I kinda disappeared there for a bit, didn’t I? Well, I have a good excuse—it’s gardening season! We’ve had a stretch of really nice days recently, and every free moment has been spent getting our garden in tip-top shape.
Spring is a really crazy time around here. There is a short period of time when the weather is warm enough to be outside working, but before the weeds and bugs start to take over. I’d say, on average, we get about two to three weeks before we’ve hit the point of no return (especially with weeds—it’s a constant fight in an organic garden). So the blog had to go on the back burner for a bit while I did some manual labor.
I thought maybe I’d update you on a few of the things we’ve been tackling in the garden over the past week. We’ve been busy!
Because of my rough pregnancy and when JuneBug made her arrival, we’ve been a bit behind with getting the garden prepped. The amount of work you have to do (or don’t have to do) in the Spring is determined greatly by the amount of work you do in the previous Summer and Fall—and being super pregnant, and then having a newborn, we just didn’t tackle as much as we wanted to in 2014. But we’re making up for it now!
Like I mentioned above, our biggest fight (and I think it is for most organic gardeners) is against weeds. We’re slowly, but surely, getting it under control. And this year, we’re pumping some serious energy, and honestly, money, into getting our weed infestation ousted.
A lot of people swear by using black plastic mulch in their gardens throughout the growing season, but it’s never been our cup of tea. We don’t love the idea of having a petroleum-based cover over the roots of all of our organic plants. Plus, having any low-fruiting plants (like melons) sitting on the plastic all day in the hot sun makes me nervous—we don’t store food in plastic in our kitchen, why would I let it ripen sitting on plastic in the hot sun in the garden?
We’re also working really hard to build a good soil ecosystem, and plastic hinders that by not letting air or water through. We love our little wormies and want to keep them happy! And our final thing we dislike about the plastic—we hate adding stuff like this to landfills!
I know a lot of folks have a ton of success with black plastic (especially in cooler climates because it helps keep the soil warmer for warm weather plants), but it just doesn’t fully fit into our gardening philosophy. That all being said, we did make the decision to use some black plastic sheets sparingly in the garden in a few places this year—and never when a plant is in the ground.
First up, we have three beds that we weren’t able to get to last year, and they are the worst of the weed infestation. We’ve got them black plasticked, and are hoping a few hot weeks of springtime sun will roast the seeds and any weed seedlings before we plant. When we do plant, we’re using a multi-layer barrier system to protect from weeds (more about that below), so this black plastic is mostly a stop-gap until we get to planting in May.
Once these beds are done roasting, we’ll move the plastic over to the rows that will hold tomatoes and peppers for about a week before planting, to get them nice and toasty for those heat-loving plants. Then, we’ll fold up the plastic and store it in the barn for use later. We hope to get quite a few years out of our one roll of plastic, which makes us feel a little (just a little) better about buying this plastic that will eventually end up in a landfill.
The second part of our fight against weeds is where we put in the moohlah—a multi-layer weed barrier system that goes on our beds and the aisles in between.
We’ve really gone back and forth about what to do to keep weeds at bay (again, organically) in the aisles and beds. We’ve tried a ton of different things—cardboard (too slippery), newspaper (too tedious to put down), burlap (great, but expensive for the short amount of time it lasts) as a base layer. And a ton more as a top layer—dried grass clippings (a pain to collect), dried leaves (a limited supply), and straw (great, but doesn’t really stop weeds on its own).
For years, we’ve been talking about putting weed cloth in the aisles, and we hesitated for the same reasons that we’re iffy about black plastic, but went ahead and decided to devote the money to some really nice weed fabric (DeWitt Sunbelt—it’s basically like a tarp), just for our aisles. Our hope is that a few years with this stuff, and our weed infestation will be greatly reduced, and we can pull it up, and then use more natural methods to keep weeds down in the aisles (wood chips, gravel, leaves, etc.). We also felt more comfortable using it because we’re only putting it down in the aisles—yes, it’ll probably leach a little into the soil, but at least it isn’t directly surrounding our plants. And, it’s permeable by light and air, so our happy little earthworms get to stay happy little earthworms.
On the beds themselves, we’re trying out WeedGuardPlus, an all-natural, biodegradable paper mulch. Basically, it’s like giant rolls of newspaper (but thicker and sturdier) that will last a whole season. We’ll see! We covered one row this week, and were extremely happy with how it went down. We love it! Hopefully it’ll last all season and keep those weeds from attacking us again.
And on top of both the weed fabric and the paper mulch, we’re putting down straw. It’s another layer of weed protection, plus it helps keep the plants insulated—keeping their moisture in. Also, it just looks nicer!
Speaking of beds, this week, we got all of our Spring crops in the ground. Woo to the hoo! Planting is both totally exciting and totally tedious. I’m always excited to get started, but also so happy when it’s finished. The next time we’ll be planting is at the beginning of May with our summer crops.
In the Spring garden, we have out:
- Swiss Chard
- Peas (snow, shelling, and snap)
- Lettuce (romaine, leaf, and butterhead)
- Cabbage (regular and Chinese)
- Broccoli (regular, Romanesco, and summer flowering)
- Kale (curly leaf and flat leaf)
We also will be putting out a bunch of leeks, but those won’t be harvested until Fall. The starts aren’t quite big enough yet to enter the wide, wide world. We’re still waiting on our onion and potato sets to be delivered—they should be here in the next week—and they’ll go in soon, too. So I guess we’re not done planting until May, but hey, close!
Another excited bit of news on the plant front—every single one of our garlic plants has come up except for one. Yay! We plant garlic in the Fall around here, and it’s always fun to see it starting to peek up from the straw in the Spring. We’ve planted well over a hundred garlic bulbs (garlic cloves? garlic plants? garlic seeds?), and will be harvesting them toward the end of June.
A few other little tasks we’ve tackled: this past week, Craig got our deer fencing up. Eventually, we’d love to drop some cash on a beautiful, eight foot, cedar fence to protect our crops from the roving packs of deer (and raccoons and bunnies and stray dogs and foxes and coyotes) that come across our property, but that just isn’t in the budget for now.
For the past three years, we’ve been using T-posts with deer fencing (like this stuff), around the garden and it has worked really well. It takes about $50 worth of fencing to wrap around our garden, and it lasts about two years long—and keeps all of our hard work nice and safe. Craig puts it up with zip ties, and it takes him less than an hour to wrap all the way around our 5500 foot garden. Easy peasy.
You know what isn’t easy peasy? Shoveling compost. We had 10 cubic feet of compost delivered, and have been working on shoveling it onto our beds for weeks now. In an ideal world, we’d have a tractor with a scoopy thing on the front (technical term) to make it easier, but we don’t—eventually! So it’s 100% manual labor. Shovel into trailer. Drive over to bed. Unshovel. Repeat. Over and over and over again. My shoulders are so sore!
More on the shoveling front (#everydayimshovelin), we’ve had some drainage issues on the left side of our garden in the past, so we’ve been working on fixing it by shoveling out the aisles and putting in drainage pipes to funnel the water away. And by “we” I mean “Craig,” because my arms are shot from shoveling compost.
We were a little late to the party on this one, but I did finally get around to trimming our grape vines. We’re fighting a grape disease (that our vines have had for years now) called black rot, which makes your grapes shrivel up into little hard raisins (not of the tasty variety) right before they are ripe. The way to kill black rot organically is to prune the heck out of your grapes so more air can circulate through the canes. So we’ve been pruning them within an inch of their life the past few years. It seems to be helping.
Even though the weather has been warm for us the past few days, we’re still not out of the woods for frosts and freezes (in fact it’s dropping into the 20s this week), so Craig also worked on setting up the low tunnels with frost cloth over our planted beds. There are lots of different ways of going about this, but we wanted simplicity and flexibility—we wanted to be able to move the tunnels to whichever part of the garden needed it when. We went with nine gauge fence tension wire (this is the exact stuff we bought), cut into 7′ sections for our 3 1/2′ beds.
Those were pushed into the ground about 6″ on each side, and then over top went AGRIBON AG30 frost cloth—which gives us about six degrees of frost protection, plus protection from cabbage moths, which we fight every season. One side is stapled on using landscape staples, and the other side is tethered to the wire with zip ties, so we can have easy access to the row.
You’re probably wondering how we keep all of this organized? What plants go in what bed? When does what get planted? Well, we had a stroke of genius this year, and blew up our garden plan to the size of a piece of foam core (more about how we plan our garden here), and then put it on the foam core and then “laminated” it with packing tape so we can have it outside with us. In past years, we’ve just been referring to tiny print outs of the garden. This big version has already been so helpful! And we use the orange chip clip to attach that day’s to-do list to it. Organization, for the win!
We’ve also got our summer seedlings going—we did that last week. We started nearly 600 seedlings this year! That’s a lot of food! They’ll spend a few more weeks in their small seed starting trays, and then we’ll pot them up into bigger containers so they can get big and strong before we put them in the ground at the beginning of May.
Through all of this, you’re probably like, “Um Cass, this is great and all, but don’t you have a kid? Where is she during all this work?” Well, she’s right there with us!
We lay out a blanket in the middle of garden, set up an umbrella, and let her explore, eat grass, and “help” all she wants. She’s mostly just entertained by all the new sights, sounds, and feelings. Between tasks, either Craig or I stop by her station to entertain her for a few minutes before we move on to the next thing on our list, but mostly, our independent little girl is happy to be on her own.
Eventually, she figured out that brightly-colored plants are in beds and that they are super fun to pull out of the soil. We tried distracting her by giving her her own soil to play in (complete with some plants), but she wanted to be where Mommy and Daddy were.
So once she got into that, one of us would just put her on our back for a while and head over and do some shoveling. Shoveling is one of the best tasks for us to do while babywearing, not a lot of bending over (which makes her angry), and the motion almost always puts her to sleep. She’s been taking a lot of shoveling naps lately!
And, normally, after her nap, she’d forget all about pulling up the plants that Mommy and Daddy had worked so hard to plant, and could go back to exploring on the ground. We’ve just been switching on and off between letting her explore and one of us wearing her during our garden days, and it seems to be working really well.
I’m sure as she gets older (and especially once she starts walking), we’ll be spending probably as much time chasing after her and pulling things from her grasp as we do actually gardening, but it’ll be worth it. Some of my best memories as a kid are out in the garden with my parents, and I’m excited for her to get that same experience.
Now you’re up to date on where we are with our 2015 garden. Of course, our work isn’t even close to done in the garden. Coming up in the next few weeks, our sole focus is on getting the weed cloth and paper mulch down on the entire garden before the weeds take over. But before we do that, we have to finish spreading compost. We’re so close to done! And then, come the first week of May, we’re putting all of those 600+ starts I talked about earlier in the ground. I’m taking a week off of work just to plant—and it’ll take every ounce of free time we can both find to get it done. But it’ll so be worth it!