Country Living Series

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Garden update

This is a long post, so grab yourself a cup of hot tea or cold lemonade and follow this summary of the work we've done so far in the garden.

For the past couple of months, any spare time has been spent on the garden infrastructure. While the fortunate souls in other (warmer) parts of the country are already harvesting peas and lettuce from their gardens, smart gardeners in north Idaho know not to plant before June 1 or they risk the chance of getting nailed by a late frost.

Accordingly, I started a lot of plants indoors around April 1.

By May 1, a lot of the seedlings looked very healthy. The kids were always laughing at me as I anxiously followed their growth and progress.

I even planted 500 corn plants around April 15, which turned out to be WAY too early. The corn was ten inches high and toppling over within a couple of weeks of taking this photo, so I decided just to give up and re-plant the corn directly in the garden.

(This year we're trying a short-season heirloom sweet corn called Yukon Chief, developed at the University of Alaska in 1958. It says 55 days from germination to harvest, and if the rapid rate of indoor growth is any indication, it won't be a problem planting corn in early June.)

But all of this indoor stuff was dependent on getting the outdoor stuff done as well. As you know, we've been transitioning to a tire garden, which means paving our garden space with tarps (for weed control) and gravel (to anchor the tarps and provide drainage). We've also been using tractor tires for planting. The tires have been patiently waiting for spring. So -- before planting could commence, we had to get the infrastructure in place.

Whenever Don and I had a spare moment, we'd cut up some tires. If they were wide, we split them in half. If they weren't so wide, we cut off one sidewall.

We also made a few purchases. We knew we needed sand to help keep any clay-y soil from clumping together. Finding sand by the truckload this far out in the boonies was surprisingly difficult. Every urban landscape company I called couldn't grasp the size garden we were putting in. "We can load your pickup truck," a lot of them offered, but I insisted we needed a dump truck's worth.

We finally succeeded in finding a local fellow who understood what we needed, and what beautiful sand it is, too.

Another purchase was an additional truck-load of gravel (1.5 inch-minus) to anchor the tarps. This is in addition to the truck-load we bought last fall.

We also brought in a truck-load of topsoil. Last year we got in some "topsoil" which turned out to be "top-clay," not much better than the horrible clay stuff we already have in spades at our feet. This year we used a different supplier and he delivered beautiful stuff.

Before getting started, we cut down some unproductive fruit trees. These peaches were barely clinging to life and not producing anything, but taking up a lot of room.

Don cut them down. Seems heretical, I know, but we have plans for a full orchard in another location.

We also decided to remove a number of tires we had put in place last year on bare ground (meaning, no tarps/gravel underneath). You can see the scope of the weeds we're fighting -- and this photo was taken in mid-May. By July these weeds would be waist-high.

We pulled these tires out entirely.

A few of the herb tires still had lovely herbs in them and I didn't want to lose them, so Don carefully tipped the tires up, I shoved them into the bucket, and we were able to put them aside and salvage them.

Then, because the tractor had the rototiller attachment on it, Don tilled all the rough places, churned under the weeds, and smoothed everything out. This allowed the tarps to lie flat instead of lumpy.

These are the "viney tires" (meaning, the area dedicated to viney plants such as pumpkins, melons, cucumbers, etc.). Yes, the tarps/gravel held the weeds at bay around the tires; but the tires themselves were on bare ground, and you can see the weeds growing up.

(Incidentally, the large tires in the back are the strawberry tires and are NOT resting on bare dirt; they're fine and will stay as they are, except for weeding.)

So we decided to rip up the viney tires for the time being. We'll patch the ground with pieces of tarp, cover with gravel, and then lay down the tires again, filled with fresh (and weed-free) dirt/compost/sand).

With the garden area cleaned up and the resources (gravel, sand, topsoil, split tires) in place, we borrowed our neighbor's tractor and got to work. We started by spreading out tarps.

The girls and I would spread a tarp, Don would truck a bucket-ful of gravel in, and the girls and I would rake and shovel the gravel thinly over the tarps. It was backbreaking work and took many days.

But gradually we made progress.

Then we started moving in tires.

We had to plan these carefully since they had to be filled as we moved them, otherwise the tractor wouldn't be able to reach the back tires to fill.

Don mixed soil by bucketing sand, topsoil, and compost in a pile, then using the tractor's rototiller to churn and mixed and smooth it out. Worked beautifully.

Here are the raw piles -- sand on the left, topsoil on the right.

Don piled up a big pile of compost last fall. We've added to the pile since, of course.

Here he's churning the components together with the rototiller.

Then he bucketed the mixture into the tires, ready for planting.

Meanwhile we had some of last year's corn tires that had too much of that horrible "top-clay" stuff in it, so I wheelbarrowed some sand to the tires and spread it out.

Younger Daughter worked the sand in, to keep the clay from re-lumping.

Then we topped off each tire with several wheelbarrows of good topsoil/compost/sand mixture Don made. These beds are now ready.

While I worked on the corn tires, Don began constructing boxes for peas.

These will be long and narrow, with a section of field fence supported down the middle so the peas can climb.

Here he's working on a second bed. We will probably put in four, eventually.

During all this hustle, Don also researched and ordered the necessary parts for a critical component of the garden: a drip irrigation system. Last year the garden took us two hours a day to water with a hose; we have at least three times as much that will be in production this year, and the garden has room enough for adding half again as many tires. Clearly hand-watering is out of the question.

He started his research by lifting a Google Earth overhead shot of our garden and making many copies. These we marked up and circled and crossed-off and otherwise used them to plan out not only where the tires would go, but what kind of irrigation (drip vs. spray) each bed would get. He put a lot of careful planning into this.

Then, when he had a good grasp of what he needed, he ordered the parts.

When all of the garden tires that we had (and we have room for lots more!) were in place and filled, he began laying out the irrigation system.

He used plumber's tape and screws to fasten the hosing in place.

Due to his calculations of our well's capacity and how much water we have available, as well as each drip's flow rate, Don designated eight separate "zones" in the garden. We can turn on one "zone" at a time to water. We estimate we'll need no more than half an hour per zone, meaning we can get the garden watered in four hours. The drip system is so much more efficient and targeted that, except on the hottest days, we probably will only have to water every other day.

Because the hoses drape from tire to tire, Don created pathways between the tires. We won't be able to free-walk anywhere in the garden; we'll have to follow designated pathways (or hoist ourselves over tubing). He thought about running the tubing along the ground in order to create a free-walk situation, but this would subject the tubing to more damage, as well as require endless T-connectors and a severe reduction in water pressure.

Each tire gets a coil of drip hosing with drips either one foot or (in the case of the peas, at least) six inches apart. These drip hoses can be changed from year to year, depending on what we plant and where.

We turned on one "zone" to test it -- and ta da, it worked beautifully! Don was thrilled. (You can see the damp parts of the soil.)

This particular group of tires is designated for potatoes. But he was able to extend the "zone" to include one of the strawberry beds...

...both pea beds...

...and the two pear trees that survived our early attempts to establish an orchard.

Meanwhile, while all this was going on, I've started hardening off the plants I started indoors.

Notice the very interested chicken. This is why the plants are on the car hood and the chicken is on the ground.

I also began tackling the strawberry beds. Last year, thinking I was being clever, I mulched the strawberries with hay from the barn. Well, the hay had seeds, and those seeds grew. And grew and grew. By the end of the season the poor strawberries were so overcrowded with weeds that I knew I had an enormous task ahead of me.

And so it proved. Here is an unweeded strawberry bed.

Those pretty yellow flowers mixed so intimately among the strawberry leaves belong to buttercups.

These are buttercup leaves.

These are strawberry leaves.

Let me tell you, it's been a trick to tease out the buttercups without damaging the strawberries. Often the two plants are so closely entwined that my only option is to dig out the plants with a pitchfork, carefully pull away the buttercup roots from the strawberry roots, and then replant the strawberry. Each bed takes me about two days to weed, and I have ten of these beds.

Here's a weeded bed. These strawberries should be much more full and lush by this point, but they were hindered by the weed competition. Despite the weed pressure, though, most of these plants are bravely bearing fruit. I'll be keeping an eagle-eye on weeds, particularly butterscups, after this!

By contrast, the older strawberry beds -- which have recovered fully from the deer onslaughts of earlier years -- are lush and beautiful. They need a bit of weeding, but since I didn't mulch these beds last year (thank God!) these weeds are minimal.

After all this work, I'm only now getting around to planting. In the next few days I'll transplant the seedlings we started indoors. I'll also get corn, beans, potatoes, carrots, peas, lettuce, and spinach in the ground.

Anyway, as you can see we've had a very, very busy six weeks or so. This is on top of regular farm chores and tankard production runs.

The whole idea behind this massive garden project is not only to be able to grow a lot of our own food, but also to make the garden as maintenance-free as possible. For all the work we're doing this year, we'll have correspondingly less work to do next year.

The funny thing is, there is still a LOT of unused garden space. A lot.

We estimate we have room for another forty tractor tires, maybe a few more. Obviously this will have to wait until next year, but this fall we'll stockpile tires, more topsoil, sand, and manure in anticipation of the following spring.

If there's one thing we've learned through the years, it's that it takes a lot of garden space to feed people if they're eating exclusively from the garden (meaning, buying nothing from the grocery store). It also underscores the importance of getting things done now, before the "bleep" hits the fan.

This touches on one of my pet peeves, namely armchair preppers who think acquiring supplies is fine but they won't learn the intricacies of homesteading until the get to their rural bugout and pop open their "Garden of Eden in a can." Very few of us live in Eden. Gardens takes knowledge and hard work and, as Don put it, the devil is in the details for getting that garden to grow.

Now assuming our garden succeeds, we face a future difficulty: finding somewhere to store all the produce. One of our future projects is to construct an above-ground root "cellar" out of tires stuffed with clay and sheathed in wood (to make it look nicer).

But for now... well, we're exhausted. And if you've been wondering why this blog has only had trivial or simple things posted in the last few weeks, now you understand why.


  1. WOW,you folks have the patience of saints and the ingenuity of Einstein. Mike in NH

  2. Bless you Don and Patrice, I was exhausted after reading all that you have accomplished in such a short time.. probably did not seem a short time as you were about it though. I love watching your garden grow, thank you for all the pictures.I do not have a garden this year as the space that we usually give to that has been taken up until we can get a larger space fenced to keep out all the critters in this area. Gardening here in Southern Arizona is a real battle with the insects and the baking sun, have found that the way our plants do best is under shade, either our mesquite tress or garden netting. Sure miss digging in the dirt, but at least I can see your garden grow ! Dee

  3. I think that EVERYONE no matter where they live need to learn to garden. So many people think you just toss seeds in the ground and it grows. I know with the cost of food, I am enlarging my garden every year. One day I want it to supply my families needs.
    When the food prices skyrocket and people are revolting those who know how to garden will still be ok. I think kids in school should learn it starting at a young age.

  4. I think that EVERYONE no matter where they live need to learn to garden. So many people think you just toss seeds in the ground and it grows. I know with the cost of food, I am enlarging my garden every year. One day I want it to supply my families needs.
    When the food prices skyrocket and people are revolting those who know how to garden will still be ok. I think kids in school should learn it starting at a young age.

  5. Everyone should know how to grow something. My husband and I started gardening 5 years ago, and boy, it is a learning experience. There are may veggies that we no longer have to buy at the store now, but there are still several others that we haven't quite been able to grow enough or well enough to get us through a year. Each year though, we become more independent.

  6. Good Lord, Patrice & Don! You call this a "GARDEN"??? When my wife and I were many years younger, we had a garden in our backyard. We grew some corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, onions and even tried watermelon (lots of pretty flowers, but no fruit.) I have to wonder what you will do when your daughters are both very soon grown and gone. Hire help? And more important, you're not getting any younger, you know! --Fred in AZ

  7. Warmer climates, indeed. Our lettuce bolted a couple of weeks ago and snow peas are almost over (never can get English peas to do much). We'll pick our first green beans in the next 3 days or so, we've got a nice batch of green tomatoes and zucchini should be any day now. Of course, we had such a wet cold spring everything is about a month late.
    Zone 7b/8a

  8. You nailed it when you said it takes time to get it right. This is my 3rd year of attempting painted mountain corn. I am in Texas but when June gets here the growing season is over it just gets to hot. The painted mountain corn is a flower corn and has a 90 day growth cycle. The first year I did not soak the seed and the soil was too dry so I got 10% germination. The second year, after reading about soaking the seeds on your blog, I got good germination but I had planted the corn in rows with 6-8" between kernels in each row. Bummer no way to weed the corn but with a hoe and that just wasn't cutting it. This year I planted the corn in hills with 3 kernels per hill and each hill 30" apart. That seems to have worked and even though we are having a dry spring they seem to be doing well. I am really looking forward to feeding some of this corn to the chickens and making corn meal as well. You guys have much more ambition than I do.

  9. Yowza.!

    It looks like you solved the "garden problem!" Pretty awesome.

    Just Me

  10. Patrice, are you putting everything in the ground at once? Or are you planting in one or two week blocks? I've been working on planting in blocks so that everything doesn't come ripe at the same time, as I don't have the time or the manpower to can, dehydrate, preserve a crop that comes in all at once.

    I'm also fortunate that I am single, so I don't need a garden quite as large as yours, but I also have to fence absolutely everything I plant to keep the Elk out.

  11. Wow...that is gonna be one outstanding garden. We garden in 4x4x4 break-down pallets (kind of look like giant milk crates) and I love it....very easy to take care of. Keep posting on your garden's progress---love it!

  12. I wonder what all those tires look like to a drone taking

    The seed company lost my order and the replacement just came in the mail yesterday. I typically never plant much before Memorial Day anyway in Michigan. I grew tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower from seed for the first time this year. I, too, started things a couple weeks too early...the tomatoes were fine, the cauliflower not so much. I also put in some walking onions this year. 2# of green bean seed, sweet corn, various squash -- the husband has a thing about growing squash.

    Last year I pulled out some overgrown bushes on two sides of the garage. When the guy replaced the well, he offered to pull the stumps with his backhoe. (country folk are good people!!) I replaced one side with 10 blueberry bushes. When I purchased them, a lady was looking them over and saying "oh how she would love to have them but, you know, the neighbors." Honestly, if she's that city, the neighbors probably wouldn't know the difference!

    Those "survival garden" folks scare just isn't that easy.

    ....psst Patrice....straw..not hay. :)

  13. I love your garden!

    Mine's not even half the size of yours, but this is my 3rd summer of really gardening, not just sticking a few seeds in a pot. I think I'm kinda sorta finally getting the hang of this! I told my husband that next year I'm putting in drip watering though. Its big enough now that hand watering is time consuming.

  14. I like the tractor tires. We planted our squash in tires this year because they totally take over the whole garden space otherwise. Last year I lost beans, cucumber and tomatoes to the squash and though we love hard winter squash, we're also fond of other vegetables. We'll see how it works. Some of the tires we put on old carpet, and others are on the bare grounds. I see the tires you place on bare ground didn't do so well the second year. I'm guessing we may have the same problem next year and will be putting tarp down. I didn't do the gravel on the carpet, but that's a great idea too if we use tarp next year for drainage. We always plant on Memorial Day which came early this year. Thankfully no frost in NH

  15. A great looking garden in the works! I can close my eyes and imagine the Lewis Repast!
    One bit of advice to Younger Daughter; if she wants ten toes all of her life she should consider a sturdy pair of boots when using sharp gardening tools. I have seen the kind of damage a hoe, or a spade or a fork can do to the lower digits. A pair of sandals offer no protection, cept'n at the beach...

  16. So many ideas to glean from all your hard work! Thank you for taking the time to post all this information. We moved into a new property in September and it is infested with the creeping buttercup. It looks quite pretty but it overtakes everything!
    Have you thought about dehydrating more produce? I am going to try more of that since I won't have as much canning supplies as I "anticipate" needing.

  17. Wow, awesome work on the garden! The new drip irrigation is going to save you so much time and work, now that it's in! I'm trying a couple of new things this year myself: a Three Sisters approach for corn, beans, and winter squash, and homemade ollas amongst the plants for watering. So far, so good. It's fun to try things in the garden as a hobby. I'd be sunk at this point if we had to rely on it alone to feed us, though! Still learning a lot every year.

  18. as to those who wait to garden until they get where they want to, there is crop failure, insect and disease invasions, weather boo-boos, not to mention coons deer,or, as one lady said, elks of all things, et cetera.
    that's why you put up and dehydrate so much because you may have to live on what you've got for 3 years if there are problems. hopefully not failure to all crops at once, but there may be holes in the regular diet if ,say, the corn fails.
    none are foreseeable.
    knew 2 old ladies, long gone now. their dad farmed and there was no irrigation. said he planted and then prayed for good crop weather.
    increases your prayer life !!
    deb h.

  19. Wow, I'm tired after just reading about your garden adventures!

    You are right about the amount of learning and "doing" of gardening. Experience is the only way to learn, and the learning changes for each location. We are moving, so I'll be up against the learning curve...again. It's not as easy as it was in north central Missouri. My asparagus is now two years old, and when our house sells (hope and pray) the new owners can pick it next year. A squirrel is giving me a run for my money in my onions and potatoes...a new beast every year or so it seems.
    I have great luck with pine straw in my strawberry beds.

  20. I don't know what's different in Arkansas, but when I use straw for mulch, I end up with a lovely stand of wheat in the vegetables. When I use hay, it makes a great weed blocker and slowly composts down from the bottom.
    I love watching how your garden has morphed over time - so much good stuff to learn here. brenda from ar

  21. Working on year 2 of my teensy garden patch (a whopping 10 X 10 patch). The patch is my learning place. When I retire in a few years and trade my city condo for a patch of actual land, I want to already know how to grow.

    My first year I grew ( actually didn't grow ) from seeds planted directly into the patch. My carrots and radishes did great, but my brussels sprouts and broccoli exhibited less-than-stellar growth. Less-than-stellar means lots of stems and leaves, but no actual food at all.

    This year, I sprouted indoors and then transplanted.
    We'll see...

    My Grandad, his dad, and his dad before him, were farmers, so it's in the blood, right ?
    There's a reason that the world population was so low 200 years ago compared to now, and a large part of that reason is that feeding yourself from the land AIN'T EASY.

    - Charlie

  22. Great post! I love to see what you are doing and how you guys are doing it. You are very inspirational. Thanks, Alison

  23. Way to go! Looks like the plan is coming together.
    --deb & jp

  24. tire whimsy in garden