Monthly Archives: June 2015

Intensely Interested in Interplanting!


Inter-cropping is when you have two or more different vegetables growing in the same shared piece of ground, or in the same row, providing diversification. When planting fast growing and slow growing vegetables together, it’s a marvelous method to generate and ultimately harvest a wide variety of home-grown healthy food.

Raspberry sunflowers_blogOften times when you plan a garden and look over your available space, you discover that usually one of the following facts is true:

  1. you have too many plants.
  2. you don’t have enough space.
  3. you become frustrated.

If you have a garden like mine, it’s a mix of mature and not quite mature permanent plants, both trees and bushes. When we bought my family’s place, it was in need of a LOT of work, both on the house, and the land. We had some mature trees and bushes on the property, and some were long dead and needed clearing away. We did some careful planning and reckless buying at plant nurseries, and before we knew it, we found ourselves loaded up with fruit bushes of all types.

When fruit bushes are purchased in pots, they are basically easy enough to move around, from nursery to the back of a car or truck. They will NOT remain that size, if planted correctly, and grown well. So when you plant them in the desired space, make SURE to pay attention that each one of them gets proper placement. When these are finally planted, the appearance overall is that there is a plethora of extra space. This actually is correct. This is where we engage in the bold act of mixed-use plantings!

blueberries_blogNow is an appropriate time to engage in research. I always consult my book “Carrots Love Tomatoes” by Louise Riotte. It’s a revelation of which plants grow well together, and which don’t. It’s like this. Some plants take nutrients away from the soil and some put nutrients back in.

For example, some plants are referred to as heavy feeders, meaning what they take out of the soil, and some are light feeders, meaning they consume very sparingly of the soil’s nutrients. Light feeders are quick growing vegetables like lettuce, radishes, spinach, celery, cabbage, kale, chard, collards, and other greens. Planting these every week or two means fresh food comes in for a good while. And a REAL benefit of inter planted crops is that the closer they grow to each other as they fill out in size, also means that they block  opportunities for those dratted weeds to take hold.

For my purposes, I planted tomatoes, which are small in the beginning, and which will grow to a much larger size by the end of the growing season. In between the beginning planting and harvest time, there’s plenty of sunlight and rain and space and time to grow quick crops of fast growing vegetables; like radishes and lettuce; in the dirt in between each tomato plant. The tomatoes are considered heavy feeders, and the radishes and lettuces are considered light feeders. Get it? No harm done to either plants’ health and production, and you get a double crop in the same space originally intended for one.

raspberries_blogIn areas where we combine both perennials (permanent), fruit and annual (one year only) vegetables (this includes edible flowers), its possible to have glorious inter-plantings that do incredibly well. If the soil is rich enough, watered enough, heavily composted enough in its beginning stages, and amply fertilized (I only use organic seaweed foliar spray fertilizer, which works wonders), tremendous amounts of food production can be achieved.

Really excellent companions are asparagus with tomatoes, beans with carrots or summer savory, beets with onion or kohlrabi, cabbage with aromatic plants, or potatoes or celery or carrots , or turnips with peas. There are also plants that dislike each other. For example, do not plant beans with onions, garlic or gladiolus, beets with pole beans, cabbage with strawberries, tomatoes or pole beans, or potatoes with pumpkins, squash, cucumber, sunflower, tomato or raspberry. All of these plants, it should be noted, are heavy feeders.

This year my blueberry bushes are finally large enough to bear a modest amount of fruit, even though they get nibbled down severely throughout the winter months by my ever-so-helpful bunny friends. In the spaces between these berries, I have flowers planted, so as to attract pollinators, and bush type cucumbers and green zucchini squash. By the way, remember to plant different types of blueberry bushes next to each other, they require this for pollination purposes, otherwise all your efforts will be for naught. cucumbers blueberries_blog

When I plant, or decorate my home, I’m cursed with the behavior of “Horror Vaccui”, which is Latin for “Fear of an empty space”, for real. I force myself to adhere to the recommended spacing of plants. As each bush and vegetable grows in grace and beauty, I like to stick a couple of clay pots on their sides underneath a bunch of the shadier plants, (big leafy gourds and squash are good candidates) and make it a nice home for frogs or toads. Throw a hand full of dirt or mulch in there for them to sit upon. Not too much, you want to give them room to hang out in there and watch you work, where they will undoubtedly croak and chirp, which is their way of announcing to the world, “boy, do I have a great gardener working for me!” But you may say to yourself “I don’t have frogs or toads in my garden.” Well, I’m betting you do. Those critters like to stay well hidden. This helps to avoid getting squished underneath our big clumsy feet, live out what ever sort of quiet ninja stealth mode insect attack toad fantasies they have, and to be better able to consume lots of lovely bugs that bother our garden, and aggravate us garden types.

toad_blogAs I write this, we approach July. It is still not too late to plant a garden. Indeed, this is when I usually plant late tomatoes and especially green beans, as July is the month of heaviest growth. The temperatures are great for growing, the rain is generally plentiful, and weeds like to stay gone when you rip them out. My raspberries are inter-planted with geraniums and sunflowers and cucumbers, my strawberries are inter-planted with okra and lilies. This way each planted space is continually producing something, fruit or vegetables or blossoms producing pollen. The overall effect is one of order and chaos, duty and beauty. As you inspect, you will notice the beautiful curving vines of cucumbers growing so well inter-planted in the tall straight lines of sunflowers.

This mindset is also one of the laws behind producing traditional Pennsylvania Dutch Art. A straight line (masculine) is a line of duty, a curved line (feminine) is a line of beauty. This is also a behavior and mindset used to design Pennsylvania Dutch Hexes, as well as Quilts. Many traditional patterns are based on the actual garden plans of each quilt artist; reds next to purples, yellows next to greens and browns, blues next to oranges. It’s not hard to discern the patterns and meanings and overall beauty that influenced each work of art, whether it is your garden, your Hex art, or your quilt.

Smashed Sheds, Broken Branches and Lost Weekends

So a tree fell on your garden shed during a big windstorm… Yup. You had plans to have a stress-free relaxing weekend. Sleep in late, consume an opulent, leisurely breakfast,  Damaged Shed_blogmusically accompanied, discretely, by tuxedoed violin players, then maybe get a manicure and pedicure and sit around relaxing and eating lovely little dainty bon bons flown in from France that very morning, right?  Perhaps later, after a nap, memorize some of the finer passages of Shakespeare for when you care to impress your coworkers at your next office meeting or corporate take over…  For the record, I’ve never done ANY of these things.. Well, your plans just changed. You are now going to be a feral better good neighbors_blogsweaty hog beast of a lumberjack, grunting, stinking and covered with leaves and dirt and filth that comes from dragging inconveniently heavy logs that smashed up your nice metal garden shed and left precious little undamaged. Ha. Jokes on you. 

So, your plans have changed. But that’s ok, stuff happens, and this is how you handle an unplanned crisis like this. To begin, these 40 year old English walnut trees grow on our property, planted by my father, and thus are our responsibility.

Part of them fell onto our good neighbors property, and thankfully, did no damage. We decide to get this cleaned up before we start on our own property, because, after all, this is what it means to be a York County good neighbor. 

tree trimmers_blogWe decided to do this clean up task ourselves, and yet still called in a professional tree trimming  company- Heritage Lawns and Landscaping – to trim off the large “stubs” of branches still attached to the tree, because they know what they are doing and we want to save the trees.  Also, we don’t want to fall and kill ourselves, because when we get up on a ladder, it becomes apparent that we clearly don’t know what we are doing when it comes to trimming very heavy, mature trees.  Let this be a lesson to you, in the long run, it is always much, much cheaper to hire a professional to do a job like this, than to get injured, pay a whopping huge medical bill, or funeral expenses.  For real.  York County residents love to be the can-do county, but we also like to live a long healthy life time as well. Make wise choices. As it was, the falling branches and logs bashed around our arborvitae a good bit, killing none of them, and we will have to tie them up to bring them more upright again.

stacks of wood_blogNow when it comes to cleaning up, assess the situation. First, it’s hot.  Start early and avoid the worst heat of the day. Eat a big breakfast because you are going to need the energy. Take your vitamins. Wear a hat, the sun is blazing down and you’re going to be fried. Slather on gobs of sunscreen; hit the tips of your ears and the back of your neck, I always forget to cover those. Wear good strong boots. I don’t care if its 90 degrees out and hot, if you slip and drop big logs on your foot, those toes are not growing back. Have Gatorade on hand, or lots of something cool to drink.  Most importantly, have patience, understanding and a sense of humor, because a large part of this is going to suck. 

You will need handclippers to trim off the smaller branches, and a larger pruner, either hand powered or battery or electric, to cut the larger branches as they start to turn into logs. These will be HEAVY. You will be lifting things up and over. Don’t drop them onto your feet, or someone else’s feet. If using an electrically powered, cord- tethered cutting tool, pay attention to avoid getting the cord tangled in your feet. Leaves will be all over the place and will obscure your vision. Don’t cut through the cord.  That would be bad. You especially don’t want to get tangled and fall over and fall onto or into a very sharp running tool designed to cut and maim and destroy. Being aware of potential danger is the first sign you are a responsible chore-master, and that your plans will end well. As I say with every project, if the job gets done and nobody lost an eye, it was a good day.

 bending_blogStart by dragging off the most easily reached branches, working your way into the worst tangled areas. This will be like untying a Gordian knot. It is going to require patience. Remember, Alexander the Great never untied that Gordian knot either, he sliced through it with his mighty sword. That’s what you are going to do now, slice through these fallen branches, bit by bit until it is all gone. Try to pay attention and make sure nothing else is mixed in with the tree -branches, wires or metal or anything else, that is not going to play nice with your saw, powered or not.  Make piles of the wood immediately afterwards,  one for smaller branches to be used as kindling, and a larger pile for logs. Also, don’t forget all those lovely leaves. They make marvelous compost. 

frog_blogAs you work, be cautious not only of yourself and your own limbs as well as tree branches, but any local wildlife that may have decided to creep into and under the branches that are all over the place. We found this wonderful toad. Isn’t it a cutie! This is a sign of a very healthy natural environment, and we want to preserve its life. We picked Toady up and moved it aside into an area that has much less odds of being trampled by foot traffic or tossed logs.

Look over the types of wood now, and make some decisions. Could you use some of it for yourself? I Googled English Walnut trees, and discovered that the wood of this particular tree is good when used for traditional tools, as handles for tools, and also for gunstocks. So there! I see some dibbles in my future!

termites_blogAs we cut, we discover some of the wood is hollowed out, by termites, I suspect. We see evidence of the eggs that have been disturbed by the branches coming down.  Birds hop around our work area and quickly eat as many of these as they can find.

skids_blogAs you cut and cut and cut, you will eventually get through all the wood. You will be sweaty and sore and have muscles. You will have three piles, one of larger logs of wood, one of branches, and one of leaves. The logs and branches has been stacked and set aside, ideally on a wooden skid, so that it dries out in time for winter use.  This requires putting it in the back of a truck, and driving it on over to the good neighbor who can use it this winter.  This will take several trips.

This is all hot work, so remember to drink plenty of fluids. This type of work also requires lots of constant, repeated bending and lifting and carrying. Be careful!

Do NOT overload your truck! Placing it on a skid also means it can be lifted and moved easily by whomever  needs it. Final clean up means all the remaining leaves get thrown into the compost. Everything gets used, there is no waster of debris littering the area, and you get a workout.  This is all good. Now go and have a long drink of something cool, you earned it.


Building Beautiful Bamboo Bins for Bodacious Bounty, Baby!


(Or, how to put in plant supports without loosing an eye)

So I got a late start on putting in my regular garden this spring. Putting solar on my house was a big time consuming project.  No matter, cold temperatures delayed many a planted paradise. And now that plants are in full swing “grow like mad” mode, (as are the weeds) I find that my garden is never quite large enough to accommodate my ambitious plans.  So the answer is to move on UP if you can’t spread out. Today’s blog will feature how to build strong supporting cages to support extra large, heavy juicy tomatoes. 

Number one? Prepare your garden. Is it too late to plant? Heck no, garden buddy! You can dig and plant your garden up to the beginning of July in our wonderful part of Pennsylvania, because delicious plants like beans and tomatoes can go in way late in the season.  Now, physically speaking, our garden is surrounded by a wire fence that dates to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It had been rolled up and stored away in my good neighbor’s barn for many years and one day they were going to sell it as scrap and I offered them some cash for it. I unrolled it, steel wire brushed it, primed and painted it, (it rotted fence post_bloghelps to be obsessive-compulsive for projects like this) and it found a new home as my garden fence. For the purposes of this garden project, the restored wire fence will be the outside supporting fence, and the inner supporting fence will be the inner, Bamboo structure.  

As we check the existing metal fence structure, supported by reclaimed wooden fence posts, we discover a rotted wooden post and have to dig it out and repair it. The old posts I use were sturdy 200 year-old locust poles rescued from a pile on a local farm, destined to be burned. I can always seem to find a use for something that was considered trash by some one else. It’s sort of a curse. But when using old rescued items, there is always a risk that some of the materials will be defective.old fence post_blog We turn the old post upside down and put it back in the hole it came from, and block it in with salvaged bricks. This way when I get another post to replace it, I just pop one out and another one in. No additional digging! When the new post goes in (one I bought at Lowes) I’m pretty well assured I’ll get many good years out of it, but probably not 200. I’ll save my receipt, though, just to be sure.

Wicked Weeds, Charming Critters
Now, when you plan your garden, you can not avoid the basics. 

When you stand in it with your hands on your hips and your lungs full of fresh air, and you look upon a plethora of weeds, you say to yourself, “Where  in the heck did all these weeds come from!” Well, the wind blew them in, or the birds contributed their lovely poop, or the soil itself already held years worth of them. (To be sure, many weeds have wonderful properties, and I’m the first to claim we can use as many local varieties of plant life as possible. But when my goal is tomatoes, or other conventional crops, the weeds gotta go. I simply don’t have enough space.) 

weedy garden_blog

There’s History in that thar Dirt
For as much history that your soil holds, whether weed seeds, arrowheads (tribe unknown), old rusty horseshoes, coins, marbles, animal bones, bits of old blue bottle glass, old shell buttons, or civil war gold, or whatever  historic items appear, whether last century or last week, if its not going to help grow your plants, the stuff has got to go. For the record, I have found all of these things in my garden, except for the civil war gold. Darn it all. Pluck what is not dirt, out of the dirt, and save what you want. Start a treasure jar and also probably a garbage bucket, because trust me, you are going to find all sorts of things.  Soil always gives up its secrets, eventually. Hey, check it out! We found a toad! (if you wait too long to dig, you WILL dig up nests of baby bunnies. Please don’t do this, it’s heartbreaking, avoid this at all costs. 

toad_blogThis alluring female toad didn’t make it into the treasure bucket. I let her go hop around in an area we did not dig. When the garden is planted, I’ll put in a ground level solar light in a sunny spot in the garden, just for this lovely creature, so that nighttime bugs can come around investigating, and Toad Gal can have her fill of them. I will place a couple of clay pots half buried on their sides throughout the garden so that she can have several hang outs to lounge in and be her beautiful toad self. For the record, never, ever, by any means, kill a reptile you find in your garden. They have found your lovely space and made it their home and want to help you. By helping you, they help themselves. The harmless garter snake will eat pesky mice. The harmless toad or frog will eat unwanted bugs, mostly mosquitoes. These marvelous garden companions of yours will return year after year. Learn to look for their signs, and get to know their kids each spring. Trust me, it’s a fabulous partner ship. It’s good to have friends helping you in the garden, because gardens can be a lot of work. 

 If you have a rocky garden, keep an eye out for Killdeer birds, their eggs are perfectly camouflaged as rocks and the mama bird itself will do a particular “injury dance” to distract you from their soon to be family”.  Bugs have jobs, too. Praying Mantis bugs, large as they are, will find a pleasant and wonderful home in your garden and will eat all sorts of terrible bugs. Ladybugs, in general, possess charming personalities in the first place and will happily consume all your aphids, without regard for their expanding waistline, which only makes them even more charming. These life forms are working for you, for FREE, and the first way to attract them to your garden is to NOT USE ANY CHEMICALS AT ALL. No weed killer, no chemical sprays, nothing of the sort. The only fertilizer I use is liquid seaweed, and trust me, it smells like the devil and works like a charm. More on that in a future blog. Now, back to the garden.

We weeded, and kept weeding for quite a bit, which was a really substantial workout, and tossed all that wonderful nutrient rich unwanted growth into the compost. Found out I had some poison ivy growing in there, the hard way. Always bag up poison ivy and or poison oak, and never compost it. It can re-root very quickly and take over and sow new seeds. Above all NEVER BURN POISON IVY OR POISON OAK WEEDS. You will inhale the smoke, especially since according to township and county rules (and common sense) you must never leave a pile of anything to burn unwatched. The smoke from burning leaves, vines or roots will clog and infect your lungs and as my mother used to say, you will wake up dead.  It will be very, very painful. Respect that %*#$# weed and be safe. For real.

big compost_blogOur compost has currently reached a terrifyingly large size. We will surely have to build a new one, and that’s a subject for another blog.  Once the good sized weeds are all pulled out, I dig around a bit with a shovel by hand, and then do a once over with a good sturdy garden tiller. More things will come to the surface and will be easier to remove. Watch out for tree roots, they can reach long distances underground and you don’t want to damage any trees. Tilling is really a lovely way to deal with hard compacted soil, and is not always necessary. Plenty can be accomplished with no till garden methods, but since I’ve got the tiller and the time, lets dig! Its possible and even advisable to add granular plant fertilizer at this time, I always use organic fertilizers, if I don’t just till in straight compost from my compost bin, which is above all the best approach. Be mindful, tilling will also bring long buried weeds to the surface where the exposure to sunlight, warmer temps and additional moisture will aid their growth. We will later USE several types of weed blocker to stop this.

tilled garden_blog

Once we completely dig the planting area, we collect old bamboo from last years green bean teepees, that had overwintered  in the garden. It was mostly in good shape, with a plentiful amount split and cracked. This is not fatal to its strength. Its not as strong as fresh cut bamboo, but will do for this project. bamboo_blogWe measured what we considered a good height, discarding the most damaged bamboo, and cut the poles to around 5 feet in length, using our table saw. A handsaw is just as good, if not better, in my opinion. Safer is always better. And ALWAYS wear safety goggles.

We anchored these cut poles into the dirt, sometimes using a post hole digger, at four feet distance from each other, working our way around the entire perimeter of the existing garden fence. Perimeter is a post hole_bloggood word to use here, you are building a solid defense against low lying tomatoes that will rot and stink and smell and bring in other critters to your garden, to munch and chew and destroy all your plants. Big tomatoes are heavy. Those vines NEED Support. Build this interior bamboo support about a foot and a half inside the outside wire fence that already exists. You are building an INSIDE FENCE. This is not complicated. Our bamboo poles were sunk about a foot deep into the freshly dug earth. With your foot, press the dirt down around them. Once placed, and tied together with strong baling twine I saved from last year’s rotted straw bales, they form a substantial structure that acts as a reliable support for heavy vegetables. We anchored the inside bamboo poles to the wire metal fence with a smaller cut bamboo, sectioned to fit inside the wire design. This acts as a “connector” and helps keep everything balanced on each other. These Beefeater tomatoes will get pretty large, and the more supports the better.perimeter_blog

Finally Getting to Plant! 
About time, right? Good gardens always require a lot more in preparation then is usually considered. Experienced gardeners know this, and do not skimp on steps. When it comes to planting the tomato plants, I dig a good-sized hole, about 10 inches to a foot deep. The tomatoes that I had grown from seed and kept in a handmade cold frame have grown to such a height that they could not be kept inside any longer and MUST be transplanted.

cold frame_blog

I was able to plant them in the holes 36 inches apart, to accommodate the large size they will grow to. Before I plant tomatoes, I always add two heaping tablespoons of Epsom salts at the base of each tomato plant.  I kind of dig it around in the base of the hole and mix it around a bit. It helps add nutrients needed very specifically by tomatoes, and peppers. You do not want the salt to come into direct epsom salt_blogcontact with the roots. Once your tomato is planted, really mound that earth up to nearly the top, leaving a few inches exposed. The purpose of this is that the tomatoes will grow additional roots all along their buried stem, thus feeding better and more securely and growing and producing magnificent food for you and yours.

Skewers Save the Day
I always use a handy stick, or in this case, a bag of discount bamboo skewers used for grilling. I break it into thirds, so I get to really use them on a lot of plants. Why do this, you ask? It is necessary practice to always put a stick alongside whatever  part of the tomato stem (or what ever plant) stands above the dirt it is planted in. Cutworms simply adore chewing on your lovely garden plants, and their deal is to literally wrap their entire body around the stem of plants you love and gnaw away until they have happily eaten their fill and your plant has been beheaded. Your plants will be sad. The cutworms will be happy. You will be angry and start kicking the earth and throwing things and start cursing and alarm your good neighbors. They already think you are nuts as it is, to be this engrossed in a pile of dirt. Be a good neighbor, and a good gardener. skewers_blogUse the bamboo skewers or small sticks. Save yourself the time and agony and expense of having to do this all over again. Remember, placing a small stick in the dirt directly alongside and touching the plant stem prevents the cutworm from getting a good grip on your plants, and thus, it lives. On a lighter note, if giant mutant cutworms ever invade the earth, starting with your garden, always wear ankle- high boots.

Holy Moley, Get that Weedblocker!
Now, cast back into your cobwebbed memory of last year’s meticulous garden, and don’t forget how tired you grew of weeding, and weeding, and more weeding. You made a promise to yourself to use weedblocker. Keep that promise. USE WEEDBLOCKER. 

Holes can be easily cut, one by one, to accommodate each plant you want to keep unmolested by weeds. The easiest way to do this is to measure and ascertain where each plant will be, and cut an X across the space needed to “open it up”. Thus the weed blocker can also be put down on top of each pre-planted plant. I usually plant first and weedblock afterwords,  its sort of backwards, but I may have to dig and move a plant several times before I actually get it to its permanent home for the year, and prefer not to keep cutting my weedblocker  until it is confetti.

If you don’t want to purchase weed blocker, you can easily use about 20 pages of newspaper, all in one layer, or sections of cardboard. Lay it right down on the ground next to your plants. Saves you from worrying about cutting holes in the proper place as well. new post_blogPaper is fiber, and will be good for your garden dirt as it will hold moisture, add fiber to an already clay-based soil (regionally speaking) and is free, and recyclable. It will literally dissolve into the soil and help the right plants to grow, all while impeding the weeds. This is a good thing. 

Follow these instructions, in whole or in part, to help assist and support in growing your structure-needing plants, to be healthier, more beautiful and bountiful.

Next blog .. Dealing With Dastardly Wind Damage to Your Garden Shed!