Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Square Foot Gardening

All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!I have previously mentioned using the the book All New Square Foot Gardening to help me decide how to develop my vegetable garden this year.  I had been debating how to plan my vegetable garden for some time when this book leapt at me from off the store shelf.  I read it quickly both because it was easy to read and I was very interested in the ideas presented by this book.  The author, Mel Bartholomew, has some very well thought out and tested ideas about raised beds and the content of the book was really inspiring for me.  Lots of visuals were used to get the ideas across with pictures and graphs which was very helpful.  Some of the topics that are touched on include the size of the bed, both vertical and horizontal measurements, and the quality of the soil.  As well there is discussion on spacing and location of plants which is a dramatic change from those of us used to planting in rows. There are step by step instructions and photos to tell you how to build a bed, how to mix your soil, and how to build a trellis.  Overall I found this book a really inspiring tool to get started with raised beds.  I do have a thorn to pick with the author though.  It is repeatedly stated throughout the book that you must build your garden in the exact manner that is described, otherwise it says, you are not Square Foot Gardening.  While I think the idea behind Square Foot Gardening has some wonderful advantages I'm not sold that I have to follow the Square Foot Garden 'rules' to have a great raised bed garden.  When it comes to gardening, and life in general, there is never one correct way to do anything.  Gardens are subject to all sorts of variables such as climate, location, unstable weather patterns, and animals.  Some you can control, most you can't.  This is what makes gardening a challenge and a joy.  A no fail formula for gardening seems a tad optimistic to me.  Like an infomercial with all it's promises I just don't buy it.  And I don't want to.  I like making mistakes in my yard, I like combining different ideas with my own and discovering the results.  I don't want to be told how to build a garden like it's baking a cake.  Gardening, and even baking, are enhanced by ingenuity and personal taste.  So use the ideas but bring a little personality with you and see where it leads.  Personally, I can't wait to try square foot gardening but don't expect me to stick to the rules. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Plan, Part II

After putting together my list of To Do's this summer I somehow managed to overlook one very important item.  As I went out into the yard this past weekend ready to get down to business I realized - Where Are My Tools?!  If you'd like to dig a vegetable garden or weed a flower bed shovels, forks and weeders should be at your fingertips ready to do battle.  And so the following conversation ensued:

Jody, where's my garden fork, says I.

Outside, says he.


Now outside is a very large place for a garden fork to be.  Is it in the shed?  The outhouse? (yes, we actually have an outhouse) The garage?  On the front porch?  In the driveway?  Laying in a flower bed?  It was later discovered leaning up against the back of the house.  This will never do says I. 

So the New Amended Garden Plan has now grown to include a section called - Create a Work Space.  Otherwise entitled Clean Out The Garage.  Our garage has become a dumping ground over the winter months for objects that didn't belong in the house and things we didn't want to be confronted with on a daily basis.  It has grown to look like this:

Somewhere in there are my gardening tools.  While cleaning out the garage isn't the most enticing chore all I really wanted to start with was my garden tools.  So step one was simply to organize a workspace.  Now I must confess that I'm a very lucky gal.  My husband is a woodworker and can be cajoled every so often into building items for my garden.  Several years ago he built me the most wondrous potting bench which houses all of my garden goodies.  We cleaned out a space, found the bench parts and put it together.

Once I had my bench up my hand tools practically flew out of the dark corners and placed themselves up on the bench for me.  Who wouldn't want to make themselves at home on that bench!  After that I pulled out all of the large handled tools.  Many were left behind by the former owner of the house so lots of organizing was needed.  I managed to pick up a tool rack second hand for this purpose and it worked wonders.  The Plano Molding 9123 Corner Tool Rack is similar to my own except that mine is not a corner unit.  Ironically I paid more for mine but that's okay because it works perfectly.  And finally my space is useable.

What a great feeling.  Now when I want to start a project I'll be able to quickly find the tools to do it.  And the first step of the great garage clean up has begun.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Plan

In a recent post I talked about the PEI Rural Beautification Society and their annual competition here on PEI.  I have chosen to compete this year in a couple of categories and they advise that I should include a list of improvements I intend to make with my application.  Since I'm the queen of lists (as annointed by my husband) this was a chore I was more than willing to take on.  Making a list has helped me to clarify what it is I'd like to accomplish this year.  My inclination is to jump right in and start digging but a list helps to keep me organized and will hopefully ensure that I don't start too many projects without finishing them.  Today I'm sharing my list with you and we can both compare at summer's end whether I managed to keep on track or not.

#1  Compost

We moved into our home in late fall and weren't immediately prepared to figure out what we would do with our compost.  Materials began to pile up and then the snow covered it all until a short while ago.

Now that the snow has melted you can see we have a big pile stretching 5 feet across and growing.  Despite it's size very little decomposition is taking place.    My pile desperately needs some nitrogen and a container of sorts to stop it from eating the lawn.  My plan is to design a bin large enough to hold the volume needed to generate some heat and keep things looking tidy.

#2 Vegetable Garden

Next to my new compost bin I have plans to put in a vegetable garden.  I've mulled over the choice of raised beds v. rows and decided to go with the raised beds.  That means I'll need to build beds, decide how to lay them out, fill them up with soil and plant.  Although I may not complete the whole thing this year at least a couple beds should be started and some vegetables like lettuce, spinach, cilantro and onions will be grown.

Future site of my vegetable garden

#3 Flower Beds

There are several neglected flower beds scattered throughout the property that I hope to renovate throughout the summer.  Grass and weeds have long overtaken these beds and will need to be carefully removed.  Any flowers that are growing will need to be identified and possibly given a pruning to clean them up.  In one of these beds landscaping fabric was used.  I have a hatred of this stuff, which I'll explain on another occasion, and I want to remove as much as this as possible.  There is also a hose which strangely I've only been able to find one end.  Yes, it's a hose with no end in sight.  It may just be buried under weeds but I'm concerned that it may be buried in the lawn.  Not sure why that would be the case but  I will make it my mission to discover the other end of the hose by summer's end.

Honest, there's a flower bed in there!

#4 Trees

One of the things we loved about this property when we bought it was the amount of large mature trees.  But being a west coast gal I still miss the trees from home.  South Western British Columbia is a temperate rainforest full of 100 foot all cedars and fir.  I like the pastoral views here in PEI but I still crave trees.  Trees have so many redeeming features like providing windbreak, shade, habitat and food for birds and other critters, as well as blocking out traffic and noise.  I have concerns as well that our trees have seen their best days pass by them.  Their health appears to be declining and I think the best thing I can think to do is plant trees now in order to provide transition from the old trees to new ones.  So my goal is to plant a new birch tree for every old birch on our property.  My shopping list also includes 2 white ash, a red oak and spruce trees.  I'd also like to see a variety of shrubs such as witch hazel and serviceberry planted to fill in the space while the trees take their time to grow up.

A few trees line the edge of the roadway but there's plenty of room for more!
So there it is, the Big Plan.  Now I've just got to get out there and start digging.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Are We There Yet?

Like a small child I keep asking, Are We There Yet???  Just when I think Spring has sprung the cold weather sets in again.  And so it was last evening.  The sun had shone all day, and when I toured through the yard I found all sorts of wonderful green things poking their heads through the dirt, and I thought - could this be it?  But this morning brought with it cold and frost.  Yes frost, that was me scraping my truck off at 7:30 this morning.  So I must be patient.  In the meantime how about we play a little game of I guess, you guess.  

This plant has sprung up in the narrow shaded bed that surrounds our front porch.  When it first appeared a week or so ago the leaf shape and texture made me think it might be tulips.  It has grown quite a bit since then and now I'm not so sure.  Tulips don't clump like this.  A hosta maybe?  nah, I'm pretty sure it's just a clump of tulips.

Not far away in the same shady bed circling the perimeter of the house I found at least a dozen shoots like this popping up.  Your guess?  I'm pretty sure they are bleeding hearts.

More bleeding heart shoots are coming up against the wall in this shot but there are other leaves mixed in there as well. Could be a weed but the leaves remind me of strawberries. Any thoughts?

Next to the bleeding hearts these shoots have appeared.  There aren't many plants that have a leaf like this one so I'm fairly certain I know who they are.

I crossed the yard at that point and wandered over to a stand of trees next to the road.  These fluffy little guys jumped out at me right away.  The funny thing is the tree is quite dead except for this one large branch who refuses to give up.  Although I thought I knew what this tree was none of the other similar trees have catkins yet.  I've done some checking and I'm pretty sure this is an aspen as I suspected.  Perhaps the dead trunk has caused this branch to act differently than it's neighbours.  What do you think?

That stand of trees had another surprise in store for me.  This shrub stands about 4 feet tall and 2 - 3 feet wide. And opening up all along its branches were these leaves and buds.


In the middle of our yard sits an old tractor tire.  While I'm not partial to the tire it sure does make a nice raised bed for dainty spreading flowers such as these.  I have no idea what they are but I suspect they are a type of sedum.

That wasn't the only dainty flower I found.  Although this particular flower is quite white in the photo it is quite pink in reality.  It's a spreading plant forming a low mat over the ground.  Pulmonaria?

Last but not least I think I can clearly identify this one.  This is a feline DSH (Domestic Short Hair Cat for those of us in the know!) which haunts my front porch.  Priscilla came with the house as well when we bought it and has proven to be a great sidekick in and about the yard.

Monday, April 19, 2010

PEI Garden Show

What better activity on a cold rainy blustery day than to gather together to talk about gardening!  Sunday's weather left a lot to be desired but the Garden Show more than made up for that.

While the Garden Show ran both Saturday and Sunday I chose to attend on Sunday to see a couple of particular discussions.  The first demonstration I attended was from Paul Offer of The Doctor's Inn who spoke about organic gardening and compost.  Paul recently held talks on organic lawn care which received great reviews so I was anxious to hear him speak.  Although I sometimes feel like I know all I need to know about compost Paul proved that there's always something more to learn or simply a different way of looking at things.  His discussion simplified the process of composting from what can be a often complicated scientific explanation to something your 5 year old can understand.  Paul told us our  compost pile is like a living creature.  In order to survive it requires food, air and water.  Food is provided by kitchen scraps, leaves and grass, air is provided by turning your pile and then you add water.  There's absolutely nothing complicated about that!  And like any living being if you receive too much or too little of these items you will be out of balance and unable to function at your best.
My second lecture of the day was from Beth Hoar, who works with Parks Conservation.  Beth's topic was invasive species.  Did you know that Glossy Buckthorn, Japanese Knotweed and Purple Loosestrife are considered so highly aggressive that they cannot be disposed of in any compost bin? (and that includes municipality compost as well!)  If you are attempting to remove any of these species from your property they should be disposed of in plastic bags in the garbage or burned.  I also found out about The Lost Ladybug Project.  It seems our native ladybugs are disappearing and new foreign ladybugs are moving in.  To help biologists determine what is happening to the ladybug population you can join the project by contributing photos of ladybugs from your own yard.  We seem to have a ladybug invasion inside our home so I expect to be contributing to this project in the near future.

There were also many booths that attracted my attention but an honourable mention goes to Lovegrass Farm.  I have been considering the many ways to transform our acres of lawn into a more ecologically friendly atmosphere.  I want to step as far away from lawn mowing and watering as I can but I don't want to end up with a maintenance heavy landscaped garden either.  Lovegrass Farm fit right in with my vision of our home.  They provide field grown ornamental grasses and wildflowers from right here on PEI to transform that lawn into a proper ecosystem that will support insects, birds and animals.  They have no website at this time but look for them at the Charlottetown Farmers Market come May.

My other great find of the day was the PEI Rural Beautification Society.  This organization holds a competition each year for island residents in categories such as Farm Home Improvement, Flower Gardens, Tourist Accommodation and Trees.  For a fee of $15 you can enter your home and yard into any of the categories and win prizes anywhere from $100 to $1000!  Since we anticipate doing a lot of work to our home and garden over the coming years we will certainly be entering and the competition might just encourage me to push myself to get a little more done than I would have otherwise.

Overall a great day was had.  I learned something new and met some new folks.  If you didn't catch the show this time I hope to see you there next year!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Rows or Raised Beds?

I spent a lot of time this winter thinking about a vegetable garden.  Where it should be placed, how big it should be, what vegetables I want to grow and the biggest question of all - Rows or Raised Beds?

In the past I have always gardened in long narrow rows.  Some of my earliest gardening memories are of marking out rows with string at planting time in my mother's garden.  But when I considered my property I was intimidated by the amount of work before me.  Our three acres is covered in grass (or weeds disguised as grass).  In order to create a vegetable garden I would need to dig out the lawn and then fill in the resulting void with top soil and amendments like sand and peat moss.  To remove all that lawn and dig up the soil I would need to hire someone with a tractor or spend some quality time with a rented rototiller, or worse, a shovel.  As well, to bring in such a large amount of amendments I would have to hire someone with a truck to deliver them.  I've done this type of thing before but in much smaller gardens.  To accomplish this work in a such a large space would take some time to accomplish and I wasn't sure if it could be done quickly enough to actually grow anything in our short summer season.  The other option was raised beds.  My experience with raised beds is quite minimal so I wasn't sure if this was a good alternative or not.

Previous gardens involved  A LOT of digging!
Then one day I spied a book called All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew.  I've heard of this method before but not in any detail.  So I picked up the book and began to read.  I am now convinced raised beds are the way to go.  This book details how to build a raised bed, the size requirements, discussion about the soil mixture required, and gives instruction on how to space plants in a raised bed for maximum use of growing space, among other things.  I finished that book and couldn't wait to get started.  Rather than spend hours digging up lawn or paying someone to do it for me I'll be placing a box right over top of the lawn.  No digging at all.  And I will have nice lawn paths between my beds which will look pretty.  I won't need to worry about amending soil each year because I'll buy the soil to put in my box just once!  Once a year I can add a small amount of compost and stir it in by hand because the soil won't be packed down from walking on it.  Best of all I can build the boxes quickly and get started planting vegetables immediately.  Of course this all sounds great right now because I haven't tried it yet - the proof, as my mother says, is in the pudding.  So we will have to wait and see how this experiment progresses throughout the summer.  But my hope is that there will be fresh salad greens on the table in the coming months.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Starting a Compost Pile

All good gardens must start with good dirt.  And an important part of good dirt is compost.  It helps to aerate, retain water and provide structure to your soil.  Of course you can buy a bag of compost at your local garden centre but I prefer to make my own.  Why buy compost when I can make as much as I want for free!  Compost generally consists of 1 part brown to 1 part green. Green refers to green waste such as the remains of fruits and vegetables and lawn clippings.  These materials are high in nitrogen.  Brown refers to, quite literally, brown things such as sawdust, dried leaves and other dead plant material.

As you can see my compost pile contains A LOT of brown.  My husband is a woodworker and makes copious amounts of sawdust for my composting pile. Some people might say that sawdust isn't good for your compost pile.  The reason is that it requires lots of nitrogen in order to decompose.  If you put raw sawdust in your soil it will leech the nitrogen it needs to decompose from your plants.  However, if sawdust is allowed to decompose for a period of time with adequate amounts of nitrogen this should not be a problem.  I plan to kickstart the decomposition of this pile with large quantities of manure.  We live in an agricultural area so it should be easy to find fresh manure for relatively cheap.  The combination of the sawdust and manure should be a nice consistency making my compost easy to spread.  Other key ingredients include air and water.  As you can see in the photo above all that sawdust needs to be wetted down and any kitchen waste thoroughly mixed in, otherwise it's just a dry pile of waste which will settle and become compacted.  Ideally you should water and turn your pile as you add material but in this case we moved to our home in late fall and I wasn't prepared to deal with this project at the time so the sawdust simply got piled in a corner.  Now that it's spring my pile is starting to get the attention it deserves.  Next I'll put my mind to finding a permanent spot for my compost and creating a bin to house it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

On the Inside

While I am waiting for spring to officially come to our little island I spend much of my time indoors.  While I love gardening outdoors I must admit I am not so keen on taking care of houseplants. There's no rational reason for this behaviour.  I like my indoor plants well enough but more often than not I simply forget about them.

This poor plant, possibly a Tradescantia pallida, was inherited with the house and amidst all of the moving in was simply forgotten about for months on end.  It's a miracle she's survived thus far.  I glimpsed her today, dehydrated and leaves strewn across the floor and had a pang of guilt, and so I went about giving the little lady a haircut and promised it would never happen again.  Here she is back in her window seat. with her friends  She looks much happier now doesn't she?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

PEI Garden Show

If you’re itching to get gardening but think it’s still too early why not start with PEI’s very own Garden Show. The PEI 2010 Garden Show will be held next weekend, April 17 and 18 at the South Shore Actiplex in Crapaud. I’ll be there checking out the various garden businesses and hopefully finding out where to go for all of my gardening must haves. I’m also looking forward to seeing some of the demonstrations and speakers. I would particularly like to see the talk on invasive species. As a newcomer to this province even the weeds are unfamiliar to me so being able to identify what’s a weed and what’s invasive is a good place to start in a new garden.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Is It Too Early?

I was watching the weather report this evening and during the discussion about the early warm weather we're having the question arose whether it is too soon to start gardening.  Well, that depends.  When warm weather hits it is almost impossible to keep us gardeners out of our yards.  It's what we live for. Every fall we hang up our tools and then spend the winter plotting what we will do come spring.  When warm weather arrives we've already spent months dreaming of the day we're able to get outside.  So get out and enjoy it I say.  But take care in what spring gardening chores you start with.  The fact is that spring weather is always a bit hit and miss and despite some warm weather there is likely a few frosts and even the possibility of snow still in the forecast over the coming month.  Instead of planting up hanging baskets or putting out annuals which will likely be injured by cold weather, try raking your lawn.  Any leaves that you missed in the fall can be raked up and any tree branches that have come down over the winter can be picked up so when it's time to mow there will be nothing in the way.  As well, a light raking will pull up some of the dead grass and unclog the soil surface allowing air, water and sunshine to get at the new grass trying to push it's way through.  Once you've done that, add a layer of fine compost to provide a cover of mulch to your grass and provide nutrients.  

The main issue I've had with starting gardening too quickly is the urge to clean out flower beds.  It's so lovely to cut back the dead perennials from last season and see the new greenery coming up.  But beware!!  Uncovering your beds too early leaves them vulnerable to frosts and snow which may damage new shoots making their way up.  Now that I've learned better I always try to leave a layer of leaves and dead perennials in place until I'm sure all signs of frost are past.  This year is different in that I have inherited several flower beds with our property and now that the snow is gone I have had a chance to take a good look at them and yikes!!  What a mess. 

I don't believe any weeding has been done in several years and the weeds are completely taking over, making the bed hardly visible.  In this case I chose to start cleaning out my beds a little earlier than normal.  It's going to take me some time to get through all these beds so I need to start as early as I can.  Also, most of the plant material I'm cutting back is weeds so if there is any damage it's not going to be to any choice plants.  In this particular photo I'm not sure what the vine strangling the tree in the center is but it certainly isn't doing the tree any good so in I went with my clippers.  Other plants in the bed were cut to around knee level simply so I could see what I was dealing with.

As you can see in the second photo some roses and a mountain ash emerged from the bed. There are also some old tree stumps adding some character to this spot. Another exciting find.  As soon as I had opened up the area my mind began to race with the possibilities - perhaps a clematis draped across a stump or a second clump of roses. Obviously this spot will need lots of work in the months to come but this is a great start. I can spend the next month making plans for renovating this bed and when the weather is truly warm I will be able to get right to work.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Pleasant Surprises

The weather has been beyond perfect this Easter holiday weekend.  There's no wind, the sun is shining and it reached a high of 14 degrees celcius today.   We have been getting out and about as much as we can enjoying the early spring weather.  While visiting our neighbour yesterday I was admiring their spring bulbs coming up amongst the grass and bemoaning the fact that no such bulbs exist in our own yard.  Today I decided to familiarize myself a bit more with our yard and what did I discover hiding under a young poplar tree but something that looks suspiciously like daffodils peeping up.

Silly me!

That wasn't the only surprise in store for me today.  A dilapidated hedgerow runs behind our house.  At one time separating the house from the field beyond the shrubs that once formed the hedge are largely dead and broken.  Walking through today I discovered these lovely large stones buried under a carpet of weeds.  What a find!  The red colour of the stones is local to this island where the air oxidizes the high quantities of iron in the soil and turns it red.  I don't know where they came from but it's possible an old building used to stand in this spot.  Our home was a working farm for many years with numerous barns and outbuildings that are no longer here.  Wherever they came from I think I can find a good use for them now.  When it comes time to build some new flower beds these will come in very handy.

Friday, April 2, 2010


This past summer my husband and I moved on a whim and a dream from south western British Columbia to Prince Edward Island.  In preparation for the move we sold most of our worldly possessions but kept what was close to our hearts. Our bed, our cat, a piano, woodworking and garden tools all came with us. It’s obvious to me now where our interests lay.  In November 2009 we bought our dream home.  A century farm house set on 3 acres.  We immediately got to work getting settled inside the house and snow quickly fell on the ground.  At first we were so busy getting settled inside that I completely forgot about the outside but not for long. Quickly enough I dug out my garden books and started planning.  And then I realized I have how different this garden will need to be from what I've done before.  Where I gardened in BC it is an entirely different ecosystem from PEI. The temperate rainforest full of ferns and towering Douglas fir has been replaced by pastoral farm fields and hedgerows.  My former gardening space was a small front yard set on a slope and shaded by giant trees and filled with salal, mahonia and ferns.  Now I am challenged by 3 acres of sunny flat lawn, a half dozen apple trees and clay soil.  Many of the plants that I knew and loved in my warm rainy climate on the west coast will not survive the cold snowy winters on the east coast.  It looks like it will be both an intimidating and exhilarating adventure.