10 feet apart.  Hay strings work great for dropping from the cable down to the plants, but I didn’t have any this year, so I just used the same nylon string that I used for the top.

After you tie the string to the bottom of the plant, just gently wrap the plant around the string.  As the plants grow, continue to wrap the plant and the string together.  This is usually necessary about once or twice per week..  No tying is needed.  Just wrapping the plants and string together will support the plants well.  Cucumbers will even wrap their little runners around the string and hold on tight.

Here is a late-season update.  My indeterminate tomatoes grew taller than the top string and wind pushed them over.  The T-posts were just not tall enough.  The nylon string on top was also pulled down quite a bit as the plants got heavy with tomatoes.  I recommend the steel cable for the top as I have used in the past and posts at least six feet tall to avoid these problems.  Using the nylon string for cucumbers worked great.  I believe that it would also work fine for determinate varieties of tomatoes, but the indeterminants just grow too tall.

Give this method a try.  I’d also like to hear about other methods of staking.  Tell us about your method in comments.

Featured on Homestead Barn Hop and Tuesday Garden Party. Check out some of the other great blogs there.

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Fun and frugal summer holiday getaway

Sometimes it is nice to just get away for a bit.  Independence Day gives us a great opportunity to do that.  With many people off work and kids out of school for the summer, it is a good chance to take a break from the business of life and spend a little time together doing something fun.  We all need a vacation from time to time whether we can afford it or not.

Independence Day 2012 at the beach

For a summer getaway, many people like to head to the beach.  Here in Maryland, Ocean City is the mecca for beachgoers.  There is plenty of activity.  In addition to a wide and beautiful white sand beach with waves rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean, there are numerous hotels and weekly rental condos.  Countless souvenirs shops stand along the boardwalk peddling a wide range of junk we don’t need at prices we can’t afford.  Alongside these places, you find a wide range of junk food at greatly inflated prices.  In short, there is plenty of fun to be had, but you can also leave behind a large sum of money when you go home.  Thousands and thousands of people take this option every year.

There's actually a kid in there!

We chose a different option for some beach time.  Just a few miles south of Ocean City lies Assateague Island, a 37-mile-long barrier island which extends along the southern coast of Maryland and northern coast of Virginia.  The island is easily accessible by car via bridge.  The Assateague State Park is located on the northern end of the island nearest Ocean City.  This state park contains beautiful beachs every bit as nice as the Ocean City beach, but while Ocean City is founded upon consumerism, Assateague is completely non-commercialized.  There is a small state park store, but no hotels, souvenir shops, or restaurants.  I suppose you could go to Ocean City and not spend any money, but it is so much easier when there is nothing for the kids to point at and cry, “I want, I want, I want!”  At Assateague, they just spend the day in the sand and surf and love every minute of it.

Beautiful dunes behind the beach

We just made this a day trip.  We started by making sandwiches and packing lunch and snacks and, of course, plenty of bottled water.  The drive is about two hours for us, so we arrived earlier than most of the crowd, before the day got too hot.  We had a great time splashing in the waves, eating the food we had brought from home, and enjoying some nice family time together.  A few hours after we arrived, four of the Assateague ponies wondered out onto the beach right in the middle of the hundreds of people scattered along the beach and surf.

Assateague ponies on the beach

The ponies are the subject of some mystery.  Local legend says that the ponies swam ashore from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon in some past century.  Others contend that they were originally just horses escaped from nearby colonial plantations.  Whatever their origin, there is now a herd of feral ponies living and thriving on the island.  They are not wild, but are from domesticated stock that has become feral.  The ponies are quite accustomed to human interaction and do not seem to be easily spooked.  The four ponies that came out onto the beach this day just wandered around amongst the people for an hour or more and had their picture taken too many times to count. 

We stayed until mid-afternoon and more people were still arriving when we left.  After stopping at several farmers markets along the way, we arrived in time to eat dinner at home.  It was a great day.

We definately wanted to spend some time at the beach.  That made our options either a trip to Ocean City, which probably would have cost a couple hundred dollars, or four dollars per person and a picnic lunch from home at Assateague State Park.  When you ponder your vacation choices, consider the state and national parks.  No matter where you live, there is bound to be one near you.  They are typically clean, beautiful, less crowded than other nearby options, and always cheaper.  Many are free and those that aren’t free usually have discounts for seniors, students, military, and small children.  You already finance the operation and preservation of these parks with your tax dollars anyway – you may as well take advantage of the beauty they offer.

Now leave a comment.  Tell us about your experience with state and national parks and your frugal vacation experiences.  What other cheap options have you found for that much-needed getaway?

This post is linked to the Homestead Barn Hop. Check out some of the other great blogs there.

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What happens when you leave your garden alone for a few days

Recently, I was out of town for a week and this is what I found when I got home:

The haul from the garden after being away for a week.

I had a number of huge zucchini and squash on every plant!  I prefer zucchini about this size or slightly larger:

Saute size zucchini (lemon shown for size comparison)

Those are the best size to saute, which is how we normally cook them.  These are much too large for that.  In fact, many people would say that they are too big to be used at all, but I disagree.  These are perfect to shred and use for zucchini bread.  We made six loaves and put six bags in the freezer for later use.

One of my fellow community gardeners also told me that these large ones are good sliced thick and grilled.  I’ve never grilled any that large, but decided to give it a try based on her advice.  I sliced one about three-eights inch thick, coated the slices with olive oil, sprinkled on some chopped fresh oregano and rosemary from the garden, and grilled them.  It turned out great.  So there is yet another reason to join a community garden.

So I’ve learned another new trick.  Don’t be too quick to throw out those large zucchini.

This post is linked to the Homestead Barn Hop. Check out some of the other great blogs there.

Leave a comment.  How is your garden doing?  Are you getting overrun with zucchini yet?

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Modern conveniences prevent community

Severe thunderstorms with high winds rolled through Maryland last night.  Now we are sitting in the dark.  I’m actually on the internet on generator power.  Amazingly, even though the power is out, I discovered that the phone lines are still up when I plugged in my router earlier today.  I’ve heard that over a million people in Maryland and northern Virginia are without power and I haven’t seen a power company truck all day so I’m assuming it will be out for a while.  I’ve never seen a storm (short of a hurricane) do this much damage.  In fact, in this area the effects look almost identical to Hurricane Irene last year.

The cool thing that I saw this morning when my wife and I went out for a drive was neighbors outside everywhere talking to each other.  Of course, people talk to each other at other times, but not like this.  When Irene came through last year and we were out of power for over a week, my brother-in-law and his family came over to my house to eat every night we were without power.  We cooked outside on the grill and enjoyed meals and some time just sitting and talking every night.  We said that we were going to make a point to do that at least once a week after the power came back on, but we didn’t.  As soon as we had television and lights and air conditioning and all the other conveniences and distractions, things went right back to normal.

Now I’m not saying that I want to live without electricity forever, but it is nice every once in a while just to bring people back together again.  Of course, it is also an excellent opportunity for us to test how prepared we are for when something big happens. 

I know a lot of other areas are without power too, so leave a comment and let us know how things are going in your neck of the woods.

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Are some plants too big for raised beds?

Recently a commenter asked if plants like zucchini are too big to plant in raised beds and I would like to address the issue of plant suitability for raised beds.  First, I love raised beds and have found using them to be the most productive planting method I have ever used.  There are a number of great advantages to using raised beds.  But not all plants are well suited to being grown in them.

The reason I deem some plants unsuitable for raised beds is not the size, though.  It is because such a large number of some plants are required for any reasonable crop that it becomes impractical to create that much raised bed space.  Take corn for example.  Since each stalk produces only one or two ears of corns, you need dozens if not hundreds of plants to feed a family.  In addition, due to pollination issues it is best to plant multiple rows of corn side by side.  With this in mind, you could plant corn in raised beds, but it would not be the best use of your raised bed real estate.  The same is true of beans and field peas.  While they will grow well in the raised beds, you would need a number of beds devoted to only beans or peas if you want to grow enough to preserve any for winter.  I prefer to use my raised beds for more productive plants.

I do plant large plants like zucchini in raised beds.  They are so productive that only a few plants will feed the family for the year, so I feel that this is a very good use of the space.  They will certainly expand out of the bed though.  For this reason, I plant them on the ends of the bed so you can easily walk around them to get to your other plants.

Notice that these beds do not have any borders, but you can see clearly from the picture that they are raised above the surrounding ground.  I accomplished this simply by adding enough compost to create the necessary volume.

I normally make beds four feet wide because that is the maximum width that still allows me to easily reach the center of the bed without stepping on the bed.  At this width, you can plant two zucchini side by side.  I would not recommend more than four plants together (two by two) unless you have a very wide space between the beds or you will not be able to get to the middle plants when they are mature.  Notice in the picture that even though the zucchini and yellow squash plants overlap between the two beds, I can easily access all the plants.

Leave a comment.  What plants do you find unsuitable for raised beds?  How do you grow those plants?

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The 3 basic secrets to a great garden

During the first week of April, I planted a small garden for my parents in Mississippi.  Early in June, I was back there for a week with my parents.  While I was there, a number of their neighbors asked me what I did to produce such a great garden.  They said it was doing much better than any other garden around and they wanted to know my secret.  I had to think about that because I don’t think I have any secrets.  But I did come up with a few basics that I think are essential to growing a good garden.  We could talk on and on about important choices such as selecting the correct varieties for your climate, plant spacing,  companion planting, and so forth.  We could also look at methods such as how to best stake up your vining plants, how to keep the garden weed free and on and on.  All those things are important, but this is about the absolute basics for success, the three things every plant needs:  sun, soil, and water.

Cucumbers after four weeks

Cucumbers four weeks after transplanting

Sun.  Last year I planted a small garden in the same yard for my parents.  Attempting to make it easy for my father to see from the house and to get to, I picked a location near the front door that was partially shaded.  This garden did not do well.  The plant growth was anemic, they produced very little, and what they did make was small.  This year, I moved the garden to a spot that is in direct sun from about 9am until sunset.  That made all the difference in the world.  The plant growth was quick and vigorous and the yields have already been far above average.

I have had the same results at home.  My community garden plot is in full sun all day and it has done extremely well.  The garden beds in my yard get less sun and the plants are much less robust, even though the two plots are less than a half mile apart and all other conditions are exactly the same.

So the first basic step is to pick a location with plenty of sun.  There are a few plants that can grow in partial shade, but the sun-lovers like tomatoes, peppers, squash, and eggplants will reward you if you give them a full day of sun.

Soil.  Over the years, I’ve tried to grow gardens in whatever soil I had available with mixed results.  If your soil is not good, you just won’t grow good vegetables.  That doesn’t mean you are out of luck, though, because you can fix poor soil.  I’ve come to realize that compost is a miracle ingredient.  Now I dig up my beds and mix compost about half and half with the soil.  By adding this much compost, your soil will be full of nutrients and the plants will grow like wildfire.  I’m not a stickler for ensuring that everything is organic, but I’ve just gotten far better results using compost than chemical fertilizers.

Water.  Plants simply must have plenty of water to grow well.  When plants are young, water them every day.  After they develop a good root system, water at least every second day if it doesn’t rain.  Don’t just wet the top of the ground, give them a good soaking.  Of course, rain always seems to be better than watering, but if there is no rain, you must give them a good soaking if you want them to thrive.


Cucumbers after two months.

There are the basics.  Not a treatise on all the finer points of gardening, but the most basic and most important steps to success.  Give it a try if you haven’t already and make sure to leave a comment to let us know how your gardening is going.

This post is linked to the Homestead Barn Hop. Check out some of the other great blogs there.

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A garden as a source of comfort

When I was growing up, we had huge gardens every year.  I don’t think we ever planted anything under a half acre and for several years we had a two-acre garden.  We grew unbelieveable amounts of vegetables.   A significant portion of summer weekends and evenings were spent in the garden.  We all also spent many evenings, often after working all day, shelling peas and beans and cutting corn off the cob.  My mother canned or froze everything and hardly ever bought any vegetables from the grocery store any time of the year.

This was normal for us.  It was the way my parents had both grown up.  It had always just been normal for them.  Spring is the time for planting and gardening is the normal way to spend a summer.  Life has been that way for their entire lives and it is normal.

In recent years, my father has been in poor health.  He is no longer able to plant a garden or do any of the normal garden work.  In fact, he can’t do most of the things that have always defined normal for him.  There is nothing normal for him now.

Last year I was able to plant a very small garden in their yard, and my father was so excited that he talked about it constantly.  Unfortunately, in an effort to make it more convenient for them, I planted it in a spot that didn’t get enough sun so it didn’t produce very well, but he still loved it.

This year, I was able to go down earlier in the year and plant their little garden.  I also moved it to a spot that gets sun almost all day long and that garden has just exploded!   This year I started all my plants from seed so I planted enough extra to take down and plant for them as well.  Again, my dad is completely excited about the garden.  He talks about it every time I talk to him.  He talks about it with his neighbors and the rest of the family.  It is his favorite topic.  Every time anyone comes to visit, he sends them out to look at the garden.  In fact, I think he is extra excited that I started the plants from seed in my house and then transported them half way across the country to plant them at his house.

Here is the garden the day I planted it on April 5.

I think planting this garden is the best possible thing I could have done for him and he clearly appreciates it more than any gift I have ever given him.  I wondered for a while why he was so excited about it, but I think I have finally figured it out.  It has given him back something normal in a life where nothing is normal any more.  It has brought joy and comfort – and no small amount of good food.

Here is the squash one of the tomatoes after two months:

Leave a comment.  Is gardening a part of your “normal”?  Is your garden a source of comfort and joy?

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Community gardens – why you should join one

Our local elementary school is built on land that was once a farm.  As more and more development occurred in the area and the need arose for a new elementary school, the county bought this farm to provide a place to build the school.  At one time, there was also a plan to build a middle school on the same property and 22 acres of land was reserved for that purpose.  The middle school was never built, and now, almost 30 years after construction of the elementary school, that 22 acre parcel of land is still vacant.  The land is also the site of the original farm house, the first portion of which was built in 1783.

The house has been added onto several times and has now been unoccupied for several decades.  It is in great need of renovation/restoration.  Fortunately, a group of interested citizens has formed dedicated to preserving this piece of local history.  The preservation society has leased the property from the school board and slowly begun working on the house.

Another great thing they have done is to start a large garden plot on the farm property.  The garden is divided up into plots which can be rented by members.  The structure is what would normally be called a community garden.  In this case, however, it has been named “sharing garden” rather then “community garden” because it is only available to preservation society members, not to everyone in the community.  This is only a minor issue, though, because anyone can join the farm preservation society and then be eligible to rent a plot in the garden.  This is exactly what I did.

Even though this garden is called “sharing garden”, I will use the term “community garden” for the rest of this post because I will be talking about community gardens in general.  I am a strong supporter of the community garden concept for several reasons.  First, if you don’t have a suitable location to plant a garden on your own property, it provides a way you can still grow your own food.  But even if you do have all the land you need to garden, I still believe in the community garden for the interaction with other gardeners – both in the purely social aspect and to teach and learn.

This is the first time I have participated in a community garden, but I have lived in town and planted raised vegetable beds in the front yard before.  No matter what I was doing in my front-yard garden, people would walk up to talk.  Many of them had never gardened before, but they began to take interest.  Even though it slowed me down a bit when trying to get something done, I really enjoyed these interactions and so did many of my neighbors.

The community garden experience is much the same, except that all the people are interested gardeners, whether experts, beginners, or somewhere in between.  I have met many new people, learned some new things, taught some people a few things, given away some plants, and just enjoyed talking and spending time in the garden with other people.  These are all great reasons to be a part of a community garden.  It actually builds a community!

I have seen a wide variety of different methods to achieve the same goals.  I will write about some of them in future posts.

If you have a community garden nearby, I say join up even if you already have plenty of space to garden at home.  If you don’t have one available and you don’t have any other place to plant, try gardening in the front yard.  One or two people may complain that you are lowering their property value (an absurd argument in my opinion), but most will think it is way cool and stop to talk every time they see you out there.

Leave a comment and let us know what you think.  Do you participate in a community garden?  Do you have more good reasons for community gardening?  Have you ever planted vegetables in the front yard?

This post is linked to the Homestead Barn Hop.  Check out some of the other great blogs there.

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Log Cabins: How to Build and Furnish Them – a book review

A few weeks ago, I went to a local discount store called Ollie’s with my wife and mother-in-law.  This is the kind place that has a wide selection of junk, overstock items from other stores, some damaged things, some cheap things, and so forth.  You can find some good bargains if they happen to have something you need that day and you have the patience to look through it all.

Within a few minutes, I had already made it through all the tools and garden items and taken a quick look through the rest of the store.  My wife and mother-in-law were still about half way down the first aisle.  They are both the type to pick up every item, turn it over, look at it, put it down, discuss it, pick it up again, look at it, then maybe move to the next item.  I can’t get them out until they have physically touched every item on every shelf in the store.  That means I was done but still had about two hours to wait before we could leave.

Lucky for me, the store also has a book section, so that’s where I spent my time.  I brought several books home.  One of them is Log Cabins: How to Build and Furnish Them by William S. Wicks, originally published sometime around the turn of the last century.  Mr. Wicks was the Buffalo Parks Commissioner from 1897 to 1900 and he died in 1919.

Even though it is billed as a how-to manual, you will not be able to build a log cabin following instructions in this book.  Still, I highly recommend it for a couple of reasons.

Like many really old books of this nature, it gives very general statements on how to do something without getting into step-by-step details.

The book starts out with site selection, then covers building walls, joists, floors, and roofs.  These chapters are several pages long and give some level of discussion on these topics, but far from enough to actually accomplish the construction.  The next chapters discuss interior partition walls, chimneys, fireplaces, windows doors and so forth.  These chapters drop to about one page or even less each.  You definitely will not find the step-by-step directions that will help you accomplish these tasks.  Finally, the book closes with a number of furnishings and a series of pictures.

The lack of specificity is actually what I enjoyed about this book, and what I like about most books of this vintage.  Modern how-to books usually go into excruciating detail on every step of every process, because authors seem to assume that their audience knows nothing (and they are usually right).  A hundred years ago, an author would give instructions like:  “just take one these, and grab a couple of those things over there, put them together with a what-cha-ma-call-it joint, and look – a finished chair.”

The reason they could write this way then is that people actually had some basic skills and knew how to do things.  Comparing this book to modern how-to books really gives you a sort of commentary on differences in people then and now.  It is a statement on how far we have come (in the wrong direction) on self-sufficiency.

The other thing I like about it is that it just gives some insight into the way the old-timers thought.  In this book, Mr. Wicks talks about building a temporary shelter to live in while one built the main cabin.  It was just a normal course of action, as if everyone then would do it that way rather than find a place to rent or demand a house ready to move into when they arrived.

Pick up a copy of Log Cabins: How to Build and Furnish Them and give it a read.  You won’t actually learn how to build your cabin, but I think you will enjoy seeing how people thought and did things a hundred years ago.

Now leave a comment.  Has anyone read this book?  Do you enjoy reading this kind of old books?

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