Archives for posts with tag: thinking outside the box

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.


Both the east and west planters are now completely occupied but we’re not done for the day.  This year we are thinking (and moving) outside the boxes and planting vegetables directly in the ground.

Yesterday, we removed the sod (see May 26, 2013) from the now-sunny area west of the west planter and covered it with mulch.  Today, we laid out the locations for the six mounds on which the squashes will grow.  A week ago, we had figured three-foot-diameter mounds spaced at three feet on center (see May 19, 2013) but looking at my sketch today, I noticed that I didn’t leave any walking space at the far end.

As I reconsidered the layout, I realized that because we are staggering the mounds, they can be spaced closer together.  We adjusted the west walkway from 2’-0” to 1’-9” and the spacing from 3’-0” to 2’-9” and were able to gain 1’-9” at the west end (I find the symmetry to be pleasantly reassuring).  This will be very helpful because the grade drops off steeply just beyond the garden area.

We extended a measuring tape along the ground longitudinally to form a baseline and then used a carpenter’s rule to measure the offsets in the short direction.  At the center of each mound, we pounded in a wooden stake.  After setting each stake, we checked our spacing both longitudinally and diagonally (we calculated that each mound should be about 3’-10 1/2” from its kitty-corner neighbor) and everything checked out.

When we got to the end, however, the final dimension looked a little short.  In fact, after measuring it I found that it was off by 3 inches.  In setting out the stakes, I had forgotten to reduce the first dimension (measuring twice doesn’t help if you are using the wrong number!).  We could have moved all of the stakes but decided that what we had was good enough.  Plus, having more clearance next to the planter is probably better than having symmetrical edges.

Next, we set our tape measure and rule to 18” and, placing one end against each stake, slowly rotated around it, removing the mulch to create a three-foot-diameter clearing.  We redistributed the mulch to the surrounding areas and were left with what looked like a small set of crop circles (we’ll keep an eye out for alien invaders).

Then, we dug.  Or, more accurately, we picked at the soil with shovels.  As I have noted many times before, the soil in this part of the yard is fill brought in during the pool renovation many years ago.  It is not of very high quality (from a gardening point of view) and is composed primarily of clay and rock.  Digging it is a slow, tedious project (the kind of task usually given to prison inmates).

After an hour of hacking away, each of us had dug one hole about 16 inches in diameter and six inches deep.  A large rock protruded into the hole I was digging and even with both of us working on it, we could not get it to budge; the squash plant who will live here will just have to work its roots around it.  Because it was getting late in the afternoon, we opted to plant these two locations and come back to the others later.

To fill the hole and create mounds (to elevate the plants above grade), we combined equal parts (roughly) of compost and peat moss, using the wheelbarrow as a mixing bowl.  I dumped the soil into the holes and Rachel formed it into mounds.  At the top of each mound, we dug a small hole into which we placed a summer squash seedling.

Finally, we covered the mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to helping the soil to retain moisture and discouraging the growth of weeds, the mulch should prevent the soil from washing away in a heavy rainfall (of which we can expect many over the course of the summer).

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.