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I’ve resigned myself to the fact that whatever I do in my garden this year is primarily in preparation for next year.

In my post earlier this month, I discussed the thick tangle of weeds that I attempted to till through this spring when I started my new garden.  A couple of my Facebook friends recommended white vinegar as an organic weed-killer, but I ultimately rejected that idea because I didn’t want to harm the earthworms and the various insects and micro-organisms that build up the soil.  Just because something is organic or natural does not mean that it will be gentle with the earth underneath the weeds.  For me, that is the most important goal here – to create a thriving garden that works with, not against, nature.

Instead, I decided to go with my original plan and smother the weeds, primarily using material right here in front of me:  roofing paper left outside years ago behind the house.  The rolls have been standing on one end next to the back door so that they are crimped by their own weight on the end that rested on concrete.  They no longer unroll evenly, and undoubtedly are worthless as roofing paper.  

So I unrolled the paper over the area I intend to garden next year.  Then I anchored it all in place with large rocks and bricks and broken pieces of concrete, because out here on the Illinois prairie the wind can be intense on occasion, to put it mildly.  Yes, I was somewhat concern about what chemicals might leach from the paper into the soil, but then I realized that this very same product covers the entire roof of the house anyway.  I figured a couple of weeks directly on the land would not likely be much worse than decades of the equally polluted rain water that falls about fifteen feet away my garden plot.  So I’m reporting now that I’m quite please with the results.  

Here's a good look at the weeds I am trying to kill along the edge of the roofing paper that I am using to smother it out.

Here’s a good look at the weeds I am trying to kill along the edge of the roofing paper that I am using to smother them out.

As it turns out, roofing paper repels water and does not absorb it.  It would not be a good choice in a garden for any length of time.  But because it is black, it quickly bakes any vegetation underneath it.  Within just two weeks of summer sunshine, all vegetation beneath the roofing paper is dead.  

Now,  I’ve moved over the paper to expand my garden further, and I’ve heavily mulched the vegetation-free ground with layers of newspaper, brown paper bags or grass clippings covered by pine bark mulch, conveniently on steep clearance at the Walmart nearest us. Over the fall, winter and early spring, earthworms will feed on the mulch and soften the earth for planting next year.

 

 

Here's my garden now, partly mulched in preparation for next year, with another strip covered in roofing paper.

Here’s my garden now, partly mulched in preparation for next year, with another strip covered in roofing paper.

I’m happy to report that I have some zucchini growing in the one corner, seven plants in total.  That should be adequate for eating now and freezing for later.  It’s nothing close to what I had planned for my garden this year, but sometimes you simply need to be patient.  I’m not entirely talented at that, I’m afraid.

My zucchini is off to a good start.  My grandchildren gave me the seeds for Mother's Day this year, a gentle hint that they are expecting zucchini cookies before too long.

My zucchini is off to a good start. My grandchildren gave me the seeds for Mother’s Day this year, a gentle hint that they are expecting zucchini cookies before too long.

 

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With the graduation of my youngest two children from high school last year, I made a rather adventurous decision to move from Indiana to my grandfather’s farmhouse in Illinois. And now that we are here, and I’m wondering if I might have been a little nuts.

The house is a civil-war era structure, with the additions of kitchen, bath and laundry/front porch made at various times along the way. It’s not cute, nor is it remotely picturesque. What we are using as a garage (aka, “the shed”) has an attached hen house and a feeding trough once used for horses. I’m surprised that the corn crib, unused for decades, survived the harsh, harsh winter winds of the past year.

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My father has owned and rented out this house — and the farmland — for the past thirty years. It’s structurally sound, but frankly pretty beat up, inside and out. I had the romantic notion that I could live here, garden, and finish writing a novel I’ve been working on for a couple of years. Ha! I think the joke is on me. The yard is a tangle of weeds, every corner of the house needs work, and I miss my grandkids. I spend most of my time bouncing from project to project, painting one room, stripping the finish on the wood floor in another, mowing back the lawn, digging up the weeds in the flower beds, tilling the garden, mowing again, and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.

I found strawberries planted and hiding underneath the overgrowth behind the shed. I want to move them up closer to the house where they can spread out and thrive. There is a beautiful apple tree, planted — my dad says — by my grandfather years before he died. There are grapevines too, and I am waiting to see what they produce this summer. I have no clue how to tend them.

A month ago the winter backed away enough for us to till the garden, and the thick growth of some unidentified species of tough plantain weed made us give up after a thin strip was plowed on the west side of the house. My plans for an organic garden need some fresh assistance. Help me, readers. What will kill this stuff? Currently, I’m simply trying to suffocate it underneath anything I can find. A previous renter left behind several rolls of roofing paper, which I have spread out next to the strip that we tilled and held down by rocks and cement blocks. I may not have my great garden this year, but maybe there’s hope for next year.

In the meantime, I’m concentrating on zucchini, which allows me to stagger my planting some. And the late planting helps me avoid those nasty zucchini bugs, so it’s actually a good thing. Plus, those grandkids I mentioned will be mightily disappointed if I am not sending my famous zucchini cookies back to them in Indiana by summer’s end.

An abandoned pen out by the cedar tree once kept goats.

An abandoned pen out by the cedar tree once kept goats.

They aren't pretty, but they get the job done.

They aren't pretty, but they get the job done.


Several of my readers have commented on my cloches, made on-the-cheap from various bottles that largely have come from my household. By and large, these are one- and two-liter soda bottles. We had an entire winter’s supply of plastic bottles in our garage, awaiting recycling, when the idea came to me that I might be able to use them in my garden.

(Actually, if truth be told, we really don’t drink that much soda from bottles. I, however, love seltzer water, which I buy in two-liter bottles, and average about one bottle a day, whereas my daughters are fans of Walmart’s flavored seltzer, which comes in one-liter bottles. Between the two of them, they probably average eight to ten bottles a week. Yes, that’s a lot of plastic, but our water here is very bad quality, and even purifying it doesn’t seem to remove the bad flavor.)

Initially, I cut the bottles roughly about one-third down from the top of the cap. Two-liter bottles are 12-inches tall, and using a utility knife I cut the bottles at the point where the label ends, somewhere between 7-1/2 and 8 inches from the bottom. I cut the 10-inch tall one-liter bottles in about the same place, two-thirds up from the bottom, along the edge of the label. Then I’d remove the labels and use the bottoms. Later, when I ran out of bottoms, I realized that the tops also could be used with the shorter seedlings.

When I place the bottles over my seedlings, if the surrounding ground is soft, I can push the bottles down into the soil an inch or two, which secures them from toppling or getting blown about in the wind. We have had some windy days, but I have only had a couple of bottles desert their posts. With the fence around the garden — which is really not fencing at all, but deer netting secured to stakes — none have blown away to liter my neighbors’ yards. When I covered the spinach seedlings, which had sprouted in place in their garden setting, I soon learned to loosen the soil surrounding them with my hand spade before attempting to secure the bottles over them. Otherwise, the flimsy plastic of the bottles curls under and the cloches don’t stay in place.

One of the reasons I really like the cloches is that I can pile up the mulch fairly thickly around the plants and close to each individual plant without smothering the seedlings underneath. As the mulch settles into place and weathers down after steady rains, it forms a nice ring around the plants without actually touching the stems. My regular readers may recall that I have been fighting unusually high pH levels in my soil — it measured above 7.5 when we first turned over the soil in March — and after an initial application of aluminum sulfate that brought the pH down to just under 7.0, I have been attempting to maintain and perhaps lower that a bit more with pine needle mulch, graciously provided by my next-door neighbors. The cloches help prevent the needles from actually touching the seedlings, thus avoiding any possible burning from their high acid content.

The cloches also have very nicely protected the plants from rabbits, mice, raccoons, squirrels, ground hogs and all of the other Rodentia that prey from above the soil. Additionally, they had been very effective against the much-despised cutworms that strike from above — that is, of course, until the cloches were removed. They didn’t seem to protect them from underneath though, and the cutworm species that attacks the roots were able to achieve their mayhem unhindered, even with the cloches in place. I’m hoping that I will not have the problem with cutworms in subsequent years as cultivation alone seems to work against them as time goes on.

The two-liter bottles, by virtue of their larger circumference, fit over larger peat pots. I have sprouted my seedlings in 2.5-inch and 1.75-inch biodegradable cells, and the one-liter bottle cloches do not fit around the larger cells. So I have used them on the seedlings in the smaller cells (the lettuce and spinach, for example) and saved the two-liter bottle cloches for the seedlings in the larger cells. My lettuce plants have gotten so large now though that I am transferring the larger cloches to them as they become available. I expect I’ll soon be harvesting some of the lettuce, perhaps within the week.

However, I find I actually prefer the smaller one-liter cloches whenever I can use them. I have found that the flimsy plastic on the larger bottles curls under with age, which makes it harder to push them down into the soil. Loosening up the soil around the small plants first before pushing in the bottles over them helps prevent the curling, but in time the plastic eventually curls anyway. I extend the life of these larger cloches by trimming off an inch of the plastic when it starts to curl, but they will end up in the recycling bin before the season’s end, I’m afraid. The smaller bottles, on the other hand, will likely survive several seasons.

As I’ve needed larger and larger bottles, I started cutting off the bottoms of the bottles instead of the tops. I only take off between an inch and two inches when cutting from the bottle, which gives me a couple of inches more in height. This also is actually a better design functionally for cloches. The plastic at the bottom of soda bottles is a tiny bit thicker, which makes for a sturdier cloche. And the tapered top of the bottle allows debris to slide off easily, optimizing the sun that reaches the plants inside. Additionally, I have the option of removing the bottle cap and watering the seedling inside the bottle without removing the cloche, when I think that not enough moisture is reaching the roots directly under the cloche. This isn’t a frequent problem, though. Being able to mulch up close to the seedling allows the soil to retain moisture much more effectively between rainfalls. And, of course, I water with a soaker hose, so as long as the roots are getting what they need, it doesn’t matter whether or not the surface soil is damp.

I’ve been so happy with my improvised cloches that I’ve started using just about every plastic and glass container that would otherwise head straight to the recycling bin. This is what I’ve learned: I don’t like the gallon-sized milk and water bottles. The plastic in our gallon bottles is milky in color and translucent rather than transparent. I don’t think the seedlings inside get enough light or enough water to best sustain them. I love juice bottles the best, especially the large round Juicy Juice bottles. They are made with a thicker plastic, but are big enough in circumference to fit around larger peat pots. And when the bottoms are cut off, I have the same tapered top and the same option of using them with or without the lids.

Any clear glass or plastic container can be put to use in this way. The only limit is the size of the opening. Smaller jars can be used on tiny first sprouting plants and replaced with larger ones as the plants grow. In time, of course, the plants will outgrow them all, but by that time they will have a more solid footing in this world and be less vulnerable to attack. A loss of one leaf on a large plant is not the potentially fatal blow that it means to a seedling. Roots are larger, stems are sturdier, and leaves are more plentiful on older and larger plants.

Dandelions growing in my neighbor's pasture

Dandelions growing in my neighbor's pasture

When you are trying to learn a new skill — like gardening, for example — you just never know what useful information you might stumble across in your quest to master this new domain.

A recent encounter with persistent dandelions in my garden beds is an excellent case in point. While searching the Internet for organic remedies for this annoying pest — hoeing and heavy mulching appear to work best — I was astounded to learn that dandelions rule as one of the world’s most nutritionally dense edible greens. They are high in beta-carotene, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium and phosphate, as well as the B vitamins thiamine and riboflavin. I found The Leaf Lady‘s web site particularly informative.

Now keep in mind that I am not a nutritionist, nor am I an historian, only a mom armed with her Mac and a brilliant mastery of Google. But it turns out that the humble dandelion is a European import brought to the States to be farmed in vegetable gardens throughout the colonies when our country was young. Dandelions (from the Old French “dent-de-lion,” which means “lion’s tooth”) kept many a settler alive through tough times and continues to be cultivated and eaten the world over — adored by everyone except us disdaining Americans.

Now I knew dandelions were edible, having learned this fascinating fact the summer before I started high school. That year, my grandfather brought a car full of relatives to our home for an afternoon visit. Among them were his 92-year-old Aunt Alma, who was visiting from Missouri. There were many details about my tiny and unassuming great-great aunt that made an impression that day, among them that she, the youngest of ten siblings who immigrated from Sweden with their widowed mother, married her husband the very day after she met him for the first time (although they had been corresponding for several years) and with him went on to have eleven children of her own. Somehow, during the course of that visit, the conversation turned to food — as it often does when relatives get together — and my Aunt Alma professed an undying love for dandelion greens, much to the amusement of those gathered around her. Given that my Aunt Alma went on to live far past her 95th birthday, I suppose I should not have been so surprised at the healthfulness of her favorite green.

My Great-Great Aunt Alma, lover of dandelion greens

My Great-Great Aunt Alma, lover of dandelion greens

I spent an hour this past Saturday afternoon digging up dandelions out of my yard and garden, then got the brilliant idea of harvesting the greens and trying them for myself. That took the remainder of the afternoon and part of the evening as well. Not only did I have a lot of dandelions but it took a great deal of time to separate the leaves from the rest of the plant, bits of grass and a fair amount of dirt before cooking them. And then the product of my toil — sauteed with chopped garlic in olive oil — was a particularly chewy and bitter dish that we all sampled and no one liked.

So I turned back to my trusty Internet and, once again using Google, found tips for harvesting and for preparing the benevolent dandelion. It turns out that the most tender and least bitter dandelion greens come from the young plants that have not yet flowered. I found harvesting with a pair of scissors the most practical strategy, and by cutting one leaf at a time, I could most easily avoid getting blades of grass in the mix. Many dandelion afficionados advocate soaking the leaves in lightly salted water overnight to remove bitterness and to boil in water before sauteing to soften them. So in my second attempt to prepare my dandelion greens, I followed this advice and found a much more palatable result.

Additionally, I found the tiny flower bud that forms in the center of immature plants, when picked before the stalk forms and sauteed in butter, very tasty. I was able to gather about a cup of these delicacies with about four quarts of tender young dandelion greens in about an hour’s time. All I had left to do was careful rinsing and I was ready to prepare.

I’ve played around with a few recipes, and this is my favorite:

Saute four cloves chopped garlic and one thinly sliced onion in two tablespoons olive oil. Add one teaspoon of curry powder and 2 tablespoons golden raisins and cook, stirring, until the raisins have softened. Add two quarts of young dandelion leaves (which have been thoroughly rinsed, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces, boiled for ten minutes in salt water and then drained). Stirring, saute an additional ten minutes and serve.

Prepared this way, the dandelion greens are tasty, although I am even more fond of the dandelion buds in butter, which has a very nice, nutty flavor, I think.

Note to Mom and Dad: If you read this, do not send money. We are fine.

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