Tag Archives: Garden

Converting yard space into garden space

We have chunks of yard at our place, some of which the kids play around in, but most of which we complain about mowing more than anything. In particular, the fenced in back part where the former dog used to stay was a big waste of space. With the dog having run away, the canine treasures returned to earth leaving us once again with usable space.

Digging a ditch Digging a ditch

Digging a ditch builds character…do well in school kids!

As with most of our projects, we decided to go big, heavy and expensive! Actually, we just went with big and heavy but I like the added drama. Anyhow,we decided to turn a mess of a yard into garden space using railroad ties to build raised beds. We spent a few days digging up the apparent underground rock garden that existed before we decided to make a garden in our yard. I leveled out space and added gravel for drainage under the railroad ties and we began to set them. It turns out that our railroad ties are 8’6″ and weigh around 200 pounds each. We used around 17 of them for our space so you can imagine how sore and tired my mule Emily and I were just moving the pieces into place.

Raised bed garden with railroad ties Raised bed garden with railroad ties

Abigail drilled a few of the holes we drove rebar through to bind the ties together.  We used a lot of rebar to make sure they stay in place!

I laid cardboard boxes over the existing ground to keep weeds down and we lined the edges with plastic to minimize the leaching of creosote from the ties into the soil.  The plastic does not cover the entire basin of the garden so water will still drain fine and worms can still navigate upwards without impediment.

Lining the raised bed garden with plastic and cardboard

The cardboard will eventually rot away but not before killing weeds and stuff from coming up through

I read a bunch about creosote and railroad ties before undertaking this effort.  Creosote is pretty bad stuff and eating it would not be a great thing.  I read a number of opinions on the subject and came to a few conclusions.  First, used ties have probably leached out the worst of what is going to leach out already.  Secondly, I didn’t have my soil tested for contaminants to start with and most people do not.  That fact makes it apparent that we don’t really worry about our garden soil anyhow.  Finally, my soil is still almost assuredly better than soil somewhere far away on an industrial farm and my food is not likely to pick up any more contaminants that what food that travels by train car and truck picks up.  I added the plastic liner and have determined that I will not worry about it any further.

Raised bed garden from railroad ties Raised bed garden from railroad ties

Those rocks were huge and buried.  I suppose the digging was easier but only because the rocks took up so much space!

So, we had to buy a bunch of dirt (56 bags of .75 cubic feet top soil to be exact…plus 6 bags of manure) to fill in the space.  It looks awesome and will hold a bunch of vegetable plants.  Isaac, Abigail and I planted it over the course of a few days.  We added marigolds for decoration  and because all gardens are supposed to grow marigolds.  We also have tomatoes, jalapenos, brussel sprouts, broccoli and bell peppers.  It looks so much better than the yard that used to be there plus I get to eat all of my favorite vegetables right out of my back yard!

Raised bed garden from railroad ties Raised bed garden from railroad ties

I cut the angles in the ties where they ended using a chainsaw.  Creosote sawdust down your back will leave a rash!

For now we have some of the rocks I dug up holding the liner in place.  I will eventually top it with more wood and make it look better, but for now, our new garden space makes me smile every morning when I see it…both for the veggies growing and for the fact that I do not have to mow that space!  Yeah gardens!

Planting sorghum

I wrote a few weeks ago about wanting to grow, process and eat sorghum.  The first step in that process is, of course, planting some sorghum seed.  Really, before that, we had to prepare some ground to plant.  Larry, Granny Sue’s husband turned over a bit of earth at our place.  I don’t know if you have ever tried to cultivate a new piece of land for garden space, but it is bone jarring, punishing work if you don’t have big equipment.  One could certainly take to it with a rototiller and it will work but you’ll feel a new kind of pain.  Anyhow, Larry ran his plow and tractor over a nice chunk of our land to do the initial “turn-over” which I followed up with a smaller tiller to break up the ground further.

Planting sorghum

I got about half way done with the tilling when another neighbor, Tim, stopped by with his tractor which he used to save my life finish tilling the land.  Everything was bone dry and dusty which made this whole process a messy endeavor.  Still, Emily and the kids pitched rocks into the woods while I set up the rows and drove row stakes.  We carefully planted a dozen or so rows of Sugar Drip sorghum seed.  Sugar Drip is an old-time variety good for our part of the country.  It matures in around 102 days and makes nice sweet 8-10 foot tall stalks.  I ordered seeds from 2 well known heirloom seed suppliers and one says it is a rare breed while the other says it is common across the South.  Who knows?

Planting sorghum

So, we marked our rows and planted the beautiful little seeds (which we will collect from our plants this year and save for next year) and covered them carefully with the freshly tilled dust dirt.  Luckily, it rained some this week so things should start growing well.  Sorghum is an African native so prefers warm temperatures but does well in heat and dry once it is established.

Planting sorghum

I have learned that sorghum is one of the top grain crops grown around the world.  Varieties can be used for syrup but most sorghum is planted as fodder for animals or as grain for daily consumption by humans.  Many people are considering using it to make biofuel as it thrives in most warm locations.  For folks with gluten allergies, it also is a common grain source for gluten free beer (hmmm…another project?).

My cane mill/sorghum stuff

Sorghum seed

So, our sorghum is in the ground though possibly a little early.  I will keep a close eye on its progress but am hopeful for some awesome looking cane in a few months.  Now, I really have to get back on track with restoring those cane mills I have sitting out in my yard!

My cane mill/sorghum stuff

Way past yellow

We planted a garden at our property this year (we used to garden at Emily’s grandparents’ place) and it was a terrible failure…mostly.  The only semi-success was a patch of sunflowers we planted.  I really love sunflowers (and really, pretty much all yellow flowers) so I was delighted that if only one thing could succeed, it was the sunflowers.

Harvested sunflowers Harvested sunflowers

Sunflowers are absolutely beautiful when in their prime, but I don’t know if you ever noticed just how cool they are when they are done flowering and ready to harvest.  I love looking at patterns that sort of draw your attention and refuse to let you look away…know what I mean?  Ripe sunflower seeds create just such a pattern.

Harvested sunflowers

I don’t know if they are like snowflakes, but if you look at several sunflower heads, each is a little different.  A month or more ago, my Dad and I harvested the seeds.  It was sort of sad to mess up the patterns but I really love to eat sunflower seeds too!  Although the sunflowers are way past yellow,  they are still about the best flowers I know.  I mean seriously…flowers you can eat?!  Awesome!

Practically Perfect Pumpkins

We grow all sorts of stuff in the garden…we grow beans and corn and peppers and tomatoes.  We’ve grown gourds and squash and zukes too.  This year though, we tried pumpkins.  Last year we bought an absolutely perfect pumpkin at the local farmers’ market.  We carved it up and roasted most of the seeds.  I saved a few though figuring I would give it a go this year.  Holy cow those seeds made more perfect pumpkins this year!

Most of the garden is pretty well done for us this year.  I expected  that pumpkins would take much longer to develop…you know, so they would be timed right for the coming of the Great Pumpkin (Charlie Brown).  I suppose real pumpkin farmers plant their seeds a bit later than we did.  Anyhow, our pumpkins turned orange and were looking awesome last week so I decided to harvest them.  They are winter squash so I expect that they will last a good long time (’til Halloween at least I hope!)

I have enjoyed thinking about saving seeds and have done it some but this year I was impressed and really see the point of saving seeds from the best fruits.  We’ll keep seeds from the best of these pumpkins again this year.  I’ll be playing Gregor Mendel with pumpkins here in W-by-God-VA.  Mark my words folks…WV pumpkins are gonna be incredible in a few years!  You can say you heard about it here first!  Well, either that or I will end up living in a monastery when Emily gets fed up and throws me out…I am hoping for the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown!

What is this?

We have a compost pile in our back yard.  We throw all sorts of stuff in there, but I always know what it is when it goes in.  This year we had volunteer tomatoes, catnip and a mystery squash come up.  I have absolutely no idea what kind of squash this is but I know we have never thrown anything like that in the pile.  We have thrown pumpkin and zucchini and cushaw and yellow squash parts into the pile but none of those particularly look like this fruit.

For a bit, I considered the possibility that someone was playing a compost pile prank…but who on Earth would do that?  Too bad I don’t have any composting friends though…could be interesting.

Anyhow, back to the subject at hand…does anyone have any idea what this is?  Maybe a mutation of some hybrid pumpkin or something?  Ginny chomped on one, but quickly left it alone (and you know, my dumb dog eats poop so that ‘s saying something!)

We have found other weird stuff in the course of gardening…

Ready by Halloween?

Look! A baby green bean!

We were a little late getting the garden in place and it seems to be reminding us of that lately.  All sorts of stuff came up and it all looks nice…we have beans and squash, and tomatoes.  There are all sorts of peppers and corn coming along.  We haven’t really eaten anything from the garden yet.  Lots of people are eating from the garden and I am jealous!  I just hope we’re ready by Halloween!

I have been running around doing all sorts of stuff (sounds like a good excuse, right?) so Emily and her grandfather have done the bulk of the weeding this year.  The garden looks beautiful and the end of this month is going to be insane!  Like most garden people, it’s a ton of fun at first and by the end, you are ready for a plague of some swarming creature to finish you/the garden off.  For me now, though, I am ready to pick and can stuff and eat!

We were in such a hurry to plant earlier this spring, that we accidentally planted corn and beans over top of one another.  Of course, that’s a perfectly acceptable way of planting and it is doing well so far…it was just not planned.  Seeing things grow in spite of us might be one of the best parts of messing with a garden…well, besides walking barefoot in dirt and seeing all sort of new bugs I can put on Emily’s arm to see her reaction.  Yes, other than those things, seeing stuff grow is my favorite part!


We always start the garden in early March by planting seeds…especially for tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli and peppers.  By the time May 10 (our somewhat official last frost date) rolls around, we have pretty good looking plants ready to go into the ground.  We plant by the signs too so we are particular about getting stuff planted at the right time.  We got our seeds planted at the right time and then we also go the plants stuck in the ground at the right time.  This year, we are participating in a test of “planting by the signs” sponsored by Blind Pig & the Acorn.  Basically we planted some squash seeds on the “right” date and some on the “wrong” date.  Lots of people are participating so it should be interesting to see what happens.

Anyhow, we got lots of stuff in the ground early in May but some stuff we have had to work on for timing reasons.  Two weekends ago we finally got the last of the garden planted.  Abigail was a huge help in getting our dry beans and pumpkins planted.  She marked our rows, planted some seeds, covered some seeds and laughed a lot.  It was a blast being all barefoot in the garden with my smelly little girl!

We checked the garden this weekend after a good rain and everything was up and looking good.  Emily’s Grandpa swears he went down in the morning one day before the rain and nothing was up.  A few hours later after the rain, everything had come up!  That would be cool to see!

So, we are planted and are mostly still weed-free!  Typically we stay ahead of the weeds pretty well so I think our time in the garden is about to increase like crazy!  No more clean fingernails or soft feet in our household!

Hydroponic Gardening

I have been itching to get dirty again working in the garden.  Spring is nearly here and the snow has melted at the house.  Daffodils are starting to poke through and I saw my first forsythia blooming today!  Spring has to be my favorite time of year as life starts popping again.  The bees fly and the birds do what birds do in the Spring.  It’s just inspiring to me…I figure I have survived another Winter.

How the garden area normally looks

We’ve had a bunch of snow this year in WV and it is melting.  Showshoe Mountain in WV actually had more snow this year than they had at Vail, CO.  Snowshoe had 227 inches while Vail had 223.  So, couple the melt with a good bit of rain and we’ve got flooding around Charleston and elsewhere in WV.

Note the fence and white birdhouse posts
The same view...you can barely see the white posts
There's the fence

We live on top of a hill in Charleston so we don’t really have any any danger from flooding at our house.  Our garden, the one I have been itching to get into, is at Emily’s grandparents’ house which is near the river and a creek that drains one of the big nearby hollers.  It is currently under about 5 feet of water.  Nearby houses have significant amounts of water in them and many folks have been forced to leave their homes.  Even with the flooding, the Corps of Engineers report that flood control dams prevented the water from coming even higher (check out the pictures.  We were planning to have Abigail’s birthday party at the South Charleston Rec Center pool…which is now under water).

It’s hard to complain when I consider that our family is safe and our house is intact.  Nonetheless, I am still bummed that the garden is under water and my garlic that was planted last fall is undoubtedly ruined.  I suppose I will have a chance to work in he garden soon enough.  First order of business will be hauling off the trash that washed in.  We’ll have to find a compromise with the ducks and fish we have seen in our garden and consider a new place to plant our garlic this coming Fall.


Today, I wrote an article for Not Dabbling in Normal about the benefits of growing stevia, a plant that naturally produces very sweet leaves.  One can chew on the leaves and get a pretty good rush of sweet, but it’s not terribly convenient or attractive to grind up leaves when cooking.

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I decided to make a stevia extract which is a liquid into which the sweetness of the stevia leaves has been concentrated.  I saw a variety of articles and recipes on how to make stevia extract, but two in particular caught my attention.  Each required a liquid to make the extract.  One used water, the other used vodka.  I decided to try both varieties and see which I liked better.

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I am not much of a drinker.  In fact, I am pretty much not a drinker at all except for the occasional medicinal shot of brandy when I have a sore throat.  Aside from that, I don’t know the difference between varieties of alcohol.  I walked into the local drug store and headed for the liquor aisle where a huge array of vodkas greeted me.  I didn’t know one brand from another so I decided the surest way to pick a good vodka must be by the aesthetics of the label.  I looked and looked and debated, but I finally settled on Gordon’s vodka.  See?  Doesn’t it just look pretty.  The simple light blue label just seemed pleasant to me…it must be good stuff.

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So I got the vodka and headed home.  To make both the vodka and the water-based extracts, I coarsely cut stevia leaves until I had 2 cups for each recipe.  I don’t really know what a coarse cutting is, so I decided to use coarse language as I sliced the leaves into chunks.  I can’t really see how it will help make things sweeter, but if the recipe calls for cussing, I figured I better oblige (actually, I called in Emily…she’s the pro).

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(Research…purely for research)

So, into a mason jar I added 2 cups of leaves and one cup of my liquid – vodka in one jar, water in another.  I covered each and will let it stand for 24 hours gently shaking the jars a few times during that period.  I started the brew last night and the liquid has turned green by this morning.  The vodka-based extract is greener so I suppose it has drawn more of the essence of the stevia out.  At the end of the soaking period, I will filter each through a coffee filter and then simmer the extract over medium-low heat for 30 minutes to concentrate the extract and remove the alcohol.  It’s best to store the liquid in a jar in the refrigerator for future use.

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Everywhere I have read says that I will need to dilute the extract with water before using in a recipe.  I suppose the sweetness of the mix is very powerful.  I’ll know more about that soon!  We’ll use these extracts in cooking and I’ll report back later.

So, what do you think?  Have you heard of or used stevia (or truvia, the store variety)?  Did I buy a descent variety of vodka?

A Garden Dialog

The time has come to stow the garden. It seems like just yesterday that we were fussing over getting the seeds ordered. Before we knew it, we needed to get them started…we were late getting them in afterall. Of course that’s typical. We watched patiently as the tiny spouts pushed through the ground. It was almost as if they doubled overnight. Of course…they did. They grew and grew and the most beautiful array of blossoms came.

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Honeybees and bumblebees and all manner of flying critter visited to taste the sweet nectar. Of course, they got creative and sometimes visited the habaneros right before the sweet bell peppers…not so sweet any more. Everything grew and grew and we watched eagerly, waiting for the chaos of canning and cooking to begin. It’s hard to beat the food we get directly from the garden. It’s hard to beat the fun of cutting and chopping up the harvest and stuffing it into canning jars. It’s hard to beat the sound of the pressure cooker clicking away it into the wee hours of the morning.

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“Gee whiz, are we still canning stuff?” “When will this stuff ever end?” “This garden is killing us.” “Oh, just freeze all of that. I can do no more canning!” “Next year, we are absolutely not planting as much!” “This is craziness!” “In fact, I don’t want any garden next year! We need to have a life too!” “NO GARDEN!”
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“Ahhhh…look at out pantry! It’s full! That work wasn’t so bad afterall, was it? It’s definitely worth it! I mean, look at all of that free food!” “Free? Do you remember last month when…” “Oh yes, I know, but did you see all of that free food?!” “Yeah, I know.”

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“So, it’s a little early, but don’t you think we should think about what we want to plant next year?” “Oh yeah…and all that free food…we should definitely plant more!”