Tag Archives: organic gardening

Springing into action … again

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It’s a little over a year since I published my first post … wasn’t WordPress supposed to send me some sort of YeeHaw about that? Whatever – the point is, I’m kinda back where I started: in the veggie garden. I gave up on it in July when the weeds swallowed my wheelbarrow, but that was a tactical retreat, not an admission of defeat.

His complaints are clearly nonsensical, since it's quite obvious that he's having a blast.

His complaints are clearly nonsensical, since it’s obvious that he’s having a blast. Here, he’s making a big spread-out pile of horse manure, dirt and stable waste into a compact, tall pile, while seated on two very big round things. Every man’s dream, right?

This spring Himself and I have gone in with a unified front and guns blazing. We have experienced some friendly fire (mainly when Himself accuses me of constantly dreaming up projects that are, and I quote, “too damn big”, and then, and I quote further, of “expecting him to do all the damn work”), but no one is actually dead. Yet.

I had to concede some key arguments in order to get him on board … but to be honest, while my ideals are good, they were more than I could accomplish given how unfit I am. I really wanted this garden to be established using a permaculture and no-till approach from the outset, but it simply wasn’t practical. The area we’ve set aside for fruit and veggies (with a corner lopped out of it for the chickens) is pretty big – around 100×80 ft – and it was hillocky and rutted and impossible, especially since I’m hobbling about on a fractured ankle. So I lifted the tractor ban, and the ground is now depressingly compacted, but flat and smooth. As we fill it up with raised beds and plants it will become inaccessible to the tractor, and I’m hopeful that, given time and plenty of tasty composted goodies, the earthworms and other tiny critters will heal the soil.

Himself has had a few concessions to make as well. Being an engineer with (gawd help us) a military school background, he likes things neat, matching, with square corners. Do you have any idea what it would cost to fill 8,000 sq,ft with beautifully crafted raised beds like these? Nor do I, and although he could probably calculate it with ease, it makes no difference: however you add it up, the answer amounts to “a shitload”.

In any case, I find repurposing more satisfying, which is why I was very happy to learn that a local farmer was ripping out hundreds of acres of wine grapes … and replacing them with carrots – can you believe such a thing??? But his bizarre choice was my good fortune, because he advertised 8-ft long, 5-in diameter wood poles, formerly used to hold up the vines, on Craigslist for a little bit of nothing. With only minimal eye-rolling by Himself, we purchased three truckloads. (Reverting to the subject of friendly fire: I helped with the first load and was thereby incapacitated and unable to walk for nearly a week, so Himself and some other sturdy fellow fetched the other two loads. I should get points for wanting to help, right?)

What's left of the pole pile after yesterday's work party.

What’s left of the pole pile after yesterday’s work party, with Argos doing a “stay” to help make the picture pretty.

Then on Saturday we had a work party, involving a couple of young, energetic friends with whom I occasionally trade babysitting for farm labor, and a gang of teenagers in need of pocket money. As it turned out, “8 feet long and 5 inches diameter” was merely an approximate description of the poles … but that just made the design and construction process more interesting. (Or so it seemed to me, after Himself asked me please to be quiet and let him get the job done. One of my Life Rules is, Never argue with an engineer, especially if he’s carrying a hammer, so I sat down on the side of the asparagus bed and let him get on with it. He adapted my original concept design, which necessitated some fixing by me – ha ha! – but I’m happy with the end result.)

The start of my raised bed garden

The start of our raised bed garden. To the left, bordering the Nasty Neighbor, is a bed I built a few weeks ago, using old power poles. It contains an 80-ft row of asparagus. The three raised beds are what we built on Saturday. The Engineer says this looks, and I quote, “scruffy”. I think it looks rustic, and will be charming when full of greenly growing goodness.

If you’re wondering how to build raised beds using somewhat uneven old poles, the way we did it was to lay the bottom ones out. (The poles are used only for the long sides of the bed.) We then hammered sections of rebar into the ground to hold them in place. (In the final step, the rebar needs to be hammered right down such that it doesn’t stick up above the level of the top pole and stab unwary gardeners.) The end pieces, 5-ft sections of 2×6 lumber that Himself had lying around, were nailed to the poles. Then we laid the next layer, nailing it to 2×6 in its turn. My design called for three sections of rebar – two at each end on the outside and one in the middle inside – that essentially brace the poles into place, which minimizes the load on the end pieces. I think this would make them more stable and better suited to being sat on while one is weeding, so will build the remaining beds that way. Some of the poles are bent, creating gaps when they were laid on top of each other, so in a few places we’ve had to block the gaps inside with some old chipboard from one of Himself’s piles of Random Stuff That I May Need One Day. This will probably rot within a year or two, but by then the soil will have stabilized such that it’ll remain in place.

So far this year, I have planted a second plum tree, a peach tree, about 80 asparagus, a rhubarb plant, about 15 strawberries, a gooseberry bush, a horseradish, and about 10 walking onions. I have more berry bushes, another rhubarb plant and some fingerling potatoes waiting to go into the ground. I should have started seedlings in pots weeks ago, but am behind the curve … After last year’s weedy debacle, part of me couldn’t quite believe we’d be able to get our act together this year. But Himself has quit pouring contumely upon my commitment to organic gardening, and I’ve quit being rigid and perfectionist about it, and we’re managing to cooperate … so I guess this week will see me hard at work with seed packets and potting soil. In the fullness of time, maybe there will be crops!

He also sent me this link in case I should feel the need to

He also sent me this link in case I should feel the need to “perform my own calculations”. You’ve just got to love such optimism!

And … I’ve just received an email that reminds me of the many benefits of sharing life’s challenges with an engineer. While I have been writing this, he has been very busy Calculating, and has sent me the following:

I have calculated how much dirt/manure mix we have available in the pile in the front yard.
The pile is between 5-1/2 to 6 ft tall and the radius of the pile at the base is a bit more than 6-1/2 ft.
This calculates out to a pile volume of something between 270-to-295 cubic feet of soil/manure mix.
The volume of a 14 ft long raised bed is 14x4x1.25 = 70 cubic feet
Therefore, there is ample soil/manure in the pile to support filling at least FOUR MORE 14 ft beds.

I am now doubly motivated to build and fill the remaining beds, just to see if he’s right!

Your turn! How does spring affect your behavior? If you’re a gardener, do you try to befriend Mother Nature, or do you believe in better living through chemicals? Have you ever felt the urge to hit someone with a set square if something you build doesn’t line up perfectly?

Reeking but undefeated

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I think I’ve mentioned, once or twice before, that I’m a little obsessive about compost. So when I told Himself the other day that he could stop putting every bit of unwanted peel, core, leaf, or mysterious-squishy-thing-from-the-fridge-veggie-drawer into a special bucket next to the sink, for subsequent emptying onto the compost pile, that was a Big Deal.

Himself, as a believer in better living through chemistry who just doesn’t get the Magic Of Decomposition, was rendered exceedingly happy by this change in house rules. But for me it was an admission of defeat. The thing is, my meticulously planned and sweatily planted veggie garden has exploded. Every time I venture into it, I hear this theme song.

I took this three weeks ago. Those pretty yellow ones are now taller than I am.

I took this three weeks ago. Those pretty yellow ones are now taller than I am.

It’s not that there aren’t vegetables – they’re out there. Lurking. But fetching them in involves a machete, and a compass to find the way back to civilization, and one should probably be armed against lurking predators. (There’s a lot of lurking going on, and it scares me.) Meanwhile, that whole self-sufficiency trip just ain’t happening this year.

So anyway, recognizing that (a) the soil is apparently not in urgent need of anything to encourage stuff to grow, and (b) I can’t find the compost heap anyway, we now throw away kitchen waste instead of recycling it. And the only downside is that doing so makes me feel like a huge failure in Permaculture World.

Until the other day, when it dawned on me that, if I were to send all this vegetable matter down through the garbage disposal, it would end up underground, decaying peacefully in the septic tank and slowly seeping back into the soil. (I’m a little foggy regarding the design details of our septic system, but I’m reasonably sure seeping happens.) I was happy again! Plus, for the first time, I could see the sense in having a garbage disposal. I had never encountered one before moving to the US … In South Africa, kitchen waste goes on the compost heap. Or if you aren’t into compost, you can put it on the elephant table.

Okay, I’m kidding, outside of the zoo there aren’t actually elephants in Johannesburg. But if there were, you could totally feed them whatever green, crunchy stuff you didn’t want to eat yourself.

Getting back to the point of this story, this evening I got a chance to use our garbage disposal as a compost alternative on a grand scale, because I went to fry up some onions and every bloody onion in the pantry was nasty in its middle. (I didn’t grow these onions. The onions I planted appear to be experiencing jungle shock and are refusing to bulb out.)

As I chopped each one open and it oozed at me I shoved it into the garbage disposal, and listened to the chomping, roaring noises with a frankly savage satisfaction. Himself wandered into the kitchen, expressed a contrarian opinion, and was sent packing. Two minutes later, the chomping and roaring gave way to glutinous bubbling, a moaning noise came from the guts of the machine, and a greasy mix of chopped onion and brown water bubbled up into the sink. Basically, the garbage disposal reacted pretty much as I would have done if I’d crammed four icky onions down my own gullet.

There was NO WAY I was going to tuck my tail between my legs and ask His Engineership to rescue me, so I got myself under the sink and took apart as much of the plumbing as I dared. (I have been known to be handy under duress, even if I do have to mutter “lefty loosey, righty tighty” every time I have to twist something.)

Nothing happened. I googled it. Do you know, there’s a whole library of how-to-fix-your-garbage-disposal on Youtube! So clearly this is a universal problem. I am not alone! I watched half of one, which instructed me to press the red button, so I pressed it. Still nothing happened.

You know what happened, don’t you? In the end, Himself took apart the plumbing, which did vomit forth, and then I cleaned up. It was completely disgusting, and I still smell like onions.

What else could I do but share the story with the whole world?

Do you ever set goals, and then find that reality is a whole lot more complicated than you’ve planned for? 

Boys and their toys, or, Alas! My compost pile!

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What is it about men and Things With Wheels???

Himself’s favorite toy is his tractor. (I am not supposed to refer to it as a toy. Tractoring is Seriously Manly Stuff. But … come on. It’s blue, for crying out loud! And it has really BIIIG wheels. But I digress…)

Being an exceptionally devoted wife, and also somewhat in touch with husbandly reality, I understand that the main point of having a five-acre farmlet is to be able to ride around it on a tractor. Often this is a good thing. You can attach a flat blade and shovel snow off the driveway … and all the way along the private road … and clear to the end of the nearest county road if you’re feeling exceptionally public spirited and haven’t run out of gas. You can attach a thing with lots of teeth and use it to break up the freeze-dried cow patties that accumulate in the pasture during the winter. You can even race down the driveway, sans any attachment at all, to open the gate for people who are confused by the (unbolted) chain that keeps it shut.

And year after year after year, for the seven years we have lived here, you can have a stand-up, no-holds-barred, screaming fight with the above-mentioned wife regarding whether or not to use the tractor to plow the vegetable patch before trying to grow anything in it. (This fight has been known to last until well into summer, by which time, of course, it’s too late to grow anything at all. But the tractor is still brought into action for weed control. I have yet to win a fight over the usefulness of weeds as a means of dust control.)

Reasons not to plow the veggie patch:
1. It compacts the soil, which in our area is prone to compacting anyway. (I don’t know when last I saw a wild earthworm in our veggie patch.)
2. It makes the ground rutted and lumpy and hard to walk on without falling down, even when one hasn’t had anything to drink.
3. It creates dust, which in our (windy) area is fine as talcum powder, only not at all soothing when it gets between eyeball and contact lens.

Reasons to plow the veggie patch:
1. Must … drive … the tractorrrr…..

So this year I put my foot down. No tractor in the veggie patch! Serious grumping ensued, and a renewed threat of Separate Garden Zones. And … I just did not feel like having a fight about it. Right now life is good, I actually believe I may in fact manage to (a) plant, (b) maintain and (c) harvest a whole assload of veggies, but I don’t want to have to do it alone. So we compromised. No plowing, but the tractor was allowed in with a blade to scrape up the weeds (HOW do they grow so fast? They come rocketing out of the ground before it’s properly thawed!) The advantages of blading – leveling out the ruts left by last year’s plowing, and pushing mounds of spare earth to places where they were needed – were acknowledged. Areas to be bladed were agreed upon.

Most importantly, the importance of not messing with my precious, hard-earned compost heap were discussed at length, along with the question of how to stop the chickens from scattering the heap far and wide, and some bragging about how nicely it was growing what with all the barrow-loads of weeds and horse poop I had been heaving around.

Tractoring commenced. I had to leave the area because of dust, noise and evil smells, but that was okay, because seeing Himself having fun just warms the cockles of my wifely heart.

And today I went outside to continue gardening and, yes, I admit it, to photograph the compost heap for yesterday’s blog. This is what I found…

Former site of compost heap. Yep, you got it. A whole fresh set of ruts. And the compost? Scattered to the far reaches of the patch.

Former site of compost heap. Yep, you got it. A whole fresh set of ruts. And the compost? Scattered to the far reaches of the patch.

Seriously, if he ever brings that tractor into the veggie garden again, I may have to kill him.

Getting off to a slow start

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Oh my word, I wish I were fitter! And at least 100 lbs thinner! And that my feet didn’t hurt so when I stand on them for any length of time! And that this STUPID pain behind my left knee would STOP!

All that grumpiness and bitching apart, I am happy to record that today I Put Seeds Into The Ground! First, I dumped two wheelbarrow loads of composted horse poop, chicken poop and vegetable matter into one of the raised beds. (I have weeded all six of the raised beds – go me!) I hope the compost is rotted enough … I’d have preferred to have given it a couple more months of actual proper care (as opposed to just standing around looking messy), but that would have meant buying compost, which goes against the grain. I shall just hope for the best. I forked it in as well as I could, mixing it with the soil already in the bed. And then I sowed a row of beets, two rows of radishes, a row of broccoli and two rows of Walla Walla sweets. All seeds, and I’m realizing that next year I must get started very much earlier with indoor planting, but I have hopes that some of them will come up and do their vegetable thang.

The first raised bed, weed-free, full of compost, and planted. All that's required now is faith. And regular watering.

The first raised bed, weed-free, full of compost, and planted. All that’s required now is faith. And regular watering.

So far I have also weeded and leveled a little more than half the long bed along the Nasty Neighbor’s boundary. Once that’s done I will dig in plenty of compost and then transplant the asparagus from the raised bed they’re in … We actually got a small crop the other day and it was most delicious! I don’t think I have as many asparagus as I’ve allowed room for, so am thinking I may try to scrounge plants off the non-gardening types who bought a neighbor’s house. Otherwise I’ll just leave space – or rather, fill it up with nasturtiums – and we can go out into the fields and dig up asparagus plants come fall. At any rate it’ll be ready for a good crop by next year.

I already have a bunch of tomato plants, some bought by Himself and some given by our friend Fae. They’ll be ready to go into the NN Boundary bed pretty soon, in front of the asparagus. I need to go downtown for nasturtium, marigold and alyssum seed … got borage with the veggie seeds from Territorial Seed Co, near Portland.

The compost pile is coming along, no thanks to the chickens, who like to stomp on it and kick it all over the place. I need to put down some railroad ties or similar to form a barricade … I don’t mind them stirring it up, but I want it to stay in one place! I have LOADS of compost in the containers we built out of wood pallets last year. I thought it hadn’t broken down well but, having found some of it to be very usable, I am hoping there’s more good stuff there than I’d expected, despite my neglect. Anyway, I’m putting the undecayed lumps into the new pile, mixing them in with barrow-loads of horse manure interspersed with the green weeds I’m digging up.

I am a little disappointed at my failure to do the permaculture thing properly. I haven’t been able to handle the soil without tilling it – too many weeds that have been allowed to grow too large, and the soil is rutted and hillocky so it just has to be leveled, and in any case it’s pretty compacted and in need of compost. Also I am irritated beyond belief that Himself is out there scraping and compacting – and raising DUST to transform my contact lenses into sandpaper – with that bloody tractor. But better to make a start, however imperfect, than lose yet another year. I will make much more effort to mulch and lay down cardboard toward the end of the year, to be sure it’s good to go early next spring. For now, I’m just glad Himself has given up being cross about my insistence on organic gardening, and is willing to give it a try rather than stomping off and starting his own patch somewhere else. At least he agreed not to till with the tractor.

So all good, I guess! So long as some of these seeds just sprout!