Showers & flowers

This has been our most successful year of spring crops yet, and we think we can credit this to a few new methods this year!

What a season! Our spring garden is winding down and our summer garden is beginning to thrive. In just a few months, we transitioned from a bare, cold patch of soil to a thriving space of early spring crops. This has been our most successful year of spring crops yet, and we think we can credit this to a few new methods this year:

  1. Companion planting, 2.0
  2. No-dig gardening
  3. Staggered garden seasons

Companion Planting, 2.0

Many gardeners use companion planting as a method of supporting plants in their gardens, or, at least knowing which ones to avoid planting together (tomatoes and potatoes don’t mix!). With the help of companion planting research and permaculture studies, Evan put together a mix of spring plantings designed to support one another and deter pests from the garden.

We planted four rows of the following plants, but in varying starting orders: spinach, onions, romaine, carrots, beets, radishes, and “Four Seasons” lettuce. The rows had the same order, but each row started with a different plant so that the location of the individual species were staggered. While we had kale and peas obliterated one bed over by rabbits, these beds of spring crops were virtually untouched! We had some issues with slugs on deteriorating lettuce leaves, but in all, we had a lot of great success with companion planting.

Companion planting at work! Onions, radishes, Four Seasons Lettuce, romaine, beets, and carrots, staggered in plantings.

We started these seeds inside with a method suggested by Charles Dowding, a no-dig gardener on YouTube. In February, we sowed multiple seeds per pod and didn’t thin until much after we transplanted. This allowed us to grow many more plants and take advantage of young lettuce leaves, spring green onions, and tender spinach leaves as the plants grew up.

Because we harvested slowly and for individual meals rather than one fell swoop of harvesting, we counted our harvest by the number of portions – and this year alone, we harvested over 100 salads! For the price of a couple of seed packets, we saved weeks worth of greens we would’ve otherwise bought from the store – and, we have seeds ready to save for next year to ensure another round of growing. This is the kind of sustainability we are working for – though we could eventually expand to selling to friends and family. But for now, it’s about providing for ourselves and ensuring we know how the food is produced.

No-Dig Gardening

This is one that will take some time to reap the benefits – but believe it or not, in just a few years we will be virtually weed-free. Isn’t this the bane of many gardeners, spending hours in the burning sun, trying to save your tomatoes from the weeds encroaching upon them? For me, it’s what makes me give up mid-season – gardening is all well and fine until your beds look like a quarantine haircut. So, to cope with weeds now and in the future, we are trying to commit to putting at least an inch of compost down on our garden a year, which serves two purposes; 1) to deliver amazing nutrient benefits to our garden, and 2) to work as a mulch to suppress the weeds.

The more we have learned about tilling and hoeing, the more we learn that it just brings growth and seeds to the surface and scatters the weeds further. So, instead, we will be using the compost as mulch to suppress the weeds over time, which takes commitment to creating compost. In May, we added a vermicomposting bin to the process – 1000 red wrigglers are here to help break down compost and excrete worm castings and worm tea over time, which will only add beneficial nutrients and micronutrients to our soil. What others buy at the store for $10-15 a bag, we will have ready for free in 6 weeks or less!

Come fall, we can also turn our chickens loose in the garden to work on spent plants and any extra growth. Evan built them a temporary “play pen” in the corner by our pond, and in three days they ate all the chives and yarrow we had growing around our new apple tree. Our yarrow is more than prolific, so we weren’t worried about it growing back, but it was a good practice run to see how they would do with full grown plants. It’s been confirmed – they will definitely eat them. 🙂

15 week old beauties! Golden, Silver, and Red Blue-Laced Wyandottes. Eggs will happen anytime between 18-24 weeks.

Staggered Garden Plans

For the last couple of years, we tried (in vain) to grow three seasons of crops in one bed. We tried starting the seeds indoors and transplanting, but inevitably the plants in the garden needs longer to mature and finish off and our seedlings got choked, leggy, and root-bound while waiting for transplant. Our spring crop always trailed into late June when we needed to have our summer vegetables in by mid-May, which delayed our fall crops into practically non-existence or frosty, undeveloped remains. Last year our summer crops were so late, we harvested corn and zucchini in October!

Anise hyssop, thyme, blueberries, and blackberries.

So, this year, we staggered our bed usage into either 1) one long season production, or 2) two “normal” season production setups that were sandwiched or alternated with cover cropping for rejuvenation. Here’s this year’s layout:

Bed 1: Perennial berry bed, exempt from the current rotation.

Beds 2 & 9: Used to be a walking path, is being sheet-mulched this year with cardboard and compost to ready the soil. Will be a cover-crop in the fall when the sheet-mulching is done.

Beds 3 & 4: Long-term spring veggies, extra short summer cover crop, fall veggies. This started with potatoes, kale, and peas this year – peas and kale have been attacked pretty harshly by rabbits and cabbage moth worms. The potatoes will be ready to harvest in July, so we’ll be on a tight turnaround to work a cover crop through and then sow fall crops.

Beds 6 & 8: Spring veggies, summer cover crop, fall veggies. We finished harvesting spring veggies (lettuces, carrots, beets, spring onions, radishes, spinach) in mid-June. This will have a short-lived cover crop (like buckwheat or clover) for the summer and then will transition back to transplanted fall veggies in August/September. These two beds will lean heavily on spring & fall production with soil revitalization happening in the summer/winter.

Beds 5, 7, & 10: Spring cover crop, summer veggies, fall cover crop. These are our polyculture summer beds and the ones that we dream about in the wintertime. Bed 5 has a polyculture blend of tomatoes, peppers, basil, and calendula, which work together to support one another nutritionally as well as ward off pests. 7 & 10 follow the “Three Sisters” Native American model of corn, beans, and squash (with melons, luffa, zucchini, and cucumber). These beds were sown & transplanted while our spring crops were still going strong. They will lean heavily on summer production and focus on soil revitalization in the fall and winter with winter wheat and red clover.

Bed 11: Pollinator mix, one of our newest beds, also exempt from our current rotation.

It sounds complicated, but it actually makes our lives simpler by spacing out the work! We will only be turning over a few beds at a time and don’t have to have massive amounts of seed starters going at a time.

Our new favorite morning routine has been getting up early, letting out our beautiful, soon-to-be-egg-laying ladies, and working through the garden. We hunt for berries, inspect vegetables, watch Evan pull weeds, harvest a few daily veggies and herbs, and make coffee and a breakfast full of garden-fresh food. During this confusing and anxious time, this small routine has been so soothing and reconnecting – I hope your green space can bring you the same comfort and ease that ours has.

Teenage Girls and Coop Plans

This spring has proven to be the most surreal experience. We had been gearing up for spring break, trying to plan all our big projects and organizing for one week, only to find out that Kansas closed schools for the rest of the school year due to COVID-19. My brain hurts, I slept terribly last night for nightmares and uncertain dreams about missing my kiddos at school, and I’m exhausted, so I won’t go into details here and now. Needless to say, until we start semi-teaching again online in two weeks, I have a lot of time on my hands.

While the girls are growing, I’ve been trying to accomplish various tasks and projects around the house. We brought home chicks just over two weeks ago, but I have a sneaking suspicion we are actually closer to three weeks old. We’ve recently started establishing the pecking order with two of my Golden-laced girls doing lots of chest-bumping and surprise landings to spook and intimidate.

2 weeks old! Dandelions are yummy, especially when they come attached to dirty roots that might have some creepy crawlies left in them.

To help with the pecking order chaos, I’m trying to keep them occupied with an extra feeder, lots of sticks to climb and play on, and a variety of engaging treats. We love hard-boiled egg so far (yes, you can and should feed cooked egg to babies!) and are especially excited by Daddy’s leftover seedlings from thinning. We will pick up a little Romaine seedling and run peeping through the brooder with the rest of the girls at our backs!

Our brooder set up for 12 chicks, expanded at 2 weeks old: now featuring chick grit, a dust bath, extra feeders & waterers, lots of sticks, fun greens, and their favorite place to drop excrement – the top of the brooder warmer plate.

A big point of excitement, and relief, for us was to finally finish building the coop. We purchased plans online and hoped to build it ourselves, but this ended up being a big and expensive project! We knew it wouldn’t be cheap to buy a coop anyways, but I was hoping to spend less than $500, and it cost closer to $700 after materials.

It was our first carpentry project, and we didn’t bite off an easy one to start. We had to make some alterations as we went because some measurements were off and we made some mistakes reading the plans, but we are very happy with how it turned out!

All I need is a sign for the front, and we’re complete!
Nesting boxes to the right (I’ll fill with burlap later), roots in the middle (hardware cloth tacked underneath), and a ramp at the front. It’s my understanding that we will not need to close the bottom of the coop up in the winter – circulation is essential for them and their little bodies will provide a lot of radiant heat. Another bonus to buying Wyandottes – they’re cold hardy, featuring smaller combs and fluffier feathers.
Nesting boxes, pre-burlap sacks.

The coop is moveable, even by me – I added a rope to the front so I can pull it around the yard. The girls will have full access to the soil, bugs, grass, and snacks while staying confined and safe from neighborhood disturbances and at night they can climb the ramp to sleep above group for added safety. It combines so many elements I was looking for in a coop all into one package, and fingers crossed that it works well for the gals!

With some extra time the last couple of days I’ve continued to do some prep to the garden – cleaning out the leaves and large debris in the garden and building a larger woodpile, now that we’re low on wood. Now’s a time to keep busy in between the rains.

In the midst of all this chaos, being stuck at home and without much to do invites us to slow down. We’ve been stuck in a whirlwind of engagements, to-do lists, meetings, expectations, long days, for months. As miserable as a time as this might be, what with social distancing and all, perhaps its a call to heal, to slow, and to be thoughtful. While working in the garden this week I had so many opportunities to admire tiny sprouts, little feathers, and wee mushrooms.

3 week old Golden-Laced Wyandotte.

I’ll leave you all with this quote from Kitty O’Meara for tonight:

“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

“And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

“And when the danger passed, the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed. “

May you dream and heal wonderfully over the next few weeks and months.

Late Winter, 2020

This post contains affiliate links.

I hope this day finds you warm, well, and excited for spring! We are gearing up for an exciting season of growing and expansion. February finds us deep into seedling cultivation and baby chick planning.

This spring, we have three main goals:

  1. Sheet mulch and cultivate new growing areas in the backyard #growfoodnotlawns
  2. Establish hundreds (if not thousands!) of seedlings so that we can get a head start on spring planting
  3. Start a flock!

Sheet Mulching: #growfoodnotlawns

Setting landscape timbers on the edge of the garden, February 2020.

Thanks to Evan’s new research in permaculture, we’re trying a new method to help create a mini-food forest in our own backyard. Later this spring, we will be adding Nanking cherries, apple trees, Goumi bushes, and mulberry trees, but in the meantime, we are focusing on our “potager,” our garden area full of herbs, flowers, and vegetables. We previously had four long beds of single-row vegetables and this year we will be trying more of a keyhole style with much more integrated and dependent vegetables and herbs. More on this in the future!

Sheet mulching involves building organic matter through the decay from a three-bean-casserole style of mulching: cardboard (no plastic or stickers), green matter (grass & compost), and leaves. Early spring rains have been a perfect catalyst for the process – and the robins have been eagerly monitoring the decaying process!

Seedlings

We are extremely excited about a new method we are trying for seeds this year! In the past, we have started tomatoes and peppers inside and not much else. Our plans for checking and maintaining them daily were inconsistent due to rough schedules, so some days they struggled to thrive. We managed to keep them alive along enough for outside, but seedlings sown outside took so long to get started that we couldn’t fully exercise a three season garden between spring, summer, and fall – by the time the spring crops were healthy enough to produce, we were supposed to have summer crops sown, and the timing was just all sorts of off. (We were harvesting zucchinis in October…)

By sheer luck of letting YouTube play suggested videos one evening, we stumbled across a cute English gardener with hundreds of videos about no dig gardening. If you haven’t watched or read anything from Charles Dowding, then you ought to look him up – if nothing else, than for the way he pronounces “compost”with an English accent. Dowding starts everything in a greenhouse – kale, lettuce, beets, onions, you name it, it’s started ahead of time, and with 4-6 seeds per cell at a time. We realized that this method would buy us an entire extra season of growing if we could start things indoors and move out as young-to-teenage plants.

Fast forward to February, and we have two table-tops of seedlings laid out and thriving! Every day we turn the lights on and mist/water the trays and check it all again in the evening. On warm days, we move trays to the mini cold frame we constructed this fall to enjoy some true sunlight.

DIY cold frame with herbs and black bottles to absorb heat. On a 50-60 degree day, this cold frame can get to 90 degrees!

Currently in the trays: Detroit dark red beets, lettuce (Romaine and 4-Season Marvel), yellow sweet onions, Champion radishes, Bloomsdale spinach, Darkibor kale, and Lincoln sweet peas. My herbs: Valerian, bee balm, sage, lemon balm, St. John’s wort, chamomile, with elecampane and marshmallow on deck.

Mini Manure Makers

We have talked and dreamed about chickens for YEARS, and it’s finally time! (My mother and I joke that we should throw a baby chick shower for the girls!) We are in the process of building a big, beautiful coop courtesy of Kelly at the Green Willow Homestead – the best example I could find of a chicken tractor that provided protected ranging and a roost above the ground with minimal plastic usage.

With all our focus and work towards creating a food forest in the backyard, the first area of focus has to be soil. And what better way to help improve the soil than to employ mini manure makers and tillers to clear the path? (I am also incredibly stoked about the mosquito and garden pest elimination!)

With much research and reading, we’ve decided to bring home 6-8 Wyandotte chickens. I picked them for their ability to forage (enclosed run will be moved every day through our yard), cold hardiness, docile nature (though they apparently need some extra space and can be domineering with other breeds), and consistent laying, even through the wintertime. They aren’t a typical household breed, but they sure are gorgeous!

MyPetChicken.com has a lot of fabulous resources for your coop – this brooding “box” came from Amazon and is easy to clean and store.

We have a brooding box of sorts set up (circles keep the babies from getting stuck in corners) and have been sanitizing and cleaning with a gentle detergent this week in anticipation of bringing them home this weekend. Wish us luck on the first day at home!

If you are interested in reading more about raising birds, I’ve been a fan of two particular books in my research thus far:

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens provides an encyclopedia of knowledge through basic care, illness, troubleshooting, and is a fantastic how-to guide for chickens. It really is an all-encompassing guide for a lot of traditional methods for raising birds in a variety of situations.

After reading Storey’s Guide, I picked up the Small Scale Poultry Flock based on recommendations for how to provide a more holistic and natural setup for the birds. Harvey Ussery digs into free-ranging, creating homemade blends of food with a scientific basis, and suggestions for more natural and holistic approaches, like how to assist molting and wintering processes with food and supplements rather than fighting the natural systems with lightbulbs to lengthen the days. (Let’s not also forget that this book includes a forward by Joel Salatin, one of our favorite authors and farmers in the sustainability and farm-focused movement in our times.)

We have so many more exciting things planned this spring and cannot wait to tell you more about them. In the meantime, follow me on Instagram @singtoyourplants for more daily updates, including the new dinosaur babies!

Bottom of the coop frame is built!