The worst work in the garden is tackling the problem of weeds. Over the years I haven’t found anything that works better than cardboard covered by a thick layer of wood chips.
The cardboard blocks even the tiniest amount of sunlight reaching the weeds and the thick, heavy 12 inch layer of wood chips ensure that. Eventually both will break down and create a rich soil for the garden.
Another benefit I have discovered is I am not walking ankle deep in the wet, clay mud which lingers for days after it rains. Last week it rained every day and normally the area where the garden is located would be a shallow pond, but because of this deep mulch I can walk over the area without loosing my shoe in the mire or having my plants drown.
The farm is located in what the locals call “clay alley” so it doesn’t matter where I situate the garden, it is all white clay. When wet it is a sticky, mush. Once dried out it is as hard as cement. Nothing grows in it except nasty weeds.
This is what 33 pounds of summer squash and zucchini look like when dehydrated. These half-gallon mason jars don’t weigh any more than the actual weight of the glass and take up much less space than if I had frozen it or pressure canned in quart or pint sized jars. The quality of the reconstituted squash will be most like when it was fresh.
Blanch 4 minutes then dehydrate at 125F approximately 24 hours.
I have found that this method of preserving summer squash and zucchini result in the best product. Pressure canning takes a long time and results in a mushy product. Freezing is faster but I have found the resulting product is still mushy.
Dehydrating results in a product which is very close in texture and taste to when it was fresh. Blanching reduces the time it takes to reconstitute.
I don’t dehydrate everything. The preservation method I use depends on the item and how I intend to use the food. Some foods, such as tomatoes or carrots, I use both dehydration and pressure canning.
This method also works well to make other foods “quick cook” such as pasta, rice and beans. Precook pasta, rice and beans until nearly done then dehydrate. When needed the pasta, rice or beans will cook much more quickly.
I was busy in the garden bright and early this morning enjoying the peace, quiet and solitude. I don’t miss living in a city, or even a large town, at all.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few things I would like to have better access to, such as a source for quality health care. We have been living here in farm country for four years and have yet to find a good health care provider.
We don’t miss shopping malls or shopping centers, we also don’t miss the rat race. Interestingly we haven’t even noticed a change in our lifestyle all through these months of lock-down.
We have been focused primarily in getting the new garden created. And now that things are growing and the garden is beginning to be productive we will be moving on to the food preservation period of the growing season.
A bit of advice for those planning to start canning food this season, now is the time to buy your supplies especially mason jars. As the season progresses these supplies will quickly become unavailable due to high demand. Also do shop around for the best prices and buy as many cases of jars as you think you may need or the most you can afford. Mason jars are a one time purchase and if you use the reusable Tattler lids you will only be adding to your supply as needed, not to replace used lids, which can get costly.
When shopping for supplies also look to purchase in bulk, directly from the manufacturer if possible.
Tattler is having a June special of 15% off some of their regular bulk prices and fast free shipping is standard. (I am not affiliated with Tattler and I do not receive any benefit if you choose to shop with them).
This is the final update for this experiment of starting seeds without soil.
The carrots have all germinated and are ready to transplant into soil.
The beets have also all germinated and are about 1 1/2″ tall with leaves.
The cabbage seeds have 100% germination and have been transplanted into plastic egg carton cells (the egg cartons are the clear plastic type with two lids) and are thriving.
Add to these, 3 days ago I sowed broccoli seeds and they all germinated in only one day and are now ready to transplant into egg carton cells. These tiny seeds were amazing to watch as there was a major change in their appearance daily.
All the tiny plants will remain beneath the grow lights until they are large enough and strong enough to be moved to the garden, but I must say at this point I am stunned by how much time this process of starting seeds has saved and especially how every seed has germinated compared with starting them in pots or seed trays with soil.
I hope this experiment has been helpful for any of you starting seeds for your own garden.
When I last sowed cabbage and carrot seeds in soil they seemed to take forever to germinate. In fact, carrot seeds are still germinating from when they were planted in April!
A few days ago I decided to try germinating these bothersome seeds without soil hoping they would be easier to transplant as well as being easier to pick up and thus have less loss of seeds and avoid thinning.
I set damp paper towels in two plastic containers and spread the seeds. The tiny seeds are easy to see and to move apart evenly. I misted the seeds then put the lids on.
The cabbage seeds have already germinated after 3 days. When I last sowed cabbage seeds in potting mix it took 5 days before I saw sprouts emerge and only 4 seeds germinated out of 2 dozen. Cabbage seeds normally take only 3-5 days to germinate, but for me they took twice as long in soil and a few germinated.
The seeds I put into the plastic container are from the same seed packet and as you can see the germination rate is much improved.
The carrot seeds normally take 14-21 days to germinate, and the ones in the plastic container have not germinated, yet. But I am hopeful. It would be great to have a better way to start carrots and other tiny seeds.
Beet seeds take 5-15 days, but these are already germinating in only 3 days. Since I didn’t have any additional plastic containers, I spread these beet seed atop very damp potting mix in a seed tray then covered them with a damp paper towel and kept all three containers beneath grow lights.
The beets have started germinating after only 3 days.
Just as with the carrots, the beets I sowed directly into the garden in April have only recently started germinating and only a portion of the seeds sprouted.
At this rate of development these tiny plants may be ready for the garden in a few more days. I will be using this method with other seeds.
I will post updates as things develop.
UPDATE DAY 4:
Yesterday I found another plastic container and started broccoli seeds.
Have you ever thought about how much food you and your family need for one year? If not you’d be amazed, as we were, by the answer.
Our new garden may seem big with hopefully a large bounty at harvest time, but when we compute exactly what we need to feed just the two of us for one year the garden should have more in it.
We preserve food by canning, dehydrating and freezing. Because we cannot have a root cellar where we live keep fresh food through the year is not possible.
Since there are just the two of us we use pint jars for most foods. Quart jars are used for pie fillings or for dry canning and storing dehydrated foods.
Figuring on each pint jar of vegetables providing 2 servings, we need two pints per meal for lunch and dinner. In addition we need meat and potatoes, and extras such as pickles, relishes, jams or jelly, and fruit. We also need milk, eggs, butter, and pantry staples such as herbs and spices, leavening, etc.
There are 365 days in a year requiring 4 pints of veggies per day = 1,460. Add to that at least one pound of meat per meal (1 lb of meat pressure canned = 1 pint) = 730 pints. We also like fruit once in a while so lets add 2 pint per month for an additional 24 pints.
If we have pasta once weekly we need 1 quart of tomatoes = 52 quarts Do you realize how many tomatoes it takes to make a quart of pasta sauce? It takes a minimum of 6 pounds tomatoes per quart. And if you want thick sauce, it takes much more.
So at the very least two people need a pantry stocked with at least 1.500 jars of just vegetables. Certain vegetables store better in the freezer, such as corn, spinach, chard, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Others store better if dehydrated such as cabbage, zucchini and summer squash.
We also pressure meat putting up 1 pound per pint. We can chicken, pork and beef. Along with quart jars of bone broth, soup stock, soup/stew base, and meals such as pork and beans, chicken pot pie base, etc.
A vegetable garden can be a lot of work, but the end result is worth every minute of spent energy. Using heavy mulch greatly reduces the need for weeding from days to minutes per day. It also reduces the need for frequent watering. Once soil has been prepared and the seeds have been sown the remainder of work for the gardening season is primarily in harvesting.
Based on an average week of food shopping at only $150 per week, it would cost us nearly $8,000 annually at the grocery store. Building our garden cost a fraction of that total and is mostly a one time expense. I will be saving seeds from this year’s garden to grow food next year. And our new chicken flock will feed primarily by foraging and will also produce eggs and next year’s flock.
The new garden build is coming along nicely even if it does feel like it’s taking a long time.
We had the long Memorial Day weekend to devote to the garden and it felt so good. More shoveling of wood chips, building raised beds, testing the creation process of an 18 day grass compost, building and painting a new picnic table, etc.
The garden is a big investment in time, energy and money but because the land here is only good for raising tobacco or soybean there is little choice but to build a garden area from scratch.
The ideal would be to plant earth creating plants such as winter rye and clover, add wood chips and leaf mold and wait a few years until it becomes suitable soil for gardening food.
We will use that method later to build the market garden. In the meantime our raised bed garden should provide all the food we need for the coming year, in addition to the chicks (which arrive next week) which will provide meat, eggs and new chicks for next year.
For dinner we roasted organic chicken in the grill, wild rice and our first home grown spinach.
I roasted the 3 lb organic pastured chicken stuffed with a half onion and herbs, and laid thick sliced bacon strips over its breast and legs. Then it was set onto thick onion slices set on the bottom of a cast iron skillet (the onion slices act as a trivet) and roasted on the grill at 350-375F for about an hour.
The bacon strips keep helps keep the chicken juicy and are removed for the last half hour of roasting. The combination of the chicken juices, bacon grease and onion makes an fantastic au jus for basting during the last half hour of roasting. Yum!
The spinach was delicious. It was full of flavor and not coarse or gritty like store bought. I steamed it with a bit of salt, pepper and garlic.
After months of planning we are finally hard at work creating our new garden on ground that is totally not fit to till being primarily hard, white clay.
Originally the vegetable garden was to be rather small, barely 50′ x 50′, but has expanded to 75′ x 100′. In addition to the vegetable garden we are putting in a small orchard for apples, peaches, pear, fig and cherry trees. There is also a grape arbor being constructed.
Back to the garden…
Because the land is so poor we have put down a thick layer of wood chips upon which we set raised beds each measuring 10′ x 4′ x 10″ and a few that are 20″ deep for potatoes and sweet potatoes.
This is a method I’ve used in past years with great success. After a few years the cardboard and wood chips will have transformed into compost and new, rich soil.
The large tomato patch is made by adding t-post fencing in 20′ rows, adding deep mulch of wood chips, and topping it off with deep rows (raised beds) along each fence trellis.
Each row has tomato transplants placed about 30″ apart along one side, and companion plants along the opposite side of each trellis. In all there are 100+ tomato plants. The plants grow up, weaving their way in and out of the trellis. Covering the plants with wood chips helps keep the soil moist especially during drought periods.
We don’t consume a large amount of corn, but I do like to keep some in stock. I have sowed corn in one raised bed, to be followed in two week intervals with plantings into two more beds. Each bed supports 48 corn stalks.
When planning what you should raise in your garden you should keep in mind those vegetables which you eat most often. Once you have those established, you can experiment with new or different vegetables in any available garden space.
It may be tempting to sow a dozen cabbage, but if you seldom eat it, keep the number of plants to just a few. I have discovered that the best way for me to keep cabbage for the long term is to dehydrate it and store in vacuum sealed mason jars. We don’t eat sauerkraut, and don’t like the texture of frozen or pressure canned cabbage.
Some crops do well from early planting in trays inside a greenhouse or beneath grow lights, and provide early satisfaction in the garden. Most however do well directly seeded into the warmed earth.
I’ve direct seeded peas, onions, rutabaga, beets, cucumbers, bunching onions, and chard thus far. Still much more to plant and I will start more seeds in trays so they will be ready to replace plants that have reached/passed their peak production. Such as succession plantings of summer squash instead of being overwhelmed by zucchini or yellow squash all at one time.
It is better to have 4-6 plants of each producing a daily supply throughout the growing season, than to have 20 plants all producing during a brief a period with no way to best preserve the harvest.
The entire garden is covered with a 12″ layer of wood chips, the boxes are filled with compost and wonderful things are growing. As the plants get larger and the weather gets warmer and drier, I will add mulch to the beds which will hold moisture and prevent weeds.
We are back in VA and our homestead. It’s been a busy time for us, moving to and back from Texas was quite an experience and we are so happy to be back at our homestead.
It was good to see the old place again, but, oh my, so much work was waiting for our return. The grass had grown so high! It’s taken weeks for me to finally get it almost all cut with my just riding mower, but there are just a few more acres to get under control before I can rest for the winter.
We have also broken ground for our new kitchen garden and put up a fence around the 50’x50′ area. The ground had never been tilled and was very compacted. Using a shovel was out of the question so we needed to buy a roto-tiller which struggled but did the job of loosening the soil.
The soil is awful. No visible signs of life except for the weeds. Our next task is to plant ground cover to start the process of building soil by planting winter rye, crimson clover and field peas.
In addition to the garden, we will be seeding another half acre with the ground cover in hopes of creating an organic market garden in order to help make the homestead self-sufficient.
Out buildings are in need repair, and we want to build a barn, greenhouse and chicken tractors. We are looking forward to restarting our chicken flock in the spring, as well as getting ducks, geese and a couple pigs.
The homestead is totally off-grid. There is a shallow well and a small pond which we hope to enlarge. Also on the to do list is creating a rainwater capture system.
I don’t know how long it will take to check off everything on the to-do list and I can envision how it will look, beautiful.
This year has been very busy for us. The year started out with us relocating to Texas where we will be living for one year. Moving away from our farm to a tiny house lot in a Dallas suburb is a major change for us and although small changes make life more interesting I am eager for the time we can return to the farm.
Meanwhile I am trying to make the best of this new home with the tiny yard. The challenge was in creating a garden that would not require digging up the home-owners property.
To accomplish the task I bought large bags of potting mix and laid them in a long row along the backyard fence. To help keep the soil from drying out quickly in the Texas heat I cut openings in each bag only large enough to accommodate each plant and also a small opening in the center of each bag for watering. Two large plants such as summer squash, peppers, and tomato do quite well in one bag. I cut an opening of about 4″ square for each plant.
For the cucumbers I laid out two bags and cut little square holes of about 2″ each and a few inches apart and close to one side edge of the bag into which I planted seeds. This leaves enough space along the opposite edge to plant something else such as lettuce or spinach.
There is no denying this little garden is a bit costly, but at least I have the satisfaction of growing some of my favorite veggies