A Hard Lesson Learned

Engines like oil.  A lot.

Somehow, in the busyness of life, I forgot that little tidbit, until the riding mower started sounding rough.  It turns out, adding oil after the damage is done, doesn’t undo it.  A piston through the engine casing is an expensive reminder to regularly check the oil in ALL vehicles that require it for smooth operation.  Oops.

The cost of a new engine?  $1600 installed.  Yes, I could get a whole new mower for around $3000 but the body on this mower is sound and with a new engine – especially with oil added occasionally – should last a long, long time.  So we decided not to treat the mower as disposable, and to repair the damage done.

Labeling Tomatoes

Some people are lucky to find a variety of tomato they like and fill their garden with it.  I am not such a person.  When I attend garden shows or visit garden centers, I find myself overwhelmed by the sheer number of different tomato varieties – red, yellow, orange, green, purple and even black!  Small, large, early maturing, late maturing, delicious-for-eating, great-for-canning.  I want one of each!

So, each year I start at least a dozen different varieties, however, last year I had issues keeping track of which variety was which.  The popsicle sticks with names sharpie-ed on them were NOT adequate for the job!  This year I came up with a unique solution that I like a lot better.  Used canning lids!  Since lids can only be used once, I have a large stack of them that I hadn’t thrown away, feeling they must have another purpose.  I drilled a small hole in the top of each and attached it via a small piece of wire, to the top of the trellis, directly above each plant.  They flap in the wind and make a lovely wind-chime noise, but more importantly, there is no doubt which variety grows in each space.  Even when the plants have grown significantly, I should still be able to see and read the labels on the lids.  So much better than digging in the dirt looking for a popsicle stick that has long since disintegrated!

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Trellising Tomatoes

Has any tomato cage ever truly worked?  I’ve tried them all and each has sagged, broken, been outgrown, or simply fallen-over by the time the plants are full and laden with fruit.  Last year, we put a T-post next to each cage, but even then, it was more fail than success.

This year I decided to try growing them on a cattle panel.  So far, I LOVE this method of supporting them!  Early in spring, BOF and I placed a 16′ cattle panel (supported by a T-post at each end) down the center of the of the two rows dedicated to tomatoes.  I spaced the plants just 3′ apart on alternating sides of the panel.  In other words, there is only 18″ between each plant!

Why I love it:
1) Easy #1.  If you have a helper, one cattle panel and two T-posts is far faster and easier than 10+ cages, supporting guy wires and props, etc.
2) Cheap. Used T-posts and cattle panel are fine for this and almost free.
3) Stable.  Oh so stable.  The wire is far thicker than any commercial cage and T-posts (pounded 2-feet into the soil) far more firmly fixed than any cage’s shorter, flimsier wires.
4) Easy #2:  It’s easier to access the plants from either side.  (Looks nice too.)
5) Can’t be outgrown.  No matter how long the branches, there’s always someplace to weave the new growth into the trellis.
6) Super romatic.  My trellis writes me personal notes, occasionally sends flowers for no reason, and turns down the bed each night.  No, that’s a lie; HWA does those things.  No, that’s a lie too.

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As the plants grow, I “train” the branches through the rectangles in the panel, which isn’t difficult as long as I don’t let any branch get so long that it has to be significantly bent to get it through.  And, so far, the panels are doing a superb job of supporting the plants – even on our windiest days.  The 18″ spacing may be to close — I’ll let you know.

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So…. it is early in the season yet, but I feel I’ve finally found a solution to supporting tomatoes.  And if it also allows me to grow more plants in the space, it is a win-win-win.

Garden Updates

By now you may have guessed that we are just a little passionate about our garden.  Now that we are at the mid-point of the year, the garden is really looking like a veggie garden.  The pumpkin patch is huge and the pumpkins appear to try to claim more territory every day.  We are attempting to “train” them to stay in their area but, pumpkins being pumpkins, their need to expand exceeds our training abilities.  Some of the pumpkins on the vines are huge.  This is one of the few “surprises” – me being the planner that I am.  Last fall I bought several pumpkins for us to eat, then saved the seeds and threw them into the garden this spring without marking which was which.

The tomatoes did NOT like our wet May but have come good since the flood stopped and the temperature warmed up.  Most of them have small green tomatoes on and a couple of over-achievers have already provided us with some welcome red fruits.

The potatoes, zucchini, onions, cowpeas, pinto beans, Mexican Red beans and greens all look good.  The Bok Choy bolted almost immediately – it is really a cool season crop.  So it has been removed and Okra – a warm season vegetable – planted in its place.

We’ve managed to stay ahead of the pests this year.  Last year the Potato Bugs overwhelmed us because we didn’t realize we had them until they were already well established.  This year we started checking the plants early and so far have prevented an infestation.  We tried an experiment with a clutch of eggs, placing it in a container and checking it each day.  The eggs hatched 8 days after we harvested them.  This is useful information for us as it tells us we have a week to find any new clutches before they hatch.  And that has allowed us to time our scans – overturning every leaf of every plant – to catch and remove egg clusters before they become a problem.  Of course in doing this we often find the parent beetles and remove them as well.

The Squash Bugs were also a problem last year.  Each day I check the underside of every zucchini leaf, looking for bugs and egg clusters and removing both.  So far I’m winning – no nymphs have hatched.

The mulch is working well.  A surprise was how fast the 4″ layer was broken down.  With that came increased weeding and when I realized my “20 minutes every other day” had doubled, I also knew it was time for more mulch.  I downloaded Ruth Stout’s book “Gardening Without Work” to my Kindle and in reading it, realized my 4″ was never enough.  She recommends a minimum mulch layer of 8″!  So, I’m currently killing two birds with one stone – raking out the sheep shelter and placing the contents – spoiled hay mixed with sheep poop – over the garden, one lawn cart load at a time.  The areas I’ve already recovered are now weed free again.

The best update: we are eating salads again.  A handful of freshly picked greens, a few leaves of basil, a couple of tomatoes, a hard-boiled egg and some of my freshly made feta cheese, and we are happy little vegemities!IMG_0698

Compost

Composting is part of homesteading, but – and it hurts to say this – I’m really bad at it.  Thinking back on our composting efforts since we moved here, our efforts to produce “brown gold” have yielded more comedic failure than compost.

Even before we moved into the house, I set up a 3-bin compost system using pallets.  This was an idea I’d been drooling over for years and I was thrilled to finally have the space to do it.  The idea is to set up three adjoining bins, fill the first, then after it has sat for awhile, fork it over into the next bin (thereby aerating and turning it) and later do the same into the third bin.  Meanwhile, the first bin is again being used to collect new compostables.

My first challenge was that the system did not turn out nearly as pretty in reality as it had in my head.  It was hard to line the motley assortment of pallets up neatly and get them to stay standing.  Worse, once I started to fill the first bin, I found that the compostable materials exited through the gaps in the pallets.

Pallet Compost System

Nevertheless, I persevered, stapling feed bags and old election posters (tres chic, no?) to contain it.  Months later, when I tried to turn it for the first time, I found the pile had been more desiccator/preserver than composter.   It looked unchanged, and I realized that, due to lack of rain, the pile was too dry.  That is when I discovered that the location which at first had seemed “perfect” was in fact not very well thought out.  It was so far from my nearest water source that it took three hoses joined together to trickle a little water into it.  This I did overnight (though I felt silly “watering” my compost pile).

I decided to move it and selected another location.  I wanted it close to the house and a water source, but out of sight.  Behind our propane tank seemed like a great spot – we’d barely be able to see if thanks to the camouflage provided by the propane tank, and there was a spigot close by.

HWA and I spent a day taking apart the pallet system, hauling the components to the new location, then setting it up again.  At the end of the day we stood back and admired our efforts.  With HWA’s help, the bins were better aligned and it looked almost as pretty as I’d envisioned years before.  What we didn’t notice was that ours weren’t the only eyes admiring our work.  You see, “behind the propane tank” meant just inside the pasture.  The sheep decided the new structure was a set of sleeping chambers built for them.  Almost as soon as the last nail was hammered, they lay down – two sheep per section – and, though there was no shade from the overhead sun, for the next few weeks we rarely saw them sleep anywhere else.

By far the biggest challenge however, was finding compostable materials.  Where other people find their compostables baffles me.  When I ask the question I get that look people give when explaining the obvious to an idiot, and the answers are generally “lawn clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps”.  So – let’s go through these one at a time.

Lawn clippings.  I’ve used mulching mowers my entire adult life so barely know what lawn clippings look like.  I briefly considered contacting lawn services to ask for clippings but realized I didn’t want the chemical fertilizers that would likely come with them, so scrapped that idea.

Leaves.  First, trees only drop their leaves for a few weeks of the year.  Second, when they do and I mow, the leaves are mulched along with the grass.  Third, any that fall between mowings are quickly hoovered up by the goats and sheep.

Kitchen scraps.  We eat our fair share of bananas and oranges and drink way too much coffee, but don’t have enough peelings and coffee grounds to fill a compost bin.  Most other kitchen scraps go to the chickens.

Which is why the sheep got to keep their sleeping quarters – we simply did not have anything to actually put IN the compost bins!  So, I’ve given up on composting.  I do still collect banana peels and coffee grounds – but these days I collect them in an old coffee can on the kitchen counter and once it is full I take it straight to the veggie garden.  I dig a small hole, dump the contents and walk away, leaving the earthworms to enjoy a feast.  The earthworm population in the garden has exploded – perhaps because I am feeding them? – and, while burying my compostables may not be the same as creating brown gold in a composter, my kitchen scraps ultimately DO end up providing nutrients to my veggie garden.

Garden Changes

The veggie garden has been evolving over the last three years.  When we moved here there was no garden so we had to create our own.  We started with an area that had been “lawn” for at least 20 years.  That year we had no choice but to till since the sod was well established and the grass deep rooted.  After tilling, we spent hours removing the clumps of grass that had been tilled under.  Even so, that first year our weed crop far exceeded our desired crops.

Year two we tilled again.  HWA, BOF and I worked hard to get ahead of the weeds early in the season and were then able to keep up through the summer. The garden looked like a garden and produced well; we harvested and canned a lot.

This year – year three – we made some major changes to our methods.  Now that the weeds have been largely controlled, we decided not to till and instead are using deep mulch.  Over the winter, whenever I cleaned out the chicken coop, I spread the bedding over the garden area to age and create a deep layer of mulch.  We also took advantage of any other forms of mulch we found – for example, I ran last year’s tomato plants through my leaf shredder and turned them into usable mulch.  By spring the entire garden area was covered in at least 4″ of mulch.

The mulch serves multiple purposes.  First, it makes it harder for weeds to grow, as it blocks light to weed seeds, preventing them from growing.    Second, the few seeds that try anyway are easily pulled, as the layer of mulch is loose and friable.  Third, the mulch keeps the ground underneath moist.  When it rains, the moisture is retained in the ground instead of evaporating, reducing our need to water.  And last, as the mulch breaks down, it provides nutrients to the growing plants.  By not tilling or adding fertilizer or other chemicals, we have allowed the soil organisms and earthworms to reproduce and grow healthy colonies that are ready to nourish our veggie seedlings as we plant them.

So far, we are thrilled with the “no till” method of gardening.  Every other day or so I pull any weeds that have tried to sprout.  It takes no more than 20 minutes, compared to the hours per day we spent in previous years.  And our veggie garden is starting to look like a “real” garden at last.

Looking from north to south. The cattle panels will serve as a trellis system for the tomatoes as they grow.

Looking from north to south. The cattle panels will serve as a trellis system for the tomatoes as they grow.

The stakes mark the 4' wide garden beds and 2' wide walkways between beds.

The stakes mark the 4′ wide garden beds and 2′ wide walkways between beds.

What I’ve Learned About Gardening

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about growing a veggie garden its that the learning is an ongoing process. In the first couple of years it seemed simple enough; dig up the dirt, plant some seeds, weed and harvest.  In my naiveté, I thought once you had that down, there wasn’t anything left to learn.  But every year I am faced with new challenges and new things to learn and it finally hit me this morning that I actually know less now than I thought I knew back then.

To some extent, yes, the process really is till, plant, weed and harvest.  But with trial and error – and sometimes research – I’ve learned which plants play well with others.  I’ve learned how to spot signs of insect activity.  How to follow a trail of caterpillar poop to find the caterpillar’s hiding place under a leaf.  I’ve learned that the perfect tomato cage has not yet been invented.  That pretty little white butterflies fluttering happily through a garden are actually bad news.  I’ve learned to plant flowers – marigolds and zinnias and sunflowers – among the vegetables, to encourage beneficial insects, but also which veggies want to be close to those flowers and which do not.  I’ve learned to identify a variety of bugs, beetles and caterpillars and learned what type of plant they favor.  I’ve learned to recognize the weeds we see most often and to know which will be easily pulled and which will require earth-moving equipment to remove.  That every time I have a pest under control, another I’ve never seen before will move in to challenge me.  I’ve learned not to grow the things my family simply won’t eat and not to waste space on plants that grow large but only produce a small amount of food (like corn).  Instead I use that space for a plant that will continue to produce for many weeks (like tomatoes, beans and swiss chard).  I’ve learned that I need to carry a bowl to the garden with me every time I go, so as to have a way to collect my harvest, yet I rarely remember to do it.

As I plan my 2015 garden and look forward to what it will produce, I can’t help wondering what lessons about gardening 2015 will teach me.