Archives for posts with tag: fences

Over breakfast this morning, we discussed a few ideas for the next growing season. It’ll be here sooner than we think.

First, we’ll move the peas and beans to the fence. We have two trellises now and rather than let one lie fallow (as we did this past season), we’ll plant one trellis with cucumbers and the other with legumes. We sow the peas and beans directly into the ground (as opposed to starting them inside, as we do the cucumbers) and I am pretty sure that there will be enough sun to germinate the seeds.

Second, we’ll plant the tomatoes in the ground only, not in a raised bed. I’m a bit surprised that we came to this conclusion because I was sure that the tomatoes in the planter would do better than those in the ground, mainly due to the soil being older and more conditioned in the planters (see June 8, 2014, part 2). Perhaps it was Murphy’s Law or maybe our tomatoes were contrarian by nature, but the vines in the ground grew fuller and produced more fruit. Go figure.

Planting only in the ground will mean fewer tomato plants—and, possibly, fewer tomatoes—but each plant will have more space. And because there will be no tomato plants in the raised beds, we’ll also have more room there to plant other things.

Which leads me to the third idea for next season: garlic. And now is not too soon to be thinking about it.

Because it turns out that garlic wants to vernalize—to spend a winter in the ground before sprouting in the spring. That means it needs to be planted now. Back in November, we purchased two heads of seed garlic (one hard stem, one soft) from one of our favorite market farmers, Jay. (By the way, seed garlic is no different from the garlic we eat as long as it has not been grown with any chemicals to prevent it from sprouting.)

Jay mentioned that he always waits until it is cold enough to make his fingers hurt to plant the garlic (and his garlic is always beautiful so he must be on to something). Today fits the bill, weather-wise, and I went out to plant. I first had to prepare a spot for it in the southwest corner of the west planter. I cleaned up the old mulch and fallen leaves, pulled a few weeds, added a topping of fresh compost, and raked it smooth.

I broke up the heads of garlic and picked the best cloves of each type. Perhaps we waited a bit too long; some of the cloves were starting to dry out. Still, I was able to get eight soft neck and four hard neck cloves and dropped them in one-inch-deep holes (root end down, pointy end up).

I covered the area with fresh mulch and gave it a good watering. If all goes well, we should see sprouts (also called scapes) in early spring.

Why does this always happen?

[Note from the future (January, 2015): I will be playing catch-up for the next several days to account for the last few months of 2014. If it is cold and snowy where you are, please enjoy the following summer and fall scenes.]

So far, we’ve been lucky.

When we started planning the garden—back in 2011—a location that would keep it secure from animals was a primary criterion. We were mainly concerned about deer, who in our experience will munch on just about everything. But we had also seen beavers, groundhogs and rabbits in the neighborhood and, of course, there are squirrels and chipmunks in large numbers.

We were happy, then, when we chose a spot next to the swimming pool, which is surrounded by a four-foot high picket fence. It won’t keep the deer out if they really want to get in (they can jump up to six feet) but it does deter them and screens the garden from view (they can’t hurt what they can’t see). Similarly, squirrels and bunnies can easily pass between the pickets but the fence seems to be diverting their attention elsewhere.

Later, when we designed and built the raised beds, we kept potentially harmful animals in mind. Our planters are on the high side—almost two feet—which minimizes bending over (my aching back!) and provides comfortable seating, our main considerations. However, the extra height also elevates the plants well above ground level. Coupled with the planters’ bordering trim, which extends six inches above the soil level, there is no line of sight to nearby critters who pass by unaware. (On the other hand, if deer were to enter the pool enclosure, the planters would be at feeding trough height.)

During construction, before filling the planters with soil, we installed a layer of galvanized wire mesh. The hardware cloth forms the bottom of the planter through which water freely drains. But should a gopher or mole decide to attack our vegetable garden from underground, the mesh should prove an effective barrier.

I say “should” because it seems that our luck may be running out.

Up until recently, we had never seen signs of subterranean marauders. Sadly, though, as winter was ending and the snowpack receding, the telltale serpentine humps were revealed, the topsoil pushed up through the dormant grass. Depictions of this in old Warner Bros. cartoons is not an exaggeration. The route map of the gopher subway system was easily identifiable.

At first, the tracks were limited to the lawn areas. Eventually, though, we discovered them leading into the vicinity of the vegetable garden and then right up against the planters (I can imagine the clang as the Goofy Gophers banged their cute little heads into the wire mesh). In one or two spots, the tunnels breached the surface, where apparently the little rascals popped out to get their bearings.

Fortunately, we have not witnessed any carrots or beets disappearing into the ground, pulled from below by hungry rodents. Just in case, though, we will keep a rubber mallet near the planters so we can play an at-home version of the carnival favorite, Whac-A-Mole.

I’ve been using an old plastic container, the kind in which plants from the nursery are potted (that’s how we came into possession of it), as a waste bucket.  It is a convenient place to toss weeds, pruned branches, rotted vegetables and other green waste from the garden.  It sits on the ground near the hose bib and next to the watering can and is a much easier target than the ravine beyond the pool fence.

I started this practice a few weeks ago and by today, the bucket was full.  So I walked it over to the refuse pile and flung its contents on top.  What I immediately noticed as the mass of organic matter plopped onto the pile was that the material at the bottom of the bucket, which had been kept moist by rain and warmed by the sun, had already started to decompose.  After less than a month, the green garden waste had become a dark brown, granular mass, well on its way to becoming rich organic soil.

In other words, my waste bucket had turned into a mini compost pile.  If I had let it bask in the sun much longer, I could probably have simply tipped it back into one of the planters to replenish the soil’s organic content.  Presumably, there is a little more to the process—balancing different materials, mixing them together, aerating the pile—but the experience showed me how simple the basic operation is.

Also, how magical the process is, almost like alchemy.  It is very encouraging and will motivate me to find a place where a pile of garden discards can be transformed into a useful soil amendment.

We were treated to a crashing thunderstorm this evening, a summer tradition after a long, hot day.  Up until about six o’clock, it did not feel like impending rain even though the cloud cover had increased to a deep overcast.  Then, it got suddenly darker and, boom!  The thunder commenced.

Storms usually pass by us at a distance of two miles or more (based on the delay between lightning flash and thunder clap) but this one was closer, a mile perhaps.  Consequently, the thunder was very loud and literally shook the windowpanes.  It was dramatic and very exciting.

Like a typical storm, the light and audio show carried on for 15 to 30 minutes before the rain began.  And when it finally started, it was as if the rain were trying to make up for lost time.  It intensified from a light sprinkle to a raging downpour in an instant and then dumped a huge amount of water in a short time.  Deluge is the word that comes to mind.

Such intensity cannot last, however, and soon the rain slowed to a steady fall, eventually tapering to a mist and finally trailing off.  By eight o’clock, the storm was over and the clouds cleared out.  Judging by the rise in the level of the swimming pool, an inch of rain fell in about two hours.  While the storm itself was not unusual (they inevitably occur after heat spells), such a high rate of rainfall is rare.

The good news is that we will not have to water the garden for a few days.  The not-so-good news is that the rain fell much faster than it could drain away from the garden.  When we went down to the pool for a late night swim—and garden inspection—we found that the mulch had been redistributed by the flowing waters.  One of the only downsides to cedar chips is that they float.

The surface runoff did not cause any damage and no mulch or debris ended up in the pool, whose perimeter is higher than the surrounding areas.  As we have learned too many times before, a benefit of raised planters is that the vegetable plants they contain are elevated well above potential floodwaters.  No threat there (not this time, anyway).

We do have squash and cucumber plants on the ground this year, though, and they are a bit more exposed.  Fortunately, the squash plants were completely undisturbed; apparently, the water drained through the fence and out onto the lawn.  There was some impact to the cucumbers (they are located along the fence) but the soaker hose that waters them acted as a barrier; the plants look to be okay.  Still, the mounds of soil and mulch will have to be replaced.

Luckily, storms of such intensity occur infrequently.  Nonetheless, we will have to take another look at possible drainage improvements.

We’re running behind with the cucumbers which should have been in the ground over a week ago.  With plans for the weekend, we decided to make time during the working week to get caught up.

The cucumbers, like the squash, are moving out of the box.  Specifically, we are locating them along the fence behind the west planter, safely distant (we hope) from the east planter where they grew last year.  Next year, we will move the cucumbers to that portion of the fence.

I briefly considered putting the cucumbers behind (i.e., north of) the squashes where there would be no danger of their being shaded.  But that would be putting all of our cucurbits in one basket.  Because they are susceptible to the same harmful insects (e.g., the ubiquitous cucumber beetles) and diseases (such as the seemingly omnipresent powdery mildew), the cucumbers and squashes will be better off if kept as separate as possible.  Besides, at this time of the year, the sun casts a very shallow shadow.

We measured six locations, spaced at two feet on center, and brushed away the cedar mulch.  Rachel used a standard shovel and I used a spade to dig holes about six inches deep.  It is interesting that a standard shovel is best suited to a hemispherical hole while a spade, with its flat, rectangular blade is better for cubical excavations.  The shoveled holes were about eight inches in diameter; the spade-dug holes were approximately six inches square.

Once the holes were completed, we mixed up two batches of soil (each batch consisting of one 40-pound bag of compost and an equal volume of peat moss) and filled the holes.  We kept the mounds small in diameter (especially compared to the squash mounds) because they are located along an access aisle.  We want the cucumbers to be as tight against the fence as possible.

We expect that the cucumbers will grow high and wide.  To support their wandering branches we installed a chicken wire trellis along the fence.  We marked locations for six cedar posts (seven might have been better but we were short by one) and, using an old steel chisel and a sledge hammer, formed pilot holes.  This step is necessary due to our rocky soil.

Then, we pounded in the stakes.  I had originally planned to embed the six-foot stakes by 18 inches but had to stop at a foot (the depth of the pilot holes).  Once a stake encounters a rock, there is a risk of splitting or crushing it with further pounding.  Using our trusty Velcro tape, we tied each of the stakes to the top rail of the pool fence.  The stakes have a slight backwards rake to them (their bases are about three inches outboard of the fence) which will both stabilize the trellis and prevent it from feeling too imposing.

To form the trellis, we unrolled a 12-foot length of four-foot-high chicken wire and stapled it to the stakes using an electric staple gun.  (We acquired this tool many years ago for reasons I can no longer recall.  It always strikes me at first as silly—like an electric carving knife—and yet it is very useful and practical.  Although it delivers a staple with great force it does not otherwise disturb the work and requires very little effort.  In that regard, it is more akin to a pneumatic nailer.)  We held the bottom of the chicken wire eight inches above grade to give the young cucumber plants room to sort themselves out.

After that, we set out the cucumber seedlings, alternating the slicing and pickling varieties for visual interest.  On a leaf of one of the pickling cucumbers, I noticed a small white spot that might—I say, might—have been the beginning of a powdery mildew infection.  Just to be on the safe side, we tossed the seedling on the refuse pile and chose another.  Powdery mildew on the cucumbers is almost inevitable (we’ve had it every year) but we certainly don’t need it this early in the season.

To wrap up the planting (literally and figuratively), we dressed the soil mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to all of its other advantages—moisture retention, weed control, erosion prevention—the mulch will act as a visual marker of the cucumbers presence, just like the yellow tiles on the edge of a subway platform.  While installing the trellis, we found that it was easy to accidentally step on the mounds and now that the cucumbers are resident, we don’t want that happening again.

Due to the trellis’ location, I had to remove the hose rack and then reinstall it on the fence, two pickets to the right (east).  Eventually, we will install a timer-controlled soaker hose to irrigate the cucumbers but today, I gave them a bucketful of water (laced with fish emulsion).  Tomorrow, rain is forecast (as Tropical Storm Andrea makes its way up the Atlantic coast) so the cucumbers should get plenty of water.

Our plan this year is to expand the garden and plant the squashes, both the summer squash seedlings and winter squash seeds, directly in the ground to the west of the west planter.  It is also our intention to grow the cucumbers along the fence, just behind (i.e., north of) the planters.  When we hatched this plan in the middle of the winter (see January 16, 2013), it seemed like we had all the time in the world to make it happen.

Well, five months later, it is still only a plan.  The difference is that now we have two dozen seedlings that are almost ready to be transplanted.  That we have not yet prepared the garden for them is not yet critical (they’re still fine in their pots) but getting it done has increased in urgency.  The plants will continue to grow regardless of what we do—or don’t do.

Sadly, the weather has not been conducive to outdoor activities.  It remains unseasonably cool and unusually rainy (all of the showers we were supposed to have in April arrived this month instead).  The work will have to wait a bit longer.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to refine and better define our plans.

Preparing the ground for the squashes will first mean removing more sod, 160 sq. ft. of it to be specific.  This is almost exactly the same area (158 sq. ft.) as we removed around the planters at the end of April (see April 27, 2013, part 2 and April 28, 2013) so we have a long day (or two) ahead of us.

It’s not something I look forward to but I am heartened by the fact that there is not much that would qualify as sod in that part of the lawn.  It is mostly weeds and bare earth which should come out with substantially less effort than the soil in grassier regions, especially if the conditions are favorable (e.g., shortly after a rainy day).

Once the sod is removed, we will cover the area with cedar mulch to match the adjoining garden.  That will leave us with a blank canvas on which to lay out our squash plants.  According to the seed packets, they should be spaced at about five feet in each direction and we know from experience that squash plants can get quite large.  Even so, we would like to fit as many as possible within the available space.

So I sketched a rough plan of the garden as it currently exists to the east and as we envision it to the west.  The squash zone is eight feet by 20 feet and we will need aisle space on each side and between it and the west planter.  Assuming one foot for the former and two feet for the latter leaves us with a useable area that is six feet by 18 feet.

This divides nicely into 12 sections, each three feet square (and each nine square feet).  We have enough seedlings (and seeds) to plant all of them but that might result in more squash than we can handle.  Also, if we plant the entire area with squash this year, we would have to find someplace else to plant squash next year to avoid replanting in exactly the same place.

Instead, we will plant six of the sections in a staggered arrangement and leave the other six sections vacant (next year, we will swap locations).  We will plant two of each type of summer squash (crookneck and zucchini) and one of each variety of winter squash (Kabocha and Delicata).

When they mature towards the end of the summer, the squash vines will be more circular than square in extent and that means there will be a narrow space between them (about 15 inches, or three feet times the square root of two minus one).  This will provide some additional access.

The cucumbers are a bit easier to configure.  We will plant three of each kind (slicing and pickling), spaced at two feet, behind the east planter.  We planted cucumbers in the west planter last year and will plant them behind it next year.  It is neither a long-cycle crop rotation nor a long-distance one but we hope that it will keep the striped cucumber beetles guessing, at least for a little while.

Rachel predicts that we will next decide to convert the area east of the planters (about 64 sq. ft. are available there) and jokes that eventually, the pool will be surrounded by the vegetable garden.  At the rate we are going, it is probably no joke!

Well, Mother Nature answered my question (see January 14, 2013), and how.  The Christmas snow had completely disappeared and the ground was warm and soft.  But this morning, it is once again covered by four inches of fluffy (but strangely sticky) snow.  It took an hour and a half to shovel the walk and dig out the cars but at least I got some exercise.

Being otherwise confined indoors gives me the opportunity to finish up my recapping of last year’s garden.  Our main take-away from the entire season is that there is never enough space.  Two years ago, one four foot by twelve foot planter seemed huge.  That is, until we started planting, at which point it seemed to shrink.  We had to give away about half of the seedlings we had hoped to grow but for which we could not find room.

Last year, we doubled our acreage (using that term wishfully) by adding a second planter; we now have almost 200 sq. ft. of arable soil (that’s 0.5% of an acre).  And for most of the season, it seemed like enough.  We started vegetables from seed in about half of the available space and planted seedlings in the remainder.  Using more conservative planning in conjunction with the increased planter space, we were able to find room for everything we wanted to grow.

But then the zucchini went berserk.  We started with two plants—grown from seed—within one quarter of one planter.  They started off enthusiastically and shared the space amicably.  By the end of July, however, they were crowding each other (and the surrounding string beans) and both seemed irked to be crammed into such a small space with another plant.  The close quarters stifled their growth and probably contributed to one of them succumbing to disease (which we never identified).  By the end of the season, the remaining plant filled and then overflowed its allotted space.

The cucumbers also would have preferred more real estate.  Despite some very aggressive pruning on my part, the six vines we planted in one quarter of one planter quickly grew up and around the three cages we installed to support them, wrapping each tier with several lateral branches.  When the vines reached the top of the cages, they launched themselves overboard in search of other supports.  Some of the vines did belly-flops onto the soil surface below but at least one successfully landed on the neighboring trellis.

So how to deal with these space issues?  For the answer, I had to think outside the box.  Or, more specifically, outside the planter.

What I have concluded about the zucchinis is that they are not well suited to long, narrow planters such as ours.  They want to grow in large circular spaces so that they can extend in all directions, without restraint.  But building a circular raised bed or even an octagonal one would be beyond my carpentry skills.  And a square raised planter larger than four feet across would be impractical.

So instead, we will clear a space to the west of the west planter and build it up with new soil to create a low, raised bed without sides.  Planted there, the zucchini vines can sprawl as far as they want in whichever directions suit them.  We will need a large area—six feet by six feet per plant—and can probably fit two plants.  The only immediate problem will be a lack of sunlight but more on that in a future post.

Similarly, the cucumber plants are unhappy with the aspect ratio of the raised beds but unlike the zucchinis, they would prefer to be planted in a longer, narrower arrangement.  Instead of being wrapped around circular cages, they would like to be planted single-file with room for their main stems to grow upwards and their lateral branches to grow outwards.

Luckily, our pool fence is conveniently located just a few feet north of the planters.  It is certainly long enough (it extends for at least 50 feet) and even though it is only about four feet high, we can readily extend its height with posts and netting or chicken wire.  (Okay, this will probably take more effort than I think but it seems doable.)  In addition to providing more breathing room, spreading out the cucumbers laterally should make it easier to harvest the cucumbers and pick off the inevitable beetles.

In the garden, it seems, expansion is inevitable.