New Vegetable Garden Day 13

Vegetable Garden Day 13

Oh dear, running late again. Today’s topic (GardenTribe’s Boot Camp) is pretty basic–TOOLS–, so I’ll skim over it quickly and get on to Day 14.

So about Tools. I’m going to tell you about the tools I use most often, how I use them, and what I think about them.

Shovel. I like a pointy-tipped (“spade”) shovel with a long handle, no “D-handle” at the end. This gives me leverage. But it gives me so much leverage I’m tempted to use it to pry up large rocks in my digging. Which is a good way to break the handle, as I can assure you from experience. Getting a universal sharpener and then using it when needed will make your shovel even better.

Trowel: hand shovel for planting or digging up anything smaller than a gallon pot size. Somewhere lost in the garden is my best one, with a nice rubber handle, not too wide spade, and a really strong “stem”–the section between what you hold and what does the digging. If you’ve ever tried to use a spoon to dig in the garden, you’ll know what happens if that “stem” isn’t strong enough.

Old bread knife. This is one of my favourite tools for doing almost anything. The serrated edge of the bread knife can do all manner of cutting, and since it’s otherwise discarded, you won’t have to sterilize it to cut your bread. One of the things this is really good for is cutting through weed taproots–like dandelion. By inserting the knife close to the root at an angle, you can slice through the root (about 1-2″ deep) and pull up the weed without disturbing the soil too much, nor making a big hole in the space that then has to be filled.

Pruners. I can’t tell you how many pruners I’ve bought over the last decade–it’s many. For two main reasons: I’m not careful to keep my pruners in a place I’ll find them, so again, like with the trowel, somewhere in the garden (likely under the garden by now) is probably at least two sets of pruners. But the other reason is that cheap pruners either fall apart or loose their spring action, or haven’t the strength to cut through anything larger than a pencil, if that. So I’m with Garden Tribe on this: buy a good set of pruners, and don’t cheap out. (They don’t have to be a Cadillac version, just don’t buy them at the dollar store!)

Rake. I do use my garden rake quite a lot, but that’s because I’m always changing my garden spaces, spreading mountains of mulch, and then raking away those mountains of mulch. In small new vegetable garden (with only 5 vegetables crops) you probably won’t need it to start.

Gloves. Lots and lots of gloves. They get dirty, of course, but they also get wet, and working in wet dirty gloves for a long time is hard on the hands. So I have lots of gloves (right now I have a surprising surplus of right handed gloves…), and change them when my hands get uncomfortable. And get gloves that fit: too-long fingers are REALLY inconvenient when you’re trying to pick up little seedlings or do any other fine motor work.

this looks good...

This “one-size-fits-all”  looks good…

Until you see the real size

Until you see the real size

Stay tuned: I’m going to post Day 14 as soon as I write it…

Compost for Your New Veggie Garden

Wow, we finally hit Day 10 of Garden Tribe’s Vegetable Garden Boot Camp. Yay! Subject of today’s post–COMPOST.

It almost doesn’t matter where you’re getting your information, it’s likely you’ll find this is one of the top recommendations for any garden, vegetable or otherwise: Use Compost! As I said in the post on Understanding Soil, “Feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants.” (That’s not exactly what I said, but who’s noticing?) And compost is soil food. The micro and macro-organisms that live in the soil subsist on what the rest of us throw out–at least the organic stuff we throw out. When the bacteria, fungi, mycorrhizae, pillbugs, earthworms, beetles (I could go on… and on…) feed themselves on the apple cores and tea bags, and garden debris, they cause decomposition over time. Which, when added to soil, continually foster a symbiotic relationship/activity with plant roots, allowing the roots to take up nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

Compost also makes the environment more conducive to the presence and proliferation of all these beneficial community members, by permitting better aeration and better water retention. The compost actually improve the structure of the soil by allowing the soil particles (fine to coarse), along with the organic matter and the bacteria/fungi to clump together (aggregate) into larger, combination particles. I know that’s an awkward sentence, so just imagine the clay soil we read about yesterday (fine particles) retains its nutrient value, but also loosens up and permits better root expansion. The sandy soil (coarse particles) stays light with great drainage, but gains better nutrient and water retention value. Everybody’s happy!

And since compost was once plant material, the nutrients and trace elements that went into the content of that plant material is now present in the compost. This includes not just “the big 3” NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium), but Boron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Zinc, etc– elements we’ve hardly heard of, never mind remember they’re needed for plants to grow. Compost doesn’t have the amounts of these nutrients that you’d find in fertilizers, but because you’re using compost for more reasons than just fertilizing, you are using a much greater volume of material, so you still end up with an appropriate amount of most-maybe all- nutrients, and get lots more benefits besides.

How To…?


Bought this from the city a few years ago. Dimensions are about 40″ tall, 36″ largest diameter. Mix and water frequently, make sure you’ve got lots of browns for the amount of greens, and you’ll get your black gold. If you have two, you can fill the first and let it compost away while filling the second.

So how do you make compost? All organic matter eventually decomposes. What you’re after is relatively rapid, controlled decomposition. The process is dependent on fuel and heat–just like a fire. The fuel is “green” material, or mainly nitrogen containing debris, and the heat is “brown”, or mainly carbon containing debris. The “green” can be any of your food scraps (preferably no grain products, and never any meat products, so that vermin will not consider your compost bin their local restaurant), and any garden material (except invasives or weed seeds, and probably not woody garden refuse–takes too long to break down). The “brown” can be fallen leaves, straw, shredded newspaper (inks and colours are vegetable-based products these days–happily). My usual practice is to wrap 2-3 cups of kitchen scraps in 2-3 sheets of newspaper, and throw that onto the pile. In the fall I collect as many bags of fallen leaves (from neighbours or trees down the street) as I can, and then add them to the compost bin through the year. You need a lot more brown than green, but when you do, you’ll see how fast it all shrinks down and begins that lovely process producing “black gold”.

Important to the whole process is not letting pet micro-organisms die through lack of oxygen, or lack of water. Intermittently mixing the pile of material, layering greens and browns, and making sure there’s at least 3-4 times as much brown as green will keep it oxygen-rich. And locating the compost where it will receive enough rain, and turning the hose on the compost pile during dry spells will keep it moist enough (optimal moisture content described as a “wrung out sponge”– I’ve never tested my compost with bare hands to know that I’ve got the “right” moisture.).

compost bin

The compost bin on the left is the beautiful object featured in Boot Camp. The one on the right is mine! Not quite so beautiful, but it does the job, and it’s pretty hidden at the back of the garden beside the shed, under a big ol’ Douglas-fir. What do you expect from crappy palettes–which are never as pretty as Pinterest would lead you to believe.


If you want to research this a little more, University of Illinois has a great little e-booklet called Composting for the homeowner that you might like to look at.

Vegetable Garden: Understanding Soil

Day 9 of Garden Tribes’ Boot Camp for novice gardens. Today it’s all about soil–what it is, what it isn’t, and how you make it work for you and your harvest. Before going any further you should know that if you are in a newly constructed house, the “material” surrounding the house may bear little resemblance to soil. Between the time the old house (or whatever) was removed and you moved into the new house, most of the site was probably changed significantly. You may even have the joy of finding MaDonald’s wrappers when you stick a shovel in the ground, or pieces of concrete, or great rocks that had to be either buried or disposed of some other way. So what is said about “soil” here may not actually relate to your situation. I suggest you dig a few good big holes in various not-too-conspicuous places to determine what is down there.

As the expression goes, “Feed the soil, not the plants”.

  1. Soil is a complex structure of organic and inorganic things. The quality of soil is dependent on the size of the particles, the amount of air space around the particles, and the percentage of organic matter mixed in among the particles.
    1. Clay is the smallest particle of soil. The more clay, the denser the product, the less air space, the wetter, the heavier it is. But clay is wonderfully full of all the macro- and micro-nutrients and trace minerals needed for most plant growth, and is generally slightly alkaline. More on pH later.
    2. Sandy soil is the opposite: large particles, it holds on to little nutrient, but drains very well. Sandy soil is considered “light”–because it’s not heavy, since it doesn’t hold much water.
    3. Silt is mid-sized particle, easier to work with, but still doesn’t hold many nutrients.
    4. Every ground space has some combination of the above three materials. And once some organic matter is added you have loam–either clay loam, silty loam, or sandy loam.
  2. In coastal BC because of our rainy climate, some of the nutrients that contribute to the pH of soil get washed out of the reach of plant roots. So in general we have acidic soil here, which is why rhodos, azaleas, heather, oregon grape, and huckleberry do so well and are found in almost every garden. If you have any of these, and they thrive, you can be fairly confident your pH is acid. That’s not a bad thing (don’t think sulphuric acid here), in that more nutrients are available to plants in an acid environment than in an alkaline environment. So acid is better than alkaline. And if your pH is really low, then you can grow better blueberries than I can!
    • Changing the pH of soil is pretty much a fool’s job. It takes several years of continual application of either a sulphur product (to acidify) or lime product (to alkalinize). Better to just appreciate what you have, and it you want to grow something that prefers a different pH, go with containers/raised beds. This is how many vegetables do well in acidic soil.
  3. The key to the good soil that you want to grow your plants in, is organic matter. Material that was once alive, when added to the soil, creates food for all the soil-based organisms that will increase the fertility of the soil. It’s those organisms that take the organic matter (last year’s banana peels and coffee grounds, or the sheep or mushroom manure, or Sea Soil…) and work on it to release the macronutrients (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium–NPK) and micro-nutrients (Mg, Ca, Fe, etc) that your plants need to grow and fruit.
  4. So the last thing you want to do is destroy the community of organisms that are doing the work of providing nutrition to your plants. You want to maintain the soil structure–not too much vigorous tilling, and certainly not every year. You want to avoid synthetic fast release fertilizers which can act almost like antibiotics against your beneficial bugs. And you want to continue to nurture them by giving them a supply of organic material ever year.

Here’s a crappy little video on feeling the quality of soil, and the post that goes with it: the handful of soil sort of sticks together, so it has a little clay, is obviously not that heavy, and not very wet, and doesn’t have much organic matter–it looks pretty grey.

Raised Bed Vegetable Garden

I’m running way behind on Garden Tribe’s 21-Day Veggie Garden Boot Camp, so I’ll try to catch up the next few days.

Day 8 topic is Raised Beds–a subject dear to my heart, because I think you can make a garden look really stunning by adding different levels.

Of course, beauty is not necessarily the point for Garden Tribe. Let’s just stick to the basics, “Just the facts ma’am, just the facts”.

The GT lesson has an excellent summary, so I’ll let them tell it, and I’ll just add my two-bits: and here’s a great little site for raised beds:

  1. Why do you want a raised bed?
    1. You have no ground space or your only available ground space is inappropriate for vegetables.
    2. Your need the physical convenience of raised bed.
    3. You want to control the soil better
    4. You like the look.
  2. What is underneath?
    1. Impervious concrete/asphalt/other. Walls of raised bed need to be taller than if located over soil; needs to have a bottom with landscape cloth and good drainage.
    2. Grass/turf/weeds that you’re going to cover and smother. In my experience it took at least a year for the plant material to decompose, and in the meantime was full of wireworm that got into the potatoes. 
    3. Soil that’s difficult to till/grow in/doesn’t drain well. Covering that over with lots of inches of largely organic mixture will begin the process of amending that soil, so it’s a very good thing.
    4. Reasonably good growing soil, just not high enough. So you’re going to make it higher.
  3. How high to the raised beds need to be? If you look at the link above to you’ll see how deep the roots grow for various vegetables.
    1. You’re growing plants with shallow roots, (most greens and cabbage/broccoli veg)
    2. You’re growing plants with deep roots (everything else)
    3. Even tho’ the roots prefer to grow that deep, doesn’t mean the have to grow that deep. Just remember that, depending on what’s underneath the raised bed, you may be responsible for the entire reservoir of nutrients, water and growing medium (see container growing Day 7).
      5 Gallon cloth containers. these dry out FAST.

      5 Gallon cloth containers. These dry out FAST.

      These 5 gallon containers (allegedly a tomato plant needs to be in at least 5 gal pot) are only about 12″ tall. I did get tomatoes last year, but not as many as I should have.

    4. So taller is better. Besides that, you’re going to be growing different things in different place in years to come (I’m sure more of that to come in future GT days), so you may not need too much depth this year for lettuce, but next year you may be growing squash or parsnips or carrots in that spot.

      I have only shallow growers in these 8" high beds, located over

      I have only shallow growers in these 8″ high beds, located over grass. The potatoes can be mounded up, hence not needing too much height, but this was the year I got wireworms in the potatoes. I’ve been meaning to add another 8″ section on top…

Stay tuned for next lesson–SOIL. (Don’t call it “dirt” in the presence of garden lovers!)

Vegetable Garden Day 7

5 Gallon cloth containers. these dry out FAST.

5 Gallon cloth containers. these dry out FAST.

Getting tired of this yet? Hope not, because today is only day 7 of Garden Tribe’s 21-day Vegetable gardening Boot Camp.

Today’s topic is nice and simple, Container Gardening. I’ve written quite a few posts on container gardening, so you’re probably all experts by now.

Growing vegetables in containers is exactly the same process as growing anything else in containers. And offers the same advantages. Your containers can follow the sun Put your large pots on castors), they can fit in the smallest of spaces, they can create a doubly colourful focal point, they can create height…

Here are the chief principles in growing your veggie garden in containers:

1. Drainage. More holes in the bottom than you think you need. Some perennials and shrubs tolerate soggy soil, but virtually NO vegetables will. Coffee filters over the holes will keep the soil in.

2. Size: Bigger is better. The container soil is the entire reservoir for food and water for your plants, so whereas in the ground the reservoir is unlimited (sort of), in the container it’s very limited. Even plants that have a small root system, like lettuce, still need lots of food and LOTS of water.

3. Potting “medium”: Don’t use garden soil in your containers. There are a lot of reasons that I won’t go into here in detail, but it has to do mainly with drainage and weight. Buy a “soilless” potting mixture (inconveniently called “soil”!) It will have peat or coir, perlite for  drainage,and compost, and might have some fertilizer that will get used up quickly.

4. Feeding: A granular (aka “slow-release”) fertilizer at planting, and then liquid fertilizer every week or so once the plant really gets going. Remember the container is the entire reservoir, compared to an in-ground garden that has a vast reservoir. As Doug Green says (Rule #1), if you want roots, fruits, or flowers, fertilize.

5. Water more often than you think you need to. Remember “reservoir”.

Container-grown tomato from last year. No idea what variety.

Container-grown tomato from last year. No idea what variety.