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Earlier this summer I mentioned the multitudes of strawberries that I found growing in the weeds and thick prairie grass behind our ancient shed. Who knows how many years – or even decades – these have been hiding there. But, despite their less-than-desirable growing conditions, we got a couple of quarts of very nice berries in June, and I am sure someone must have once planted them, because they most definitely are not wild.

And finally I have a nice strip of soil in my garden plot ready for planting, as it is now barren of all weeds (suffocated out by my previously-described, desperate roof-paper strategy). This is where I am relocating the strawberries, and yesterday I got to work.

First, I drove to the nearest Walmart and bought a half dozen 40-pound bags of topsoil for $1.38 each ($8.73 total with tax). The only reason for this particular choice was that it is the cheapest I have seen anywhere in the community. No, it’s not organic, but I’ll live with that.

The bag says this topsoil is packaged by Hyponex and is a Scotts Company product.

The bag says this product is packaged by Hyponex and is a Scotts Company product.

My plan was to cover the plot with a single layer of newspaper, to inhibit whatever weeds remain, and then cover that with about 2 inches of the bagged topsoil, which should be free of weeds. Notice how much WEEDS occupy my every thought and to what extent I will go to avoid them. I’ve learned from heart-rending experience that I can’t just turn over the earth out here on this land. This soil simply wants to grow things, and the minute I liberate any seed from the below the surface, weeds immediately spring to life.

The roofing paper cover did a pretty good job of suffocating out the weeds in about a 3-week period of time.

The roofing paper cover did a pretty good job of suffocating out the weeds in about a 3-week period of time.

Each bag is supposed to cover 4.5 square feet when spread out 2 inches thick. I flattened the soil out as best as I could with a hoe, then started covering it with the newspaper, as planned. I calculated that the strip was about 3 feet wide, so I could cover roughly a 9-foot length.

It was mildly windy, so I scooped dirt onto the newspaper to hold it all in place.

It was mildly windy, so I scooped dirt onto the newspaper to hold it all in place.

When the newspaper covered the particular patch that I was about to plant, I went to work on the topsoil inside my wheelbarrow, which was heavily packed, using a handtool. I worried that working on top of the newspaper would easily disrupt the paper underneath.

Okay.  The wheelbarrow needs a paint job.  (It was a garage sale find.)

Okay. The wheelbarrow needs a paint job. (It was a garage sale find.)

That wheelbarrow strategy paid off. I found that it was easiest to work with one bag at a time so that I could smooth out most of the lumps. I gently raked the softened topsoil out over the paper, also one bag at a time, until the area was covered.

Bagged topsoil is not known to be rich planting material, but it does make a nice black cover for the fertile soil beneath.  I found this brand to be on the sandy side with some small twigs and stones throughout.

Bagged topsoil is not known to be rich planting material, but it does make a nice black cover for the fertile soil beneath. I found this brand to be on the sandy side with some small twigs and stones throughout.

Once the strip of newspaper was covered by the six bags of topsoil – and yes, a 3 by 9 foot strip seems to be about the right area for 2-inch coverage – I went to work digging up the strawberries from behind the shed. Doing this was buggy, sweaty labor, and I was ever on the alert for snakes in the grass, which I do spot here from time to time. As I moved the plants into their new location, I dug deep, right through the newspaper, worked a small bit of soil underneath and placed their roots there. Then I covered the roots with the purchased topsoil.

Don't you just feel for these poor strawberry plants?  They must be strong, to have muscled their way all these years through such inhospitable conditions.

Don’t you just feel for these poor strawberry plants? They must be strong, to have muscled their way all these years through such inhospitable conditions.

In total, I’ve moved thirty plants into the new location, and I have at least three times that remaining yet behind the shed. The whole job, beginning with the newspaper and topsoil and ending with the planting of the strawberries, took a little more than two hours. In a few days, I will cover the topsoil with pine needle mulch, which my cousin is generously allowing me to gather from her yard. I expect I’ll go for another thirty plants later this week, and keep adding on until I’ve rescued as many as I can find in the thick overgrowth.

Later, I will mow a walking path back over where I found the berries into the farthermost part of this property, past a stand of trees and through about an acre of prairie. I expect I’ll continue to rescue strawberries for a few more years as more find their way into my line of vision.

So far, I have a modest patch of strawberries, and they don't look particularly happy after the move.  But with daily watering, they should perk up soon.

So far, I have a modest patch of strawberries, and they don’t look particularly happy after the move. But with daily watering, they should perk up soon.


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.


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.


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.

I have to brag a little bit about my fence. We live right where new commercial and residential development borders long-time rural homes. I live in an older farmhouse, next door to a 1960s ranch with a new home built in the 1990s right behind me. The wildlife here is mostly rabbits, squirrels and ground moles with robins, wrens, hawks and doves hovering above our heads. But raccoons, ground hogs, coyote and deer are close by as well, and I’ve even recently spotted an eagle.

With one 60 by 12 foot garden bed running along my garage and drive and another 12 by 15 foot bed sitting in the back corner of the lot, you can imagine the potential cost of fencing such a garden. This year, I decided to go with the cheapest possible option. I am using deer netting, held in place by purchased wooden stakes and wood chips I got cost-free when the utility company took down a tree across the street from me, put the limbs through a chipper and left behind a huge pile of mulch in its place.

I was able to purchase a 100-foot length of deer netting from my local Lowe’s store for just under $13. I found 4-foot stakes (1 by 1 inch thick) in packages of six for less than $4 at Menards. I bought four packages. The deer netting is seven feet tall, and I cut it in half so that I had two 100-foot lengths that were 42″ high, yielding enough fence for these two garden beds for less than $30.

I stapled the deer netting in place to the wood stakes (which are soft wood, probably pine), leaving an extra six inches on the ground, which I folded out and then covered this with a thick layer of wood chips to secure the bottom edge of the fence.

Wood chip mulch runs along the bottom edge of my deer-netting fence, securing the garden from critter and providing a border that is easy to mow along.

Wood chip mulch runs along the bottom edge of my deer-netting fence, securing the garden from critter and providing a border that is easy to mow along.

Rather than a gate, I have a couple of sections where the deer netting is only 24-inches high, which allows me to easily step over the fence. I threaded a length of yarn along the top of these sections, so that I could easily see what I have to clear, anticipating clumsy falls into my growing produce without this precaution.

This little red wagon transported twelve loads of wood chips from across the street to secure the bottom edge of my fence.

This little red wagon transported twelve loads of wood chips from across the street to secure the bottom edge of my fence.

Having gone with this inexpensive fence, I realize that my garden remains vulnerable to large animals, but with a great deal of open greenery surrounding our property, I’m willing to bet that a rampaging herd of deer is unlikely to venture close to our house and garage, where my garden beds lie. Still, I have placed many of our now-unused cloches made from soda bottles on the sticks and bamboo stakes that are in my garden for various purposes. Others hang from nearby tree branches. My theory is that these bottles are functioning much like a scarecrow, creating motion and reflections that will fill wild creatures with caution and suspicion.

I'm hoping the soda bottles in my garden will make thieving critters think twice before encroaching on my territory.

I'm hoping the soda bottles in my garden will make thieving critters think twice before encroaching on my territory.

So far, so good. We’ll see if this fence continues to keep my vegetables secure through the growing season.

It was about nine o’clock in the morning, mid April with the sun barely showing from behind the clouds. There was a look of soft rain in the gray sky hanging low on the horizon across the horse pasture that loomed off in the distance behind my dilapidated white-washed garage. I was wearing my black-and-white zebra stripe flannel pajama pants, my floppy old pink Isotoner slippers, and the black velour hoodie that I had bought a month ago on clearance at Target. I was clean, but without makeup, and my hair was damp from my morning bath, and I didn’t care who saw it. I was everything the novice gardener ought to be. I was going outside to check on my early planting of peas.

My garden sits across my crushed rock-covered drive about a dozen feet from my bottom porch step, still damp from an early morning shower. I briefly glanced at the spinach and lettuce seedlings nestled comfortably in their flats, having been left outside on the porch in the cool night air to prepare them for transplanting later in the week, when the ground was less wet. As I moved down the slick wooden steps, I took care not to fall, holding on to the rail, until my slippers crunched on the surface before me. I stopped and stared over the field beyond the road, where a weathered farm stand still rises from the landscape, a relic of another time when gardens were royalty and their attendants, ladies in waiting. In the distant haze lay the apartments constructed not so many years ago and beyond them my beloved Target and Menards and Kinkos, reminders of the times in which we now live.

My attention was drawn back to my garden before me when I heard the distant shout of a golfer in the course a hundred yards from the rail fence that separates my land from my neighbor’s. I heard also the crack of the iron against the ball, although my view of the play was shielded by the towering pines behind my neighbor’s small sturdy barn. I moved thoughtfully across the drive to my garden plot that follows one car length between the drive and the neighbor’s rail fence and then continues along the full length of my old garage until it nearly reaches the ancient maple that separates the front plot from the smaller garden bed in the back corner of my lot. And then I saw it, and my heart sank and my soul despaired.

My peas. My lovely precious glorious peas. Murdered. Slaughtered. A full botanical bloodbath had occurred while I peacefully slept in innocence inside. Who had done this retched thing? Who had bitten off the tops of nearly half of my exquisite slumbering seedlings? Homicidal rodents, that’s who. Vicious rampaging rabbits. Or gluttonous groundhogs. Perhaps maniacal savage squirrels. How often I had heard their challenging chatter in the overhanging branches of my yard’s many towering oaks. They were not content with the plentiful bounty of acorns that roll beneath my feet with my every step. They had been biding their time, plotting, hatching a plan, waiting for their chance when they could strike and make off with my growing greenery.

And then they struck. They had been watching, those treacherous, sneaky assassins. They had seen me remove those hundreds of protective makeshift cloches that I had so lovingly constructed out of discarded one- and two-liter soda bottles. They had seen me rotate them over to my shorter lettuce and spinach seedlings in the back garden bed, leaving naked and vulnerable my beautiful, trusting and pure-hearted peas now liberated and reaching their faces up into the sky above. And then they struck. When my back was turned.

Sensing their one lucky break — a late afternoon and evening downpour that prevented fickle me from standing out in the cold and wet April air and hammering two dozen fenceposts into the soggy soil and then wrapping my garden behind protective chicken wire fencing to foil their sociopathic visions of pea-seedling slaughter — these crafty criminals struck in the dead of night. And me, having left the night before with my little peas looking like this:

(This photo was taken at 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, April 28, 2009.)

(This photo was taken at 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, April 28, 2009.)

. . . Returned the next, following damp morning to see this:

(This photo was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

(This photo was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

. . . And this:

(This photo also was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

(This photo also was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

Is there justice in this world? Is there vengeance to be found? It is a harsh world out there. Evil lurks around every corner. We must be bold and face them down. We must triumph and fight for good. That is why my garden now looks like this:

(Photo taken 9 a.m Thursday, April 30, 2009.)

(Photo taken 9 a.m Thursday, April 30, 2009.)

Be brave, little seedlings. I am armed with hoe and rake and shovel and spade, and I will make sure the deaths of your brothers and sisters will never leave my memory. Because I am valiant, and I will battle onward for truth and justice, making certain those hellion horrors, those devious devils never ever have a chance to sink their treacherous teeth into your vitamin-rich, chlorophyllous, photosynthetic flesh again.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Yesterday (Saturday) I planted the first seeds into my garden — spinach seeds, which I’ve read can actually be broadcast on frozen ground if the ground has been prepared in the fall. That wasn’t necessary, as it’s been pretty warm most days for about a week now. However, we live in northern Indiana, and we can still get overnight frost into the first part of May. The weather, from the middle of March through the end of April, can vary widely. We may yet have large amounts of snow. Or it may be quite warm, even into the 80s. Most likely, we will have a little of both. But I’ve been assured that spinach can handle it.

I have decided to plant many cold-tolerant plants, such as spinach and lettuce, in the plot that we prepared last in the far southeast corner of yard. The pH level there is a bit less alkaline, somewhere between 6.5 and 7.0, so we can work on lowering the pH throughout the season and worry less about getting plants to grow at all. The nitrogen levels there, while still low, are at least measurable. I will water between the rows today with a very mild solution of aluminum sulfate, which will lower the pH immediately. I don’t want to lower it a full point, as in the other plot, but I would like to get it down below 6.5. After the seeds sprout, I will mulch between the rows with pine needles.

This garden plot, in addition to having somewhat better soil, also is likely to get a bit of shade, as there are trees close by, although not directly overhead. I’m hoping it won’t be too shady, as this is where I’d like to put the tomatoes, but I won’t know for certain until the trees’ leaves come in. (They are starting to bud now, so it won’t be very long until I have a clue.) The hardest part about putting in this garden is doing it on land that I haven’t lived with for a while. We have only lived here since the beginning of the year, so the only season I have experienced with this particular land is the winter. I don’t know it’s history, apart from having been told it was once part of a farm, and I don’t have a really good feel for the sun and shade through the seasons or the pests that I might expect. (Although I can tell we have moles. That’s obvious.)

In preparing the soil, the rototiller pulled apart the sod, returning it as organic matter into the ground. Yesterday, I turned over the soil again for about one-third of the most northern end, and then I hoed and raked until I felt the soil would be hospitable for the seeds. I put in four 12-foot rows rather close together, about 12 inches apart.

When I opened the seed package (Baby’s Leaf Hybrid, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.), I was surprised that they were somewhat larger than I expected. I was expecting seeds more like the small flat lettuce seeds that I planted nearly two weeks ago in a flat. Those are now growing heartily on my sun porch, and I expect I will be transplanting them into the garden next sometime within the next week. Spinach seeds are rounder and goldish-tan in color. They look a little bit like grape seeds, I think.

This is what spinach seeds look like.  These are what is leftover from the packet I started yesterday.

This is what spinach seeds look like. These are what is leftover from the packet I started yesterday.

I think it’s odd that the seed packet directions say to thin the rows when the seedlings are 1 to 2 inches tall so that the plants are six inches apart. Why not simply plant the seeds six inches apart to begin with? After all, I’ve noticed that with the flats I have already started nearly every seed sprouts successfully. So that’s what I did. If there is significant seed failure, I figure I can put in new seeds in the spots where the previous seeds did not sprout. I hate to waste seed, and I have plenty of garden space. I hope this is a reasonable strategy, but I suppose I’ll learn in time what works best for me.

Putting in the rows of seeds yesterday reminded me quite a bit of helping my parents when they planted our family garden years ago. I don’t suppose I’ve sown a row of vegetables in 40 years, but I still knew how to take the hoe and drag it across the earth so that it barely scratched the surface. (Spinach seeds, say the package, should be planted about 1/2 inch beneath the soil.) I dropped the seeds in about six inches apart. I’m not so anal as to use a yard stick or tape measure for this. My hand stretches about 8 inches from thumb tip to the tip of my little finger, so the seeds are planted slightly closer together than that. Once the seeds were in their place, I used the hoe once again to push the right amount of soil over them. Finally, I tamped the soil down lightly with the end of the hoe so that the seeds were securely tucked into their bed.

My father always used kite string stretched across the width of the garden to mark out the rows. I didn’t, but now I’m feeling guilty about my decision. I did shove sticks into the ends of the rows, but I didn’t tie them together with string. We’ll see if this is enough. Once everything was in place, I watered the soil lightly, taking care to direct the spray up and allow gravity to pull the water down, my best effort at mimicking a light rain.

Here's where I planted the spinach.  I'm unhappy that my garden doesn't look more tidy.  Next year, after I've been able to add more organic matter, I'd like to put in a somewhat raised wood border.

Here's where I planted the spinach. I'm unhappy that my garden doesn't look more tidy. Next year, after I've been able to add more organic matter, I'd like to put in a somewhat raised wood border.

Our first pest concern is going to be rabbits. I have wire farm fencing that was left behind in the garage, but I’m not sure the fence gauge is fine enough to keep out rabbits. It might better serve us as a trellis for all of the peas I have planned (snow peas and snap peas), and then maybe later in the season to support the tomatoes. I expect I’m going to need chicken wire instead. I’ll have to get that within the week and get started fencing off this little patch.

My plan is to use the remaining 10 by 12 feet of this plot for lettuce and a later planting of what I have left in spinach seed. I’ll separate the four close rows (12 inches apart) by a larger 24-inch space for tending to my plants, weeding and harvesting. I’m also thinking I might be able to squeeze in rows of radishes, carrots and even onions between the spinach rows and the lettuce rows. I’ll have to see whether or not that works. I’m definitely pushing the use of this space quite a bit already. I’ve already mentioned that I’d like to use the plot for our tomatoes as these crops taper off by early June. We are not big tomato lovers, but there are a few who enjoy sliced tomatoes, and almost everyone (except me and my daughter Allison) likes cherry tomatoes. However, we do consume a hefty amount of tomato sauce, so I expect to plant a full packet of Roma tomatoes, which I started in flats nearly two weeks ago and — hurray — finally sprouted after I brought the flats inside from the sun porch, which still can get quite cool at night. I want to start another flat today and hopefully polish off that packet of seed. I intend to sow another flat of the mixed variety of lettuce also. I’m not entirely certain where it will all go, but we have so much garden available, and it seems like a good idea to try plantings in several locations, to see which area is best suited for each plant.

Additionally, in that back plot (the one with the spinach already in), I intend to border the whole thing with marigolds, which are said to be particularly beneficial for tomatoes, as they help to repel tomato hornworms. Keep in mind that I’m getting all of my information from the Internet, not from personal knowledge, so my opinions of what plants should be planted together may indeed change over time. But I feel very much in debt to all of those generous gardeners who share on line from their body of knowledge. As it turns out, marigolds also are beneficial for beans and peas, which I’m told are not compatible at all with tomatoes. So today I also will be starting another flat of marigolds to use up that packet of seed. The marigolds that I started a week ago have all sprouted and are thriving on my sun porch, despite the cool nights. I intend to bring them in on nights when hard freezes are expected, but I think they’ll be fine with anything warmer than that.

Every available square inch of my rather small sun porch is being put to use. I’m hoping soon to be able to get the peas in place out in the large garden plot that runs along the south side of my garage and drive. I’ve been waiting on that a little while in an effort to get the soil pH down somewhat. I haven’t measured the pH since the day I applied the aluminum sulfate there. Since it never rained, I expect I should sprinkle it with water, at the very least to help the chemical better absorb into the soil. Once that happens, I will start moving the peas outside. They will get even better sun in the garden, and they are already accustomed to the cool nights.

The peas, by the way, are today starting to sprout. These seeds were soaked overnight, and then I tried something I found recommended on the Internet by a successful pea grower. After the overnight soak, drain the pea seeds and rinse and drain again. Cover the glass container with plastic and allow the moist seeds to sit another day or two, rinsing and draining again every 12 hours or so. When you see a little root begin to grow — botanists call this a radicula (radical, don’t you think? It’s really just Latin for “root.”) –then you plant.

These peas have had me feeling so foolish. First, I misunderstood the directions and I didn’t drain the seeds after rinsing them on the second and subsequent days. Well, the directions I read didn’t exactly say to drain. They said to rinse. Well, I drowned the poor things. The little root sprouted right away, but then never grew. After that, I realized what I had done wrong, bought new seed, and the little peas are simply rooting away.

But then I realized how desperately alkaline my soil here is. The lack of nitrogen evidently isn’t a concern, since the peas pull nitrogen out of the air and then deposit the excess back into the soil. That’s great for me. That’s why I’m intending to put them in the large garden plot along my drive and garage. That soil appears to have no nitrogen. But then there’s the pH problem.

So I bought myself some time by putting the rooting pea seeds into peat pots with potting formulated mix. That was a little expensive, but I just wanted to keep them alive until I could get my garden soil’s pH down where it should be. (I already was suffering a fair amount of guilt for killing the first batch.) I applied the aluminum sulfate several days ago, as I knew a heavy rain was forecasted, by sprinkling it over the prepared soil and then raking it just below the surface. But, then, no rain. So I’ll be making my own rain today (with the garden hose, of course) and then I’ll plant the peas. Since they’ve been in the peat pots for such a short time, I’ll simply reuse them again with other crops. In the end, the whole ordeal will cost me about $3.49 for the potting mix that I used for them. I guess that’s not too bad to rescue four packages of snap peas and snow peas. Let’s hope I haven’t caused any damage, anyway. At this point, I’m wondering if I would have been better off taking my chances with the high pH soil.

The peas will be planted on the garden’s periphery. That way the afore-mentioned aluminum fence can double as a support fence for the peas, as well as protect the entire inside garden from the many pests residing nearby. Once we get into May, I’ll plant marigolds on the outside of the fence, as they are said to be beneficial for most garden plants for the pest-repelling qualities.

Okay, those are my plans. Keep your fingers crossed that it all works out. Gardens do take work, and I’m going to be very disappointed if there isn’t a big pay-off in the end.

Over the past weekend I sowed several flats of snow peas. I used larger 2.5-inch biodegradable pots for these seeds, rather than the smaller 1.75-inch pots that I used for the previous flats: the lettuce mix, the Roma tomatoes and the leeks.

I also sowed a 50-cell flat of marigolds in the smaller cells, as I had read that marigolds make very good companion plants for almost all vegetables, particularly tomatoes. Marigolds are said to repel nematodes, whiteflies, mexican bean beetles, and tomato hornworms. I’ve never been a big fan of marigolds as flowers, but if they will keep pests out of my garden, then I will begin to regard them as botanical guardian angels.

The seed packet of the variety of marigold that I selected it Snowdrift (W. Atlee Burpee & Co.). Snowdrift says that it will grow to a height of 22 inches, with 3 to 4-inch cream-colored blooms. The lighter color appeals to me, and it occurs to me that this larger variety will need to be planted farther apart, which means I will not need so many to line the periphery of my garden, as is my intention.

Well, here’s the exciting news: my lettuce seeds have sprouted. And so have my marigolds. I am such a worry wart. Should I be concerned that the marigolds sprouted a mere four days after planting. The lettuce, which sprouted exactly seven days after planting, is right on target. But what about the Roma tomatoes and the leeks? They still have a couple of days, of course. But what if I did something wrong? I’ve decided maybe I should be taking them inside again at night for a while. While nothing is actually freezing overnight on my sun porch, they may need a little more warmth to coax them into showing their faces.

More wonderful news: My sons’ father Tim also has taken an interest in our garden, and he was able to borrow a rototiller. Leave it to guys to go crazy over any tool with an engine, particularly one that digs through dirt. Zac and Jacob had that sod mulched and then the soil fully plowed in one evening. (And Jacob also plowed our neighbor’s smaller garden the next afternoon.) I expected to be digging daily until May. So hurray for rototillers! Our garden measures roughly 12 by 60 feet, and then there is another patch farther in the back of the lot that we prepared for crops that can tolerate a little less direct sun. This plot measures about 15 by 15 feet. I know that sounds like a lot of garden, but when you consider how many hands we have involved now (who will likely be reaping the benefits as we start to harvest), maybe it’s just about the right size.

I have a couple of additional flats that I will be sowing today. Here’s a photo of one section of our garden.

Our garden is taking shape.

Our garden is taking shape.

Let me also add a brief update regarding the soil pH: I was able to treat the soil yesterday with aluminum sulfate, which is supposed to lower the pH immediately. I put down roughly what the package directed in order to lower the pH one full point. That should get us down around 6.5.

But storms were forecasted yesterday, and I could hear thunder in the distance as I prepared to treat the soil. So I made the decision to scatter the aluminum sulfate on top of the soil — yes, I wore gloves and used an old colander as a spreader. The package directions said to mix with water and then pour, but that was assuming that it would be used to lower the pH around established hydrangeas (which need highly acidic soil to get those deep blue blooms). I figured that, since I had nothing planted yet, I could save time by raking it into the top soil and allow the rain to distribute it further.

So, you guessed it. We had lots of thunder but not one drop of rain. The problem can be easily solved with a garden hose, but we have none. At least, not yet. We lived in an apartment for the year between leaving our last house and moving here, so I gave all of our old hoses away. I expect I will get one before the day’s end. I am truly grateful that we are so close to Home Depot, Menards and Target, as well as the higher end garden center where I bought the aluminum sulfate. I expect there will be many things that I’ll need as I learn more how to do this thing called gardening.

The temperature reached 72 degrees yesterday, just shy of the 75 degree record for our county here in Northern Indiana. What a perfect day to be working in the garden. And what was I doing? I was sitting in Memorial Hospital’s emergency ward getting three x-rays and stitches in the top of my foot, as well as a tetanus shot.

To say this injury was a gardening injury is a little bit of a stretch. But it wouldn’t have happened had I not been testing the soil yet once again. (Monday I conducted my fourth pH test, this time using distilled water. And yet the results remained the same: high pH, somewhere between 7.0 and 8.0, and, as close as I can guess based on the inaccuracies of matching to a color chart, probably nearer to 8.0 than 7.0. Oh, and the second test for nitrogen was the same as well — no nitrogen to speak of.) This is what happened:

To conduct the nitrogen test, I had followed the directions to the letter. I took 1 tablespoon soil samples from three locations in the garden and from depths of four inches. I mixed the soil samples in a drinking glass and thoroughly stirred in 15 tablespoons of distilled water (one part soil to five parts water). After waiting 10 minutes for the mixture to settle, I used an eyedropper to remove the proper amount of water from the mixture, without disturbing the sediment at the bottom of the glass.

And, here’s my critical mistake, I put the glass on a ledge just inside the back door after shaking out the water and most of the mud. It had been my intention to wash the glass right away and return it to the cupboard, but this is a household with two teenage girls, three golden retrievers, and frequent visits from two adult sons, my daughter-in-law Jenni and my two young grandchildren. Somehow, with all of this going on, my attention was diverted and the glass remained on the ledge until yesterday morning when, at about 5:45 a.m., the tangle of golden retrievers at the back door coming in from our first walk of the day caused the jar to fall. It landed on carpet-covered concrete a few inches from my slippered foot, broke and one of the larger pieces ricocheted into the top of my foot.

Miraculously, all of the dogs escaped injury, but I was wounded. It turns out that the skin on the top of our feet is not very thick, and I was pretty certain that the inch-long gash completely cut through all layers of skin. The washroom is just feet away from our back door, so I immediately rinsed my wound by running warm water on it for about as long as I could stand. I could tell that I was going to need stitches. Rinsing the wound seemed to make it bleed more heavily, but thankfully, I was able to stop the bleeding with liberal amounts of antibiotic ointment on a wad of gauze, which I secured with surgical tape.

After I saw the two teenagers (and my daughter Anna’s assistance dog Blue) off to school, Jenni came and drove me to the ER, where over the course of the morning, I was x-rayed and stitched. Little Jaxon, my 21-month-old grandson, was fascinated by all of the buttons and gears in the little room where we waited and was far more well-behaved than any of my children would have been under similar circumstances. On the drive home, he fell soundly asleep. After lunch, I did too. And that was the extent of my day. Entirely unproductive, to say the least.

And so, what’s the moral of this story? I suppose it would be this: don’t use glass when testing your soil, or at least pick up right away after yourself if you do.

Today, thundershowers are expected. I have purchased a 15-pound bag of aluminum sulfate to sprinkle over our garden soil and hopefully lower the pH about to around 6.5. It’s also supposed to add nitrogen as well. I’m doing this reluctantly, because I’d rather not be adding a chemical. But it is a chemical that is supposed to occur naturally in soil. Still, I would have preferred to attempt to lower the pH entirely by mulching with acidic natural matter, like pine needles and oak leaves. I’m hoping, by practicing good mulching techniques throughout the growing season and then through the winter, that we will be able to maintain a mildly acidic level. But for now, it’s aluminum sulfate. (Which, I must say, is rather pricey at $24.99 for a 15-pound bag at a near-by garden center. Unfortunately, I was not able to find anything similar at Home Depot or Menards, which are also within a two mile radius of my home.)

Okay. That blog title sounds a little creepy. But my obsession with my soil and it’s high pH levels may be getting a bit unhealthy. However, if I’m going to put a lot of work (not to mention the investment of good dollars) into this garden for the next six months, I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot before I even get started. Working with soil that’s unlikely to be productive is exactly that.

The thing about high pH levels is that, at a certain level, many nutrients become less soluble in water. And since plants drink their nutrients through their roots, elements like iron, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc become less available to them. Without the right nutrients, they starve.

Now some plants seem to like the higher alkaline soils. Cabbage, probably, would grow really well with my dirt just as it is. However, while we like cabbage in this family, there are a number of other vegetables we would like also. And we have to find a pH level amenable to all of them, with minor adjustments for their differing tastes. By and large, most vegetables do well between pH levels of 6.5 and 7.5. So that’s what we would like to aim for.

I still can’t figure out why I’m getting such a high alkaline reading on this soil. We’re east of the Mississippi, which tends to be acidic and not alkaline. The soil looks good and black, with an abundance of earthworms crawling around beneath the surface. I’ve accepted the fact that our drive probably is or has been a limestone covered drive. (What’s there presently doesn’t look like limestone to me, but even if it isn’t now limestone, I’m certain at one time it probably was.)

I conducted two more soil tests yesterday. One was with soil about 30 feet from where I tested the first time. I also tested for nutrients. This test yielded a somewhat lower pH result – around 7.0. (I’m using one of those inexpensive kits that you mix with soil and water and then match to a color chart.) But I was astounded to see an extremely low result for nitrogen. The phosphorous and potassium levels seem okay — maybe a bit low (again, hard to be precise due to the color-matching aspect of the test). But the nitrogen test failed to show any color at all. Does that mean there is no nitrogen?

That’s when I went over the test directions once again. It appears that I’m not very good at reading directions in their entirety. That’s when I noticed that I was supposed to have mixed together three tablespoons of dirt from three different spots where I intended to garden, at a depth of four inches. I had neglected to dig down four inches. So I headed out to pick up yet another test and proceeded to test the soil once again, taking dirt from three locations at the far end of what I hope will in time be my gardens eastern-most edge (and away from the drive on the most westerly side of the intended garden).
And, for the third time, I again obtained an alkaline result (somewhere between 7.0 and 8.0), as well as nearly medium levels of phosphorous and potassium (I guess gardeners call this “potash”) and, as far as I could see, zero nitrogen.

I am accepting the zero nitrogen test results. The grass in this area of the yard is not very lush. So that seems probable. (But zero?!!) However, I really want to be sure about the pH level before I set out looking for sulfur to bring it down. For one thing, I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to find sulfur here in an area of the world that seems to suffer more from the other end of the spectrum. But, also, if I’m wrong, it seems as if it could cause me a lot of potential difficulties later. And the pH test is only $1.19 anyway, so it’s a small cost to avert potentially big problems later.

It occurred to me overnight, as I fixated further on my sad pH problems, that I had not used distilled water for the test, as the directions suggested was best. I had instead used bottled drinking water, thinking this would be better than water from our tap, which goes through a water softener. Alkaline soil is often called “sweet” when compared to the “sour” nature of acidic soil. If I can believe what I’ve been reading, evidently farmers of yore literally would taste the soil (hopefully in small amounts) to decide if it was right for their crops. Do you suppose people who bottle water might add a bit of mineral that would push the water toward the sweeter side of the pH scale? I don’t know. But it does seem possible.

So, I have decided that the small investment of yet another pH test and a gallon of distilled water is in order to be absolutely positive of my soil’s pH level before I work to change it.

In the meantime, we’ve begun turning over the soil. Here’s a photo of my older son, Zac, having a go at it yesterday, which was an absolutely gorgeous, sunny day. We were able to get a 10 by 10 foot patch turned over with very little effort.

Zac digs in.

Zac digs in.


I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on soil since my last post.  I’m concerned about the high pH level result that I got yesterday.  If you recall, it appeared to be very close to 8.0, which is not typical for our area.  According to what I’ve been reading, usually soil east of the Mississippi River (that’s us) tends to be acidic, while soil west of the Mississippi tends to be alkaline.

I don’t know how I got it into my head that oak trees can make soil alkaline, but according to multiple Internet sources, the leaves from oak trees should leave soil acidic.  Now, given that we have a lawn, it’s possible that the leaves have been removed to such an extent over the years that they are not getting a chance to compost and return nutrients to the soil in this particular patch of grass.

I think, however, I have a more likely explanation.  We are planning this garden for the sunniest area of the yard, a plot from the back southeast corner of the property extending west along the garage and then following the drive toward the street.  And here’s the important factor:  this is an old farmhouse, and the drive is not paved.  It’s limestone.  That’s right.  I’m betting the lime is what is making the soil alkaline.

So here’s my plan.  First off, I’m going to do a couple of additional soil tests, since for the first test, I simply walked outside down the porch steps and across the drive until I got to the nearest spot we will till and cultivate.  I dug up a bit of dirt, came in and completed the test.  Yup, that’s right.  I tested soil right off the top and about a foot away from our limestone drive.  Hence, the alkaline results.  Since the test was only $1.19, it seems reasonable to do a few more in various spots along the 60-foot length of the garden plot.

However, I have also searched out sources for pine needles which I hope to use as much on the garden this summer.  The needles also can be chopped up and mixed into the soil in the areas where we need to lower the pH.  Pine needles, of course, are quite acidic and would help pull the pH levels down to the more acceptable range of 6.0 to 7.0.  

My son Jacob and I went to pick up six large bags of  pine needles from a kind woman who lives about 2 miles from my house.  She had recently had 60 trees removed from her property, and we were able to get another seven bags of shredded pine that had been left behind.  We will be able to use that in between rows, once we have our plants in the garden in May.

We filled the entire back seat of the car with the bags of pine needles and shredded pine.  Once we got it home, we emptied the bags on the ground behind the garage, to begin the weathering process.C  Clearly we are going to need much more.  Here’s a photo:

piles of pine needles and shredded pine

piles of pine needles and shredded pine

I’ll report later on the additional pH tests.  Keep in mind that this is a learning process for me and that I am likely to make many similar errors in the course of this adventure.  Hopefully, they will all be as easily caught as this one has been.

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