03 April 2010

Finally getting dirty

At long last, it’s time to get good and dirty in the garden!

Yesterday, The Reluctant Farmer fired up the bobcat and brought in about 20 bucket loads of 2-year old compost from where it had been piled to age. The resulting mix of mostly-dirt (the pile wasn’t turned or cared for in any fashion, so there are still some spots where the hay/straw is clearly recognizable) was rather haphazardly spread in the south area of the garden, where the row crops are going to be planted this year.

We follow two wildly different gardening strategies: we use both Square Foot Gardening and Gardening When it Counts. The root vegetables and small things like lettuce go in the square foot beds, and the tall and spreading things, like potatoes, peas, and beans, go in wide rows. Since we have a good, steady supply of soil amendments (barnyard waste is not waste around here!), square foot gardening isn’t as resource intensive for us as it is for people who have to buy their compost at the store; and since we actually do have a lot of room for our garden, we also have the option of wide rows for the kinds of things that do well in that system.

So, needing more raised beds for the herb garden expansion, I got out the air nailer and the skill saw and knocked together several more frames – we have plenty of scrap lumber, and as the garden used to be pasture (and thus is well populated with insanely stubborn grasses), it’s very useful to get the growing areas clearly marked off from the paths. Besides, the actual topsoil layer is very thin, and the borders for the raised beds hold in the upgraded dirt.

The garden plan was up to version “E”, and the actual implementation is, as always, turning out to be different yet again from the last iteration of the plans. It’s not too far off, though, and I’m finding that the work that went into the various drafts is, once again, saving me time in the actual implementation … even if it is different than it was on paper.

So, what’s out there so far?

Well, there is a 4x4 bed of onions planted: I had a bag of onion sets that I picked up last year and never planted, so those went in today (onions don’t mind being planted early). There were a lot of herbs that needed stratification, and so several of those went out today as well – there’s no point fussing with starting them indoors if Mother Nature will take care of the stratification for me. So, in a new 5x2 herb bed we have Meadowsweet (used as an anti-inflammatory and stomach remedy), Evening Primrose (an edible plant that is used for a number of medicinal purposes, including soothing muscle aches), Borage (for skin and women’s concerns), Lovage (a celery substitute that is also good for an upset stomach), Elecampane (for bronchitis and congestive coughs), Vervain (for fevers, and as a relaxing tonic), Coltsfoot (for dry coughs), Hawkweed and Horehound (both for congested lungs and coughs). Most of these I haven’t grown before, so we will have to see how they do.

In a new 3x3 bed we have Chamomile (for tea) and Mullein (for coughs and ear infections), and in another we have Poppies (for seeds) and Calendula (for soothing skin salves, and in tea for upset stomachs).

There’s also space set aside in a second 5x2 bed for the herb seedlings that are still indoors: chicory (for drinking as a coffee-type beverage which is also good for the liver, and as a dye plant), Wild Lettuce (which is a fabulous sedative that gives pleasant dreams and deep, satisfying sleep), Betony (a black tea substitute that also has some medicinal uses), and St John’s Wort (used in depression, but also topically for arthritic pains and as an antiseptic).

Up along the fence, I am trying a new strategy: my mom works at a camp kitchen where they use lots of gallon-sized tin cans. She saves them for me, and I’ve been using them as temporary plant pots for seedlings. Today, though, I took some outside and used the can opener to remove the bottom as well, making a tin can tube. I dug out a section of grass and twisted the can into the dirt, then filled it with good compost and planted seeds in the can. Basically, I made small round raised beds. I have some very old seeds that may or may not still be viable, and some other plants that I want kept separate - those that can cause skin irritation if handled in full sunlight, for instance, or those that I want to be sure nobody picks by mistake. So, in the tin cans I’ve now got dill (for cooking, and as a digestive aid), columbine and sweet peas (flowers from my ancient stash of seeds), two kinds of poppies (which may be seed poppies or may be the California kind, we’ll have to grow them and see), Rue (used as a dye plant, mostly, or very cautiously as a herbal remedy), California bluebells (more flowers), and Feverfew (for migraines and fevers). I also plan to put cilantro, chives and basil in tin beds (all herbs used for cooking), as well as woad (which is a dye plant).

This is most definitely the year of the herb garden: I like learning about the various herbs and their uses, and I have found them to be quite effective, even if my family makes fun of me for using ‘snake oil remedies’. The herbs do have to be used with knowledge and respect, of course – just because it grows outside doesn’t mean it won’t hurt you – but with a reliable herbal guide and careful selection of plants, you can make life a little more comfortable without spending money on ‘over the counter’ remedies. I mean, why take Nytol if a cup of strong wild lettuce tea will knock you out for the night, and let you wake up without a hangover the next day?

Besides, growing stuff just feels good.

Up next: veggies!


  1. You are making me feel lazy and very behind in my gardening! I do hope you'll share some pictures as things start growing. It sounds like a huge garden you've got growing over there with a lot of careful planning. Maybe I'll learn a thing or two (or five hundred).

  2. Thanks, Ev! It does feel good to get out there digging. Our garden is pretty big, but then, we live on 6 acres, so we have space. :)

    I spend all winter planning and drawing out the garden beds ... then come spring it's always different than what I expected anyhow! Still, the planning teaches me all sorts of things - like which things are tall, and need to go in back, and which can be underplanted under other things and so forth. The tin can idea just sprung into my head when I was out there working - I sure hope it works! I've read about using barrels with the base cut out, so I figured it was the same idea ... just scaled down. Guess we shall see!


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