Category Archives: Vegetable Garden

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

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!

Saying Goodbye to a Tree

This week, we said goodbye to a large Blue Spruce tree at the south corner of our lot. It was actually two trees, right next to each other, which appeared as one. The tree was large and beautiful, so it was a difficult decision to call someone to remove it. However, knowing that it would continue to grow larger and larger, we felt that it was the right thing to do.

We had a large truck on our lawn for an hour to remove the Blue Spruce tree.

We had a large truck on our lawn for an hour to remove the Blue Spruce tree.

The problem was that the tree was planted in a rather poor location.

It was located:
* South of our kitchen dining area. Eating lunch in the wintertime behind the shade of a tree contributes to seasonal affective disorder in a big way.
* Just south of an apple tree. With the tree showing signs of wood rot, we hoped that improved air circulation and sunlight would help the tree bounce back.
* South-west of our large vegetable garden and south of our extra “Sector” garden. With less than five hours of full sun, another two hours of sunlight would make our garden plants much happier and more productive.
* On the lot line where the neighbor’s house sat just a couple yards away. This meant that we had to trim branches off the neighbor’s house.

Basically, we needed more SUN and less crowding. Being on a corner lot where two sides of our lot are planted with eight shady city trees, where we also have a Maple and Oak tree on the other side of our house, and a large Honey Locust tree in the backyard, there weren’t many options that could give us the kind of sunlight and openness that would improve our lives.

Perhaps some people will question our decision. It wasn’t an easy one to make.

Our concerns with removing the tree were as follows:
* We believe that trees are very beneficial and wonderful to have in the city. The tree was old and had a nice appearance.
* Animal nests and habitats by the tree would be disturbed. With that corner of the lot being shady and filled with brush piles, there would be one less place for squirrels to climb, birds to perch, and bunnies to hide.
* Removing the tree would mean a loss of a large windbreak in our backyard.
* We were concerned about whether our neighbors would miss the tree. It had been a part of our neighbors’ skyline for years, so we weren’t the only ones looking at it.
* We wanted to avoid soil compaction in our backyard from the tree service’s truck. We care deeply for our soil and worry about the impact of heavy machinery on the ground.
* The cost was high, so we had to be certain we would enjoy the benefits.

Before picture

Before picture

After picture

After picture

Now that the tree is really gone, how do I feel? Well, a part of me is sad to say goodbye, but mostly, I feel relieved. The year-round benefits will be much appreciated and the additional sunshine is already bringing us more joy and hope.

As other people plant trees, may this tree teach us to consider good tree placement, particularly for those who might live in our houses long after we are gone.

Building Raised Beds

This year, we added raised beds to our vegetable garden. This is not an activity that can be done in a day (particularly when you have kids), nor is it cheap. I’m sure some people find creative ways to make easy/cheap raised beds, but they would need to have a rare mix of resourcefulness and energy. However, despite the labor and costs required, we managed to put together some beds which will hopefully last a good number of years.

Why Raised Beds?

Last year, we had our vegetable garden right in the ground. It worked, but there were some frustrations which we thought raised beds could overcome.

The benefits of raised bed gardens are that:

Finished Raised Beds(1) The area is more set apart so people remember not to trample the garden and compact the soil. It can be difficult to remember where the edges of the garden beds were. I put some string between the garden beds and aisles, within the 14×16-feet fenced garden area, but the string didn’t last long. It was difficult to bring my kids over the rabbit fence because they didn’t remember where not to step. I don’t blame them, the weeds didn’t know where they belonged either.

(2) Good gardening soil can be added on top of existing poor soil providing a nice deep growing medium. I had been trying to improve the soil by working in manure and leaves, but since I didn’t know the history of our yard or what the soil composition was, adding good soil on top would make the garden deeper and more nutrient-rich.

(3) Square foot gardening can be implemented so that plants are grown close together and block out sun from weeds. Last year, I assigned plants homes in the garden almost randomly. It was hard to know how close together to plant them or to keep track of which locations seeds had been planted in. But when you look at a raised bed garden foot-by-foot, it makes it easier to plan ahead what to plant where, to maximize how many vegetables are grown in the space, and to fill in areas of soil where weeds would hope to grow.

Materials

The first thing we did for our raised bed project was to gather the materials we would need. We watched for a sale, and then went to buy the most expensive part: the cedar boards (cedar is a good wood as it is slow to rot). We wanted to enclose two garden beds, each 4×16-feet, with a brace in the center. Although I wanted the beds to be as deep as possible, we settled on 8-inches to keep the cost down. We decided that we needed to rent a truck to bring the wood home, since our car wasn’t long enough to transport 16-foot boards. We also needed deck screws to put the boards together and a new drill bit.

Cost of Raised Beds:
===================================
Cedar Board 2x8x16′ (4 @ $38.87 each, less 11% rebate, with tax): $145.99
Cedar Board 2x8x8′ (2 @ $19.44 each, each cut in half, less 11% rebate, with tax, ): $36.51
Cedar Board 2x2x8′ (1 @ $4.44, cut in half, less 11% rebate, with tax): $5.21
Rental Pickup (to deliver the boards home): $23.68
Deck Screws (Triple Coated 3.5″ #9, 55-count): $7.08
Countersink Drill Bit (#10, 1/8″ pilot, less 11% rebate, with tax): $4.19
===================================
Total: $222.66

The other component of the materials was to fill the beds. The Square Foot Gardening book by Mel Bartholomew recommends to fill a raised bed with 1/3 compost (5 different kinds), 1/3 agricultural-grade vermiculite, and 1/3 peat moss. We didn’t do that exactly, but we got it filled.

We had Terry Benjamin deliver Purple Cow Compost (3 yards) and Mulch. We used 1 yard of the compost for the raised beds and the rest was for another project.

Terry Benjamin delivered Purple Cow Compost. We used about 1 yard for the raised beds (remaining materials were for another project).

Cost of Growing Medium:
===================================
Layer of Leaves: free
Layer of Homemade Compost: free
Purple Cow Classic Organic Compost (~1 cubic yard, with tax): $68.58
Compost Delivery Fee (with tax): $31.65
Vermiculite (1.5 cubic feet, 2 @ $13.99 at Menard’s, less 11% rebate, with tax): $26.27
Vermiculite (4 cubic feet from The Bruce Company, with tax): $34.80
Peat Moss (2.2 cubic feet compressed, 4 @ $7.49, less 11% rebate, with tax): $28.13
===================================
Total: $189.43

Adding in the cost of the rabbit fence, it becomes clear that a garden is not cheap. However, if you consider that it costs about the same as 1-2 months of grocery shopping and will produce healthy food for years, it doesn’t sound unreasonable. When my kids ask for a snack and I’m able to pick fresh vegetables from our backyard to give them, you might even say that’s priceless.

Assembling the Beds

If you’ve done a lot of woodwork, you probably could figure out how to put the frame together. However, if you’re new to DIY wood work projects like we are, here’s an explanation of how we made it work for us.

The raised beds after being screwed together and placed within the rabbit fenced area.

The raised beds after being screwed together and placed within the rabbit fenced area.

To put the beds together, we made a template on a piece of paper with holes so that we could mark each piece of wood without a ruler (an 8-inch board is more like 7 3/8-inches wide, so measuring holes over and over isn’t fun). My husband inserted 3 screws at each corner, except for two corners where there were knots: there we skipped doing a hole in the middle. We put the 2×2 brace at the halfway point of the frame using one screw on each side. The countersink drill bit allowed us to insert the screws to be flush with the wood. Assembly was done in our garage on a tarp, so that we knew we had a clean level surface.

On March 30, we assembled the first raised bed. On April 5, we assembled the second raised bed. We then carried and placed the beds within the rabbit fence (it was a tight fit). We measured to make sure they were spaced evenly with the aisles.

Leveling the Beds

Just when you think that the raised beds are finished, you realize that your garden is by no means level. You never know that you have a hill in your backyard until you set the raised beds down and find that they look crooked. I wanted the beds to appear orderly and prevent water from running downhill, so the beds would need to be level.

There are two options I observed for leveling a raised bed. You can either lower one of the sides by removing soil, or raise the other side by adding some kind of support (soil, brick, rock, piece of wood). If you lower the frame, there will be less empty space inside (since the existing soil will rise). If you raise the frame, there will be more space inside to fill. We did a little of both, constantly pulling out a level to check our progress and standing back to see how it looked as a whole. We spent a couple weeks tweaking how level the beds were in relation to each other and the slope of the land.

Filling the Beds

Next, we needed to fill the garden beds. This was no small task either. After we purchased the materials, they had to be hauled to the garden beds. Our rabbit fence around the garden does not have a gate, since at 30-inches we can step over it easily enough. But when we need to add about 85 cubic feet (3.15 cubic yards) of materials, then you start to wish you could just push a wheelbarrow right up to the beds.

Spring planting is underway in our new raised beds.

Spring planting is underway in our new raised beds.

The bed had been a mix of top soil, manure, compost, and leaves from last year. Over the winter, many leaves were added on top for insulation. Some of these new leaves were moved to the aisles and some were mixed into the soil. We also mixed in some mostly finished compost from our compost bin. Next, we added the peat moss (16.4 cubic yards when uncompressed) and agricultural vermiculite (7 cubic yards). Finally, we filled the rest of the bed’s volume with Purple Cow Classic Organic Compost (about 1 cubic yard). We were pleased with the compost. Last year we had purchased some compost from the Bruce Company, and comparing the two, the Purple Cow compost has a finer consistency (no large chunks except wood chips). Both compost orders had some garbage in them (plastic bits, banana stickers). The finer consistency of Purple Cow would prove helpful for planting time.

Spring is Here!

And so, we managed to finish the garden beds in time to start early spring planting. Despite the costs and labor involved, I know it will all be worth it when we are picking fresh vegetables. Time will tell if we decide to add more raised beds in the future. We’ll see how the garden does 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)

Setting up a Soaker Hose

Looking back, one of the challenges of the summer was how to best keep the garden watered. Here was that story.

As the July weather heated up and the soil dried out, I realized that all the rain we had gotten in the spring wasn’t coming back. At least, not in the timeframe or quantity that my vegetable plants were calling for. To keep the soil around the plants moist, I considered a couple options: a sprinkler, mulch, and a soaker hose.

Last summer, I set up a sprinkler to water our new garden. That was sufficient for the cover crops.

Last summer, I set up a sprinkler to water our new garden. That was sufficient for the cover crops.

Last summer I had set up a sprinkler to water the vegetable garden. That was easy to do, however, it wasn’t very efficient. Drops of water soaring through the air tended to blow off course, evaporate, or wind up on the plants’ leaves instead of the soil. It also wasn’t ideal since the city water raised our water bill and contains chlorine.

Mulch was another consideration. I had heard from a few other gardeners that they didn’t need to water since their gardens had a thick layer of mulch. This option conserves water, however it means having to purchase a significant amount of mulch. This mulch would have to be purchased and delivered every year, and during droughts, I still might need to water. I added some straw as mulch, but was disappointed to see grass sprouting there later on. Unsure about the best logistics for this, I tabled this idea until I might be able to find a quality (seed free), cheap source of mulch.

I decided to try out a soaker hose. I wasn’t really sure how a soaker hose worked, which was the most appealing thing about this option. I wanted to see what it did and how well it worked. Essentially, a soaker hose is like a sprinkler, but it should be more efficient as it waters at the soil level and can be set-up wherever you want to put it. It also is cheap, except that it would still be calling on chlorinated city water. I found a Yardworks 50-foot soaker hose at Menard’s for $10.

The soaker hose package sounds impressive on the outside. Disappointing warnings are found inside.

The soaker hose package sounds impressive on the outside. Disappointing warnings are found inside.

The exterior packaging for the soaker hose sounded impressive. Here are some of the claims:
* 70% water savings (prevents water lost to evaporation and run-off)
* Steady, even soaking (perfect for gardens or shrubs and around walkways)
* Removeable coupler cap (for adding additional lengths of hose)
* 3-year limited guarantee

However, I was disappointed when I opened the package. Here are some of the interior warnings:
* Before using hose, place washer firmly into coupling at faucet end to ensure a watertight seal. This will help prevent leaking.
[I need to buy washers too? Or otherwise it will be leaking?]
* Do not leave hose under pressure while unattended or for extended periods of time.
[I need to babysit the hose while it’s on? Not much of a time savings.]
* Drain hose in the summer when not in use and keep it shaded as much as possible. Water left in hose in the sun will expand, damaging the hose.
[Wait a minute, shade the hose? My vegetable garden is in the sun! And how do you drain the hose without moving it? Having to move the hose defeats the convenience of having an irrigation system set up where you want it.]
* Drain hose completely before winter storage as water left in a hose can freeze, damaging the hose.
[Hmmmm, I sense an impending accident when I get busy in the fall and forget to bring the hose in before the first frost.]

Products these days are usually a disappointment. Why did I expect that a cheap soaker hose would be helpful time-saver, able to water my garden for years to come? It sounded more like it would leak all over and only last one summer. Yet, wanting to find out how it worked, I proceeded to pull the hose out of the packaging and set it up in the garden.

The first thing I noticed was that the hose was hesitant to straighten out. Being wound up in the package, it kept curling and didn’t want to stay in the assigned location. This was frustrating since the hose weighs enough that it can easily knock over delicate stems and take out a few plants. Looking back, I should have straightened the hose out on the grass first and perhaps used some U-shaped landscaping stakes to hold it in place as I went along.

When the soaker hose is being used, droplets of water are released all over the hose.

When the soaker hose is being used, droplets of water are released all over the hose.

The second thing that I noticed was that when I turned it on, small droplets of water came out of all sides of the hose. I hadn’t been sure how the water would come out, so watching the hose drip was interesting. As the water fell, it only watered the soil directly beneath the hose. Soil a foot away from the hose was still dry. It would have been nice if the water had traveled a little farther from the hose so that more of the plants roots would be able to access the water.

Overall, it worked fine. It was a convenient way to water the soil around the plants while still taking care of my kids. I expect I will use it again next year.

Now with the garden winding down, I put away the soaker hose for the winter. I will need to remind myself to set it up early next year so I’m prepared for dry spells and so the plants can grow around it.

Updates in the Vegetable Garden (September 27, 2013)

The vegetable garden in August.

The vegetable garden in August.

As autumn arrives, the gardens are still producing. Much has grown in the last two months of the garden!

There weren’t many problems to report. Leaf miners returned to visit the swiss chard, but didn’t do much damage. A white powder appeared on the topside of some plants leaves, but didn’t seem to harm the plants. Squirrels and rabbits enjoyed fallen apples and pears and didn’t bother the ones on the trees much. The rabbits also noticed the ground cherries at some point, but we still managed to find more on the ground each day. Yes, there are many weeds in the garden, but I haven’t felt a need to go after them.

My daughter's zinnia plants kept offering purple flowers for her to pick and bring in the house.

My daughter’s zinnia plants kept offering purple flowers for her to pick and bring in the house.

There were many joyful surprises in the garden. I’m not usually crazy about flowers (perhaps you remember my rant about rose bushes) unless the plant offers a practical benefit (something edible or deterring pests), but zinnias have found a place in my heart. My daughter received the seeds at a children’s garden party and she loves to go out and pick the flowers. Watching her put them in a vase on the kitchen table brings joy to our home. They have continued to produce new flowers with determination, so they seem to be a hardy sort of plant. We’ll have to buy some more seeds next year.

Late additions to the garden in the last two months included some wheat grass in a tray and more carrots and peas in my kids’ container garden. We were having plenty to pick and eat so I didn’t worry much about succession planting. Summer gets to be a busy time of year.

Here are more vegetable- and fruit-specific updates:

Zucchini soup was a wonderful evening meal with grated zucchini, carrots, celery, onion, potato, and parsley.

Zucchini soup was a wonderful evening meal with grated zucchini, carrots, celery, onion, potato, and parsley.

Zucchini: Wow. The first one I found was a monster that surely must have grown overnight. And they just kept coming. We made zucchini bread, many bowls of zucchini soup, and enjoyed slicing them up to eat right out of the garden. They taste best when they are small and tender, about 4 or 5 inches long.

Broccoli: The heads were small, but the taste and texture was delicious. It was a nice snack to just chop off a piece to eat with the kids in the afternoon.

Peas: The ‘Tom Thumb’ variety of peas wasn’t too impressive. Little growth, small pods, and then they were done. We’ll go with a different variety next year.

Shells and dry beans.

Shells and dry beans.

Hidatsa Beans: We watched the beans go from being skinny and green to swollen and brown. The dried shells cracked open and revealed maroon-colored beans inside. It was interesting seeing where dry beans come from. I knew it would happen but seeing it with my own eyes was quite the learning experience. The kids enjoyed helping to thresh and pull out the beans. Some of the beans dried right in the garden and sometimes we let a vine hang upside-down in the kitchen to finish drying. If the beans were a little soft, we just left them on the counter to dry out more. Now we just need to try to cook them!

Carrots: These were fun for the kids. The ‘Short n’ Sweet’ variety worked well in the kids’ container garden and were good to eat. With new seeds planted in early September, I hope we can pick more yet this year.

Swiss Chard: We got tired of swiss chard after about a month. The taste seemed to get more bitter over time when eaten raw (our preferred way of eating things). They were pretty in the gardens and a sauté with broccoli and turnips early in the summer was delicious, but I don’t think I’ll plant them again next year.

The cucumbers were cute hanging on the bamboo trellis, despite the spiky exterior.

The cucumbers were cute hanging on the bamboo trellis, despite the spiky exterior.

Cucumber: Another good afternoon snack! Picking a cucumber to slice up and eat warm out of the garden was great. After rubbing off the prickly spikes on the outside, the skin was so soft and edible (unlike the tough skins on large grocery store cucumbers which we often peel off).

Red Peppers: It took a while for the green peppers to take on a bright red, but it was worth the wait. They were beautiful and delicious! We sliced them up to eat raw and warm from the garden.

Tomatillos: Hanging like green lanterns, these were a fun experiment in our garden. We hadn’t had tomatillos before, so of course, we just sliced them up to try them raw. We weren’t a fan of them raw. After a failed attempt at salsa verde (I accidentally made it too spicy to consume without burns to mouth and nose), these became a good donation to the food pantry. Hopefully someone with a knack for salsa-making can enjoy the harvest from this plant until I’m willing to make another attempt. My husband found recipes for strawberry-tomatillo pie and fried tomatillos, so that would be some other fun things to try in the future.

Plain yogurt, milk, strawberries, blueberries, and wheat grass.

Plain yogurt, milk, strawberries, blueberries, and wheat grass.

Wheat Grass: After getting some free seeds from the Madison Children’s Museum at the opening of the Urb Garden, we planted them in a shallow tray of compost and set them on the patio. The grass grew and we cut some off to add to a smoothie. It was ok. Our blender shredded the grass pretty well, but there were still a few strings. And it tasted a bit like grass. But hopefully the health benefits made it worth it.

Ground Cherries: These plants keep them coming slow and steady! It has been nice to pick these little fruits off the ground each day to nibble on. My son especially loves to go outside and look for them.

Large Tomatoes from church seedlings: Despite a late planting, no cage, and some storms that threw the plants to the ground, tomato seedlings from our church’s food pantry garden brought us a pleasant surprise. We were never crazy about large tomatoes from the grocery store, with their tough skin, watery inside, and bland taste. But we figured we ought to try the large tomatoes that grew from these seedlings. Wow! The taste and meaty texture was exceptional. Someone at church thought they might be an heirloom variety. We will definitely be planting more next year and further exploring the world of home-grown tomatoes.

The nasturtium seedling thrived and brought happiness to the garden.

The nasturtium seedling thrived and brought happiness to the garden.

Nasturtium: Although the spicy nasturtium leaves and flowers weren’t a hit at our house, we enjoyed the beautiful flowers in the garden. The nasturtium planted from seed didn’t get nearly as large as the purchased seedling.

Apples: Our red and green apple trees have brought us much joy this apple season. I’ve made a number of batches of applesauce and we have been eating them right off the tree and sharing them with friends. The red apples have quite a few blemishes from pests, but the green apples are mostly perfect. Both are delicious. I’ve been debating trying to prune these trees to keep them short and healthy, but I don’t want to jeopardize the harvest in future years.

Pears: Our pear tree produced about 25 pears this year. I read online that pears don’t ripen on the tree, so I picked the pears green and put them in the refrigerator for about a week or so. Then I placed them on the kitchen counter to ripen for another two weeks. They slowly turned yellow and became soft, at which point, I returned them to the refrigerator. We’ve been eating them raw and enjoying their sweetness. One of the pears had a worm crawling out of it (coddling moth?) which was a little creepy, but generally, they’re mostly blemish- and pest-free. I have debated trying out a recipe with them, such as pear butter, but we’ll probably have them all eaten before I find some time.

A woodpecker pecking at the bamboo trellis over the mostly-finished beans.

A woodpecker pecking at the bamboo trellis over the mostly-finished beans.

As you can see from the harvest totals, much has been picked since my last update:
* Swiss Chard: 338 g
* Carrots: 180 g
* Nasturtium: 9 g
* Peas: 54 g
* Wheat Grass: 18 g
* Zucchini: 2509 g
* Broccoli: 250 g
* Cucumber: 682 g
* Cilantro: 9 g (not all weighed)
* Basil: ? (not weighed)
* Hidatsa Beans (dry): 79 g
* Red Peppers: 276 g
* Sun Gold Tomatoes: 500 g
* Red Sweetie Tomatoes: 545 g
* Ground Cherries: 352 g
* Cherry Tomatoes from church seedlings: 463 g
* Large Tomatoes from church seedlings: 496 g
* Tomatillos: 246 g (more haven’t been picked)
* Green apples: 1014 g (many more to pick and some eaten without being weighed!)
* Red apples: 8396 g
* Pears: 3044 g

This brings the harvest total up to 7075 g (16 lb) for vegetables and 12,454 g (27 lb) for fruit so far. Not bad for our first year with a backyard garden! It’s a minor chore to weigh all the vegetables and fruits as they come in the house and write down the numbers, but it certainly is interesting to see how our gardening efforts are paying off. In the future, it will also be nice to look back and see how our garden has changed from year to year.

Updates in the Vegetable Garden (July 31, 2013)

This past July we’ve gotten some more unusual weather. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “unusual” as that seems to be the norm now, but it does help to compare vegetable garden conditions year-to-year when we talk about how the current weather differs from the expected weather patterns. Anyways, after a wet June, we had two weeks of hot summer weather without much rain. Then we had two weeks of cloudy and chilly weather with sporadic rain. We still haven’t needed our air conditioner much this summer and have broken out the sweatshirts and pants occassionally. The vegetable plants seem to be feeling it too since it feels like they’re moving slower this month.

Broccoli, peas, nasturtium, and cilantro. We usually don't have much to pick at once, but it's such a blessing.

Broccoli, peas, nasturtium, and cilantro. We usually don’t have much to pick at once, but it’s such a blessing.

In mid-July, I set up an irrigation system to water the plants. I purchased a soaker hose and set it along the plants in the larger vegetable garden. I also added a light layer of chopped straw around the plants to retain water. I watered every few days mid-July but now I haven’t used the soaker hose in the last couple weeks since we’ve been getting some occassional rain.

One big change in the garden is that the cover crops have all been cut down. After they started going to seed, I used a scissors to cut them off near the ground and then composted the material. The garden sure looked bare after I did that! It made me realize just how much space really is in the garden. I guess it wasn’t planted very efficiently with vegetables.

The cover crop peas produced many nice looking pods. I picked a bowl of them (176 grams) and brought them in the house to try. I wasn’t expecting that they would taste good since they were a cover crop, and it was true. They weren’t sweet and we ended up composting them.

The garden is a bit overrun with weeds right now. After the cover crops were finished, I thought I could plant more crops in their place. But beneath the cover crops were many weeds and the kids kept me so busy this month that I haven’t had time to tackle them or plan out what to plant next. In the spring, I had a great deal of energy for the garden, but now I find my energy dwindling. Next year I’ll have to remember that.

Having only lived in our house for a year, the large lavender plant blooming behind our garage was a pleasant surprise.

Having only lived in our house for a year, the large lavender plant blooming behind our garage was a pleasant surprise.

Here are the harvest totals so far:
* Swiss Chard: 272 g (more could be picked)
* Carrots: 141 g
* Nasturtium: 9 g (more could be picked)
* Peas: 40 g (done now)
* Broccoli: 99 g (2 heads)
* Cilantro: 9 g (more could be picked)
* Sun Gold Tomatoes: 236 g
* Red Sweetie Tomatoes: 157 g
* Ground Cherries: 66 g
This brings the harvest total up to 1029 grams (2.27 pounds).

Here are some plant-specific updates this month:

Cherry Tomatoes: The Sun Gold and Red Sweetie plants in the nightshade garden are doing wonderfully. We’ve enjoyed going out to pick the ripe ones every day for the last couple weeks. My son has been eating most of them as soon as I weigh and wash them. My daughter liked them a lot last year but hasn’t been as interested in them this year.

Ground Cherries: Oh, what a wonderful plant these are! Three of the ground cherry plants are large and producing many sweet fruits. Every day we look for the ripe cherries on the ground and eat them as soon as we weigh and wash them. We can’t get enough of them. We’ll have to plant more next year. Yesterday morning I noticed a bunny taking one of the ground cherries off the ground, so we’ll have to watch out for those bunnies. The seedlings that were transplanted later have not amounted to anything. The ones that have survived are still very small.

Broccoli: We had two nice broccoli heads this month. The plants’ leaves had become riddled with holes but they seemed to be just surviving. After cutting off the two tops, I thought I’d see some side shoots start to grow. The other two broccoli plants have smaller heads that are only now ready to harvest.

Five peppers growing on a small plant in our own backyard.

Five peppers growing on a small plant in our own backyard.

Peppers: There are green peppers growing on the pepper plant, maybe five all in a small clump. I’d like to wait until they turn red to pick them.

Cucumber: The cucumber plants are growing up the bamboo teepee and have developed many yellow flowers and two little pickle-sized cucumbers. I’ll wait for them to grow before I pick them.

Cilantro: We mostly picked cilantro for nibbling on this month, but did use some in a batch of guacamole. More could have been picked, but now it has gone to seed.

The Hidatsa beans look beautiful on the bamboo teepee.

The Hidatsa beans look beautiful on the bamboo teepee.

Hidatsa Beans: The bean plants climbed all the way up the bamboo teepee and have formed many long green beans. I’m going to wait for the plant and beans to dry out so I can try to harvest some dry beans.

Zucchini: The zucchini plants are coming along and developing small green zucchinis.

Nasturtium: The three nasturtium plants have done well. If we liked the hot taste of the peppery leaves and flowers, we might have picked more to eat. But I’m enjoying them for their beautiful flowers and companion planting.

Lavender: We discovered that we have a large lavender plant behind our garage! What a nice surprise.

Our backyard bouquet of zinnia, cilantro, and hosta flowers. With a homemade loaf of bread right out of the oven, the kitchen felt so cozy.

Our backyard bouquet of zinnia, cilantro, and hosta flowers. With a homemade loaf of bread right out of the oven, the kitchen felt so cozy.

Mystery Flower: My daughter’s mystery flower has revealed itself! We had four purple zinnias open up this month. Just last week, we cut them off and arranged them in a bouquet in the house with some cilantro flowers and hosta flowers. It’s unusual for us to have flowers in the house. Given that the flowers are right from our backyard, it has been a much enjoyed centerpiece for the kitchen table.

Tomatillo: The yellow flowers are starting to turn into small fruits.

Tomatoes (from church): Even though our nightshade garden’s cherry tomatoes are quickly producing many fruits, the tomato plants from church are moving slowly with just a few green tomatoes. These seedlings had gotten off to a leggy start and were planted later.

This was delicious! Swiss chard, broccoli, and turnips sauteed in some oil.

This was delicious! Swiss chard, broccoli, and turnips sauteed in some oil.

Swiss Chard: We picked some more swiss chard from my kids’ container garden. It’s still growing strong. Leaf miners had gotten some of the leaves so those had to be tossed. The seedlings that were transplanted in the vegetable garden are small and leggy, but they might come around.

Carrots: We’ve continued to pull some small carrots from my kids’ container garden. They are fun to pick because they’re so orange. It’s nice to see carrots with roots and leaves instead of the grocery store ‘baby cut’ variety that we usually buy.

Apples and Pears: The apple and pear trees have much fruit on them, but much of the fruit looks to have worm holes. The squirrels and rabbits don’t seem to mind. They eat any of the unripe fruit that they can get their hands on. The rabbits stand on their hind legs and eat the apple tree leaves too. With the squirrels stealing from the tree, I don’t know if we’ll have many pears to pick this year.

Apples on our 'red' variety of apple tree.

Apples on our ‘red’ variety of apple tree.

Skinny pears growing on the pear tree.

Skinny pears growing on the pear tree.

Lessons learned:
* Remember that I have a lot of energy in the spring but not much as the summer goes on. Don’t procrastinate garden planning or succession planting.
* Use row covers over the broccoli and swiss chard to keep pests off (cabbage moth, leaf miner, etc.).
* The bamboo teepees are nice. They look beautiful with their rustic height, the beans have had much room to grow upwards, and they’ve been sturdy.
* Plant more ground cherries next year and fence in the nightshade garden to keep bunnies out.
* If rain isn’t coming, be prepared. Set up the irrigation earlier and track rainfall. Use a thicker layer of mulch to retain moisture and block weeds.
* Planting cover crops among the vegetable plants makes it hard to use that soil later in the season. It gets weedy and you can’t till the soil or pull the cover crop stems out without disturbing the vegetable plants’ roots.
* Square foot gardening = more efficent than random gardening. Even though it’s good I started “small,” there is a lot of wasted space.
* It’s easy to have vegetables, fruits, or herbs when you don’t need them (or to need them when you don’t have them). Gardening means following nature rather than buying things on demand at the grocery store. It’s good to pay attention to the garden so that recipes and time can be organized in preparation.

So many things that I’m learning this year in the garden!