How to start and grow new sweet potatoes

June 28th, 2016

I’ve been working on this post for months, because it is a months long process. Taking pictures along every step of the way, documenting the process. And then I lost a ton of pictures. I used some recovery software and was able to get some of them, but not all, so there are far fewer pictures in this post than I originally intended.

To grow sweet potatoes you don’t use seeds, you use slips, which are tiny sweet potato plants. To make these slips you need to put a sweet potato, or pieces thereof, into water for weeks. Roots will come first, and later sprouts will come out. There are two main ways to do this.

1. Whole Potatoes

I recommend buying organic sweet potatoes, or from a farmer, or use ones left over from your last harvest, because some store bought potatoes may have been sprayed with something that inhibits sprouting. Weirdly shaped ones work well. I used old pasta sauce jars and found some potatoes that would stick down in the jar while creating a cork like seal at the top.

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Every sweet potato has two ends, a stem end and a root end. You need to learn how to identify these ends because it is the root end that needs to be submerged. Sometimes a bit of root or bit of stem will still be attached to the potato, in which case, you have an easy job. Otherwise you need to look closely at the spud, the root end tends to be pointier, and the stem end chubbier.

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You will need to make sure the root end stays submerged constantly for weeks until you see sprouts. My batch done with whole potatoes like this did not produce well.

2. Potato Chunks

The second method is to cut your potatoes up into chunks and put the cut sides down into water, I used a 9″ cake pan to hold these. Here it is less necessary to identify the stem and root ends, but this method required more frequent water monitoring.

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Overall I had much better production this way. This way also had the benefit that once the sprouts came I could raise the water level, allowing roots to start forming at the base of the sprout, then a few weeks later, I was able to cut off the sprout, leaving some roots attached.

I also tried slices that wouldn’t fit into my cake pans suspended in a cup of water. Which also did okay.

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Harvesting the Slips

Once the slips get a decent size, 4-6 inches, you cut them off and put them back into a water container so they can develop roots on their own. At this point, a humidity tent like a plastic bag would help since their main water source, the roots attached to the potato/chunk, has just been severed. However if you did as I did above with the chunks, raising the water level, each slip might already have roots.

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Once the slips have a good quantity of roots you can transplant them out into your garden and they will make more sweet potatoes for you.

You can also harvest several rounds of slips from each potato chunk, after you harvest the first round the roots the potato grew are still working and it should quickly send up more slips. The process is still very slow though, overall for me it took close to 10 weeks from start to finish.

Late in the Fall, before frost, you can probably take cuttings from any sweet potato vines in your garden, and if you have a nice indoor setup you can probably store them indoors over the winter, and then plant them back out in Spring, saving you this step. I intend to try that this winter and I will let you know how it goes.

Greenstalk Review

April 22nd, 2016

As I’ve said frequently, one of the best parts of blogging is the free review swag. I sometimes turn things down, honestly, if I just think it’s a bad idea or I know I won’t like it. But I was happy to accept the Greenstalk container, because it looked like a good idea.

Essentially this is a strawberry pot on steroids. There are 3 and 5 tier sets and you stack them. It isn’t a self watering container, but there is an integral watering system whereby you put your hose into the top and it trickles down into reservoirs for each tier. These reservoirs could be bigger I think, in the sun in the heat of summer I think this could required multiple daily waterings.

Putting it together was easy, but it felt unsteady until I loaded it up with soil, and boy does this thing eat a lot of soil. So so so much soil. You will be buying a lot of potting mix to fill this up, but also your plants will have ample room for root growth. Most of the soil surface though is not open to the surface, so your plants will need to send their roots sideways into the middle of the structure. This middle however is away from the drip irrigation system and of course covered from direct watering so will likely be very dry, roots won’t want to enter it. I will have to check after the growing season is done but I’m not sure roots will get into the middle which makes it wasted space and wasted potting mix.

GreenStalk Planter

So, I have an in-ground garden I’m planting of course, but I’m also planting this thing. I actually planted in my garden weeks before I planted this. Guess which one has bigger plants? The Greenstalk does.

This is for a couple reasons, one is that I can’t water my garden, it is at the construction site where our house is being built and there is no plumbing or anything. So I have to rely on rain. I’m able to water the Greenstalk whenever as it is in the backyard of our rental. However, an underappreciated reason why the plants are doing better, and why they germinated faster, is because, this big columnar container, gets good sun exposure and the sun beating down on the sides heats up the soil, which heats up the seeds, which improves germination. This is good for now, in the Spring, but bad for Summer when that heat will increase watering needs.

So, if the proof is in the plants, the product works, everything I planted is doing great. Having the columnar design poses some planting challenges. You must either place it in the middle of a wide open area so there is decent sun exposure on all sides, or accept one side will be shadier than others and perhaps have that influence your planting decision. Option 3 is to MacGyver up an automatic turn table to slowly rotate it like a dish in the microwave.

Is this product perfect? No. It is still a fairly unstable structure, the tiers sort of clip together but it isn’t a strong connection, most of the structure is coming from gravity, from the weight of the soil. A couple of boys horseplaying around could knock it over, spilling plants and soil.

Filled up as it is, the thing is heavy, a caster base would be a big improvement so you could move it. I’m a big strong man and I can push it around, but many gardeners will not be able to. Especially if the soil is wet as it should be. And of course I need to push from the bottom tier lest I knock one of the top ones off.

Watering it is a bore, you hold your hose up to the top and stand there for a few minutes. A clip attached to the top tier that could hold a hose in a place would be an improvement. That way I could put the hose on and do some other chores while it fills up.

The top surface is wasted planting area, a top cap (smaller in diameter that would require separate watering) would be a good idea, to take advantage of the great sunlight the very top gets. you could put the aforementioned hose clip on this top piece.

So, what did I plant in this strawberry container on steroids? Not strawberries. I like strawberries in a garden where they can spread and fill a whole patch. The bottom tier is kale, the next two tiers are bush beans (I think bush beans will do very well in this thing, and so far I’m right), then it is basil, and the top tier is flat leaf parsley. I sorta did biggest to smallest from bottom to top, obviously to keep the upper plants from shading the lower plants too much. I think I’m going to really like this for bush beans, they’ll be easy to see, and easy to harvest. If the top cap planter existed I would put in a low water need trailing herb like thyme, or a low water need flower to bring in the pollinators like begonias.

How to garden in a concrete crack; or kale will grow almost anywhere

April 15th, 2016

I was doing some tidying up in the “back yard” of our rental house where we’re living while we’re building our forever home and I moved this plastic adirondack style chair and what did I see under it? Boom:

Kale Growing Through a Concrete Crack

Kale Growing Through a Concrete Crack

A 16 inch tall kale plant. What is this sorcery? I’ve planted kale this Spring in my garden, it is, 3 or 4 inches tall. I planted kale late last fall, some of it survived the winter, and it is doing even worse, even smaller, than the stuff newly planted this Spring. So where did this bit of tuscan kale come from? Did I drop a seed last fall, have it germinate, and through the protection of the slatted adirondack chair get just enough insulation to thrive? We even had some serious flooding rains in December or January where an inch of water was flowing over this spot for a good time.

Or was it a seed I dropped this Spring that grew super fast because under this concrete is a cache of super soil?

I’m not sure really, if I had to guess I would say it is likely a seed I dropped last fall that germinated this Spring and has managed through just a little bit of shelter and warmth to thrive. Heat really is perhaps the most under appreciated aspect of gardening and or plant growth. Seeds need certain soil temperatures to germinate, and plants need certain heat levels to grow well (but of course, if it gets too hot, their growth will slow). A little shelter, a little insulation, a little chair provided microclimate was just enough for this little kale plant to take off.

And now, I get to eat it.

What can be learned from this? To quote Dr. Malcolm from Jurassic Park “Life finds a way.” Or, you really don’t need that much space to garden.

How to add more topsoil the natural way

March 24th, 2016

The modern method of building is to wipe all the top soil away from a lot, build a house, and bring back 3 or 4 inches or soil or just sod and call it good.

This, of course, is not good for gardening, and many people want to increase the depth of the top soil on their property. But how? I see advice posted how you just top dress your lawn, add an inch a year, or whatever. So you slowly bury your driveway and sidewalk? Other people bemoan the thought of digging up everything, digging out some of the fill soil, and then adding new top soil. Common knowledge is that there is no other way, that top soil is like fossil fuels, a nonrenewable resource we just use up. Common knowledge is wrong, you can in fact, make it.

How is top soil formed to begin with, in the great American plains, where it is many feet deep, how did it form? Well, they say 1% of decaying organic matter ends up as stable humus in the soil. So over thousands of years as grass lived, and died, and animals grazed, and pooped, it formed. Dead grass and animal droppings? Is that it? Not quite.

We often do not think about what happens beneath the soil, but things happen, many important things. We see plants above ground dropping leaves, and twigs, and shedding organic matter all over, but it also happens beneath the soil. Roots die off, they’re abandoned by their plant and they rot. When grasses grow up big and tall they need long deep roots, when the bison wander by and munch that grass down, they don’t need those roots anymore and some are abandoned. As those roots, which in some grasses can reach down over 10 feet deep (imagine, grass roots over 10 feet deep). The roots decay and add organic matter deep within the soil, once they decay they create channels for water, air, and nutrient infiltration.

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So actually, under ideal circumstances, you can add a cm or more (I’ve heard of much more) of top soil under your lawn without using a shovel by simply planting the right things and fertilizing appropriately so they grow vigorously, on an annual basis. The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you’re planting an appropriate grass. Kentucky bluegrass is probably the most famous turf grass type, but it is horrible for practical purposes, my son happens to be allergic to it, but if that wasn’t enough it is very shallowly rooted, with roots only about 4 inches deep, this also means, in addition to not breaking and improving your subsoil, it needs frequently watering.

In contrast, tall fescue (hardy in zone 4 and warmer) can grow roots 3 feet deep, and bermuda grass (zones 8-10) can grow roots 10 feet deep. Native buffalograss can reach 8 feet of depth and worths as a turf grass.

I am a big fan of planting clovers in lawns, all clovers can develop feet deep root systems, of course perennial white dutch clover, while shallower rooted compared to other clovers, is perennial and I’m a fan of seeding it in all lawns. In additions of course to the roots, they fix nitrogen helping green your lawn, and helping that grass grow better, so it can send down even deeper roots.

I know root depth is not the top of your list normally when picking plants, but in this case, research it and use it to guide your decisions.

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Depth of root is also often to height of top growth, with turf grasses anyways, so if you want deep roots, let your lawn get longer. In the heat of summer this can help stave off drought, but for the specific purpose we’re talking about you also want them long, the longer the better. And then, every once in awhile, you want to let the bison graze on it, to create some destructive rebirth. Don’t have bison? Try a lawn mower, though honestly animal grazing is best as they’ll add some animal fertilizer and maybe tear up and aerate some.

So, if you want to improve your subsoil under your lawn plant deeply rooted grass varieties and include clover as well, then let it grow long between mowings (or grazings) and over time the soil will improve.

Now, suppose you want to do the same for a perennial bed or a vegetable garden, you have even better tools are your disposal. Tall perennial grasses are even more deeply rooted, many perennial flowers and other shrubs are also deeply rooted, especially native plants, some of which can grow roots up to 20 feet deep if such a depth is possible in your soil. If you have a particularly hard subsoil you want to break up you can plant daikon radish, the roots of which grow with such intense power it can break through many compacted soils. It is best planted in the fall if you’re doing so for this purpose, and you could of course harvest it but for soil health it is better to let it just die and decompose.

To prepare a new perennial bed you could plant some of these things for a year, or in the case of daikon radish you could tuck them in and among the existing plants. Make sure you fertilize so the daikon don’t starve the existing plants of nutrients. If your perennial bed is an ornamental grass one the problem will take care of itself more or less (though check, some types of ornamental grasses are not deeply rooted). But otherwise we’re talking about sacrificial plantings, things you do not intend to keep for perpetuity, and you want to grow for a year or two or three just so they can work on your soil.

You should definitely never allow dirt to just sit, always make sure something is planting and working in there, so that means plant a cover crop over winter in your veggie garden. Alfalfa is a great plant for this purpose, it has deep strong roots, and as a legume will add nitrogen to the soil. If you want to improve your dirt you can plant it, let it grow, then till it in the next season as a green manure.

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I read that there is research that the root systems of plants contribute twice as much organic material to the soil during the growing season as what remains in the root system at the end of the growing season, some roots excrete various compounds and binders that help form good soils, in addition to what they contribute when they decompose. All this organic matter feeds life in the soil.

I know, this can seem like a lot, plant something, wait years, get better soil, but waiting years does beat waiting millenia, and we’re not talking about a huge monetary investment. I mean we’re talking about seeds here. Compared to yards and yards of topsoil, or renting heavy machinery, seeds are relatively inexpensive, and no one (well, no one reading this blog I’m sure), can afford to purchase enough topsoil to cover an entire homestead or farm or large market garden. So the only option is good stewardship over a long time period, but you will be rewarded in the end. Every year you’re actively planting in your soil it will get a little better, but if you plant the right things it will get a lot better.

What is Hugelkultur?

March 10th, 2016

There is this old German fairy tale where a pair of spoiled children take their parent’s hard work for granted, not appreciating what is provided for them, until a monster known as the Hugelkultur attacks their cottage on night and eats their parents, leaving the children to survive on their own.

Just kidding. It is a German word, it means “hill culture,” and in practice is a method of gardening where you bury wood and then plant on top of it.

Things like “lasagna gardening” (where you build up a raised bed by alternating layers of compost, twigs & debris, newspaper and cardboard, and soil) are a variation on this, but true hugelkultur is pretty extreme, not just laying in sticks and twigs and garden debris with soil as you build a raise bed, hugelkultur could best be describes as covering up a firewood pile with soil, so you have a mound, or a swale, or a terrace. You put whole logs down, piling them on top of each other in a long triangular shape, then cover with soil. You have this sort of mound garden. Why do this at all? The wood both increases drainage and water retention, buried wood is capable of holding water like a sponge, it becomes a buried reservoir of water for your plants, and as it decomposes it increases organic matter and microbial activity in the soil and creates air pockets. It is also a decent method in any area where a raised bed is a good idea, namely areas where the ground is too rocky, the soil too shallow, or the soil just of too poor quality to do a proper garden bed. So rather than dig a bed into the ground, you build a bed on top of ground.

Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur beds don’t have to be huge piles, they can also be built flat. You could layer logs and other wood at the bottom of a flat bed, like a raft of wood, then pile soil on top. That works too. As the wood decomposes it will of course shrink and so you need to account for that.

When I was tilling my new garden I made what you might call accidental hugelkultur. Originally my land was all forest, and I had trees felled and stumps ground, all that wood debris ended up mixed in the soil, all the roots ended up decaying in the soil. Then, when I tilled, I chopped up some roots pretty good as well. It isn’t strict proper hugelkultur where a more or less solid layer of wood is deep under the soil, however there is a lot of buried decaying wood in my garden and I will likely get a benefit from it over time.

Are there downsides with doing this? Yes. For one, if you use fresh wood, it will lock up significant amounts of nitrogen, adding some nitrogen to the pile in the form of blood meal or green manure would surely help. Already partially or mostly decayed wood (ideal) is better for this reason. Also the aforementioned shrinkage may annoy you over time, but I sort of doubt it’d be a big deal. OF course these sorts of beds cannot really be tilled (as I said above, I have some wood in my garden, but it was small pieces, not logs, and I have a heavy duty tiller than can break 4 or 5 inch roots. Burying a layer of mulch under a new bed would work the same and still allow tilling, but overall I would say this is best for areas that will be permanently planted, and not worked year after year).

One potential upside though is you could get some mushrooms. If you start with fresh logs not yet infiltrated with fungi you could inoculate the logs with edible fungi plugs or spores and then, over time, be able to harvest those mushrooms.

The overall point I want to make with this post is this. If you’re building a new raised garden bed, and you have some wood debris, not only is it okay for you to bury it at the bottom of the bed, it is actually beneficial in the long run to your soil.

Planting Bonanza

March 2nd, 2016

My dirt is spread, my fence is up, I tilled in one brief window of no rain, and now after even more rain, and some nice warm weather, I have started to plant.

This weekend I planted 5 apple trees in my “orchard,” and two mulberry trees in my chicken run. The mulberry trees are permanent residents, but I also planted some hostas, blackberries, kiwi, grapes, and ferns in the chicken run. I won’t be having chickens this year as I am not living up there yet and able to take care of them while our house is being built, so my chicken run is my holding area for plants I need to eventually plant elsewhere once all the construction is done. I will eventually be planting tons of daylilies and hostas and other perennials in there that I currently have in pots.

My Orchard
Part of my orchard, the red arrows indicate a newly planted fruit tree.

I planted a combination permanent bed of about 80 strawberries and 60 asparagus at one end of my vegetable garden. I planted 8 blueberries and about 20 more strawberries among them along another edge of my vegetable garden. Normally I do not like to mix permanent plantings with seasonal plantings, and my veggie garden will be mostly seasonal plantings. However, with the deer pressure, I really need to fence in my strawberries, asparagus, and blueberries, and I have this big fenced garden (5000 sq/ft) so I’m using it. I’m putting them by the edges though so they don’t interfere with future tillings.

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I’ve not done this yet, but I’m told strawberries make good companion plantings for asparagus, and decent for blueberries. Truthfully I was only going to be planting them with the asparagus but I had more strawberries than asparagus. Asparagus are of course tall and thin and willowy, they don’t case a lot of shade, and strawberries are short and spreading, able to fill in all the vacant spaces around the asparagus (which are planted fairly widely spaced). Blueberries are much the same except eventually the bushes will fill in more and the strawberries may diminish, as far as acidity goes strawberries like acid too, though not as much as blueberries, so they can both enjoy the same soil.

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Finally I planted my first annual vegetables in my garden, about 300 onion sets, which at the close spacing you give onions, actually took up very little space than you’d think with a number like 300. After my pittance of a vegetable garden I had before I’m starting to experience the luxury of space I have now. 300 onions. Likewise, I recently put in my seed order for my gardening, $250, just for seeds. Admittedly I won’t use all these seeds this season, many will carry over for future years, but man, that is a lot of seeds. It should produce in the end thousands of dollars worth of produce, I will just have to figure out how to harvest and store it all.

Some more pictures of what I planted:

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My New Garden Fence

February 3rd, 2016

My new garden fence is done, and I am excited.

I now have over 5,000 sq/ft of dedicated fenced gardening space, and an over 1,000 sq/ft chicken run. I will be planting it in two weeks.

Yes, two weeks. I even saw a daffodil blooming yesterday, I’m going to like living in the south.

I don’t know if I’ll have time to till it, I have a new tractor and a new tiller attachment, but the ground is wet and you shouldn’t till when it is wet, but I’ll have to plant some things, soon. I’m thinking I may plant at the edges leaving me still able to till the middle.

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Right away I plan to plant some mulberries in the chicken run. Mulberries provide really good mast (mast is natural forage food) for chickens, and most bird species really love them. As the trees grow they will also provide shade and cover from aerial predators like hawks.

I designed the layout, as you see, with the entrance to the chicken run being through the garden. This is for two reasons, one, it is an extra layer of security, at the chicken gate, two it allows me to let the chickens into the garden when I want at various points in the growing season to help with weeding, composting, tilling, and fertilizing. There is a great synergy between animal husbandry and gardening, and I want to put it to work. I will allow the chickens in in the Spring and Fall to fertilizer and turn over the garden, and I may let them in at certain times during the growing season to patrol for pests and add fertilizer (I will have to monitor their behavior though if they start scratching at or eating plants I do not want them to). I can also put up small fence sections, almost like a portal kennel or baby play area, if there is a patch I need to clean up. For instance with the aid of portable fencing I could allow them to patrol the corn rows once the corn gets tall, looking for bugs, fertilizing, and eating weeds. Once the spinach bolts in the summer I could put them in just that section of the garden to clean up the spent plants. Not only do I save on labor, but I get bug killing, fertilizing, and soil turning all together.

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In a couple weeks I have a bunch of trees and perennials coming. I will need to plant asparagus, strawberries, and blueberries in my garden. I wouldn’t normally want to put all these in the garden, but with the deer pressure I fear I will have to. Maybe in later years I might be able to keep some out, I would ideally prefer planting perennial crops elsewhere apart from annual ones. I’ll plant them around the sides so I can still till the center area.

Since I will not be living there yet, I am going to wait on getting my chickens, and I will use the chicken side of things to plant the many, many, flowers I took from my old garden that are currently still in pots or trays. I’ll have a veritable daylily farm, and then, I guess in the Spring of 2017 I should end up with hundreds of daylily divisions I can use in my ornamental beds once construction is complete.

I’m just excited to be on the cusp of gardening again.

On This Dirt I Will Build My Garden

December 24th, 2015

The major earth work (backfilling the foundation) around my new house under construction is finally done so I have had the opportunity to lay out my garden.

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This area still had its normal natural forest top soil, but then a portion had been used for fill dirt storage, so there is probably a remnant layer of that, and then I had trucked in 40 yards of sifted blended compost to go on top. This compost product was quite expensive (about 30 bucks a yard, similar product in Michigan was $18) but guaranteed to be weed free. Overall compost and top soil I find to be much more expensive down here in Tennessee than it was up in Michigan, I think perhaps the natural top soil available down here, with so few low lying areas, just is not that much. Supply and demand and all of that. The top soil they do have is also a different color (this dark black compost aside) and tends to be light brown, the color of Michigan fill dirt. There is probably a post there in comparing the dirt on a more scientific level and figuring out why the color is different.

At my old home I had about 100 sq/ft of garden space dedicated for vegetables, I would grab possibly another 100 sq/ft from the ornamental beds here or there or by using containers, but overall, not a lot of space.

This new garden I laid out is 54×125, over 6000 sq/ft. The dirt alone was over $1000, the deer proof fence is looking to be much more than that, but man I will have a lot of room. My son keeps asking “Can we plant corn?” Yes, we will have enough room to plant corn. 1000 sq/ft I’m actually going to partition off and use for chickens. I want to have my chicken run directly attached to my garden so I can use them for cleanup and weed control. During the main growing season I can keep them out, but in the fall and spring let them in to scratch the soil up, find weed seeds or bugs, or tear apart old plants.

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My overall goal has always been to grow as much of my own food as possible, this size will allow me to accomplish that. This plot will be dedicated entirely to vegetables, I may put a couple berries in there, I may not, I haven’t fully decided. But I have more room on my property for other beds. I will of course have large ornamental gardens, probably at least 5000 sq/ft of those, but I already have a place dedicated to fruit trees (I will end up with 20 mixed varieties of apples, pears, plums, apricots, and peaches). I have pecan trees as well. I have spots picked out for berries (raspberries, strawberries, blueberries), grapes (hopefully enough to make some wine), and kiwi. The fencing will likely be the hardest thing, as I’m sure the deer will get into everything that isn’t fenced. I will also be growing some venison.

I have certain goals for my garden. To provide my family with vegetables during the growing season on a daily basis is one. Another is to produce enough to provide say 50 quarts of tomato sauce a year (italian once a week). Perhaps 50 butternut squashes (risotto once a week). I would like to be able to produce a year’s supply of salsa verde which I think might be 50 pints. I would like to be able to produce spinach and kale almost year round to add to dishes, or have extra to freeze to get through the couple months where they won’t grow down here. Then of course I will have to can, freeze, or dry to preserve the inevitable excesses. I would also like to have to buy as little chicken feed as possible (and later, hog feed).

I think the size I have will allow me to do this, I can’t wait to get started. One thing I need is a heavy duty tiller to blend these layers of soil together and fluff it up. I could also possibly rent one, but ideally I’m hoping to get my own.

School Gardens and Green Onions

November 17th, 2015

A, well, I guess a month ago now, maybe more, my kid’s school had a garden work day. When I got the email asking for volunteers my ears perked up. Volunteers you say? To plant and help layout a garden you say? I was there in a heart beat…. and I sort of monopolized the thing, I was the most experienced gardener there and I get so excited about such things it is hard for me not to.

So this was the “early childhood playground” which is just used by 3-5 year olds. Some years ago before my kids attended here, but not that long ago, they put in this nice garden section with nice concrete raised beds, but then it appears to have been neglected. Some people have planted some things, but not really with much of a plan or without enough upkeep.

There were also some raised flower beds up near the school just outside the playground.

The issue was, what to plant, where to plant it, and when to plant it. But first we had to clean out the existing beds.

Gardening at School

The flower beds near the school were mostly empty, except one was overgrown with mint I had that mint dug up and saved but otherwise cleaned out. We then planted that mint in and around the actual playground in areas where it would be contained and not overgrown. This is a great idea for a variety of reasons. Mint is hardy and grows most places, it needs little upkeep, and of course the kids can eat it. Of course they’re told which plant is mint.

One of the raised garden beds had some cabbage and some green onions planted, but then also four apple trees and several grape vines. Grape vines, are, quite frankly, a horrible idea for a school garden. Grapes grow like mad, need constant labor and training (in the summer when school is not in session) and ripen generally also in the summer. They’re just a big mess. We tore all the grape vines out.

We kept the apple trees. Two yellow delicious and two “babe” apples. The “Babe” ones I would not recommend, tons of suckers, it must be a feature of the cultivar. I couldn’t tell it was an apple at first, I was all “This looks like an apple, but why is it a bush?” the suckers were so thick. But they’re apples, and I AM a fan of apples in a school garden (dwarf trees are best). They provide beautiful flowers in Spring, when school is in session, and apples in Fall, when schools are in session, with very little maintenance needed during summer break (generally none, you won’t be spraying in a playground anyways).

The other side had some blackberries, blueberries and a very odd bushes that didn’t look healthy and I couldn’t identify them. We tore them out. The blackberries were thornless, we kept them but I have mixed feelings about it because of the ripening time. There are some summer camps at the school though. Same with the blueberries.

The entrance to this garden section had an arch someone had started training what I’m pretty sure is a hardy kiwi up, this we kept and against is what I think is a great vine for a school garden. Hardy kiwi is a great vibrant vine that needs little maintenance (some pruning, basically, once it gets big), nice pretty glossy leaves, and fruit that ripens in fall that children can eat out of hand like grapes.

We transplanted the green onions and cabbage to the middle garden beds. I told them if we got lucky maybe they would be able to harvest the cabbage, and so far we’ve been lucky, no frost yet, two weeks after the average first frost date. I also planted some kale, and brought some herbs to donate. Spearmint, rosemary, thyme, and I planted some biennial parsley seeds. The herbs are perennial so they’ll be back year after year in what is now the herb section. I told them they might be able to get a radish crop in with the short time frame, but otherwise the goal was just cleaning up the beds for Spring planting next year.

The beds near the school were planted with donated flowers, volunteers were asked to bring divisions out of their yards to plant… alas I was the only one who did so, everyone else went out and bought flowers. Which is fine… but it means they probably don’t garden much at home, which makes me sad. Gardening is so much fun, everyone should do it, am I right? But the goal here was to plant flowers by the sidewalk where all could enjoy them, while keeping the veggies and other edibles within the playground fencing to limit animal browsing.

Overall I’m please with the progress we made on the garden, and I’m happy the school has a garden. I really, really, really enjoy gardening with my kids, I like being able to show them where food comes from and there is nothing quite so gratifying as watching your children eat a carrot or a leaf of kale right out of the garden… on their own volition. But of course, not everyone has a garden blogger daddy, so it’ll be nice for other children to get a similar appreciation.

Store Bought Green Onions, Perfect for Planting

Store Bought Green Onions, Perfect for Planting

Finally, I also brought some green onions to plant… because I had cooked with them in the past week so I had some. Normally I wouldn’t have these, because when I have a garden I just cut off the tops of green onions, and never dig up the whole plant. But because I am between gardens right now having just moved there were grocery store green onions, which always come with the bottoms, which most people throw away, and others compost, but what should you do with these? Plant them. Plant them and in about two weeks you’ll have more green onions to harvest, it is that quick that they regenerate. What an easy way to build up your onion patch huh? Are you not doing this yet? And they’re small, they need mere square inches of space each, so you can cram then in anywhere. Put some in your eggs in the morning, in soups and stews, in mashed potatoes, so many meals can have green onions added, you can’t go wrong with adding more to your garden.

On Composting Meat

September 16th, 2015

In many places, probably even older blog posts here, you will find advice on composting that say do not do meat, or meat and dairy, or meat and dairy and bread.

I followed this advice for awhile, but I’ve stopped, there isn’t really any good reason not to compost these things.

First of all, composting is really hard to mess up. All it is is managed decay of organic material, and guess what? Stuff rots with or without your help. Meat rots, cheese rots, even twinkies will rot (eventually). So why the concerns?

Well some people claim that meat can harbor diseases. Yes, possibly, you’re right. Uncooked meat can, which is why we cook it. Of course other things can harbor diseases too, like organic fertilizer (manure) often used in gardening that has been linked to e coli outbreaks. So how would you avoid this? Don’t spray raw meat on your lettuce. Compost it well, long term, or mix it in with the soil, don’t use it as a top dressing. Simple enough.

Meat... composted it makes great fertilizer

Meat… composted it makes great fertilizer

Others claim that meat can attract more pests than just rotting vegetation, and worse pests. They are right, though they often forget that regular old rotting apples will attract plenty of vermin, there are certain other pests that are attracted to meat, maggots and the like. If you have chickens though that can be a good thing, chickens love maggots. Generally though, I agree, compost can attract pests. If you have a fully enclosed compost tumbler, like the one I have (see link), you’re pretty safe, that model can even stand up to a small bear. Otherwise, again, you can bury it, either directly into the garden or deep into your compost pile.

We buy fish meal as a garden fertilizer, blood meal, bone meal, what do you think these things are? Dead animals are in fact some of the best fertilizers you’ll find, especially aquatic animals, especially ocean aquatic animals (all those minerals!). If you burn or roast your bones first you can make the phosphorous inside more available, otherwise I see no reason not to toss any and all food scraps into your composter.

Some are also concerned about salt in cooked food, but really, its not a big deal. Several studies show a little salt would actually improve our soils, and if you were eating the food the salt level is probably not high enough to hurt the plants or the composting microbes. Don’t dump a whole bag of salt into it and you’ll be fine.

Yes, fats and animal products do produce far worse odors when decomposing, you can try to mitigate that by adding more dry browns, but that is just a fact of life as different bacteria tend to eat those products. Still, I don’t think that is a strong enough reason not to compost those products, considering all the nutrients in them.

I now compost almost everything that comes out of my kitchen or fridge, though I might end up feeding some scraps to the animals once I get some livestock. As I see it, why waste good potential fertilizer? I’ve even composted some whole dead animals. Dead birds I’ve found lying around generally (or in one case, one that hit the car). Some people I know will compost roadkill, I can see that, or I can see just burying it by a tree you want to get some nitrogen too). Kinda gross, but that is the circle of life. What is the weirdest thing you’ve composted?

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