Vegetable Garden Tips & Tricks.

karen-bertelsen-garden

 

Welcome to my garden.  This post isn’t for you fancy people who buy your broccoli in the store like some sort of aristocrat.  It’s for the rest of us. The common folk who grow our own broccoli, realize it has green caterpillars in it, wash it several times, attempt to consider eating it, throat gag,  throw it out, THEN go to the grocery store to buy broccoli.

Living like an 17th century peasant isn’t always fun and fabulous. Sometimes it’s scurvy and scabies.

But let’s forget about the cabbage worm problem for now and talk about the things you can do to make your garden a) easier to use b) more productive and c) cheaper to maintain.

 

garden-gate-2

The first thing I want to say to anyone who is thinking of creating a vegetable garden or changing the one they already have is, just because it’s a garden doesn’t mean it has to look like a complete disaster.  Design and digging can go hand in (gardening gloved) hand.  I mean, it’s a garden and it’s filled with bugs and dirt but that’s no reason to let all design sensibilities go out the window if design is your thing.  If it isn’t … then don’t worry about how good it looks no matter what pictures Pinterest assaults you with.

I wanted a good balance between design and function and it all starts with the gate.  I used a jigsaw to cut my logo out of the plywood board, then put chickenwire behind it.  It looked good in real life, but when it came to photos the cleaver just sort of disappeared. One of the other gardeners even went so far as to grab a piece of orange plastic fencing to put it behind.  He loved my gate but didn’t think it was quite up to par for me.  I agreed.  But wasn’t sold on the construction site orange fencing.  So I went to my favourite store, the dollar store, and bought some squares of astroturf and stuck them behind the cleaver.  Perfect.

My garden is the place I go to for quiet and calm.  It’s where I don’t have to think about  a single thing and can focus on mindless, repetitive tasks like weeding and dating Idris Elba in my mind.  Last year my community garden was O.K. It was a bit of a gardeney mess but it didn’t bother me quite as much as I thought it would.  Still … I had a bit more time this year to devote to actually making it look and function the way I really wanted it to.  What I didn’t have was a ton of money to spend on it.

I knew I wanted to have raised beds because no matter what kind of disaster your garden is in, raised beds will fool everyone into thinking it’s actually pretty tidy.  Also, I had a hunch that raised beds would be easier to maintain. Note to everyone who is thinking about doing raised beds … they are easier to maintain.  Plants are pretty close together so weeds are smushed out.  I have no idea what else makes them easier to maintain but they are.  They just are.

Raised beds however cost money.  A lot of money if you have a big garden.  Mine is 20′ X 40′ and has 12, 4′ x 4′ raised beds and 5 8′ X 4′ raised beds.

So how did I build all the raised beds for only $25?  I scrounged.  I went to dumpsters at construction sites, used old wood I had from around the house, got some from my sister who is renovating but most importantly …. your biggest tip here … is  bought wood from the lumber yard that they couldn’t sell because it was either discoloured or warped.

Lumber yards almost give away their “culled” wood.  The wood they can’t sell.  Now, some of my raised beds are a bit wonky of course, but I can deal with that.  None of the beds match and are all made up of a mismash of wood but they’re functional and building them for cheap makes me happier than seeing them straight would.

My fence was also made from scrounged wood.  It’s made from broken up skids and  old fence boards that my local feed store had in their garbage pile.  Yes, I know.  Not everyone has a feed store to scrounge at, but construction sites and dumpsters are everywhere.  You can get wood there.

 

gate-latch

 

The only new wood I had to buy (which isn’t included in the $25) were the tomato stakes, which I bought tall enough (8′) so that as they rot in the ground over the years I can just cut the rotted ends off and continue to use the stakes.

 

Then there’s the garden table I made which is  probably the number one thing I would recommend to anyone who is creating a vegetable garden; big or small.  Make. A. Garden. Table.  Or buy one, whichever makes more sense for you.

I had to buy the 4’x4’s for the legs, but the rest of it is made from broken down skids.  Even the super-thick top!  It was donated to me by another gardener who works in a business that gets MASSIVE strong skids.

 

garden-table

 

Kind of like the kitchen table, the garden table is where it all goes down.  I keep my mason jar of water there all season long and just empty, rinse, and refill it.  I have baskets (also free thanks to local store Picone’s Fine Foods) on the shelf below for carrying produce home, a watering can for when I can’t be bothered to drag the hose, a hook for my purse or jacket, a tea towel for drying off my hands and a Rubbermaid bin for storing extra seeds, garden gloves, a hammer, and a bunch of other stuff.

This table has made my gardening life WAY easier.  Idris and I smile about it all the time.

garden-table-2

 

The garden dibber.  I also made this.  It’s a hunk of wood with holes drilled into it and dowels inserted.  One side has 16 dowel and the other side has 9.  When I want to plant something I just press it into soil and all my holes are perfectly even.

DIY-dibber

 

I’ve gone nuts on occasion and bought vegetable tags at the dollar store, but when I run out of those I just write the name of the vegetable or variety on a rock with a Sharpie.  It works great, doesn’t wash off in the rain and looks cute.

 

rock-markers

 

And here’s a tip.  Starting your plants indoors isn’t always the right thing to do. I got ahead of myself this season and started some Eureka pickling cucumber seeds too early. They were so used to being indoors that once they got outside they revolted and just wouldn’t grow. They go into vegetable shock.  Then there was that slight frost which they didn’t take kindly to either.  It didn’t kill them but it sure angered them.

I finally gave up on them becoming anything and planted more seeds in June.

Eureka-cucumber

 

 

I’ve left them in the ground just to see what happens to them, but as you can see they’re pretty much pathetic.  The seeds I planted in June are now almost 3′ tall and thriving. The ones I started too early indoors and didn’t protect from a light frost?  They’re about 8″ tall.  That hardware cloth for the cucumbers to grow up is actually plastic hardware cloth.  It’s way easier to deal with and is strong enough for things like cucumbers or peas.

 

eureka-cucumber-early

 

This corn on the other hand? That’s another story. The huge stuff in the corner is the Glass Gem corn I told you I was going to plant. I started it inside and transplanted it very successfully.

Then I started to succession plant.  The day I planted my corn seedlings, I planted some seeds of corn. Then I waited a week and planted more seeds of corn. Then one more week and some more corn. Then I stopped.

Succession planting will let you get way more out of your garden because you aren’t wasting food.  If you plant 17 broccoli plants all at the same time you aren’t going to be able to eat them all if they mature at the same time.  If you plant them in stages, you’ll get a longer crop of less broccoli.

corn

 

Speaking of broccoli, that’s it over there by the compost bin. I did my best to keep the pests off of it (and by that I mean I ran around my garden chasing the offending cabbage moth, never once catching one).  Cabbage moths were BAD this year for me.

Cabbage moths are the white moths with a single black spot on their wings that flit around crazily like they’re on an acid trip.  They lay eggs on brassicas  like cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli as well as kale.  Black (dinosaur) kale is a specific favourite of theirs.  Once the eggs hatch, they turn into little green caterpillars that not only eat your vegetable, more alarmingly, blend in with it.  So your head of broccoli which might look pretty darn good, is actually teaming with caterpillars the exact colour as the broccoli.

I love my garden and the vegetables I grow in it but I’m not such a freak show that I’m about to eat wormy broccoli out of it.  So this year the chickens got that broccoli.  Technically you can soak anything you think has bugs on it in your sink filled with cold water and a handful of salt to draw the bugs out, but you know what?  I did that 5 times with the broccoli and worms kept coming out.  That’s where I draw the line.  Idris doesn’t like it either so there’s that.

NEXT year I’ll be using row covers.  Something thin that won’t change the temperature underneath too much.  Just something to keep the moths out.  To try and save my beloved black kale this year I’m going to pull off the worst of the leaves, pick off all the eggs and caterpillars I can see then spray it with BTK.  BTK turns the inside of this particular type of caterpillar to juice and kills it.  It doesn’t harm other insects and is approved for organic use (although some organic farmers don’t like to use it).  This is an emergency though.  I mean this is my beloved black kale.

Once I’ve done all that I’ll throw a row cover over it and hope for the best.

 

compost-bin

 

Luckily I’ll have a second chance with my broccoli.  Because … in case you didn’t know, if you cut your first head of broccoli off instead of pulling the whole plant up, it will grow a few more small crowns for you.  Very small, but still good for dinner.  THESE little crowns are going to be wrapped with nylon or row cover as soon as I’m done writing this post.

Cabbage will also grow a few more little heads for you.  Just cut the main cabbage off and then you’ll have 3 or so of the cutest little cabbages you’ve ever seen.  They’re the perfect size for braising and eating whole as a side dish.

broccoli-baby

 

Another indispensable thing to the modern garden is a lawn chair. Where the hell else am I supposed to sit and text?

chair

 

It’s the middle of July and my cauliflower and broccoli are all done.  Once I pull them out (after gathering my mini broccolis) I’ll add some compost to give back the nutrients the previous plants sucked up, rake out the soil and plant radishes and lettuce for a fall crop.  If you want to do this make sure you use a spot in your garden that’s shaded from afternoon sun because radishes and lettuce don’t like sun and heat.  They are the vampires of the vegetable world.   Planting them within bushy crops where the leaves will shade them is a good place to consider.

Do you have a garden you’re proud of?  Send me a photo and it might be featured in an upcoming post on reader’s gardens!  Send photos to karen@theartofdoingstuff.com with a 1 sentence explanation of it.

Cabbage worms need not apply.

(update:  sorry, but the vegetable garden show off post is done)

 
 

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80 Comments

  1. Dina says:

    Have you ever tried Straw Bale Gardening? I’m trying it this year, and thus far, unimpressed. Eggplants, Peppers and Cukes…kinda just sitting there.

    • Karen says:

      I tried a version of it. My worst harvest EVER. I’m calling it a scam and anyone who says it’s great hasn’t actually done it, lol. ~ karen!

      • Dina Hitchcock says:

        Someone who is making a living from selling the book, Straw Bale Gardens…Trust me, I prepped those suckers for weeks with my own urine as fertilizer (good stuff actually, nice nitrogen), watered, followed the directions. Disappointing.

  2. karen says:

    “Cabbage will also grow a few more little heads for you. Just cut the main cabbage off and then you’ll have 3 or so of the cutest little cabbages you’ve ever seen. They’re the perfect size for braising and eating whole as a side dish.”

    i’m reading brussels sprouts here. karen?

  3. Anne says:

    Ohhh I love all these tricks and your garden looks absolutely gorgeous!!

  4. Comme j’aimerais visiter ce jardin. Il est, avant, tou, lieu de culture et les légumes y poussent, heureux. Mais c’est aussi, un espace de création, un jardin de poète, qui laisse place à l’enfance , le jeu, l’originalité, d’une aussi jolie façon, qu’il est devenu un endroit absolument délicieux.
    Bel été à vous.

    Roger

  5. Maria says:

    Am I the only person who wonders how you keep stuff from getting stolen at your community garden? At my community garden, they would steal everything including the astroturf and then steal the veggies.

  6. Kim says:

    Hi Karen, I love living vicariously through you and your garden. Keep the posts and the pics coming. I live in a 700 sq ft condo so my “urban garden” is my 10 X 6 patio. This is only my second year so still experimenting. Like you, I love to relax on my patio smelling my tomatoes and basil. I always look forward to all your posts, whether I can replicate them or not. One day I hope to have a community plot or a home with a yard and I will put all of your excellent advice to use! Thanks again :-)

  7. Mindy says:

    How far is the garden from your house?

  8. Mel says:

    Your garden is absolutely wonderful. What satisfying work vegetable gardening is. I grew a little tiny human this year instead of veggies, however, I was rewarded with three tomato plants that somehow seeded themselves in my perennial garden. I transplanted them into my barren vegetable plot and now I’m just waiting to see what kind they are. I’m really hoping they are the Black Krims from Cubits that I planted last year.
    Okay. Your table. I need it in my life. Judging by all the posts complimenting it, I hereby request a DIY garden table post. Anyone second this?

  9. BethH says:

    Karen, I just l love this” welcome to my garden” series. I do have some questions though, After reading this post I went out to my garden and it is just full of tiny white moths. Wouldn’t the logical thing be to kill the moths before they laid their eggs? How would you go about killing them or catching them in some kind of trap that doesn’t contain rotting shrimp? Any ideas?

    • Karen says:

      Well that’s the thing BethH. There are no really successful traps for the cabbage moth. Some people run around with butterfly nets. Other people use those battery operated zapper paddles. Just yesterday I pulled all the eaten leaves off of my kale plants and checked them for eggs and caterpillars. Once removed, I covered it with row cover. Hopefully that will protect my kale for the rest of the season. There really is no defence against cabbage moth other than netting. ~ karen!

  10. LisaS says:

    How big is your corn bed? I always want to grow corn, but my family explained I don’t have enough space, that in order to have a productive crop of corn I need a lot of space and several rows….. coming from people who spent their life farming huge crops of corn in huge fields. I don’t need that though, just enough for us for dinner for summers or whatever. Anyway, tell me about your corn. lol

    • Karen says:

      They’re right. You do need to plant a lot of corn. I have planted my corn according to the recommendations for square foot gardening. So 4 corn per square foot. In a 4′ x 4′ bed that gives me 64 plants! If I can manage to build something to keep the raccoons out before the corn matures I should get some. I’ll try to update the corn later in the season. :) ~ karen!

  11. Melanie says:

    Wow what a great garden!! We are currently farming green caterpillars (!) but still eat our broccoli, just steam it in one of those metal steamer baskets and when it’s done the steamed caterpillars conveniently fall to the bottom leaving bug free florets! :)

  12. Anita says:

    I’m wondering what your front yard looks like this summer. Is it lonely? Does it miss not being the center of your garden? What have you done with it now that you aren’t planting vegetables there?

  13. Julie says:

    I was growing grass, thistle and ants in my garden up until today — thanks go to life happening and northern Illinois weather. I managed to find an hour today to clean it out, and now I long to plant something.

    **sigh**

    I miss my garden. I wish the world hadn’t gone crazy when it was time for planting.

    I think I’ll try some kale, carrots and green onions and see how far they get before winter arrives the beginning of September.

    • Karen says:

      You can also try lettuce, beets and radishes. You won’t get huge produce, but if you’re lucky you might get a reasonable sized haul. ~ karen!

      • Julie says:

        Thanks, Karen!

        I’ve never been a big fan of beets, but I had some raw beets a few years ago at an above-average salad bar that made me rethink my opinion. They didn’t taste like dirt and they weren’t pickled. I wish I could remember what they were. It seems like they were just your typical, run-of-the mill red beets, which surprised me because those are the ones I sprayed all over the dining room wall when I was a child. (My mother never ever bothered me about eating beets again.)

        Also, can you recommend a lettuce that won’t suffer from direct sunlight? There’s not even a hint of shade over my garden.

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