Grow More With Vertical Garden

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few years ago I was faced with an issue of needing to keep some seedlings warm, combined with not a lot of money to spend and limited resources. This meant being creative with what WAS available and the result is functional, cheap and reuses things that mostly would have been thrown away.

I already had an existing 4’x4′ compost bin created by putting together pallets. To this basic pallet compost bin I nailed a “ladder” framework. I then cut the bottoms off of 2 liter soda bottles, putting a hole in the cap before screwing it back on which insured water dripped out rather than pooling in the container. The bottom piece cut off – a small ‘bowl’ – I’ve used for starting seeds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce the framework was done and the bottles prepared the bottles were turned upside down and a small screw attached it to the frame. A larger screw was driven through the neck for solid support – I used 1-7/8″ screws but 2″ would have given a little more security. The bottles were arranged 10 across the 4′ span, with the base arranged so it funnels into the bottle below it. The bottom row drips into containers. In this way watering the top layer goes through to drip into the 2nd layer. If, in the case of rain, it is too much it continues to trickle down and finally out the containers if excessive.

Once the bottles were arranged, it’s a matter of filling them – I used a handful of broken up leaves in the bottom followed by a soil mixture. The mix is compost, soil, manure and bagged top soil. On one side there are 20 pepper plants are in these, one to a container, with ten zucchini on the top layer. The zucchini will be ‘trained’ over the top providing shade over the compost bin as well as making use of space.

The other thought to this was keeping seedlings warm in case of an unexpected cold snap. A sheet of plastic from a farm store – less than $20 – was employed to go over the entire frame. The natural heat from the compost bin provides enough to, in the south, raise the temperature just that few degrees to keep them from getting nipped by frost.

Fancier materials from new purchase can be used with the same idea but for what was needed these have worked very well. It allows up to 170 plants in a 4×4′ space. For those with limited space, such as a patio or balcony, it would be easy to adapt to allow herbs and vegetables too be grown even if you don’t have a yard or garden area.

As it was used, in direct sun the soil will get too warm and ‘cook’ the roots, so plan the location well. Yes it will fall apart in a few years – but $30 for five years is not a bad value.

4-H Creates Memories, Leadership

JoeJanJerryAprilFor millions of people throughout the USA 4-H offers memories and lessons. It models leadership with the actions of adults getting involved to teach and lead children and teens. Although most popular in rural areas, 4-H has a variety of projects. From the motto “To make the best better” a strive for excellence is set.

Some will choose livestock projects – popular projects include rabbits, poultry, pigs, sheep and cattle. For those that can’t take livestock directly there’s many other projects. Dogs, veterinary science, geology, crafts, mechanics, sewing, gardening, cooking and a wide range of other projects are available to youth wanting to learn and compete in county and state fairs.

Typically 4-H doesn’t have dues associated with it, and the bold green clover is distinctive. A study from Tufts University showed 4-H members are twice as likely to get better school grades and plan to go to college. They’re also 25% more likely to positively contribute to family and community, and 41% less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Because a network of mentors and activities keep kids busy, it’s more important today than ever to keep 4-H alive.

Often run in conjunction with the extension service, budget cuts have hit the organization. Over a half million volunteers keep the organization moving, and 4-H teaches hands on not only in science and homemaking skills needed more all the time, but also in valuable citizenship and leader skills.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom aerospace to agriculture and health to nutrition, 4-H makes leaders. It presents safety programs not only in food but off road vehicles, equipment and other safety issues. Visual arts, wind energy, outdoor activities and a host of other projects prepare youth for the “real world”. It allows youth to explore interests that extend far beyond a field of corn or a beef cow.

4-H camp, judging and other activities teach critical thinking and formulating thoughts to support a point of view. This might be facing four hogs or a class of dairy heifers but the actions and thought process being taught goes far beyond livestock.

This is a great organization that is well worth the funds to participate. There is a cost to the books and such, and donations are always welcome to support the work of 4-H.

For many the 4-H pledge is much more than something to recite at meetings.

“I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country and my world.” This pledge has been recited since 1927, unchanged except for the last three words added in 1973.

For many youth in many areas – take a look at 4-H. It builds lives and memories.

Finding the Homestead You Need

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGetting out in the country is a goal for many. Some want a garden and a few chickens for eggs while others are more ambitious wanting to raise most or all of their food for maximum self-sufficiency.

Often real estate professionals don’t grasp your needs so you must go in with a clear view of what you need. The right land is as important, if not more so, than the home itself on the land. Consider your resources and skills honestly. If you’re looking at two different properties that are comparable, one has a barn and one doesn’t, $5,000 difference between them and you don’t have building skills or enough money to hire someone to build you’ll be money ahead to get the property with the barn, even if it’s one that needs adapted.

Consider honestly what you want to do. Are you looking to do a market garden? Raising your own food and selling extras? Maybe have a couple of horses and raise a pig or two for meat.

470_41409Write these down and be crystal clear about what you need. If you’re looking to keep a horse, a couple cows, raise a few pigs, some chickens, a garden – this can be done on five acres in most areas, with purchase of feed. However there’s some key points to consider.

Do not believe real estate professionals that say “oh yes livestock is fine” – LOOK. I’ve had several trying to sell 5 acre spots in subdivisions that said it was fine for livestock – but in the fine print at the bottom expressly forbid pigs and/or poultry. If you’re raising your food supply and buying the land to have those that’ll leave you high and dry and without recourse. The minute you put up a 16×32 pen for a few pigs on that 5 acres, you’re in violation of restrictions, whether you saw it or not. Look closely.

Observe the property. Certain types of grasses indicate water near the surface while bare patches without a reason are suspect. Take note of trees. Black walnut trees can be a big asset – a source of walnuts for the homestead! But if the trees set in the area you want to make a horse paddock it will mean choosing between horses or the trees. Equally cherry trees shouldn’t be near pens for most livestock nor some maple trees. These are all good trees to have on a homestead – but away from the animals.

If your interest is growing gardens, herbs or other food have a soil test run – this tells you the true condition of the soil and what you need to do to get the maximum crop.

Consider fencing – a property fenced in woven wire fence is worth a bit more than one fenced in barbed wire, and fences in good repair are worth more than those with missing sections.

Walk out on the land….in all areas of the land. Visit it a couple times – go when it’s raining, visit it first thing in the morning. With this you can see if there’s areas the water drains to – if that area is where you want your garden that could be good or not good depending on the amount of rain. An area that’s clear with plenty of sunlight will help crops grow. If you’re looking at wanting to be strictly organic look closely at neighboring properties. The neighbor with the perfect weed free yard is likely using chemicals, and without the regulations farmers do – if water carries it from that property to yours, yours may not be as organic as you think it is.

Be sure to make note of any possible abandoned wells, underground mines and other issues that can drastically change a rural experience. A sad story of a horse stolen from the pasture became almost worse when it was found he wasn’t stolen – he’d fallen into an old well and broken his neck. For people and animals these can be very dangerous. Have a clear idea about what you want to do and how to fit that onto the land you’re looking at. You might find you can be efficient enough to use a half acre as a mini orchard you didn’t think you’d have room for! Water, soil fertility and lay of the land take on different importance when you’re raising your own food. Losing half the crop due to standing water in the garden means you have half as much to eat…which stresses the importance of doing your homework!

Don’t count on experts to tell you these things – or to volunteer it. If you’re looking at a compost area – plan it to be discreet but plan it in! Knowing what you want, doing some research, asking questions and looking at it as if it’s a farm (which it will be) can mean the difference between a wonderful house and a useless property and a passable house with plenty of real food to eat and a lifestyle many only dream of.

Plan Now! It’s Fair Season

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACounty or state fairs bring up many images. The smell of corn dogs and soft pretzels; the view of an exhibitor walking out of the show ring with a beautiful animal and clutching that blue ribbon; the rows of crafts and vendors selling a variety of products. Why not take the step to exhibiting?

Most fairs will, in advance of the event, have a premium book available. These contain the rules for entry, the requirements for display, and information about entry fees, premiums paid and other general information. Generally you will need to buy an exhibitor’s ticket. If you have livestock obviously you will have to be there each day – but if you enter canned goods or crafts or other items you may or may not be able to be there for judging and don’t have to be there daily.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are so many possibilities for things to enter it can be overwhelming! Think about your hobbies and what you do. Are you canning salsa or ice cream toppings from mixed berries? Can a couple special jars for exhibit at the fair! Do you enjoy photography? Pick out some special photos to display. Are you making lap quilts, or soap, or wood decorative items for gifts? Enter them in the fair! One year the gift I’d made for someone for Christmas had been entered in a fair and won – I gave it to the recipient with the blue ribbon – an extra touch for no additional money. If you enjoy baking or making candy test your skills against others – there’s often plenty of room at the judging table there in many areas. Do you do cake decorating – or have a garden of beautiful produce, or a hive that produces honey? All of these things have categories to be entered.

Usually animals will need to have health tests – for example poultry must have current health papers. Cattle or sheep must have proper paperwork and health papers. Rabbits sometimes have a American Rabbit Breeders sanctioned show and sometimes don’t – check the rules carefully. Your crossbred rabbits will probably be eliminated from that competition but for shows not ARBA sanctioned there’s plenty of room for a judge’s opinion.

Do you feel you have the cleanest hay in the county? The best display of grains? Enter it! For gardeners – there are usually specific ways the rules will call for to be displayed. It might be requiring carrots to have tops no longer or shorter than a certain amount, or five green beans on a paper plate, or three peppers. When choosing your garden entry think uniform – you want the display to look as uniform as possible. The beans should be the same size; the peppers the same color and size; corn ears of the same size. Pretty counts – and is an extra consideration in addition to the pantry full of produce you have at home!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACanned goods should be equally done with a display in mind. Evenly cut vegetables, with mixed jars stirred so all ingredients show. Colors that are rich and pretty add to the appeal for a display.

Photography exhibits usually have many divisions – there’s black and white, color and computer enhanced. Often there’s a list of categories – portrait, landscape or scenic, animals, snapshots, commercial etc. There are different categories also for paintings and drawings – oil, watercolor, charcoal might be some listed.

With most fairs the premium book will list when the items must be checked in . This is the time they must be at the fairgrounds; make a note for some entries when that is in relation to the judging. Don’t cut it too close! If the time is no later than 6:00 pm don’t show up with a car load of entries at 5:50 – while you’ll get them it it’s somewhat inconsiderate to those doing the check-in, and if it’s done in more than one place something might not get in. For exhibits like artwork or crafts getting there early can be good – your item gets an early good spot for viewing. For some other things balance it accordingly. For example if the check-in is before 5 pm and the flowers won’t be judged until 3 the next day – you might plan on arriving around 4 – plenty of time to check in but also attempting to maximize the freshness of the cut flowers you’re displaying.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd take caution when transporting! Remember – appearance counts. Choosing beautiful cosmos flowers and displaying them as required is less important if the stems are crushed or a petal is torn while shipping them in. You don’t want your wonderful tray of tempting cookies broken or the frosted cake squished!

Check the premium book to see what the rules are for judging – some you’re allowed to be there, sometimes not. If possible to do so watch the judging – you might learn tricks and tips, or gather display hints. You might hear comments in the canning of too much or not enough headroom; or off color of baked goods. Whether it’s yours or not, and without condemning the person entering it – watching that and taking mental notes can make your entries even better next year!

For animals there’s another wide range of entries possible. You might have a goat doe and her daughters – which can be entered in their respective classes as well as, if offered, dam and daughter, or best 3 head, or bred by exhibitor (if you bred them). And don’t overlook the practical competition – if there’s a milking competition enter that. After all – you’re producing for the table so efficiency counts. Sheep fleeces, cheese, jerky and many other things are means of competition in some fairs.

Competing at a fair can add some fun to the fair experience and perhaps you’ll learn something to make your home produced goods even better than they are now. It’s a fun way to compete with something that you’re probably doing anyway.

Growing Potatoes in Trash Bags

Guest post today from the Tree House Homestead

We are newish to the homesteading lifestyle, but we had finally found our “dream” home on 5 nice high and dry acres two years ago and decided to go for it. We had grown food off and on over the years on our little city lot and had fun experimenting with growing veggies out of the half-whiskey barrels either found, given, or bought on sale.


I remember growing tomatoes and lettuce out of those barrels with great delight. There was also a barrel just for the herbs and one even for a pumpkin. But, out of the 10 or so veggies we picked each year my stand out favorite was and still is potatoes. I love them of course for their taste and versatility in the kitchen. I love reading about how potatoes kept millions alive and fed like no other crop could. I am in awe at how easy they are to grow and I am amazed at how well they keep.

Each year we always pick something new to grow and usually try to grow something in a new and different way. My beloved potatoes are no different and after several years of the tried and true “hill” method of growing I decided to give one of the “alternative” ways that potatoes can be planted and harvested a try.

I am talking specifically about growing potatoes in a garbage bag. Now, you may not have heard of that before but I have read about it repeatedly from lots of different sources and of all the various ways to container grow the potato. There is the garbage bag like I just mentioned, and I have also read of growing them in tires, or cardboard boxes, or even rubbermaid bins or garbage cans. ( I would not recommend the tire method as apparently tires can leach toxins into the soil and thus your food).

The reasoning to plant using these methods is really three-fold. The first is for convenience, especially if garden space is at a premium or perhaps you live in an apartment and do not have access to a space of land for a traditional garden. A quick container made from something on hand such as a garbage sack or cardboard box is cheap and clever. Those two items in particular work out well for the balcony gardener as they are very light weight. Try hauling a half-whiskey barrel up a flight of stairs and you’ll see what I am talking about!

Then there is the whole “keeps the potatoes cleaner” line of thought. If you are pulling them out of straw or shredded newspaper instead of digging them out of dirt, you don’t have as dirty of a potatoe now do you?

The other main reason is that potatoes have a notorious habit of leaving little seed potatoes in the ground and soon taking over your garden. It can be almost impossible to get rid of them if they get loose! Plus, many people like to rotate their crops to minimize disease and pest contamination and potatoes are no exception for this habit.

So, after reading about these methods and being really excited by the idea of it we decided to give it a try. But, also being somewhat of a skeptic and more scientifically minded we decided to give BOTH methods a try to really see the difference. For our experiment last year I planted 22 seed potatoes in black heavy duty garbage sacks, and my husband planted about 15 in the soil. We both used the same soil, manure, and compost. For the sack method I “hilled” my potatoes with straw. We used dirt to hill the plants for the ones in the ground.

I made sure of course to poke holes in the bottoms of each bag to allow for drainage and both sets of potatoes were watered together at the same times using our sprinklers. I did have to move the sacks around a few times to get the positioning just right for them to get watered.

Well, I kept adding straw as the green plants would grow up, but I noticed relatively quickly that my plants did not seem as big and healthy as the other in-ground group of plants did. Also, I noticed that some of the bags would dry out too quick and that some of the other bags had too much water retention.

My plants seemed to reach a point where there was no further growth happening and I decided to go ahead and harvest them. I did that on July 22, 2008 according to my blog records. We were harvesting potatoes from the in-ground plants well into September, a full two months later!

What I basically determined was that A)- the bags got too hot due to the black coloring absorbing the sun’s rays. B)- there was too much of a variance in the amount of water from bag to bag, and C)- watering with the sprinkler did not work out as well as perhaps watering each bag by hand would have. I have learned that if you are going to use something other than soil to hill your potato plants you will probably get better results if you can somehow deliver the water directly to the roots at the bottom and not have it filter down through your straw or other hilling material.

I did not do a weight or even a count of how many potatoes per plant from either the garbage sack or the in-ground group. But, I would roughly say that we got twice the amount in both size and yield from the in-ground group as compared to the sack potato group. With the ones planted in the ground I got two big harvests, plus a final round-up of potatoes at the end of the season, versus only the one harvest from the bags. I think if I were to ever give it a try again I would use smaller bags, hand water at the base, and put them in partial shade to keep them from getting too hot.

Also, as a side note, I had read in other people’s accounts who used the alternative container method report that they could just reach in and pull out clean potatoes right out from the straw hills. With my 22 plants I did not have that happen on a single one! All the potatoes were growing in the soil only at the base. I also have to complain that it took A LOT of straw in order to hill the plants adequately (especially to keep the plant dark enough around the stalk area to encourage the potatoes to grow out into it).. I was really looking forward to that as I loved the idea of it. In the in-ground group, potatoes were growing into the hills of soil as well as at the base of each plant.

Since we have more land now our garden is on the largish size we try to keep hand watering to a minimum. We set up our hoses and sprinklers so that everything gets a good soaking and it is even throughout the garden. Keep in mind that the year we did this experiment  we had also planted 20 fruit trees in our orchard as well as 30 new pine and fir trees on the back side of our property. All of those had to be hand watered which took 2 hours to get them all watered! All in all it was satisfying to figure out that our preferred method of planting in the ground was also the right method for us!

How to Make composting Simple as Dirt

Tyler Weaver:

All right, let’s make this really easy. I want you to devise a home composting program. I know it sounds all technical, but the reality is that it’s extremely simple to do. If you don’t compost, you’re a bad person–no, I’m kidding. However, you are missing out on the many benefits such a minimized amount of trash in the house, great gardening soil and another thing you can make the kids do if you don’t feel like it. I’m going to break down the different types of composting for you to see which one works best for you.

Dig a Hole in Your Backyard. Or Your Neighbor’s.

Depending on how your living situation is laid out geographically, you need to find a place to dig a hole for your scraps. I have a tiny house in the city with an even tinier backyard, but I manage to keep a 2′ hole chugging along just fine. Maybe you live in an apartment complex, and your neighbor has a small plot of dirt…so ask them if you’d like to compost together. Fun for everyone.

I prefer throwing food scraps in a hole because a) it’s the cheapest option at zero dollars, and b) because those compost turners aren’t very awesome in my opinion. Yes, maybe there’s a model out there that works, but none that I’ve seen.

So Many Compost Tumblers to Choose From…

Although I just bashed compost tumblers, I’ll suggest one that may work even though I don’t use it myself. Look for a tumbler that rotates end over end, as opposed to spinning horizontally. This is because the material will get mixed better if the whole barrel is flipping around. If it spins horizontal, all the material in the center just kinda sits there.

As I said that, I realized that in a vertical compost tumbler, material may sit in the center. However, I don’t think this is nearly as likely and since it takes more effort to turn it, it must be moving around more on the inside. Anyway, if you live somewhere that wild animals like to dig food scraps out of your backyard, a compost tumbler will keep your material safely away. I have cats that sometimes hang out in my compost pile, but I like cats so who cares. I’ve seen squirrels eating some fresh scraps that I threw in the pile, but I think that’s cool that I feed the squirrels anyway. Notice I didn’t mention about the smell yet…I’ve personally never noticed a smell with composting, so using a tumbler to contain the smell is a moot point for me. If you keep the ratio right, you have nothing to worry about.

Oh Yeah, How to Compost…

While I’m at it, I should mention how to compost. It’s pretty simple. Keep a good mix of leaves, twigs and grass clippings for your pile: This is your carbon. As you add new food scraps (nitrogen), always add more carbon material.

Keep the pile in good shape by turning it over each day. This may sound frustrating, but remember that if you’re adding food scraps to the pile every night, then you’re already going out there to begin with. You want your pile to be relatively moist looking, although you don’t have to water it. When you start to see worms in there, that’s a good sign. One more thing, I forgot to mention that you should get a little Tupperware container for the kitchen to hold your food scraps. Food, coffee grinds (worms love this), laundry lint, it’s all good. So get out there and get composting.

Hopefully I made composting seem pretty straightforward for you…that’s because it is. It’s not smelly, dirty or weird; it’s what needs to be done to reduce our garbage and provide ourselves with excellent gardening soil. Even if you don’t garden, you probably know someone that does. Give them the gift of compost and get something else in return.

Of course, I can get really in depth about composting as there is an art to it. Remember, it doesn’t need to be that way. I’m just being nerdy. On the most basic level, you can keep your kitchen smelling better, have less wet mess in the bottom of your trash can, lighter bags of garbage and fantastic fertilizer. So get into it…I dare you to not enjoy it.

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Why is America hungry?

People in the media make much of the hungry in America. Produce is thrown out rather than helping people.

A discussion spurred some comments. Among them Lisa “Over the summer I had an abundance of left over tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and several other veggies.  I boxed them up and took over 100 pounds to the soup kitchen.  They refused me saying that health regulations would not allow them to accept produce from any farm that was not USDA certified.  I checked further into it and its universal in our state (CT) not just that one soup kitchen.  They can no longer accept any meat/produce donations. Only boxed and canned goods purchased at a grocery store.”

Another: “A couple years back, my company had a big holiday party at the office.  We had it fully catered with food for 200, but only ended up getting 75 people to show. At the end we had an astounding amount of food left over and we called around and found an orphanage (yes, they still exist) only miles away and we offered them the food.  They were THRILLED.  These children were going to get a holiday meal.  Several of us employees loaded up our cars and drove the food there.  I never in my life seen anyone as thankful as they were when we arrived.

Just after new years, we received a note from a food director of the facility.  He was fired for accepting the donated food.  It was against policy and he did not know that. ”

Another “We had so much help when my husband was unemployed that I grew a huge garden last year so I could give back. Nope. FoodBank wouldn’t take anything. …. I can’t even bake cookies for my kids to share with their class at school.”

It’s a sad day when basic necessities are regulated as much or more than drugs. Better to have hungry people than risk a law suit?