Showing posts with label Gardening. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gardening. Show all posts

May 26, 2017

How to Make Your Own Garden Soil

lasagna gardening, sheet mulching
This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site!

I continue to struggle with setting up our garden. A lot of things have delayed creating vegetable beds on our homestead: particularly, a hurricane-force wind storm that blew the roof off my greenhouse and lead to the loss of every single plant marker (oy!); my husband's limited spare time and projects that I simply needed his help with; weather that seems to make everything bolt (go to seed); and too many holes for our income. So I've decided to do what homesteaders should: Make do with what I have. The problem is, good soil is something we have almost nothing of. And though I don't have the ability to bring truckloads of soil home, I'm doing my best to find creative ways to produce the soil I need.

Building Your Own Soil 

I began by considering lasagna gardening (also called, much more boringly, "sheet mulching"). This is not only easy, but it's ideal for people who have terrible garden soil. The idea is simple: Lay cardboard or many layers of newspaper on top of the soil (no need to remove weeds or grass) and get them thoroughly wet. Then put layers of organic matter on top. That's it!

To help the materials break down more quickly into soil, it helps to alternate "brown" and "green" materials, just like you would when composting. (Not sure what that means? Click here for an explanation.) But it's not absolutely necessary. Any organic matter you use will eventually break down and create great soil.

So what kinds of things can you use for lasagna gardening? Almost any organic matter you can get your hands on, including compost, animal manure that's not "hot;" a thin layer of grass clippings, fall leaves, clippings from the garden (but none that have gone to seed), straw (that hasn't been treated with weed killer), coffee grounds, a thin layer of wood ashes, dryer lint, shredded newspaper...

Ideally, you start layering lasagna gardens in the fall and the beds will be mostly decomposed and ready for planting by spring, but Patricia Lanza, author of Lasagna Gardening, says you can plant seedlings directly into a just-created lasagna bed. Just remember that as the bed decomposes, it will shrink in height.

How I Did It

You can make a large, proper garden with the lasagna gardening method, but I'm having to scramble more than that since my garden area currently has our motor home parked on it. (If you're reading this honey, "Ahem.") For example, recently I drug an old bathtub (which the previous owners left behind) and put it in a sunny spot. (It's 1950s pink. It's got retro charm, dontcha know.)





To prep it, I took a broken piece of terracotta pot (also left behind by the previous owners) and placed it over the tub's drain hole. This will keep the soil in the tub while still allowing water to drain from the hole. Next, I added a layer of bad soil. This happened to be super dry, dead potting soil left in buckets by the previous owners. (Noticing a trend here?) For you, it could be soil from your yard. I broke up the clumps, but I allowed the small roots in the soil to stay there. They will decompose eventually.
My stylin' retro pink bathtub garden bed.

Next, the rabbit cage needed cleaning, so I put a thick layer of rabbit manure and straw (which we use as bedding) in the tub. The wonderful thing about herbivore manure is it doesn't need to sit and compost before you can use it in the garden; it can go directly into the soil without danger of burning plants. (For more info on using manure in the garden, click here.) Finally, I added a bucket or two of decent soil that I'd bought in bags and had previously used for seed starting. I watered this all down well, and voila! I had a garden bed. (But who knows what's planted in it, since all my seed markers went missing...)

A Few Other Tips

* If you're using a deep container for planting, you can prevent the need for quite so much soil by placing small nursery pots, broken terracotta pots, or even packing peanuts in the bottom of the container. This is not, however, recommended for veggies with long roots, like tomatoes.

* If you have woods nearby (that you own, or that a friend or neighbor has given you permission to use), you could remove topsoil from the forest and use it in your beds. You'll probably bring some weeds with you, but they should be easy to distinguish from desirable plants. Obviously, you'd want to do this gently and not remove too much soil from the natural landscape.

* It might pay to check with your local city. Some offer free compost to people residing in the area. Technically, if the compost is completely "finished," you can use it in place of soil. But I find it's almost never finished when you rely on someone else to determine that for you, so it's best to use compost only as an amendment. Nevertheless, it can add bulk to your garden beds, reducing your need for quality garden soil.

* Use kitchen scraps to bulk up your beds. Yes, scraps that aren't composted! Just put fruit and vegetable scraps in the bottom of the garden bed, and cover them with other organic materials. They will decompose there and help create fantastic soil.
Mystery seedlings.



Apr 13, 2017

How to Make Cutworm Collars to Protect Seedlings

One day last fall, I was sad to find some of my cabbage seedlings guillotined - their tops sitting neatly beside the pots they'd been planted in. Last weekend, I discovered some of my precious tomato seedlings had suddenly disappeared. Both problems were caused by the same pest: Cutworm. These nasties crawl around at night and chew through young plants at the base of the soil, quickly decimating garden crops.

Fortunately, there's an easy fix: Just give your seedlings collars!

There are several methods of doing this, but my favorite is to use ordinary kitchen foil, since it holds up to spring rains or garden watering. Watch this quick video to discover how to do it:





Apr 3, 2017

DIY Seed Tape Video - How to Make Your Own Seed Tape

Last weekend, I had fun making seed tape with my kids. It's a fun, quick, and easy project that will save you money and frustration later. Check out the video below. Or, if you prefer written instructions, click here to see the post I wrote on DIY seed tape a few years ago.






Feb 28, 2017

Why You Need A Digital Homesteading Journal

If you're serious about feeding your family off your land - whether that be a suburban backyard or a many acre farm - keeping a journal is important. Farmers have been doing it since paper became readily available, and you should, too. But to really get the most from your journal, keeping a digital journal is, in my opinion, an absolute must.

Why a Homesteading Journal?

The simple answer is that a journal will save you endless amounts of time and frustration. For example:

Have you ever grown a wonderful variety of veggie but forgotten it's name or where you purchased it? That won't happen again if you keep a journal.

Have you ever wondered exactly how much money you spent on the garden, or the goats, or the chickens, or the homestead in general?

Ever wondered if you're saving money by growing and raising you own?

Ever wondered if there are places where you can cut back on expenses?

Ever tried to remember exactly when your goat stopped giving milk last time she was bred, or which rabbit you bred with which last breeding season?

Keeping a journal will make discovering all that quite easy.

In it, you can keep track of such things as:

* Weather patterns and temperatures
* Names of plant varieties you've grown or want to try to grow
* Notes on how to grow specific varieties of plants
* Dates for when seeds were started
* Dates for when varieties came to harvest
* Notes on how pounds of each plant you harvested
* Dates for when varieties died back due to frost, disease, pests, or other variables
* Sketches or photos to remember garden layouts
* Notes to assist in the rotation of crops
* Notes to help you remember the outcome of garden experiments
* Figures tracking gardening expenses
* Notes about how specific varieties taste, or work best in which recipes
* Records of how much you've preserved, and how quickly you went through your preserved food
* Notes on which herbal remedies seem to work best for your family
* Reminders about what time of year to forage certain foods, and where to best find them
* Notes on how much milk, meat, eggs you're getting from your animals
* The dates when your hens started and stopped laying
* Information on how long milk animals keep producing
* Notes on how long it takes to grow out meat animals
* Breeding and lineage notes

In short, anything at all you might need to remember about your homestead should go into your homesteading journal.


Why Digital?

Traditional garden and farm journals are hand written and kept in binders or notebooks.They are certainly useful, but it can take some time to look up the notes you're specifically after. However, if your journal is, say, in a Word document, finding what you need is a breeze! Just use the search feature to bring up the information you want.

For example, this spring, I needed a list of the vegetable varieties I grew last year. All I had to do was open up last year's journal and search "seeds sowed," and I instantly had the list in hand.


Suggestions for Making a Homesteading Journal

Everyone has different preferences, but here are some things that work well for me.

1. Each year, create a separate file for your journal. Its name should simply be the year, or "Homesteading Journal [year]."

2. Keep every year's journal in one folder (named, for example, "Homesteading Journals").

3. In the Word document, separate entries by the date. Use bold lettering to make separate entries easier to find, in case you are just browsing the file, instead of using the search feature. Consider putting keywords, like plant and animal names, in bold, too.

4. Type in everything, even if you're sure you'll remember next year.

5. Include photos of your garden layouts.

6.  Scan plant tags and include them in the file, too.

7. Scan in all paperwork related to your animals. This will serve as a backup to any paper files you might need to keep, but also make access to them easier. Be sure to tag all photos with a keyword, to make searching easier.

7. Keep a back up copy of your journals on a separate drive.


In just a few minutes every day, you can easily collect a huge variety of highly useful information in your journal. And by looking back on your notes frequently, you'll become a better homesteader, and your homesteading efforts will be easier and more successful, too.


Feb 9, 2017

Choosing Seeds for My New Garden

Honestly, I'm trying not to get stressed about my garden - or lack thereof. Because as of this moment, the vegetable garden doesn't exist. We still need to remove a few trees around the yard and set up the garden beds. Thankfully, I do have the greenhouse and a few small raised beds (tall square pallets and an old bathtub or two) that the previous owners left behind. Still...my dream garden it ain't. So...I'm reminding myself that getting the garden up and proper is gonna take time.

In the meantime, I've tested my old seeds to see if they are still viable, and have placed my seed orders. There are some "old reliables" coming my way, as well as some fun new varieties to try. Here are a few of the notables that (I hope!) will appear in my 2017 garden.

(Please note: None of the links are affiliate.)


Autumn's Choice butternut squash.
* Autumn's Choice Squash. It's hard to beat a good butternut squash: So tasty, and stores all winter long just sitting on a shelf. This year, I'm trying this new-to-me variety because it's said to have a strong resistance to powdery mildew - always a problem where we live. It's also got a slightly shorter growing season than many other varieties (85-90 days), and has unusual and pretty skin. I bought my seeds at Territorial Seed.

* Morris Heading Collards. Greens are an important crop for me, since we eat them a lot because they're an excellent source of nutrients. My whole family loves collards, which we mostly eat sliced thin and sauteed (usually with garlic and salt, and maybe some chopped bacon). This variety is one I've grown for years. It's reliable, tasty, and slow to bolt (go to seed). It also grows pretty quickly and is an heirloom. I bought my seed this year at Baker Creek Seed.

* Brunswick Cabbage. I've grown other varieties of cabbage, but I always come back to Brunswick cabbages because they are large and relatively fast-growing (90 days). This variety is also especially cold hearty and stores well. I buy my seed at Baker Creek.

Bull's Blood beet.
* Bull's Blood Beet. This is my favorite beet to grow because the roots are tasty - and so are the tops. I love the large red leaves for sauteing, and my family loves the roots for borscht and pickling. This year, I bought my seeds at Territorial.

* Catskill Brussels Sprout. Homegrown Brussels spouts are far superior to bitter store bought ones! And I keep coming back to this variety because the plants grow so large. (A friend once said of their size, "Those aren't any ordinary Brussels sprouts. Those are old growth Brussels sprouts!") I get mine at Baker Creek, even though they claim this is a dwarf variety.

* Amazing Cauliflower. I've never had much success growing cauliflower, but since we eat a lot of it, and since our new homestead is  more friendly to this cool season crop than anywhere else I've lived, I'm hopeful. Supposedly, this variety matures in 75 days and gives good flavor. I bought my seeds at Territorial Seed.

* Hollow Crown Parsnip. This is the best parsnip I've ever grown. It's sweet after a good frost, and stores well in the soil. (P.S. The crown of the parsnip isn't actually hollow.) You can buy this seed at Baker Creek.


* BeaverLodge Slicer Tomato and Silvery Fir Tree Tomato. To be honest, I've never had a lot of luck growing tomatoes from seed. This is because our growing season isn't long and warm enough to grow them from seed without some artificial lights (for the seedlings) - and I have yet to acquire those lights. But while our growing season is technically rather long here, our weather is also generally cool, which makes tomato-growing a challenge, even with the unheated greenhouse. So I'm really striving to find short-season tomatoes that don't mind a little cooler temps. I chose Beaverlodge because it matures in about 55 days, and is supposed to be abundant. I bought my seed at Territorial. Silvery Fir matures in about 58 days, and is open pollinated. You can also buy this seed at Territorial, too.

Double Purple Orach.
* Double Purple Orach. At our old homestead, I always had a tough time growing spinach; the plants grew, just not abundantly. I should have an easier time with spinach at our new homestead, but it's always nice to have orach on hand, too, because it's less fussy and tends not to bolt (go to seed) as quickly as spinach. The flavor is similar. I've never tried this variety before, but I like the idea of getting some purples into my greens, because the nutrients are slightly different. I got my seed at Territorial.

* Double Yield Cucumber. This is a new variety for me, but promises to not only produce abundantly, but to provide good cucumbers for both pickling and eating fresh. I bought my seed at Territorial.

* Fortex Bea. Beans are among the easiest things to grow, and I've always been pleased with my choices, including Dragon Tongue and Golden Gate. But this year, I'm trying this new-to-me variety, which is supposed to be tall and vigorous, with large bean pods. I bought my seeds at Territorial.

Wild Garden Kale.
* Miner's Lettuce. Miner's lettuce is supposed to grow wild in my general area...but I've never been able to find any. It's high in vitamin C and extremely cold tolerant; it will grow year round in my area. I got my seed at Territorial.

* Wild Garden Kale. We eat a ton of kale, and this mix from Siberia is a real winner in my garden, year after year. There are some nice variations in color (light green, purple, red, and blue-green) and leaf shape - and while all kale is cold tolerant, this mix is especially so. I buy the seed at Territorial Seed.



Jan 27, 2017

Do Orchards Attract Wasps & Other Stinging Things?

Q: I want to plant an orchard in our front yard, but my husband says that's a bad idea because it will attract bees and wasps. Is this really a issue?

A: Our front yard is lined with fruit trees, and we love it! Not only do the trees provide cooling shade to part of the yard, but they are pretty, too. In fact, I can't wait to see what our yard looks like in spring, with all the fruit trees blooming!

Fruit trees - like pretty much any flowering plant - will attract some bees. That's actually a good thing, for at least two reasons:

1. The bees pollinate the trees, which makes it possible for them to bear fruit.


2. Bees are struggling, in case you haven't heard. Not just non-native honey bees now, but even native species. So giving them a source of pollen is a positive thing.

Our yellow plums.
The good news is, bees that are out gathering pollen are not generally aggressive. They are unlikely to sting anyone.

As for nastier stinging things, like wasps, we have had zero problem with them. In fact, when I do see wasps in someone's orchard is because they are attracted to rotting fruit. That is a problem easily solved if you simply keep fallen fruit cleaned up:

1. Harvest regularly, and preserve or give away excess. This helps prevent fruit from falling and being spoiled.

2. Use fallen fruit for jams or jellies. This requires checking the orchard daily and collecting any fallen fruit that isn't rotten.

3. Give any livestock you may have fallen fruit that you wouldn't want to eat, but that isn't rotten.

4. Compost the rest. (But don't over-fill your composter with fruit, or it will decompose way too slowly.)

Does this sound like a lot of work? It can be, depending upon the size of your orchard. But if you're planting fruit trees because you really desire to grow your own food, I think you'll find you're easily motivated.

And I can tell you that if I had a bare yard that needed landscaping, the first thing I'd do is add fruit trees to it.


Jan 24, 2017

How to Grow Epic Tomatoes

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site!

Last weekend, I fairly devoured Craig LeHoullier's book Epic Tomatoes. Few gardeners have the experience LeHoullier has, given that he's trialed more than 1,200 varieties of tomatoes and introduced 100 new or "lost" tomatoes to the world. This guy knows his stuff.

Epic Tomatoes is really a must read for anyone who grows (or wants to grow) tomatoes. It's an interesting read, too, because the author spends some time discussing the stories behind many heirloom tomatoes - and because he has a knack for writing in a non-technical, but still precise, manner. He talks about the benefits of growing hybrid and heirloom varieties (and has found that hybrids don't outperform or resist disease better than heirlooms per se...it really just depends upon the variety), gives us an interesting history of the tomato and tomato seeds, discusses seed saving, explains various tomato diseases, tells us his favorite varieties to grow, and even gives a short course on how to create new types of tomatoes ourselves. And did I mention all the gorgeous, mouth- watering photos?

But the section of the book that most interested me was LeHoullier's guide to growing tomatoes. And, as it turns out, you can forget any complicated procedures you may have read about elsewhere.

I've never been one to pamper my tomatoes too much, but I admit some of the author's guidelines surprised even me. So while I encourage you to read Epic Tomatoes yourself, here are some of the truths and myths I learned from a man who has grown many, many thousands of tomato plants:

1. Tomato seeds can last for 10 years or more, even with some temperature fluctuations during storage.

2. Tomato seeds can be planted densely - 50 seeds in a square inch. Seedlings can then be divided into individual pots without fear of damaging the roots or slowing down the growth of the plant.

3. Tomatoes don't need pruning. I think this one surprised me most! According to LeHoullier, pruning and removing suckers does not encourage bigger or more plentiful fruit. In fact, he says it decreases crop size. The only reason LeHoullier prunes tomatoes is to control plants that are getting too big and unwieldy for the planting space.



4. Removing foliage from tomato plants does not increase yield, quality, or flavor of fruit. In fact, says LeHoullier, removing a tomato plant's leaves invites sunscald and reduces the flavor of the fruits.
Courtesy psrobin

5. You don't need to remove flowers from tomato plants when transplanting. According to LeHoullier, this doesn't re-direct the plant's energy toward growing roots - and it will make you miss out on some early tomatoes.

6. Tomatoes may not require fertilizer. It all depends on your soil. If you've prepared the soil ahead of planting - adding finished organic matter like compost and aged manure - and if you've tested your soil and amended it as needed, fertilizing may not be necessary at all. Perhaps, the author suggests, you might use a little finished compost as a side dressing now and then. An exception is if you grow tomatoes in pots. This requires more watering, which depletes the soil of nutrients faster, which means fertilizing will be necessary.

7. It's okay to let tomato plants wilt. All tomato plants will wilt when hot sun is overhead; it does not necessarily mean they need watering. Wilting is simply the plant's way of conserving moisture. However, regular watering is still needed, particularly once plants are heavy with fruit.

8. There is no such thing as a low-acid, modern tomato. If you can, you may have heard that modern tomatoes are low acid and therefore not safe to water bath can. LeHoullier says this is absolutely false. Instead, a recent study shows the sugar in these tomatoes masks their acidity.

Courtesy Petar43
9. Color has nothing to do with flavor. Although LeHoullier says most of his favorite tomatoes aren't true reds.

10. A few heirlooms are less reliable - including some favorites, like Brandywine. One year they may do poorly, and another year, they may produce abundantly.

11. If you don't get fruit, don't blame a lack of bees. Tomatoes are self-fruitful, meaning they don't need pollination to produce fruit. LeHoullier says lack of fruit usually means the blossoms dropped before fruit could set - something that's common during hot, summer weather. Pruning may also cause lack of fruit. And, in rare cases, you might have a plant with a genetic mutation that prevents fruit setting.

* Title image courtesy of  Rob Bertholf

Jan 18, 2017

7 Gardening Hacks that DON'T Work

Winter on the homestead is a pretty quiet time. Other than caring for animals, doing a little winter canning, and the usual household stuff everyone does, there's not a lot of "homesteady" things going on. Except in my mind.

Because January is the perfect month to finalize garden plans, deciding exactly what I'm going to plant and where. So if I seem a little garden-centric lately, that's why.

As usual, I fuel my passion for gardening by browsing Pinterest gardening boards. I love looking at gorgeous gardens - especially food gardens - but this browsing also exposes me to some of Pinterest's...oddities. Namely, bad gardening advice. So you don't waste your time, money, and heart on bad gardening advice, here are the top gardening tips I see that really don't work.


1. Use eggshells (or egg cartons) for seed starting. These tiny containers don't allow seedlings to grow big, strong roots...And if you transplant your seedlings into bigger containers (or directly into the garden) before they have strong roots, your chances of success plummet. That said, starting containers don't have to cost a fortune. I'm partial to the plastic, lidded containers some greens and salads come in. You can also use the similar plastic containers that bakery goods come in, or tubs from store bought potato salad and the like. (More about using such containers here.) You can even make small pots from toilet paper tubes.

2. Plant your tomatoes with eggshells, Epsom salts, etc. It's true we need to feed the soil in order to feed our plants, but by the time all these organic materials have totally broken down and are available to give the plant nutrition, the plant may already be spent. It's far better to prepare the soil with lots of good, finished compost, shortly before planting. (Or, put uncomposted organic matter in the soil at least a season before planting.)



3. Plant everything in pots. Plant everything close together. This is not to say you should never do these things; they just not always the best route to take. A common myth among gardeners is that wide-spaced vegetable garden rows were first used when fuel powered tractors took hold of farming. Um...no. They were used long, long before that because plants that aren't very close to each other require less watering! Wide spacing allows their roots to spread, which gives them more access to water in the ground. So plant close together if you wish, but give plants room to grow and breathe (to avoid disease), and know that you'll have to water closely spaced plants more frequently. And if you plant in pots, understand that your plants will also need more watering than if they are planted in the ground (because the soil in pots dries out quickly). By the way, you know what the worst containers are? Those trendy metal ones. Put those in full sun and the soil in them will dry out very, very quickly. (P.S. One type of plant I do recommend growing in pots are herbs that tend to spread and take over the garden.)


4. Grow tomatoes in upside down containers. Here's the thing: Healthy tomato plants have big, long roots. Those upside down containers don't give them nearly enough root room - which means your plant will not give you a good harvest. Plus, tomatoes are heavy drinkers (so to speak), and as I already mentioned, things grown in pots require additional watering.

5. Use a planting guide. Often these are apparently supposed to be universal. That is to say, they are designed for someone in California, or Montana, or New York, or Missouri to use. But all those places have different climates. (In fact, all those places have multiple gardening climates.) So such planting guides are pretty useless. If you need help knowing when to plant what, your best bet is to look at your local extension garden website. (And if the website doesn't help, call your local extension office. Click here to find your local extension office.)

6. Worry about companion planting. Okay, so some people really do believe that some plants grow better next to certain other plants, or that some plants don't grow well together at all. But in my experience, as long as you pay attention to the plant's soil and light requirements, this is definitely not the case. For example, common companion planting advice is that peas and beans
(Courtesy of
don't grow well next to onions. Well, I've grown them together many times and had a great harvest. So my advice is to not get caught up in this type of advice.


7. Grow potatoes in towers. There is one persistent myth I see all over the internet: Grow 100 lbs. of potatoes in a 4 square foot potato tower. Long story short: It's not true. Read why - and learn better ways to grow potatoes - here.

Related Posts:
* Newbie Vegetable Gardening Mistakes - and How to Avoid Them 
* The Pros and Cons of Raised Bed and In-the-Ground Vegetable Gardens
* Starting a Vegetable Garden on a Budget 
* 10 Tips for Brand New Vegetable Gardeners
* Getting More From This Year's Garden