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Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Evolution of a Gardener

This post was inspired by Shaylean, an on-line friend, who needed ideas for a beginning gardener who wanted to grow some food. 

In the Beginning...
The farmer in me wanted to plant an in-ground garden.  But, I had to be realistic.  I'm doing well to remember to water the garden--much less harvest!  I had an in-ground garden for one summer and it grew beautifully...and grew...and grew. 

When the cucumber plants needed a 'trellis,' we built them from crepe myrtle limbs.  The limbs had been drying in a pile for several weeks after we'd trimmed the tree. 

Imagine our surprise when the trellises sprouted crepe myrtle leaves!

I just couldn't (wouldn't) take care of an in-ground garden.  They are a LOT of work!  The garden got so over-grown that I had to have a friend come "bush-hawg" it out.  It was time for something different.

Raised Garden Beds
The city-dweller in me built a bunch of above-ground garden beds (with much appreciated help from a friend).  I'd already gotten started, and with my friend's help, we got sixteen 4 ft x 8 ft garden beds in the back yard.  Later on, we added a 4 ft x 6 ft bed--which we planted in petunias to resemble a Texas flag.

It was a lot of work.  You have to build the frames, pull up the grass, fill the frames with dirt (I bought half a truck-load).  Then came the planting.  My friend LOVED working out there and I really missed his expertise when it was time for him to move on.   In the years since these beds were completed, I have connected four rows of the beds so that they are connected into 4 ft x 30 ft beds.

This was my basil and zinnia harvest one Fall.  I decided to let it be beautiful--and took some pictures!

Container Gardens
The realist in me does container gardening.  Container gardening is a great answer for gardening where land is not available--or when health challenges prohibit you from working in the ground.  If you live in an apartment or rent house, you can build them on a patio, a deck, a balcony, or even on the driveway.

This plant shelf, built after the one I had (built by my grandfather more than 40 years ago) fell apart, is the core of my container garden.  My grandfather built the original one using 1 x 12's.  I used 2 x 12's and hope it lasts the next 40 years!  You make this shelf using 2 or 3 stair supports (number depends on the length of your shelves) and 3 2 x 12's--cut to fit your spot.  Mine was cut to fit inside the garage door opening.  You can use similar pots, but I like the quirkiness of different types.  The shelf population evolves over the some plants go dormant and others start producing flowers or fruit.  

Here's a view of the outside wall under my kitchen window (as it has been this summer).  Honestly, the plants did better when the shelf was against the garage door (see pictures below), so I may change it back for next summer.

Make sure that they get full sun for at least 8 hour a day--and spend at least 4 hours a day in the shade.  You don't want your tomatoes to broil on the vine (one year, mine did).

These are chives...ready to snip.  I let them grow and just snip what I need as I cook.  This container seems to dry out quickly.  I may look for a different type next year--or, I'll plant the chives and onions in the asparagus bed--as I did the first year I planted the asparagus.

The picture below is the asparagus bed in the off-season.  I cleaned it out on Friday, July 27th, while I was waiting for customers during our garage sale.  This corner was the only place with shade, so I decided it was a good place to work while the sun was beating down.

The asparagus was long past harvesting, but the plants themselves stay in the ground for years--you can see a few of the spears poking up.  I had let them go to 'seed, so I had to snip them off when I was raking out the bed.  When the water cools off, I'll work on this bed some more--it needs some garlic sets, some onion sets, a little more dirt, and some mulch.

This is a Japanese eggplant that I bought at Wal-Mart during the late-season mark-down.  It cost about $5, looks beautiful on my plant shelf, and has provided about 10 nice eggplants in the 3 or 4 weeks I've had it.  I love multi-tasking plants.

This is another eggplant...container and plant were $5 at Wal-Mart.  I've already started harvesting.  When I bought the plant, it had blossoms and a couple of tiny eggplants.  As you'll see in the following pictures, I had to move the eggplants off the shelf when the weather heated up.

Pepper plant...see the tiny pepper?  It turned out to be a jalapeno plant.  Great for me, but it meant that I had to go buy belle pepper plants for my son.  After a couple of months, I had to move this plant to the ground because of the heat.  I figured out a solution for the watering problem.  I'll post the pictures further down.

These are strawberry plants (also bought at Wal-mart's end-of-season sale).  They already had strawberry buds on them, as well as lots of blooms, so we had strawberries within a week.  I planted them in a wooden planter made by a friend.  I have to replant this tub periodically.  My favorite plant to use is blue pansies--to mimic water.  They are hard to find, though, so I often use petunias.  This tub would be great for cactus--and cactus is edible!

It doesn't cost any extra to make things pretty.  I put these flowers on the plant shelf until it was time to move them to the flowerbed.  I got to look at them every time I walked to or from the car.

One thing you need to remember is that you can set your own style with container gardens.  I like quirky pots and containers.  You need a good watering system--whether it is a drip line or just setting a timer so that you remember to water often enough to keep the plants healthy.

In mid-summer, I had to move some of the pepper plants to a raised bed.  The pots I used were too small and got too hot in the sun.  An important thing to remember is to use pots that are large enough for the roots to grow.

5-Gallon Buckets
A cheap way to grow great tomatoes is to use 5-gallon buckets.  Drill a few holes near the bottom of the bucket to allow the water to drain (so you don't rot the roots).  If you're going to use the kiddie pool idea (pictures later in the blog), make sure you drill the holes very close to the bottom of the bucket.  Using a 5 gallon bucket allows enough room for strong, healthy roots to grow.  These buckets are also big enough that you can use regular tomato cages (they are reusable and very inexpensive at places like Home Depot and Lowe's). 

You can drill large holes in the bottom and side of one of these buckets and plant an upside-down tomato hanger--plant a tomato in the bottom and marigolds or herbs in the sides.  If you do this, though you'll need a very strong place to hang the bucket--and make sure your handle is well-attached.  I bought new, food-grade 5-gallon buckets in the paint department at Wal-Mart for $5 each.  If you want free buckets, ask at your favorite fast food restaurant for their empty pickle buckets.

Self-Watering Containers
I'm not sure why they call this a self-watering container--I still have to water once a week.  I got the directions for this container on-line (just Google it).  I thought it would be fun to build--and it was.  It was easy, too.  I used it for lettuce in the early Spring.  In our climate, it's much too hot for lettuce after April or May.   Why would you do this?  A self-watering pot costs a LOT of money--especially one this size.  This cost about $10.  It takes a large bin, a length of PVC pipe, a clay pot, and something with which to cut the plastic.  (You have to cut the lid to fit inside the bin--about 3" above the bottom.  You also need to cut a round hole for the clay pot.)  This is a good project if you have extra bins at home and a couple of clay flower pots in your garage.  PVC pipe is really inexpensive.  If you don't have bins at home, watch for sales--I saw some large bins at Wal-Mart on Friday for under $5.

Self-watering containers are great for tomatoes.  I plan to use this one to over-winter a couple of tomato plants.  I used to use the Tupperware self-watering pots.  They advertised that you could get tomatoes for 10 months of the year.  I found that it was true.  I'm hoping that I can get tomatoes into December this year.

Toddler Wading-Pool Garden
I've always wanted to do this, but didn't do it until this year.  I used a toddler wading-pool that I bought last summer and put the larger 'nursery-type' pots in the pool.  I'm able to put about an inch or two of water in the bottom of the pool and the plants suck it up through the holes in the bottom of the pots.  

My pepper plants have done much better since I moved them to the wading pool.

I found this plant at Canino's Farmers Market.  It had beautiful purple flowers which eventually turned into these things (fruit, vegetable?).  I don't know.  I plant to Google it.  It has done very well since I moved it to the wading pool.

My eggplants are doing very well in the wading pool.  It's much easier to keep them hydrated.

When these wading pools go on sale for a reduced price at Wal-Mart in a few weeks, I plan to buy 2 or 3 more.  I'd like to start out using them next summer.  I may end up just putting cactus on the plant shelf--they do very well there unless we get a lot of rain.

This type of patio garden is available at places like Sam's Club.  I bought two of them a few years ago at the end of the season.  They were about $30 each.  These particular containers have a large square planting area on top with holes in the bottom so that you can grow hanging tomatoes. 

The tops are deep enough that you can plant tomatoes upside-down and other vegetables on the top.  This is a squash plant.  There was room for the squash on top even though the hanging tomatoes had been planted.  Just make sure you don't try to plant the top plants immediately over the hanging plants--you want to have room for the root balls.

I grew radishes on top one year.  This year, I have basil, rue, and marigolds growing on top.    

If you happen to be at Sam's Club or a garden center when these Patio Gardens are on for reduced prices, they are a good deal.  They are light-weight and easy to transport.  Once you get them where you want them, you put them together and fill the base with water (for stability).  They are designed for balconies and patios. 

A Final Word About Containers
Always keep an eye out for containers.  You can "find" them in lots of places...on the side of the road, in garage sales, in the recycle bin...never stop looking.  You can find old brass pots, ceramic pots, clay pots, and plastic ones at garage sales.  Here is a baby bathtub I bought at a garage sale for $5.  I'll put 3 of the nursery-sized plastic pots in the bottom and use it the same way I use the wading pool.  The great thing about this is that it will fit on the top shelf of my plant stand.  Yay!  I've been holding myself back from buying some plants for it--but, I am going to wait until after I've paid for my daughter's wedding.

I'm always on the look-out for interesting pots.  I love to place them in a flower-bed or on a border.  Be careful, though.  If the pot doesn't have a drain, the plant roots will rot.  I don't get rid of those pots, I let them sit on the plant shelf as rain-catchers.  When it's time to water, I use the rain water first. 

I bought two of the palms when they were marked down to $3.  I kept them in the house until I thought they'd died.  When all the leaves fell off, I put the pots outside and the leaves came back.  I left one in the pot and planted the other in a flower-bed.

I started this plant from a cutting.  It's a plant that is native to Africa--the elephants eat it.  Once it has been cut (or eaten), it regenerates very quickly.  I bought one plant and got about 10 cuttings from it.  Many of my fellow teachers asked for cuttings, so I only started about 4 of them myself.

These were all plants that I had in my classroom.  I used the counter under the windows as my sick-plant infirmary.

The plant in the blue pot above was one that my mom bought for me two years ago.  It went through its life-cycle and into the plant infirmary.  It turned out very well--even though it appears slightly wilted now.  This pot is nestled between other plants in the flower-bed.  I love catching sight of it when walking down the walkway to the front door.
Starting the Garden
When starting a garden, you have two choices: 1) Plant seeds, 2) Buy baby plants, or 3) Buy mature plants.  If you plant seeds, it helps to start them in the house (or other sheltered place) before planting the seedlings outside.  You can buy baby plants (which I often do) or mature plants (which I only do once they've been marked down to at least half-price).

You can buy starter pots at Home Depot.  I live in a warm climate, so I start my seedlings in February and plant in March--during Spring Break.

If you don't have access to garage sales, check your recycling bin.  You can use milk cartons (plastic or waxed cardboard), coffee cans (look for the metal ones when buying coffee), boxes (line them with a plastic garbage bag)--just use your imagination.

I used water bottles this year.  Fill small paper cups about 2/3 with potting soil, sprinkle in about 3 seeds per cup, and work a little dirt over them.  Cut the bottoms off of water bottles and place the remaining bottle over the cups--they act like little greenhouses.  Check the moisture of the dirt fairly often.  The soil needs to be damp, and it will stay that way longer because of the plastic 'domes.'

I'll add more to this as I think about it, harvest, or plant new containers.  Happy gardening!

Remember that I said to "use your imagination"?  Look at this!
These shoe bags cost around $20 each.  I have lots of room for gardening, but I may try this for herbs on the back patio...they might even winter-over.  I'm going to start watching garage sales for an extra shoe bag! 

Here is another picture that was popular on-line a few weeks ago.  It's a cute idea, but I have to wonder how heavy the dirt is...and the logistics behind attaching a heavy weight to the balcony.  I think you could attach them at the top with zip-ties.  You could put slits in the front of the legs and plant strawberries or herbs.  


  1. What can I say, other than THANK YOU!!!! I will print this out my friend....amazing.

  2. I wish I had your green thumb. Everything looks beautiful. I had some luck in Arkansas but since we moved to California every thing DIES. A little ironic, don't you think? lol

    1. Start with houseplants. Every time you get down to the dregs of your iced tea, dump the watery ice in your houseplants. They love tea (or coffee). CA always looks brown to me, so I'm thinking you need WATER there! :D

  3. I'm thrilled that your crepe myrtle trellises sprouted after weeks of drying in a pile! I have just now taken a large cutting off our tree out the front hopefully sprout and make me a nice fat trunked bonsai. Fingers crossed!