Improved Engineering

Once upon a time in another life, I built a vegetable garden. The big bed was 5×20 which is pretty sizable for a raised bed. But as you can see from the photos, at the time it was pretty easy to work your way around the entire thing. Five feet wide is still pretty wide but it was at least manageable. At the time, I didn’t know anything about square foot gardening either.

Fast forward 4.5 years and suddenly that tiny blackberry bush you planted is huge and that five feet width is starting to be a drag. So I decided to reengineer it into something a little more manageable. As with most of my projects, this one sprung from my head about 50% formed, what I like to call a Half Athena project (Greek mythology nerd joke). Ten days ago, I was standing on the south side of the house about to replenish the soil with fertilizer when I realized it would make a lot more sense for almost anyone if that monstrous bed was several smaller beds. As I pondered, a plan began to take shape and I busted out the measuring tape.

Square foot gardening calls for 4×4 foot beds but I wasn’t about to try and lop off a foot from a 20 foot bed. So I decided that 5×4 would be perfectly acceptable since you’d be able to walk all the way around each one. Two foot pathways would separate the beds. So I started measuring and then worked out how much new wood I needed to make the change. It turned out to be about a $60 project though I haven’t rebuilt the sprinkler system yet and that will add some to it if I choose to do so.

The result is much more manageable as you can see from the photos below. Now I have three 4×5 foot beds along with the original 5×5 foot square bed which didn’t need rebuilding since nothing grows around it. There is also the 12×3 foot bed. I’ve lost a little square footage but don’t think that will be a problem. There was about 3 feet at the end of the bed near the blackberries that didn’t really fit so I took it out and spread the soil among the other beds. This has the added benefit of making it much easier to pick blackberries. These beds will never need to be walked in so the soil won’t get compacted.

As with almost all projects, it didn’t get finished the first weekend though not for lack of trying. I actually didn’t think through the necessary lengths of purchased 2x12s and didn’t buy enough to finish. Last week, I picked up an extra 2×12 to finish it. One of the old sections along the house was rotting worse than the others so I went ahead and replaced it as well.

I was hoping to get tomatoes in the ground tonight but after 2 hours of hauling dirt and sawing old 2x12s with a hand saw because I’ve never managed to buy a reciprocating saw, I was out of energy. Tomorrow night, I’ll plant tomatoes and probably some more turnips, lettuce and other cool season veggies. This weekend, I’ll see about peppers, corn and eggplants. Here’s hoping we don’t have a spring like last year when we had a freeze late in April.

On a funny note, that dog in the pictures today and 5 years ago is the same dog and not a statue. Apparently he likes to stand in the exact same place and supervise. He’s not much of a digger so I guess that’s ok.




ON the first real fall feeling day of the year, I planted another round of turnips, beets, collards, lettuce and radishes. The first planting of the fall has been mostly disappointing as very little has flourished. The peas and radishes are sort of growing but other than that, the rest of the crop has been a bust. I’m not sure if it’s the heat we had in September or something else. I’ve been pretty consistent with the water so I don’t think that’s the problem. The turnips did well in the spring on the south side of the house so it’s not seeds. Hopefully this round is better.

The planting from August has also been disappointing with only lettuce being harvested so far. The package of green beans must have been bad because they haven’t flourished anywhere I’ve planted them. The lima beans came right up but haven’t produced anything yet. The collards and spinach never even germinated.

More Planting

Today, cabbage, collards, mustard, Chinese cabbage and kale went in the ground. The transplants started last weekend are starting to make progress though the leeks haven’t germinated yet. We got 2.5 inches of rain on Thursday night into Friday, the first rain we’ve had in over 2 months. This weekend was the first rain of the fall and finally some cooler weather with highs in the low 80s and lows near 60 each morning. It’s supposed to warm back up this week but it seems like may summer has finally released her grip for another year.

Fall Gardening

Last week, the north keyhole garden got filled with compost and peat moss, strings were laid out and a square foot garden was created. Lots of terminology there for the uninitiated so lets discuss. I’ve mentioned the keyhole garden several times in other posts but it is essentially a way to constantly feed a garden space by building a compost pile into the garden itself. I read about them in our electric coop magazine a few years ago and built one out of cedar planks. It hasn’t really been utilized much until now and was actually underfilled because I ran out of garden related funds when it was built. The most recent picture of mine is below. It stands about 30 inches tall, is 6×6 feet and has a built in compost pile in chicken wire in the middle, the theory being, for those not interested enough in my life to go read the article I went to the trouble to link above, that compost materials will break down and be consumed by bacteria and worms in the soil who will travel back into the rest of the garden which is a good thing.

A square foot garden is exactly what it sounds like and is based on the associated theory and book by Mel Bartholomew. It is supposed to greatly increase yield while greatly decreasing the amount of work, specifically weeding. Because most seeds you buy have a 99% germination rate, it is silly to follow package directions planting twice as many seeds only to come back when they are 4 inches tall and then them to the approved spacing. It is equally silly to plant in rows with 3-4 times the plant spacing just so you can walk up and down to weed. Far better is to build square gardens, 4×4 to 6×6, plant seeds according to the final spacing and avoid weeding entirely.

For example, most lettuce advice says to plant the lettuce a quarter inch deep in rows eighteen inches apart and then them to four inches between plants. If you’ve never seen a lettuce seed, don’t be worried, neither have I and I’ve planted a bunch of lettuce. Lettuce seeds are TINY. So it’s easy to plant to many and then you just end up culling a bunch. Square foot gardening fixes this problem because you can just plant nine lettuce plants (not heading kinds but those suck anyway because they are mostly all water and sunshine. Plant leaf varieties. Trust me) in a square foot based on the prescribed spacing.

This is my first year to do a true square foot garden. My keyhole garden has 30 squares in it because the keyhole takes out six of them. So last weekend, I planted six squares of sugar snap peas (48 plants), four squares of swiss chard (16 plants), one square of cherry belle radish (16 radishes), two squares of parsley (8 plants), two squares each of beets and turnips (18 each), two squares each of lettuce and spinach (8 each). Next week, I’ll plant the remaining squares with more root vegetables to extend the harvest instead of having 36 beets and turnips all ready at the same time.

In other gardening news, the fall tomatoes look to be feast or famine. I planted 10 plants and had two come up volunteer. Of the ten transplants, only five look reasonably healthy, two have died completely and three look sickly and unlikely to produce any fruit. The two volunteer cherry tomatoes that came up are producing nicely which is a pleasant surprise.

The okra continues to pour forth as it always does. It takes up a lot of room but if you like okra, a couple of rows will always provide enough for a family of 3-4. I’m picking pods every day and can’t eat it all. Several pepper plants are still going well. The cowpeas that were planted August 18th are covered in peas so that looks to be a success. The green beans have been a big disappointment but the lima beans are really starting to come in.

Also today, I seeded leeks, kale, spinach and more chard in 4 inch pots. I have planted collard seeds in five or six places and had zero luck. I’m not sure if that’s a bad seed package or just bad luck. Hopefully the transplants of kale and others will be more successful. I will probably swing by North Haven Gardens tomorrow to see if they have collards and possibly cabbage. Because none of the collards have germinated and so many of the tomatoes died, I should have room for more stuff.


Fall Planting

Pulled up the cucumbers and most of the cowpeas today though several more rows of Texas pinkeye cowpeas got planted on the north side of the house. The cucumbers had been planted back in late June. We got over 10 pounds but it’s been too hot and they were looking pretty rangy. For the fall, I planted collards, spinach, a mesclun mix, Bush Blue Lake green beans and Jackson Wonder lima beans. I still probably have 100 square feet available for planting but want to save room for garlic, onions and more root vegetables like turnips and beets.

An Experiment in Permaculture

So in my travels through the internet and gardening websites and forums, I stumbled across Permies. From there, I learned about Hugelkultur which is a way to build raised beds using old wood that eventually rots away all forest-like into what is supposedly an extremely drought tolerant garden bed. Those words “drought tolerant” caught my eye and as with most things gardening, I was interested in giving it a try.

However, I didn’t have access to any old wood right off hand and also since this was an experiment, I went a slightly different direction. Haven’t built no-dig gardens before with layers of straw and alfalfa, I thought bales of alfalfa might be a good substitute for the wood of a traditional hugelkultur bed. Now it may turn out that alfalfa provides entirely too much nitrogen as it decomposes but we’ll see.

I would put a picture of my bed right here but for some reason WordPress doesn’t like the photo I keep trying to upload. So suffice it to say, it’s 20 feet long and 4 feet wide with two alfalfa bales right in the middle. We covered that up with 2000 pounds of dirt from Home Depot (yes, really, 2000 pounds. 2000 pounds in 40lb bags makes for a lot of lifting and pouring. We’re stronger than we were last Friday.)

Into this bed went 10 tomatoes and then 6 pepper plants. However, knowing what little I do about permaculture now, I know that open soil is the worst thing that can happen to a garden bed. So tonight, I went through and randomly planted seeds of spaghetti squash, 8 ball squash, radishes, lima beans and marigolds. If I had any green beans, I would have added them along with the kitchen sink. Hopefully after we get rain tonight, things will start to sprout into a crazy cacophony of veggies and flowers. Or it all may wash away if it really rains.

The potatoes are really starting to take off now after 2 months in the ground. I planted them in the keyhole garden this year which is 3 feet tall and really allows me to pile dirt up around them as they grow. I haven’t ever had a lot of luck with potatoes but I think this may be the year for success.

We’re harvesting some cool weather veggies like green onions, broccoli (which always seems to go to seed far too fast in my garden) and collards. Soon the sugar snap peas will be ready and will go nicely with the marjoram growing in the herb garden. I’ll probably build a cucumber trellis Friday night and put pickling and slicing cucumbers in the ground. In another month, it will be time for okra, eggplant, southern peas and sweet potatoes. I was hoping to plant pumpkins this year but the only available spot is the same bed that ALWAYS has squash bugs so will probably skip it this year. If the permaculture bed doesn’t work out, it may become a pumpkin bed next year.

Garden Update

Weekend event: Heard Museum plant sale, first weekend of the McKinney Farmer’s Market

Weekend tasks: Added 2000 pounds of soil and compost to the north veggie bed to plant it with tomatoes and peppers; planted everything we bought at the Heard Museum plant sale including bee balm, mexican hat, lavender, hot and spicy oregano, fennel, blackfoot daisy and guara; dug up the pomegranate tree blocking the bench, fertilized the lawn, peach tree and blackberry bush; mowed for the first time;

Harvested: three heads of broccoli, swiss chard left over from last year, collards.


But not that kind of herb, the NSA is out in force these days making sure the good citizens of America aren’t partaking in anything particularly fun to offset the ongoing economic misery in their lives. No, these are herbs more like oregano, coriander, sage and parsley all of which we planted on Sunday. The parsley is of the Italian version, spicy and peppery like Puccini’s love life. The sage is Berggarten which sounds a great deal more exotic than common sage, its more often used regular name. The internet claims the sage will form a 2 foot by 3 foot bush but I’ve never had a culinary sage do that. Usually, they grow to a size only slightly bigger than the pot they came in. It’s also supposed to be a perennial but I have to replant it every year.

Santo coriander is essentially more cilantro since the last two plants that went in two weeks ago have had a rough life. AS it turns out, it’s not an armadillo causing the destruction, it’s the idiot dog who apparently is the digger. I came home yesterday to a large pot of flowers having been dug up for a third time. I do not understand what he could possibly be after as his digging years were thought to be far behind him. He’s costing me quite a bit of money in replacement plants though. I sprinkled cayenne around the pot liberally just yesterday morning and even gave him an unexpected taste of it to connect the two but to no avail. According to the Humane Society, he may be bored to which I largely say tough cookies. Saying “he may be digging because he is a terrier” is like saying “he may be crazy because he is a terrier”. I’ll probably find his Kong toy today, fill it with peanut butter and hide it in the rose bush. Maybe that will keep him entertained.

Strangely, the coriander instructs me to “Research all herbs before use”. This is a particularly interesting and ominous instruction that I’m unfamiliar with on planting instructions. However, being a dutiful only child, I complied and found that the Chinese once though coriander conferred immortality. Perhaps this is why the idiot dog digs it up. He’s afraid I’m going to live forever yet not take him for any walks. In my research, WebMD tells me that coriander can be used to treat many things including hemorrhoids and worms. Upon reading that, I immediately have to wonder who was the first person to think they discovered that effect and was the coriander used as internal medicine or externally applied. Not unlike the first person who looked at a crawfish and said “Mmm, I think I’ll suck on the head of that insect looking thing”. did some ancient shaman walk around looking for things to possibly help with the butt itch?

WebMD also says that “there is one report of severe diarrhea, stomach pain, darkened skin, depression, lapse of menstruation, and dehydration in a woman who took 200 mL of a 10% coriander extract for 7 days.” I call that a possible entry into the Darwin Awards more than I do a side effect of coriander. But then, maybe she was related to the shaman.

The final plant was Greek Oregano, a mistake when I thought I had lost my oregano plant only to find it happily growing right where it always was. I thought the existing plant was marjoram so now I have more oregano than I know what to do with. Luckily, WebMD has me covered on usages for oregano as well. The oil of oregano is used apparently to treat intestinal parasites. Who knew so many backyard plants could kill worms? Upon further research into the herb, I see that oregano is from the same plant family as marjoram so maybe I do in fact have both now. Too bad neither of them prevent the dog from digging.

Early Spring Garden

February 10th, we set out the early garden for the spring. The weather here has been mild to say the least with the exception of a week long cold snap in January. We’ve had very few freezes, maybe 2 in all of February alone, no more than 10 for the winter I don’t think. Even now, the 10 day forecast looks more like spring than late winter. We bought several things from Covington’s including Texas 1015 yellow onions, Yukon Gold potatoes, Bordeaux spinach, super sugar snap peas, heirloom beets, cilantro and five color sliverbeet chard. From Home Depot, we got Martha Stewart turnips, brussel sprouts and mesclun (which is different from mescaline according to the DEA and not currently available at Home Depot). When we got home, the neighbors had bought a flat of cauliflower and broccoli and couldn’t plant it all so they gave us 4 each of those.

A digression: Why does Martha Stewart have her own line of turnips or any other vegetable? Did she channel her inner Gregor Mendel and create a new strain of purple topped, white globe turnips? Or is this merely the next step in the commercialization of an empire? At what point does having Martha Stewart’s name on a package of vegetable seeds sell more seeds? Can I ask anymore rhetorical questions? And while were on the subject, in an zombie apocalypse cage fight, do you want Martha Stewart, Heloise or Marilyn Vos Savant? I fail to believe that Martha Stewart has a bunch of seeds stockpiled somewhere even though she has her name plastered across an entire section of seeds at Home Depot. On the upside, she did spend a significant period of time in jail and that might come in handy when we need to stab zombies in the head with a shiv. I can see Heloise being super helpful in the zombie apocalypse with cheery little hints about how you can make socks from yucca fibers and how zombies are allergic to orange oil. Vos Savant, I think you just bring along for the potential, like if you need to solve a Monty Hall zombie problem. I think you pick Heloise and hope she can shoot a gun.

Everything but the potatoes and brussel sprouts went in the 10th. Those two went in the 18th. We got some good rain on the 12th, maybe an inch or so which you would think would have led to good germination but so far, only the the spinach and some of the Martha “Mendel” Stewart turnips have come up. I planted the potatoes on the north side of the house in the keyhole garden which should give them plenty of room to expand and allow me to cover them up to about 2 feet.

We planted a pot with radishes and spinach. The resident armadillo dug it up completely last night. This is the fourth time he’s dug up that pot. I try to be friendly with the neighborhood fauna. I’ve found mice in the house before and I (with the help of a cat who shall remain nameless because she is a terrible mouser but will sit and stare at the location of said mouse for hours) have captured them and released them out by the creek. Lizards are regularly saved from certain death as they are the only creature any cat in this house will kill. A baby rabbit was discovered under the pomegranate tree once and released outside the strike distance of a certain dog willing to kill anything in the backyard. But I swear, if that armadillo shows up when I’m around and awake, he’s liable to encounter a .22 bullet fired from reasonably close range. I guess I’ll try cayenne first but that’s the last straw.

Speaking of straw, the beds on the north side of the house were built using the no dig lasagna method last year and the straw and alfalfa have broken down enough that they will require a good deal more dirt or lasagna to plant this year. As warm as the weather has been, I’m thinking tomato and late spring veggies will be going in the ground soon and I’m not sure I’ll have as much space as I would like. Maybe have to check out square foot gardening as a result.

This weekend, the roses will get pruned back pretty severely as they did not perform very well last year. It’s a good time to put out mulch and plant trees so we might take a trip to the Classic Gardens to look for fig or other fruit trees since they were having a big sale a couple of weeks ago. Other than that, all is quiet on the gardening front in Wylie.

Garden Update

When the house was built, the builder saw fit to put in five elaeagnus bushes in the front beds. These plants make great hedge rows but terrible bushes for the front of the house. Last year, I removed 2 of them and early this year I took out the other three. The bed in front of the guest bedroom has sat pretty much blank since then other than existing flowers. Today, we planted three Russian sages plus some coleus that won’t survive the winter but should make nice accent plants.

The Russian sages aren’t going to be big enough to cover the entire area but should be a nice start on remaking the bed. They will have pretty purple flowers that will go well with the Stella D’oro day lilies and the knockout rose. Eventually, I’d like to rebuild the front walkway into something a little more interesting than an expanse of concrete but for now, this will have to do.

On the other side, the azaleas that I planted last year to replace the first two elaeagnus bushes promptly died in last year’s summer from hell. I replaced them today with Mexican feather grass which will be nice in front of the dining room window.

Other plants that went in today include three poblano pepper plants, one more jalapeno plant, two mint plants in preparation for the Kentucky Derby and mint juleps, a pineapple sage and some cilantro. Something came along and ate my sweet basil to the ground so I’m hoping the cilantro is less appetizing. The onions, tomatoes and jalapenos should be ready about the time the cilantro matures so backyard pico del gallo will be in order.

I had a salad last week made entirely from lettuce, chard and spinach from the backyard. Homegrown lettuce has infinitely more character than store bought does which also occasionally includes crawly things you don’t expect though fortunately, this wasn’t one of those times. The peach tree is still holding peaches as of April 21st so I’m praying my spray program is working.