ways to grow

Oh the Ways You Can Grow: Trash-to-Treasure Style


Welcome to my near-constant inner dialogue this time of year. Living deep in the woods of Appalachia has made me acutely aware of the changing seasons in a way that no other life experience has. A little surprising, because in my memory I’ve never worked a job that wasn’t predominately physically active and outdoors. The minor exception was my college job of working in the campus dining hall, but even then my preferred shift was “night crew”; a position that allowed me to work largely unsupervised and outdoors behind the kitchen cleaning floor mats. Suffice it to say I take advantage of any chance to play outside. Especially with plants and animals. Most working summers of my life have been spent landscaping, but the best ones have been spent farming. Having complete ownership of a vegetative plant from one end of its life cycle to another is a thrilling endeavor; one I believe I could devote my entire life to mastering.

And that is why I am so grateful to find myself living on an Appalachian homestead with ample room to explore this passion and a husband more than willing to help me along the way. We are taking advantage of the sandbox nature of our land trust property by trying out different techniques for growing food. By late September we will know which of our experiments were a glorious success resulting in bumper crops of produce and which are better-forgotten failures. And that’s fine. Failures are to be expected. If we got good at small-scale gardening on the first couple tries I would I even bother to do it all again next year? I like the challenge.

Cold Frame Greens

The small cold frame on the side of the house was badly damaged this winter when a pile of melting snow fell on the glass and shattered it. Thankfully Ian found two window panes of the same size in our garden shed and we were able to repair it in time for me to plant some cold hardly transplants and radish seeds into it.

Planted the first week of March: chard, collard and kale transplants (excess from the school agriculture department I work at), radishes direct seeded.
March 21: good growth on transplants and radishes are beginning to show their true leaves

Defending the Mini Raised Bed From Birdbrain Predators

About 10 days ago I planted a mini raised bed next to our patio with radishes and arugula, only to watch my guinea fowl jump right in and try to eat all the seed. I shooed them out, replanted what they had eaten, and built a makeshift bird net around the perimeter. So far so good: the seeds have sprouted and the birds stay out! Lucky for them, because any further bad behavior would have landed them in freezer camp. No mercy.

Itty bitty teeny weeny white picket fence growin’ greens fit for a queenie. (Sorry… that was just painful)

Seed Starting in the Three-Sided Greenhouse

An unused greenhouse located less than a mile from my house at the Big Laurel schoolhouse has been a great resource for starting seeds this spring, especially since it would be nigh impossible to keep our house at a warm enough temperature for germination this time of year. One plan for next year may even be disassembling the greenhouse and moving it right to our Knob property!

All cleaned out and ready for the seedlings
To start seeds I used a mix of 4/5 potting soil and 1/5 worm castings from our worm bin
More collard greens transplants. I assume if I grow more than we can eat the rabbits will be happy with the leftovers.
Too cheap to buy extra seed starting trays, I’m also depending on dixie cups filled with soil. Mixed feelings so far though…they dry out much faster than traditional seed trays.
Cukes, tomatoes, peppers, kolhrabi, bok choy, some native species, and various herbs and flowers all started and (for the most part) thriving.

Rototilling the Primary Garden

In many ways the biggest growing challenge has been our primary garden, a terraced monstrosity with such thick clay that it takes at least two runs with a heavy-duty rototiller to make it usable enough to stick a spade in it. I’ve heard that clay soil has some advantages like increased nutrient retention, but I’m skeptical they will make up for the near impossible task of working with it. Time will tell. In any case, we are ever grateful for the help of our neighbor who has generously been helping us with the first few passes with the tiller before spring planting.

We had mulched the garden with dead leaves in the fall but they didn’t break down as much as we would have liked.
Hopefully Ian will be able to manage the tilling by himself next time.
The garden after several hours on work with the tiller. It will need to dry out and be tilled again before I do much planting.
I figured it was good enough for starting my snap peas, so I made a quick terracing system for them in the corner of the garden.

PVC Pipe Strawberry Towers

I give Ian full credit for this one. We bought some strawberry roots at Wal-Mart of all places and were at a loss for where to put them until Ian paged through an old gardening magazine that had an entire article devoted to space efficient ways of growing strawberries. This column strategy was a no brainer for us because there was a deserted pile of PVC pipe buried deep in our woods just waiting to be reclaimed. So when an eager to work college friend visited us for a few days, Ian and him spent an afternoon constructing enough towers to house all of our root stock.

The premise is simple. A small PVC pipe is drilled with holes and fitted into a bigger pipe which is drilled with a hole for each strawberry root. The  layer between the pipes is packed with soil and strawberries are planted in the outside holes. Water is poured into the small tube and slowly permeates through the holes into the soil, watering the strawberries.

Such good teamwork here.
Remember what I said about clay soil being impossible to work with? These guys were champs for digging these holes.
Filling the holes with topsoil.
More efficiently filling the holes with topsoil

Confused? Inspired? Watch this video to learn more about building your own strawberry tower.

Potato Tires

Continuing the trend of using crap from the woods to grow our food, we utilized the labor force that was the Calvin College spring break trip to help us gather tires from an abandoned pile to grow potatoes in. Potatoes are planted in a single tire, and when foliage is about six inches high, another tire is stacked on top and the leaves are buried. The best part of this growing technique for us is that it allows the potatoes to form upwards rather than forcing their way through the clay soil below them. We read that mulch material was more successful than soil for this technique so we used shredded and composted leaves. This technique is a bit of a gamble but we’ve invested nothing in it and have nothing to lose if it doesn’t work.

Topsoil was layered over composted leaves from the fall.
Hopefully the tires also work to provide some warmth for the potatoes during this iffy time of year.
A small amount of rabbit droppings were also added.

And this is where I’m going to leave this post. There are a lot more projects in the works I could write about, from a rabbit tractor to a black soldier fly composting system, from our silkie hen brooding on her clutch of tiny eggs to the likely scenario that we will soon get a goat or two. But I ruin the fun if I give all our secrets away at once. So you’ll just have to check back again soon.

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5 thoughts on “Oh the Ways You Can Grow: Trash-to-Treasure Style

  1. I’m curious to see if the tires work for you. I tried them a couple years ago for taters, but in our area it gets so damn hot and sunny that the tires basically cooked all the roots.

    That greenhouse is awesome!

  2. I’d strongly caution against using old tires for growing food. Old tires can leach toxins into the soil (which can be sucked up by your plants). A quick Google search can tell you more–there have been several studied done about the dangers of using old tires for growing stuff and (shredded) on playgrounds and as mulch.

    1. Thanks for the heads up. I’d been reading about the dangers of chemical leaching before you posted this, but it’s a good reminder. Since we are only planting three potatoes in tires, my plan is to not eat those ones but rather compare their productivity to traditionally grown plants. I’m more excited about the experiment anyways. 🙂

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