Playing in the dirt.

Archive for May, 2012

Now, We Wait

Today was planting day.  Mr. Teaspoon had come across some bright pink nylon twine while he was out shopping one day, and thought I might like it to lay out my “square feet.”  It was a lot more fashionable than my original plan, which was to mark out my grid on the frame edges and lay temporary markers across it while I planted seeds.

Bright pink twine forms a grid over a filled garden bed.

The bee’s knees.

I used a pencil as a dibble to make holes for my seeds, which gave me the brilliant idea to write on the frame what went into each square (some of which are 11″x12″ an others are 11″x11″, to accommodate for the 4 inches lost in each direction).

Labels in pencil on a garden box frame, reading "Peas, 5/27" "Spinach 5/27" and "Rouge d'Hiver 5/27."

Inspiration strikes!

In each square of the northernmost row, I planted Rouge d’Hiver lettuce, nothing, Forellenschluss lettuce, nothing, Salad Bowl lettuce, nothing, Mesclun lettuce mix, nothing.  (The empty squares will be planted later, so we can enjoy a rolling harvest, rather than having everything come on at once, half of it be wasted, and then nothing again for a month.)

In the next row, with the help of Teaspoon Jr., I planted spinach, peas, peas, peas, cucumbers, cucumbers, cucumbers, spinach.  When the peas and cucumbers begin to vine, I will build them a trellis to climb.  They’ll offer the lettuce a little shade during the hotter part of the summer, hopefully helping keep it from bolting as quickly.

In the third row, I planted German Giant radishes, French breakfast radishes, carrots, carrots, beets, beets, turnips, turnips.

The fourth row will be planted later with a repeat of the third row.

A grid layout of a garden plot using "square foot" techniques.

Assigned seating.

Now the waiting begins, to see if the weather cooperates enough to let the seeds sprout, to see how many of my carrot seeds actually fell in their holes and how many blew away when the wind came up before I was finished, and to see whether the whole project together has enough of the right pieces to make food happen.  With a bit of luck, there should be sprouts in 7-10 days.


Soil from Scratch

I’ve talked some about the poor soil in my area, and the need to mix up some decent soil if I want anything to grow.  For reasons of living somewhat off the more beaten paths, I ended up deciding on a mix of 1/3 sphagnum peat moss, 1/3 mushroom compost, and 1/3 steer manure/compost blend.  For a bed 8′ long by 4′ wide by 8″ deep, I needed 24 cubic feet of soil ingredients.  A slight miscalculation, though, since the interior measurement is actually 7’8″ long by 3’8″wide, which means I really only needed about 21 cubic feet of soil materials.

Or so you would think, right?

I’d read that peat moss expanded, so there might be some leftover soil that could be added as the mix settled.  I hadn’t read that “some leftover soil” would be nearly half the materials I purchased.

I had also read about a method to mix soil by pouring the ingredients on one end of a tarp, and walking the end back and forth a few times, then walking it it side to side a few times, but most places cautioned that trying to mix the whole lot at once was too heavy, so I decided to start with a fourth of my materials.  That was also too heavy, but might not have been with a second person to help manage both the tarp and the weight.

Two bags of steer manure/compost blend, two bags of mushroom compost, and one bag of peat moss stacked on a tarp.

There’s actually very little dirt in soil…

I cut the second quarter in half again, and only mixed half a bale of peat moss, one bag of mushroom compost, and one bag of the steer manure mix, but after wrangling the first batch, even that was a little on the heavy side.  The other half of the second quarter I just broke up the peat moss on the tarp and dumped it along one side of the bed, poured a bag of mushroom compost down the middle, and added a bag of steer manure blend down the other side, and mixed it all with a hoe, going back and forth across the rows of ingredients.  I think for a single (mostly able-bodied) person doing the work, that this was the easiest method available to me.  I am considering renting a small cement mixer for next year’s additions.

That first half of the materials filled the bed to within a half inch of the top, so I watered it well and let it sit for a week.  It rained a few times, and the wind has been howling for days, drying everything out, so it should have been alternately beaten down by water and then dried by the wind, shrinking it further.

By today, it had only settled another half an inch.  I threw up my hands and added two more bags of mushroom compost and mixed it into the top layer of mix with a hoe, since part of the peat moss’ job is to make my soil stick together, so it doesn’t blow away.  It would have been kind of silly to just put the light and crumbly mushroom compost on top only to let it end up miles away.  It was late, since I’d had to wait for the wind to die down, so I watered it down and called it a night.

It’s a Box!

With a little help from my father-in-law, who kindly cut my boards for me and loaned me a few tools I didn’t have or that ended up in storage, and Mr. Teaspoon, who kindly helped me argue with the drill and the long screws and the 4x4s, I have a garden bed.

I’ve mislaid the receipt for the chicken wire, which was cheapest by the 50′ roll, even though I only needed 12′, and it was about $37.  I figure that means I just have enough chicken wire to make the cover for the next bed, so between that and the remaining weed barrier, I’m already started for next year’s expansion.  I also ended up buying a five-dollar pair of work gloves, having left mine at work (long story involving transplanting cactuses), and a new staple gun for about $25.  Those two things will be used on a variety of projects though, so I won’t be including them in the expense totals.  I may need to get some kind of fasteners to keep the lid on it, though, since it rolled over in today’s high winds.

Construction of the base involved overlapping the 4x4s and screwing them together in an overlapping pattern to make the corners stronger.

Detail of a garden box frame corner showing countersunk screw holes and the overlapping pattern.

Build it strong to last long.

Next, I assembled the cover frame by making a rectangle with two 8′ 1x2s and two 4′ 1x2s for the base.  Then Mr. Teaspoon and Teaspoon Jr. helped hold the remaining 8′ 1.2 at the peak, each with two 4′ lengths cut to 30 degree angles at each end, to make 60 degree angles.  That’s about the time I discovered that I had missed one of my long pieces that needed the angles cut, so I cut that one with a handsaw.  I drilled pilot holes and screwed the side pieces to the peak at one end, then the other, which let my faithful assistants flee to other activities or a nap or something.  More pilot holes and more screws fastened the four corners to the base.  I measured 2′ intervals and added the side supports.

A triangular cover frame for a garden box, nearly complete.

Almost there!

Then I covered the floor of my box with hardware cloth, a process which made me glad of a habit of measuring all my materials before I start working with them, because it turned out that the 12′ length of hardware cloth Mr. Teaspoon had bought was only 11’4″.  That was irritating, and it meant I couldn’t fold up an inch at each side to staple it to the frame, so I might end up having to fight moles, but I decided just to mark it down as another reason to buy the materials for the second bed somewhere in the next town.

A sheet of hardware cloth in the bottom of a garden bed to keep moles away from plant roots.

No, Mr. Mole, you may not have my carrots.

Over that, I put some weed barrier to keep the remaining grass from just growing up through my good soil, and stapled it to the frame to keep it from blowing out of place while I filled it.

A sheet of weed barrier over a hardware cloth floor in a garden bed.

Keeping the nutrients for the garden.

Finally, I measured out two 12′ lengths of chicken wire to wrap my cover, and stapled that onto the cover frame.  (I still need to clean up the ends, but that can happen any time.)

A triangular garden cover made of thin boards and chicken wire.

No, Mr. Rabbit, you may not have my lettuce.

Up next, soil from scratch.

I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends

Content note: This post contains images of insects, specifically bees and butterflies, which may be distressing to readers who have insect-related phobias.

A monarch or monarch-mimic butterfly sits on a dandelion.

A gardener might do the heavy lifting, but some of the most important work in the garden is done by some unusual staff members: pollinating insects.  These tiny garden helpers are happy to work for free, but it’s kinder to offer them some compensation in the form of food, water, and/or shelter.  That’s why I’m happy to see the bright faces of humble dandelions each spring.  These early flowers are an important food source for wakening hives of bees after their winter hibernation, at a time when little else is blooming.  Migrating butterflies are also well-served by these plants that so many consider weeds.  The shy monarch or monarch-mimic to the right declined to be photographed with open wings.

The current crop of dandelions look like tiny airports, with a variety of small bees and bee-mimicking flies zooming in to land briefly and rummage among the petals before taking quick flight to the next flower, while sleepy bumblebees bounce slowly between clusters and have a leisurely me

The bee in the below photo has a greenish tint, and it was humming merrily among the dandelion patches, doing as bees do.  In this close-up view, there are tiny flecks of yellow pollen caught in the hairs on the bee’s legs and abdomen, which will be carried to the next flower.  There, some bits of pollen will be transferred to the new flower, and more pollen from the new plant will stick to the bee, some of which will become bee food, and some of which will be transferred to a different flower.

A bee collects pollen and nectar from a dandelion.

Besides the obvious of leaving dandelions alone, you can encourage pollinators by planting a variety of nectar-producing flowers that bloom at different times of the year, providing an on-going source of food for such beneficial insects.  You can also make sure there is a source of clean water with a water feature or a small, shallow saucer that you fill each day.  If you have room and no nearby neighbors with bee allergy, you can also consider keeping bees or providing nest-boxes for solitary bees, such as described by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Service.  Your county extension office will have information on how to support pollinators in your area.

Blog note: My schedule is still somewhat chaotic due to the previously mentioned family emergency.  Construction has started, but the going is slow, and I haven’t had the time to turn my notes and photos into coherent posts as yet.  Things should begin to normalize this weekend.  Thanks for your patience.

Sticks and Wire

Thanks to Mr. Teaspoon, I have most of my building materials.  My expense total from the last tally was $95.82.

Today, we go wildly over budget, because shopping local lumberyards in my town apparently means spending four times as much for everything as is reasonable.  Now that I know it’s cheaper to fill the truck and drive an entire hour to the next town, buy my lumber, and drive home, next year’s bed materials will be purchased…not locally.

A pile of 1x2 and 4x4 lumber with hardware cloth, landscape cloth, and a bag of long gold deck screws.

Pickup sticks, anyone?

  • 6 – 4″x4″x8′ #2 & BTR @ 13.58/ea. for $81.48
  • 9 – 1″x2″x8′ furring strips @ 1.17/ea. for $10.53
  • 3’x12′ hardware cloth (1/4″) for $26.50
  • 3’x50′ roll of landscape fabric for $15.79
  • 1.75 lbs. of 4 1/2″ deck screws for $7.00
  • 50 #8 1 1/2″ deck screws for $2.97
  • sales tax of $8.66

That’s a total of $152.93, which adds to the previous total to bring my expenses to $248.75.  I still need the chicken wire for my topper, but that will be the last of the building materials.

Hopefully, the effort results in produce enough to off-set the costs!  I’ll be keeping a comparison tally of produce returns based off the prices of similar produce at the local big box store, major supermarket, and farmer’s market or small market prices.


We’re having a family emergency right now that has interrupted work on the garden.  In the meantime, let me share a few of the blogs I’ve been reading for inspiration and some vicarious gardening over the past couple of years.

You Grow Girl by Gayla Trail

You Grow Girl is one of my favorite gardening blogs.  The writing and photos are interesting and the author has managed to grow some amazing things in less than stellar conditions.  Her success gives me some hope that I’ve got a chance to make something happen, too.

Squash’s Garden by Ursula Vernon

Yes, that Ursula Vernon.  The artist who wrote Dragonbreath and Digger and who sells (not-always-suitable-for-all-audiences) art at Red Wombat Studio.  She has a spirit of impulsiveness that I identify with, and I was delighted to find out that the author of one of my all-time favorite web comics was also an avid gardener with a desire toward organic methods and native plants.

Daily Farm (at Chickens in the Road) by Suzanne McMinn

I’d love to have a farm like Suzanne’s.  That’s not really in the cards for me, so I read about Sassafras Farm and daydream about maybe having a few laying hens one day.  Reading her blog is like stopping by to chat a bit with a favorite neighbor.

Voice for Reason by “Crusty”

Crusty talks about asparagus and tomatoes and lizards and birds and turtles and pumpkins and poppies and, on occasion, politics.  He’s got an eye for beautiful things and a philosophical bent that makes me ponder all manner of things.

Gardening Boise by Megan Sutton

The newest addition to my regular reading, I’m still getting a feel for this blog, but so far, I’m enjoying it.  It’s nice to read about gardening in a place with some similar climate challenges.

I expect I’ll be able to get some garden work done this weekend, but I can only hope that I’ll be able to get to planting at this point.  That’s probably okay, because they’re calling for a bit of snow tonight, and I’m just as glad I don’t have to be out in the damp wrestling a tarp over a bed of sprouts tonight.  Please enjoy the fine blogs above, and feel free to share your favorite garden links in the comments.

Getting Dirty

One of the major challenges I’ll be dealing with is the abysmal soil quality in my local area.  There is very little organic matter, so we’re left with a layer of fine sand over a layer of hard clay, mixed with assorted rocks.  It’s excellent if you’re a rabbit or badger or fox, and it grows bunch grass and sagebrush pretty well, but it doesn’t grow much in the way of salad fixings for people.

A field of grass with a wire panel fence and some assorted buildings in the background.

Home, home on the range.

It’s pretty, though, for those who like a long distance view with the weighty presence of mountains in the distance.  (That’s me.)  This photo was taken at about 6pm.  If I’d taken it at 6am, it would have been white — we woke up to snow this morning.

If you can imagine what it would be like to move across something halfway between firm sod and dry beach sand, that will give you an idea of the texture involved.  Where the grass is bunched up, it’s solid, but in between the bunches, it’s loose and fine and blows away.  Since the wind blows most of the time here, there are many places where the soil has eroded so much between clumps that the grass seems to be standing on its root-tips, as if it is prepared to run away from peckish pronghorns.

The only real answer for this on a small scale is to make good soil from scratch, then keep it in a box, so it doesn’t blow into the midwest.  Mr. Teaspoon, as promised, kindly picked up my dirt ingredients today.  Since I plan a 4’x8′ bed, 8″ deep, I need 24 cubic feet of soil.  My original plan was to use coir, vermiculite and and a couple of different kinds of compost.  As mentioned yesterday, I could stick to the plan, or I could have a garden this year, so instead, I’m using 8 cubic feet of peat moss, 8 cubic feet of mushroom compost, and 8 cubic feet of a steer manure/compost blend.  There are a couple of well-rotted bales of straw lying about the place, so I’ll likely mix in one or two of those to make up for some of the aeration and structure I had to sacrifice, and I’ll just have to water a bit more often to make up for not being able to get my hands on the moisture-retentive vermiculite this year.

Bags of mushroom compost, steer manure and peat moss on a blue tarpaulin.

A (co)m(p)ost humble beginning.


8-1 cu.ft. bags mushroom compost @ 3.38 ea. for $27.04

8-1 cu.ft. bags steer manure/compost blend @ 1.47 ea. for $11.76

4-2.2 cu. ft. bags peat moss @ 9.11 ea. for $36.44

and sales tax of $4.51

added to the $16.07 in seeds and tarp yesterday makes the total expenses so far $95.82.

My original budget was $200, but I hoped to come in well under that.  If Mr. Teaspoon makes it to the lumber yard tomorrow, I hope he’s able to find a good deal.

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