Category Archives: raised bed gardening

Mid March, Blue Ridge

Friday morning, just 3 days ago, it was snowing and really windy.  There wasn’t much accumulation but there were a few cars driving around with an inch or so piled up on the windshield wipers.  And the wind….whew!  It made all the bee equipment drying on the back porch go skittering and tumbling.

For the garden, it meant battening down the plastic on my new hoophouse (top right in photo). Three of the beds are already covered with clear vinyl over the pvc hoop frames, and that vinyl is secured to the hoops with zip ties.

One problem with the zip ties is that if I want to undo them I have to cut them.  In a sense, they’re permanent.  It’s worked fine for winter when I didn’t really need to do any uncovering, but now that I’ve got this new covered bed with recently-planted seeds, I need something more temporary with spring coming on.

Here’s where the internet comes in handy when gardening.  I googled “clips for pvc hoops raised beds”. Sure enough, I found a great idea from Dropstone Farm (way out in Washington State).  Jumbo binder clips!  Then I found some by digging through the junk drawer and a pile of my husband’s office stuff, and got him to bring a few more home.

After such a blustery cold day, we were skeptical that Saturday would be up in the 60s as forecasted, but sure enough, it was a most glorious day, and I was able to easily take the binder clips off and let the new seedlings get some rays.

I also got my first sunburn of the season sitting on the front porch planting seeds in trays:

Sow True Seed, off to a sunny start today

I found my favorite tomatoes in the whole world — Amish Paste — in the Sow True Seed rack at the North Asheville Ace Hardware.  I got those started, along with some Mortgage Lifters, and some cherry tomatoes.  I got jalapenos and a couple sweet pepper varieties going and an heirloom Asian eggplant variety (I got into making baba ganouj last summer….)

A note on seed starting: with my kids being so little, I’d skipped the seed starting part of gardening the past few years in an effort to make it simpler because my time was limited.

During that time, I had also forgotten that potting soil mix has a *very* annoying water-repellent quality. And, obviously, wet soil is important for seed starting….

Since I’d thrown out all my old plastic cells in a basement purge, I needed some containers and opted to buy trays that were pre-filled with potting mix.  Ugh.  The water floated on top and it was impossible to stir it around, so I ended up dumping the soil out and mixing it by hand in a bowl, then putting it back in the trays, then planting the seeds.

I’ve not ever tried those peat pellets — I’m curious as to whether they work, might try them on the next round of seed starting.

The rest of this sunny warm weekend included a pasta dinner. James made the sauce from our spinach, some of last summer’s frozen peppers, and stewed tomatoes (we’re down to the last couple quarts in the freezer).  Yummmmm….

I also picked some chives and cilantro to mix in with a tuna salad for lunch yesterday:


And to ward off weeds growing up around the raised beds, I went to the recycling drop-off center and picked up a bunch of cardboard boxes, laid them out flat and covered them with straw.  That worked so well last summer — it not only kept the weeds down but helped keep the paths from getting mud bogged.

At the recycling place, I kind of felt like I was reverting to post-college dumpster-diving days (I was a minor-leaguer, only got magazines from the recycling bins). I was feeling conspicuous, felt like I was a little too old and not hipster enough to be doing that anymore.

I’m also a little self-conscious about getting stuff out of the recycling as my mom likes to find and “save” stuff (on a large scale — she found and got somebody to fish a stove out of a dumpster once — long story).


Sadie and Buster thought I’d put the straw out especially for them.  They found new napping spots within minutes of my scattering the straw over the cardboard.  The boys were also drawn to it, scooting the straw around with their tonka tractors.

And of course, cardboard boxes are the best toys…they ended up putting one long one over the rock steps in the backyard and turning it into a slide.


The end of the overwintered dinosaur kale

I love dinosaur kale.  I really love it when I don’t have to pick off the cabbage worms that like to live on it when the temps are a little warmer.  It also looks so nice before they eat holes in it. (Dang cabbage worms).

James suggested I pick a few leaves of it out of the garden for something he was cooking a couple nights ago.

When I came back in with two whole plants he wondered why I’d pulled them up.  Well, it’s getting just warm enough that they’re starting to bolt, so I figured we should just go on and eat them before they get bitter.

He said (more than once) that was way too much dinosaur kale for what he was making, but he was just forgetting how leafy greens cook down from mountain to cupful in a matter of minutes.

Anyway, here’s what he created with the kale, some of our frozen stewed tomatoes and a dried cayenne pepper from last summer, diced chicken breast, a couple heads of garlic and an onion….

So good!!

Here are some pics of what’s happening with the other overwintered greens….I’ll be pulling them up in the next few days, making room for more early spring seeds…..

Arugula is flowering. Mizuna getting big with a *major* bite.

Tatsoi bolted and flowering

Spinach is really going strong now (on left)


Appalachian Spring

It’s here!

And it’s so tempting to think that the snows and hard freezes are over till next winter.  There’s no reason not to be excited though, it’s just the reality of springtime in the Blue Ridge.  I’ve been especially happy seeing all the new things popping up around the yard, in the raised beds, and around town.

I planted my first asparagus plants last year.   I planted about 20 crowns and they produced great-big, feathery plants by the end of summer.  They’re not in my raised beds but instead in a bed right next to our front porch, sharing space with herbs.   Here’s what started breaking through last week:

Mary Washington asparagus

When they first start to emerge just above the soil line, they are really white.  My older son was worried the first time I pointed one out to him:  he was sure it was one of the white grubs that keep turning up in his shovelfuls of dirt when he’s playing in the garden.  (Funny, he loves slugs but is repulsed by the grubs).

Here are some of my Sow True seeds that I planted a week ago in one of the raised beds –woo-hoo!

Asian Greens

The cabbages are just about done, so I picked two heads……

and they were the starring ingredient in this stir-fry tonight.









It was nice to get them out of the garden — there’s all kinds of space that opened up for some new seeds and plants.   A note about growing cabbages (and collards, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts):  they take up alot of room in raised beds, even when you plant them fairly close together.  The ones above each had a “footprint” about 2 feet around.  I like cabbage but there are other plants I like better that take up less room.  Will have to think about that when I plant my fall garden…..

Here’s a spectacular tree that my boys and I saw on our late-afternoon walk today.


DIY raised beds

  • DIY = Do It Yourself
  • DIWH = Do It With Help

The latter better described what I started yesterday.  Actually, it should be:

  • DIWLOHFB = Do It With Lots of Help From Brother

(OK, I better stop, I am an “initial-talk”, or “I.T.” addict and can easily get carried away.)

This time last year, I was in such a sleep-deprived fog from a year of colicky-baby nights (and no-napping days) that I didn’t even consider trying to build my raised beds.  So I ordered some cedar raised bed kits online from Natural Yards and was thrilled to be able to put all four beds together in less than a half hour— seriously.

Now that my almost-two year old has recently liked sleeping (hallelujah), my brain is working better,  and the stretches of time when I can get things accomplished are starting to, well, stretch out.  So I’ve decided to expand the garden with a few more raised beds.  And instead of ordering kits again,  I attempted a DIY/DIWLOHFB project to build the beds on my own.

After enlisting my brother’s help, we got all the supplies, started building, and I by default was the helper/gofer.  I didn’t mind a bit — as a mom to toddlers, it’s nice to have somebody else be in charge sometimes!  Using the exact design of my existing from-kit beds, we got one bed done (measured, cut, assembled) before the first thunderstorm of the year came roaring along mid-afternoon.

The ends of the pieces of lumber fit together after they've been cut. We cut and stacked another layer on top of these (making the beds 12" deep), then drilled holes all the way through the overlapping ends and secured them with metal dowels.

My brother was in meetings this afternoon.  I was dang determined to get the other bed done, so I plugged in the Sawzall, got the speedsquare and went to work, measuring and cutting the cedar boards.  (I’m talking like I know what I’m doing, when actually I’m talking like somebody who knows *just* enough, but not quite enough.  Just wait.)

Well, I was really DIY this afternoon, all the while entertaining my older boy and the neighbor girl with fun games —  like pretending the scrap blocks from the lumber I was cutting were “rocket fuel” and “magic invisibility bars” to use in their treehouse adventures.  I was feeling pretty cool and quite capable (hubris; pride before the fall).  Should have known it was just toooo easy.


Just as I was on the final cut, by brother drove up.  Oh, was I proud that I’d done all that by myself — in under 3 hours!  We went to put the pieces together, and — oh **$&%#.   Cavewoman Carpentry, at its finest.

Mama tried, Mama tried.

Fortunately, my brother was able to fix it all (he basically cut off the end notches I’d cut and started all over again).

Uncle Craig saves the day

Lesson:  Raised beds with cedar lumber are awesome. They look good, the cedar is safe for you and your plants, and it’s durable.  However, if you’re going to DIY and you’re like me (limited carpentry skills), get some help from someone who knows, or plan very well.  (I’m not a planner when it comes to gardening, hence my blog sub-title, “…by-the-seat-of-my-pants.”  Smarty-pants brother reminded me “Measure twice, cut once.).

Price-wise, it was about half the cost of the kit beds I’d ordered online.  So definitely an advantage there if you’re competent enough to do the carpentry part.

Note:  You can make raised beds from just about anything and there are all kinds of ideas on how to do it on this page on organic gardening.


Rough winter. No worries, it’s all green!

Winter blues don’t stand a chance on days I harvest hardy greens to go with dinner. Here are the starring ingredients in our winter salads, clockwise from top left:

Mizuna: textured like frissee, not too bitter, mustardy and a little spicy

Spinach (Bloomsdale):  thick leaves but tender and mellow

Arugula:  rich and spicy

Cilantro:  no wonder these guys always go to seed mid-May…they were happy as clams through the winter and are going strong in the covered beds right now.  I love to toss a few sprigs in with my salads, adds a nice contrast.

Cress:  whoo-wee, spicy  — but so good!  And one of the loveliest rows in my raised beds.

Toss them all together with just about any kind of salad dressing….YUM!   These salads can stand even the most outrageously bold dressing (a la roquefort or something really garlicky) and still hold their own flavor-wise.  But I personally like them with a balsamic vinaigrette.

While I’m crunching away, I can’t help but think of the super vitamins I’m getting from such dark leafy veggies, especially when the toddlers are toting in all kinds of icky viruses this time of year.

I’m sad thinking about these greens going to seed in a couple months, but I’m encouraged by the thought of late-spring salads coming in.  In that spirit, I planted about 20 romaine starts a few days ago.  This is the earliest I’ve ever tried putting them out, but it’s also the first time I’ve had covered raised beds, so we’ll see if they make it through the inevitable final hurrahs of winter:



Raised bed covers=mini greenhouses

I googled “raised bed covers” and “hoop houses”  at the first hint of cold last fall.  There were lots of great ideas online, but my biggest help was my McGyver-esque neighbor (who’s also an engineer/carpenter).

“McGyver” took one look at my raised beds and replicated them perfectly – from scratch.  I, on the other hand, had ordered mine online…having two kids under 3 plus cavewoman-like carpentry skills and a dear husband who’s about as talented in that department as I am…well, you get the picture.  Then McG built a PVC frame and covered it with chicken wire to keep critters out of their plants.  (We have two Jack Russell terriers who are very effective at keeping those kinds of pests out, so I really just wanted a frame for a cold-weather cover.)


Clamp (next to some kind of plumbing thing that broke, wrong kind)

So, materials and technique as I learned from dear neighbor:  1/2 inch PVC pipe;  plumbing pipe clamps (both the plastic and the copper kinds…they didn’t have enough plastic in stock at Lowe’s so I got the copper too).  The clamps screwed right into the interior wall of the beds.  I used a random hand saw to cut the pipe down to 6 ft. (the beds are 4ft. wide).

I really didn’t measure the distance between each pvc-length (now “hoop”)….I just kind of eyeballed it and used the good-ol measuring-by-footstep technique (the one I use when I don’t want to go back inside the house and scrounge for the tape measure for fear of waking up sleeping tots).

It took me a few afternoons to cut, bend, and attach the PVC pipes, turning them into the skeleton of my mini-greenhouses.  After I’d finished, I stood back and looked at my work, and I was reminded of a big whale skeleton, or dinosaur bones.  All that white pipe, couldn’t stand it.  (OK OK I’m particular).

I remembered that can of green fence paint in the basement from a birdhouse-pole project of my husband’s (don’t ask).  Anyway, I spent the next afternoon or two painting all the pipes, all 15 of them.  Total pain, but now my garden doesn’t look like an outdoor paleontology exhibit.

With the structure in place, I was determined to find the clearest plastic I could find.  I really wanted something clear so I could see my plants (yes, I wanted it to look good too).  I went to all the big home improvement stores, hardware stores, garden centers and even a paint store to find this elusive clear plastic.  None to be found.  More googling and I found VINYL.  Sweet.  

You can’t buy vinyl at any of the above venues, but I found some at our local Foam & Fabric store.  I bought a whole roll of the mid-weight (8 mil maybe?) and it was just enough to cover my 4ftx4ft bed, and two of the 12ftx4ft beds.  I used zip ties to attach it to the frames, and they have held up surprisingly well throughout the winter and its temps and winds.

In order to make the beds accessible, I divided the lengths of vinyl in half and nailed the bottom part (with old roofing nails) to scrap pieces of wood:  that makes it easier to lift up the vinyl in one piece, especially when it’s really cold.


Vinyl is tough to deal with when it’s colder than 45f or so.  It becomes less pliable the colder the temp, and therefore it’s more of a pain to open and close the “windows” on the frames.  But hey, beauty has its price.


And vinyl sheeting met the criteria:  functional + not ugly, and most importantly, we’ve been loving all kinds of greens all winter!

My best helper covering the small bed for the night


Checking out the cabbages






Hooray for 60 degrees in February!

I know, I know, we’re still in for more freezes and snows between now and Mother’s Day (unofficial last frost date in this part of the southern Appalachians), but DANG, it feels great outside!

Great helper - digging for stray carrots

I finally tackled our barely-decomposing compost piles today.  It was an archeological dig of sorts.  I found a perfectly-preserved apple in there from last October, a few smushy but still vibrantly red peppers, and I also found a resurrected kale plant that I thought was killed by the cold….it had even grown a few new shoots.  I fished it out and planted it in one of the beds.   Hmm, my compost piles need some serious adjustment.


We started these two piles last year, and they’re not breaking down as fast as I’d like.  I think the one thing I’m missing is some kind of animal manure to get it hot.

I also think stuff was too big…too many leaves and plant stalks (another one of my finds was an intact lavender branch that still smelled great and looked pretty cool too…but that’s not what I’m needing to amend my garden soil…)

So, my lawnmower became my mulcher.  I dug out both sides of the piles, and ran over the contents over and over and over and over ( = sore lower back in the morning).   This being a “yard farm” and all, the garden/compost piles are in close proximity to my neighbors, so I did go check with them and make sure they wouldn’t mind the mid-morning racket (they have a 3-month old and I surely didn’t want to disturb a nap with a lawnmower chewing up stalks and leaves).


After the lawnmower treatment

I was really proud of my idea to mulch with the lawnmower, but that was tempered by my husband pointing out that running over that many stalks will probably mean a trip to get the blade sharpened.  Oh well….it worked, right?



Compost tumbler

This is our other compost “system” in the yard.  I bought this tumbling composter a few years ago.  It looked so cool, simple and easy….it definitely heats up fast and turns all kinds of stuff into beautiful crumbly black compost, but it’s not easy to turn. And if you leave it turned lid-side-up, it fills up with rain and then you’ve got a big ol mess to deal with (like I had to fool with today).

But even compost slurry getting in my boots couldn’t put a damper on my delight at the hint of spring around the corner — yeeeehaaa!


February, and I’m dreaming of tomatoes

Amish paste tomatoes make us all happy

This is my Amish paste tomato right here

My guys love to pick tomatoes.  They love to pick them so much that they will even pick them when they’re green, so we’ve had to do some re-training on *when* to pick.  Great lesson in learning colors.  Red=good to go, green=wait.

On the stove

Here’s three different kinds of tomatoes from my garden last July.  I decided to freeze them by variety, so that’s cherry tomatoes on the back left burner, my *FAVORITE* Amish paste front left, and Japanese black on the front right.

Frozen stewed tomatoes


Disease-resistant tomatoes: do they really exist??

After a couple summers of watching my dear heirloom tomato varieties die slow deaths from blight after a month or so of big yields, I was becoming disheartened.   I started looking at the “disease-resistant” hybrids at the local garden center, and wondered if they’d indeed be able to ward off the various blights that got my plants every year.

Wilting.... (image: Wikimedia)

Among various other attempts to keep my heirloom plants healthy, I’d tried organic fungicides, watering only at the base of the plants (and only in the mornings), and one weird planting technique: putting a couple tablespoons powdered milk, epsom salts, and compost in the hole in the ground before putting the tomato plant in. However, nothing really seemed to work.

So, I started buying hybrids in addition to heirlooms to see if they fared better. Nope. They all started getting the yellowing leaves with brown spots starting at the bottom limbs, which eventually climbed up the plants, at which point they stopped flowering.

Then I got all into pruning off the diseased limbs.   Tomato bonsai!   I think that was the best tactic.  It seemed not only to prolong the life of the plants, but they also didn’t look so sick.



Nematode junkies



Squash vine borers in action

Just when you think you’ve got a great, strong set of vines going, you look out on your garden one July afternoon, and see this.  Your first thought is, “wait a minute, I thought I watered this morning…”   Then you remember that you actually DID.  But you go water them again anyway because you figure it is just so ridiculously hot, how could any veggie plant withstand it?

While you’re watering away, there’s a grub gnawing away at the inside of the squash vine (and I imagine he’s laughing too…can you tell I anthropomorphize garden pests?  Helps me cope…).    My dad anthropomorphizes too, but in this case he speaks of the squash plant “writing and twisting” as if it were in pain from the attack. It all starts with the squash vine borer moth.  Looks cool, but isn’t.

(photo:  wikimedia)

You’ll see this wasp-looking thing casually flying around your garden acting like it’s just checking it out, but it’s really laying eggs at the base of the vines.  They hatch, then bore away and leave frass (a mealy waste residue) on the outside of the vine, right near the base…ick…


Borer larva in action (photo: Wikimedia)

In the past, I’d tried cutting open vines and smushing the borers.  But by the time they make themselves known the plants are so far gone that they’ll only produce a few more squash.  However, I read about injecting beneficial nematodes into the vines…and this is what I ordered from a gardening catalog:

Inside each syringe was a little sponge, full of nematodes.  I have no idea what a

Nematode syringes

nematode looks like or how big it is, but I do know that after injecting the squash vines with the solution, the vines continued to grow and produce lots (and lots and lots) of pattypan squash. This coming season I’m stocking up on the nematodes.

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