Early December projects

The weather has prohibited me from doing much gardening, but I’ve been busy with other things like this wreath I made from High Point Farm-grown cedar.

I’m also working on these chicken tea towels that I will sell on consignment at Sal’s Local Seed, a farm and seed store near my home.

I’ve harvested this lettuce once from the cold frame, and we are looking forward to another harvest soon–it’s growing back nicely.

Ashes-cat is always showing up wherever I am–she thinks everyone needs her help, whether it is me or a man she has never seen before who is working on the house. She approaches everyone, purring and twining around their legs.

I still have some flower seedlings to set out in the garden. It’s been hurt by the frost, but this winter I’ll plant the rest of the seedlings and have a beautiful garden for the spring (I hope!)

Rowcover laying is difficult enough…then just add kittens!

Our house is new, and so many people have been to the house to paint, complete projects, and work on things.  We have had to lock the kittens in the house so they don’t “help” the painters.  The kittens, rescued last summer from the Calico garden and tamed by my three children into loving creatures who seek the attention of people, behave more like dogs than any cat I have ever known.  They do seem to appreciate our rescue of them from the wild.

A couple of days ago, I worked in the garden putting down row cover preparing the plants for the upcoming cold weather.  Ashes and Phoenix chased me into the woods, climbing trees and stalking each other among tree trunks, when I entered to rake some leaves to put on the new asparagus and garlic beds, and they attacked my ankles as they hid in the cover crops.

As I spread the row cover over the broccoli, spinach, and kale plants to protect them from the cold weather, as well as the rain and the wind, the cats wanted to “help” me.  They are like helping children, in that their help is often a hindrance.  Here is a video of them not helping at all, but having a great time playing in the new tunnels I created with the row cover.

I created the structure of the tunnels by cutting some 12 gauge wire, available at home centers in the chain link fencing section, into hoops about 40 inches long.  If you cut them too long, they will flop over, and if they are too short, there will not be enough room for the mature height of the plants.

Then I draped the row cover over the hoops, and I secured it with clothes pins and with metal posts, stones, and whatever else I could find.  I need to work on more efficient ways to weight down the row cover.  You cannot cut the wire with ordinary wire cutters, although I have read that you can score them with a metal cutting tool and snap them.  I purchased bolt cutters  to make the job easier.

Row cover protects plants from freezing temperatures, and, depending on the weight of the fabric, may increase the air temperature around the plants by several degrees.  The fabric keeps torrential rain off of the plants, and it also prevents the desiccating effects of winter winds.  It almost gives your plants a mini-greenhouse environment similar to that of a cold frame, but the fabric allows enough heat to escape so you don’t have to worry about the odd sunny day roasting your plants the way you have to if they are covered in plastic.

Use some season extension techniques and harvest vegetables all year long!



Plant the Fall Garden

No more hurricanes have attacked us after the two in October, although we have had more heavy rains than usual, or so I think.  I enjoy hearing rain drumming on the metal roof, but I envision the sea of red clay that rolls down our yard toward the garden, washing away the grass seeds I desperately try to establish in the yard both to stop the erosion and to feed the chickens.


I have managed to protect the final (third I think) planting of broccoli from marauding chickens, grasshoppers, and cats.  The cats have done their share of work killing grasshoppers, and I hope that the frost will soon come and take care of the rest of them.  I have had several stern conversations with the cats, Ashes and Phoenix, now five months old, about how just because I dig up the soil into a nice seedbed or make a hole in which I will put a plant, it doesn’t mean I prepared it for a cat bathroom spot.

Spinach in foreground; broccoli in background

The two-to three inches of rain that fell during the past 36 hours drenched the garden.  I took advantage of a break in the rain to take a few pictures.


I expect these collards to grow large enough for a meal by New Year’s Day, although I might have to cover them to protect them from cold and rain.

Lettuce and spinach in the cold frame

The cats also wanted the cold frame, close to the house near their actual litter boxwell as nicely protected from the wind and rain, to be a cat potty.

They ignored my entreaties to please, for the love of God, use the litter box or some of the many other acres of dirt on the place, and jumped into the cold frame as I tried to sow seeds.  I closed the lid enough to prohibit cat-entry but to allow the escape of hot air.  I look forward to a lovely, cat free, harvest of lettuce and spinach this winter.

When the soil dries, I will plant my garlic.  I put out the onion seedlings last week.


How can I make time to garden?

People often tell me they don’t understand how I have time to garden.  I enjoy working in the garden almost more than anything else, and I prioritize my time so I have time to garden.   Gardening does take time, but it’s also a forgiving hobby:  if I don’t have time to do something today, it will usually be okay if I wait until tomorrow or next week, as long as it’s not watering a shriveled plant or moving plants inside and away from impending frost.

Most folks have hobbies to which they devote their spare time.  People have favorite TV shows, video games, or they play golf or tennis. People shop or go to movies.  They train for marathons or make crafts.  To make time for gardening, I have had to prioritize my hobbies and interests, and I have had to eliminate some things I used to spend time doing, before I had children, in favor of gardening.

Now that the weather is pleasant and leaves are abundant, it’s the perfect time to start a garden. If gardening is a new hobby, start small, just as you would if you
decided to take up golf or running marathons, and work up to a large garden, if
you enjoy the work.  A garden no bigger than 10 square feet gives space to grow a variety of plants, but it is small enough to remain easily manageable.  If you are
starting with sod or weeds, and don’t want to dig, layer newspaper (don’t use
the shiny ad slicks because they might contain toxins) on top of the sod or weeds,  put compost or soil on top in as thick a layer as you desire over the paper, and top it with leaves.    Leave it to rot over the winter, and in the spring you’ll have a nice bed, ready for planting and full of earthworms.

If you want to forgo your usual gym visit for today, get out a shovel, spading fork, or a mattock, and dig up the sod.  One thing I gave up when making time for gardening is regular deliberate exercise like walking or going to the gym.  Digging up 10 square feet of sod burns enough calories to make up for skipping the gym.
Shake the dirt out of the sod or weeds, and compost or discard them—if
you have weed seeds or invasive grass, don’t compost them.  Then mix in mushroom compost and organic fertilizer, and your garden is ready to plant.

Save some fall leaves to mulch the garden, and you won’t have to pull weeds.  Many people give up their gardens because weeds infest them. The only way I am able to have as large a garden as I have is by using a lot of free mulch.  In the fall, I pick
up bags of leaves from the side of the road, and, of course, I save my own leaves.  Leaves don’t necessarily look as attractive as purchased mulch, but they are free, lightweight, and easy to spread.

Mulch applied several inches deep is critical to keeping the weeds down.   A few weeds might penetrate the cover of mulch, but they will be easy to remove during a stroll through the garden.  When I deadhead plants or cut back dead ones, assuming they aren’t diseased, I often stick them under the edge of the mulch, which saves me a trip to the compost pile and puts the compost right where I want it: on the roots of the plants.  In the vegetable garden, I use rotten hay
from a round bale my father gives me.  If you have a small suburban lot, you don’t have room for an enormous bale of hay in your yard, but those of you with more land could contact a local farmer about getting a bale of old hay, or even buying a new bale of hay.  It isn’t very expensive.

The late Margot Rochester, who wrote “Earthly Delights,” lived in Lugoff, SC, and said she bought a large round bale of coastal Bermuda grass hay every year and used it to mulch her garden. Coastal Bermuda grass contains no weed seeds, allaying fears that you might inadvertently sow seeds in the garden. I haven’t had many problems with weeds from my hay, primarily because I keep it thick enough, several inches, to prevent seeds from germinating.  Ruth Stout, who wrote “How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back,” also used thick layers of hay to keep her garden’s weeds under control.  Both of these women gardened into their older years through both determination to pursue the hobby they loved and by making things as easy on themselves as possible.

If gardening is a hobby you would like to pursue, it’s a great time of year to start.  Prepare your bed and give the earthworms time to work over the winter to improve the soil further, or plant it immediately. Now, I am off to run the tiller over the site of our future orchard.  The calories I burn off wielding that machine will make up for the consumption of all the Halloween candy I steal from my daughters.

I originally wrote this article in 2011.  In 2011, I had children who were 2 and 5 years old, and plenty of free time.  Although the spirit of this article remains intact, I spend my mornings homeschooling my now 9 and 12 year olds and my afternoons taking them to activities, as well as taking care of my three-year-old.  I must work even harder to make time to garden.

I do still love my garden, but it is now smaller, and I have learned more efficient methods of controlling weeds than mulch on the scale of the garden I have.  I use cover crops to control weeds and to improve the soil, and I use the stale seedbed and tarps to kill weeds in the vegetable garden.  

I have spent the past seven years figuring out how to continue to garden in spite of even greater restrictions on my time, but determination helped me continue.  I moved recently, and I have had to start over with a garden.  I will share more about the methods I used to make my new garden in future posts. 

Plant a river birch and some azaleas, they said…

…and put some camellias right under the window.  Put some bamboo in the back, they encouraged.  It will provide a privacy screen.  The label says it grows quickly, and that’s what we need, they said.  This yard is bare!  We will keep them trimmed, they said. Maybe we need a dogwood, another couple of azaleas, and even a Chinese tallow tree, or “popcorn” tree in a 10 square foot area in the front yard.  They look so small in their tiny nursery pots and this yard is just barren, they said.

Thanks for the disaster, unwise homeowners.  

These camellias’ and azaleas’ goal in life is to grow so tall they cover the windows.

The neighbors said they needed some privacy, and so they planted bamboo decades ago.  

It’s not on our side of the fence, so what can we do about it?  Pay thousands of dollars to remove a nuisance that is technically on someone else’s property, even if it does come over to ours?

What we really need is a bulldozer, 5 gallons of diesel fuel, and a match.  You probably can’t do that within city limits, unfortunately.  No room for a bulldozer on small urban lots, and the fire department is within smelling distance of a brush fire.

Plan ahead when you plant the garden.  Read the plant labels and believe what they say.  If a label says, “Spreads easily,” don’t use that plant.  If the label says the mature size of the shrub is 8 feet tall, please don’t put it under your window that is 4 feet off the ground.  Find a nice shrub that is closer to 4 feet at maturity.

I love enormous azaleas, too, but I plant them at the edge of woods or on property lines where they can grow as big as they want, not under the window where they must be sheared into boxes to maintain any sense of order.  Azaleas are very ugly shrubs when sheared into boxes.  If you need a little box of a shrub, plant a shrub that grows slowly and promises to remain small.

The bed at the front with two trees and three azaleas would have been lovely, and manageable, with one dogwood tree and one azalea.

River birch?  Just say no.  Also say no to Bradford pears.  Both trees are non-native, invasive trees with weak limbs that are prone to breaking during storms.

Patience is a virtue, especially when planning the garden.  Home builders like to have a mature-appearing landscape when they close on the house.  They can walk away before the shrubs head for the eaves and the hapless homeowner spends an entire Saturday that he or she will never get back, several times a year, pruning plants that are too big for the space in which they live.

Pull them out and start over.  That’s what needs to happen to the shrubs under the window, even if killing mature shrubs horrifies people.   I can tolerate  a yearly pruning, or even a minor haircut with the electric trimmers twice a year.  But any plant that threatens to cover the house every six months has to go.  Imagine what would happen if you became ill and were no longer able to do all the heavy work in the yard and were unable to afford to hire it out?  Plan the landscape with future maintenance in mind.

Many people profess that they hate yard work.  I would too if all I ever did in the yard was mow the grass and prune the shrubs.  Put the correct plant in a suitable spot, and enjoy the garden.  Plant some flowers, sit and watch the bees.  Don’t dread the idea of pruning all that jungle again.  Rip it out and start over.

My October Garden

Although grasshoppers and two hurricanes invaded, my October garden survives.  Well, there are things growing in it anyway.

After the grasshoppers, helped by escaped chickens, mauled my plants, and a hurricane and various rainstorms flooded them, I pulled out two separate plantings of fall broccoli, collards, and cabbage and officially gave up for the time being in late September.

Instead of putting out more transplants and battling the effects of nature, I formed beds and put in cover crops (I’ll share more about the bed-forming process later).

Beds of rape (canola)

The beds, and the cover crops, helped hold the soil in place during Hurricane Michael.  I will cover them with tarps to kill them to speed decomposition into my soil later.

In a protected environment, safe from grasshoppers and hurricanes, I started a new round of seedlings.  Pictured above are flowers, broccoli, and beets.

Two hurricanes are surely enough for one fall, and the weather is finally turning cooler, so I planted a carrot bed this week.  I also soaked and planted some spinach seeds.  Now my challenge will be keeping the cats from using this luscious, freshly dug area as a bathroom when they need a break from their grasshopper-hunting.

Carrot bed 


As I look back over my years of writing this blog, and when I think of September or October in the garden, I see that I faced the same problem every year:  out of control weeds.  Somehow the oppressive heat of August makes me reluctant to give the garden enough attention and the weeds get ahead of me.  For two Augusts,  I was in the sickly, exhausted stages of early pregnancy, and in two more Augusts I had infants that needed more care than the garden.  And in one more August I was 30 weeks pregnant, at age 40, and I could barely take care of my other two children and get dinner on the table, much less weed the garden.  Life happens to us sometimes.   All those years of weeds going to seed placed hundreds of thousands of seeds in the garden soil.

Oh, those weeds!

This past August, I moved away from my garden, and I was taking care of a new garden that I hope to keep free of weeds through some better strategies (more on that later).  The weeds reproduced with abandon in my old garden.

Our house is on the market still, and I went to the garden to try to gain some control over the weeds to help out the future homeowners.  They might bulldoze the entire garden, established asparagus plants and blackberries included, but I don’t want to think about that.  I will try to control the weeds and imagine them having a lovely garden in this space, thanking the person who produced this beautiful nutrient-rich soil for them, even if it is weedy.  In any case, the garden looks pretty frightening in its current state and cannot be a selling point.

If your garden looks like the picture above, it’s time for some weed triage.  If I had the time, I would go around and hand-pull as many of the crabgrass plants that are going to seed as I could.  I would place them in a garbage bag and dispose of them either in the trash or in a place so deeply shaded in the woods that the seeds couldn’t germinate.  I would use the bag, or a solid container, to keep those seeds from spreading any more.

After I pulled some weeds, I laid down tarps over the weeds.  While we still own the home, I will move the tarps around to other sections of the garden to kill the weeds.  Most weeds die within a week.  Hurricane Michael is on his way to us, so I made sure to weight down the edges of the tarps with extra stones.

If you have a similar disaster of weeds in your garden, I will offer some suggestions to help eliminate the weeds for next year.

  • Move the tarps weekly, or when the weeds underneath have turned a sickly yellow-brown.  If some green remains, they aren’t dead.
  • Rake aside and remove the dead weeds to a place outside the garden.
  • Encourage the next generation of weed seeds to germinate by lightly disturbing the surface of the soil with a landscape rake.
  • If rain is not expected, water the soil.
  • Wait for the weeds to germinate, and place tarps over those areas again to kill the weeds, flame weed, or lightly hoe the space.
  • Repeat this process again and again, and you will have reduced the weed seed bank significantly.
  • Do not till or disturb the soil below the surface.  If you need to lay off rows or to construct beds, do this and then water the soil, wait for germination, and lay the tarps on the area again to kill the weeds.
  • I use 6mil or thicker black plastic, or regular tarps that are UV stabilized.  If I put the tarps and plastic away when I am not using them, they will last many years.  Do not use think plastic or landscape fabric; it decomposes within a few months.


Oh, this soil

At our new home, we have learned about the power of water to carry soil downhill. We cleared about an acre and a half of land at the house site.  It was covered with the scrubby pines of an overgrown pasture that hadn’t seen a cow in fifty years, and we decided to put the house there in part to avoid damaging the hardwoods covering much of the remaining 28 acres that were certainly standing when Sherman’s men burned Columbia during the Civil War.

I needed a spot for the garden and for the chickens, and so a nice man with a bulldozer happily obliged my desires for destruction.  What we didn’t realize while trees were falling was the enormity of the task we had undertaken to transform the bare dirt into soil.

You would think I would know better by now.  Well, I did know better, but somehow I thought we could make the soil stay on the hill long enough to sprout some grass seeds and hold back the soil.

In May, scorching 100-degree-days were still a bit of a memory.  And I expected that the well at the new house would be as good as the one at the old house that happily provided an endless supply of water, even though we never wasted it there.

One-hundred-degree days arrived about the same time the men laid the sod. We realized, after fifteen pallets of sod were on the ground, that our well, as initially drilled, would not support an irrigation system.  The reservoir held about 40 minutes of water, which meant that if we watered the grass we no longer had drinking water in the house until more water filled the reservoir.

I conserve water and do not run the sprinkler system unless absolutely necessary, but keeping sod alive in June made watering it necessary.  We solved the well troubles, and then rain began to fall in torrents, in amounts of several inches a week.  The sod has thrived, but sowing grass seed was impossible.

Bare soil that needs a cover

Unfortunately, because of the well troubles, we didn’t even bother trying to sow grass seed.  The torrents of rain washed much of the remaining top soil into the woods.  This winter, we intend to have the soil scraped back up the hill and plan to sow seeds on it.  We will also probably build a retaining wall or two and will plant some shrubs as a windbreak.

My garden spot is doing well; it’s on a flat piece of ground.  We robbed soil from that area to build up the ground to level the pool, and we purchased topsoil (unscreened and weedy though it was) to fill in the hole that remained.  A local horse farm will load all the manure you can use for a small fee, so I got about four pickup truck loads of manure and put it on the garden spot, had the landscaper haul some of the granite dust left over from drilling the well 500 feet into stone onto the site, added about 100 pounds of lime, 100 pounds of cottonseed meal, and had the landscaper till it in with his tractor.

The squash is the first crop harvested from this land since the last cows left fifty or more years ago.  I am told that a portion of our land, an overgrown field not yet returned to forest, but well on its way to reforestation covered as it was by cedar trees, sweet gums, and other weedy trees, produced some row crops and hay for some years into this century, but had been given over to scrubby trees for over a decade.  We cleared it and are keeping it mowed to prevent reforestation.

As for the rest of the property we have cleared, we have the expected sod and bushes around the house and my flower garden in the front of the house.  From my many years of experience in gardening, and to the tolerant consternation of the landscapers and building contractor, I knew exactly what I wanted in landscaping, and, possibly more important:  what I did NOT want.

Deer tolerant plants (although I haven’t seen a deer, thanks to the coyotes), shrubs that are the correct size for the space so they do not require anything more than a shaping-up once a year, and a manageable flower garden will enable me to enjoy a beautiful, and an easy-to-maintain, landscape.   

Perennial gardens flank the front walk

I am restraining myself to avoid creating the beautiful, although impossible for me to take care of anymore, garden of my previous home.  At that home, I set out to grow every plant I had ever wanted to grow, and I succeeded in doing so as long as it could survive our climate and the critters.  Now I am growing the things I love that will be happy without too much trouble.

I managed to harvest enough crowder peas to freeze

The fall has arrived, and I have begun attempting to sow seed in these barren places.  When we are able, we will have another nice man with heavy equipment move some of the soil back up the hill and we will sow more seed to hold back the erosion.

This week, I have dug some terraces in the vegetable garden and across the chicken yard to retard washing.  As I write this, thunder crashes and I hear rain pounding the metal roof, and I envision those seeds I sowed earlier flowing into the woods, despite my efforts of straw and terraces and attempts at soil preparation.

DIY Hoophouse

I went on a tour with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association last year.  They sponsor a three-day conference, in Durham, NC,  which I would love to attend in full, but I was able to go on a tour of hoop houses and farms.  I read many articles and books about farming, and people always talk about hoop houses, which are unheated greenhouses.  In our climate, people grow crops in them year round.  I was very interested to see beautiful tomatoes, unmolested by insects, disease, or weather, in November in the hoop houses.Building a “real” hoop house is not presently in my budget, so I came home and created a DIY version out of materials I already had at home.  Professional hoophouses, like these, are large structures in which people can walk around and trellis tomatoes.  I can’t walk in mine, but it should protect the lettuce plants.

I spread a piece of clear, heavy weight plastic on the ground.  I attached the metal rods on each long end with strings tied underneath.

I roll up the sides, as shown below, to ventilate the greenhouse.  In my climate, South Carolina zone 8, I leave the sides up most of the time, closing them only when severe winter temperatures threaten.

Sometimes, I roll down the sides but I leave the ends up.  This provides some ventilation but provides additional protection from cold temperatures.

I have not tried growing warm weather crops in this modified high tunnel.  Our summers are so blisteringly hot anyway I fear I would forget the plants for a morning and find them fried.  Because of the flimsiness of my construction materials, I couldn’t build it high enough to accommodate the growth of a mature tomato plant.
This is definitely on the realm of DIY structures and was, for me, free from materials I had on hand.
At the end of the winter, I found success in this DIY structure in starting seeds for transplant and for keeping the worst of the winter weather off my delicate plants.  A professional-grade hoophouse remains in my dreams but this will suffice for now!