Archive for February, 2012

Square Foot Gardening

At the moment, if I was asked to recommend a book for a beginning gardener, it would be Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. (I read the original not the all new ones he’s got for sale.) Like any book, I have some disagreements, but the way he outlines the whole process makes it very accessible and worth the effort. It is a thicker book, but he covers everything from plotting and preparing the soil to some basics of harvesting and storing what you grow.

The premise is that rather than working in rows, you work in beds. His twist on the bed concept is that you function on a square-foot grid. This means that you only have to think about a single square foot at a time. By thinking on such a small scale, any chores are kept at a reasonable level. He came up with this from watching people in community gardens just get overwhelmed as the summer went on by weeds or watering or even harvesting. However, once you have weeded, watered, planted, or harvested one square, you have a solid accomplishment in a short time which makes it easier to move on to another square.

He is all about continuous and reasonably sized harvests. He does discuss the logistics of planning a large, one-time harvest if you are planning on preserving food for other seasons. However, most of it is about how to plan your garden so that you can harvest what you need and plant the next round with as little fuss as possible. One square holds 16 carrots. Since you probably don’t want to harvest more than that at once, you plant one square of carrots, wait two weeks, then plant another square. This gives you a clear progression for harvesting, once you get to that point. Once the first square has had all of the carrots harvested, it is ready to be turned over with some compost and replanted with the next crop. This keeps you from being overwhelmed by needing to spend a full day planting or harvesting. It also helps even out the “boom or bust” that most garden crops have if they are planted all at once.

One of the most interesting points is how very space-efficient this is. I grew up with a row garden that most people are familiar with. It turns out that long, thin rows aren’t just since the advent of tractors. I ran across an old instruction to make your garden long and thin rather than lots of short rows because you would spend significantly less time turning your plow horse or team. On our property, we had the space and rototiller that made a sprawling row garden logical. However, if your space is limited or you just don’t want to turn over that much land, by eliminating the walking path between each crop row, you save on a lot of things. You have less bare soil to keep weeded and watered. You also have less compaction from walking so close to each plant. The plants themselves even help with weed reduction and water retention as they can grow close enough to shade most of the soil in their square. His estimate is that you can grow the same number of plants in only 20% of the space of a more conventional garden.

His covering of pest control is interesting as well. Not only is not using chemicals healthier, but it’s easier. His solution for caterpillars is to pluck them off and crush them. For cutworms, you dig in the ground around the freshly felled seedling to uncover and crush the guilty party. The reason this works is because you have such a tiny space to monitor that you will see most changes caused by pests before more extreme intervention is necessary. In later chapters he goes over other information like season-extending and setting up boxes for patios and rooftops. He even offers some recipes to help you manage your bounty. It is a very complete look at having a garden.

I do have a few points to pick at. After all, does one ever agree with everything? For one thing, raw veggies are not more digestible than cooked ones, no matter how young and fresh they are. Also, you might also only turn over the full garden once per year, but renting a shovel because you only use it once per year? I agree that you can do away with most of the fancy tools, but a shovel is just a practical thing to keep around.

Overall, it is a very practical book, and one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to others.

Class: Planting the Spring Kitchen Garden

I took this class mostly as an informational class for me. After all, I’m all about food, and learning about how to get food out of my garden before regular gardening season sounds like a good idea to me. However, my community garden plot won’t be available until May, and Showcase 1 is currently buried under a large pile of composting manure. It turns out, though, that gushing about this really cool class you just took is a good way to get your hands on more gardening space. I visited what will be Showcase 2 on Sunday, to check out the space she would like to turn into her spring kitchen garden.

The class was taught by Patti O’Neal, a horticulturist in the Jefferson County Extension office. If you happen to be there, they have a walk-in diagnostic clinic that will be re-opening in mid-April. Unlike calling on Mom or Googling the answer, you do have to pay for it. However, you actually get a professional’s assistance. It’s definitely something I’m tucking away for future reference.

Before I take another one of her classes, I might want to take a class in shorthand. However, had she spoken any slower, I don’t think she could have gotten that much information into a mere two-and-a-half hours. She began by asserting that if you haven’t killed any plants then you weren’t really trying to grow anything. This theme was continued as she later tells us that we need to keep good records in part so that we can forgive ourselves for our failures. Some things will be our fault, and our records will help us to not make those mistakes again. However, there are a lot of things that aren’t our fault, like animals and weather, that we just need to accept and not take too hard.

The first question to be addressed is, what is a kitchen garden, anyway? It is a garden, preferably just outside the kitchen door, that has the things you will be using in the kitchen. That would be everything from your herbs and vegetables to the cut flowers for the dinner table. The closer you can plant it to your kitchen, the easier it is for you to pop out there to check on things and harvest what you need. The second question is, what makes it a spring kitchen garden? The techniques she was showing us are to extend the use of the garden beyond the traditional summer gardening. In fact, she was harvesting spinach all winter out of her garden due to the mildness of the winter.

65 years ago, 40% of our veggies were grown at home and another 40% were from local farms. In the spring of 2009, seed sales were up 30%, indicating a rising interest in growing our own food again. In 2010 it was up another 10% indicating that people were trying again and more people were trying for the first time. I’m very excited about the idea of people beginning to understand where their food comes from again.

Depending on what you have for room for, Patti prefers raised beds, but you can also plant directly in the ground or in pots. For the spring garden, it is about soil temperature, not daytime temperatures as it is later in the year. The raised beds warm faster than an in-ground garden and they don’t have to be wrapped against frost like pots. No matter what you use, once the soil has reached the appropriate temperature for a couple of days in a row, 50-55 degrees works to plant most that you would be planting in this garden, you can direct-sow most of the plants. The soil can be warmed either naturally or with some 4-6 mil clear plastic. The clear works better than black for trapping the heat in the soil instead of the plastic.

You will be planting vegetables that can germinate in soil between 40 and 60 degrees and can stand air that is between 40 and 50 degrees. They tend to like cool and moist soil as they tend to be higher in water content. Leafy crops that make up the bulk of them lose quality in heat as the water transpires out of the leaves too quickly to keep them sweet and tender. Once they have been planted, you can use a variety of things from plastic, to greenhouse or coldframe constructions, to the horticultural fabric Remay to protect the seedlings from frost and any inclement weather.

This is one of those classes that I am going to be referring to the notes and digesting it for a while. I am really looking forward to seeing what I can put into effect in Showcase 2. After all, I find that my retention of information relates to how quickly I can actually put it into use. The more useful it is, the more likely I am to remember it. I expect most of this information will be useful once I’ve had a chance to process it.

Colorado Weather

I am working on a proper post, but I thought I’d add a note about Colorado weather. It cracks me up.

Blue sky and clouds

As I was dashing out for lunch today, I was entertained by the fact that it was doing that thing it does. Directly above me was a bright, hard blue with the intense sun shining through. In every direction were clouds, many of them low enough to obscure the mountain tops. Out of this bright blue sky, there were still flakes of snow falling. This, I’ve discovered in the months I’ve been living here, is pretty normal. My general understanding is also that Colorado Springs happens to be in a weird bubble where we are sheltered from the worst of the extremes.

The saying “if you don’t like the weather in Colorado, wait five minutes” is pretty accurate. For a long time, I thought that it couldn’t do anything for a full 24 hours other than offer clear skies. Anything else would be intense, but brief. I have since discovered that it can also snow for a full 24 hours. However, I think I’ve been spoiled by a family from the North-East. After it had snowed for 24 hours, including both rush hours, I looked out the window and had to ask, that’s it? I later found out that out east of the city, they got about 22″ from that storm. I knew there was a reason I wanted to move out there.

Missing mountains

I was raised in Pennsylvania but my family is from New England. Our family has taken bits from each version of English to build our own slang. Things like “water” versus “wutter.” Water is what you drink. Wutter is what is in the Chesapeake Bay. If you aren’t familiar with that location, trust me, it’s not water. In my own mind, there’s “weather” and then there’s “weathah.” Weather is your standard, non-exciting sun, basic rain, basic snow. Weathah on the other hand, is serious. It’s the kind of thing that makes you think two or three times about needing to leave the building you’re sheltering in. Maryland, where I had been living, was really mostly just weather. I am very excited that I get to experience weathah out here. Even if it does mean things like driving home from Denver in 50 degree winds that kept me from doing the speed limit due to their strength followed by driving to work in the snow the next morning.

Crafty weekend

I ended up with an extra long weekend, so I had some time to indulge my crafty side.

Project 1

The first project was a snug home for the vermiculture I will be hosting. With the receipt of my first seeds, I’m itching to do something in the garden, but my apartment offers few options. Worms, however, require no light and aren’t terribly fussy as pets. If you just search for “vermiculture bins” you can find a lot of ready-made bins for sale and instructions to make your own. Seeing as how I like to make things and my budget would prefer if I kept my spending to a minimum, I went with the home-made version.

You can see that I have a pretty small tub. This is partially because I’m only feeding little ol’ me, so I don’t have that many scraps to use. I am also dealing with an apartment kitchen. Granted, it’s probably twice the size of my last one, but it’s not exactly overflowing with spaces to tuck a large tupperware container. However, this box just fits in an overhead cabinet that keeps the worms away from the vibration of the dishwasher and the garbage disposal but close enough so I don’t have to think too hard about chucking dinner’s scraps in there. I have a clear box, but I’m thinking it should work, as it will be shut in a cupboard about 23 3/4 hours a day. However, if the worms object too much, I can always paint it or tape construction paper along the sides. Worms don’t like light or vibrations.

Air holes

Most of the instructions tell you to use a drill to cut air holes in the top and upper sides. I don’t have a drill, so I opted for a hot knife. It cuts plastic almost as easily as it cuts butter. If it’s hot enough. Kids- fire and knives require parental supervision. Not that you weren’t already aware of that fact. The knife may or may not survive the experience so don’t use the good silver, please. As you can see, I melted holes in the cover, the tops of the sides, and around the bottom for drainage. I’m not sure exactly what I’ll be using as a tray underneath to catch any drainage, but I’m thinking some sturdy tin foil should be fine. I mean, how much could worms actually pee, anyway?

The next step is to fill it with bedding. Hand-shredding newspaper is a good way to keep oneself brainlessly occupied. I was actually a little surprised at how much newspaper it took. Every time I thought it was full, I pushed it down a little and realized I needed more. I also cleaned, dried, and crushed eggshells. These are for calcium supplements for the worms, and to act as grit to help them digest. They have  a gizzard like a chicken as a part of their digestive process. And voila. All I have to do is wait for Rick’s Nurseryto call me to say the worms are in. Then I’ll damp down the newspapers, add the worms, and give them a couple of days to settle in before I start feeding them.

Doesn't that just look fluffy and snug?

Project number two was prompted by a friend who asked if I had business cards, since she knew someone that might be interested in hiring me. I am still very much seeing this as the potential for a business, but I have a lot to learn, yet. It never occurred to me that there are people who might be willing to pay for what I know now. However, I am not about to spend money on business cards for something that I still don’t really see as a business. Then I remembered this post. I don’t have stamps, but I’ve been thinking that my penmanship could use some work. Perfect opportunity!

My penmanship isn’t bad. My photography skills could use some work.

I don’t make things very often any more, so it’s good to be able to look at something and say “I did that.” It’s doubly good to make something that I can use. I’m all for art, but you can only have so many hand-made knickknacks before they just get in the way. I also think that something is lost when you are only handling items that are factory produced. The few items that I own that have genuine character, in my opinion, are made by hand. They can be simple, they don’t have to be covered in curlicues or flourishes, but they have a piece of the craftsman in a way that factory items do not. From a strictly practical standpoint, I will probably eventually replace my hand-written cards with purchased ones. After all, I can’t produce them in the kind of volume I would need to really advertise when the time comes. Until then, look what I made!


It’s that time of year- time to start pouring over seed catalogs and waiting for the flat packets to arrive in the mail. I just got the first

The first round of seeds this spring.

bunch this week for my garden and Showcase 1. I’m not sure which part is more fun- seeing all the possibilities in vivid color or holding the tiny bits of life that will feed me.

Because sustainability is a big part of why I am doing this, I was looking for two main things. I wanted open-pollenated or heirloom varieties, as they would breed true when I start learning how to save seeds. I also wanted to buy local if I could. That doesn’t just mean buying mass-produced packets from a local store. I wanted to support local farmers if at all possible. With these limits in mind, I have ordered from two companies so far this year.

The first was a little company over in Avondale, Colorado, Hobbs Family Farm. Their direct retail collection is fairly small at the moment, but they do cover the basics for a vegetable garden and far more than the basics for a garlic connoisseur. I found their Web site to be very navigable, and I am more than a little impressed that I had the seeds in my hand four days after I placed the order. We can’t always expect that the mail system will be that cooperative. However, I ordered the seeds on a Sunday, and my order was shipped on Monday. That’s impressive for any company.

The company I chose to cover the gaps in our needs is D. Landreth Seed Company. I heard about them when their catalog arrived as part of my Christmas box. You do have to pay for the catalogs, but even if I wasn’t gardening this year, it was still a fascinating read. They are the oldest seed company operating in America, having sold seed to every President from George Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt. They are not local, being from Bristol, Pennsylvania, but they have a wide variety of heirloom vegetables to choose from. The ordering on their Web site was somewhat less navigable, and when I called to check on my order, it looks like the seeds should be shipping early next week, or a bit more than a week after I placed the order.

Why do I care about where I am getting my seeds from? Why didn’t I just get a Burpee catalog like we used to order from every year? It turns out that Burpee is only about 90 years younger than D. Landreth. When I looked them up to verify that they did not have the awesome purple carrots that I ordered from Hobbs Family Farm- it turns out they sell the same variety. However, not only are the heirloom and organic types separate from the rest of the offerings, they are mostly separate from each other. Most of the offerings are far more recent models, and many are hybrids. While a hybrid in and of itself is not a bad thing, the plants have to successfully cross to create it so you don’t have to worry about fish genes in your carrots, you can’t reproduce it yourself. If your carrots bloom and set seed, the seeds will not produce the same type of root that produced the seeds. It will be a carrot, but there is no telling the properties of that carrot until it’s grown.

This is, of course, good business. It means that you have to keep coming back every year whether you know how to save seeds or not. I can’t hold it against a company that they want to make a buck. On the other hand, choosing the modern seeds does not preserve the varieties that we know can reproduce outside of a lab as the heirloom and open-pollenated seeds do every year. Buying from such a large company also does not allow me to purchase seeds grown from plants that survived our local conditions long enough to reproduce. Given the uniqueness of our circumstances, just any plant may not be able to grow. This is not to single out Burpee as a bad guy. They just happen to be a company that I know. After all, given their heirloom and organic varieties, I may even order from them in the future if I need something they offer. However, they will not be my first choice.

I’m sure I’m not the only starting to get restless waiting for spring to arrive. I have my garden mostly plotted out, and I’m trying to decide whether I want to risk starting my leeks and onions inside due to the lack of direct sun and the less than stellar results in my window box. I’m also looking forward to future springs. The red carrots lost out to the purple carrots for this summer because the purple carrots had a cooler name. Dragon. I am also very curious about the black and white varieties of radishes, but I figured I should see if I can turn out some decent-looking red ones first. Ok, and a purple one, but they were only chosen for their heat tolerance. Really.

Dirty Minds

I may have overestimated how much we needed.

Wait- is this a family-friendly blog? What can I say, I’ve had dirt on the brain recently. It’s probably because I had too much fun playing with manure over the weekend.

Unless you are dealing with hydroponics, you have to think about your soil. Even the water lilies that float on the top of a pond have their roots in soil. Without good soil, it is difficult to impossible to grow good vegetables. At least not the vegetables we tend to think of as “standard.” I believe yucca would be pretty ok with just being plopped in the ground out here.

What makes good soil? At the moment, I still only know the basics, but basically: the sand or clay base, organic material, and things to break down the organic material for use. Preferably, you are looking for a pretty good balance between clay and sand. Clay packs tight, so it can hold water, but it can also inhibit drainage and pack into a hard surface. Sand doesn’t really pack at all, so it helps drainage, the water slipping easily between the large granules. However, that can also mean that the water doesn’t stick around long enough for your plants to use it. I have heard some thoughts on both sides of adding clay or sand to balance the soil you have. I will need to look further into that before I address it here.


Whether you have clay or sand soil or a pretty mix of both, organic material can improve it. It loosens clay, allowing it to drain better and keeping it from baking as hard. It helps sand hold water better and helps it pack a little better to support plants. Compost is the epitome of your organic material. It helps the texture of the soil and offers a bioavailable source of nutrients. Manure is right up there, too. Different ones need slightly different treatments. Hot manures like horse, which is what we are using on Showcase 1, and chicken need to be composted so you don’t burn your plants when you apply it. Cool manures like alpaca or goat can actually be applied directly. Other options, like peat, offer soil improvements, but not so much of the nutritional improvements.

The one that often gets overlooked is what breaks down the organic material so that your plants can use it. We probably miss them mostly because we don’t see them. I was reading a book about Rocky Mountain gardening at one point. It was one of the first specifically for this part of the country. It is old, but it still has a lot of valid information. It also has some that made me chuckle. Like that you should purchase a “lady-sized” shovel to encourage the wife to get out in the fresh air. Also, it told you how to kill earthworms because the casings they leave behind are so unsightly. I believe it was the same day I read that information that I saw bagged worm casings for sale in a garden store.

Worms are one of the more visible decomposers. They not only eat fine materials and excrete some of the best fertilizer you can find, they also aerate the soil in their underground journeys. However, being big enough to see means that they can navigate in and out of your garden more easily than some of the others. This means that if you don’t create an environment they like, including lots of delicious organic material in worm-bite-size pieces, then they don’t have a reason to stick around. Assuming they have enough around to eat, bacteria are a little easier to keep corralled. Manure can offer a good inoculation to a new or barren garden. So can a scoop of soil from your neighbor that just seems to be able to grow anything.

When you are setting up your soil for gardening, however, you need to bear in mind what you are growing. If you are growing plants that originated in Europe or the East Coast, meaning most “vegetable garden” vegetables, you need to build the kind of soil they have. If you are growing plants that are native to this area, less preparation is necessary. I have a friend in Maryland who’s property is incredibly lush. I have never seen land with so many earth worms. In fact, her struggle tends to be that too many things grow. Except for lavender. Neither of us had any idea why this one plant just refused to grow. It turns out that lavender, being from the Mediterranean, prefers soil that is stony, sparse, and well-drained. Who knew that moving out here would actually be preferred by some plants?

Prettiest dirt I'd seen since I moved out here.

Do you notice the soil around you? Or is it just dirt? Some days it is more apparent than others that I come from a family that gardens. My parents take pictures of flowers. I took a picture of dirt. I had been driving up through northern Colorado and Wyoming for hours at this point, seeing little more than sandy, arid, poor soil and the occasional surprisingly blue body of water. All of a sudden I came across the prettiest soil I’d seen since I moved out here. It was in the middle of Shoshone National Forest just pushed to the side during the road construction. I’ve gotten the impression that Wyoming is considered to be a pretty barren state by most. The question is, how did an arid, barren state produce such rich soil? The answer is that it is in a National Forest. That means that instead of being subjected to various forms of human interference, nature is more or less allowed to do what it has been doing for, well, a very long time. That means that generations of trees have fallen to be eaten by even more generations of earthworms. The available nutrients are then used by the younger trees that will then eventually die to feed the younger worms.

The pertinent question, of course, is how to get soil that is that good-looking in your garden. Unless you are building some sort of a bed that you will fill with an ideal mix of soil, a part of the answer is still time. First-year garden beds are seldom as rich and biodiverse as more mature beds. However, we don’t have to move at the same speed as a forest. We can kick-start the process by adding ingredients to our gardens that will encourage worms and other decomposers to move in and stick around. Once they are established, all you need to do is keep them fed and safe. Luckily, that doesn’t include setting out a fresh bowl of food each day like you do with your pets. As long as you are adding fairly regular doses of organic material in the form of compost or manure and you are using little to no pesticides, organic or otherwise, a healthy population should be pretty well able to care for itself. As far as the worms and bacteria are concerned, the benefits to your garden are really just the result of a happy home.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

A couple of weeks ago a friend handed me Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Since it’s winter, it’s the season of reading and learning more than doing. I have been pouring over all sorts of non-fiction gardening books that focus on “how to.” She handed me this one to help remind me of the “why.” Why is a question we don’t ask often enough after we get out of the perpetual “Why?” stage as children. I am actually considering re-aquiring that phase. There are altogether too many answers that we’re given that should be challenged with a five-year-old’s tenacity.

The story is about a family that moves to Appalachia to grow their own food for one year. They aren’t new at this. In fact, they’d been gardening in that particular farm for years during the summer as a break from their lives in Tucson, Arizona. It wasn’t just gardening and hen-raising that they were already familiar with. The family hadn’t been eating CAFO meat for years by the time the story started. Barbara has a degree in evolutionary biology. Her husband, Steven Hopp has a Ph.D. in animal behavior and has taught everything from ornithology to natural history. Their older daughter, Camille Kingsolver, was, at the time of writing, in college for biology, anatomy, and dance. She also had the benefit of being raised by a family that took food and science seriously. The younger daughter, Lily, has fewer titles, given her age, but the story wouldn’t be the same without her.

The bulk of the story is told by Barbara. It is nonfiction, but she does have a flair for making it a story anyway. Gardening and eating what they produce is not a totally new concept, but they learn a lot along the way. Things like, when to start? After all, the beginning of the calendar year is not the beginning of the growing year. Steven adds more scientific and factual asides. Camille offers a young adult’s prospective and quite a few recipes for each season. Each person, including Lily who wasn’t old enough to actually contribute to the writing, added skills and insight into the whole process. At the end is an impressive list of additional resources.

The book was a great read. I intend to pass it on to my mother because I think she will get a kick out of the story, having fed a family out of a vegetable garden herself. The story also made me seriously nostalgic for the family meals that I don’t have any more and probably didn’t appreciate enough when I did. It made me think about the bar Mom put in when she redid the kitchen. That way everyone could still gather there like they always did, but she would have space of her own for the cooking and other kitchen chores that seemed to be neverending. I used to bemoan the fact that my mother’s world seemed to revolve around food. Feeding a family of six on home-made meals will do that to you. Now I’m beginning to think that there are far worse things for a world to revolve around. After all, how else would you aquire memories of the women in the family gathering in the kitchen for canning and gossip?

I will say that by the end of the book, with her descriptions of the trials of her breeding-stock turkeys, I am thinking about possibly starting with turkeys for my own fowl experiments. After all, they did almost become our national bird, so they shouldn’t be allowed to die out. If all else fails, they taste good, too.

“How to” is very important. I will continue reading up on that, but it’s good to be reminded of why we need to learn how. The end result. While I don’t have the need, or at the moment the ability, to harvest 400 pounds of tomatoes, I do have the need to be reminded that food grows in dirt and that tomatoes are best eaten during tomato season.