Of all the things in our landscape, I think the galvanized cattle troughs (also known as stock tanks) in our backyard get the most attention. Even in the winter when nothing is growing in them, their shapes and sheer size turn heads and provoke questions. We added them to what we’re now calling “our little farm” a couple of years back when we lost a huge oak, and I figured I’d take advantage of the sun to grow some vegetables. After starting with one trough, we added another last year and we’ll be getting one more in the next few weeks.
If you want to grow some food on a small, urban lot, you can’t beat these troughs for being easy to get going. You don’t have to build anything, and you don’t have to deal with turning depleted urban soil into something safe, nutrient-rich and workable enough to grow food in. They’re also affordable, durable and tall enough to be out of the way of hungry critters and peeing dogs.
People ask all the time where we got the troughs and how to turn one into a raised bed garden, so even though I wrote briefly about this a couple of years ago, I thought I’d explain the process more in-depth here since it’s the perfect time to get raised beds going for the season. Let’s start with where to buy them. Unless you are literally made of money, do not go to a boutique garden center for a livestock trough. You want to go where farmers buy stuff—Tractor Supply Co. and Fleet Farm.
If you want to grow things like tomatoes, peppers, beans and squash, get yourself a large trough. One of ours is four feet long and the other is six feet. Both are 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep, and they cost about $80 and $110, respectively. Aside from getting the things home in the back of the car, the biggest job is drilling holes in the bottom for drainage. Use a bit that can drill through metal that’s about the size of a dime of nickel. We drilled holes every few inches all around the outside edge along the bottom, and then added many more holes going across the bottom of the trough from end to end and side to side. Remove the drain plug, too, since you won’t be needing it.
Once you’ve got your holes drilled, flip the trough over and put it wherever you want it because once you fill it with soil, you won’t be able to move it around without taking most of that soil back out. We don’t like things looking all kittywampus so we used a level to make sure the trough was lined up properly once we got it situated. (You don’t have to do that unless you’re bugged by such things.) Now comes the soil part. My advice—don’t cut corners. Good soil makes all the difference when you’re growing anything.
Because these are containers, albeit huge ones, you want a mix that’s going to drain well. You also want to provide plants with some nutrients that you’ll boost over time by adding compost and fertilizer. You’ll save some money if you make your own mix by combining 1 part topsoil, 1 part compost and 1 part coconut coir or coarse sand (also known as builder’s sand). I’ve done this by combining these things in batches in a wheelbarrow and it worked well. But I’ll admit, it’s a heck of a lot less work to call someone and have a quality potting mix delivered to your driveway. That way, you can just shovel it into a wheelbarrow and take it right over to your trough and other containers.
What do I mean by a quality mix? As I’ve said in the past, I’ve learned a lot about soil and compost over the last few years and I’m now opting to go with products that are organic or at least produced by a company or farmer who is willing to explain their process so I can make an informed decision about whether to use it. (For much more on that topic, see my blog post on safe compost.
Local organic growers give products from Purple Cow Organics, COWSMO and Mississippi Topsoil high marks. Other local sources that come highly recommended are Kern Landscape Resources and Kelley and Kelley Nursery. Compost from our Linden Hills organics recycling program is also pretty good. But because it includes packaging, paper and other odd bits, I don’t use it to grow edibles. That’s just me. Keep in mind that even though it’s costly to fill your trough with quality potting mix the first year, in subsequent years (unless you get some dreaded disease like early blight of tomatoes) you’ll only need to add a bit more compost to keep soil healthy. If you feel like you’re having drainage issues, add more coir or sand. With the hard part behind you—all you have to do is keep growing.
Some of you might remember a post I wrote last year about the ethics of taking seeds from other people’s gardens. Sure, it’s hard to resist pinching a few seeds off of other people’s plants when you see something you just love and figure “they’ve got plenty to share, right?” But is that really okay? Is it stealing? What if they don’t want to share?
Haunted by these questions after reading a blog post about a gardener who got chased and yelled at by an angry homeowner after taking a few seeds that had fallen on the SIDEWALK, I decided to try hard not to take seeds without asking. (I just can’t say never, but mostly never I can do.) Anyway, I also decided to figure out a way to share seeds with other gardeners, and I’m happy to say that the Little Free Seed Bank I dreamed of has been up and running for over a month. Here it is!
This summer, my husband Mike and I installed one of those Little Free Library boxes on our boulevard. If you haven’t heard of these libraries, they’re popping up all over the country and they’re a great way to share books with neighbors. Our library has been busy ever since we put it up with people of all ages stopping by to take a book or leave a book.
While both shelves will normally be for books, we’ve reserved the top shelf of our library for seed sharing during the spring and fall. So far, available seeds include: angelica, black-eyed Susan, anise hyssop, zinnias, cleome, ‘Painted Lady’ heirloom sweet peas (love these), garlic chives and blue delphinium. Individual seed types are packaged in large envelopes and gardeners can put the seeds they would like into small coin envelopes or little plastic bags that were donated by a kind neighbor. Pencils are also on the shelf so people can label the envelopes before they forget what’s inside—I know I would. (Those who take the plastic bags will need to have good memories.)
Lots of gardeners have stopped by to take seeds in the last few weeks. I’m hoping interest in the Little Seed Bank will grow over time and soon we’ll have more seeds to share than we know what to do with. If you live in town and would like to drop off or pick up some seeds, email me (meleah at everydaygardener.com) and I’ll give you directions. The more the merrier!
Most every commercial potting mix contains sphagnum peat moss because it’s a good, lightweight, organic amendment that improves drainage, as well as water retention and air circulation. The downside to peat moss is that it isn’t a sustainable resource. Peat moss is the decomposing remains of living sphagnum moss, and it is harvested at unsustainable rates from bogs in a manner than involves scraping off the top layer of the living moss to get to the saleable product below.
This process destroys centuries-old bogs, doing away with wildlife habitat, releasing C02 into the air, and eliminating wetlands that help prevent flooding. Because of this, conservationists and scientists all over the world have been pushing for limits and even bans on peat moss harvesting.
In Britain, for example, where peat is often burned for fuel, harvesting has become so intense that the government has set goals for phasing out peat for home gardening use by 2020. Professional growers will need to go peat free by 2030. For more information, check out the Royal Horticulture Society’s website: http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Peat-and-the-environment/More-about-peat.
Most of the peat used by the horticultural industry in the U.S. comes from Canada where talk of limits and bans is also heating up. So, whether you are concerned about the sustainability of peat of not, now seems like as good a time as any to explore some peat-free potting soil options.Read More»
People have been talking about straw bale gardening for years and, I admit, I haven’t really paid much attention. It’s not that I wasn’t curious about the idea. It just wasn’t on the top of my list of things to try until recently when I got the opportunity to talk with Joel Karsten about his new book Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding.
Karsten isn’t just another gardener talking about straw bale gardening. He invented straw bale gardening. That’s right; he came up with the idea for a growing technique that has now become an international sensation. And it all started when he was a kid growing up on a farm right here in Minnesota.
Farmers, he told me, have no need for piles of wet, unruly straw. So when a bale would break open for one reason or another and get rained on, his family would push it up against the barn to break down over time. “I always noticed that those stacked up, broken bales would have the biggest, tallest weeds growing out of them, so I knew there was nutrition in there,” Karsten recalls, adding that he didn’t think much more about it until 15 years later.
By then, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota, and he and his wife Patty had just bought a house in Roseville. After looking forward to gardening at their new home, they were disappointed when they realized that their whole lot consisted of little more than construction debris in which nothing was going to grow well. Then, Karsten remembered those straw bales. “And I thought, what if I just line those bales up and try growing vegetables in them as they decompose?” he recalls.Read More»
Spring is just around the corner, which means ordering seeds and plants tops most gardeners to-do lists at the moment. I grow heirlooms and hybrids, so the pile of catalogs on our coffee table is out of control. Normally, I find ordering seeds a relaxing experience, but this year I’ve been mulling over a couple of issues that have made placing orders more stressful.
The biggest one concerns GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the need to avoid buying GMO seeds for our gardens, and you’ve probably seen at least some of the various lists going around touting “safe” seeds. Many people, including me, don’t want to buy seed that has been genetically modified. So I was happy to find out from my friend Jeff Gillman, a hort professor at the University of Minnesota, that GMO seed is not yet available to home gardeners.
Farmers have long been able to buy GMO seed, particularly for corn and soybeans, alfalfa and sugar beets. But, at least for now, that seed isn’t available to the general public so we can’t unwittingly buy them off the shelf or online—unless we pretend to be farmers for some weird reason. So where does the confusion come in? Well, maybe because you can mistakenly buy seeds from Voldemort, I mean Monsanto. And where there is Monsanto, we assume rightly or wrongly, there are GMOs.
How could you mistakenly buy from Monsanto? Well, as you may already know, the company has purchased many independent seed companies in the U.S. and abroad over the years. The biggest coup was in 2005 when Monsanto acquired Seminis, Inc., estimated to control more than 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and around 20 percent of the world market.Read More»
Do your echinacea (coneflowers) look like mutant, green monsters from an alien universe? Mine do. And that’s because a disease called aster yellows is running rampant in Minnesota this year. The disease is caused by a phytoplasma, a microscopic bacteria-like organism that makes its home in the vascular system of plants.
Not all plants can become infected with aster yellows, but many annuals, perennials, vegetables and weeds are affected by it, including asters, carrots, chrysanthemums, coreopsis, cosmos, daisies, dandelion, marigolds, onions, petunias, potatoes, thistle and tomatoes. Aster yellows isn’t a new disease. It’s just worse this year than it normally is for reasons experts are still pondering. Hot weather seems to have something to do with it.
Aster leafhoppers are the reason why the disease travels through gardens so quickly. They transmit the disease from plant to plant when they feed on infected plants and suck up sap that contains the phytoplasma. After a short incubation period in their tiny bug bodies (the leafhoppers are not harmed), the microorganisms multiply and the insects spread the disease further as they feed.
The symptoms of aster yellows vary from plant to plant. But most of the time you’ll notice that infected plants look stunted and distorted in weird ways. Foliage can be yellow and flowers often look yellow or a spooky shade of green. Seeds and fruit don’t develop. You might also see spindly stems and flower stalks. It’s not a pretty sight.
The biggest bummer, though, is that once a plant has aster yellows it can’t be cured. You’ve got to rip the whole plant out and throw it away. I know, I know. I don’t do that either. I just cut off the infected part of my coneflowers and let the rest of the plant that looks good stay. But that is a bad idea. Yes, I get to enjoy the relatively normal-looking parts of my alien, mutant coneflowers. But by allowing those plants to stay in the garden, I’m ensuring that aster leafhoppers will continue to spread the disease to other susceptible plants in my yard and my neighbors’ yards.
It’s really the same tough reality crew members on spaceships in sci-fi films often face. You remember the plot. They all know that their friend was infected by some horrible monster creature thing down on the planet they just visited without wearing proper protective gear (what’s up with that?). And they all know it’s only a matter of time before a baby monster creature thing bursts out of their friend’s chest and tries to infect them all. But, hey, for the moment the friend seems mostly fine, so why not let the poor sot live, right? We know how that story ends.
So let’s all vow to rip out plants infected with aster yellows—at least by the end of the season when we cut down plants for fall. It’s fine to throw these infected plants in the compost because the phytoplasma dies when the plant dies. Not all plant diseases work that way. Unfortunately, this harsh step won’t guarantee that aster yellows won’t come back again next year because infected leafhoppers are likely to still be around or you could inadvertently bring an infected plant home from the garden center. I think I’m finally going to give up on coneflowers all together. I like them, but I’m tired of knowing there’s a mutant, green monster lurking behind those pretty purple flowers.
Note: This post ran this week as my Everyday Gardener column in Minneapolis’ Southwest Journal.