My Garden Plan of Attack: G.R.O.W.

Last year around August, if you drove past our ambitiously large garden, you probably said to yourself, “My goodness, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nicer looking crop of…weeds.” I love gardens and watching things grow, but I don’t have much interest in spending time painstakingly plucking every single undesirable out of our garden. Can’t we just throw seeds in the ground and then magically harvest them later? No? Okay, fine.

They say stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. With that in mind, we’re changing our garden game plan a little this year.

First of all, let’s set one thing straight. I still have no desire to do any weeding.

I also don’t want to dump bucket loads of weed killer on food that I’m feeding my family. But I do have a secret plan to grow less weeds while growing better vegetables. My plan of attack for the garden is G.R.O.W. (And I must say, I feel rather clever for coming up with this acronym at 6 AM before my morning coffee.)

garden seeds

We have big hopes for these little seed packets. We’re making a preemptive strike on weeds this year with newspaper and grass clippings.

G.R.O.W.
G: Grass Clippings. One thing we have in glorious abundance around here is grass clippings. We don’t live in town, so we don’t have any neighbors peeking out of the windows from across the street and shaking their heads in disgust when our grass gets over three inches tall.

By the time we got around to mowing the lawn for the first time, the grass clippings piled in windrows that looked big enough to bale. Honestly, I looked at the piles of grass and thought, isn’t it a shame that they don’t make a little tiny baler that could hook onto a lawn mower?

Perhaps mowing was a little past due.

Then I remembered our gardening guru friend Becky from Montana. She always puts grass clippings between her garden rows. It keeps the weeds at bay and also holds in the moisture, something vital for growing in dry land Montana. A ha! Yes, of course, we NEEDED grass clippings in abundance. It’s for the good of the garden. The grass is free mulch.

Which brings me to my next plan of attack:

R: Recycle, as in Newspapers. Old newspapers will get new life blocking weeds. Our full plan to keep the weeds at bay between rows: Place a layer of 6-10 sheets of newspaper on the ground (no shiny paper), wet them down so they don’t blow away, and then place a layer of grass clippings on top. Newspaper plus grass clippings create an all natural weed barrier and also block sunlight, further deterring weed growth. It’s a garden win/win: inhospitable for weeds, and when grass and newspaper decompose, they enhance the soil.

Any weeds that manage to sneak through will be puny and wimpy. I can kill puny and wimpy.

O: Organic fertilizer. Right next to our garden is our shed that the chickens call home. Everyone knows that feed goes in a chicken, and eggs come out. The other fine thing from that end of the chicken is loads of free fertilizer. Yes, today, I’ll call it “fertilizer.” When it’s stuck on my shoe, I call it something else.

After a little internet research, I confirmed I can’t simply clean out the coop and dump it right on this year’s garden. The manure would burn the plants. I’ll let the pile of straw and chicken manure from this winter sit behind the shed and age for a year. Next spring, we’ll have magnificent fertilizer for our garden. Thanks, chickens.

W: Wide rows. This is a concept I just recently learned about, but one that’s really growing on me (pun intended). Wide rows mean planting seeds in a wide band, resulting in a thicker row of plants with fewer paths between. There are several advantages to this method over the traditional single long row:

-Faster Planting: Simply broadcast the seeds over a wide band, eliminating the time spent making perfectly precise single rows.

-Less Weeding: Several plants close together create a sort of living mulch, blocking out the light and creating a natural barrier to weed growth. More veggies, less weeds. Perfect.

-Save Space: Wider bands of plants mean more space is devoted to food and less space is devoted to empty dirt walkways.

-Faster Harvesting and Weeding: With a wide row, a person can reach more plants from one spot. This means less bending, stooping, and moving to harvest that row of radishes or weed the row of lettuce.

I found the information about wide row planting on the National Gardening Association’s website. I have to say, I’m sold. I love getting more with less work. We’re going wide this year!

So, that’s my new plan of attack for the garden: grass clippings, newspaper, chicken poop, and wide rows. Less weeds, better veggies. A little more work in the spring mulching, and less work weeding in the heat of August.

As I write this, it’s chilly and rainy and most of the seeds still sit in paper packets. If I can find the time to make the plans in my head become a reality in the garden, I’m sure it will be marvelous. I’m also sure my four young kids will be extremely helpful. Optimism is easy in the spring.

Here’s to getting some warm sunshine to help the crops and gardens grow!

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Giving my Kids Nothing This Summer

I love my kids and I try to do my best.  The trouble is, it’s easy to think “best” and “more” are one and the same.  They are not.

My original plan this week was to write about our summer list of things to do, you know, to feel like our family has a “successful” summer. Making plans and writing to-do lists does have value. It helps me get things done. But sometimes, a to-do list is a load of garbage.

I can’t speak for past generations of mothers, but in the circles I run in of moms with kids at home, we spend a lot of time trying to do it all right. We try to make meaningful memories, create precious moments, provide engaging learning opportunities, all that. But maybe, just maybe, we need to try less hard, too.

Tree swing: an essential component of doing nothing this summer.

Tree swing: an essential component of doing nothing this summer.

My oldest child is just finishing first grade. What do I remember about my summer after first grade? The only specific thing I remember was that I had short permed hair that my grandma said looked like Shirley Temple. In the summer time I would go days on end without combing it. Much of the time my hair looked more like a rumpled Afro than Shirley Temple’s ringlets.

Combing my hair? What a waste of time.

I had ant hills to smash on the edge of the driveway. I needed to make sure I was the one who raced down to the mailbox first when the mailman came around noon, a highlight of the day. I was busy riding my bike down the field lane and learning to ride down the gravel on the driveway without wiping out and scraping up my knee.

I don’t remember many other specifics, because the summers growing up all sort of blend together in a sort of sweaty, Kool Aid, dandelions, swimming in the freezing water at Whitewater kind of way.

On a visit to Whitewater a couple summers ago, I spotted a mom lugging a huge plastic tote down to the beach while trying to wrangle her kids. The tote was neatly labelled “BEACH TOYS.” I imagined her pulling it from it’s special shelf in the garage and loading it up in the van. As she emptied it, out came every sort of wonderful beach implement imaginable.

Part of me admires that sort of amazing, logical organization. And part of me just wants to puke. That level of perfection is just too much. Many of the toys didn’t get touched.

Seeing that tote made me think of my own days as a kid playing at Whitewater. When we made the trip there as a kid, if I wanted a sand toy, it was my job to get it. If I brought something, it was probably an empty Cool Whip container from the cupboard. Fairly often, we just went there with nothing. Sometimes we dug a pop can out of the beach garbage can to use as a digging toy and water carrier.

No tote full of toys, and we were happy at Whitewater. Very likely, my next older brother suggested we were superior in some way because we were kids that could make our own toys. He was good at always making us feel like we were part of some sort of secret elite force of little survivors.

Sand, water, kids. What else do you need at the beach?

I tell this to remind myself that when it comes to kids, less is often just as good as more. A big tote full of toys is fun, but so are hands, sticks, and rocks.

Sometimes I’m like that mom lugging the tote. I love my kids and I try to do my best. The trouble is, it’s easy to think “best” and “more” are one and the same. They are not. It is a fine line to balance between wanting the best for your kids and crippling them because they get everything they want. Innovation and ingenuity often comes from those moments of creating something out of nothing.

I want to give my kids more “nothing.”

A few nights ago I spent 15 minutes hauling boxes up to the attic. While I was up there, three of our kids played out on the porch. I came down to find discover three kids completely enmeshed in their own imaginary world of playing house. I said hi and then ignored them in that sort of way that doesn’t make them self-conscious of a viewer, putting on a show for mom. They did their thing.

My seven-year-old “Mom” decided it was bedtime, and put her two-year-old baby to bed. She tucked in her sister on the wicker couch using her favorite blanket. Then, while I got the mail and seemingly ignored them, I listened to my big girl sing a lullaby to her little sister, who pretended to sleep.

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a sweeter lullaby than that one I heard that evening. There’s nothing on my summer list of fun activities that’s any better than that.

I give up.

And I think I probably should. We made a list of fun things to do this summer, but most remarkable is that what the kids want is pretty darn unremarkable. They want to go swimming. They want to have bonfires. They want cousins to come over and play. Simple things.

And that’s probably how it should be.

They’re little kids. Hot, sticky, endless summer days with messy hair, scraped up knees, dirty feet, popsicle drips and grass stains…that about covers it. Anything else is just details.

So, it’s settled. We’re doing nothing this summer.

A Series of Fortunate Events

Normally, milking a goat for the first time would be a pretty memorable event for me. But this past week, I almost forgot I even did that. It’s really spring and life is running at full speed at our house.

The to-do list started while driving home in the evening on the Sunday after the big May snow storm. I noticed that the final patches of snow melted in the fields. I pointed it out to my kids, reminding them how we still saw plenty of snow around at noon that day. As I contemplated feeling confident enough to finally pack snow pants and mittens for the season, my six-year-old said, “We need to get our crops planted, Mom.” That’s what he calls our garden.

Wait a minute. He’s right. What?! Snow pants…garden…I’m sorry, but I just have trouble wrapping my head around a garden when I helped my kids build a snowman two days earlier. I just haven’t allowed myself to get excited about a garden this year when every time I look at seed catalogs, we get a snowstorm. With summer vacation just a few weeks away, it’s finally sinking in that the time is now to get all of our projects in high gear.

New Kids on the Block
The goats living at our place have been quite busy themselves.

 Our kids holding the new goat kids, with their little sister impatiently waiting for a turn.

Our kids holding the new goat kids, with their little sister impatiently waiting for a turn.

Right now we’re hosting four “foster goats” at our place. They belong to my brother and his family. On Tuesday, I looked out at the goats in the pasture and wondered when my husband put our little lamb in with the goats. Then I noticed the “lamb” was the wrong color and half the size he should be. We had a new baby goat!! I wandered into the barn, and discovered Big Momma (because that’s her name, of course) had not one baby, but twins. In this age of instant communication, I snapped a picture with my phone and sent it to my brother and sister-in-law to share their new baby news.

Then I noticed that Big Momma had a big swollen udder on one side and a teat swollen like a water balloon. I’m no goat whisperer, but I am a mom, and I know from experience that that sort of thing hurts, a lot. I called my brother, Mike, and we talked about it, and I decided I’d try to milk her by hand to relieve some of the pressure.

Now, before you get the wrong impression about my animal skills, let me tell you about my previous goat experience: Once, when I was in third grade, I saw pygmy goats at a petting zoo while visiting my sister in Oklahoma. One of the goats nibbled the corner off of my paper bag from the gift store, which bothered me enough that I still remember it to this day.

I remember that many of the goats at the zoo were hugely pregnant. Somewhere, there is a picture of me from that day sitting on one of those pregnant goats. Because when I saw a big heavy pregnant momma, I thought it would be fun to take a picture riding her. Now isn’t that, um, sweet? So, that is my experience with goats. Yep, I’m a regular James Herriot.

Between my husband (who also has never milked anything) and I, along with the assistance of four kids, a billy goat who bumps you when you bend over, and a curious dog, we managed to get about a pint of milk in a bucket, and probably another cup on the floor. We fed the goat milk to our bottle-fed lamb, who at first had no interest, and then decided the milk was quite tasty, and he sucked it up.

We took the edge off for Big Momma, and Lamba Lamba Ding Dong (Lamby) had some milk that came from a live animal, not a bag of powder. It was already past bedtime for the kids, so we called that a success, or good enough, anyway.

Sand Mountains
Before the little goat kids stole the show at our house, the big attraction of Tuesday was a new mountain of sand. My husband ordered two truckloads of sand for the base of what will eventually be a concrete floor in our shop. For the short term, though, our kiddos play in sand pile heaven.

We topped the sand pile with a child-sized wooden bridge, a free find from the curb in Utica. The bridge is meant to be a landscaping feature, but temporarily on a sand pile, it makes a perfect spot where the kids can dig a tunnel. Everyone, of course, needs a little spot to dig and hide.

A New Herd of Grass Mowers
Automatic, self-guided grass mowers were another addition to our springtime projects. On Wednesday, we added ten ewes to our list of random farm animals that we are collecting. Seeing sheep in our pasture is nothing new, since last year our neighbor rented out the pasture for his sheep. This year, however, we actually bought the sheep. After the sheep arrived, I looked at my husband, Jarred, and said, “We just bought livestock for the first time.”

Next project on the list? Fencing off more land for the sheep. They want plenty of grass, and we don’t want to mow everything. Win, win.

A Herd of Kindergarteners
Friday was a big day at our house: a birthday party with a slew of kindergarten boys, and a brand new play set for the yard.

When we moved here a year ago, we left our swing set in Montana, with a promise to the kids to get a new one here in Minnesota. Our kids reminded us fairly often of that promise. A Sunday conversation led to a great solution to our play set dilemma. My brother’s kids were outgrowing theirs, and we needed one…perfect!

The play set that is now in our yard is the same one that I remember playing on with my nephew and nieces while I babysat them back in high school. The wood set is about 15 years old, but my brother’s an engineer, so that sucker still looks just as sturdy and as good as new. With a new colorful canopy in place and the slide still a bright yellow, it’s a hugely exciting addition to our backyard.

On Friday afternoon, my kindergarten boy, along with ten buddies and a few cousins, all played on it for the first time. Our kids had no idea that my husband was getting that play set, so when they hopped off of the school bus and spotted it in the back yard…well, I bet you can imagine the excitement… I have to say, I love it, too.

As if a birthday party and new play set weren’t enough, the goat named Baby also had a new baby that day. Little kids at the party got to see a brand new goat kid, play in an enormous pile of sand, climb on a new play set, and play with Lamby, who roams around the yard like a second dog. We capped off the night with a bonfire, and called it a great day.

On Saturday, I was pretty much worthless after wrangling a busy party, but my husband had the energy to make a new tree swing for the giant oak tree in our backyard. He built it big enough for an adult, so we all took plenty of turns on it. The kids declared that it was a Mother’s Day gift for me, and so, it was. I do love tree swings.

Mother’s Day Queen
On Mother’s Day, my cup runneth over with little kid presents: a paper locket necklace, a decorated picture frame, toast in bed, and a paper crown declaring me “Mother’s Day Queen.” I wore my crown, ate specially made toast, and read to my kids the Mother’s Day letter I wrote for them, the one printed last week in the paper.

Wearing new my crown and  locket, reading a special letter to my three-year-old.

Wearing my new crown and locket (and my pajamas), reading a special letter to my three-year-old.

My kitchen floor is a muddy disaster and I could give you a mile long list of imperfections around here, but all that aside, when we have four kids running around chasing a lamb, holding baby animals, playing on sand piles, and swinging from a tree swing, sometimes I feel like we are permanently on vacation out here in the country.