My One Year Journey to Growing a Green Thumb
I have recently become enamored with gardening. And in my head, it’s as if I have a garden. What I have, is a bug ridden strawberry planter and baby cucumber seedlings and some herbs. I want a raised garden but my husband refuses to build me one until I can plant something that we can eat. This is my third year in attempt to do that.
My ambitions are high. I foresee spring times of dirty hands, summer of watering and growth, fall harvests, and winters enjoying canned preserves. I think of lovely watermelon and billowing heads of lettuce and picking strawberries right off the vine to wash and cut for company. I imagine eating salads picked strait from the garden minutes before serving. Everything will be organic. Everything will be fresh. We will become a better family based on our garden alone. Like I said, I have high ambitions for this gardening thing.
I suppose I need to begin at the beginning. For starters I need to learn. I’ve got the planting thing almost down pat aside from specifics of how and when to plant and zones…ok, so I’m sorta there with a kindergartner in that I just get the concept that you fill a pot with dirt, poke holes and drop seeds. I couldn’t even grow flowers last year.
So I have a new approach. I will learn new things every month. And in one year, God willing, I will have learned how to grow a garden.
Month 1: June 2012
Planting with kids is best. They will (hopefully) understand and be more excited about the gardening process therefore improving their diets. Herbs are easy. Do those first. We get excited about watching them grow and observing them and I feel super cool when I leave the kitchen mid-dinner recipe to snip fresh herbs. Sadly, my husband says this does not count in my effort to get a raised garden.
Alabama spring and summer are unrelenting. You cannot over water strawberries. It is best to water first thing in the morning and at dusk. I think it’s because of the impact on your water bill more than the effect it has on the plant.
When bugs overtake the strawberry planter, call for help. Most friends recommend Neem’s Oil – a concentrated spray safe for an organic garden. Spray and pray.
The bugs are gone – yeah! The pitiful brown holes they left in the leaves of my strawberries are still evident – and now it is time for reconstruction if such a thing is possible for a strawberry plant. I’ve heard that talking to your plants helps them to grow so I’ve been singing “survivor” to my strawberries and I really think it’s working.
According to my son’s library book, worms are our best friends as gardeners and are even referred to as underground gardeners. Noted. I will no longer think of them as slimy and gross, but rather as helpful and useful.
When watering at night, be sure to set a timer to shut off the sprinkler. It is almost 6 am. which means the plants got a nearly 10 hour shower. Can’t wait to see our water bill. On the good side, my morning watering is done.
A large part of my desire to garden comes from the fact that I hate to throw away banana peels. And tea bags. And apple cores. And really anything that I believe would make good compost. One day I’ll have a compost bin wriggling with worms and I’ll have plants that produce fruit and I can say with confidence that I have a real garden.
Also, cucumber seeds sprout rather quickly. I think we’re already ready for transplant into the hanger after a little over a week. On second thought, I better wait a little while and let them grow just a bit stronger.
“Happy Wolf Spiders” is what my family now affectionately calls those crawling critters in the backyard. We read in one of the boys bug books that wolf spiders are great for gardens because they eat bad garden bugs. Also, they are not poisonous. Well, dear happy wolf spiders, you shall live another day if you get caught in the Rinna home.
My friend is coming over in two days to help me make my first compost bin/worm farm. In utter excitement, I announce this to my husband who is happy for me but is not sharing the gravity of my joy. My husband is tediously working towards his degree (at a very difficult university of all places) and he is having to relearn math almost entirely to do so, so I tease him saying “don’t kill my dreams – if you can go to UAH and become an engineer then I can have an organic garden one day that provides abundantly for us” to which he replied, with a laugh, “hunny, I think I have a better shot at becoming an aerospace engineer than you having a successful garden.” Oh, it’s on. It is so on.
I transplanted the cucumbers today and I’m concerned it might have been too traumatic. The seeds were planted in one pot so the roots, which are very fine hair-like things, were very much entangled. I ended up cutting through the dirt like a cake with my spade. They’re all in the topsy turvy now but note to self if they all die (God please don’t let them all die…) plant seeds in Dixie cups so when they’re ready for transplant it will not disrupt the roots. However, I did get them into organic garden mix with some organic fertilizer so I’m praying they’re strong enough to take root again.
It is hot in Alabama. Very. Very. Hot. I keep thinking of that country song “where I come from, rain is a good thing.” Even as a novice gardener, I can definitely see the truth in that!
The strawberries are making a comeback! I’ve got close to 10 little berries sprouting and one is already red. The bugs were gone after two applications of Neem’s oil but I did a third just for good measure. The poor dogwoods are another story. Their leaves still look very sad.
Some of the weakest cucumber plants died off over night. The good news, though, is the stronger ones are looking up today. And I’ve now got three baby strawberries that are orange or red!
A word on worm farms…treat them differently than a compost bin. Do without the egg cartons, paper products and other “brown” stuff. They work best on egg shells, tea bags, produce scraps.
Day 13:We just spent a week in MI where I got to drool over my brother’s garden and eat a salad minutes after the lettuce and leeks were picked. I had never eaten a leek and apparently they are from the onion family and reminded me of scallions. They added a spicy mustardy kinda taste to an ordinary salad and like anything else that’s green, they are chalk full of nutrition. They are particularly helpful in steadying elevated blood sugar level and helping to raise HDL (good cholesterol) levels as well as decrease the bad.
Vegetables are beginning to fascinate me.
My husband says the soil in MI is just better and I wish I would’ve taken a handful with me. My brother’s been rotating compost and plants in the same spot for almost five years now and I know that makes a difference. We talked about rain barrels and how efficient they are which led me to the next item on my wish list. I’ve read that you can make a rain barrel for as cheap as $15 if you have the Rubbermaid can already.
New strawberries have come through and overnight they are dried up and rotten. I see no bugs but I do see a couple of spider webs. Are spiders sucking the life out of my berries?
On a good note, after a merciless week of 100+ temps, my cucumber leaves are looking vibrant and full. I am really hooked on this gardening thing and intend to plant some organic leaf lettuce and even pumpkins for Halloween. Now is the time to do fall stuff so we’ll be headed to Lowe’s for seeds.
After speaking with my father-in-law, I have come to the sad conclusion that I will never be able to grow pumpkins in my backyard. Who knew that the vines grow to be the size of my van, ya know, except people who’ve researched growing pumpkins before deciding it’d be adorable to grow their own Halloween decorations.
I have decided to plant the lettuce, still, in a pot. This is a good plan, I’ve been told because of lettuce’s need for great soil and to be protected from the rabbits.
I’m seriously considering a raised garden as my best option once Lee gives in to the idea of building me one. My strawberries have done nothing in support of me for this challenge, but I’m still praying for the cucumbers to come through!
It is not a good idea to leave a worm compost bin with holes in the top out when it can get rained during Alabama summer storms. There’s about two inches of water in my bin and although the worms are fine, it is not smelling too good. It’s out of the rain’s reach now, but I’ll have to see about how to absorb all that water…wet dirt is not going to help and although I was able to drain some, the rest will have to be absorbed from within.
This is a sad time for my “gardening” (can I even call it that?). The cucumbers are now looking so sad and even my herbs are over grown and underused. The dogwoods and Hydrangeas don’t stand a chance. But I refuse to give up! As soon as the torturing temps give us a break, I will plant my lettuce seeds and look forward to fall.
I am going to research “Square-foot Gardening” for next year. I have read some good things so far and think I’d be a perfect fit for the space I have designated in our backyard.
It is raining again which is good. Maybe the cucumbers will look up tomorrow.
Apparently I am not the only one who’s garden is being affected by the weather. Last night on the news, they said this has been America’s hottest summer to record and they likened the circumstances to that of the Dust Bowl! Thank God, I am not depending on my Topsy Turvy’s to feed my family, but I would like to. My prayers go out to America’s farmers, but the more I learn about nutrition and how food affects our health and overall quality of life – for the good or the bad – I am more and more convicted to really do this garden thing right.
We Americans are feeding ourselves food-like substances and expecting it to function like food. Big surprise…it’s not! I want an organic garden more than ever and if this weather would break, I could start with my lettuce.
To my strawberries and cucumbers, I will try harder next year. I will research this year and hopefully I can plant some things for fall that will add to my organic garden education.
I have gone through the typical stages of grief over my failed endeavor and am ready to move forward. After re-evaluating my spring/summer gardening plan I realize, I did not have one. Like most people, I assume, I function best on a plan, with goals, usually following something tangible like a book or a blog or a website. So here’s the deal; after much research and getting advice from people who’ve actually grown things they can eat, I have found the plan for fall. I will purchase two books (or perhaps receive them as gifts for my upcoming bday…not to drop any hints to my husband or anything…) and they will become my guides. The first book, Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew and the second – which I admit as a homeschool mama I’ve even more excited about – Project Garden: A Month-to-Month Guide… by Stacy Tornio (both available in my “You’ve Gotta Read This” Amazon Store). I will take it one step at a time, continue to learn as I go, and God willing, one day I will have an actual garden.
On the upside, my worms seem to be doing fine even after I allowed them to be absolutely flooded and the stench is even nearly gone.
Month 3: August 2012
The deed has been done; my husband has taken down both Topsy Turvy’s and emptied their contents. The strawberry planter was so scorched from the sun, it fell apart during dumping and the cucumber holder sits vacant in the garage.
Just me and the worms now.
And the herbs, which to recap, don’t really count as planting something.
Now to wait on the cool down. I’ve noticed the mornings are a little less harsh but by 3 p.m. we’re still steady around 100 degrees. It’s not time for lettuce yet.
We’re nursing the dogwoods back to health (when I say that, I mean we’ve gotten better about watering them) and a friend of mine told me about a trick her neighbor does with his baby trees: he takes a string and buries it near the tree roots a couple of inches deep. He lays the other end of the string in a 5-gallon bucket next to the tree. I knew this would be a terrible eye sore but my friend assured me it was only for the first year. I think I’ll do it and see what happens. I’ve got to keep my green thumb active, after all.Day 20:
Oh, for the love. I can’t believe it happened, but it happened. I’ve even killed the worms.
My son and I went out there yesterday to see how they were doing and stir things up with the spade and then I realized – no one was home. What I think happened is when it had rained, the dirt became mud and compacted so much and then we dumped the soil from the dead cucumbers and strawberries on there without stirring it up and by time I did, well, it was too late for the worms.My gardening future is looking very bleak. I will not give up just yet, though.
Good news. My “worm friend” took pity on me and gave us some more worms. I am really going to try not to kill them this time. I vow to check on them daily from now on.
A um, yucky, word on worm composts. It goes without saying that when you put banana peels and other food waste in a container with moist dirt, many insects will think this is the best party they’ve ever been to. This is my nonchalant way of saying the worms aren’t the only bugs living there. Now before I killed the worms, this bug population was made up of a couple of random ant, a few fruit flies and every now and then a fly would get in there and reproduce. I believe the worms were keeping that population at bay somehow because I’ve noticed that the weeks without worms I would open the lid to a huge host of fruit flies, as well as flies and random bugs. I am thinking now that the worms are back, the others will disappear. It could also be seasonal.
My birthday is next Wednesday and I have a really good feeling I’ll be getting a certain book that will make my gardening life a little less restless!
Day 22: More rain and more sitting water in the bin. I found a tarp to wrap over the lid when it rains. Also, I’m going to throw a paper bag in with the next compost to absorb and try leaving the lid open a bit to dry out.
Day 23: The backyard is under control…for now. My sweet hubby and I spent enough of a Sunday afternoon out there to make a dent. Here’s the check list:
* worm bin is fixed (for now…let’s hope for good). I had only been feeding the worms produce scraps and it was growing a stinky mess with lots of flies. Solution: add browns. We used grass clippings, brown paper bag strips, and new dirt over the top of the produce (I read that would help with the flies). I’ll keep watch over the next few days and hopefully the stink disappears and the worms multiply.
Also, I have learned a valuable lesson a little too late…when making a worm bin, the holes for air should be put on the side, not in the lid.
*As I had hoped, I received Project Garden for my birthday. I looked ahead to September where it mentions building a raised bed so right on schedule…
*We have broken ground for our Square Foot Garden! I am thrilled. Lee mowed and cleared (and the boys helped) and was about to dig down a few inches to insure the weed guard and rock would stay put but then we got stuck when this Alabama clay called for a rototiller to help dig down a couple of inches to create space for the weed barrier to be laid.
* Seedlings were planted of broccoli, spinach and lettuce according to the Square Foot Gardening website.
Month 4: September 2012
I pruned the hydrangeas and pink dogwoods. They have been dying or possibly dead for a while now and although a website said not to prune dogwoods after June, I did it. The hydrangeas sprouted a few new blooms and look better. The dogwoods are a different story. “My tree” has sprouted new healthy leaves and I pruned everything but them. “My husband’s tree” on the other hand might not have a chance. It showed no signs of new growth.
The broccoli, lettuce and spinach seedlings look good and may soon be ready for transplant. With my husband out of town, we are still stuck on the no rototiller step. When he gets home we’ll just have to rent one.
The weather is an amazing breezy 78 – 84 degrees all day and drops as low as 58 degrees at night. It is so refreshing after the long brutal Alabama summer. This is always my favorite time of year, regardless of what state I’ve lived in. It’s like the entire earth takes a great big exhale and relaxes for the season. It’s these days I especially dream of my future garden (which for now is just a plot of low cut grass) where I can sit on this porch swing watching the boys play and inhale the fragrance of flowers in the breeze from behind me and turn to see fresh vegetables at my disposal. I have larger dreams than the small plot; I love the idea of a garden being a place to sit and relax and enjoy. A fountain, a small bench, perhaps. My realistic husband suggests that I get this 6×7 or so plot to produce first before I dig up an eighth of our yard. Thank God for him or our whole yard would be overgrown with honeysuckle and butterfly bushes. He has a background in landscape and is able to smile and shake his head at me when I lay my outlandish requests out to him.
Month 5 & 6: October/November 2012
It has been a while and here is where I’m at. I purchased the wood for the square foot garden but got spooked by the early cold weather and decided to lay it down in spring. The main question I had was about the wood rotting. So, after some research, I am going to “stain” the wood with walnut oil. It’s organic, and of all the oils, walnut is said to dry the best to actually create a sealant effect on the wood. As for the seedlings, they got dumped after we post-poned the garden.
The elephant in the room has been this atrocious compost gone bad…oh, my. Here’s a picture to show you how your compost SHOULD NOT look!!
Toxic compost can happen and it happened to me. Anyway, for months now – yes, how sad – months…it’s been haunting me from the backyard. A friend of mine brought me some good compost, hay, and dry leaves and I’ve been saving a big bowl of kitchen scraps. So today with it being 76 degrees on November 2, I put my big girl panties on and hiked out to the backyard with a shovel and the city compost bin. I was going to brave it out, no matter how bad it smelled and how much the bubbling freaked me out. To my surprise, the whole nasty production took less than twenty minutes! Isn’t it amazing how we can psych ourselves up for something to be so terrible and once we face it, it’s really not that bad? The nasty compost is gone and the bin is rinsed and drying in the sun and in my head I’m singing “ding-dong the witch is dead” because the compost nightmare had become just that.
I will not be daunted. When the bin is dry, I am going to get it started with the good compost, hay, dry leaves, and kitchen scraps, and pray for the best. And if by spring I do not have “crumble through my fingers” glorious compost for my square foot garden “mel mix”, well then this girl is giving up and buying some from a friend!
Everything else in the backyard is dead; even the grass looks like hay. My herbs are thriving in the kitchen window sill and I am reading up on what I need to have ready for February or March. We’ll see how bad winter gets this year. I hear they’re calling for snow.
Here’s what went wrong with my compost:
I did not realize worm compost and hot compost were two different things needing two different materials.
I combine the idea by creating in that big Rubbermaid green and brown materials and then added worms. So, essentially, I dumped these poor worms into what soon became hot compost (which you can actually cook on…) The worms’ fate is pretty obvious once I put them in the furnace
:(. Add some rain and Alabama heat and too many kitchen scraps instead of 70% brown material = toxic compost.
I have finally figured it all out and today this is what I did…
First came the worm bin, or as the boys and I call it “Hotel for Worms.” The worms I bought are Big Red Worms and I paid about $4 from Wal-mart in the fishing section. The 5 gallon Rubbermaid was about $3 from there, as well. I poked holes in the lid and three on the sides, one side about one inch higher than the other for air circulation. Then I put some great compost from a friend of mine, dry leaves, and a half-eaten pear for them to feat on. They’re wriggling around and look quite happy. Due to the cold night temps, The “Hotel for Worms” will be located in the garage for now.
As for the hot compost, I poked holes in the bottom of the Rubbermaid for draining. This was a big problem for me last time and a cause of the sludge creation. Then I put dry leaves, compost, kitchen scraps, and hay. I sprinkled some of this compost maker, as well. I saved some of the hay to ensure there’s enough air circulating (the uneven holes on the sides will help with that, as well) and to have to add once things get going. Living in a subdivision, we have much more kitchen scraps than hay and dry leaves laying around!
So we’ll see. Hopefully by spring I’ll have two different composts to add to my soil mix!
There’s at least one new arrival at our Hotel for Worms and the dirt looks fantastic and the food is slowly disappearing which all lead me to believe…it’s working! I hope I am not speaking too soon but it appears our worm compost project is a success. For winter though, along with having the bin in the garage, I am going to wrap a towel around the bin as well for added warmth. After all we’ve done to try to make this a success I would hate to lose our little guys over the winter.
A note on the hot compost…my new favorite ingredient…scraps from my juicer! Why didn’t I think of this sooner?
Months 7, 8 & 9: December/January/February 2012-2013
Just like the little groundhog coming out to see his shadow, I came out from my garden hibernation and planned our spring planting today.
I am so excited – not just to take another swing at this gardening thing but because every time I fail, I learn. That means when I planned out our square foot garden, I actually referenced the book the whole time and researched what plants grow when. I even learned our zone number and when the latest anticipated frost date is. Weather.com and Farmer’s Almanac have been a friend to me in addition to the book I’m following. So here’s what’s on the roster for Spring planting…
and maybe Potatoes
I know it’s ambitious but I’ve got high hopes (don’t I always??!). Really, I can feel it. This is the year we’ll be able to eat from the garden.
I have to plant the seeds of the broccoli, lettuce, spinach, carrots and parsley asap. The book recommends doing so in vermicelli so I’ll be headed to Lowe’s for that and seeds tomorrow.
Months 10 & 11: March/April 2013
So much to write.
My thumb has gotten just a bit greener these last couple of weeks.
The weather has warmed up and the itch to be out in the yard has hit. Husband and I spent the last two weekends working in the yard (okay, so he did most of the working part…) and today I am proud to announce I have a beautiful Square Foot Garden!!
The Mel’s Mix is in and the grids are on top and this afternoon when the sun goes down a bit, the boys and I will get out there and plant.
We went to Lowe’s yesterday and came home with compost, dwarf marigolds, four strawberry plants, a tomato cage (for the strawberries to climb…we’ll see if this works!) and even a cantaloupe plant (yes – very wishful thinking!)
One of the strawberry plants has three ripe berries just days away from picking. We got those so I could say – without a doubt – we ate from our garden this year. It counts once it’s planted. Of course if I don’t somehow kill it before then.
I realize birds are an issue for any garden but I have a particular anxiety about one bird. A sweet robin has parked its nest in my next door neighbor’s window sill…which is about a rock’s throw from the garden. The boys and I love sitting at their bedroom window looking out at the mama feeding her babies…she knows us and we know her. I hope our relationship is strong enough that she doesn’t think I’ve planted her and her babies a garden. Something tells me birds are not sentimental, though.
The amended planting schedule for spring…
We’ve also added a lovely little lilac bush in the corner of my garden in honor of my dad’s passing. He loved how they smell and so do I.
The pressure is on. There’s only two more months until my one year mark and the end of this gardening experiment. Not that I’ll stop gardening, but the answer to the question will be known…to quote myself from the top of this page…And in one year, God willing, I will have learned how to grow a garden. Because we all know I have certainly learned a thing or two about what not to do.
P.S. The worms are all alive and well. They even went to show & tell with our youngest for letter W week. Their hard work paid off and we were able to use their compost in the garden – it was beautiful.
My compost is looking just a little rough. Needs some more dry stuff and was not ready to use for the garden. I’ll keep trying.
The garden is in!!
Everything is planted. It’s most exciting, of course to look at what is not growing from seeds.
There’s something about buying already fruitful strawberry plants that makes me feel so productive, just for digging a hole. Per my sweet friend’s suggestion, I purchased some bird netting to cover the strawberries. You can see it if you look closely at the full garden picture. It was super cheap for what you get – about $6 at Lowes.
A couple of berries were small but ripe for the picking. I assume they tasted good although I didn’t get to try…
Month 12: May 2013
Oh, Alabama…how can you do this to me? It is 50 degrees. In May. Your sun-filled sweltering summers are just around the corner but I’m worried about my strawberries freezing to death this weekend.
Now to figure out these illusive “runners” that strawberries come with. We’ve had a handful of little berries to eat which has been fun but after doing some research I realize these are probably coming from runners. This is deceiving because you think you’re getting a good turn out but the runners are weak and the berries are small and all the while they’re stealing energy from the core plant which could be producing larger berries. Ughhh…now my new goal is not just to get something to grow that we can eat, but to refine it…this is a process :).
As for the others, we’ve got some green poking out but no doubt this cold and rainy spring has slowed us down.
It is not good for a novice gardener’s ego to take small children to a U-Pick Strawberry Field. My youngest was looking at the farm’s enormous array of strawberries and picks up a very small one saying, “Aww, mom, it’s so cute. It’s little like your strawberries!”
I just smiled because he was honestly trying to give me a compliment. He gave me a reminder, too: patience…it takes time!!
As for the plants, we’ve had some nice growth with the broccoli and even a few baby spinach leaves! The lettuce and parsley may need a replant because we’ve not seen much action in their squares. The marigolds are beautiful and I swear are helping the strawberries stay bug free. We’ve eaten a handful of strawberries so far and still have more coming. They are sweet and good but yes, they are small :).
Just read on Pinterest that baking soda neutralizes the ph in the soil and keeps weeds from growing around the raised beds…(see my Pinterest Garden board for details). I’m going to try it.
I noticed some strawberries growing in bigger! Can’t wait till they turn red. I decided not to cut the runners – honestly not sure I have any because nothing really stood out. However, after visiting a strawberry patch which does not trim its runners, I decided not to mess with it.
Still slow growth on the others but I’m being patient. Replanting lettuce and parsley seeds today.
I am really enjoying this garden. It’s been very low maintenance so far and overall I’m calling it a success!
Month 13: June 2013
Day 35: My Farewell Update
Here we are – my year experiment is up. Last week I used wood glue to secure the cross bars of the grids. They were just laying across because nailing them in would have split the wood. That’s when I thought of wood glue. Works great.
The boys and I just went outside and moved some of the worms from the bucket into the garden to get to work.
I noticed the baking soda sprinkle was effective but probably needs to be repeated. I pulled a scarce few weeds inside the squares and smiled as I looked at the raised bed.
I have put a year of time, effort and money into this project and here is my conclusion: I have a garden! A real, actual, eat what grows garden.
Square Foot Gardening was the answer for me.
I still don’t quite understand the timing of gardening. I am just now planting my summer plants but I’m pretty sure that’s a bit late. I have to work on this!
I’m not sure about doing my own compost. The stuff I have going is not exactly going well and since I need so little, I may just get it from a friend. Another thought is to just do counter top compost and mash it into the dirt when I replant.
Here’s the Spring results:
*Parsley is almost ready to harvest
*Strawberries although not plentiful yet are bigger and red and we’ve eaten quite a few.
*Broccoli has been attacked by bugs and I planted it too late. The plants that are growing will likely burn up in this AL heat so I’ll have to pull them and try again in the fall. Same goes for the Spinach; I’ll get a handful of baby spinach for a salad but that’s it.
*Marigolds and Strawberries are best friends. It is good to plant them next to each other.
*Cantaloupe plant is looking good and hopefully will produce fruit by the end of summer. One thing I did plant on time :).
*Lettuce did not do as well as I thought it would. I’m going to try again for summer.
Here’s what’s on the roster for summer planting:
*Another Cantaloupe plant
*More Strawberry plants
*Keep Parsley going *More Lettuce
*Peppers *Possibly Carrots in their own 6 foot planter
Thank you so much for reading along with my one year journey to become a “gardener”! It has been a wonderful and rewarding experience as well as a great teaching experience for the boys. I plan to continue to incorporate gardening into our homeschool and our lives and hopefully expand our one 4×4 raised bed to a couple more raised beds. Maybe by next summer there will be fewer trips to the grocery store for produce and this investment will pay off even more :).