Saturday, April 11, 2009

Out of hybernation...Vintage thoughts on gardening

Spring is, well, springing up all around the Hatfeathers Vintage studio. The quince bush is in bloom, trees are budding, and the deer have done their annual beheading of the tulips that were planted long ago. There's still a threat of frost in our Midwest location, so the garden tasks are limited...or are they!?

I was inspired by this article from the National Gardening Association's Maggie Oster. She talks about the old idea of a "victory garden". In the WW2 era, the victory garden was simply a family's household garden, planted to extend the family's available foods in time of rationing, and to free the items from farmers for the war effort.
A victory garden could also help families with lots of mouths to feed and little to buy food with.
My husband told the tale of how his Grandmother put tomatoes in everything. A mother of 12 (yes, 12 single-birth babies!), she had to make the family budget stretch 'till it screamed for mercy. How else do you feed 14 on the income of a carpenter? You grow as much as you can in the summer, can it, and feed the family all year on what you grew in those few summer months.
I can guarantee the veggies she grew tasted far and away better than the anemic lettuce and pink gritty tomatoes from the super market.

So what can you be doing now to make your budget stretch? Here's some quick ideas:
1) Start building a garden bed. Clear off any size of yard that you can spare; pull up the sod (grass), amend it with compost, top soil, and shredded leaves. Till or spade-mix it in when the soil is dry enough to not clump, but moist enough to work with. Surround it with cedar or redwood timbers, rocks, plastic edging, or bricks, or just trench deeply around it and mulch heavily to keep grass at bay.

2) Not a square of Earth to spare? Get a few 5 gallon buckets, an old wash tub, or any type of vessel that will hold a foot deep or more of potting soil. You can use old latex (not oil) paint buckets, but you will need to make an extra effort to scrub out ALL the paint, and wash them thoroughly before using. Make sure there are some drainage holes, either by drilling or hammering a nail through the bottom. Fill with quality potting soil-not top soil, as it will turn solid as a rock in a container. I grew more and better tomatoes in 5 gallon buckets than I ever have in the ground. Go figure.
Just put them somewhere that gets a good amount of sun, but won't bake the pots, so on a patch of ground is great, on a slab of cement is less than ideal. If a cement slab is all you have, make sure to perch the buckets on some bricks, so air can flow underneath and cool the soil in the bucket.

3) Start a compost pile. Most city trash pick ups don't allow yard waste. A compost bin or pile is a great way to recycle your clippings and kitchen veggie waste. I highly recommend this site for learning about composting options. I have the one in Figure 3, and regularly harvest several wheelbarrow loads of wonderful black soil for my garden out of it. I also have NEVER had to burn leaves, and NEVER have veggie peels or scraps in my trash. We have 6 100 year old massive maple trees (and several smaller ones) on our lot, which make a lot of leaves in the fall. With my compost bin and mulching mower, I make light work out of fall foliage. My neighbor with 4 trees is still regularly burning leaves even in the spring, and clears the neighborhood of playing kids with the stench. (yes, I am on a soapbox, why?)

4) Install a rain barrel. Catching the water off your roof is a great way to recycle, or at least to keep your water bills down. There are oodles of commercial types available, and there's even a YouTube video on making your own. Rain water is loads better for plants, even if it's a week old, as it is not treated with the chemicals that municipal water supplies get. They don't have much for pressure, so watering far away isn't feasible, unless you like lugging buckets, but for filling the watering can to get to the potted plants around the house, or for the kitchen bed close by the barrel, gravity will give you plenty of help.

You can easily plant spinach, radishes, and lettuces from seeds with little or no skill. Some other veggies require more thought for spacing and depth, but can be done. Every garden center around will soon have starts (pre-planted plants) of anything from tomatoes to cantaloupe, for you to put into your prepared beds or buckets. Even if you spend $3-$5 on a pack of plants, if you get 1 measly pound of veggies from it, you have made back your money. The opportunity to garden with your children is worth your time, as well. It is great to watch their eyes light up when they see the process in motion, and when they realize veggies don't start under fluorescent lights and cellophane. You might also be shocked by what they will try; my son, then age 6, ate the majority of our spinach crop last year, raw and right out of the washing bowl! We'll plant twice as much this year!

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