Why I Start with Raised Beds

How do I start a garden?

That’s what I asked myself several years ago when I started with a blank slate of a back yard.  I really had no idea what I was doing and I was starting with some of the worst possible conditions I could imagine.  Some places have hard soil.  We have caliche.

The clay in the soil gets wet, then bakes in the hot AZ son.  Wet, bake, wet, bake… and the result is equivalent to concrete.

When I was building my first raised beds I was told by someone that I needed to dig through this soil to get drainage for my garden.  So I dug… two feet down… through caliche… with a railroad pick.  It took FOREVER.  The first time I tried to break through the soil I took my railroad pick and started swinging.  I’m not a lightweight, but that 12 pound railroad pick bounced… and sparked… on the concrete that was my backyard.  I wet it down and left it.  It never soaked in more than a quarter inch.  It evaporated.  It was terrible.

Beds in a row

I’ve learned at least a little over the years, so if I was starting again I would do it a little bit different.

Raised beds have certain advantages over a traditional garden.

- They are higher up and so are a little easier to get into.

- The area is well defined which gives you a better chance of keeping your kids and your pets out of it.

- It allows you to concentrate your soil resources into one confined area that can be densely planted.

- It will warm up faster in the spring (if that is a concern for you).

- If you are using ollas, you can actually put the olla in place as you fill the bed, making the initial placement easier.

Lots of sprouts in a raised bed

Of course, raised beds don’t last and eventually the wood will rot.  That’s true, although from my experience it takes longer than you think.  But even so, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As you water your raised bed you are providing a nutrient dense compost tea to the area underneath and around the bed.  Over a few years even hard caliche will soften and improve.  By the time the wood has rotted and needs to be removed your garden soil has gone from bad to better.  The ground has gone from unmanageable, to easily workable.  Instead of a railroad pick you can easily use a shovel.

If I was starting from scratch, I would consider the following things.

- Think long term.  What do you want your garden to eventually look like.  Five, even ten years down the road, how big do you want your garden to be?  Figure out what the final perimeter area of your garden will be.

- Put several raised beds in that area but start small.  Add a couple more next season or next year.  Organize the first ones though in a way that makes sense as you add them.

- Put those beds right on top of the soil, no need to dig down.  You may get some muddy spots around your bed.  If this is a problem throw down some mulch around your beds.  A good, mostly composted wood mulch will absorb a lot of water and continue to improve the soil.

If you like the raised beds you can remove the soil, rebuild the box, and put everything back together.  If you decide to turn the whole area into a traditional garden, then your soil will be ready to go!

What do you think, fellow gardeners?  If you had to start from scratch how would you do it?

This post is linked on the Homestead Barn Hop at The Prairie Homestead.

Posted in Arizona Garden, Dripping Springs Ollas, ollas, raised beds, square foot gardening | 3 Comments

What God Taught Me in the Garden This Week, Oct 16, 2014

Water is essential in the garden.  Without it nothing will grow.  In the heat of summer it only takes a day for many plants to wither and fade beyond recovery.  It feeds and nourishes.

There are signs near Blythe, CA on I-10 that say it very clearly, “Food grows where water flows.”

Very true.

So, I water, and water, and water.  Especially with new sprouts coming up.  Consistent moisture is so important.

Now, I know the water that I normally use is not the best.  It has chlorine and other additives.  It is far from pure and far from ideal.

Still, it is better than nothing and the plants still grow.  Not as well as they could, but they still grow.

Rain water is the best.  Of course, we just don’t get very much of it around here.  When we do it is incredible, the plants seem to go crazy.  It has everything they need without all of the garbage thrown in.  The garden drinks it in and erupts with new growth.  It’s always impressive.

I like to read to learn.  I rarely read fiction.  I recently read The Circle Maker and I am currently reading Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian LifeBooks like this push me.  They challenge me where I am. They are useful. I enjoy them.

Of course, there is something about the Bible.  God’s word is powerful.  It impacts you where you are.  It can be simple enough for a young child to understand and challenging enough for the most astute scientist searching for real truth.  I recently taught a room full of children about the story of Moses. I was also recently taught about the electrical characteristics of the cosmos and how the physical characteristics of plasma line up perfectly with the descriptions of the firmament in scripture.

It really is amazing.

Numerous times I’ve read through a scripture that I am very familiar with, yet because of the season of life that I am in or because of recent events, God opens up a whole new level of understanding for me.  The words don’t change, but the impact certainly does.

It’s the pure water that we really need.  The rest is good, but the good book is the best.

Have you spent time in the word today?  Did you know that if you read just four chapters in the Bible a day, you would read through the whole Bible in less than a year?  Four chapters isn’t much, but it is nourishing.  Drink it in and you are sure to grow.

I hope you have a wonderful weekend.  God bless!

-Keith

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

It’s BEAUTIFUL!

Ahhh!  It’s a great time to live in AZ.  From now until May it will be beautiful.  A little on the cold side at night sometimes… but who am I kidding, it will only be cold to people who have been living in AZ their whole lives and have thinner blood.  To the rest of the world it will feel like Spring!  Which is why this is EVERYBODY WANTS TO LIVE HERE season!

Planting is underway.  I really wanted to have it done by the time September was finished.  I didn’t.  Things never really work out according to plan do they?  But still we plan.  There is a plan every day… and the plan changes every day.  :)  Sorry for the blurry pictures, I’m a little out of practice photographging sprouts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So far we have some cabbage, ice berg, romaine, chard, red Russian kale, dino kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cilantro, and dill planted.  Little seedlings are springing up everywhere and I’m busy yanking out Bermuda sprouts wherever they may dwell.  Be warned foul beasts… I’m coming for you!  (Insert maniacal laughter here)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I spent a couple of hours on Saturday with my youngest helper pulling up piles of grass and trimming up the pepper plants.  They still have a solid month of good production to go, so I want to make sure we get some good sized peppers!  I harvested the peppers from the trimmings and had enough to fill a substantial bowl.  Roasting and peeling the small peppers can be a pain though.  I focused on the larger ones.  I’ve learned when it comes to roasting to get the oven super hot (BROIL) and put the peppers up as close as you can to the heat.  Then wait until they are really blistered before you turn them.  I’d love to have one of those drum roasters that they have in grocery store parking lots, but the oven works fine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I added some manure to the main garden and have been busy raking and smashing and pulverizing… it’s good for stress relief.  I’ll plant all of that out soon with peas and various other things.  I’ve got a plan for that.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The areas that were cleaned up in the pepper beds are going to be planted out first.  At the end of November the peppers will come out, along with the ollas, so I need to be able to get those out without destroying too much.  That will be a challenge. I do like demo though.

I’m still looking for a good deal on some mulch.  Maybe some alfalfa that got ruined by the rain, or even some woodchips… I’m really not that picky.  I’ve decided it would be really handy to have a decent sized wood chipper.  I have a tiny one right now, but frankly, it’s not good for much.

I’ve still got a few little apples growing on the tree.  I’m not sure that they’ll finish maturing, but they are fun to watch.  Apples seem to be a pretty slow process.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That’s about it; I hope you all are having a good Fall.  Ours is off to a great start.  It’s a great time to garden!

Posted in apples, Arizona Garden, basil, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, chard, cilantro, desert garden, Red Russian Kale | 1 Comment

Observations and Conclusions on the Ollas

Ollas are the name for unglazed terracotta pots that you bury in the ground with only the neck exposed. I’ve written on them here before but it seems like so long ago I thought I would explain more without having to dig back through old posts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This last spring was the first time I tried using ollas.

IMG_2615

The ones that I selected were from Dripping Springs Ollas.  They are larger than most, locally available to me, have a lid that fits perfectly, and have a mouth that is wider than most, making it easier to fill with a long watering wand.  Actually it didn’t take long before I could use my wand to pry up the edge of the lid, fill the olla, and replace the lid without having to bend down and pick the lid up.

Saved a lot of lower back pain.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had nine ollas that I used all together.  They are on the expensive side, I believe about $30 each.  Which was actually a lot cheaper than others because they were locally available and I didn’t have to pay shipping.  Still $30 x 9 = ouch.

I buried three ollas per 4 foot x 8 foot planting bed and then planted heavily around them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Two of the beds contained peppers (and are still using the ollas), and one bed was planted with tomatillos, squash, zucchini, beans, and watermelons.

I’ve since removed the ollas from the one bed because they are not good to overwinter in the ground since they COULD freeze in a hard frost.  Granted those are pretty rare around here, but at $30 a piece I really didn’t want to take the chance.

Observations

Filling the ollas was a lot faster than watering a whole bed.  I did fill them every day, which I’m sure helped, but still it was definitely faster.  Faster watering means less water.  I still watered the perimeter of the bed and the corners, only because I had planted very densely and wanted to make sure that everything was well saturated.

I like to let the chickens out when I fill the ollas because I’ve found that a wide assortment of bugs enjoy the moist environment.  Crickets, ear wigs, and roaches are pretty typical, with the occasional scorpion.  Either way, my one smart chicken figured this game out pretty quick and would hop in the beds and wait for me to fill the pots so she could grab a bug or two.  It worked out pretty well.

I did find that the plants in the bed did not wilt as quickly in the heat of the afternoon, in fact frequently they did not wilt at all.  Similar plants, especially the squash and zucchini, in other beds looked pretty sick when the mercury hit 110+.  My peppers in my pots look good, but are not as big as the peppers in the beds with the ollas.  They also weather the afternoon sun better, even though they aren’t shaded like the potted peppers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When I removed the three ollas out of the one bed I was able to confirm what I had been told previously, that the roots of the plants would weave their way around the olla, making the watering even more efficient.  Sure enough what I found was a complete encasement of the ball of the olla in a thick mat of roots.  It was impressive!  The roots did not penetrate the olla and I found that the surface of the terracotta was in good condition, giving me confidence that they will last for several years to come.

In all, the ollas definitely lived up to the hype.  They worked efficiently and made watering easier.  I cannot gage whether or not I actually used less water, since this year I drastically expanded my garden with six additional 4×8 beds, but I can easily say, just by gaging the time, that I used less water on the beds with ollas than I did on the ones without.

Are they worth the investment? Well, that’s depends.  My water is not that expensive, so it would probably take two – three years to recoup the investment.  I will definitely keep the ones I have and use them again, but I’m trying to garden more cheaply, so I will probably not buy any more next spring.

Have you ever tried ollas?

-Keith

Posted in the Homestead Barn Hop on the Prairie Homestead.

Posted in Dripping Springs Ollas, ollas | Tagged | 10 Comments

What God Taught Me in the Garden This Week…

Weeds.

They are terrible things. Deep roots, spreading for miles it would seem.  They spring up everywhere, almost as if they were planted.  There are always a few to pull.

A momentary stroll through the garden beds can turn into hours of pulling, digging, and uncovering.  They love to hide in places that are just out of sight.

Sin is a weed. It grows while the garden is not being tended. It thrives in soil that has not seen the gardener’s feet for some time. It starts small, a mere leaf peaking its head through the moist soil, but as soon as you turn your back it grows into a hearty plant. It sucks the nutrients out of the soil and chokes the good plants until they can produce no fruit at all.

Our enemy sows sin. He plants it when we are not paying attention. It grows while we are not minding our fields and our soil. It can be difficult to spot because it starts small. Like a blade of bermuda at first it looks like just another leaf, but soon it is obviously much more than surface deep. It steals our energy, our spirit, it robs our nutrients.  It makes us unfruitful.

Expose it early.  Pull the tender shoot up and expose the roots.  Confess. Repent. Cast it into the hot sun and let it wither and die.  Be mindful and inspect your soil often.  Be diligent to purge the weeds and the plants will bear more fruit.

Discipline is a word that is seldom discussed and even less frequently implemented. It’s difficult. It involves inspecting our soil often. Rooting out the evil that would master us. Praying that God would expose the weeds that we can’t see. Convicting us of our sin.

We have to learn how to tend the garden.

We’ll never get it totally right. Just like we will never have a weed free, problem free, bountiful harvest. But we must always be diligent.

Discipline in weeding. Discipline in life.

A little random but true.  Have a blessed weekend.

-Keith

Posted in Lessons from the Garden | 3 Comments