Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Square-Foot Gardening

Now that we finally live in a climate that is suitable for vegetable gardening, I was VERY anxious to get one planted this year. However, living in an area where the growing season is less than 100 days, produces many challenges that I still have to figure out!
Last spring I read an article in our paper about a local woman who was using the square-foot gardening method by Mel Bartholomew as written in his book "All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space". I immediately got his book and started reading. I liked most of his ideas and tried to follow his suggestions fairly closely - at least for our first year. I also attending many free classes sponsored by the Master Gardeners at Ace Hardware in town - a wealth of knowledge for the local growing conditions!
Overall, the garden looked great and did produce some very yummy veggies, but the season was very late and cool this year so my sweet pepper, jalapenos, and corn just never had a chance to get anywhere.

We planted a total of 80 square feet with the following veggies (some crops I planted multiple times throughout the summer):
lettuce, spinach, radishes, broccoli, cucumber, cabbage, cauliflower, kholrabi, tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, carrots, corn, winter squash, pumpkin, sweet peppers, jalapenos, onions, green onions, peas, green beans, marigolds, and small dahlias

We also have two whiskey barrel planters with herbs and 15 strawberry plants next to the garage (not remotely comparable to western WA strawberry production, but the kids liked them!)

We started by using Mel's recipe for a good soil mix and built raised beds - he insists that you only need 6 inches of soil to grow all vegetables (except potatoes and carrots). His mix includes equal parts of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss.

We made a grid system over the soil to maximize growing space and built trellises for the vines (I trained the cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, and peas to climb the trellis - was unsuccessful getting the squashes to climb because their leaves are so big).

Due to the location of our garden and the fact that we have three curious kiddos and a curious dog, we built chicken wire cages to protect the soil from digging and from our neighborhood birds and squirrels from stealing the seeds. We also used the cages as a frame for clipping the plastic frost-barrier (we needed that until July!). Once the seedlings were big enough, the cages came off and a mini-fence/electric fence (for the dog) went up. Jason also installed a drip irrigation system on a timer so I wouldn't have to remember to water twice a day.

Removable cages - worked great to keep soccer balls and ornery one-year-olds out! We had three trellises in our garden. This one is for the zucchini (never got it to climb), the tomato (only one plant, but it took over the whole trellis), and the cucumber.

Plastic frost barrier clipped to cages with clothespins.

Jason installing twine in a lattice pattern to stabilize the corn in wind (which we get here!). It worked great! The corn finally produced ears in late September, but we had our first hard freeze about a week before they would have been edible - bummer!

The zucchini taking over the sidewalk and the tomato taking over the trellis. Cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower plants in the background.

The far bed had potatoes and carrots with marigolds planted in the center - they help deter the worms that like to munch on the underground veggies. The potatoes did great, but most of the carrots never got big enough to eat.
The fore-bed has lettuce, spinach and cabbage-family plants (in addition to the climbers). We had quite a bit of lettuce, but it didn't get very big and no spinach - it never got above 2 inches tall. The cabbage/broccoli/cauliflower plants produced a ton of leaves, but not very much vegetable.

New red potatoes.

And the Yukon golds...

Our tomato went crazy and produced great until the first hard frost. Our family doesn't like fresh tomatoes, except in salsa, so that's what I used them for. The neighbors liked them on the grill and my friend really liked to eat them like candy! I chose this variety because the nursery grower suggested it for sweetness and climbing ability. It was a little tricky to use in salsa because these are a cherry-size variety (they are tangerine color when ripe).

I didn't get many late-season pictures, but this one of the kids shows that the corn did actually get tall and the pole beans on the trellis next to it. We also got one pumpkin, two acorn squash, and a steady supply of zucchini.

Okay, lessons learned...

I love the square foot gardening concept and will definitely continue to use it here. It is applicable in any setting or environment. I tend to be on the obsessively organized side so the square foot grid system was perfect for me and very easy to organize the large number of veggies I wanted to plant.

However, after a disappointing production of several of the crops (including carrots and spinach - my favorites) I decided I needed to test the soil nutrients to see if that was a contributing factor in poor production. Mel insists that his soil mix - if done correctly - will have everything the veggies need to produce abundantly - I no longer believe that! Nitrogen was non-existent, phosphorous was very low and potassium was also low. We also discovered that our soil is very alkaline. I realize that soil composition changes depending on which crops are planted in it, but I didn't think everything would be depleted! It is hard for me to believe that there were loads of nutrients before I planted, but I didn't test for them so I don't know for sure. Before the spring we will be adding some soil amendments and raising the beds up to 10 inches deep using soil from our yard to fill-in.

I will be planting cool-weather crops much earlier than Memorial Day (this year I planted after Mem. Day) and just keep the frost cover on at night as long as I have to - hopefully I'll get some spinach next year!

We will also be eliminating the removable cages - too big of a pain. And instead just "wrapping" the garden with two feet of chicken wire fencing along with the electric fence - that worked great! We won't be able to keep basketballs and squirrels out, but we're going to take our chances and see how it goes.

I think I will forgo the idea of trellising the squashes and just let them run free through my flower-beds, but not on the sidewalk! That will give me more trellis space for cucumbers, peas, and beans.

Like this year, I will buy and plant as many seedling starts as possible. I had starts for cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, cucumber, tomato, winter squash, and all of my herbs. Our growing season is so short that I will try anything to get them a head start. I don't have the space or equipment to try it myself...maybe I'll get a greenhouse, someday...

I will continue to compost all organic waste - I just have to be diligent about turning the pile and keeping it moist.
This was our third attempt to build a compost bin that could keep the kids and dog out - it works great!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

It's Finally Fall!

Fall has finally arrived in central Montana. We've had several "hard" freezes so my garden is officially done and the days have been gorgeous with crisp nights - my favorite! Of course other signs of fall in our house is when I become a "hunting-widow" on the weekends and I add another year to my age. For some reason this birthday was a little harder on me - I definitely feel older this year - maybe because I'm not pregnant or breast-feeding for the first time in five years, hmm......

Ready to make birthday cupcakes with Daddy

Jessie finished her cupcake and ice cream before anyone else, then provided a little entertainment...

The kids have been doing "shows" for evening entertainment. Jason patiently sat through a dozen of them one night - even when it was getting cold and dark outside.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

7 Staples....

Well, we got a new camera and just about the first pictures on it are of Jason's head-wound. Jason has always been a little accident-prone, but today was the first time he had to get stiches/staples. The wound was 2.5 inches long and felt like he'd been hit with a baseball bat, but overall he's doing great now and looking forward to having tomorrow off of work (doctor's orders).
What in the world did he do, you might ask - well, he dropped a post-pounder on it at work (installing posts for the girl scouts to hang birdhouses). The safety office isn't quite sure how to do a follow-up on this one...is a hard-hat really necessary PPE (personal protective equipment) for using a post-pounder?
He may be re-writing the rule book on this one! :-)

It looks like Halloween, so don't look if you get queasy at the sight of blood....
(I didn't post the really gross one...)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

No Pictures For Awhile...

Well, my periodic blogging might become even more periodic until we get a new digital camera....someone dropped ours in 12 inches of water while duck hunting - along with his cell phone... :-b
Here's the last of the recovered pictures...

We've been enjoying our gorgeous fall weather and the changing of the leaf-color this year - we had a really hard freeze last year and the leaves fell off the trees still green!

Gracie LOVES kindergarten and is learning a ton. Emmett likes preschool and wishes he could go more than two days a week. Jessie was 18 months old at the end of September and amazes us every day. Her new word yesterday was "ME"! She learned that from Gracie and Emmett who were trying to get me to give them their snack first by saying "me, me, me!". Jessie caught on quickly and immediately ran up to me with her hand extended yelling "me!" - clear as a bell! She also maneuvers stairs very well and got her first pair of rainboots this week - she loves the mud! :-)

Pictures to come soon....I hope!