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Category Archives: raised bed gardening

Aside

It’s mid-January and I’m still seeing cabbage worms, slugs, and aphids on the greens in the garden.  The collard greens are lacy with holes (despite the boys helping me pick off the green worms), and the aphids completely coated the dinosaur kale so I had to pull them up and pitch them in the compost.

My older boy found a tick on our dog’s ear over the weekend.  I saw a mosquito floating through the kitchen last night.  We need some serious cold, y’all!  ‘Tis the season to be critter-free!

Well, I must admit I’m not totally hating the recent balminess.  It has been nice enough to hang out at the park with the kids and friends, play in the yard and dig around in unfrozen garden soil.  Plus, we’ve been able to make some great salads as a result of this unexpected extended season.

Mizuna is the big feathery green in foreground, spinach behind, carrots on far right

Spinach, arugula, and mizuna are doing great.  And there are even some tiny carrots coming along. I love to add mizuna to a salad — it’s spicy like arugula but crunchier. I like the light green color too.

I’ve found a few wormy critters munching in this raised bed, but not nearly as many as on the big greens.  At a friend’s suggestion, I’ve been soaking the greens in salt water for about 15 minutes before rinsing and putting them in the salad spinner.  That helps loosen any bugs.

Mâche, or corn salad -- notice there are no bug holes -- I'm liking this green!

In late fall, I planted a few rows of mâche seed in the uncovered raised bed next to the arugula.  The plants are slow growing but they’ve turned into small, close-to-the-dirt rosettes.  I’ve been eating the leaves directly from the garden and they are as mild as lettuce with a taste similar to buttercrunch.  I’m going to try making this salad with grapefruit and avocado — a nice antidote to holiday gluttony (although I can eat my weight in avocado, so maybe not!)

Oh, and I’ve been reading that mâche has 3 times more Vitamin C than buttercrunch, and it also packs alot of iron into those little rosettes. Wikipedia has some more interesting facts about mâche — I also find it interesting that such a little plant can have so many different names.  And it’s a member of the valerian family.  Cool little plant!

A couple of nights last week we had some temperatures in the teens, so I pulled the vinyl covers up onto the hoops to protect the plants.  Here are a couple of other raised-bed, front yard gardens I saw in the ‘hood on a run last week after a cold night:

And this one has a different support structure from mine and the ones above —  metal fencing — definitely stronger in wind/snow – it seems like overkill now but I’m sure in the next few weeks it will come in handy, right??  Come on, winter!

Gardening in a lukewarm winter

 

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Worm tea and worm castings

Top bin removed before getting castings out from middle bin

A few months ago I bought some worms and made worm-composting bins.  My boys and I have been feeding them kitchen scraps every week or so since then.  It’s been a fairly low-maintenance venture, and worms don’t sting, so I don’t have to don a hot (not figuratively) bee suit every time I need to feed them and/or check on them.

The only real negative was the gigantic fruit fly swarm that materialized mid-August when I hadn’t put enough dirt on top of the veggie and fruit scraps in the bins.  Otherwise, it was just like any healthy composting set-up with no smell at all.

Those redworms have been busy.  I tried to lift up the top bin and almost pulled my back out.  I finally hoisted it off and the middle bin was full of dark castings.

Top bin compared to final product -- castings!

I’d been feeding the worms only in the top bin so they’d pretty much all migrated up, so I only had to fish a couple of them out of there and transfer them to the top.

The bottom bin was about half-full of tea, actually that’s “leachate” — I was informed by James Magee at Blue Ridge Redworms that’s the correct term for the liquid that runs off the castings. ( Worm tea is another form of compost-based liquid that comes from worms, but there’s more involved in making it, including fermenting it with molasses and some other stuff that sounds pretty advanced.  I’ll stick to the liquid dregs for now….)

Adding leachate to raised bed

So, as I’d suspected when we started composting with worms, our system wasn’t big enough to handle all our kitchen’s compostables.  However, they ate more than I’d thought they would — maybe 75% of the stuff that would have gone into our regular compost bins out in the side yard.

I put all the castings into one of my raised beds where I’ve got some dinosaur kale growing.  I poured the leachate around the arugula, mache, and red russian kale in another raised bed.

Putting castings into raised bed

Now it’s time for the worm bins to go back into the basement for winter as we’re getting into freezing temps at night.

And I’ll be keeping an eye on the winter greens on into spring to see how they benefit from our worm composting venture….

Redworms at work in worm composting bin

 

“Edamame” sounds so much cooler than “soybean”

Time runs fast in the summer.  I’ve already pulled up all late spring veggies that were done, and am now heavy into tomatoes, squash and beans.

Soy plants in the raised beds. They're big. About 4 feet tall and bushy.

And speaking of beans, the edamame that my kids and I planted are coming in strong.  That’s an easy seed for little kids to plant — they are big, round, white seeds– so they’re easy to handle and see going into the ground in late spring. Now we’re enjoying some really robust plants.

When I was a kid, I remember my dad speaking disparagingly of fields of soybeans — I think he was disappointed to see mono-crops taking over the sandhills of South Carolina (I think I’m projecting….). Or maybe he just didn’t like to eat soybeans then.

I really didn’t hear much about soy again until I went vegetarian in college and ate all kinds of incarnations of the bean.  When I moved to Asheville about 15 years ago, I re-discovered it at a sushi restaurant as “edamame”.  Yum.  Anything that has lots of salt, I love.  Plus it’s fun to eat – it’s a Japanese version of boiled peanuts.

Sow True Seed had a variety of edamame seeds this spring, so I planted one row in the smallest (4×4 foot) raised bed, so not alot of plants but they are producing more than enough for our family.

My kids are not into harvesting edamame or any other small vegetable that requires patience to harvest. There are lots of mosquitos out and it’s hot, so it’s not really fun for long for anyone. However, they really wanted to pick every tomato, green and red.

They did enjoy getting to see how much we (ahem, “I”) harvested by weighing them on the kitchen scales.


Another fun thing about edamame is you don’t have to snap and/or string them like you do most other beans.  I just threw them in a pot of boiling salted water for about 8 minutes, drained, then salted them.  Then there’s the best part:

Still a little hot but sure are good

Notice there are no photos of my 2 year old eating edamame.  He likes to lick the salt off, then get the beans out of the pods and look at them.  We’re working on getting him to expand his vegetable repertoire.  Not easy, but at least he has a good example set by his older brother!

 

Shocking slugs!

I am sure I’ve mentioned my disdain for slugs.  In all my gardens prior to having raised beds, I’ve been plagued by them.  They can be so destructive, and no matter how diligently I picked them off young plants (or set up beer traps to drown them, or sprinkle slug pellets, or whatever cure du jour I’d most recently discovered online) they always managed to be one of the peskiest pests.

Last year I read about putting up barriers (of varying kinds) to keep them out of my raised beds.  The most ingenious one I read about was copper tape.  It supposedly works by giving the slugs a mild electrical shock when they touch it, so they won’t cross it.

And I must say, it has been very effective as I’ve yet to find one on even the tiniest of my seedlings.  My peppers, tomatoes and lettuce seedlings have been growing along untouched by these spineless, shell-less destructors.

This is what the copper tape looks like when unrolled.  It’s got adhesive on the back so you can just stick it directly onto the wood of your raised bed.

Notice that I got smart this year and wore gloves while putting the tape on the beds.  Last year I must have been in a hurry (or lazy) and I didn’t wear gloves, and I got some of the most wicked, tiny cuts from it.  It’s a fairly thin strip of copper so it was kind of like a paper cut, but with thin metal — ow!

This is what it looked like right after I put the copper strips around my two new raised beds.  Those beds are now planted with my tomato and pepper starts, which are safe and sound thanks to the copper.

The copper strips I put around the 4 raised beds last spring are still holding on tight.  They have a slight green patina to them, but they haven’t peeled off a bit, despite a harsh winter and torrential spring rains.

One thing I did read about in a gardening forum is that you must keep weeds and other plants from growing up over the copper strips, because the slugs will use it as a “bridge”  to avoid getting shocked and get to your plants.  Which reminds me, I need to go out and weed right now…..

 

Getting plants from TV land

This was on my doorstep a few days ago:

What in the world has my mama sent me now?  I love my mom.  My mom loves me. My mom also loves to shop — at thrift stores mostly, but being a night owl she also gets into shopping on TV.

Every once in a while she’ll find something on one of those cable shopping networks that she’ll order and have shipped to us.  Usually it’s something like a space heater or air purifier, but in the past few weeks, one of these shopping channels has started offering all kinds of gardening stuff — including plants.  And Mom is way into it.  Not for herself as she doesn’t have much space for gardening, but for us.

Last week I received a box of 8 dwarf butterfly bushes she’d ordered from one of these channels. Mom is very thoughtful — she’d heard me mention that we’re thinking about getting bees, so she ordered the butterfly bushes knowing they attract insects (not sure if bees like them though, but it’s the thought that counts.)

I had no idea what was in today’s box, but I noticed a distinct smell as I was cutting through the tape — tomato plants, and “heirloom” varieties at that:It’s so weird to me that tomato plants can be sent through the mail.  They all arrived looking fairly healthy, though.  And they came with tags too.

I’m going to have to find some space in the raised beds to plant these — I hadn’t planned on having any more tomato plants than the ones I’m growing from seed.   However, I just can’t not plant them — feelings would be hurt.

And while I didn’t inherit my mom’s shopping gene, I do share her trait of having a hard time getting rid of things.  In my case, it’s plants.  My house plants have to be on death’s door before I can toss them.

Thinning seedlings causes me mild angst, but fortunately I’ve learned to toss them into salads so I don’t feel like I’m wasting them:

Above are some of the romaine starts James planted several weeks ago.  I’ve been picking the outer leaves and mixing them with the explosion of spinach leaves (at right):

And here’s a photo of part of the front bed with seedlings grown from Sow True Seed:

I’ve been thinning these lettuce plants out and putting them in salads.  The really tall plants in the back are Asian greens that are also great in salads — and I’ve used them in a couple stir-frys.

Anyway, I’m wondering how the mail-ordered-from-the-TV tomato plants will do compared to my grown-from-seed tomatoes from my local seed company.  July will tell!

 

Front yard farmers in 28801

I’ve learned about gardening over the years from my dad, gardening books, and the internet.  I’ve also gotten lots of ideas by checking out other peoples’ gardens and small farms.  Right here in my own zip code there are some great gardens going on in front yards.  I love to see what other gardeners are doing.

It seems that most folks who keep their gardens in their front yards do so because their back yards are either too shady or there’s not enough space.  We moved our garden to the front yard because of the two giant spruce trees that line the southern side of our backyard, plus our front yard is flatter.

My college friend Jane emailed me last week to tell me she and her husband are moving their raised bed garden to their front yard too to take advantage of a sunnier situation (they live in Ohio and they’re ready for lots of warm sun after this past winter!)

Moving the garden to the front yard has made gardening a much more social experience for me. Neighbors tend to stop regularly on walks to check out what’s growing.  I can also find people to give vegetables to when everything seems to start coming in at the same time in late summer.

Just a few blocks from our house there’s a great garden that I pass on the way to preschool.

The entire front yard has been turned into a neat system of raised beds.  When I was on a run last week I noticed the owners were home and in their garden so I got a chance to meet them.  Candice was kind enough to let me interrupt her potato planting and tell me about what she and Alsace are growing in their front yard this year.

The bed to Candice’s right is the beginning of her potato bed.  She explained to me that she’ll keep adding boards and soil vertically as the potato plants grow.  We talked about the challenge of getting water to the lower layers as more soil gets layered on.  I told her about something I’d seen on the internet about putting a soaker hose near the bottom layer to keep the plants from getting too dry.

On the far right of the picture is their rain barrel that a friend made for them.  Up close to the house but a little hard to see is a cold frame that Candice made.

I asked them if it was OK if I follow their garden’s progress through the season on my blog and we got a chuckle out of the idea that they’ll have pressure to keep the garden going strong.  It’s the same kind of “pressure” I felt when James and I first started gardening in the front yard — I felt like we’d better keep the weeds out and everything looking good, while I hadn’t been so concerned about those things when the garden was behind the house.

Here’s another front yard system over in Montford (not far from our house):

 

These gardeners have managed to turn almost every square inch of dirt in their front yard into growing space, complete with cool signage letting everybody know what to expect to be coming up later in the season.

 

 

 

 

 

Another benefit of front yard gardening:  less grass to mow.  Or in the case of the two gardens above, no grass to mow!

 

 

Worm composting update

A little concerned that there were some “escapees” from the new worm composting box in the basement, I decided to look beyond the internet and my first worm supplier (the old bait shop in W. Asheville)  for some professional vermicomposting advice.

I called James Magee at Blue Ridge Redworms here in Asheville, and set up an appointment to meet with him yesterday and buy some more worms, as what I had didn’t seem like enough.  I also thought I was lacking some important worm-raising information.

Turns out James Magee not only has a successful worm farm, he also happens to be a helpful and friendly person who knows more about worms and composting than I’d imagined was possible.  While he doesn’t give tours of his site anymore (protecting business secrets) he did spend almost 45 minutes telling me and the boys all about redworms.

Much to the boys’ delight, the first thing James pointed out to us was tiny worm eggs in the box of worms we were buying.  He showed us the darker colored eggs and said they were about to hatch.   Several worms will hatch from each egg.

I brought the worm composting bins we already had going so he could give me some advice on our set-up.   He took one look at it and told me the worms I got at the bait store were, well, bait worms — a kind of the earthworm I’d read about that likes to dig deep in the dirt and isn’t the optimal subspecies of worm for vermicomposting.

 

Red worm on left, bait worm on right

James’s second suggestion was that the newspaper bedding wasn’t the best living medium for worms. He said that the bleach used in the paper-making process, along with the inks, could adversely affect the worms. The ideal environment for them is a nice mix of leaves, grass and compost (so my previous instincts were right — worms and dirt do go together, right?!)

James also said I should make the drainage holes in the bottom of the bins larger — instead of a quarter-inch, closer to a half-inch.

Looks like redworms like cornhusks

I told him about my escapees, and he suggested leaving a low-watt lightbulb on to keep them from emerging.  The light tricks them into thinking it’s daytime so they’re less likely to come out.

As far as feeding them, they need a half-inch to an inch layer of food (vegetable and fruit kitchen scraps) every 7 days or so.  They don’t like citrus or anything really acidic.  He told me I could experiment with different kinds of foods to see what they like:  put the food in a corner of the box and see if they crawl to it.  I asked him about banana peels, and he said “Oh they LOVE banana peels.”

Also, if the worms all move out around the perimeter of the box, or if the box smells at all, then there’s something in there that doesn’t suit their appetites.

Another thing I mentioned to him was the “worm tea” collecting in the bottom bin.  He told me that is “worm leachate”, not the same.  Here’s more details on worm tea vs. leachate.

According to James, the end product of the whole worm composting process — the worm castings — makes gardens grow strong and abundant.

I imagine with the small system I have that it will not handle all our food waste, nor will I have large amounts of worm castings (may have to buy some castings for my raised beds from farmer Magee — he sells that too).  But it is a fascinating process, and we’re curious to learn more.

 

 

A good spinach dip recipe and a great book

Yesterday afternoon I needed a quick and easy recipe for an appetizer to take to my book club. With it being a rainy March afternoon, I really didn’t want to load up the boys and head to the store so I made do with what I had….loads of spinach from the garden. And we always have a random assortment of cheeses, so I googled “fresh spinach and cheese dip” and found quite a few, but one sounded particularly good:

This hot spinach dip recipe. It’s from an Australian website so everything is in metric weights, so I kinda guessed at the amounts. (I recently read somewhere that the US, Myanmar and Liberia are the only 3 countries in the world that don’t officially use the metric system. Great.  Along with most Americans, I’m metric illiterate.)

Instead of shallots, I used the same amount of chopped chives, another overwintered herb that is growing profusely right now in the garden. And I didn’t have enough mayonnaise — hard to believe in my house that I didn’t have a stashed jar of it somewhere as I love it — so I just upped the cream cheese a little.

While spinach and artichoke dip is one of my favorite appetizers, this one wins in the looks department because it uses fresh instead of frozen spinach.  It’s bright green instead of that green/brown and pale yellow color that most hot spinach dips have (although that has never deterred me from gorging on it every time it’s in my presence).

I’d have taken a photo of it but I was running late, then there was not much left after book club.  What remained after I got home, my husband finished off.

Oh, and the book we read this month was dogs, by Abigail DeWitt.  We were so fortunate to have the author come meet with us (she lives near Burnsville, about an hour from here).  It was a really good read, and being able to discuss it in person with the author was an added treat.  Thanks Abigail!

 

Vermiculture, wormery (box of worms in the basement)

Worm farmers, please take no offense as I’m a total newbie when it comes to raising worms —  I’m still laughing about finding the word “wormery” while googling for ideas about building a worm compost bin.   Nursery, brewery, apiary, pharmacy — but wormery?

Well, reading more into it, it’s quite an interesting concept, so I’m laughing less and getting more intrigued by these lowly worms (Lowly Worm, by the way, was my favorite Richard Scarry character as a child; now my boys love it when he turns up in stories too.  Such a friendly fella).

I’ve been wondering how to expedite the composting process of kitchen waste. Magic answer:  worms (according to my recent googling).  They can do alot of composting in not too much time.  There’s even commercial vermiculture/composting to handle restaurant food waste.

Now from what I’ve learned, you can’t just dig up regular ol’ earthworms out of the backyard and put them to work as composting worms. Sounds to me like earthworms are kind of wild, solitary creatures who like to do their own thing in the open dirt.

Red wigglers, however, have more colonial tendencies and can turn most vegetable and fruit scraps (and coffee grounds among other non-edibles) into some of the best dirt on earth:  worm castings.  They don’t seem to mind being boxed in as long as the conditions are right and the food is good.

I had a feeling this would be an easy project to get my kids involved in as they are absolutely obsessed with worm-hunting in our yard.  When they found out we were making a “worm house,” I had their undivided attention (there’s not much of it to be divided anyway, but they were quite curious about the process).

I followed these directions on how to construct a worm bin.  Yesterday I went to a hunting and fishing store in West Asheville with my 4-year old and bought out their last 4 containers of red wigglers.   Then I got 3 ten-gallon plastic storage tubs to stack one on top of the other.  We drilled holes in them according to the directions.  This lets the worms have some air, and also lets the castings fall down into middle bin for easier collection.

So it’s three bins stacked one on top of the other.  The top one is where the worms live and work on breaking down the food waste, the middle one collects the worm castings that fall through the holes, then the bottom one collects any excess moisture, AKA “worm tea”, which is another very nutrient-rich compost to put on the garden.

Soon after the drilling, our friends came over to play and help out with the wormery construction.  The next step was to tear up newspapers into strips and get it wet to make an environment for our worms. (Soggy newspaper doesn’t sound like it would be exactly the ideal home, but I’m trusting the websites I’ve read, and going against my instinct to house them in dirt.)

Well, we did get to put a least a little dirt in there, as the worms need some grist to help them digest their food (no teeth):  

 

 

 

 

Then the kids turned the worms out into their new home:

 

And then we stacked the bins together, put a piece of wet cardboard over the top (apparently worms love to eat cardboard too, but I also think this is to maintain an ideal moisture level in the bin):

Now we have to wait a couple of days to let them acclimate to their new place, then we can start adding small amounts of kitchen scraps and let them go to work.

 

 

 

Spring planting in Asheville, and another greens recipe

I’ve got the following growing outside in one of the raised beds.  On February 24th I planted the following cool-weather seeds from Sow True Seed:  Asian greens, buttercrunch lettuce, a lettuce mix, purple carrots, scarlet Nantes carrots, watermelon radish, and bulls’ blood beets.

Here’s what they looked like this morning:

A couple of friends have asked me what else is safe to plant from seed outside right now.   The Farmers’ Almanac has planting dates for Asheville listed in chart form. You can also check out the 2011 Planting Guide from Sow True Seed.

Note white PVC pipe. I spent an hour this morning painting it green to match the hoops over the other beds. Gardening vanity.

Another option is to buy cool-weather starts from a nursery center.  You can find all kinds of things right now, like lettuce, broccoli, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower….if you’d rather not wait for the seeds.  My husband bought some red onion sets, lettuce and broccoli starts at a garden center a few weeks ago so we’ve got those going in another one of the raised beds too.

Last year about this time I planted 8 Mary Washington asparagus crowns that are coming up now (although I won’t harvest any till next year….I was so tempted to harvest some of the early shoots, but Dad said it would weaken the plant).  I also planted seed potatoes last March in the beds, and also in some giant pots (that’s on my to-do list for this weekend).

My tomato, pepper, eggplant, tomatillo and epazote seeds are coming along well inside.  I’ve been transporting them outside on warmer days when the March winds aren’t wild like today.

The seedlings are resting happily on top of the radiator in the southern-facing window in my dining room.  I’ve got the trays sitting on top of old cookie sheets.

It’s cold enough today that the radiators have turned on a few times, warming up the potting soil — I hope it encourages some of the peppers to emerge, as I’ve yet to see any Pasillo, Marconi, or Pobanos coming up.

The pepper seedlings are reminding me of my pepper plants every year — they are always the last plants to produce in the garden.  It has to get really hot for a couple weeks for them to start getting peppers on their branches.

 

 

There’s still a fair amount of greens out in the beds, so I tried another recipe from the Natural Health Magazine article my neighbor gave me.  This one was “Warm Mustard Greens Salad”.  I used both the red mustard green leaves (really spicy) and the regular ol’ green ones.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dressing was lemon juice, honey, olive oil, salt & pepper, and water.  I used some of the honey I’d harvested recently.  So yum.  The other ingredients were:  fresh ginger, red onion, garbanzo beans, cumin, chili powder, shredded carrot and feta cheese.

What a great salad — it was like eating wasabi in leaf form, with the bite and spice tempered by the garbanzos, carrots and feta.  Some of the heat came from the chili powder (it was just a half teaspoon but it had chipotle peppers in it too), but it was mainly from the mustard greens themselves.

Growing up in the South, my only experience with mustard greens was cooked (and cooked and cooked) along with some kind of fatback.  I love most other greens cooked, especially collards, but I never learned to love cooked mustard greens.  I think it was a combo of a texture issue (soggy) and bitter taste.

After finding this recipe, I’ve made peace with mustards.  Now, if you’re not into spicy, be warned that this salad indeed has a kick, but it sure is good (or as my Mississippi-raised grandmother would have said, “Shuh ’nuff”, although I’m sure she would’ve thought raw mustard greens blasphemous).

 
 
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