This Month On The Homestead: The Full Garden Rundown Including Building Raised Beds
May = Plants-In-The-Ground
The vegetables we started from seed back in February were booted from the warmth of the kitchen into the wilds of the garden. For weeks, we took our plant starts outside for field trips to feel the breeze and learn about the sun.
Finally, in mid-May, we nestled each nascent veggie into hand-dug reservoirs of fine dirt (except for the ones the kids planted, which were jammed into the soil with negligent supervision and for that, I apologize).
Welcome to my series documenting life on our 66-acre Vermont homestead, which we moved to in May 2016 from urban Cambridge, MA. Wondering about the financial aspects of rural life? Check out: City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown as well as my monthly expense reports.
Planting a Garden with Helpers
Kidwoods and Littlewoods appointed themselves garden assistants this year and did fine until they flung dirt into each other’s eyes (30 seconds after Mr. Frugalwoods said, “stop flinging dirt, you’re going to get it in your eyes”). Then we had to figure out how to get Kidwoods to open her eyes under water.
I told her to pretend she was swimming and to try and see the bottom of the swimming pool (a blue bowl filled with warm water…). She figured out this was bogus after two blinks, but that was all it took to eradicate the majority of eye dirt. When I think of how easy it would be to plant a garden without the help of a two-year-old and four-year-old, I could cry. Which, as it turns out, is a great way to get dirt out of your eyes.
Why Have One Garden When You Can Have Six????!!!!
We built another garden. We can’t help ourselves. As I wrote last week, when sharing the cost of the dirt to fill them, Mr. Frugalwoods built four raised beds–each measuring 4 feet by 8 feet–and installed them next to the house.
Two of these beds will serve as our kitchen garden with leafy greens, herbs, plus a few root veggies and the other two hold a total of 100 strawberry plants. We’re amassing a retinue of garden areas that all need to be planted, weeded, watered and harvested. Why have one garden to neglect/kill when you can have six?!
Here’s our garden rundown:
1) The big veggie garden:
- Location: lower field, some distance from the house (technical demarkation).
- Style: no-till mounds. We tilled and mounded this soil three years ago and haven’t disturbed the mounds since.
- We leave plants in the ground through the winter, snipping them at the base in the spring, leaving the roots.
- We rotate veggies between mounds so that, for example, tomatoes aren’t planted on the mounds where tomatoes were planted the previous year.
- The beauty of no-till is that the soil supposedly grows richer while the weed pressure decreases. This garden was grass when we started and the weeds were horrific the first year. Now, I only have to weed once a week!
- Infrastructure: five-foot wire fence surrounding the garden; metal stakes for trellising on the mounds along with biodegradable rope twine.
Size: 34 feet x 48 feet
- Plants (in 2020). We vary the types of veggies we grow each year since we’re trying to get as near as possible to growing (and preserving) our annual consumption. This requires blending our knowledge of what grows best here, what our family eats throughout the year (and in what quantities), and what veggies are easiest/best to process/freeze/can. Check out this post for a rundown of what we’ve grown in past years. This year we’ve planted:
- 89 cherry tomatoes
- 12 ground cherries
- 40 snap peas
- 12 hot peppers
- 5 cucumbers
- 23 bush beans
- 6 sunflowers
- Planting style: all these plants were started from seed indoors and kept under lamps for several months. After they’re hardened off, they’re planted.
- Tending required: planting, watering, weeding, harvesting.
2) The raised beds:
- Location: next to the house, immediately off our back porch.
- Style: raised beds filled 1/3 of the way with old firewood (to reduce the amount of soil needed and provide a natural compost layer), with a 50% compost, 20% screened soil, 10% peat moss, and 10% sand mixture to fill.
- Infrastructure: pressure treated lumber and metal roofing panels. Weed fabric stretched between and around the beds topped with wood chips.
- Size: four beds each measuring 4 feet by 8 feet
- Bed one: 50 strawberries
- Bed two: 50 strawberries
- Bed three: arugula, spinach, lettuce, basil
- Bed four: dill, cilantro, oregano, sage, basil, carrots, radishes, mixed greens
- Planting style: a mixture of direct sown (planting seeds straight into the ground) and starts (starting seeds indoors, then planting little plants into the ground).
- Tending: planting, watering, weeding, harvesting.
3) The perennial berry patch:
- Location: to the right of our house
- Style: no-till mulched mounds for each individual plant, spaced several feet apart
Infrastructure: five foot high wire fence
- Size: 41 feet x 70 feet
- 24 blueberry bushes
- 3 currant bushes
- 3 Haskap berry bushes
- 2 Saskatoon berry bushes (the third one died)
- Planting style: the berries are perennials, meaning you only need to plant them once and they’ll bear fruit every year. We planted these berries as tiny bushes three summers ago and they’re looking great (except for the Saskatoons–one died and the other two are still really small).
- Tending: watering (seldom because blueberries prefer the acidity of rain water), weeding, harvesting, and mulching around the mounds as needed.
4) The cherry-and-pumpkin patch:
- Location: mid-yard
- Style: weed fabric topped with mulch; plants interspersed
- Infrastructure: wire cages around each cherry bush
- Size: 22 feet x 24 feet
- Plants: this section is a mixture of perennials (cherries) and annuals (everything else):
- Two Juliet cherry bushes
- Two Carmine Jewel cherry bushes
- Six pumpkins
- Four cantaloupes
- Four watermelon
Planting Style: we planted the cherries as tiny bushes three summers ago and they’re all doing well. The pumpkins, cantaloupe, and watermelon were started from seed indoors and transplanted into the dirt in late May. So far, the pumpkins look great, but I’m not sure the cantaloupe and watermelon are going to make it.
- Tending: planting, mulching, watering, weeding, and harvesting.
5) The fruit trees:
Three plum trees and ten apple trees were here when we moved in and we’ve done our best to keep them alive and producing. The main thing these trees need is pruning in the springtime and pest mitigation, which we do through periodic applications of the organic, clay-based pest deterrent called Surround.
6) The berry vines:
We have two perennial berry vine tangles: black raspberries and blackberries. The blackberries are full-on feral, but I crash through them like a bear to harvest every August. The black raspberries are on the cusp of tame, but they do their best to resist Mr. FW’s trellising and pruning ministrations. Basically they’re both thorny messes, but the berries are delicious (if you can get to them).
7) Future plans:
You didn’t think we’d stop at six did you? Not masochists like us. We have vague plans for planting elderberry bushes, more currant varieties, peach trees that can survive the tundra, and anything else we can think of/get our hands on.
Going From Grass to Garden
In all of these instances–save the existing plum and apple trees–we converted grass into garden, which makes for an uphill battle against weeds. When we moved here four years ago, we decided to try and reduce the amount of lawn we have and increase the amount of food we grow–in particular, perennial foods.
We are slowly (very slowly) working to build a sustainable permaculture homestead where we grow as much of our fruits and vegetables as possible. We have zero plans to sell our produce, but lots of plans to sustain ourselves and have food to share with friends and neighbors.
This year for the first time, we’re trying out weed fabric topped with wood chips as a weed-mitigation method. Over the years we’ve tried many weed combat tactics including: mulching with cardboard, weedwacking, flame weeding (memorably), and hand weeding. My hope is that the weed fabric will be a more sustainable system and require less hand-weeding.
To that end, Mr. FW used the tractor bucket to remove the sod from the area under the raised beds. After setting, leveling, and filling the beds, we stretched weed fabric between and around the beds and put woodchips on top. Our hope is that the grass will be slow to reconstitute around these beds.
Mrs. Frugalwoods: Spotted In The Garden, Planting Stuff
I planted the 100 strawberry plants by myself. I’ve lived here for four years and this is the first time I’ve felt ownership over our garden because, until this year, I’ve been pregnant or nursing or herding tiny children. I mean, they’re still tiny, but that’s an advantage because the raised beds are too tall for them to reach into (although it appears they keep growing… ).
I planted the first few strawberries while the girls played in the yard, the next ten with Kidwoods’ help, the next two were ripped out by Littlewoods (replanted by Kidwoods), and I planted the final 80 while listening to The New York Times Daily podcast.
I’m blending my life. I’m finding the balance between urban and rural because I’m not either. I’m out here on 66 acres with the city in my ears, the earth under my nails, and both swirling inside me. I’m equally at home in both; I’m equally uncomfortable in both.
I am proud of these strawberry plants. I’m grateful to my engineer husband for building these raised beds, calculating the distance required between berry plants, measuring that distance, and graphing it out in the dirt.
After all four raised beds were built, installed, and dirt-filled, I, the garden grinch, planted all four by myself. After planting the strawberries, I realized I wanted MORE dirt to my name.
So I was the one to seed the arugula, carrots, salad greens, spinach, radishes, cilantro, dill, and all the rest. Really this is just an opportunity for me to vent my desire for control and regulation. I measured the row distances, I marked them with a board, I used a pencil, I had a back-up pencil, and I only had to take apart one of Kidwoods’ art creations to commandeer the requisite number of popsicle sticks for my intense (obsessive?) labeling system.
I am exhausted and dirty and not sure how we’re going to keep all of this alive/harvested/preserved; but for the first time, I am living the life I think I was meant to live. Because of the pandemic, I’m not going anywhere. Because of the spring, being outside is the best option.
And because of my age, I am really committed to the radishes I’ve planted. I always wanted to be into gardening and I’ve always wanted to be more “sustainable,” and now, I’m finally doing it. We’re growing more food than we ever have (which probably means we’ll kill more plants than we ever have), and I go to bed yearning to plunge my hands into the dirt again. As a person who used to do weekly DIY manicures, I assure you this is a new leaf.
Weeding = Path to Enlightenment?
I am drawn outside more and more. My husband and kids are out there–trying to accomplish stuff/trying to keep daddy from accomplishing stuff–while I’m inside cleaning, vacuuming, crumb-wiping, dishwasher loading, laundry-putting-away. Until finally, I go out. I dump the compost (with extended assistance from a two-year-old), sweep dirt from the porch and then sink into the blueberry patch to weed.
As I pull weeds, I realize there’s nowhere else I want to be. I dig into the dirt with my fingers, my nails, to get underneath the roots to ferret out each weed at its core. I have weeding implements–spiked and metal–but I rarely use them because I’m terrified of disturbing the blueberry’s shallow, fibrous roots. I sit in the warm dirt, close my eyes, and pull weeds by feel.
My husband trellised our black raspberry vines in May while the girls prepared mud pies and cups of “tea,” for delivery to their toiling parents. There was bliss in this shared labor, in our desire to grow more food on our land, in our commitment to berries (apparently we love them), and then, someone needed a snack, another person required a diaper change (wasn’t me, I swear), and my eyes flew open, I launched out of the patch and back into the day.
But those plants are there for me. I can sink my hands into soil and feel something other than computer keys and a phone screen and crumbs on a counter anytime I want. There will always be more weeds to pull, which is either infuriating or the path to Zen enlightenment.
Strawberries: Apparently They Need Straw
I did not know–until after planting the 100 strawberries–that they require straw to keep the fruit from rotting. It is super useful that my husband did know this and had a bag-o-straw at the ready. Turns out, spreading straw is right at the skill level of toddlers. They plucked straw, threw it in their faces, and smashed it down on the strawberry plants, which (mostly) looked alright after this aggressive straw application.
It is so hard to grow stuff. Toddlers included. Kidwoods’ latest phrase is “Nothing bad will happen!” exclaimed over her shoulder as she runs upstairs/outside/into the woods. Most recently, I was told this as she demanded to dress herself and her sister and, 25 minutes later, they came downstairs both fully dressed.
Yes, Kidwoods had on a swimsuit, cardigan, pants, and skirt, but Littlewoods’ outfit was remarkably restrained at one shirt and one pair of pants.
Seems I’ve been so derelict in dressing my children they now do it for themselves, which means my life plan is realized. I’ve dropped the rope and my kids have picked it up. What I don’t do for them, they figure out for themselves. Or they just scream until I come see what’s wrong. Effective either way.
Update: Then I Removed All The Straw
So we bought expensive, supposedly weed-free “heat-treated” straw, which I will tell you was not cheap. Per the above, I laboriously spread straw around each and every strawberry plant, thinking myself the epitome of garden goddess. Two weeks later, it looked like I’d sown grass seed into my strawberry patch. This straw was not weed-free, not heat-treated, and instead turned out to be the equivalent of sod. Cool. So, along with my niblet assistances, I laboriously plucked the straw back out of the strawberry beds and dumped it on the compost pile. The strawberry plants will just have to learn to live without their namesake.
Happy Mother’s Day to MEEEEE
From my children, “Happy Mother’s Day to you, we are fighting over a tree stump in a forest of nine hundred thousand tree stumps.” Yay!
Tree-stump battles aside, Mother’s Day was glorious. I sang a solo for church (it’s via Zoom, so their music options are limited; hence me), my husband made cinnamon rolls FROM SCRATCH–only took him 7 hours, were the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever eaten.
We played outside, my husband baked a ham and whipped up from-scratch biscuits for ham sandwiches, I cleaned the bathroom (don’t judge, we all make our own happiness), talked with my mom and mom-in-law, enjoyed some adult juice (margarita made by my husband), received a card from Kidwoods in which she wrote her name and “Mama,” witnessed my girls eating ham with wild abandon, breathed deeply in our woods, and was really, really grateful.
Also, after twelve years of marriage, it’s clear my husband knows what I want for holidays: all the foods.
After moving here, we decided to have solar panels mounted on our barn roof. My full write-up on the panels is here and I include a solar update in this series. This is the only way for me to remember that: a) I have solar; b) you all would like to be updated on it.
In May, we generated 887 kWh, which is good times. For context, in January 2020 our panels generated 120 kWh and in July 2019 we raked in 907 kWh.
Since our electric company offers net metering, we’re able to bank our summer and fall sunshine for use in the winter, which keeps our electric bill low year-round, even when the sun isn’t shining. This has been your solar production update. You’re welcome.
Want More Fotos?!
Join me there if you want more of our frugal woods. Some folks have asked about this and yes, I do try to post a picture to Instagram every day and–unlike with many other things in my life–I have a pretty good track record.
How was May for you?
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