Spring Progress and Spring Blooms

As I’ve written before, it has been a tough spring here in eastern Massachusetts.  Lots of rainy, cool weather.  It seems now that things are looking up, and some of my favorite spring plants are out in all their glory. The vegetable garden is also taking off (finally).

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Tomatoes in the back then leeks, shallots, cabbage, beets, and broccoli.
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A new addition this year–potato bags.  We got these from Gardener’s Supply in Vermont, and so far so good.  We have a few of them growing purple, red, and yellow potatoes as well as French fingerlings.

The other good news is that I am out of the waling boot and mostly back on my feet so I am able to get back up to Appleton Farms to see the girls.

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Clearly Ricotta missed me.

The ornamentals are also doing their thing.

 

 

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Clematis, unknown cultivar
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Lupinus perenis and Lupinus ‘Russel hybrids.’ Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull’ about to bloom
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We don’t call it the pollinator garden for nothing–the bees have been taking full advantage of the Lupine blooms.
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Butterfly enjoying the Perovskia atriplicifolia

 

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Iris sibirica

 

Waste Not Want Not: Radish Top Pesto

Our daughter loved radishes and so we have been planting, harvesting, and replanting in quick succession and will do so as long as the weather permits (radishes bolt when the warm weather sets in).  Radish sprouts are great on salads and sandwiches, and we of course love the full grown radish root.  However, radish tops/greens are a different story.  Unlike beet greens, radish greens are not as appetizing in their raw state.

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Elsie sowing radish seeds in early spring
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She reaps what she sows!

The leaves are rough if not somewhat spiny and, of course, they have some zip to them.  But after all the effort that goes into planting, we hate to simply toss the greens onto the compost pile.  My wife discovered a recipe for radish top pesto that we have really enjoyed over at Genius Kitchen.

Ingredients:

2 -3 cups radish greens/radish tops

3 cloves garlic, smashed

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons pine nuts

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Place the first four ingredients in a food processor and pulse into a fine paste
  2. Add remaining ingredients and pulse to combine
  3. If the pesto is too bitter, add some additional sugar.  Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
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Radish greens are good in the compost but better in a pesto

That’s it, pretty simple.  Be forewarned, this pesto is very different from its basil based cousin; the spiciness of the radish definitely comes through!  We really enjoyed it though and it was a nice change of pace from the tomato sauce or traditional basil pesto we typically put on pasta. Special thanks to Genius Kitchen user Just Garlic for posting this recipe!

Reflections on Career and Making Time–A Lesson from the Great Bill Watterson

I’m not a professional gardener or carpenter or furniture maker or restorer.  These things are my passion, but they are not my job.  In my professional life, I am an associate professor at a small state university in Massachusetts where I teach courses in public policy, biomedical ethics, and social research.  I do love teaching, and I also really enjoy the time I spend working with ethics boards within various medical systems.   It is a good job that I mostly enjoy and that affords me a decent salary, benefits, pension, and flexible schedule.  I also get a lot of freedom, which I appreciate.  How I got here deserves some explanation

A small state school in eastern MA was not what I was trained for–I was trained for a position at a major research University.  That I didn’t end up working at an R1 (that is, a PhD granting research institution) surely caused some disappointment among the faculty and deans at the University of Pennsylvania where I earned my masters degrees and doctorate.  With all due respect to my beloved professors, I don’t care–I made the right choice.

Life at an R1 university is not for the faint of heart.  Your life is tied to an endless cycle of funding proposals, data collection, conference presentations, and publishing, publishing, publishing.  Some of that is fine, but at that elite level, the demands for funding and publications affords one little time for other things like, for instance, growing, building, and restoring, not to mention family.  No thank you.  I received such a great education and my training as a researcher was second to none.  I also made a lot of close friends and I remain close to several professors whom I admire deeply.  I have no regrets about going to an elite graduate program, but I also have no regrets about turning my back on that particular rat race when it came time to find a faculty position.

I have been enjoying my sabbatical and reading things unrelated to my professional life (don’t be alarmed, I have also wrapped up some research projects).  Today, I read through Bill Watterson’s (he of Calvin & Hobbes fame) commencement address at Kenyon College in 1990 and it beautifully expressed the way I think about my own career and extra-curricular pursuits.

“But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.”

Thankfully, I have had the opportunity to allow my interests and ambitions to spread out over many areas. To be sure, many are linked to my professional life, but many are not except, perhaps, in a very abstract sense.  I am an ambitious person and I there are few things I love more than tackling an ambitious project; that should be obvious given the things I write about her.  However, my ambitions are diffuse rather than focused.  Does that make me a bad academic?  Perhaps in the R1 sense of the term.  Does it make me a happy person?  Absolutely it does.

“Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.”

I would not consider my job undemanding; being a good teacher (and that is a title I will claim) takes work, as does publishing and consulting.  But I get his point.  Again, there were some folks at my graduate program who really did not understand why I didn’t want to go to an R1.  It was hard to explain that there were other really, really important things I simply refused to sacrifice in order to get there.  I don’t know if that makes me a flake.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

I’ve written before that people often say to me things like “how do you find the time” or “I wish I had time to work in the garden.”  For one, I don’t spend several hours a day watching TV or scrolling through a Facebook feed as the average American does. Secondly, I consider things in terms of opportunity costs–a tip I learned by reading the chapter “economy” in Thoreau’s Walden many years ago.  I want a bigger house or a newer car or a few thousand dollars more in my salary.  O.K., what do I give up to get those things?  Time away from my family? Less time to teach my daughter how to use hand tools? Must I give up volunteering at my daughter’s school or serving on the board of my local farmer’s market or homeless shelter?  Do I need to cut back on how much time I spend in my garden or at my workbench or writing this blog? Is it worth giving up those things in order to have a bit more money?  The answer is usually no.

This is not to imply that I am endorsing hedonism.  I am doing no such thing.  In fact, I believe that the whole point of life is to be spirited and useful and not just self indulgent.  I am simply saying that the demands of more work and greater efficiency in order to pursue yet probably never achieve an artificially narrow definition of success and happiness forces us to disregard all of the manifold ways that we may contribute to the welfare and happiness of our family, our community, our environment, and yes, ourselves.

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

And indeed I am.

 

 

 

A Slow Start to Spring, Sort of

Like last year, this has been a cold and wet spring.  Northern New England got snow the night of May 13th, while here along the Massachusetts coast the nighttime temp last night was upper 30s to low 40s. They are calling for the same again tonight. I hurriedly put row cover over my garden to keep my peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes toasty while we wait for real spring weather.

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The cool season crops to the left should be fine, but I was a bit worried about the tomatoes in the large bed.

I have traditionally planted out my tender veggies on mothers day weekend–looks like I should have waited a bit! For now, the garden sits in a holding pattern while we wait for sun and warmer temps to get things moving along.  The doldrums this has engendered in me is exasperated by the fact that I am just now able to get back into the garden following surgery to repair my Achilles tendon.  I excitedly got rid of the cast, off the crutches, and into a walking boot, only to find myself hobbling from the couch and into a cold drizzle.  Bummer.

Late-autumn-weather-in-spring notwithstanding, we have managed to get some work done.  Before going in for surgery, we wrapped up the hardscaping and regrading at the “top” of our yard.

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Sometimes it is downright handy being married to a civil engineer–we make a pretty good design build team. We built a few more steps and retaining wall so we could level out a small area for our chairs and fire pit.
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The view down from the top of the back yard.  The veggie garden is off to the left just out of frame.

After I got off my crutches and into a walking boot I planted grass at the top of the hill.  I then planted some of the relatively shallow, rock areas around the new steps with succulents and alpine plants.

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Hooray for my walking boot
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A mix of succulents: Hens and chicks, and several different sedums like ‘Angelina,’ ‘Blue spruce,’ and ‘Voodoo.’

I’ve been obsessively watching the British gardening show Gardeners’ World (more on that at a later date) on BritBox.  They often feature scree gardens, and while I know what scree is, I had never heard of a scree garden before. I’m quite glad that I now have.  I filled in the new steps and walkway with river stone (slightly bigger than pea stone) after planting some tough alpine plants that can handle both rocky, sandy soil and moderate foot traffic.

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The scree garden, including Thymus serpyllum ‘Pink chintz,’ Veronica prostrata ‘Nestor,’ Armeria maritima ‘Morning Star Deep Rose’ and “Armada Rose,’ and Juniperus horizontalis ‘Andorra Compact’

I did finally get a holly bush moved and replaced it with one of my all time garden favorites, Viburnum

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Viburnum x ‘Burkwoodii’ or Burkwood Spice Viburnum

I also planted an homage to my father-in-law Jim, wife Hilary, and daughter Elsie’s heritage: a trio of Korean lilacs.

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Korean lilac Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’ set behind a spread of Phlox subulata. Photo taken on one of the few sunny and warm spring days we’ve had this year.

And lastly, we did get out window boxes planted.  Elsie took charge.

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Elsie is becoming quite the little gardener.  Kids like to be given tasks they can take charge of and “own.”

So, a slow start weather wise, but the garden has not been without activity.  My growing, building, and restoring activities are so tied to seasons that this late start to spring feels like a real disruption.  We plant in the spring, grow in the summer, and harvest and preserve in the fall.  After I put the garden to bed I take up my tools and spend the late autumn and winter in the woodshop. After a long New England winter I am desperate to start the cycle over again, and so the cold rainy spring has certainly dampened my mood a bit.  It will change though, and the warm weather will be here to stay, and soon enough I’ll probably be complaining about how hot it is.

Going Zero Waste: Furthering the Link Between Growing, Restoring and Environmental Conservation

Zero waste sounds like a lofty goal, and it is, but rather than be intimidated by it we should remember that “perfect is the enemy of the good,” or perhaps even the possible.  So while we (and this is a team effort between my daughter Elsie, wife Hilary, and me) we strive to do our best, we recognize that though we may not be perfect we can always do better than we do now.  So, when we say zero waste, we really mean minimal waste. We are taking steps toward dramatically reducing 1. the waste we put out for curb collection, and 2. our use of plastics overall.  This second point is important given the current crisis in plastics recycling.  Hilary is the one who has planted the seed for our family, but we all share a deep concern over environmental issues so she didn’t have to work too hard to get Elsie and me in board.  My passion for building and growing and restoring is inseparable from my environmentalism and is  rooted in my concerns about the impact of modern technology and consumer culture.  Our move to zero waste will, I think, intersect with woodworking, gardening, and restoring is interesting ways: these activities will help our efforts in some ways (restoring means reusing, and the composting we do significantly reduces waste), but will be challenging in other ways (the dreaded black plastic nursery pot for instance).

There are many really great blogs that cover zero waste living.  I’m partial to this one, but there are lists of other “top” zero waste blogs that give great tips on minimizing waste in the home: using travel mugs, switching away from liquid soaps and shampoos, buying in bulk, etc.

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We’ve been slowly moving toward zero waste for some time; years ago I switched to using shaving soap rather than cans of foam or gel and stopped using disposable plastic razors in favor of a classic safety razor.  This is a 1960’s Gillette I found at a garage sale. Yes the blades are disposable, but being steel, they can also be collected in a metal razor safe and easily recycled.

We are progressively adopting these practices in the home, but I’m mostly interested here in considering the unique advantages and challenges for gardeners. Later on, I’ll tackle zero waste issues in the wood shop.

Advantages and challenges

In some ways, we have already been operating on a zero waste philosophy.  Most gardeners do. First off, we compost everything we can from food scraps to  the cardboard rolls from toilet paper.  Very little from the kitchen goes down the garbage disposal.  Obviously, we don’t compost meat or grease, but just about any other scraps from the kitchen are fare game.  That equals a significant waste stream reduction.

There are however two  big sources of plastic in the garden that present challenges: the plastic bags in which compost, mulch, and potting soil are packaged, and the plastic pots that come from the nursery and plastic trays and cells that are used for propagation.  Eliminating these sources of plastic is challenging, if not impossible given our current infrastructure.  Here are the ups and downs and challenges and victories of going zero waste in the garden:

1. We produce a good bit of our own compost, and when we run out, we have the luxury of access to free municipal compost through the Marblehead transfer station.  It’s a great deal if you don’t mind filling up your buckets and trugs and hauling them in your own car (and I don’t mind, which is why my wife drives a new car while I drive a used one).

2.  I order my bark mulch in bulk and have it delivered, or I use leaf mold which I produce myself.  I like to use a coarse wood chip for the paths in the vegetable garden, and I also get that for free from the transfer station (see above).

3. Potting mix/peat/vermiculite.  Well, there is no getting around this one.  Until garden centers start selling in a “fill your own container” format, I am forced to purchase it in 1, 2 or 3 cubic foot bags.  Now, being that we are a seaside town our transfer station has a special drop off area for plastic boat wrap.  I am am still waiting on an answer at to whether I can deposit plastic soil and peat bags there.

4. Plant pots. This one is another tough one.  New plants, shrubs, and trees come in black plastic pots that range in size from small plugs and “six packs” to 5 gallon.  If you are going to buy new plants, there is really no getting around the fact that they will come in plastic–occasionally you will find peat pots, but mostly it is plastic.  The best bet is to recycle these pots as if you can (there are challenges for commercial recyclers) or reuse them at home for plant propagation over and over and over until they they break (then recycle them if you can).  If you are buying  trees or shrubs, try to buy them “B&B” (balled and burlaped), all of which goes in the ground and decomposes. I am also told that Lowe’s will take nursery pots for reuse and recycling (assuming you live near one).

5. Our goal should be not just to reuse or recycle, but to minimize our use of plastic pots all together.  It is great if we can recycle plastic, but there is still a large energy input required to do so. For propagating at home, try to use alternatives to plastic pots.  Currently I am experimenting with peat plugs, cow pots, and paper pots in place of the flimsy plastic cell trays that have a limited life span.

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Paper pot maker by Secrets du Potager.  Paper by the Marblehead Reporter

6. The old adage of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” still applies.  In the past I’ve purchased I don’t know how many plastic watering cans only to have them split, break, or otherwise fail after a distressingly short period of time.  No more.  Now I only buy used/vintage galvanized cans.  Occasionally I have some repairs to do, but they last for years and years, and when they finally rust through, steel is readily recyclable.

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I picked up this old watering can for just a few bucks because the copper diffuser on the head was bent and split in a couple of spots. Some light hammering, bending, and a little bit of soldering (visible in this picture as a blob of silver) returned it to service. Do I get bonus points for recycling rain water?

7. As money permits, purchase high quality tools once and you will likely never have to purchase them again.  That means less going to the landfill.  For instance, a pair of Felco #2 pruners may run you double the cost (they retail for about $50) of a middle of the road pair but they are very durable, easily resharpened, and most parts (most importantly the blades) are replaceable.  This means you don’t need to pitch them altogether and buy new pair if one component happens to wear out.  I’ve had mine about 15 years and they have seen heavy if not downright abusive use; I’ve replaced the blade once at a cost of about $10. I keep them sharp, lubricated, and clear of sap, and with some basic routine maintenance they work as well now as they did brand new. And by the way, I would not have even had to replace the blade had I not used them to cut some hard steel wire that damaged the edge beyond what I could grind out.  The other lesson is to not (overly) abuse your tools.

8. I’ve stopped buying plastic plant labels and switched to using wood or bamboo.  Both materials will biodegrade in the compost pie, though the bamboo will probably do so a bit faster.

Moving forward

The point here is not to be self righteous, but rather to talk about some of the successes we have had–this is tempered by the challenges we face and the places we fall short.  In the end though, it makes little sense to restore our backyard habitat or grow our own vegetables if we don’t do our utmost to reduce the negative externalities those activities produce.  I’ll continue to try new things and consult with others to find ways of reducing the waste produced by our gardening and thereby increasing the net benefit of our efforts.  I’ll be sure to report back on how the paper pots hold up.  Next year I will be creating a new garden area, and one of the ways I am going to minimize the use of plastic is to propagate most of the new perennials myself.

This fall I will put the garden to bed and return to my wood shop.  Expect another post looking out ways of reducing the waste stream from my shop. Gardening, building, and restoring should be acts of environmentalism, activities that that engender thoughtfulness and care and are a bulwark against mindless consumption   To minimize the environmental impact associated with these activities is not just something nice to do, but rather, goes to the core of the philosophy behind those activities.

 

In praise of the humble Mayapple

I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania along the Perkiomen Creek.  The creek was wide and slow in parts, and in others, ran more swiftly cutting narrow valleys through farm fields and woodland. The damp cold and ash gray gloom of late winter and early spring proved irresistible to me, and it was surely one of the times I felt the greatest communion with the land.  I spent many chilly weekend afternoons and evenings after school exploring the wild places and fallow fields around my home.  Decades later, I read a passage in Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning about his own youthful excursions into the late winter wilderness.  He found in cold, gray swamps of his youth a great sense of happiness in being in a vast wilderness despite the cold and the damp.  Reading his essay It immediately brought me back to the fields and valleys and woodlands surrounding the Perkiomen creek.

I don’t know if happiness is the word I’d use to describe the feeling (as Bugbee does), but I understand  what Bugbee was getting at. The late winter and early spring landscape provided me then–and still does today–a quiet moment for contemplation when the snow has faded but life has yet to make a bold vernal return.  Inevitably though while tromping through the woods in the dusky haze one would fine a few harbingers of things to come.  Even while there was still a chill in the air, the flat colors of the  boggy stream bottoms would be punctuated by the fresh green of the emerging Symplocarpus foetidus, known to most as skunk cabbage.  A bit later in April another sign of Spring’s arrival started to form dense colonies on woodland floors: Podophyllum peltatum, commonly known as the Mayapple. New life and the promise of summer was on the horizon.  Sounds like a perfect plant to add life to the spring garden.

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Podophyllum peltatum growing in a shady spot along the front of the house.  Behind the Mayapple is Hellaborus x hybridus ‘Flower girl’

This woodland perennial is native to the eastern United States and hardy in zones 3 through 8.  In recent decades other Podophyllum from Asia  have been introduced (P. delavayi or Dysosma delavayi–Chinese Mayappleis particularly stunning), but we grow the native species. Podophyllum likes woodland shade to part shade in cool, rich soil, and can grow up to about 12 inches tall.  The American Horticultural Association notes that the native Mayapple will quickly colonize, and, they caution, can be “too aggressive.”  That has not been my experience in my garden, but that may be due to the fact that my plantings are occupying relatively small shaded areas in marginal soil.  The plant spreads rhizomatously and can be propagated by division in early spring at the first signs of new growth.  Podophyllum received its common name due to the 2 inch fruit that turns from green to custard colored as it ripens in about mid summer. There is some debate online and in print regarding the edibility of the fruit; if eaten before ripening, the fruit of the Mayapple (which contains podophyllotoxin which is used to treat warts) can cause intestinal upset. I’ve never tried it, nor do I intend to, but I have read that they are tasty.  I’ll take others’ word for it.  Apparently the fruit of the Asian varieties is used in traditional medicines while the fruit of the P. peltatum was used medicinally by Native Americans. The leaves and roots are DEFINITELY poisonous.  By late summer, the plant will die back and go into dormancy awaiting the next spring.

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P. peltatum growing in the shade of a Yew tree along with Sanguinaria canadensis

P. peltatum is hardly a big attention grabber–not terribly tall and lacking in big showy displays–this woodland stalwart disappears from the garden by mid to late summer, giving way to more ostentatious perennials.  However, the Mayapple gives every gardener what he or she so desperately needs, a shot of early green.  As it happens, that early green comes in the form of a cluster of lovely umbrella shaped leaves that bear a delicate white flower and yellow fruit that has been an important part of the traditional medicine of tow very old and very rich cultures.  And, no doubt, there is for me a bit of sentimentality at work as well.  Perhaps the Mayapple is not such a modest addition to the garden after all?

 

 

 

 

 

Reclaiming Marginal Ground

I’ve written quite a bit on our efforts to restore the back yard, which, isn’t really a yard.  As a recap, starting about 5 feet from the back door our property rises nearly 20 feet over a run of about 20 to 30 feet.  You can see in the picture below the view across the first set of retaining walls that sit atop the rock outcropping.

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This outcropping of the Salem Gabbro-Diorite creates a low ridge that emerges suddenly from otherwise level ground and runs about 500 feet or so parallel to our street before dipping back down.   The formation is evident in a few of my neighbor’s yards, but is most pronounced in mine.  Turning this outcropping into accessible ground has been a lot of work: removal of invasive species, replanting with native plants, terracing, building steps, etc.  Challenging yet rewarding, and the work is ongoing.

Last year we terraced off a small section along the right hand edge of our property in order to put in a vegetable garden. The area had previously been overrun with invasive like multiflora rose and shaded by a Norway maple.  After removing these invasive we were left with an area of marginal ground.  The soil was relatively shallow (little more than a foot in spots), rocky, and lacking in substantial organic material.  The terracing helped increase the soil depth a bit and I was able to introduce some organic material into the soil.

Our first year’s garden was moderately successful.  Truth be told, I didn’t have very high expectations for year one, knowing how poor the conditions were.  Our tomatoes did O.K., as did the squash.  The beets really struggled, as did the eggplant.  I suspect soil PH and nutrients were at issue.  The soil was also pretty compacted in spots.  Despite those struggles I was happy that anything grew given how poor the conditions were before we constructed the low retaining wall and started the process of reclaiming that small bit of land.

Nearly a year later, we were ready to move on to step two which was to construct raised beds.  The goal was to buy ourselves a little more soil depth, increase soil fertility, and  ameliorate the problem of soil compaction.  In the early 2000s, I managed a community gardening program in Wilmington, DE run by the Delaware Center for Horticulture. The problems faced by the community gardeners I worked with in that urban environment were similar to what I am dealing with here: nutrient poor, highly compacted soils.  In Wilmington we had bricks and concrete in soil whereas here I have rock.  About the only thing I’m not dealing with–thankfully–is soil pollution (Wilmington had elevated levels of lead and arsenic).  Our solution there was also to build raised beds.

There is nothing complex about building raised beds.  The only real question is the type of material you want to use.  Obviously the fact that there is soil contact means that natural materials will eventually decompose and need to be periodically replaced.  Pressure treated lumber is less toxic than it used to be since it no longer contains arsenic–nevertheless, I didn’t want to use PT lumber in my veggie garden.  Cedar is rot resistant as is cypress but both were cost prohibitive.  I also considered Douglass fir, though that ain’t cheap either.  As this is a project on a budget (I have a Disney vacation to pay for) I simply used pine 2 x 8.  I expect I’ll get no more than three or four years out of it before I need to rebuild.  In the meantime. I am going to work on sourcing recycled plastic timbers like I used in Wilmington or perhaps I’ll find a source for cypress.

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The beds were assembled with simple butt joints fastened with decking screw.  I drove some stakes into the ground to stabilize the frames.  I filled the beds with compost, peat , and a bit of vermiculite.  That’s it.  Easy. We are going to use square foot gardening  to maximize out limited space–another technique that I learned doing community gardening.

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We are approaching mid spring and have already planted carrots, radishes, spinach, lettuce, and onions.  Elsie was if course in on the action.

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Elsie’s smaller and more nimble fingers make her better at sowing tiny seeds.

 

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As she planted she was humming and singing this great old song. I’ll post more as the gardening season progresses.