Before You Plant….


Gardening can be an investment.

Especially if you want plump vegetables, laden fruit trees, vibrant flowers and lush grass!

Photo Source: Words and Herbs

Photo Source: Words and Herbs

In order to maintain and protect your investment, here’s a checklist of what you need to know before [or oops! even after] you start planting…

Before You Plant

1. Know Your Zone

Not sure when to plant that plum tree or whether those hydrangeas will thrive in your area? 

Knowing what hardiness zone you live in will help save time and money when deciding when and what to plant.

Locate your zone on the 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to discover what zone you are in. 

hardinessmap

2. Locate Your Lines

No point in planting a tree if you have to dig its roots out of your sewer system a couple years later!

Knowing where your electric, gas, water and sewer lines ensures your safety and will help you avoid major problems down the road.

Call 811 a few days before you dig.  A professional will be sent to your house to mark your utility lines.

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RED=Electric  YELLOW=Gas  BLUE=Water  GREEN=Sewer

3. Have Your Soil Tested

You’ve watered, you’ve mulched, you’ve fertilized…but your grass is still yellow and your cucumbers are still bitter.  NOW WHAT?

Getting your soil professionally tested every 3 years in either late fall or early spring will provide you with the crucial information you need to have a successful lawn and garden.

The test will cost you anywhere from $10-$30 but without it, you might as well be gardening in the dark.  (BTW, don’t bother wasting money on a bag of fertilizer until you get your soil tested first!)

Pick up a soil envelope from your local county extension office, follow the instructions closely and mail it in. (NOTE: For an analysis on, say, your garden soil AND your lawn soil, you will need to pay for two separate soil samples since lawns and gardens have different needs.)

In a few weeks you should receive a detailed analysis of the pH and nutrient levels in your soil as well as recommendations for how to remedy any deficiencies.  

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Here is a soil sample I sent in from my vegetable beds.

Here’s to smarter gardening! 

How do you like to prepare for the growing season?

Creating A Simple In-Ground Compost Bin


Compost.

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It’s the magical ingredient of the gardening world.

Got heavy, sticky clay soil Compost can fix that!

Got dry, crumbly sandy soil?  Compost can fix that, too!

WHAT COMPOST CAN DO FOR YOU:

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  • Add vital nutrients such as nitrogen and carbon to your soil
  • Improve soil drainage (for clay this means better water drainage, for sand this means better water retention)
  • Reduce the need for frequent waterings
  • Makes an excellent mulch as well as soil amendment (no more buying mulch!)
  • Save you money (First, putting those leaves and grass clippings to use means less trips to the city dump, and second, it reduces your need to buy fertilizer!)

BOTTOM LINE: YOUR GARDEN NEEDS COMPOST!

In addition to compost, however, you also need a place to put your compost in, i.e. a bin.

And since I procrastinate less with projects that are more simple, I decided to forgo building a bin by digging a hole instead…..

Creating a Simple, In-Ground Compost “Bin”

Last year, I dug this [roughly] 3 x 4 foot hole in the corner of our back yard:

composthole

Then I filled the hole with repeating layers of the following:

  • Leaves
  • Kitchen scraps (veggie/fruit scraps and coffee grounds only–no meat, dairy, oily foods, bread)
  • Soil (from what I scooped out of the hole)
  • Grass clippings
  • Cow manure
  • Pine Needles

Lastly, I covered over the hole with a thick layer of pine needles to prevent the contents from drying out.

Then I gave the hole a good watering.

Why?

*A successful compost pile needs heat and moisture for all these layers to decompose.*

As the months went by, I continued adding kitchen scraps, leaves and pine needles to the pile.

TIP:

To reduce trips to the “bin,” I keep a kitchen-scraps bowl by our sink.  Then, when the scrap bowl gets full, I dump it in a bucket by the back door.            FINALLY, when that gets full, I lug the bucket of scraps to the compost heap.

I also continued to water the pile about once or twice a month. (When I remembered too…)

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Then I turned the pile over with a shovel a couple times during the year to speed up the decomposition process.

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One year later, I am very please with the results:

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Rich, dark, fluffy garden gold!

Here is a comparison between the soil I first dug from the hole and the resulting composted soil:

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Such a difference!

And for so little effort.  🙂

It has felt so good putting our produce scraps, leaves and pine needles to use, and in return these things have paid us back richly.

Hurray for decomposition!

For more information on composting as well as trouble-shooting, click here.

Here’s to composting success!

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How does YOUR garden grow?

Share the progress of your garden by linking up with me this growing season!

gardenbutton

How to link up:

1. Click on the link below to enter.

2. Copy the url of your gardening post and enter it into the link.

3. Comment and encourage at least one other gardener.

🙂

Click here to enter your link and view the links of others!

Analyzing Your Soil


I don’t know about you, but visions of summer tomatoes are starting to dance in my head.

tomatoalmost

Even though it is too early for planting, it’s the perfect time to start playing in the dirt and preparing the soil in our garden beds.

(I really do love this part.)

If you are new to gardening or want even better tomatoes this season, healthy soil is the best place to start.

Healthy soil is soil that drains well and allows minerals to be easily absorbed by the plant.

Unfortunately, most of us have either clay soil, which has very poor drainage, or sandy soil, which has very poor water retention.

Not sure how much clay or sand is in your soil?

The best way to know is to conduct “the jar test”…..

Analyzing Your Soil Using the Jar Test

You will need:

*A shovel or spade

*A quart-sized jar and lid

Step #1: Dig A Hole

Grab your shovel and dig a hole in an area where you would like to have a garden bed. (Call 811 before you dig–safety reasons!)

Dig up the top layer of grass (or weeds, in my case) and remove as much grass/weeds as possible.

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For my sample, I literally went out to the middle of my back yard and dug a hole.

Step 2: Collect a Sample

Fill a quart-sized jar three-quarters full with soil from the hole.

Again, try to remove as much debris and rocks as possible.

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Step #3: Fill Jar With Water

Fill the jar with regular ol’ tap water, leaving about an inch of head space.  Screw lid on tightly.

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Step #4: Shake It Up

Shake the jar up for at least a minute, making sure every last bit of soil gets mixed up in the water.

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Step #5: Settle Down

Allow the jar to sit undisturbed for at least a day to allow the soil particles to settle into layers of sand, silt, clay and organic matter:

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I think it’s safe to say that I have sandy soil.

Sand is the heaviest and largest soil particle so it will settle at the bottom.

Silt is the next largest soil particle and will settle on top of the sand.  (Hmm…where is MY silt layer, I wonder?)

Clay is the smallest and finest soil particle and will settle on top of the silt.

Water and organic material will float to the top.

So Now What?

If you are like me and have mostly sand, you will need to add plenty of compost and organic materials (rotted leaves, mulch, etc.) to your soil.  This will help the soil retain water and nutrients.

If your jar is mostly full of clay, then you will also need to add plenty of compost and organic materials to the soil.  This will improve your soil’s drainage and nutrient absorption.

And if you have a well-proportioned mix of clay, silt and sand, I would like to know where you live so I can move in.  🙂

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How does YOUR garden grow?

Share the progress of your garden by linking up with me this growing season!

gardenbutton

How to link up:

1. Click on the link below to enter.

2. Copy the url of your gardening post and enter it into the link.

3. Comment and encourage at least one other gardener. 🙂

Click here to enter your link and view the links of others!

10 Steps to Planting a Fruit Tree


Planting a tree.

Seems straightforward enough.  All you have to do is dig a hole, place a tree in the hole, add water and hope for the best…right?

Last week I made a very special post-birthday purchase: An apricot tree!

Since I wanted to make my purchase and hard work count, I did a little bit of “treesearch” before heading to the nursery.

Here are the three most important facts that I learned about apricots in the process:

1. Apricot trees prefer alkaline soil.  (Score!  Our soil is alkaline!)

2. Most apricot tree varieties are extremely sensitive to frost.  

3.  Chinese/Mormon and Tilton apricots are some of the most frost-hardy varieties because they bloom late in the season (June/July).  

Once at the nursery (go with local nurseries instead of big-box stores–they tend to carry more plant varieties suited to that region), I inspected each tree for signs of rot/mold and chose a Tilton that had evenly placed limbs.

Then I shoved the tree in my car and drove back to work since I purchased it during my lunch break.  (Not hard feelings, okay tree?)

From there, I used the wisdom of my master-gardener friend, Terry, to assure the most successful planting possible.

10 Steps to Planting A Fruit Tree

#1. Plant the tree in the fall (depending on your location).

Yes, the fall.  If you plant a tree in the spring, it will spend more energy producing leaves and buds and less energy growing roots.  Since the roots are the lifeblood of a tree, their health should be the main focus for the first couple years.  October and November are prime months to plant here in Texas.  If you live in a colder climate, try planting in August or September.

#2. Select a sunny spot for the tree in a place where it won’t have to compete for light, water or space.

I chose a sunny and roomy spot for our tree in the back yard far enough away from the fence.

#3. Allow the tree to adjust to its new surroundings before sticking it in the ground.

Once I brought the tree home, I set the it in the spot I wanted to plant it and left it there for a few days.

#4. Prune excess limbs.

When planting a fruit tree, the goal is to have horizontal growth instead of vertical growth.  In other words, you want the tree’s limbs to stretch out instead of up so that the fruit is no more than an arm’s reach away.

We cut away the tall center limb of our tree to reduce vertical growth as well as a lower side branch that had started to show signs of rot.

Early pruning is not harmful to a tree.  Excess limbs waste the tree’s energy, and it is best to remove them sooner than later. A good rule of thumb?  Keep the limb count to 5 or 6.  Any more than that is not necessary and can be pruned.

PRUNING NOTE: When pruning a limb at its base, make sure your cut is perpedicular to the limb.  This will create flat angle for rain and moisture to run off of instead of collecting and causing rot.

#5. Trim back the remaining limbs.

Even though long limbs on a new tree look promising, they’re really just taking energy away from the roots.  Most of the limbs on my tree had already started putting out buds so we trimmed them back nearly in half to reduce the energy waste.

TRIMMING NOTE: Trim limbs at a shallow angle (about 15 degrees).  Use one limb as a cutting guide for the rest of the limbs to create an even look.

ONE LAST NOTE: Prune in moderation.  No more than 50% of a tree should be removed at one time. 

#6. Prepare pot for transplant

My tree came in a biodegradable pot that could either be cut away or left on.  If left on, it is a good idea to cut slits into the sides of the pot and cut away the bottom so that the roots can move and breathe.

#7. Trim excess roots.

What?  Cut the roots?  I thought we were trying to nurture the roots?

My tree had what looked like a shaggy beard hanging from the bottom of the pot.  Such long, bushy roots “congest” the soil and slow new growth, so it is best to cut them back.

#8. Digging the hole

Soil plays an important role in the success of a tree.  Heavy clay soil is problematic because it holds water for too long and sandy loam is problematic because water passes through it too quickly.  The solution to both compost.  Compost breaks up thick, clay soil and gives sandy soil more body.

To condition your soil for planting, dig a hole in advance and thoroughly remove all grass and weed roots.  Return the removed soil to the hole along with equal parts of compost and allow to set a few days.

Our spot was already conditioned so we just made sure to remove as many grass roots as possible.

How Deep is Deep?

Plant the tree in a hole deep enough for the soil level to meet the top of the base of the root nodule.  Any lower would expose the root and any higher would choke the tree.

As you can see, we needed to add more soil to the pot to reach the correct level.

#9. Planting the tree

Now that the hole is the correct depth and width for the pot to fit, flatten the soil at the bottom of the hole with your hand or a trowel.

It is important for the base of the tree to have a flat base to rest upon.  If the bottom is scooped instead of flat, it creates a pocket for water to gather thus causing rot.

Place the tree in the hole, making adjustments as needed to reach the right soil depth.

Fill in the gaps with more soil and pack down firmly.

If you are still below the soil depth, add more soil and pack again.

NOTE: Even though it is hard to see in the pictures, the sides of the hole slope slightly inwards towards the tree for optimal water collection.

#10.  Mulching and watering the tree

Mulch is your new tree’s best friend.

Mulch not only reduces water evaporation, it insulates the tree–a good thing in these colder months.

A thick blanket of premium mulch, leaves or, in our case, pine needles do the trick nicely.  We also placed a border of heavy limbs around the mulch to prevent it from blowing away.

Time for a drink!

Water the tree thoroughly and allow the water to sink in.  Repeat another couple of times until the soil is fully saturated.

Continue to water in this manner at least three times a week for the next 2-3 years.  Depending on your soil’s porosity and the weather you may need to water more or less frequently.

WATERING NOTE: How can you tell when your tree needs a drink?  Poke your finger as far as the second knuckle into the soil next to the base of the tree.  If the soil is damp, you can wait another day.  If the soil is dry or barely damp, water again.

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After a short blessing, we left our tree to do its work.  Cannot wait for that first harvest!

HAPPY PLANTING!

A Good Season


It’s amazing to think that a little less than two months ago, our garden looked like this:

I love how you can put plants and seeds in the ground and they eventually become FOOD!

This Early Girl tomato is my pride and joy because it’s almost ready to pick and it is not even summer yet.  I was very adamant about getting my garden going early so that I could enjoy an early bounty.

Looks like that Easter weekend rush paid off!

Sticks and strings:  The secret to a cheap tomato suspension system.

Thanks to two days of glorious rain last week, our tomato plants tripled in size.  (Isn’t it amazing what a little rain can do??)  One day, the plants were neat and manageable, the next they were a squirrel’s nest.  It took me two hours and two t-shirts to tie everything up and restore order to the rogue tomato vines.

Glorious cherry tomatoes!

Our chili plants are out of control and thank goodness.  Dave counted seven peppers on one plant this morning.  The amazing thing is that that plant did NOT have seven peppers yesterday.

First watermelon I’ve ever grown.

Last week it was the size of a tennis ball.

This week, it’s the size of a pickle ball.

Next week, I’m hoping to advance to basketball.  😉

I love having fresh dill.  Ina Garten or The Barefoot Contessa uses it in a lot of her dishes and I can see why.  It is such a flavor booster!

Our marigolds are working hard to chase away pesky bugs.  I’m trying REALLY hard not to blast everything with Sevin dust, people.  Thankfully, soapy water and cayenne pepper have been working so far with one exception:

SIGH!!!!

This has been the fourth mature squash plant to die on me!  I have never had so much trouble keeping a squash plant alive!

In the beginning, it was the caterpillars.

Then came the destructive winds.

This time, I think the culprit is squash bugs.

WHAT TO DO??

In past years, my squash plants have been my saving glory.  They would produce tons of fruit while every other plant remained at a standstill.

Grrrr.  The subject of squash has been making me grumpy lately.  Very grumpy.

How about we take another look at that sexy tomato?

Ahh, that’s better.

P.S.

For all you local yokels:

If you want fresh, organic vegetables without all of the work, head on out to the Clyde, Texas Farmers Market on North 1st Street every Saturday from 8:30-12 starting June 2nd!!

In addition to produce, there will be farm-fresh eggs, raw milk, handmade jewelry and quilts, jams and jellies and much more!   Come check it out and support local business and local farmers!

My Favorite Place in the World


Once again, I am linking up with the William Morris weekly project at Pancakes and French Fries because I believe that having a functional home helps me behave less dysfunctionally.

The interior dysfunctions of our house have been put on hold for the past couple of weeks because I have chosen to [happily] slave away in our brand-spanking-new vegetable garden instead.  After 2 weeks of tilling and weed-pulling and shoveling, it was finally time for PLANTING!!!

The first step was to acquire what I am calling “The Stuff”:

I piled my rows high with a layer of this gorgeous compost while chattering my husband’s ear off as to how excited I was that my garden was getting such good stuff.

I continued to chatter as I worked the compost into the top 4 inches of the soil:

Thankfully, the day was cool and overcast–a perfect time for planting.  Had the day been sunny and hot, I would have had to hold off planting until the early evening.

(God must have sensed my impatience.)

After divvying up my plants to their designated spots, I dug holes slightly deeper than the length of the plant roots and filled each hole to the brim with compost tea.

(Compost tea can be found at most garden stores and helps give plants an added boost of nutrients.  All I did was pour a couple tablespoons of the tea into a gallon jug, filled the jug with water until the mixture was the color of weak tea and filled each hole to the brim with the liquid.)

Once the tea was absorbed, I carefully removed each plant from its container and placed it in the hole.

After pressing the soil firmly around the plant, I formed a small “moat” around the plant base.  (This helps corral the water you give to the plant.  Otherwise, water just gushes everywhere and erodes the soil around your precious Early Girls!)

Five hours later, my garden was brimming with plants.  Hurray!!!

Five days later, I cannot stop thinking about my garden, sneaking peaks at my garden, walking in my garden.  It is my favorite spot in the world right now.

So let’s recap!

STEP 1:

STEP 2:

STEP 3:

I cannot wait for step four: VEGETABLES!!!!

The Stuff


I am addicted to this stuff.

This is the stuff that dreams are made of.

I cannot get enough of this stuff.

Rich, dark compost composed of grass clippings and leaves that has slowly been rotting over the past ten years.

A big You’re-The-Best to my friend who was willing share his stash of the stuff.

Here’s to tasty tomatoes!