Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New Garden Layout for 2016

I was not happy with my garden in 2015. I had intended to just use the west side of the garden and cover the east half with a heavy mulch and let it rest this year. But doing that caused me to crowd my plants too close. The soil is very rich so it could easily support the plants, and they grew well. That was a big part of the problem, I couldn't walk between the plants to take good care of them. The garden got overgrown and weedy. I also had major problems with rabbits, groundhogs, and deer this year. 

So I decided to reorganize the garden to create more open space and pathways between the beds. 

I used a rope to lay out each raised bed and dug out a pathway between it and the next bed. I dug down about four to six inches and piled that dirt onto the raised bed. This now gives me a planting bed that has rich top soil eight to ten inches deep. On top of that I added two inches of compost and raked it in. This will all break down even further by spring.

Each of the dugout pathways was then filled with wood chips, about ten to twelve inches deep. The walkway along the left side, by the raspberry bed, will stay bare but I put concrete pavers on the three walkways going across the garden. These walkways will get heavier use so I wanted a cleaner, sturdier surface.

The open garden area on the far right has been tilled under and leveled out

As you can see I put railroad ties and landscape timbers around the perimeter of the garden. I will install a fence of some sort and this will, hopefully, cut down on the wildlife damage to the garden. These are very old timbers so there should be very little leaching of preservatives and they border on the wood chip walkway anyway.

I covered the open area of the garden with six to eight inches of chopped grass and leaf mulch. I might dig out another raised bed in the spring or use this area for bigger crops like cucumbers, melons, and potatoes. 

While these are not true raised beds with exposed sides, the wood chip walkways between them will serve the same purpose. The planting beds are deep and drainage should be enhanced by the wood chips pathways. As the wood chips break down and rot, they will add nutrients to the soil that the plants can reach out to and use.  I will add wood chips on top as they break down into compost and eventually pull up the pavers and till all this under and mix in the composted wood. But I should be able to put that off for at least three years I think.

I pulled out all my carrots this weekend. They are stunted because animals kept eating the green, leafy portion so they were always recovering from damage. But they are crunchy and sweet so at least I got something out of that bed.

I try to spend as little as possible on my garden, and most other pursuits of mine. I got most of the timbers for free but bought a couple railroad ties at $9.84 apiece. They will last the rest of my lifetime so they are a good investment, especially if they improve yields with the raised beds and help me to keep out rabbits and groundhogs. We shot or trapped ten groundhogs from my little garden this year alone. Some of them became compost and some were trapped and released three miles away on my farm.

The wood chips were free. I got them from a tree service that did some work in my area. They dumped a truckload up on my farm property and I brought two wagon loads down for this project.

All the pavers were free. I accumulate pavers and bricks over time. Anytime I see them put out for trash I stop and grab them. Over the past ten years I have collected about 80 assorted paving stones in various shapes and sizes. Craigslist is another good source for free pavers and brick.

All my compost is free. One could say, well the yard vacuum and lawn tractor you use aren't free and that is true enough. But I have to cut my grass anyway and my yard is too big to rake when the cut grass is too long to leave behind and the leaves need to be taken care of. 

I will probably end up buying some fencing in the spring but I have collected enough fence posts that I shouldn't need to buy any of them. I will watch Craigslist for fencing too.I have a couple rolls in my equipment shed but I'm not sure if it is enough to do the job. 


2015 Composting

If you go through all my blog postings you will see frequent references to composting. I've been an avid composter since I was a kid. My first posting on the subject dates back to 2011; http://eatbettercheaper.blogspot.com/2011/11/composting-101.html
In 2015, using my four bin setup, I created 48 cubic feet of high quality compost. In actuality, that came out of only one bin. I am only using three of the four bins right now. One bin is completely filled with aged compost, 2.3 cubic yards (64 cubic feet). That is a lot of compost for a house garden. That is sort of my reserve compost that I use when planting.

One bin, almost empty. The bin behind this one is filled to the top with finished, cured compost.
This fall, I completely re-organized my garden into three raised beds (3'x10') and one 10'x14' planting bed. I put 2 inches of compost on each of the raised beds and raked it in. The rest of the compost went on my strawberry bed, several flower beds, and around a couple small trees. 

Two beds completed and one almost done, with walkways between them.
 
What did it cost to create all this compost? Just some time and effort. Each fall I clean out and screen the compost from a bin. This is not overly hard, physically, but it takes time. I made a screen box using 3/8 inch hardware cloth. I shovel the mostly finished compost into the screen box and shake it through. The finely screened material goes into my garden wagon for immediate use. The material that is too large to pass through the screen gets saved to go back into the bin with fresh composting materials. 

This is my screening box. I made it out of 2x2 posts and hardware cloth. One screened bin filled this wagon one and a half times.

The wheelbarrow holds the material too large to pass through the screen. It will go back in the compost bin.
Next I clean out my garden and take all the dead plants and place them in the bottom of an empty bin. This course material creates air pockets under the pile to help oxygenate the pile. Next I run my lawn tractor with the attached yard vacuum to pick up all the dead leaves and they get chopped and mixed with green grass clippings that are also cut and sucked up.
The mix of chopped dead leaves and fresh grass is almost perfect and is already heating up due to bacteria starting to break down the material before I even get it unloaded into the bin. One day later I stuck my hand down into the pile and it was hot; a good sign that the bacteria are active and hard at work breaking down the material.
I filled the bin and heaped it as high as I could without it falling over because I know that this will break down to only about ten percent in volume fairly quickly. To this pile I added the course material that didn't go through the screen box. This material will get another year to break down. At the same time, it imports the bacteria from the old pile and gives me a great jump start on the composting process.
Each fall I hope to get a couple weeks with above freezing weather so that the compost pile can get a good start breaking down. It generates quite a bit of heat, initially, and that keeps the pile from freezing until it gets really cold. I live in Northeast Pennsylvania so once it gets cold the pile will go dormant for most of the winter. Eventually it will freeze solid. But once the warm weather of spring arrives the pile will thaw and start the biodegrading action that makes compost.
Throughout the rest of the fall and winter all the household bio-material (kitchen scraps, mums, coffee grounds from work, remains of animals from hunting, etc.) go into the pile and get mixed in (until it is frozen solid). I will also mix in some wood ash from the wood stove to add minerals and charcoal.  During winter all this material pretty much lies dormant and frozen until spring. When the warm weather does finally arrive, I give the pile a good turning and mixing and add whatever fresh material I can come up with to get it cooking again.
If I desired, I could make compost faster by more frequent turning and adding manure but I have 64 cubic feet of compost in storage all the time so I don't need to expend the added effort. My composting process is slower but creates more than I actually need in any given year and it is relatively low-labor.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Cutting Firewood for Heat



Heating a home can be a huge expense if you have a large house, an old house with little or no insulation, or an all electric house. I have a poorly insulated all-electric house so my heating bills can be quite high. My house was built in 1973 when electricity was fairly cheap. Also, the electric provider gave a substantial discount to home owners of all electric houses for the first ten to twenty years. This was to encourage new home builders to build all electric houses.  In the long run, the electric company knew they would recoup all their discount and make substantial profits on these houses.

My electric bill, in the winter months, averages between $300 and $400 a month; but I have no other utility bills to worry about. Still, I needed to lower that bill if I could. The house had a masonry fireplace installed when it was built. But fireplaces are not efficient at all and can actually cause additional heat loss up the chimney if the damper is left open. After I bought the house I installed glass doors on the fireplace and that helped a little, but not much. So in 2011 I bought a fireplace insert and installed that. The insert cost a bit under $600 and came with an internal blower to move more air around the firebox to pull off more heat. It is one of the smallest inserts I could find because I didn't want to create too much heat. The house is a single floor ranch  house and there is very little natural air flow and the living room would get too hot.

I installed the insert myself, not a job for the new, inexperienced handy-man.  Getting the insert put together and in the fireplace was a chore but not overly difficult. What was hard was installing a chimney insert to make the insert "draw" better. I found out that the massive brick chimney cooled down the smoke too much and the smoke did not go up the chimney very good. So I figured creating a smaller flue that was insulated from the ice cold brick would do a better job. Installing that was a several hour long, dirty job. But it is in and other than a yearly cleaning I have had no problems with either the insert or the chimney flue.

With this fireplace insert I can heat most of the house and hold a temperature of 70-73 degrees while the fire is burning. The fire will burn unattended until about 2:00 o'clock in the morning and the warmed walls (I have plaster walls and ceilings) keep the room temperature above 65 degrees until the morning. Keeping the fire going most of the day reduces my electric bill by half so the cost of the insert was paid back in the first 4-5 months I operated it.

I am fortunate to have my own source of "free" firewood off my own land. Nothing is really free, the cost of cutting, transporting the wood, and my time are a factor. But I greatly enjoy being in the woods and working on developing my wood lots so I consider it more of an entertainment expense then a heating expense.  I also cut about four cords of wood for my dad each year. For those of you new to firewood, or cord wood as it is sometimes called, a "cord" is a stack of wood that is four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. Who came up with that unit of measure is a mystery.

I usually wait to cut wood until the cooler weather begins. When I was a boy, that started in late August or early September. Now it is just getting tolerable in late September. I cut wood today and it was 76 degrees and the gnats were a pain in the butt. The only reason I started already is because my dad, who is elderly and chills easily, starts a fire every morning to take the chill out of his living room so he can read his daily newspapers in comfort. His wood shed is almost empty so I need to start filling it even if it is uncomfortably warm still.

Last summer, I bought a well-used Power King tractor for my wood cutting chores. I had been using my dad's much larger Kubota but with the front end loader and its larger size it was not very maneuverable in the woods. I wanted something smaller but bigger and more powerful than a lawn tractor. The Power King 1617 model that I have is nearly perfect; four-wheel drive would have made it perfect.

 This small tractor has a 17 horsepower engine (not a lawn mower engine like the so-called garden tractors you can buy today) and all-gear drive. It is a 4-speed with a nice Category-0 three point hitch. I have a snow plow and two mower decks; a four foot and a five foot deck.  I can pull a fully loaded trailer of wood with no strain on the motor at all. I will buy or build some other 3-pt attachments for this tractor to do other work on my property such as a harrow and a cultivator for putting in food plots for the wildlife. (Update: I was fortunate to find a small plow for sale shortly after I wrote this post. It is a 10-inch moldboard plow, originally sold by Sears for their Suburban line of garden tractors (1970s). I tested it out on my dad's garden and it did an excellent job turning the soil. (The plow had never been used before and still had the preservative grease on it.) The furrows were cleanly cut and all the weeds and grass were buried. I was impressed. The PowerKing didn't have any trouble pulling the plow in 2nd gear; no strain at all.)

I built a 40x60x36 inch trailer for hauling wood. A cord is 128 cubic feet of wood. If I do a good job stacking the wood in my wagon I can haul 50 cubic feet of wood; not quite half a cord. On a good day, I'm 55 years old now, I can cut two trailers of wood; but I generally only cut one because I have other chores to do and I'm only home one full day a week. So I spend about 15 days a year cutting all the wood my dad and I need to get through the winter. That is not too bad really. It's good exercise, gets me out in my woods, and pays back about half my electric bill for 4-5 months out of the year.


How does firewood cutting impact your food security you might be asking by now? Well, in multiple ways. I already stated that it saves me several hundred dollars a year in heating costs; so that is money I can use to buy food. Cutting wood gets me out in the woods where I spot good foraging areas. I forage berries, nuts, and greens so getting more familiar with my property is always a good thing. I also use the time in the woods to improve my property (for game animals and wildlife in general) as well as to scout the areas I will hunt.

You can spend a lot of money on wood cutting tools; which is fine if you have it but most of us don't.  There are many brands of chain saw out there and most of the more familiar brands are all good enough for small property owners. I have used an 18 inch Sears chainsaw, the same one, for about 14 years now. The only repair it ever had was to replace the fuel line, which basically dissolved (caused by the alcohol in Ethanol gas) and fell apart last winter. I replaced the cutting bar a few years ago and of course you go through cutting chains. (Update: Shortly after I wrote this my saw broke. The engine still runs but the gear that drives the chain broke. I can fix it, but since I was pressed for time I bought a new Craftsman chain saw. It is still an 18-inch but with a slightly larger motor; 46 cc. A good buy at the price and it has common parts with my old one and another one that I inherited with my house. I have pulled parts off of that one already to make repairs on my old saw.)

Don't buy more saw than you need but don't go too small either. For general firewood cutting a 16 inch or 18 inch is good enough. The bigger and heavier the saw the more work you are doing man-handling it to do your cuts. My dad has a new Poulan that I like, it is light weight and has very good vibration control. How long it will last is unknown. I suppose Consumer Digest has evaluated chain saws a some point so that is a good source and of course you can read product reviews on most Online sites. Another good place to ask is your local small engine repair shop, ask them which brands they repair the most and get their opinion.

Engine size is important and it is given in cubic centimeters (cc). My Sears chain saw is older and has a 35 cc motor, which is actually under-powered for an 18 inch cutting chain. I think their current 18 inch saws have a 55 cc motor, which is a bit over-powered. The 35 cc motor would be best on a 14 or 16 inch cutting bar size saw. I said to buy a 16 or 18 inch saw but a 14 inch bar would be plenty long enough too. The problem is that generally, any saw with less than a 16 inch bar is more or less considered to be a pruning saw and the motor will be too small for serious wood cutting. If you could find a saw with a 14 inch cutting bar and a 45 cc motor you would have a great firewood saw.
 

Safety equipment is a must but the catalogs sell more stuff than I would ever feel a need to wear. I always wear good hearing protection, gloves, eye protection, boots, and some sort of stiff hat to protect my head from branches. What is also recommended is a hard hat and chaps to protect your head from falling objects and your legs from getting cut. Proper cutting techniques will protect your legs and heavy chaps, to me, will just weigh you down and make you tired faster. A hard hat is probably a good idea though.

As with all cutting tools, drills, knives, chisels, etc. a sharp blade is a safe blade. Chain saw chains have a series of cutting teeth linked together like a bicycle chain, sort of. Every other cutting link faces right or left, which keeps the cut straight. Between the cutting link is a gauge link, which sets the depth of the cut.  As you can see the cutting teeth are flat on top with the ground cutting edge on the underside of the tooth. The teeth are very hard but hitting a stone, cutting into the ground (when a log lays on the ground and you go through it), or cutting frozen wood will dull the edge quickly.


Fortunately, the cutting teeth can be resharpened. If you don't cut a lot of wood, you can get a chain sharpened for $10-$15 dollars at a hardware store or repair shop. Or you can buy the tools and sharpen it yourself. I used a round file initially, they cost less than $15. When you get them sharpened at a shop they usually use an automated chain sharpener and it takes off a lot of metal. You will probably only be able to sharpen a chain twice at a shop and then there is not enough metal on the tooth for a third sharpening. If you do it yourself, take your time and only remove as much metal as is needed to true the tooth and get the correct edge on it, you can probably sharpen the chain five times (that is my average). An 18 inch chain costs about $20-$24 dollars so if you can extend its life by cautious sharpening you can save a lot of money.

I started out sharpening chains with a round file and guide. It works as well as any other method but is seriously tedious. I have been using chain saws since I was eleven years old. When I was a kid and teenager, I didn't mind spending an hour in the barn sharpening a chain with a file. 

 

But as my free time became more limited, I appreciated faster methods. I next bought a hand-held sharpener than ran off the 12 volt battery in my truck or tractor. That worked okay but not great. The first resharpen was fine but each time I retouched it up it got worse and worse. A lot of these sell so to be fair I will have to say that perhaps I just didn't have the right technique.



Then I got serious about the task and bought a table mounted grinder. These range in price from $199 (mine) to many hundreds of dollars. I got a Harbor Freight model. I'm not a huge fan of the Chinese made tools that Harbor Freight sells, but I have to say that the grinder I bought has earned its keep in my workshop. I have sharpened probably 40-50 cutting chains with it so far and while I do have to frequently make adjustments to the tool it has done a great job on the chains. At $15-$20 a chain at a shop this grinder has paid for itself a couple times over.

 

 In the end, the important thing is to only cut with a sharp, straight cutting chain. (If your cut starts to curve, it is time to resharpen the chain.)

Cut wood needs to be dry before you burn it. If the wood is green (from a living tree) or wet from being on the ground, it will not burn cleanly. A lot of the heat energy that you want to warm your house will be wasted drying the log before it will burn. Also, a cool fire causes much heavier creosote to build up in your chimney, and this is dangerous.

Green wood needs to be stacked and allowed to "cure" for a full year. If the log is greater than five inches in diameter it needs to be split or it will take longer than a year to cure (dry out).

Dead wood that is wet also needs to be stacked in a manner than it gets good air flow and is covered to protect it from the rain.  If you go back through my blogs you will find a posting I did last year on the wood shed I built out of pallets. This shed protects the wood from rain/snow and allows plenty of airflow to dry the wood.

Splitting wood. This is a whole subject that I should probably cover in a separate posting. Look for that in the future.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Saving fuel costs

This post is slightly off-topic but any money you can save in one area can be used to buy more in another area. This weekend I rented a car to drive to a wedding 660 miles away. I didn't want to put the miles on my car, which already has 109,000 plus miles. I wanted a larger car than what I own for a more comfortable and safe drive. I rented a Nissan Altima.  I cannot be sure but considering how much power it had I believe it was the six cylinder motor.  

So what I want to talk about is Hyper-miling techniques. Hyper-miling is a term that was coined quite a few years ago to describe the tricks used to get the highest mileage possible out of your car. I started using the more conservative, basic methods about ten years ago. Using the easiest techniques I was able to routinely get 24 mpg out of my 1992 Ford Explorer. The Explorer was rated at 16 mpg, when new, and mine was 17 years old.

One the way to the wedding, I had two days to drive so I could take my time and enjoy the ride. I decided to see how high I could get my mileage on the trip so I applied the normal hyper-mileage techniques I routinely use and was able to reach an average of 43 mpg. The car is rated for 31 mpg. So that is a significant improvement. What difference does that make? Well, on a 660 mile trip it is something like this:

660 divided by 43 = 15.35 gallons. At $2.25 a gallon = $34.50
660 divided by 31 = 21.25 gallons. At $2.25 a gallon = $47.90

What are some of these techniques I use? Read below.

1. Keep the car tuned up. Properly running cars are more efficient and produce less pollution. A regular schedule of maintenance for you car is the first step to even having a car with which you can hyper-mile.

2. Use performance parts when you can. High performance spark plugs, for example, like iridium-tipped "performance" spark plugs create a larger combustion spark which contributes to fuller, more efficient burn in the combustion chamber. This provides slightly more power, better fuel efficiency and lower emissions. There are also low restriction air intakes and exhausts that greatly improve power and efficiency.

3. Align and balance the wheels. Being out of alignment causes additional rolling friction and reduces mileage. The tires will also wear down unevenly requiring early replacement.

4. Check tire pressure regularly. If the tires are incorrectly inflated, then there will be excess drag, or insufficient surface contact with the road, causing significant decreases in fuel efficiency.

5.  Take everything you don't need out of your car. The more weight you're carrying, the harder the engine has to work. 

6. Drive as if you don't have brakes — coast as much as possible. Plan ahead so that you aren't required to brake very much. Careful coasting will reduce your gas usage. Braking always wastes gas.

7. Accelerate as if there is an egg between your foot and the gas pedal. Unless there is an emergency, keep your RPMs below 3,000. 

8. Gather speed on level roads or while going down hill. Let gravity do some of the work for your engine.

9. Use momentum to get over small hills. Bleed off speed and slowly lose speed as you climb up and over the hill. It there is a downhill on the other side, start coasting even before you crest the hill. Your momentum will carry you over.

10. Time lights so that you can move through them without stopping. Even rolling forward slowly when the light turns green will help you avoid inertia. Starting to move forward from a dead stop uses far more gas than if you are already slowly moving forward.

11. Plan routes so that you only take right turns. This reduces the time you are sitting still at a light; burning gas but not moving anywhere.

12. Try to run all your errands at one time. A warmed up engine gets better mileage than a cold engine. Drive to the farest away place first and then work your way back home.

13. DO NOT idle your car to warm it up in the morning, that wastes a tremendous amount of gas.

14. Be careful with using Cruise Control. Cruise control's sole purpose is to keep you car at a certain speed. If the road is mountainous or hilly, it will shift down to a lower gear to maintain speed. The best mileage is obtained by staying in the highest gear possible for as long as possible.

15. As much as possible, stop/park your car facing down hill. Pulling out from a dead stop AND accelerating uphill is a double gas waster.

16. Drafting. Drafting is the technique of following a moving vehicle close enough that the air pushed out of the way by the vehicle in front of yours lowers the air resistance for your car. This is the same technique used by race car drivers and Canada Geese flying in the V formation. There is a great deal of danger involved with this technique because to be successful you have to stay within 2-3 car-lengths behind the other vehicle. Don't do it unless you can devote 100% of your attention to watching the other vehicle. 

17. Limit use of your air conditioner. I run it when going down hill and turn it off when going up hill. Air Conditioners put additional strain on a motor, especially smaller, lower horsepower motors.

18. Open your windows for cooling up to 40 mph. Much above 40 mph and the added wind resistance is worse than running the air conditioning.

19. Keep your speed down. Different cars get their best mileage at different speeds. The sound of the engine will give you a good idea. If it sounds like it is running hard, then it is. Generally, staying below 60 mph is best.

20. Park so that you can pull out without having to back up first. Any movement that is not in the direction you need to go is wasteful. Pull through parking spots so that you are facing out.

These are the more conservative methods and you can expect to gain at least 24% mpg with practice. That can effectively reduce fuel costs by a corresponding 24%.

Drive smart, drive safe.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Peaches

In a previous posting I talked about pruning my trees. I have an old peach tree that was planted by my father in law more than twenty years ago. It was over grown and densely limbed. Two years ago I pruned all the dead wood and about one third of the lower limbs. Last winter I pruned inner branches to open up the spaces between branches. Peach trees do best with an "open" shape. They need lots of light.

Last summer I had the first crop of peaches in many years, though there weren't many. I think I picked maybe 15 tennis ball sized peaches. They were tasty, very tasty actually, but bug damaged. After two years of severe pruning I got the first heavy crop of peaches. This year they were between tennis ball and baseball sized, juicy, and delicious. Bugs are still a problem, because I don't spray insecticides. 

Above is one large pot of peaches from this year's crop.  I picked about three times this amount over a three week period. I do have a squirrel problem and of course birds love fresh fruit too. But I got enough for some fresh eating and some pastries.

This winter I will do one more hard pruning to remove the higher branches that I cannot reach anyway. That will have reduced the number of branches the tree has to support by at least 60% and open up the remaining branches to more light and air flow. I am hoping for fewer but larger fruits next summer.

Free Water

Rain is, of course, the best water source. But unfortunately it is rarely reliable.  In past postings I've talked about the minor problems caused by chlorinated city water. Chlorine kills bacteria; a good thing for your drinking water but not so good for your soil. Healthy soil is teeming with micro-organisms. Some people use rain barrels to collect runoff from their roofs but unbelievably that is illegal in some locations. Years ago when I lived in Arizona I saw an alternate method, collecting water generated by the condenser coils of their air conditioner. So I thought I would give it a try at my quarters on Fort Meade.



The air conditioning unit is outside, like usual, and the heat exchanger is in a utility room. The cold coils, that cool the air, also cause moisture in the air to condense, just like on a glass full of ice. There is a collection tray under the cooling coils to collect the water droplets, otherwise you would have a wet floor. The collected water then runs outside or down a drain. In my case, the water runs outside. I placed a three gallon jug under the outlet and believe it or not I can fill it twice a day, that is how humid the air is in Maryland.


This water is pure, with no chemicals at all. It gives me more than enough water for my container garden. 

I will say that my container garden has been disappointing. The pepper plant did very well and I got some nice peppers. The tomato plants never seemed to get pollinated and I only got one fruit. The green beans were doing fine and I got two meals from them. But then a groundhog got into my yard, which is fenced, and greatly damaged all my plants. It ate all the fruits and beans and almost all of the leaves. So my growing season was cut short. But it gave me something to do for most of the summer.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Importance of Honey

Honey is the only food that never spoils. It does change physically, eventually turning into tasty crystals (I find it tasty, not everyone likes crystallized honey). Honey has many health benefits.  Diverging from my normal practice of not swiping other people's work I am including a great article on the marketing deception going on in the honey business. The bottom line up front? Buy your honey from bee keepers or quality organic retailers instead of from the big stores.

Food Safety Tests of Commercial Honey

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

My First Container Garden

I have grown plenty of flowers and other plants in pots and other sorts of containers. But I have not tried to grow vegetables in containers before. So this is a learning experience for me as well.  I had a couple old kitchen trash cans in my garage. Sometime in their life the lids either broke or just didn't latch closed anymore. I have quite a few of them since I don't throw out useable things.

I know that a full bin would be quite heavy so I filled them 3/4s full with wood chips and the top 1/4 with a mix of compost, light soil, and store bought potting soil. The bins are only about 15-20 lbs now but as the wood chips absorb water they will get heavier. I put a layer of newspaper between the soil and the wood chips so the soil wouldn't wash down into the bed of chips. I am hoping that the wood chips will hold water, which should wick up into the soil when needed.

I always pinch off the lower branches of the tomato plants and then bury the plant deep in the soil. Tomatoes will put roots out anywhere that it is in contact with soil. The soil is very rich and very well drained. I planted eight inch tall plants three weeks ago and look how big they are already.



I have back against the wall because we were still getting frosts at night when I planted them. This will also protect them for a few weeks in the fall if they survive that long.  They also get some reflected light from the light tan siding. They are on the south side of my house so they are in the shade by 4:00 PM; they need all the sunlight they can get until then.


Both plants already have flower buds on them. I intend to pinch off some so more energy can go to fewer fruits. This will increase the speed at which they mature. I don't need baskets of tomatoes at the end of summer; I want a couple a week for as long as possible.




Under one tomato I planted onion sets. There aren't many but they will also grow fast and the onions will keep some insect and mammal pests away. They will also decrease the impact of water on the soil, keeping it from splashing. Tomatoes are subject to blossom end rot when soil splashed up on the plant.





Under the other tomato I planted radishes for the same reasons. The radishes will mature in 30 days and as I pick them I will plant something else.





I'm using an old recycle bin that was put out for trash as a bin for green beans. I used the same soil over wood chips technique as with the tomatoes. The package says to plant the beans three inches apart in rows that are eighteen inches apart. The 18 inch rows are really for the use of tillers, not because the plant needs that much space. I never plant in long rows, I plant in blocks. I stagger the seeds so that they are the same distance from each other in all directions. Since the planting distance on the package said three inches in rows, I plant them six inches apart in all directions. I explained this technique before and show it below.  These beans should sprout in about ten days. I have a very active squirrel and bird population here so I will have to cover the beans with something when they come up.

 

I missed the pepper plant in the middle, between the tomatoes. That is planted in a standard 12 inch pot but otherwise the same as the tomatoes. It is also doing very well, tripling in size and it is dark green, which is a healthy sign.

Monday, June 1, 2015

31 May 2015 Garden Progress

After yet another dry week I gave the garden a good watering on Saturday and the Sunday, after I left, a torrential rain came through our area. I have no idea if there is any damage to the garden and won't until next weekend. Fingers crossed.

As you can see the spinach has done very well. This is two of the six plants I have growing.  I already picked a bag of spinach leaves from the left plant.  The trick is to take mature leaves from the outermost parts of the plant and new leaves will grow in from the center.  Eventually the plant will "bolt", what they call it when it goes to seed. This usually happens when it gets warmer or when you have removed enough from the plant that it somehow knows to stop growing and start producing seeds. In any case, you will get quite a few salads from each plant.

The tomatoes have more than doubled in size in just a week. I pruned off the lower most branches. I usually try to have a ten inch gap between the lowest branches and the ground. This helps prevent diseases such as blossom end rot from starting. Any water-splash from the ground up to the plant is not good.  There are a few flower buds so tomatoes will start forming in a week or so.  The peas are off to a slow start. I'm not sure what is causing them to grow so slow, perhaps the dryness.


I harvested all the carrots, turned the soil, and planted the area in carrots and parsnips. Normally I wouldn't plant the same crop in the same area but since the original carrot crop was in during the winter and I harvested them a little early, I don't have much fear of any residual disease in the soil. But I will definitely plant something else after this crop matures. If I plant something fast growing I will get three crops from the same space in one year. That is not too bad.

As you can see, I laid out rows 4-5 inches apart. Every other row is carrots and the other is parsnips. What I very often do is scratch in my rows to the depth recommended for the particular seed. In this case it was half an inch. I drop the seed in the row and then cover it with either sand or compost. In this case I used compost. The contrast makes it easier for me to pull tiny weeds without pulling up a tiny seedling. Also, the sand or compost is looser and helps the seed to sprout and for the seedling to emerge. The compost will help feed the seedling with a slow release fertilizer.  I am hoping the down pour did not wash out these seeds. The rain was so heavy that there was localized flooding after only 45 minutes.

I didn't take a picture but the green beans that I planted a week ago are already up. Two of them didn't form properly so I'll replant them next weekend.

All the onions have also sprouted nicely and are starting to grow.

My next posting will be of my container garden that I started three weeks ago at my second house where I work. It is my first try at a container garden so it is all new to me.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

16 May 2015 Garden Progress

I wasn't home last weekend and it didn't rain at all in those two weeks so I was a little worried about the state of things. But most everything was mulched and the sun isn't too severe yet so everything was fine; but the soil was very dry.  Grass cutting had to come first though so I didn't get in the garden until Sunday. It takes six hours to cut my yard.


The two tomatoes more than doubled in size and are dark green so I know they are doing fine.  There is no threat of freezing this week so I removed the plastic covers. I'll leave the water-filled bottles for insurance.  In the back are the peas. They aren't growing as fast as I expected they would but it was pretty dry. I gave all the plants a heavy watering so we'll see what they look like next week.




I was taking some stuff down to my compost bin and saw a pile of what I'm guessing are cantaloupe seedlings. They were growing from discarded seeds from sometime ago when my wife ate some cantaloupe. So I thought, "Why not try to transplant them?".  I'm not confident that they will take or survive the many yard rabbits I have. But it costs nothing to try so I planted six groups of seeds; this is the largest. I don't eat cantaloupe myself but my wife does so if I can grow some this year I'll be a hero. I have grown them before in this garden but it has been many years. They take up a lot of room if they sprawl across the ground. I don't normally have the room to spare but this year's garden will be smaller than normal. I usually trellis cucumbers and melons when I do grow them. Keeping them off the ground makes for better fruit with fewer disease and insect (slugs and snails) problems.



The peppers look great; in fact they are ready to blossom. I am going to pinch off the blossoms though because I want the plants to get bigger before they start to set fruit (yes, peppers are fruit). At my local grocery store Saturday, I bought peppers at $1.25 a piece. That is just crazy.  I normally get 4-5 bell peppers from each plant so at that price they are worth $5-$6.25 each.  I paid $2.50 for four plants so I should come out ahead. 



My youngest son and I went hunting quite a bit this past fall and winter and we only got two rabbits.  There just aren't as many around here as there were when I was his age. I used to get my limit several times a season. But my yard has way more than its fair share of rabbits. If you look closely at the spinach plants you will see the amount of damage a rabbit problem can cause.  So I put cages around these four plants. Spinach grows really fast so I will be able to harvest the outer leaves next weekend. The carrots are also just about ready to be dug out. There should be about 20-25 carrots in there and I've eaten a dozen that I pulled out to thin the rows.



I pulled the glass off the cold frame and watered everything. There is a spinach plant and two rows of radishes growing in there. I want to plant some more stuff but I was short on time. The radishes will be ready to pick next weekend. The reflective sides and mirrored back makes the best use of limited sunlight in the winter and early growing season.


The strawberries had a rough winter. Between the severe weather, rabbits, and deer, I lost something like half my plants. It is very fertile soil so the ones that do grow should be large and flavorful. I will probably replant this bed next year. I usually pull all the spent plants in the fourth year and grow anything other than strawberries for at least two years to reduce any chances of building up diseases in the soil. This will be a nice raised bed for vegetables during that period.


If you looked at my blog when I showed my raspberry patch after thinning, you might find it hard to believe this is the same place. But it is. One advantage of thinning, and I do it every year without fail, is that it opens up the plot to more sunlight. Most raspberries grow on two year-old canes. In other words, the berries grow on last year's canes. Mine grow on new branches that grow off of last year's canes.  If all goes well, this year's crop will be double what I got last year. I'm looking forward to it. We rarely have any left after fresh eating to get any into the freezer.


Today I planted green beans and onion sets. I'm not planting many, just enough to keep us in fresh beans. I still have beans in the freezer from last year and the year before. We will continue to cook them and make space in the freezer.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Start of my 2015 Garden

I will try to better document my garden this year. Last year I had some injuries that prevented me from working in my garden as much as I needed to. In my April 14th blog posting I mentioned that I had carrots and spinach already growing, from seeds I planted in the Fall.  Here is what they look like now:


I moved two of the spinach plants to give them more room to grow and I put down a thin dried grass mulch to keep down the weeds and preserve moisture. I also opened up both sides of the enclosure so the sun would not over heat the plants. They are still protected from light frost but if a very cold night came they could be damaged. I'll watch the weather reports to make sure it doesn't get too cold. I have already eaten over a dozen carrots to thin them out a little bit and I should be able to start picking spinach next week.

The other thing I have growing since the fall are hardwood cuttings. I took cuttings from apple, peach, cherry, blueberry, and poplar branches.  I did this later than what would be ideal. I don't think any of the peach or cherry cuttings are rooting but it looks like a few of the other cuttings are taking root. I won't really know until the end of summer. You should be able to see some cuttings are leafing out. I have the planting box shaded since cuttings can't stand too much direct sun.


I enjoy tomatoes from my garden but can't eat a store-bought tomato; they taste horrible. Normally, I plant my tomatoes in early June, as recommended for my area. Then I get my first tomatoes in late August and into September until the first frost. This year I am planting them six weeks earlier and praying for warm nights so they don't get cold burned.  It is a bit of a gamble to be sure. But I am trying to protect them with water bottles to hold some heat and also a plastic cover to hopefully keep any light frosts from burning them.  Only time will tell if this succeeds. 


I did more or less the same thing with three pepper plants. Last year rabbits ate half my peppers so this year I am starting them under a cage. I have a double pane glass window panel over them. The glass helps warm up the soil and should keep frost away as well. I also mulched them with dried grass since the sunlight will be concentrated.


The past couple years I have planted peas but they never survive the rabbits and deer. So this year I also put them inside a cage (literally a small dog cage that I found put out for trash). I only planted a few since no one except me will eat them. I love fresh, crisp garden peas.  They are already up out of the soil and look good.

 

The thinned out raspberry patch also looks very good. The harsh winter damaged a lot of canes and the hungry rabbits and deer ate anything sticking out of the snow. So it is a very thin patch this year. That should not be a big problem though. I expect that the extra light that will get through will cause the canes to bear more berries. Last year wasn't a great one for my raspberries but this year should be.

Lastly, I have a visitor in my woodshed. A mourning dove set up her household atop the wood pile. I wanted to do some revisions to the shed this spring but now I will have to put that off until the chicks fledge and find a new place to live.


Once again I will only be home on weekends so I hope I can find the time to maintain my garden. I still have potatoes, onions, green beans, and blueberries from last year though so I guess I am doing okay.

Get out there, grow a garden, and save money on food. You can go back through my blog for lots of gardening tips from the past couple of years.