I am at war. My opponent is legion. I may conquer my foe in one corner only to turn and find countless others amassing behind me. The battle is endless and requires constant attendance and meticulous attention.
If my enemy is beaten back, my labor will bear fruit. If allowed to flourish my seeds will be stifled.
I am at war with weeds.
The struggle is real.
But I am determined.
I face my garden each day. Hope. Satisfaction. Despair. Loss.
I look closely. Observe. Distinguish between fruitful plant and destructive weed. I dig out the weed while protecting my plants. I strive to create an environment where my plants will thrive, while suppressing the weeds and stifling their progress.
When the weeds are clear, the plants have access to the sun. The sun providing the energy on which we all depend.
Work each day to clear those weeds. Nourish the soil. Advantage that which bears fruit.
I need to remind myself of this.
These thoughts float through my mind as I tackle the weeds and tend my garden.
My three approaches to growing tomatoes this year.
In my eagerness, I started my tomatoes entirely too early. I sacrificed a dozen or so to below freezing temperatures in the hoop house, but still had over fifty plants (of several varieties) to plant in the garden.
I started these plants months ago. I watered them, nurtured them, and set them outside on sunny days.
I weeded their soil, enriched it with amendments, and made trellises to support them in the future.
When the weather was just right, I planted them in the ground with companion plants to attract pollinators and deter pest.
After planting over 50 plants this way, I still had six leggy, but healthy starts to deal with. Hmmm.
I decided to experiment and see what happens when I don’t pay any attention to them. I dug a trench for each tomato in an overgrown space behind the hoop house that I will leave wild this year. It is filled with weeds but gets plenty of sun. I just stuck them in the ground, and I will see how they do. If they thrive, I will have an abundance of tomatoes. If they don’t, it will be no loss.
Ironically, after all this work and planning, I walk back to the house and find several volunteer tomatoes in a bed outside my back door. These guys are thriving on their own. The seeds stayed dormant until the time was right and germinated without any help from me. I believe this variety is called Tommy Toes – a hearty, productive heirloom cherry tomato that lasts all summer. We snacked on them when we moved to Fiat Farm last November. When I cleaned out this bed last fall, I intentionally left some tomatoes to see if they would come up on their own. They did.
I look forward to seeing the results of these different strategies. Will the pruning and attention I give the trellised tomatoes produce more than the ones I ignore and let grow wild? Will the tomatoes outside my door thrive without any help from me?
or, why I suddenly had to have a raised bed for asparagus and strawberries.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, was a common bedtime story in our home when my boys were toddlers. It tells of a mouse who, when given a cookie, then asks for milk, a straw, and a series of other actions by his boy. In a similar way, a gifted rhubarb plant set off a chain of events on Fiat Farm.
If you give a friend a rhubarb plant, she will want a permanent garden bed to grow it in.
When she decides to build a garden bed, she just has to grow asparagus in it.
Then she goes to buy asparagus online and sees that bare-root strawberries are on sale and needs to buy some of those as well.
Waiting for the plants to arrive, she puts her husband and son to work building the raised bed and filling it with compost.
Seeing how easy that was, she decides to add more raised beds to her garden.
And isn’t that exactly how so many projects start.
I am grateful for the rhubarb and also the prompting to add asparagus. Both are perennial vegetables that are ready to harvest in early spring. As a perennial plant they will produce year after year with a little love and attention on my part.
Like most perennials they will take a few years to establish. I look forward to this reward.
Strawberries are good companion plants for asparagus and are also one of the first plants to bear fruit in the spring.
I placed my raised bed close to the house at the top of a slope, because our winter rains showed me that my summer garden space gets flooded and muddy in the winter.
Plan for the future. Observe your space. Keep busy.
Well, actually, Mr. J tilled my soil; but the deed was still done.
I know. I know. I said I wouldn’t.
I have pontificated time and again on how no-till is the method to use. How tilling kills all the beneficial life in the soil. I have said that I would use a no-dig approach to my garden.
Then I ran out of time.
I spent the past two weeks weeding, spading, and raking by hand. I have planted my seedlings along the way. But this made a very small dent in the seedlings that needed planting and the soil that needed preparing. I looked at the amount of over-grown garden remaining, mentally listed all the plants and seeds left to be planted and concluded there was no way I could get it all done in time.
NOW is the time to plant all the things. The only way to get it all done is to till. And so, I tilled.
There. I said it. Now you know.
I am quickly learning that I can have all these grand ideas and ideals, but I am often short on the time and resources necessary to make them happen. I must adapt. Roll with the punches and move on.
But can I tell you how nice it is to till? The soil preparation that would have taken several days took just a few hours. I was able to get over 20 tomatoes and 16 tomatillos in the ground in no time. I am amending with kelp, rock phosphate, and pelleted chicken manure. I will add compost as I am able. I will build the soil with organic matter so that next year I won’t have to till.
Unless I do. And then I will.
There are blessing in all things.
I borrowed the tiller from a church friend. When I picked it up, she asked if I needed garlic.
“Yes, I would love some garlic!”
How about mint, do you like this Amish mint?
“Yes, I would love some mint!”
Do you like rhubarb?
“I don’t know, but I can learn to cook with rhubarb.”
All the while she was breaking off fresh asparagus for me to munch on. This is what I want to be when I grow up. Homestead goals.
Do you have enough eggs?
Yes, we have enough eggs.”
Here, take two dozen home with you.
I dream of have such established abundance that I can share with a new farmer to her get started.
Until then, I am off to plant seeds in my freshly tilled soil.
It was time to move the pigs. There was much planning. Discussions of how, when, and where. Sketches on a notepad. And waiting for some reinforcements. It felt a bit like a military operation. Moving the pigs is a process.
We forage our pigs and during the winter we would bring them back to the stall at night, making it easy to move the electric fencing to new areas. But the stall needed to be cleaned out, the weather was warming up, and it was time to begin keeping our Large Blacks out in the woods.
Keeping them in the woods makes our day a little easier but makes moving their fence a challenge. How do we keep them contained and occupied while we shift the fence to a new area? We had been working on this for the past week. Firstly, food is involved. The plan was to keep them occupied with breakfast in one spot while we moved the fence around them. A good plan until one of the big girls snuck outside the fencing and went back to their stall. Not ideal, but it could be worse. We locked her in the stall and brought back extra food to keep the remaining three occupied. When the fence was set up, we brought our escapee back and gave still more food to everyone.
After three days of pig camping, it was time to move them again. We decided to bring them back to the stall, feed them there, move the fence while they were secure, and then bring them back to their campsite. This worked perfectly but was not ideal because we wanted to use the stall for other animals and keep the pigs in the field full-time. Additionally, we were relocating them half-way across the property to an area we need cleared for a new fence line. This would involve a pig procession.
We needed a plan.
After some complex communication, Mr. J and I had a clear-cut plan. We set up an extra length of fence in the new area, making an enclosed paddock. The pigs would be moved and kept there (with food, naturally) while the rest of the fencing was shifted from the old location to the new one. We waited for our oldest son and daughter-in-law to return from a visit with grandpa. This was all-hands on deck. The “kids” arrived, we laid out the plan, and got to work. The girls walk the pigs across the pasture while the guys move the fencing and water.
Ready, set, go.
It was quite the parade. Two girls shaking containers of cracked corn calling “pig, pig” followed by four pigs wondering when they would get their treat. At times, the pigs are like cats crisscrossing in front of you and you have to keep a close eye on everyone all at once. But we plodded along and made it successfully to their new paddock. Meanwhile, the guys worked quickly to move the remaining fence and set up their portable shelter.
Walking those pigs across that field makes me ridiculously happy. I have them trained; I know that we are giving them the best life. And it worked without a hitch! I love it when a plan comes together. Especially, when we often find ourselves saying, “well, that wasn’t the plan.”
My potatoes are going gangbusters. And this makes me ridiculously happy.
I wrote earlier about my foray into potato growing. (You can read about it here) I had no idea if my little experiment would work. In my enthusiasm I planted them entirely too early. With the snow and freezes that followed my initial planting I feared that they would just rot in place, and I would have a potato farming failure.
Then I saw them popping through their mulch of aged horse manure and straw. I covered them with more manure and straw. It rained. They popped through again. Now every time I am in the garden, I look at the potato patch and am amazed by its growth. All I am doing is covering with aged compost and they continue to thrive. I LOVE this. I am a simple woman, and stuff like this makes me ridiculously happy.
Living life on the edge, some hope, and lots of work
In my eagerness and optimism, I started my tomato seeds entirely too early. Currently they are long, leggy and ready to bust out of their Solo cups.
I have been checking our weather forecasts frequently. Trying to navigate our final frost. There is rain heading our way and I want to plant before it hits.
Feeling optimistic (and having a plan to cover my tomatoes on chilly nights) I decided to get some plants in the ground today.
If only it were as simple as digging a whole. There is much more involved with this previously tilled garden and clay soil.
Preparing the Soil
I loosened the clay with a pitchfork, pulling weeds along the way. Then I raked in kelp meal, rock phosphate, and pelleted chicken manure. This will add minerals and nutrients to the soil.
I added an aspirin and some Epsom salts to each tomato hole. You can read more about the benefits of these HERE and HERE.
The soil is depleted so I am doing all I can to give my plants and strong start.
It felt good to work in the ground and get started with this growing season.
My oldest son was helping me in the garden and asked where I planted my 25lbs of potatoes. I walked him over to the spot and discovered potato plants popping up.
It worked! They are growing. Now I will need to add more aged straw with horse manure later this week to cover these sprouts. I will also need to keep the weeds at bay, so they don’t overtake my potato plants. But these green leaves have given me some hope.
More Work to Do
And then I turn around and see all the weeds that will need to be addressed before the rest of the garden gets put in.
I could use a tiller, but I am aiming for the least disturbance of the soil that I can manage. Whenever I have pulled weeds, I have found tons of worms and I would hate to lose them to some aggressive tilling.
A garden is hope and promise and lots of hard work. It is worth it.
Our mornings start with a sprint as we take care of the animals and end with a whimper as we make our way upstairs to sleep. With the arrival of spring there is so much to be done. The days are longer, the weather is more enjoyable, and the time to plant looms.
Establishing the garden
The challenge of a new garden is real. I have to learn the seasons of this new home. I have to prepare my beds – weeding and planning for little seedlings and tiny seeds. Where should each main crop go and what companion plants should I plant nearby. Putting up a fence to keep the livestock and dogs out. Creating something from nothing. I am overwhelmed with the barren aspect of this space but look forward to creating a place of abundance.
All this takes time
When I began to garden years ago, I learned quickly that most plants need at least two months before you can harvest any food. That is assuming your crop survives storms, drought, bugs, and other creatures that want to partake of your hard work. This is not an easy feat and any harvest at all should be celebrated.
This is important because if you think you may want to grow your own food in the future you need to start NOW. You need to practice. You need to fail. You need to learn what works. What you love to eat now and what you can preserve for the future.
I feel compelled to grow as much food as possible. For our table, for our health, and to bless others.
I feel compelled to suggest that you grow as much food as you can this summer. Maybe it is a tomato plant in a pot on your patio. Some green beans against the side of your house. Or filling those raised beds you haven’t found time for in previous years.
Grow something. Practice. Fail. Learn. And celebrate your harvest. Bless others with your abundance.
The seed potatoes arrived at my feed store a few weeks ago. Oh. I hadn’t considered potatoes. But here they are stacked on a pallet in burlap bags. Tempting me.
I ask how much they are. “Fifty pounds for twenty dollars.”
That’s a deal. But fifty pounds. Ugh there is no way I can get that whole bag planted this year.
“They are Yukon gold.” Oh! Those are the ones we use all the time.
The cashier could see my inner dialogue and suggested “We can give you twenty-five pounds for ten dollars.”
Well, that is certainly more manageable and who can pass up a deal like that. So, I walked out the door with twenty-five pounds of potatoes in my arms.
This was my weekend to get them in the ground. This past week we had a false spring with temperatures in the seventies, but another rainstorm is coming so I felt the push to get these in the ground.
I had a spot selected. I researched growing potatoes and decided on a method. I did a modified no-dig style. We have clay soil. I decided to lay a row of cardboard and woodchips to separate my two 30-foot rows. I then weeded and gently forked either side of the wood chips to loosen the soil a bit. I spaced the potatoes about one foot apart in the row. Next, I dug a shallow divot to nestle each potato into. Finally, I covered the potatoes with aged horse manure from the barn.
I did not “chit” the potatoes – cut them into smaller pieces. I really had more potatoes than I had space, so I just kept them whole. As the potatoes grow, I will continue to cover them with straw that has been used as animal bedding. With luck we will have home grown spuds in our future.
I love growing my own onions. I purchase onion starts from Dixondale Farms and until now have been limited to purchasing the short-day varieties. These are onions that are grown over the winter months in mild climates.
But now we are in the northern part of Tennessee. We are geographically suited for the intermediate-day onions. But we are very close to the zones for short-day and long-day varieties. The long day varieties store the longest and the short-day varieties are ready soonest. So, I decided to experiment. I got some of each variety. In fact, I got a bunch of yellow, white, and red onions for each of the varieties. Dixondale promotes that a bunch will contain at least 50 onion starts. I find that they usually contain closer to 70.
When I did a final count, I planted close to 1000 onions over the past three days. I have the aching back to prove it.
The spot I chose for the onions measures approximately 5 feet by 60 feet. Several months ago we laid down cardboard, leaves and some horse manure. I topped this with 25 bags of composted cow manure, so I had soil to plant the onions into. I plant my onions approximately 4 inches apart. I use my fist to measure this distance. I scattered straw over the top to retain moisture and help protect these little guys from frost.
As I walked up to the post office today, I spotted a dandelion that had grown up out of a tiny crack in the cement. There was no soil to be seen, but this flower reached for the sun and spread itself out over the barren concrete. It bloomed and provided seeds for future dandelions. I encourage you to be the dandelion where you are. Reach for the Son, thrive where you are, and bear fruit.
With a goal of growing as much food as possible for my family, I am looking for ways to extend my growing season. This was easy in southern California where you can grow year-around. It is more challenging in Tennessee, but not impossible.
Gardening is a grand experiment with successes and failures. I find that I am always learning and every year I will set a new goal or try something new. With so much space at our new homestead, I am a little overwhelmed, but still plowing forward with gusto. If I had a goal, it would be to “do all the things.” Not sure if I will get to “all the things” but I will share what I do get done.
I mentioned in a previous post that I started my seeds earlier than recommended. I did this knowing I would be planting them under cover in the garden protecting them from frosts. I will most likely lose a few plants; I may lose all of them. It is in failing that we learn.
Mr. J has completed my hoop house enough for me to start working inside. There are some minor details left, but the inside is now mine. Poor guy. I kept pestering him because my broccoli seedings were busting at the seams and I was itching to get them in soil. The minute he gave me the go ahead I got started.
I leveled the soil, applied a layer of cardboard, and poured out bags of raised bed mix from my local hardware store. The cardboard attracts worms and suppresses weeds. Ideally, I would have used my own homemade compost to fill this space, but realistically that wasn’t happening. Going forward, I will endeavor to add a new layer of my compost on top of this soil each season. I am practicing a no-dig method that will feed and develop the soil. The soil will in turn feed my plants. I like following Charles Dowding in Great Britain for encouragement with this method. You can find his website HERE and his YouTube channel HERE.
I have another section of my garden where I am using a makeshift cover and two low tunnels to see what works.
My earliest attempt to extend the season is a very low budget experiment. Using wooden stakes, I propped up three U-shaped metal frames (they were the legs of a bleacher bench in a previous life). I covered this with a plastic mattress protector from our recent move. I then surrounded it with hay bales for insulation and to support for a large piece of glass for further protection. I planted kale and cilantro seed starts here at the end of December. They have not grown much, but they are still alive. I am counting this as a win! This little covered space has survived several snows and temperatures in the teens. I expect these plants to take off once spring really hits.
This set up is very budget friendly. I purchased one bag of composted cow manure for the soil ($5) and four bales of straw ($6 each) that will be used as mulch later on in the season. Everything else was repurposed. It is also very easy to just walk by and lift up the plastic or tuck it back down as the weather changes.
At the end of last year, when the weather prevented me for actually working in the garden, I was looking for more options for low tunnels. Researching online, my brain was about to explode with the options, and I had analysis paralysis. Then I came across this “Easy Tunnel” while looking through the Harris Seeds catalogue. It seemed like an affordable way to give this method a try. This tunnel has plastic sleeves sewn onto the hoops and opens and closes in an accordion style. The wires poke through my leaves and cardboard easily enough and the length is just right for growing a crop and managing the tunnel.
I like the length and affordability of this option. There is no assembly required. It has also withstood some serious winds without blowing away. However, this tunnel needs to be completely removed and set aside for watering and temperature regulation. This is not a deal breaker, but it is an additional step to consider. I planted these broccoli starts a few days after the ones in my hoop house. It will be interesting to see the difference in their growth as the days go by. I purchased this low tunnel from Harris Seeds HERE.
I have a new garden to establish and enough space to make my brain hurt. Tackling smaller spaces as I ease into spring is making this process easier. Planning and planting a 10ft by 20ft hoop house is much easier than contemplating my entire garden all at once. One project at a time, one day at a time, and we will see how much I can produce.
In the picture above you can see what the garden looks like after a week of rain. We have clay soil and a high water table. I hope that covering the soil instead of tilling will improve the soil and reduce this puddling. The picture on the right shows how much my broccoli starts have grown in the last week (compared to the earlier picture.) They are loving the hoop house.
What are you working on right now? Are you trying to extend your season? I encourage you to try something new and grow more.
To design the hoop house Mr. J referenced this video:
Blessed and Beautiful Homestead cattle panel hoop house HERE.
When asked what we plan to do with our homestead I reply, “Provide as much food as possible for my family and have more to share with others.” All this while stewarding and maximizing the resources on our land. My hope is that by working with nature we can create abundance.
We have been here less than four months. It is winter. There is not a lot of abundance going on right now.
I have to be patient. That is hard.
Yet, I am graced with innumerable blessings and God has seen fit to keep our days filled with a steady stream of work. And that is Good.
My projects this week have been driven by the generosity and abundance of others and a storm front heading our way promising an abundance of rain. I want that rain to work for me, so I have work to do ahead of its arrival. I need to get cardboard and woodchips on the ground surrounding some new plantings. As much as I can do with the time that I have. The woodchips will soak up the rain and retain the moisture for the plants. The cardboard which helps to suppress the grass will also soak up the rain and create a moist environment that attracts worms. Worms love cardboard.
Laying down cardboard and woodchips is easy enough. Unless you have a storm front moving in. A storm front aided by strong winds. Think Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz type winds. The type that picks up your house in Kansas and drops it off in Oz. Well, maybe not that bad, but you get the picture.
And did you get the part about the cardboard? Yeah. That’s a good time. Chasing cardboard boxes blown aways by gusts of wind helps me get my steps in for the day.
But I need to get as much done as possible before the rain. And so out I go with the help of my guys to get this work done.
In my last post I mentioned gathering blueberry canes from Ivan Lee. Those plain looking sticks kept me busy for a few days as I prepared a bed for them. I found a sunny location, planted the canes, then covered the grass with cardboard and woodchips. Woodchipper for the win! In time I will add some companion plants – perhaps strawberries and thyme. It will take a few years to receive a harvest from these guys, but you must start somewhere.
Another friend had some abundance from her garden to share as well. Yesterday, I collected oregano, wild garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, and raspberry canes from her. These goodies were dug up right before I arrived at her home and need to be planted in my garden before their roots dry out. That means now.
Add to this timeline, the arrival of some bareroot fruit trees that I had ordered last November. Since they are bareroot trees they need to get in the ground immediately.
The timing for all of this is perfect, but there is some urgency and never enough hours in a day.
With these fruit trees, raspberry bushes, and wild garlic I will begin to establish a small permaculture orchard. In this type of an orchard, you use diversity to create symbiosis. The orchard is not just trees, but also berries and herbs. Around the trees you add plants that attract pollinators or confuse pests. Plants that are edible, culinary, or medicinal. Or plants, like comfrey, that will help to mulch the orchard along with being used in my herbal salves.
The pictures give an idea of the process. Ultimately, in this orchard, I will have two rows that extend over 45 feet long each with fruit trees and plants. There will be a grass walkway between the path large enough to mow. This area has peach and nectarine trees. I have more space, so I can add on more trees as I get them.
Stefan Sobkowiak has some great videos about his permaculture orchard in Canada. You can purchase or rent his feature length movie HERE. He also has many videos on his YouTube channel HERE.
So far this week I have planted 8 blueberry canes, over 12 raspberry canes, 5 fruit trees, lots of wild garlic, and oregano. I purchased the fruit trees; the rest was a gift of abundance. In a few years I hope to be the friend that can gift new homesteaders with our abundance.