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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Grow Boxes and the Herb Garden

About 18 or so  years ago I was driving by a construction storage yard and saw these orange colored fiberglass boxes that were about 3' x 3' x 2' deep. Stacks and stacks of them sitting there in the yard and they were just screaming out to be re-purposed as container gardens. I asked the owner of the yard what they had been and he said they were the concrete forms for water storage tanks and a honeycombed arch at a local bank. I couldn't quite imagine how they worked but it didn't matter, they were perfect for my needs. He sold them to me for $5.00 each and delivered 20 of them on his backhoe bucket. I grew vegetables in them at our home in Cedar and then when we moved to New Harmony I emptied them and brought them down here.

Yesterday I started cleaning out the bins near the area I'm reserving for a future greenhouse. The grass had gotten so thick in the bins from blown in seeds that the roots were packed tight. It was easier to just dig down about three inches and toss the clumps, roots and all than to try to pull out individual sections. I'll wait till the grass dries out and dies and the soil can be shaken loose and re-used but for now the bins are clean and ready for planting. I put in about 6" of fairly well composted soil with a few loose sticks and debris to help break up the solid soil and then put a little steer manure in and worked it all together.

Grow boxes with squash and pumpkins five years ago.
 I've got herbs in all my front bins and strawberries in some of the side bins but when they're done bearing fruit this month I'll dig those out and re-work the soil. The herbs are doing well and spreading nicely since re-planting them last year.

The nice thing with deep bins is that I can flood water them once every two weeks and the water keeps the roots moist and healthy, even in the heat of the summer. There's no waste or runoff and the herbs like mint and chives don't spread into the lawn. They're also at a comfortable height for harvesting, weeding, etc.. The only thing I don't like about the fiberglass is that it breaks down in the sun and is very itchy when I make contact with the flat edges. I started painting them with a good quality paint but then got distracted with other chores and never finished. I think this year I'll finally get back to it and keep the fiberglass from deteriorating.

I'm going to plant my squash and zucchini in the re-freshed bins this year and try to keep as many squash beetles out as possible. The bins are somewhat accessible to the deer but so far they've not been that interested in squash.

Container gardening is a great way to conserve water and make comfortable planting areas that don't require getting down on ones knees or ground tilling. It's important to amend the soil so that it stays loose because plants and soil can get quite compacted in the hard sides of the containers. They're great for the desert because you can give them deep water less often and they do better than ground crops. I love my grow boxes.

The black boxes were the shells of air conditioning units from a motel remodel. They're open on the bottom but hold the soil and moisture well and work great for mint and other herbs that tend to spread in the lawn. I plan to paint them someday but I may never get to it.

I arranged these boxes in a sweeping crescent with the taller boxes in back as a retaining wall for the next two tiers as my yard slopes up. Our septic tank and leach field is below so I didn't want ground crops that might absorb anything from the septic leach field in that area. The first tier level will be my corn and bean field and the second tier is the level for my future greenhouse. Most of the bins started off level but have become rather wonky and shifted over the years. Yet another project to someday get to.

The arched arbor over the sidewalk was a salvaged piece that someone was tossing out after using it as a wedding backdrop. It was well made and a friend helped me install it in the front of my herb garden. It needs some repair and a little work but with the Honeysuckle growing nicely over the one side (the other bush isn't doing as well on the west side) and the Virginia creeper taking over it's got a nice bit of history and form and makes a welcoming entry to this part of the yard. Someday I plan to make a gazebo in the center of the garden using an old fiberglass satellite dish as the roof of the gazebo.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Compost Area

 What an excellent day! It was a balmy 70 degrees most of the day and a little overcast now and again but not too windy and all the beautiful flowers are budding right and left. A perfect day to work outside.

I'd neglected the compost area of my garden for over a year and it was full of junk, barrels of straw, dirt, rocks, and mulch that I'd planned on putting into the garden last year. So I distributed all the straw in the walkways between the garden bins. I don't know if it'll prevent weeds but it makes an earthy smelling ground cover and when it breaks down I can fork it into the bins to help keep the soil loose. The bark chips I'd lain down had broken down and packed till they weren't serving much purpose in the walkways.

One thing I'm finally recognizing is that it's easier to mow weeds than it is to weed through rock piles. I'd piled rocks on the outside of the garden fence thinking with enough rocks it would prevent weeds but they just grew up through them and are even harder to pull out with the rocks. So the first thing was to rake those away and pile them on the hillside away from where they'll mess up the mower.

I have two compost piles, one from 2009 that has finally broken down to an almost usable base and the other from last fall. It's huge, about 14' x 4' x 3' tall and is almost too big to turn easily. I want to build a compost bin with some fencing stakes and chain link and pallets so that I can turn the piles easier. That's the next big project.

When I get the bins built I am hoping to keep them in various stages of decay so that I can always have some well de-composed loam to use in pots or various projects. I wish I had a bobcat to level the whole area but I'm just going to have to dig each section out and work out the lumps a bit at a time. SOOOoo many rocks!

Here's some ideas I found on the net for compost bins.

  I've seen several barrel type compost tumblers that have different scaffolding to hold them up but they seem like they only hold a small bit of compost and wouldn't serve the volume of debris my yard produces. This would be great for kitchen compost though and I may make one or two just to see how they work. I've got about sixteen more plastic barrels that I was going to cut in half to use as container bins but I can spare a couple for this experiment. I'll post photos when I get it figured out.

This is a pallet bin and made a bit more casually than I plan to build. It would let plenty of air in the layers and be economical to build. Maybe I'll combine the fencing and pallets to create the separate bins.

These corner kits look simple and efficient but I don't think I can afford to invest in as many of these as I'll need for the amount of compost I'll be producing. They sure would be easy and quick though. I already have the fencing posts and old chain link so I'm going to have to go with
the products I have on hand. In my next life I'll be a princess and can afford store bought well engineered compost stakes. Of course most Princesses aren't terribly interested in compost, but IF I were a princess, I'm make compost my cause du jour'. (that's a kind of soup, usually potato cheese).

With the help of my sweet husband BABB (Bad Ass Brave Bill) I was able to clear the compost area while he pounded the stakes for the new bins. then I wired some old chain link fencing to the sides and back of the stakes and wired salvaged wooden pallets to the dividing stakes and fronts. Then I filled the bins in with the compost from the newest pile. They should get plenty of air and moisture and be much easier to turn this way.

Compost bins made with salvaged fence stakes, chain link, and wooden pallets. The lawn mower carriage is my rock hauler that is low to the ground and makes it easier to roll the big rocks onto the carriage and drag/roll them where I need them.

Today I'll finish raking out the area in front of them and plant some grass so that it doesn't fill with weeds and stickers. I have enough white plastic barrels left that BABB is going to make two tumbler style composters with some steel frames for the base that will sit at the end of the compost bins and can finish off the last little bit of decomposition for potting soil. I have room for three more bins if needed but hopefully these three will be enough to keep me in nice compost year round. We get a lot of debris and leaves each fall.

Holly and Dahli raking fall leaves for the compost/mulch piles.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

From Dirt to Food

Now that you've seen the process of building the lasagna garden I thought I'd show you the fruits of all that hard labor. The following slide show photos are from the previous two summers of growing in that space. The first year we planted right after Mother's Day which is customary and practical in this zone. We're at about 5,500 foot elevation, just a little lower than Denver with a similar climate. In fact, it's April 8 and we're in the middle of a massive snowstorm that came to visit clear from Alaska. Feels like Christmas but I know from living here for the last 16 years that it will eventually clear up and we'll have a lovely if short spring. The trees will bud, the flowers bloom and by May the sun will come back to stay and play and warm the soil.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Slideshow of Raised Bed Lasagna Garden

Hi Garden and Cooking Fans! This is my first post on this blog and I thought I'd introduce you to my vegetable garden. I dreamt of this garden for over a decade, knowing exactly where I wanted to build it but knowing that fencing, water, and other issues had to be installed before I could begin the actual garden. I read books and magazines, watched how others built theirs and schemed and sketched. Finally my husband and I were ready and we had a friend clear the area with a little bobcat tractor and make a semi level area to get started. A friend and I had trenched a waterline a few years earlier and I used that as the center point of my round garden.

Here's a slideshow of the garden it's first year. I'll explain the process in a bit, but I hope you enjoy seeing it go from dirt to green in a quickly gratifying slideshow. The actual process is a buttload of work, but has paid off considerably.

The Lasagna Garden

Like dieting, there's only a few simple but absolutely true and hard rules that go into gardening. Diet and exercise, portion control, and more diet and exercise pretty much sum up all the volumes of books, magazine articles and guides to losing and controlling ones weight. With gardening it can be summed up in three terms. Soil, Sun, Water. Selecting the site that provides the best of all three is the most important aspect to a successful garden and for many people it's a challenge because of shade, of access to the home or proximity of fences and other structural considerations. I have an acre so had plenty of space, but only a small section that had good soil and the potential for full sun. The little pioneer home was built on the absolute best soil on the property and I wasn't going to tear down the house to put in a vegetable garden, so I chose the area about 50' behind the house for my site.

We cleared it from brush, grass, rocks and debris with a bobcat and put in a water line directly in the center of the 50' diameter circle. I would have made it bigger but I was going for the most effective coverage of the Rainbird sprinkler that we anticipated for the center. Also that's where the best soil was without cutting into the really rocky clay covered hillsides.

I'd drawn my plan numerous times trying to calculate the least amount of wasted space and finally arrived at concentric circles with 3' wide walkways between for future wheelchair access. This isn't always possible or practical and more narrow walkways may work better for some. I was going for a plan that made turning the wheelbarrow through the paths easiest as well as provided potential wheelchair accessibility. If I were to do it over again I'd probably go with nice easy straight lines. Circles are pretty, but not very easy to build since most materials come in straight products.

One big mistake I made in addition to trying to make the tin go in a circle was that I made my bins about a foot too wide. I'm short and even while bending over it's hard to reach the middle of the bins to harvest vegetables, pull weeds, or turn the soil. I made the bins 4' wide and they would have been better at no more than 3'. Turning the wheelbarrow in some of the corner and connecting areas has proven a little challenging as well. Part of that is because the bins are almost 2' tall and the legs and front of the wheelbarrow hit them as I round the corners. I like the taller bins for comfort of use though so it's a worthwhile compromise.

After the bins are laid out BABB and I cut stakes from electrical conduit. I wanted stakes that wouldn't rot and were thin enough to work in the potentially rocky soil below the garden spot. Wooden stakes split and rot and seemed to be harder to get straight, especially when I'd hit a rock. They were expensive too compared to how many I could cut from one ten foot run of EMT. We cut the stakes at 30" and got four stakes per stick of EMT. I pounded them in about 6" deep at each bend in the corrugated tin. If I were to make straight beds I think I'd need fewer stakes. We did bend the tin at 90 degree angles for the corners to avoid sharp edges but with some creative re-purposing I think wooden corners with a channel or some sort of trough to hold the tin might work better.

We started off laying out the areas with newspaper that we sprayed down with water to hold it in place and then piling raw debris and loose compost on top but I think it would have been better to build the bins first and then add the newspaper and compost. I was just excited to get started and BABB was not enjoying the tin bending as much as he should have (silly man, why doesn't he like pounding tin while on his knees in the dirt?).

Once we had the bins laid out and the first layers of compost and debris distributed I started digging the dirt in the walkways and piling it on top of the debris in the bins. Topsoil is very fragile and the micro-biotic layers and relationships between critters, nutrients, etc. is very important to the success of the garden. From all that I'd read it is very important that topsoil be undisturbed as much as possible for the health of the plants. Having loose and nutrient rich material under the topsoil helps the roots of the plants to grow and absorb the moisture they need so it made sense to put the good soil from the walkways on top of the lasagna layered compost. Turns out all the books were correct on this because within my first few months I was seeing really healthy plants and plenty of produce.

I collected a bunch of old hose from my mother and a few other places and cut it lengthwise then drilled holes and wired the hose to the top of the tin edge to keep it from being too sharp and cutting someone (me) in case of tripping or falling in the garden. It's also helped keep the edges from being bent and broken or becoming jagged. Tin is very sharp and can be deadly if you fell in the wrong spot. It was the least expensive material and would last longer than wood and I had plenty salvaged from an old shed so that was why I chose tin for my bin walls. Timbers and several other types of walls are great too but I went with what I had and could afford. So far it's worked out great. in straight 8' x 3' runs it would be even easier and faster to build. We cut the tin sheets in half the long way on a table saw and put the sharpest edge toward the soil.

Once I'd piled the walkway soil on top of the compost debris I added a little dry manure and some sand and mixed it all in to create a loamy loose soil. In the places where I didn't get it really level or it sunk in after the compost collapsed the seeds tended to drift down and water pooled up. I just add a little soil and compost to those areas and rake it smooth again. Getting the garden as level as possible helps keep the watering even and seeds in place. It's a work in progress and gravity seems to dictate a lot of the needs of the garden. Gravity and mother nature always win so I try to cater my efforts to those factors.

After we finished the bins we laid down flattened cardboard boxes and thick layers of newspaper in the walkways and then dumped loads of bark mulch over them and raked it fairly level. If you don't have bark mulch then grass clippings might work but they get pretty moldy and pack down quickly when they get wet. This year the bark had broken down enough that the walkways needed another layer so I just piled straw over them than let it settle in. As it decomposes I'll fork it into the bins and replace the old stuff with fresher fluffier mulch. It's worked fairly well to keep the weeds out but anywhere there's moisture and soil you're going to get something growing.

The fencing, watering, and other issues are for another post. Hopefully this helps you see that a lasagna garden and raised beds can be achievable and worthwhile. There's many ways to arrive at that end and lots of fun in the process. Don't be afraid to use what you can scrounge around your own area and improvise if you don't have the perfect products. In another life we'll all have the money, time, and energy to build perfect bins with store bought products, but in this life we make do with what we have. Hope you enjoyed this process.