In these times of tight budgets and rising food costs backyard gardens have become a great way to help make ends meet and provide better food. Vegetables from our own gardens are more likely to get used soon after harvest meaning they will be fresher and have more nutrition than those that have been trucked in from elsewhere. But, the time it takes to have a successful garden can often feel overwhelming with our busy lives. Luckily we live in times we have a great deal of information available to us that can save us time, labor and money. Here are some I have successfully used for several years.
The beauty of these techniques is they do in fact save a lot of time and labor making it easier and leaving me time to do other things including enjoying life. It has also made my garden very productive and my food bill much smaller. Here in the northwest, where it doesn't get terribly cold, I produce about 80% of my vegetables year round in the sunny south facing side yard of my city lot.
So if you also belong to the work smarter not harder school of life read on and please, if you have any other ideas share them. I am always looking for new stuff to try.
If You Sink It They Will Come: Worms with out hassle
A professor from Washington State University once told me that earth worms are one big nose. If you put food they like where they can get at it they will crawl for great distances to get there and they will tell all their friends.
A few years back I took a certificate class and became a master composter / recycler. One of the things we learned was how to build a worm bin, carefully bed it and feed the worms by burying bits of vegetable scraps here and there. I really liked the idea. But I know myself, I would get busy and forget, my worms would starve and I would feel bad. I needed an easier way.
I also didn't like the idea that the red worms they use for indoor composting are not native to this area. I did not want to accidentally introduce them into my soil where the may compete with our own native giant angle worm. Almost every place has a native earth worm whose job in nature is to break down old vegetation into nutrient rich soil.
When I was farming 80 acres with a 2 acres raised bed garden, making daily deliveries to several food co-ops and outdoor markets, I had not only my vegetable scrap but many many garbage cans full from my customers that I would haul home each week. With this much material to use, I would keep a couple of beds fallow, dig trenches in it and dump the scraps in the trench cover it up with about 8 inches of soil and call it good. To compost purists this probably sounds like sacrilege but in less than a month after filling the final trench the scrap was gone and the bed was ready to plant. My beds were always full of earthworms
In the winter I would dig many trenches before things got cold and fill them all winter covering the scrap with some dirt each time. In the spring they were ready to plant.
Now that I live in town and have a smaller garden I don't have the space or quantity of scrap to compost like this. I wanted something that took less space and was a bit more sophisticated than what I used on the farm.
After a bit of research I landed on the scrap digester as the answer to my problem. They are metal garbage cans with half inch holes drilled in them about every three inches then buried in the ground. I have two 35 gallon cans like this that I have used for three years now with great success. I recommend having two, this way you can fill one and let it sit and finish up while you begin filling the second. Fit the can size to your household I am, for the most part, a vegetarian, so I generate a lot of veggie scraps, I also have it strategically placed so my neighbors, a family of three, can put theirs in as well. I empty each of these cans of earthworm castings two or three times a year. I do recommend strapping the lid on with a bungie cord to keep out critters like raccoons. The use of metal cans will keep out any rodents that may happen by at bay as well.
Instant Garden: Just Add Water
I am not terribly good at planning. With raised beds it is best to start them in the fall. In my life this never happens no matter how good my intentions are. I came upon this idea a few years ago. Straw Bale Gardening is a great way to get started fast. I like to create a little hole in the bale and put some dirt into it for transplants. For seeds I like to put a layer over the top. At the end of the season you can use the straw for making the soil in your new permanent raised beds using the next technique. Where I live the straw available is wheat and always seems to have seed in it. When I finally break up the bale into my permanent raised beds they sprout and cover the bed. If this happens to you just let them grow as a cover crop and chop them down in the spring. You will have saved money on cover crop seed and probably kept more than a few weeds from establishing themselves. I have grown just about everything in these bales over the three years I have used them as temporary beds to expand my garden. I actually prefer them for squash and cucumbers.
A Word About Using Cedar for Raised Beds
It has become a common practice to use Cedar lumber to make raised beds. If you are building new raised beds I would like you to consider using something else and I will tell you why. Western Red Cedar comprises most of the cedar boards. It is not a farmed tree so harvested trees must come from the logging of wild lands. While Cedar is rot resistant, the lumber on the market today will not last nearly as long as that from the past. Cedar is a slow growing tree, that becomes more resistant to bugs and rot as it ages. The wood so prized in the past for rot resistance came from the old growth trees. These are now very rare and what is left really needs to be preserved. Today the average Cedar board will only last 5 to 8 years.
I have used bricks mainly because once I am done I never have to replace them. A neighbor has used the plastic wood they make for decks which is made of a combination of recycled plastic and wood chips. It is widely available at home improvement stores. His beds have been in place for ten years and still seem to be holding up.He did find that they do need more support such as a steak every four feet or so because the wood is much more flexible than natural lumber.
Making Soil without Emptying your Bank Account
Here buying top soil is an expensive proposition. In trying to figure out a cheaper way I happened upon Lasagna Gardening as a better and cheaper way. I use a slight variation, first I build my box about 2 feet high then layer leaves or straw, then a layer of grass clippings, a thin layer of soil and repeat. when it starts to break down I like to stir it with my garden fork. In the fall I add layers of leaves and chopped up vegetation from my summer garden to the top of each bed. This also saves me having my precious backyard space taken up by a compost bin and the work of turning and moving it. By starting the bed with a layer of something that blocks the weeds you will be way ahead of the game. Most sights suggest newspaper but you can use just about anything that is made of natural material and that is free or cheap. Some of my neighbors have used undyed cardboard, the legs of old denim jeans, even old wall to wall carpeting.
This technique can also be used to improve really hopeless soil. In recent years my neighborhood has been creating a permaculture park on a vacant lot where the soil was so bad that even weeds barely grew. With the help of out city we created 5 foot deep trenches with a backhoe. The city then used the trenches as a dumpsite for their grass clippings, leaves and wood chips. We contributed by watering and adding back some of the origional soil after each layer. Once a trench was full they would dig another. After three years our lot is now productive and the city is looking for another lot to work with since they discovered it saved them several thousand dollars in recycling and trucking fees.
Potting Soil the Old Fashioned Way
Back before commercial potting soil gardeners used to make their own. If you have access to lots of leaves you can too. In the old days potting soil was made by creating a big pile of leaves and letting them sit until they broke down on their own. I use a piece of hardware cloth formed into a circle, each year I fill it full of leaves. I usually try to remember to stir it a couple of times during the winter but if you forget it will still work just not as fast. When the leaves have broken down pull off the wire circle and fill your pots. I have used this method for many years to create all the soil I need for my vegetable transplants.
Now sit back and enjoy your garden you should have a little time left over to smell the roses as well.