Weekend Project: An Inexpensive Raised Bed

This time of year, I itch to get out into the garden, and I’ve been dreaming of expanding the available vegetable gardening area for months now.  This past weekend, my boyfriend and I (ok, mostly my boyfriend) constructed a cheap raised bed to partially fill an otherwise useless side yard.

Raised bed built from fence pickets

Raised bed built from fence pickets

Materials we used:

  • 6-foot Cedar fence pickets (rot resistant, and inexpensive):  These were on a coupon special from McLendon’s (Western WA). We bought 6 for this plan at a price of $1.28/each, or a total of $7.68.  
  • 1- 8′ foot 2×4 for corner support and cross-support (non-pressure treated, due to potential food contamination issues)
  • Self-drilling screws (these were the most expensive item aside from the compost/soil)
  • Trim for added stability (we used 1x2s)
  • Compost/topsoil – We used 7 cubic feet of compost and 4 cubic feet of topsoil.

This is a great basic and inexpensive bed to build, and pieces can be pre-cut at your local hardware store.  Using self drilling screws means the only real tool needed is a screw driver (cordless drill with phillips bit) if material is pre-cut.  We assembled it as follows:

The basic instructions:

  • Cut corner supports to 12″ lengths
  • Attach sides, using 2 full length 6′ fence boards for the long sides, and 1 halved 6′ fence board for each of the short sides (1 picket cut into two 3-foot lengths).  We butted our joints leaving the joint on the short sides, so the width of the bed was 36″.
  • For the brace, we used a 3′ length of 2×4 spanning the inside of the bed (will be covered by dirt).  It was screwed to both the upper and lower fence boards to provide support and prevent bowing.
  • To finish, and provide additional stability/warp control, we attached 1×2 trim around the top.  Nothing fancy, but I think it will help to prevent warping.

This was so quick and easy to do, we were tempted to head back to the hardware store and build another, which we may do on another weekend (perhaps a 3×3?).   After a failed attempt at growing pumpkins there last year, I’m excited to potentially put this otherwise unusable piece of lot to good use.

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Planting by Phases of the Moon

As someone who personally feels the effects of the moon (I get very ADD during the New Moon), I’ve always suspected that moon phases had a greater impact on living things than could be easily explained.  After researching when to start seeds indoors, I stumbled across the good ol’ Farmer’s Almanac, and was surprised that they cited the “moon-favorable dates” on their planting chart.  This warranted research.  What was this lunar gardening?

182165473_f08a1edf94_mWe’ve long understood how the moon affects the tides, so it is no wonder that it affects plants, whose main mechanisms for growth are the transport of water and the utilization of sunlight through photosynthesis.  Gardening by moon phase (a component of what is referred to as Biodynamic Gardening) is as old as agriculture itself.  During the New Moon, when the gravitational pull is the greatest, the moon aids in pulling water up toward a seedling’s roots.  Apparently, seeds will absorb the most moisture during the time of the full moon.  Now, for those of us in the Pacific Northwest, there is certainly no shortage of spring moisture.  That said, this technique may not make any visible difference for those where moisture is not an issue.  Our ground is fairly soggy until June most years.  But, for those in areas where spring rain is less abundant, why not give it a try?

From the article Celestial Gardening, Organic Gardening.com:

“One backyard gardener who’s convinced is Richard Makowski of River Vale, New Jersey. Makowski says he tried the biodynamic planting calendar a few years ago “for the heck of it”—and saw his winter squash yields triple. “My wife says the vegetables are sweeter,” he says, taking a break from planting a bed at the Pfeiffer garden. “I didn’t even believe this stuff at first. And maybe you don’t have to. But I’ve never met a gardener who isn’t spiritual on some level.”

Unfortunately, I planted my kohlrabi and sweet peas on Saturday, which was a waning moon.  On the bright side, it appears to be a good time to plant trees, so the lilac transplant I have planned for next weekend will be right in sync – as long as it’s still waning.  Wow, I need an app for this!

What I surmised from my brief research stint:

  1. The New Moon is the best time for planting crops that produce seeds outside their fruit (leafy greens, grains, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.)
  2. The second quarter is best for crops whose seeds are formed inside the fruit (tomatoes, beans, peas, etc.)
  3. Mow lawns in the first and second quarters to encourage growth, and in the third and fourth quarters to retard growth.
  4. The 4th quarter is a time for pruning, composting, and general maintenance.  Not good for planting.
  5. Anything that grows primarily above the ground (beans, peas, squash) should get planted in a waxing phase.
  6. Anything that grows primarily below the ground (potatoes, turnips, onions, carrots) should be planted in the waning phase.

Here are a few sites I found intriguing when reading about the topic, which may just encourage you to pursue additional research:

The Gardeners’ Calendar is an interesting site that outlines the 3 moon planting methods, including a 7 day running calendar summarizing what to do, and what not to do.

Farming by the Moon, from the Farmers’ Almanac

Is biodynamic the new organic? – News article from The Telegraph, UK

Planning the 2013 Vegetable Garden

Or maybe this post should be more appropriately named: “Lessons from failed vegetable gardens”

This will be my third season with a modest backyard vegetable garden.  Previous years’ plantings were  poorly planned, if at all, and mainly consisted of impulse purchases of seeds and plants, resulting in poor yields.  This is my third year.  Experimentation was fun, but it’s time to grow up.

I’m a planner, and am analytical by nature, so I’m not sure why my vegetable gardening is so full of whimsy and inconsistency.  But, as with anything, it’s a learning process.  My first year, I filled my raised beds with a mix of compost and garden soil, but probably didn’t have anywhere near the right proportion or nutrients. I plunked my seeds in the ground, in what I thought was a logical arrangement, and waited.  2011 was The Year of the Radish.  I planted 2 varieties, and planted 16 (or was it 20?) square feet of them.  In retrospect, that was way too many radishes, considering that I’m the only one in the house who really likes them!  Thankfully, I have co-workers who never turn down free food – even radishes.  On the bright side, the radish crop was just what I needed: something fast-growing with a quick pay-off, early season, and very easy to grow.  Maybe radishes are a gateway vegetable?

That first year, I also planted rutabagas.  Not sure why I succumbed to that impulse seed purchase, as I don’t really eat rutabagas regularly.  I could count the number of times I’ve eaten them on one hand.  Could be the Ed Hume Seed packaging, perhaps?  Unfortunately, the rutabagas were a failure.  Something ate tiny little holes in them, and not one was fit for consumption.  Any experts have feedback on this unknown pest?

I planted zucchini that year, which did not do well (the following year, it did much better).  I’m not sure whether it was the lack of bees (there were more the following year), or blossom end rot.  (My profile photo is of my first zucchini flower on my first zucchini plant ever…)  What zucchini did grow, would end up being eaten by my dog.  I’d leave a zucchini on the vine for an extra day, thinking “tomorrow, this will be perfect”.  Well, Stella thought the same thing.  I’d regularly find half a zucchini on the vine with doggy teeth marks.

Carrots failed miserably that first year, but after reading about the specific soil conditions required, I felt I was in good company with a failed carrot crop.  I chose to not even try planting them in 2012.  Heck, I don’t even like carrots much anyway.

Sweet Peas from the garden

Sweet Peas from the garden

Sweet peas are the easiest, most delicious thing to grow here in the Pacific Northwest, in my opinion.  If I had the room, I’d plant 100 square feet of just Sweet Peas, staggering the planting, then plant another batch in mid-August for an autumn harvest.  September seems to be one of the best growing months around the Seattle area.  For the last 2 years, I actually bought plants, but this year I am starting mine from seed.

I had an amazing crop of tomatoes last year, all heirloom varieties started from seed by my sister.  I have no idea what varieties they were, nor did she when she brought them over.  “Here, I have too many tomato starts, but have no idea what they are…” she said.  I plunked them in the ground and had the most amazing yield ever.

Chard is easy to grow here, and delicious, but I wish I had more space, since one meal with chard requires a significant amount of leaves.  I kept mine in the ground from last year, and it has grown significantly in the last couple of weeks.  I generally grow my sweet peas on the west side of my chard to shelter it from the late afternoon sun.  It’s worked really well, and I would recommend the same with any leafy green.

I grew pumpkins on my sunny and useless side yard last year, and after so much watering and manual pollinating, my yield was 3 medium pumpkins.  Don’t think I’ll try that again.  But, it would be a good spot for another raised bed.  Hmm…

I’ve also attempted Gai Lan (another impulse buy due to my love of Gai Lan at Dim Sum restaurants), and Bok Choy, neither of which did well.  The Gai Lan bolted well before becoming sizeable.  The Bok Choy was mostly leaf and not much substance.  No idea where I went wrong with these, but the chickens were appreciative.

Zone 8b can be challenging with a fairly short growing season, but this year I hope to do the research and maximize fall/winter plantings so the garden is doing something year-round, even if it’s rejuvenating itself with a cover crop.

This year’s vegetable garden:

  • Tomatoes (no-brainer)
  • Chard
  • Kohlrabi (I’m so excited for this one)
  • Onions
  • Sweet Peas
  • Zucchini
  • Potatoes (experimenting with intentional planting this year)
  • Cucumbers
  • Radishes (just a few, I promise…)
  • Strawberries (chicken-proof hanging baskets)

Any other suggestions for the 8b zone/Seattle area from you experts out there?  I have limited space, so have never opted for things like corn, but would appreciate success stories from those who have survived these experimental years.

Adventures in Raising City Chickens

At work, my teammates jokingly refer to me as “The Crazy Chicken Lady”.  I have to admit, I kind of like it.  When we’re younger, we strive to fit in.  I’ve finally reached a place in my life where I embrace my eccentricities, and feel sadness for those who are in their 40s, still trying to “fit in”.  Let your freak flag fly, I say.  (Channeling my inner Portland…)

Miss Cleo, City Chicken

Miss Cleo, City Chicken

I did not enter into the decision to raise chickens in the backyard of a city lot lightly.  For me, pretty much everything requires hours of research.  I worried about the neighbors, about how the dog and cats would get along with them, but from the time I was a little girl, I always wanted to live on a farm, and something called to me.

I’ve heard chickens called the “gateway animal”.  Once you have chickens, you might as well have goats.  Hmm.  I would love goats!     Not sure they’re legal in my city, but one day, with a plot of earth…. maybe.  Rabbits, perhaps?

“The Girls” free-range in my backyard during daylight hours and have a small coop I ordered online and assembled, that they really only sleep in and lay eggs in.  If I had it to do over again, I would have definitely built something, but I do like it this way.  They are not confined, and had I built something from scratch, I think I’d feel the need to enclose a run.  This way, I felt guilty with their small accommodations and let them have the run of the yard during the day.  I get up, have my coffee, get ready for work, and let the girls out.  Thankfully, it’s now light when I leave for work.  There were days in December where I had to open the coop for them in the wee dark hours before sunrise.  Thankfully, our city raccoons have had their instincts bred out of them. I close the coop at night after they’ve already put themselves to bed, and they keep my backyard grub-free, and the grass nicely trimmed.

There are drawbacks, of course.  I love flowers.  So do chickens.  I spent days researching chicken-friendly landscaping, logging my botanical discoveries on a spreadsheet.  I long for more than the standard Rhododendron/Camellia landscaping that is so prolific in the Pacific Northwest.  Last spring, I planted New Guinea Impatiens, which they’re supposed to dislike.  They left them alone for a month, then I came home from work one day and they were devoured down to the dirt..  Russian Sage is another plant that is supposedly distasteful to them.  I planted it along the fence, and it lasted through the flowering season, but as soon as the weather started to turn in September, they devoured every leaf on it. I hope it comes back.

I’m listing the plants that have survived my free-range chickens below.  Several are noted to be poisonous, so not necessarily “chicken friendly”.  At least I have smart chickens.

Plants that have survived my chickens:

  1. Azalea
  2. Hyacinth
  3. Daffodil
  4. Lilly of the Valley (inherited it with this yard, and is fairly prolific)
  5. Daylilly (planted last spring without barrier/protection, and they haven’t touched them)
  6. Heath
  7. Columbine
  8. Pansies (a weed in my yard that they won’t touch)
  9. Euphorbia (they leave the leaves, but do eat the flowers)
  10. Hydrangea
  11. Bleeding Heart
  12. English Ivy
  13. Forsythia
  14. Chamomile (planted last spring, and they have left untouched)
  15. Rose Campion (commonly misidentified as “lambs ears”)
  16. Pittosporum
  17. Cotoneaster (their favorite hiding place)
  18. Peony

Kohlrabi: Where have you been all my life?

I’ve not lived a sheltered existence by any means, but somehow, I’ve fumbled through life without ever trying kohlrabi – until tonight.  I think this is now my favorite vegetable – ever.

Last week, I eyed some in the organic section of Fred Meyer, and thought “Hmm, what does one do with that?”  After much research, we decidedly had to try it.  Tonight, my boyfriend cooked an amazing dinner which included roasted kohlrabi.  Delicious, and absolutely amazing.  I had to call my sister.

“Have you ever tried kohlrabi?” I asked.

“Uh…no.”

“Well, if you have a mandolin, it would make the most amazing slaw ever,” I touted.

“I just bought one today!”

There you have it.  Fate.  Destiny.  Kohlrabi.

Kohlrabi at Pike Place Market courtesy Lisa Norwood: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanorwood/

Kohlrabi at Pike Place Market courtesy Lisa Norwood: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanorwood/

The reviews compare it to broccoli stems, which I guess would be the closest comparison you could find, but to me, was not close at all.  Raw, it is amazingly crisp – I found myself fantasizing about kohlrabi slaw, kohlrabi and dip, kohlrabi shaved in a green salad.  Cooked, it is so much better than broccoli stems.

Equally exciting, is the fact that I can sow seeds in my garden now, and harvest kohlrabi in about 60 days, just in time for our Northwest gardens to warm up for things like tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers.

The chickens absolutely went crazy for the leaves and peels.  Although the leaves are also edible (as you would cook any other greens), I will likely just feed them to my girls.  The dog even ran away with a couple of leaves, which the chickens were not happy with at all.

So, kohlrabi is definitely in my gardening plan this year.  Hoping that next weekend includes sowing kohlrabi seeds and starting my Great Potato Experiment.  (Ok, it might be more like a Moderate Potato Experiment…)

This New York Times Blog has some additional information and recipes.  I think I must try kohlrabi home fries:  Discovering Kohlrabi (It’s a Vegetable)