Category Archives: How To

Building Raised Beds Using Hugelkultur

The Snarky Gardener built raised beds using hugelkultur
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The new bed joins 3 previously prepared beds.  The green plants are a cover crop of turnips with a volunteer dill plant in the foreground.
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Same beds a month later

Hugelkultur is the German term for garden beds made with buried wood. The wood breaks down over time, providing garden vegetables with nutrients and moisture (as in you don’t have to fertilize and water as much, if at all!).  The wood does not have to be brand new as rotted wood is actually better is some ways.

This fall, I decided to utilize this technique to build four 8 foot long by 4 foot wide by 3 feet high raised beds.  In general raised beds are beneficial as they warm up earlier in the spring, keep humans (but not my dog) from compacting soil, and allow plants better drainage.  Usually raised beds are built with a frame around the soil, but my beds have no borders. After completing each bed, I planted cover crops (turnips, spinach and clover) to minimize winter soil exposure. My long term plan is to convert more of my garden into hugelkultur beds, but wanted to perform a trial first, as putting these beds in is labor intensive, with all the wood gathering, moving, and burying.

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Started with a dug out bed
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The middle of the hole is filled with heavy logs
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Branches, and bark fill in over the logs
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Dirt from the surrounding area is put on top of the wood

Many thanks to Paul Wheaton for his inspiring and detailed hugelkultur article – http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

A cool related podcast about hugelkultur – http://www.permaculturevoices.com/podcast/hugelkultur-what-it-is-when-is-it-appropriate-and-when-isnt-it-with-javan-bernakevitch-pvp082/

Save the Beans

The Snarky Gardener is managing his herd of Jacob’s Cattle beans.
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Jacob’s Cattle beans before the herd was split up

Saving bean seed is really easy. Allow your bean plants with with beans still attached to turn yellow and die off. Collect the seed pods. Open up the pods and there are your seeds. You will want to let these dry out completely before putting them in an airtight container (I use old vitamin bottles though glass jars will work also). Make sure to keep an eye on them over the winter as they could mold up if there was any moisture in them.

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After I do my “shelling”, I like to divide them up based how they look. Some will be deformed or have some flaw that makes them less than perfect. These will be put into the “eat me” pile. Jacob’s Cattle beans are specifically “dry” beans (think kidney or black beans), but I do eat some green.

So, you might be asking “Why does the Snarky Gardener bother with saving bean seed when it’s so inexpensive to buy at the store or online?” In a word, adaptation. These plants grew up in my garden with it’s specific conditions. Plus beans make the soil better, especially through their nitrogen fixing nodules.

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How to Save Tomato Seeds

The Snarky Gardener shows you how to save tomato seeds using a 5 step process

1.  Let the tomatoes ripen.

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2.  Cut open the tomato and scoop out the seeds

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3.  Put the seeds into a covered glass or jar.  Add water.

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4.  Let sit for 3 days or so, stirring once a day

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5.  Strain seeds from the liquid and put onto a plate to let dry for a few days.

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How to Plant Tomatoes

The Snarky Gardener shows you how to plant tomatoes
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Beefsteak Tomato ready to be planted

With spring looking to summer, thoughts turn to planting frost sensitive tomatoes. The best time to put these little guys into the ground is when the soil has warmed up and all chance of frost has passed. Of course, one cannot tell the future, but mid-May on is generally considered safe. If you do plant and then there is a freeze or frost warning, covering the plants with straw/leaf mulch or blankets should give them enough protection.

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River digging tomato plant holes
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Hole dug and ready for planting

Tomatoes are special in that their stems will grow roots if they come in contact with soil, so dig down enough to cover the stem up to the first set of true leaves.  This will allow the tomato to receive all the water and nutrients it needs.  Plus it will be easier to cover them if the weather turns cold (being shorter and all).  I usually dig my holes ahead of time and plant either on a cloudy day or in the evening so not to stress them.

As you can see above, I use the “Terrier” digging method, but you can also use a shovel, Before placing your plant in the hole, you may want to add some extra fertilizer or other materials to the hole.  Some experts recommend adding Epsom salts as they contain magnesium and sulfate.  Others recommend egg shells with their needed calcium.  I tend to use “dynamic accumulators” – plants that collect and store minerals.  My favorites are comfrey (pictured below), dandelions, and mustard greens.  I just remove the leaves I need and bury them.

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Comfrey – a dynamic accumulator
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Tomato planted so first true leaves are almost touching the ground

Once planted and watered, you should add some support, whether it be a tomato cage, fence, or stake.  Some tomatoes (called determinate) don’t need much as they only get a few feet tall (like Roma for example).  Putting in support now means you won’t be piercing roots later as the plant matures.  As you can see below, I make my own cages out of steel fencing.  These totally surround the plant and are 6 feet tall, providing support for most varieties of indeterminate tomatoes.  The other positive of this system is that peas can be grown up the cages to give more food production plus nitrogen fixing for future crops.

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Cage around the tomato plant
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Cage around the tomato plant

One other technique I stumbled upon is to grow tomatoes on the north side of an east-west steel fence (behind the caged tomato in the above picture).  As the plants grow up, I weave the branches in and out of the wire, thus eliminating the need to use ropes or other bindings to keep the plant from falling over.

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Tomato plant later in the season

 

How to Succeed with Your First Garden

Want to garden but don’t know where to start?

The Snarky Gardener is here to help!

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A nice sunny spot with just a little afternoon shade and lots of leaf mulch

1.  Chose a nice sunny spot

Spend some time to observe your chosen spot.   You are going to want at least 3 hours of direct sunlight a day with more than 6 preferred.  If you can’t get the minimum 6, then look for plants that will be OK with a little shade, like lettuce, herbs, Swiss chard, kale, spinach, turnips, and mustard greens.  Another option is to plant in containers and move them to the sunny spots throughout the day.

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Next to the house, a small shade herb garden (mint, chives, etc)  which only receives a few hours of direct sunlight a day.

2.  Start small

Don’t go hog wild with a giant garden first thing out.  Keeping it small will allow you to learn what grows best in your area without a lot of investment of time, money, and effort.  Containers or a 4 foot by 4 foot raised bed would be a good place to start.

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Zucchini, corn, and beans (around the corn) – three of my favorites to eat
3.  Grow what you like to eat

Sounds straight forward, but I’ve known a few snarky gardeners to grow things before they know how they taste (like me with my sunchokes).  If you think you want to grow it, buy it from the store first.

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Easy peasy peas

4.  Grow easy stuff

Some vegetables are easier to grow than others, by a significant margin.  Talk to people in your area to learn what grows well in your area.  For instance, in Northeastern Ohio (my neck of the woods), cherry tomatoes, beans, peas, onions, zucchini, potatoes, and turnips do well with little trouble.  Broccoli, watermelons, Brussels sprouts, peppers, and eggplants are much harder to grow, to the point I’ve given up on some.

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The lawn sweeper makes gathering leaf mulch simple

5.  Mulch a bunch

Mulch is anything that covers the ground around your plants.  Straw, grass clippings, newspapers, wood chips, and leaves (my favorite) all make good mulch.  You can also use plastic mulch, but it won’t make your soil better over time like organic materials will.  Covering the ground is important as it will keep weeds from overtaking your edible plants plus it holds in moisture which will keep you from having to water as much (or at all!)

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Snarky Acres in the fall

6.  Visit often

Gardens are probably ruined by neglect more than anything else.  Visit a few times a week to keep up with the weeds, watering, and ready to pick food.  Think of it as that exercise your doctor keeps telling you need to do.  I find the garden as a quiet place to get away from it all.  Also, try to plan around the weather (early or late on hot summer days, etc).

7.  Learn about food seasons

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Turnips love the cold.
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Turnips at Christmas in Northeastern Ohio

Some plants can tolerate and sometimes prefer cold (like spinach, turnips, onions, peas, potatoes) but don’t like heat and others can’t handle frost (tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, okra) and love warm weather.  It still surprises me that this isn’t common knowledge (it wasn’t for me when I started).  Your frost dates (last frost in the spring and first frost in the fall) are the most important gardening times.  They tell you when you can plant certain vegetables and when they need to be reaped.  Too early or too late and you’ll be sad, sad gardener.

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The wild and allusive Toy Fox Terrier digging up my garden
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Groundhog making a run for it.

8.  Watch out for critters

If you notice animals in your neighborhood, know that they may think of your garden as a free meal.  A small fence (2 or 3 feet tall) will keep out rabbits, but you will need a taller fence (6 feet or more) to deter groundhogs, raccoon, and deer from invading your space.  There are also garlicky sprays and fence clips that will deter them some.  Most animals don’t like strong smells, so planting herbs and garlic/onions on the outside of your garden is not a bad idea.  Also, keep an eye on your plants for damage, as even the best fencing can be leaped over or dug under.

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Cherry tomatoes inside the house – 12/22/2013

9.  Think outside the box

There are a lot of different ways to garden besides the standard “till up the backyard and plant in rows”.   Indoor gardening can be done with systems like the AeroGarden. Containers or individual planters work well for situations where you can’t plant into the ground (apartments, limited sun, etc).  If you don’t have a tiller or want to go to the trouble of tilling, you can build gardens on top of your grass, whether it be raised beds, straw bale gardening, or lasagna mulching.  And don’t be limited to your backyard.  Front yard gardens, if done tastefully, are a possibility as long as there are no prohibitions where you live (like city ordinances or home owner association rules).

Good luck and happy gardening!

Have any questions about your first garden? Please leave a reply.

How to Save Pepper Seeds

Think saving pepper seed is difficult?

Think again.

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Green jalapeno – not ready for saving seed from
Fully ripe Jalapeno Pepper
Fully ripe Jalapeno Pepper

Saving pepper seed is really easy. The most important step is the first – leave the pepper on the plant until it gets very ripe. This will mean the pepper will turn color from the standard green to its final hue, either red (like the above jalapeno) or yellow or orange or whatever. The fruit will feel a little soft when squeezed.

Important note:  If the pepper plant is a hybrid (aka F1),  it was a cross between 2 different varieties and your saved seed may not produce the same fruit as its parent.  Also, there is a small chance your pepper was cross pollinated with other nearby peppers, so again, your results may vary.  Ah, plant sex.

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Once it’s ready, pick your pepper Peter Piper style and cut it up.  You will want to have something the seeds can be stored in for drying, like this medicine bottle cap.  Be careful not to slice through the center of the pepper as that’s where all the seedy goodness is.  If you cut up peppers on a regular basis for cooking, it’s the same, except you keep the seeds instead of tossing them.    Remove all the seeds from the pepper and membrane, and put them in your drying vessel.  Then cut up the pepper for use now or bag it up and freeze for later (peppers freeze really well).

Warning:  If you are saving hot pepper seeds, be careful with burning your skin.  You will want to wear gloves if you can.  And if you’re like the Snarky Gardener, you won’t and then you’ll need to use dish soap, rubbing alcohol, milk, or yogurt to wash away the hot irritating oil.

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Leave the seeds out to dry for about a week or two, shaking them back and forth every couple of days. Now they will be ready for storing or planting.

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Pepper Seed – the final dried product
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Snarky Jalapeno Peppers – the next generation

Good luck and happy gardening

How to Save Mustard, Kale, and Turnip Seed

Are you growing (or planning to grow) mustard, kale, or turnips?

Did you know it’s easy to save your own seed?

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Seven Top Turnips going to seed spring 2013
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Snarky Mustard going the seed fall 2013

Mustard, kale, and turnips basically all go to seed the same way. When they get stressed (hot weather, etc) or are overwintered, these plants send up stalks and put out flowers. These flowers are beautiful and functional, as they bring beneficial insects to your garden.  Once the stalks are produced (also called “bolting”), the leaves themselves become bitter as the plant puts its energy into getting busy (cue the Barry White music) reproducing.

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Mustard flowers and pods

The seed is ready to collect once the stalks turn brown and dry out. Unfortunately, the pods don’t all dry out at once, with the ones closer to the base of the plant going first. If you wait until they are completely ready, some seed will escape onto the ground and you’ll have babies starting before you know it. This is a good thing if you are trying to get a perennial supply of yummy greens. Not so good if you have plans for that area in the form of other crops. But, as I always say, edible weeds are better than inedible weeds.

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Dried out stalks stuffed into a plastic trash bag

The best system I’ve found so far to collect this type of seed is through the use of garden cutters and trash bags. Just snip below the pods and put the top into the bag. This way you can squish and crush up the pods in the bag and have the tiny little seeds fall to one corner. Cut the corner tip as small as you can and release the seed. You will get some chaff (fancy word of the day) but only some, not all.

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Cut the tip of the bag to release just the smallest parts – seeds and some chaff
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Seeds and chaff
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Tip the container to collect the seeds to one side and pick out the other stuff

If all goes right, you can put the separated seed into a holding vessel (like this glass jar pictured below).  Once there, you can shake it to force the lighter chaff to the top for more removal.  You could also use a screen to sift out the extra material.

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The finished product

Good luck and happy gardening!