Category Archives: Goals

Planting with a Plan in the Vegetable Garden (2014)

Rather than dropping seeds and seedlings in random locations, this year’s vegetable garden was planned out over the wintertime. Companion planting, crop rotation, and consideration for plant heights was incorporated to maximize plants and minimize pests. When it came time to start seeds, purchase seedlings, and plan for frosts, this turned out to be a great help to guide the timing, quantity, and locations of vegetable plants.

Here is my garden design for this year in our main Vegetable Garden:
Garden Plans 2014 - draft

Main Vegetable Garden on May 27th, 2014

Main Vegetable Garden on May 27th, 2014

As you can see from this diagram, there are four Neighborhoods in the Vegetable Garden. This makes it easy to group plant families and rotate crops each year so that pests have a harder time finding the plants they like.

Neighborhood A - Brassicas & Friends

Neighborhood A – Brassicas & Friends

Neighborhood B - Squash, Tomatoes, & Friends

Neighborhood B – Squash, Tomatoes, & Friends

Neighborhood C - Roots & Friends

Neighborhood C – Roots & Friends

Neighborhood D - Legumes & Friends

Neighborhood D – Legumes & Friends

How the Plan was Made

If you’re interested in putting together a design for your garden, I would recommend the following steps. You will likely need to do some reading and searching the Internet to gather the information you need.

1. Determine how many garden beds you have or how you can equally separate your garden into sections. This will be helpful for doing crop rotation.
2. List the vegetable plants that you want to grow and then group them into broad families. I divided plants into four “neighborhoods” (brassicas, squash and tomatoes, roots, and legumes) based on plant family, and will rotate crops within four sections of our main vegetable garden. Some vegetables might not fit into the neighborhood perfectly (lettuce in the pea bed?), but as long as families are grouped, crop rotation will make it harder for pests to find plants in subsequent years.
3. Consider companion planting to make sure that combinations of plants won’t harm each other. And add herbs and flowers that would help deter pests from your plants. The book “Great Garden Companions” by Sally Jean Cunningham was a good read.

In addition to having a design, I’ve kept better records this year. I kept notes on seed starting and planting. Without too many dry details, here are some of the plants that I’ve started and planted in this year’s garden. As noted, some plants are located in other places (patio, pot, or sector garden).

Seed Starting Indoors

The kohlrabi stems are bulging out. One kohlrabi mysteriously broke in half, but others are doing well.

The kohlrabi stems are bulging out. One kohlrabi mysteriously broke in half, but others are doing well.

* King Pepper (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Hungarian Sweet Pepper (Seeds saved from Greenway Station Farmer’s Market) – sector garden
* Sheboygan Tomato (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Cherry Tomato (Seed Saver’s Exchange)
* Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry (Seed Savers Exchange) – sector garden
* Pineapple Ground Cherry (Seeds from Madison Area Permaculture Guild Seed Exchange) – sector garden and pot
* Fiesta Mix Nasturtium (Seeds from Madison Area Permaculture Guild Seed Exchange)
* Calendula Mix (Seed Savers Exchange)
The wispy little onions are finally getting stronger.

The wispy little onions are finally getting stronger.

* White Vienna Kohlrabi (Livingston Seed Co.)
* Calabrese Broccoli (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Yellow of Parma Onion (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Royalty Mix Petunias (Burpee) – sector garden
* Marigolds (Seeds saved from our church’s Food Pantry Garden)
* Sunflowers (Seeds from Kids’ Garden Party)

Plants Seeded Outdoors

* Elephant Garlic (cloves from the Farmer’s Market planted last fall)

I'm surprise how well the elephant garlic is doing. Last year I didn't have success with garlic, but this year it looks strong.

I’m surprise how well the elephant garlic is doing. Last year I didn’t have luck with garlic, but this year it’s strong.

* Early Scarlet Globe Radish (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Early Blood Turnip Beets (Seed Savers Exchange)
* St. Valery Carrots (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Cilantro (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Bouquet Dill (Botanical Interests)
* Amish Snap Pea (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Heirloom Pineapple Alpine Strawberries (Renee’s Garden) – pot
* Heirloom Mignonette Alpine Strawberries (Renee’s Garden) – pot
* Sugar Snap Peas (NK Lawn & Garden)
* Calliope Blend Carrots (Botanical Interests)
* Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Sweet Basil (Burpee Fordhook Collection Organic)
This is my first year trying to grow beets. They look pretty scrawny so far.

This is my first year trying to grow beets. They look pretty scrawny so far.

* Thumbelina Zinnia (Botanical Interests)
* Tiny Tim (white) Sweet Alyssum (Botanical Interests)
* Oriental Nights (purple) Sweet Alyssum (Botanical Interests)
* Sweet REBA Acorn Squash (Botanical Interests)
* Black Beauty Zucchini (Botanical Interests)
* Native American Squash (Gete-okosomin, seeds from archaeological dig in Green Bay, WI)
* Rosemary (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Hidatsa Red Beans (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Early Fortune Cucumbers (Seed Savers Exchange)
* Little Gem Lettuce (Burpee Organics)

Seedlings Purchased and Planted

The purchased dill plant is getting quite tall.

The purchased dill plant is getting quite tall.

* Kale (The Bruce Co. variety pack)
* Brussels Sprouts (The Bruce Co.)
* Allstar June-Bearing Strawberries (The Bruce Co. & Papa Joe’s) – patio
* Ozark Beauty Everbearing Strawberries (The Bruce Co. & Papa Joe’s) – patio
* Dill (Olbrich Plant Sale)
* Purple Sage (Olbrich Plant Sale)
* Chocolate Mint (Olbrich Plant Sale) – patio
* Corsican Mint (Olbrich Plant Sale) – pot
* Doone Valley Thyme (Olbrich Plant Sale)
* Genovese Basil (West Star Farm Organics)
* Red Rubin Basil (West Star Farm Organics)
* Thai Basil (West Star Farm Organics)
* Lemon Balm (West Star Farm Organics, Melissa Officinalis) – patio
* Anise Hyssop Agastache (West Star Farm Organics) – patio
* Sage (Leftover from our church’s Food Pantry Garden) – patio
* Pesto Perpetual Basil (West Star Farm Organics) – patio
* Oregano (Leftover from our church’s Food Pantry Garden) – patio

Sector Garden

Before you think that I have everything planned out, remember that I do have another small garden with more random plantings. Last year, I called this garden the “Nightshade Garden,” but this year, I’ll refer to it as the “Sector Garden” on behalf of its pie shape and plant diversity. This additional spaces gives our kids easy access to ground cherries, tomatoes, sugar-snap peas, and some experimental pepper plants. My daughter also requested some petunias, which we made sure to include.

Sector Garden on May 27th, 2014

Sector Garden on May 27th, 2014


Pots on May 27th, 2014

Pots on May 27th, 2014

I find that having pots around is a good place to put extra plants or experimental plantings that might need some extra attention. My kids have a large pot where they planted colorful Calliope Carrots. I tried planting Alpine Strawberry seeds in two pots (something is starting to come up… but are they strawberry plants?). And an extra Pineapple Ground Cherry and Nasturtium plant got new homes.

Much luck with your garden this year!


Getting Started with Seed Starting

For the last few years, I’ve been growing seedlings indoors each spring. I find it very enjoyable. Nothing beats those seasonal blues like the sign of green life in the face of a grey winter. I also enjoy bringing out my nurturing side to care for little plants that, hopefully, will produce fruit for my labor. Indoor seed starting has been a journey for me, with new lessons each year.

Indoor Seedlings

Past Experiences

The first few times I tried growing seeds indoors was when I lived in a condo. Even though I didn’t have any land of my own, I was lucky to have tall ceilings, lots of windows, and a balcony. I started the seeds on a window ledge with some success and then moved them outside to pots. I assumed that a little bit of seed, soil, sun, and water would equal a healthy plant. I learned it wasn’t that simple. The type of soil, directness of light, growing space, and amount of water make a difference.

Early attempts to grow plants, with only a sunny living room and a balcony, taught me more about plant requirements.

Early attempts to grow plants, with only a sunny living room and a balcony, taught me more about plant requirements.

After moving out of the condo and living temporarily with relatives, I tried starting seedlings using peat pots, again indoors. Then I moved them outside into the ground. That year, I also purchased some seedlings from a garden store. I observed that my seedlings didn’t do as well as the purchased ones. I asked myself: why didn’t my seedlings thrive, why did they become leggy, and why didn’t some tolerate being transplanted? With lots of questions, I read gardening books with more understanding.

Two years ago, I moved into our current house, which does not get much sunlight through the windows. The house came with a shop light in the basement, so I decided to grow seedlings under the florescent lights. Last year I set up a seed tray under the lights and had only a little success. Some seedlings I overwatered and lost. Others became leggy, discolored, or didn’t thrive when moved outdoors. I realized that the light bulbs were probably too old and didn’t give off enough light, I considered that more light bulbs were needed, and I realized the seedlings needed light for a longer time period. I acknowledged that the seedlings needed larger pots as they grew and that transplanting really was an important step. I questioned how many seedlings I should start indoors.

Getting Serious

This year, I improved my system. I purchased three additional light fixtures, eight all new florescent bulbs, a seedling heat mat, and larger shelves, applying some new knowledge on what the plants needed. After getting the seeds to germinate with the heat mat, I set them on the shelves with each flat having two light fixtures over it. I set the light to be on for 16 hours and off for 8 hours. I set the heat mat to be on for 8 hours at night and off for 16 hours a day to promote stocky growth, per advice from from Mark of Voss Organics (told to the 2013 Permaculture Design Certificate class). When I also happen to be growing bean sprouts indoors, I water the seedlings with the water drained off from the sprouts to add some growth hormones. I’ve been watering the seedlings every morning with a small water bottle (a peri-bottle actually, if you know what that is), which works great to give each seedling a small amount of water. I transplanted the seedlings to larger pots when they were about two weeks old. My seedlings are doing better than previous years.

Lights placed at an angle to account for plant height.

Lights placed at an angle to account for plant height.

However, I’m still learning. One challenge is how to keep all the seedlings close to the light. Some of the seedlings are short (peppers) and some seedlings are getting huge (nasturtium). I’ve been placing the tall seedlings on the right and the shorter ones on the left and angling the light fixtures. When seedlings are different heights, I need to be careful pulling out the flats to water them and then readjusting some of the leaves within the light fixtures so they’re not caught by the lights.

Another challenge is how to best label the seedlings. I want to keep track of the plant type, seed source, how old the plant is, and when it was transplanted and hardened off. Then I can see which care factors (light, temperature, water, growing medium, hardening off schedule) lead to the best seedlings. A piece of masking tape and a laundry marker are a start, but figuring out how to succinctly write down key information to identify the plant and track the plant’s milestones is an art. I’ve been labeling the plants with their plant type and a batch number and then tracking the plants on a spreadsheet.

A third challenge is doing a cost-benefit analysis of seed starting indoors. It’s one thing if I am doing the seed starting purely for enjoyment (where that would be the primary benefit), but if I had other things I preferred to do with my money and time, then would it be better to just purchase the seedlings that I wanted? I considered whether or not I would be saving money by starting my own seeds. My new setup was an investment in equipment and a commitment to the time it would take to raise the seedlings. After adding up the costs, I concluded that with a five year outlook, I would probably save about $100 per year by growing my own seedlings. To me, keeping costs down is an important secondary benefit.

The Journey Continues

Starting your own seeds is great fun. If you feel discouraged with limited resources, have hope that each year gets better with more trial and error. Sometimes I get to thinking that all the answers are in a book and that I can become good at something right away, but I always have to remind myself that experience teaches us a great deal. I’m sure I will have more challenges and successes to share as my journey continues.

“For thou shalt eat the labor of thy hands: Happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.”
~ Psalm 128:2 (ASV)

The Season of Winter

One of the things I love best about Wisconsin weather is how it compares to the cycle of life. Many of us live in the mindset of summer. We want to be warm and happy all the time, but fall tells us that we are not gods. Nothing lasts forever. As the seasons shift, winter reminds us of death. Many Wisconsinites hide indoors or try to escape to warmer climates. But those who accept winter’s place in the year reap the reward of a miraculous spring and the hope of rebirth. If it were always summer, we could not fully appreciate the beauty of the first light-green leaves, opening flower buds, and warm raindrops.

Although March is here, it’s hard to believe that this winter might ever end. Temperatures this season were bitterly and continually cold in Madison, making it the coldest winter in 35 years and the 11th coldest winter on record. The snow has stayed on the ground since December (we’ve had snow for almost 100 days now). The Great Lakes were 91 percent covered in ice this year (according to the NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory), compared to the past four winters when they were around 40 percent or less covered. I can only imagine that spring will be extra beautiful this year after a harsh winter.

We’ve had several days now this month that got into the 40s. With warming temperatures and sunnier days, I can dream only about gardening. I’m anxious to bring our garden back to life and eat fresh vegetables again. Given the attendance at the Garden Expo in February, I’m sure I’m not alone. I have been reading garden books (after seeing illustrated vegetation, be careful for the initial shock when you look out the window at the snow…) and planning our vegetable garden beds. I’ll have a lot to do this spring: finish building our raised garden beds, order compost to fill them, and get the early spring plants going as soon as we can. I also want to start some new strawberries, do some pruning, and add some native shrubs along the lot line. It will be a busy spring.

And I do hope to blog about all our permaculture adventures… if I get the chance. As I stay home with two preschool-aged kids, one that gets up at 5 am and the other that stopped napping last September, finding time to focus on blogging has been difficult. Yet, here I am, in a stage of life where I am a parent. When I feel frustrated about wanting to get a blog posted, I remind myself to enjoy the present moment, to embrace parenting my children. Like winter, it is part of the circle of life. Even if I don’t have much time to blog this year, I know that someday I’ll miss my children’s playful days and will have more time to blog. Life continually changes… bring on spring.

Water in the Basement

As usual, the weather here in Madison, Wisconsin, brought some surprises this past year. We moved into our house during a summer drought and watered sagging plants to try to save them. Then during the following winter, warm temperatures and heavy rains brought water into many basements in the area, including ours (despite a clean condition report that didn’t indicate water problems in the basement). One moment a drought, the next moment water in the basement. We really hoped this wasn’t typical weather.

Water entering our basement this past winter.

Water entering our basement this past winter.

While we were able to fare ok in our house during the drought, the winter weather was a problem that hit closer to home. As the temperatures rose and precipitation turned from snow to rain in January, water began to pool up on top of the frozen ground. With no where to go, it poured into our basement under two of the windows. We rushed to move our belongings away from that corner. Luckily, the water formed a river and flowed into the drain about 20 feet away. But part of our basement was now unavailable for storage.

We already had a sump pump and floor drain tiles along that corner of the basement, which seemed to be working. However, we wondered if there was anything wrong with our setup. Searching for answers, we contacted a couple of businesses that specialize in basement water problems. The businesses proposed to cut a hole in the basement wall under the windows and install drain pipes going to the sump pump. For $700, we could cycle water from our window wells, down to the sump pump, and then back out to the side of our house again. Hmmmm, it seemed like there should be a better solution. We didn’t want holes in the basement wall or fancy features which could become clogged or require repair. Rather, we wanted to prevent the water from coming near our house.

The south corner of our house is a low point on our property.

The south corner of our house is a low point on our property.

Next, we contacted some landscaping companies about how to keep the water away from the house. Some of them recommended digging the window wells deeper and adding rocks so that the water would drain down and not get saturated next to the basement windows. Another company proposed, for $1400, removing the timbers bordering the house’s landscaping, re-grading the soil next to the house, and adding a swale to move the water away from the house. We liked these ideas better since they sounded more natural. We didn’t need our sump pump running if we could just keep the water away in the first place. We decided to wait until spring to start our outdoor re-landscaping project.

April showers bring... a small pond along our house.

April showers bring… a small pond along our house.

As the weather got warmer, we hoped that the water problems would go away, but in April we had a couple weeks of rainfall which really got our sump pump running again. A small pond formed next to that same south corner of our house and Mallard ducks came to splash about.

The previous owners of the house had planted a number of hostas on the southwest side of the house. I can imagine that these plants helped absorb some of the water as it pooled up from heavy rainfalls in the summer, but unfortunately, they aren’t able to help in the winter and early spring. Likewise, a more formal rain garden or a rain barrel aren’t able to hold water at these times of year. Controlling the path of the water by re-grading and using swales or berms sounds like a better option to start with.

Here are my current thoughts for a complete solution:
1. Remove the landscaping timbers on the southwest side of the house.
2. Dig the window wells deeper and add rocks.
3. Dig a swale to channel water away from the house.
4. Use soil to re-grade along the southwest side of the house.
5. Raise the soil level in low areas to that of the surrounding area.
6. Add a rain barrel on the south corner of the house.
7. Add a berm around the south corner of the house to divert water to the swale.
8. Add a rain garden at the end of the swale to prevent water from making it to the sewer.

Since weather conditions could be quite different next year, we might not know for several years if our work pays off. But I’m inclined to believe that climate change will continue to bring extreme weather in the future and that any steps we take to improve the flow of water on our property will make a difference. I will post updates as we take on this water challenge.

Hostas on the southwest side of our house last summer.

Hostas on the southwest side of our house last summer.

Getting Started

One of the apple trees in my backyard

One of the apple trees in my backyard

Welcome to Simple Soil!

In this blog, I hope to detail my urban permaculture experiences, particularly challenges and attempts at solutions for such goals as improving soil, growing food, handling water, maximizing yard space, and minimizing yard maintenance.

I first learned about Urban Permaculture last fall through a class offered by First Step Renew called Permaculture 101. During the hour-long course, I was amazed that such a concept had a name! On the Power Point slides, many of my passions and goals were neatly organized into a powerful system, and the room was filled with other people just as interested as I was. How exciting to find out that I wasn’t the only one reading organic gardening books, debating the point of lawns, and drooling over the miracle of compost! I went home that evening excited to become better acquainted with permaculture principles. 

I had purchased a house a few months prior to learning about permaculture and already had some goals in mind: creating a garden, making compost, collecting rain water, and maybe having a couple chickens one day. But now, I have some new dreams, such as planting berry bushes and other edible perennials, making use of the shade throughout the yard, and becoming involved with other Permies in the Madison area. Through continued study, experimenting, and networking, I plan to turn my property from a typical city lot filled with grass into a prosperous and healthy ecosystem that benefits our family and the world.

Thank you for checking out my blog and I will welcome any comments or suggestions along the way!

The original backyard of my permaculture "lab"

The original backyard of my permaculture “lab”