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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Putting a Little Spring in our Step

I do believe it takes living with -30 wind chills and knee deep snow to fully appreciate the first 70 degree days of spring. Minnesotans get it.

Our Saturday of soaking in 70 degrees prompted the biggest flurry of outdoor projects we’ve had in a long time, and made what was quite possibly, our favorite day this year. Sometimes, days slip by and I wonder what I accomplished, but then there are days like last Saturday, where we suck every last drop out of the day and knock out more projects than ever seemed possible.

It all started a few nights before. I woke up at 2 AM, not able to sleep with a long list of spring projects in my head. Of course, it made me mad to be awake. No kids are up crying or puking, so why am I awake thinking about putting the sleds away? Finally, I just got out of bed wrote down a spring to-do list. The stupid sleds then stopped plaguing me, and I got back to sleep.

Saturday morning, with sunny skies and a predicted high in the 70s, felt like the perfect time to start checking things off that list. It also helped that we had a pressing project to complete: the day before we picked up 55 shrubs and trees from the Soil & Water Conservation District.

The first project of the day was a chicken run. Our chickens spent the winter in the shed across from our house, and judging by their impatient squawking, they were quite ready to have a little more room to stretch out their wings. Our shed already had a little hinged chicken door, so my husband spent the morning using some old fence panels to build a little access route from their contained pen to the chicken door. By lunchtime, a rooster and his harem strolled around the yard snatching up shoots of green grass and and a few bugs.

I think I’ve written this before, but I’ll say it again because it still takes me by surprise: I completely love watching chickens wander around in the yard. I never imagined having any interest in chickens, but I’m becoming quite taken with them. There is something hypnotic and soothing about watching them go about their industrious business of hunting bugs and grass shoots. Sitting on the porch and seeing chickens wander in the yard just gives me that feeling that all is well. I rank it up there with watching bonfires and snow falls. I can’t quite explain it, but I do like those buggers, and their eggs.

Chicken access to outside? Check.

Our chickens enjoyed their new freedom outside.

Our chickens enjoyed their new freedom outside.

Before lunch, my birthday boy (who turned six on Saturday), cleared our sleds off of the porch making room for our summer porch table. Sleds away? Check.

He then helped haul the table legs upstairs from the basement, and by lunchtime, we had our first outside lunch of the season on our porch. That table is a freebie find from the curb during Citywide Clean-up last year, and it provided countless outdoor meals and project space last summer. After a winter packed away, seeing the table again made our porch feel like it’s open for summer business. Porch table set up? Check.

Our 6-year-old celebrated his birthday playing outside with his little brother.  He later helped set up our table in this spot.

Our 6-year-old celebrated his birthday playing outside with his little brother. He later helped set up our table in this spot.

We ate our first watermelon of the season outside on the porch at lunchtime. Granted, we needed jackets on in the breeze, but as Minnesotans with cabin fever, we felt completely happy to finally be outside.

After lunch, our three-year-old with glazed eyes and our inconsolable two-year-old both told me they weren’t at all tired. I went against their, uh, logic and tucked them in for a nap. That gave me three hours to work outside. That, my friends, is a little slice of heaven.

My husband, my oldest daughter and I spent the afternoon putting 25 June berry shrubs in the ground, along with 30 spruce trees.

To the untrained eye, those little spruce trees just look like an ordinary line of saplings, but they are in fact our Christmas Tree Farm. Some day when our kids are teenagers, we’ll go tree hunting right in our yard at Christmas time. Our kids will saw the tree down and drag it into the living room, leaving needles everywhere.

Then we’ll say to our oldest son, “Remember when we planted those trees on your sixth birthday? Look how big they are now!” And then we’ll repeat that again the next year and the next. It’s a long term plan, but I’m excited already. Who wouldn’t like to have their very own tree farm?

Someday, these little saplings will be Christmas trees in our living room.

Someday, these little saplings will be Christmas trees in our living room.

Working outside on a gorgeous day, doing something completely out of the usual routine…I had a blast. Maybe it felt fun because I didn’t do the hole-digging part, but best of all is the excitement of imagining what eventually will become of our afternoon’s labor. Someday we’ll have Christmas trees, and some day we’ll gobble up June berries by the handful. I can’t wait. Berry bushes and spruce trees planted? Check. Check.

Just before supper, we whipped up two pumpkin pies for my son’s special request birthday meal. My six-year-old birthday boy shaped and crimped one pie crust all by himself, and his big sister did the other one. While we accomplished a lot outside, our kitchen looked like we’d had a bomb go off. Ignoring the mess for the short term, we headed back outside to cap off the afternoon with supper on the porch.

And for birthday dessert, we ate warm pie topped with ice cream. Birthday supper? Check.

Our three-year-old told us the day was the best birthday of his whole life.

I laughed. No, it was not his birthday. It was his brother’s. But I had to agree, it was one of the best birthdays ever.

Happy spring, everyone! I hope you all enjoyed last weekend’s sunshine as much as we did.

Operation Garden: Full Speed Ahead‏

Little hearts filled with dirt and sunshine and the promise of amazing things that would someday soon be growing in the garden.    

The dirt’s been flying at our place lately (sometimes even in a productive direction), and aside from another 15 minutes of daylight to throw a few more seed packets into the ground, the garden is planted!  And like a garden probably should be, the whole thing has been a community effort.

This whole garden process started before we even moved in, when we had conversations about the best spot to make our garden in our new yard.  It wasn’t until we actually moved in that we discovered there already was a garden plot, and a massive 5,000 sq. ft. one at that.

It’s funny, but it never dawned on us at first or second or even third glance that the giant weed patch north of our chicken coup, the one full of forbidding-looking adult-sized weed stalks, was the garden.  After being left to its own devices last summer while the house sat empty, it looked like the kind of place where a kid and dog wander in, and then they emerge somehow three years older.

We set out to reclaim it.  My husband, Jarred, knocked down the dead stalks and then we burned the entire garden to get rid of it all.  On the night of the burn, we lit the garden on fire a little before sunset when the wind died down to the right amount.  Our five-year-old boy didn’t come into the house until well after dark, hands streaked with black ash and a grin glued on his face, happily helping out on a job that involved hanging out with Dad and lighting things on fire.

Then, a few weeks later, we had a neighbor chisel plow the whole thing for us, as a trade for use of some shop space.  Plowing doesn’t make the soil as smooth as tilling the garden, but we knew it would get the job done, so a few days later, we started planting with our pumpkins.  The day we started planting the garden was one of those days that I could happily take repeated all summer long: clear blue sky and sunshine, warm but not too hot or humid, and calm.

Sometimes pesky balls of dirt get stuck between pudgy little toes. Remove said pesky dirt balls, and eat them.

As we were out there in the sunshine, another set of neighbors noticed us as they drove past our place, and later they pulled into our yard and offered to bring a tractor and their tiller, and turn it all into that smooth, crumbly black goodness that’s so great to plant in.  We could hardly believe that our neighbors were offering to till up our garden for us, not exactly a small undertaking.

We accepted their offer, and half an hour later, just as I was pulling the ol’ pot roast out of the oven for supper, sure enough, there was a tractor in our yard, tilling up the garden and carefully avoiding the far end where we already put in pumpkins.  Sometimes we just shake our heads in disbelief that we’ve stumbled into an area with such friendly, helpful neighbors, and we only hope that over the years we can return the kindnesses, as well.

With the garden now tilled, I put some meat in the bellies of our four ravenous little kids, and then we turned them loose on the garden.  I don’t think any of them have memories of what a freshly tilled garden is like, so tearing into that pristine, gigantic, smooth pile of blackness was brand new and pure ecstasy for all of them.

They tore all over the garden, leaving little sunken foot print trails on our big black tabula rasa.  Then our oldest two, setting the proper example, began digging like dogs.  Heads down, using their hands to burrow some holes, they sent rivers of dirt flying up between their legs, and took turns digging and flinging the dirt piles on each other.

When digging in a freshly tilled garden, it’s important to fling dirt with optimal height and distance. Always thoroughly cover your sibling with the dirt spray.

Meanwhile, our two-year-old made dirt fountains that launched up over his head, and our baby took her bow-legged just-learned-to-walk steps across the soil, frequently landing on her back side, which made convenient opportunities to stop and sift the dirt in her pudgy fingers and sample enough to leave a dirt goatee around her mouth.

Then, of course, it was time for business.  The kids got out the shovels and hoes, argued over who got to run what, and dug up all sorts of vitally important random holes in the garden.

During planting, we added a few kid-friendly features to the garden.  We trimmed our smaller maple trees earlier that day, and the cast off branches became the interwoven stakes for what is going to be a bean tent, once the beans grow in and wind themselves up the stakes.  Right now it’s still fun as a maple-tree-branch-tent, and it’s been strong enough to withstand a few raging thunderstorms unscathed.  (That’s what happens when an engineer whips up a little 5-minute branch tent for his kids.)

Four kids hanging out in the shade of what is going to be the Bean Tent.

We also took our package of mammoth sunflower seeds and planted them in a large square, so that when those 10-foot buggers grow in, the kids can tuck themselves inside and have a secret hiding space, which of course, is extremely important.  One can never have enough secret hiding places.  Our kids officially named it the Sunflower Garage, because it’s next to the Bean Tent.  It’s also important that secret hiding places have names.

In the midst of our playing, Jarred managed to actually plant several things and I got some seeds in the ground, too.  For the record, and for Jarred’s mom’s benefit, I must state that Jarred did the majority of the planting.  His mom told me on several occasions that back in high school, when she asked him to help with planting potatoes, there was an extreme amount of protest about gardening from her son.  But this year, he was planter-in-chief.

By the time our kids finished their garden free-for-all, they had just enough energy to help sprinkle a few seeds, and then I decided bath time was the next order of business.  A fine powder of black dirt coated their ears and stuck to all of their scalps, not to mention their clothes.

The dirt river heading to the drain after they’d all been cycled through our claw foot tub was nothing short of impressive.  We were all happy that night as I sent them off to bed nice and clean, their little hearts filled with dirt and sunshine and the promise of amazing things that would someday soon be growing in the garden.

Written June 4, 2012.
© 2012