Well, it’s the end of the Summer and early Fall growing seasons as we move ever closer to our usual first frost date of October 10. I’m procrastinating the removal of an enormously prolific cherry tomato plant that has now invaded my asparagus and two other garden beds. These sweet little tomatoes delighted a lot of people this Summer, and I suspect they have at least one more round of salsa canning in them. Nonetheless, it’s time to clean up the inaccessible beds, as the plant has blight, and I now have dozens of calendula plants sprouting up through the wood mulch. Time to neaten things up before it gets too cold to work outside! As I finish a raw cacao-maca-ho shou woo smoothie, what better way to procrastinate ripping out a renegade tomato plant than sharing the results of this year’s Mad Scientist Gardening?
I’m just going to list each experiment with a few comments and observations for anyone interested in trying this at home. If you’ve experimented, too, please feel free to share your results in the comments below.
Wood Mulch in Culinary Herb Beds
A+: Awesome for water retention! I only watered my front herb bed twice all summer, and those herbs thrived. Well, all except the chamomile, which eventually died back. I think that was more due to other herbs encroaching on it than dehydration, though. We had a rich period of rain in early July, but otherwise, it was a fairly dry season. The wood mulch kept my herbs carefree.
B+ for weed control. I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of weeds, since our landlord had mulched the front bed for four evergreens he planted before we arrived. We knew he left some “weeds,” because he didn’t know if they were edible and thus of interest to us. They turned out to be some kind of vinca and a rather aggressive mint-like plant. In addition, some other vining blue flowered plant took over any shady spots along the house and is currently attempting to take over our yard. The weed control might actually be an A for how aggressive this plant it, but I did spend one morning per week yanking dandelion flowers and pulling back various vines. For the most part, the front herb bed was trouble free. I intend to use the wood mulch on my medicinal herb bed when I plant it next Spring.
Squash in Crates
F for fail! They looked gorgeous for the first few weeks of their lives, and then the squash in all four crates died a quick and wilted death. Squash bugs and wilting virus played a role, but I suspect the crates lined with landscape cloth and filled with a mixture of potting soil and topsoil did not drain properly. Signs of powdery mildew and root rot weakened the plants and likely made them more susceptible to whatever insects wanted to attack. Not recommended at all. If you must use this method, then I would suggest using Mel’s Mix from Square Foot Gardening — equal parts peat moss, compost (five different kinds) and vermiculite, mixed thoroughly. Whenever I added compost, my crates retained too much water, and my plants looked extremely unhappy. The vermiculite may help with drainage, and make sure to poke holes in the bottom of the landscape cloth.
Melons in Crates
C: this was a mixed bag. We got about 1-2 cucumbers per week, and they tasted great! The plants themselves embarrassed me. The leaves kept getting brown spots, and I could never find the right balance between too wet or too dry. That said, these produced until last week when the weather turned colder at night. I did need to fertilize (organic material) several times throughout the season.
The Pride of Wisconsin Cantaloupe in crates fared almost as well as the cucumbers. We got four unbelievably delicious cantaloupe from two plants, which I tried to trellis up the combo hog/cattle wire fencing we installed. Lots of powdery mildew issues, likely from the drainage problems, as well as the rainy spell in early July. They never quite recovered from that. Still, from what I understand, cantaloupe can be a bit tricky to grow, and, while certainly not prolific, we did get fruit.
Watermelon in crates was a bust. We got four very small fruits on the Jubilee, and one small fruit on the Moon & Stars. Squirrels or rabbits fanged and drained each of our Jubilee’s right as they ripened. Unfortunately, the thieves recognized the ripeness before I did, because the fruits were so small that I didn’t think they could possibly be done. The Moon & Stars just plateau’d and hasn’t grown for about 5 weeks. It’s still alive, but it’s not going anywhere. I suspect the crates just don’t provide enough soil to feed typically massive and thirsty watermelon plants. Ours remained petite all season compared to my friend, Kimber’s, in the ground. She actually got delicious watermelon, which she kindly shared, so our watermelon season did have one bright spot. Next year, I will plant in the ground, use a very short season (Russian) variety, and attempt to trellis these smaller fruits to keep slugs and bunnies away from them. I’m not sure what to do about the squirrels, who also just dug up all my carefully planted garlic. Grrrrrrr!
Leaf Mulch for Vegetables
A: This worked well for the second year in a row, especially in the raised beds. Even though raised beds dry out faster than soil on the ground, I needed to water the raised beds less than the unmulched sunflower and bee-friendly patch up front, which turned out to be the highest maintenance of any garden spot this year. I definitely prefer leaf mulch to straw, since the straw I got for our fourth raised bed has required me weeding out grass pretty much every day. It wasn’t weed free straw as implied when we bought the straw bale. Oh, well, live and learn. The leaf mulch lasted most of the season and kept things moist. We did get some of that gross looking (but harmless) “dog vomit fungus” earlier in the season, since decaying, wet matter and rain can produce some rather funky colors! Dog vomit fungus also loves wood mulch, but I still think the leaf mulch is better for veggies in a raised bed. I might experiment next year with wood mulch around plants in the ground, a la Back to Eden.
Tomatoes in Raised Beds
B+ The tomatoes tasted great, and we got a lot of tomatoes, so in that sense, this experiment was a success. On the other hand, our raised bed setup with landscape cloth underneath prevented strong and deep enough anchors for trellis attempts. I spent most of my garden maintenance trying to deal with overgrown, toppling or otherwise unruly tomato plants. We lost a lot of our crop to slugs and squirrels when I finally gave up and let the plants block my access to the back of the beds. When I finally removed four of the plants, I couldn’t believe how many tomatoes I had let rot on the ground. Can you say “volunteer tomatoes” next year?! Ohhhhh, dear. Anyway, I can’t complain about the harvest, as we had way more tomatoes than I could keep up with, but they required a lot of water, which they otherwise drained away from my less greedy plants. They also took a lot of annoying time to fiddle with. Deadheading flowers is kind of enjoyable; constantly cutting tomato branches or jerry-rigging yet another trellis? Less so.
Next year, they’re going in the ground, because my ground planted tomatoes — even neglected ones in poor soil — have been largely carefree. The main advantage of the raised beds is that mine are black, so the soil warmed up much faster. I had tomatoes weeks before other people in town, even people growing Early Girl, Early Boy or Early Chalk varieties. Speaking of which — I do prefer Early Chalk to Early Girl. Again, live and learn. Our beefsteaks were tender and flavorful, and as I’ve already said, the cherry tomatoes were amazingly productive and tasty. Our Amish paste and Yellow Germans in the ground are just ripening now, but I planted those about 5 weeks after the others when we got a bunch of plant rejects from David’s (then) job at Whole Foods.
[UPDATE: a note on the photos of various raised beds … I used photos that actually show the beds, rather than more recent ones in which you can barely see the beds. The 18″ chard and kale are not pictured, since at this time, zinnias, overgrown tomatoes and other plants completely obscure the frames.]
Insta-Bed’s (Cubic Foot Gardening Beds)
Our black cherry tomato plant has taken up residence away from the rest of the InstaBed, kindly giving sunshine to the calendula and marigolds it was formerly shading. I love when plants play nice!
I was beta testing these this year, although the feedback mechanism and community sharing feature on the website disappeared mid-Summer. I would give these an A for productivity and I’m not sure how to rate them for aesthetics and holding form. I messed up, because I misunderstood the assembly instructions and failed to realized that backfilling them with organic material would result in significant sinking.
Pro’s: cheap, recycled, highly productive due to the round design and triple tiers. The black color warms the soil and extends gardening season by perhaps a month on either side of the season.
Con’s: kind of ugly until you have larger plants growing, at which time, the black plastic fades into the background. If I assembled them again, or if I can figure out how to reassemble them without making an enormous mess, I would definitely do so in concentric circles instead of the cascade. The back side of my beds is about four inches lower than the front, despite numerous attempts to refill the sinking soil. This is partly my fault for adding so much compost back there, but partly a possible design issue, in that the tiers with very thin supports may just sink. I’m not sure if several years from now, even the concentric circles will have sunk into just one larger circle. Time will tell.
In the meantime, the triple tier has saved my back a lot of grief, and I have the most productive small space veggie garden of any I’ve seen on my walks around town — walks that typically involve alley walking to avoid traffic, but mostly peak at others’ backyard gardens. Hey, I like plants!
Reclaimed Sleep Number Bed Frame
A- Although this is my favorite of the beds in that I finally feel like I got something useful out of that disappointing and expensive gimmick known as the Sleep Number Bed, our “Bed Bed” did require more frequent watering than the InstaBeds, mostly because it had significantly less soil. Six inches quickly sank down to about four inches, and I needed to refill this bed with compost at least as often as trying to backfill the InstaBeds. In the early part of the season, the water starved plants at lower level also suffered significantly more insect damage than the happier ones on the InstaBeds. Adding compost and the favorite fertilizer of my plants (a diluted mix of water and, yes, my own pee), those babies recovered and then some. I now have 18″ chard leaves, giant zinnias, gorgeous nasturtiums, marigolds, prolific sea kale, “dwarf” Siberian kale (haha — it’s almost two feet tall!), lavender and other plants. The parsley is insane!
Other side of the “Bed Bed” with another lush InstaBed
IMHO, this is the best use for a Sleep Number Bed. It just took awhile to get the right mix of predator insect attracting flowers, extra compost, and water, water, water.
A (I think!) It may be too soon to tell on this one, since I only installed the Guarden in late July/early August. We have also yet to assemble to cold frame that comes with it.
Pro’s: Easy assembly, although I still managed to mess it up! David managed to salvage my goof. Hint: do read the instructions. “Easy to assemble” does not necessarily mean “so obvious that you can just toss aside the directions without even glancing at them.” Made from recycled milk containers: I like this because I always enjoy repurposing discarded materials. This also means it’s food grade plastic.
Con’s: It’s white instead of black, so it doesn’t go with my other raised beds or rain barrels, and it won’t trap heat in the soil like the others. That said, the frame is way thicker than any of my other raised beds, so it may insulate just as well or even better. Again, time will tell. For some reason, the animals seem bolder with this bed than the others, even the lower “BedBed.” You can see in the photo above where squirrels have left holes from digging up my garlic, planted among the very small sprouting carrots and parsnips. It may be the season, too, but earlier, the chipmunks were quite bold with my cilantro, as well! No one messed with my cilantro in the InstaBeds. Fortunately, I can put the cold frame on and try replanting if it stays warm for just a little while longer.
All in all, I’m excited about this raised bed. The greens and radishes are already growing well now that I realized this bed holds a lot of soil — 600 pounds! — that takes awhile to wet thoroughly. Once it rained, things took off.
Fertilizers and Compost
As mentioned above, (my) plants prefer (my) pee. I use mushroom compost, composted cow manure, rotting leaf mulch, “Chickety Doo Doo” (pee-ew!), have our own compost pile rotting away, and used some leftover worm castings from our garden in Madison. I saw the greatest results from a) introducing worms into the soil to make their own worm castings underneath and around my plants and b) diluting my own urine anywhere between 5:1 and 20:1 with water as the higher number. We tried this with David’s pee, and the plants didn’t like it as much.
It sounds gross, but various gardeners have told me about this for years, and I read an article last year in Mother Earth News, comparing different organic fertilizers. Diluted urine came out on top as the best overall tonic for plants. I also find my plants like the idea of me giving back to them. Because of the gross factor, I tend to resist doing this, trying any and all other compost or organic fertilizer options I can imagine. Time and again, my pee makes the difference even if nothing else will. I saved my dwarf Siberian kale that way — it shot up six inches in two days both times after nearly dying twice, once from insect damage and once from a toppled tomato plant.
Other useful things: coffee grounds provide nitrogen and a slightly acidic mulch. Supposedly, they deter slugs, too, although my slugs are the hard working, hard playing kind. They enjoy coffee, and they drink beer without drowning in it. Party hardy! Next year, I’m getting some toad houses. I even saw one yesterday at Ten Thousand Villages. Toads eat slugs and all the right kinds of bugs, but I digress …
Breaking down leaf mulch is slightly acidic, but does feed the soil. Unfinished compost forms a layer in my front yard lasagna gardening efforts, and I used it to back fill the InstaBeds; therefore, I know it breaks down! LOL, but seriously … unfinished compost is free and easy to acquire.
Milk for tomatoes. I had a blossom end rot problem the first year I grew tomatoes. It was so frustrating that I vowed never to have such a thing again. Blossom end rot happens in calcium deficient soil, which you can remedy with crushed egg shells and milk. I’ve never heard of anyone else who does this, but when we lived in Madison, I got a couple batches of nasty smelling raw milk that I just couldn’t stomach. It was fine stuff; the farmer had just changed the feed and it smelled like cheese to me. Blech. I was a very happy vegan, except for my teeth, and the raw dairy helped a lot. I didn’t want to waste it, so I added it to my soil. No blossom end rot issues! When I saw signs of blossom end rot on the first couple tomatoes this year, I bought a half gallon of organic milk and watered the tomato plants with a half and half water and milk mixture. No issues for the rest of the season, and I had the sweetest tomatoes anyone had ever tasted! Calcium in soil makes things sweet. Now I know to add lime at soil prep time, but the milk did the trick last year and this year.
A+ Yes! Not only will those flowers make your garden gorgeous, attracting faeries, bees and butterflies, but they will also bring in predator insects who eat these things that eat your plants. Highly, highly recommended. Herbs work well in a garden bed, too.
Clover for rabbits: the garden guy at Lowe’s told me about this, and it worked! Let clover grow (or plant some) near your garden. The bunnies will go for that instead of your greens. Plus, clover fixes nitrogen in your soil. Win, win!
Companion planting to attract good bugs: lots and lots of flowers! Fragrant ones, stinky ones like marigolds, different colored ones … the more variety, the stronger and more balanced your ecosystem.
Moringa sprayed on leaves: not the best. I ordered moringa as a vegan calcium source for my teeth, and every time I drink even a tiny amount, I get major stomach cramps for 48 hours. Not the best. Soooo, I thought maybe this super nutrient rich plant would be a good foliar spray. I looked it up online, and sure enough, people have had good results. I did not. All I have now are a bunch of ants on my chard, as well as ants in the garden bed. I hear ants eat — and farm — aphids, so I’m not sure how this will work out. Will they increase or decrease my aphid issue? Will their marching aerate my soil? Do I need to research good ant predators for next year and plant attractive plants for them? Probably. In the meantime, I won’t be using that moringa in the garden.
Diatomaceous earth: this is a mixed bag. It works on soft bodied insects and is non-toxic to humans. Unfortunately, it can also kill your predator bugs and paralyze your bees. A little drifted from a kale plant onto some oregano flowers and I cannot tell you how horrible I felt when I saw a bee moving in very slow motion on that oregano. I sent him Reiki and apologized, but I’ve not used diatomaceous earth anywhere near flowers since. I also found that it kept away predator bugs from the Guarden bed, so I pulled some extra marigolds and geraniums from the other beds and interplanted them for a short season in the new bed. Things have balanced out much better since then. I prefer companion planting to sprays.
Row covers: I just purchased these to insulate crops in the winter when it gets really, really cold even under the cold frame. They let in water and light, but keep out bugs and frost. I will likely employ these during leaf hopper season next year, although I’m hoping a special, secret organic farm treatment I’ve manifested this Fall helps to balance the soil and ecosystem here next Spring. Maybe we won’t have such a leafhopper mania next year.
Beer or coffee for slugs: again, I’ve heard this works, but not for mine. An occasional “underage” slug will drown, but all the big, burly guys just drink up and party on, then enjoy their coffee before morning light. Grrrrrr …. toads! I’m telling you. Next year this garden will have toads.
Alright I’ve been typing for over an hour. The smoothie is long finished, and those tomatoes want harvesting before lunchtime. I hope my experiments encourage and/or save people some time, money and effort. Got to get myself back to the garden on my day off from sessions …