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.
I just want to take a minute to update my recent post, “In Search of Plants That Won’t Harm Bees.” I’ve now had the chance to talk with Bachman’s CEO, Dale Bachman, as well as John Daniels, Bachman’s vice president of production, about how the company is dealing with neonicotinoids (neonics), a class of pesticides that is harming bees.
As of 2014, while various entities continue to research the role neonicotinoids play in the decline of bees, Bachman’s has decided to take the “precautionary step” of removing all neonicotinoid products for home use from their shelves. That includes imidacloprid, a popular neonicotinoid pesticide used for all sorts of things like rose and lawn care, as well as to protect trees from emerald ash borer. (Of course, homeowners can still buy these products elsewhere and hire professionals who use imidacloprid to treat ash trees.)
They have also stopped using neonics in the production of Bachman’s-grown nursery stock and outdoor plants, which means most of their shrub roses and perennials will be neonic-free along with some annuals. As for plants from other suppliers, they are currently talking with vendors about discontinuing the use of neonics and Dale and John says the outcome may cause them to rethink some of their suppliers. Even as they said that, though, they stressed that the neonics issue is much more complicated than it may seem — a fact that becomes more and more clear to me as I interview people on this topic.
For example, in many instances neonics and other pesticides are used in compliance with regulations regarding moving plants and the potentially invasive pests they may harbor across state lines. In the case of large-scale suppliers, discontinuing the use of neonics will mean switching to other pesticides that will come with their own problems and consequences. For now, shoppers looking for neonic-free plants at Bachman’s should seek out a salesperson for help locating plants the company has grown since implementing their new policy.
Take a deep breath. Buying plants at places that many of us like to shop is going to take more work and patience than usual if we want to help bees. If you start to feel frustrated about the slow pace of change, remember that we are part of the problem. Gardeners have come to expect perfect plants on store shelves, so every entity in the plant supply chain has done everything in its power to kill every bug and wipe out every disease imaginable to make us happy. Moving away from chemical treatments that harm people, pollinators and the planet will be costly and difficult for those who care enough to do so. And we’re going to need to learn to live with more mites, aphids and other things than we’re used to. Who’s in?
Yes, it’s me again, nattering on about the cold, cold, horribly cold winter we’re having here in Minnesota—and a lot of other places too, I know. But, honestly, most of you in other states will be warm again far sooner than we will here in the tundra. So I feel entitled to go on about this a bit more and if you don’t agree, please don’t send me another email telling me that if I don’t love it in Minnesota, I should move. Move where? In with you? Awesome!
Anyway, as I was saying, a local meteorologist wrote the other day that Minnesotans are experiencing the coldest winter in 33 years. I didn’t live here then, but I believe him. Minnesotans are tough, but it’s been far below zero with mind-boggling wind chills for a long time now. Kids are bored at home because schools have been closed repeatedly. Parents are using up precious vacation days staying home with bored kids. And bored dogs wish they could go outside, but they can’t stand how cold their paws get, even with those awful booties that they hate.
We are a stir-crazy lot, motivated to do little more than lie on the couch and drink and order takeout while watching movie after movie. Or is that just me? BTW, I would highly recommend Seven Psychopaths and The Heat, but I thought Iron Man 3 was kind of meh even though I loved the first two.
What does this have to do with gardening? you wonder. Well, in an effort to stop spending so much time eating, drinking and watching movies, I recently tried focusing on spring to brighten my mood and, by golly, it worked! In addition to looking at a bunch of the garden-related photos I took last season, I also spent a few hours going through all of the seed and plant catalogs that have piled up on my living room coffee table. That was fun, especially because our sweet dog, Lily, helped by napping on me the whole time.
So if you’re bored and freezing and in need of some good cheer, I’ve posted a few photos below in the hope that they help a bit. And if you haven’t already started looking at your seed and plant catalogs, give it a go. I bet it will make you feel better to start thinking about what you’ll plant in just a few weeks or months, depending on where your live. I especially love Renee’s Garden, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (their catalog is a work of art—just ignore the religious quotes that pop up now and then), Seed Savers Exchange, Fedco Seeds, Prairie Moon Nursery and Territorial Seed Company.
That’s it for now. Hang in there. Spring is really, seriously, surely on the way.
Grafted tomatoes, especially heirlooms, were really hot this year. Why graft heirlooms? Well, the reasoning is that by grafting the heirlooms we love—Brandywines, Green Zebras, Cherokee Purples, Mortgage Lifters—to a rootstock that’s got, say, great drought tolerance or disease resistance, you get what amounts to a super heirloom.
The strategy isn’t new. Apple and grape varieties have been produced successfully on desirable rootstock for ages. But this is the first time that home gardeners in the U.S. are really starting to see grafted vegetables, including eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and watermelon, becoming increasingly available at the retail level. Territorial Seed Company, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and White Flower Farm are just a few of the places where you’ll find grafted vegetables.
Though I admit that there can be problems with heirlooms tomatoes, I go out of my way to plant them. So I like the idea of making them more viable and widely available. Like a lot of gardeners, I feel strongly about the importance of including heirlooms of all types in the garden and, on the whole, I think heirloom tomatoes taste better than their hybrid peers, which often have tough skins and bland flavor. (Some of my favorite heirlooms are Black Krim, Green Zebra, Stupice and Sweet Million, though I always, always, always plant Sungolds, those out-of-this-world hybrid, yellow cherry tomatoes.)
Still, I’m always up for trying something new. So I was happy to get a surprise box of grafted tomato seedling samples (some heirlooms, some not) from Mighty ‘Mato early in the season. Having a limited amount of sun to work with, I kept two for myself, an Indigo Rose and a Brandywine, and gave the others to master gardener friends to plant and report back on. During the season, I also talked with more MGs and garden writers who were experimenting with grafted tomatoes. The outcome? Impressions were mixed.
Take Indigo Rose, for example. I had been wanting to try Indigo Rose, which was introduced by Oregon State University in 2012. Their goal was to produce a tomato with high levels of antioxidants. I wanted to grow the tomato because I fell for the weird looking purple-black fruit. I planted both grafted and ungrafted Indigo Rose tomatoes so I could compare the two (and so I could justify planting way too many tomatoes, like I always do).
Sadly, though they both produced an absurd amount of fruit all summer long, I didn’t like either of them, mainly because the tomatoes took FOREVER to ripen and when they finally did, they tasted bland and watery. Also of note was the fact that I honestly noticed no difference between the grafted plants and the ungrafted plants. Most of the gardeners I’ve talked to had similar experiences with Indigo Rose, though I will say that a few thought they were tastier than I did.
On the plus side, my friend, Deb, loved Mighty ‘Mato’s grafted Indigo Ruby, a cross between Indigo Rose and a cherry tomato. The plant grew well, was free of disease and produced very tasty tomatoes all season. I heard rave reviews from other gardeners, too, though I don’t know how they compared to ungrafted Indigo Ruby.
As for grafted Brandywine tomatoes, by all accounts, including mine, the grafted plants didn’t do as well as the heirlooms usually do on their own. I did hear lots of good things about grafted Legend tomatoes—great taste, good disease resistance and a LOT of tomatoes.
What does all of this mean? Well, at this point, I’m not ready to say that grafted tomatoes aren’t worth the price, which is steep compared to regular tomatoes, hybrids and heirlooms. But I’m not ready to sing their praises either. I’ll plant a couple more varieties next summer and report back on how things go. If you try grafted tomatoes, please let me know about your experiences. I’ll pass that information on so we can all compare notes.
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»