If you are watering your garden with a hose and a spray wand, stop. You might be thinking that you are providing your plants with the moisture they need, but unless it is soaking a newly germinated seedling (or carrots waiting to germinate), what you are actually teaching your plants to do is to set shallow roots, because that is where the water is. You are teaching them to be sub-acutely, chronically water stressed.
What you actually need is a sprinkler, and you need to get in the habit of providing your plants with an inch of water a week, unless you are sure they already got it from rain. I don't bother having a rain gauge, I just run the sprinkler, but I have the luxury of being in the wet Northeast. Want to know how much your sprinkler produces in a given amount of time? Set a tin can or something else with straight sides inside the drop zone and come back in an hour. You can see how much it filled up and extrapolate from there how long you need to run the sprinkler.
A sprinkler run once a week for long enough to provide an inch of water is far better than a hose every day, because the water behaves differently. With a hose, the water is fast and furious, but brief, and so it stays at the surface, barely wetting the top couple of inches before it moves on. A sprinkler, on the other hand, happens slowly, and patiently, and it strikes in deep because of that very slowness. So the plant roots dive deep in response, seeking out the water, and because of this they gain access to a far greater slice of soil and all the nutrients it contains than plants that have shallow roots because that is all they were encouraged to grow.
I prefer a three armed spinny sprinkler, and I like the brass kind on the metal stalk that has a spike you step into the ground (mine is the brand Orbit, purchased on Amazon). The stalk keeps the sprinkler head above most crops, so the water comes down evenly. And I prefer the spinny kind because there is nothing to break and it produces a nice even pattern within the circle it waters. I'm not concerned about overwatering if I need to overlap coverage to get to everything, and I'm pretty casual with how long I run it. But the very fact that I can turn it on and forget about it IS the thing that makes it work so well. Your plants will thank you.
Let's pretend you planted your garden, or turned over some ground, maybe for the first time, maybe it's the usual thing you do. A week goes by, surprisingly fast in these days of quarantine, and you start to think about other things. But the weeds aren't thinking about other things, they are thinking about grabbing life by the b@##$ and GROWING. And you need to do something about it.
Now you could mulch your garden, if you have something to mulch with. Maybe you have lots of leaves from the fall (I do, but they are in with the chickens right now). Maybe you have some bales of straw. Maybe you have woodchips (careful there) or maybe you work for a coffee roaster and have a million burlap bags. Mulching can work great under certain circumstances, largely those where you have a lot of surplus vegetative matter. But I look around in the spring and I don't see much of that. Just a lot of lawn threatening to become mud pit if the kids ride their bikes on it one more time.
You could also go the route of hand weeding everything, which I have done in certain circumstances where there were lots of volunteer annual flowers coming up. But this is laborious, hard on your body and slow.
What you need is a hoe.
And you need to set your garden up to be easily hoed. Have an image in your mind of the long skinny single rows of pioneer gardens? That's a garden that is designed to be easily hoed. Just put the hoe down and walk . It is also, incidentally, a garden designed to be drought tolerant (each plant has access to enough soil to meet it's water needs without irrigation) and capable of growing crops with minimal fertilization. If you are just starting a garden, and have relatively more space than money, this is the sort of garden I would recommend.
Setting up your garden to be hoed also means spacing your plants far enough apart that you can get in there with whatever hoe you have. I hoed our garlic tonight (we grow 700 or so heads to sell) and I used our small stirrup hoe, which works perfectly with the spacing. Hoeing is good in the heat of summer because it breaks up the capillarity of the soil, forming a dust mulch that prevents the soil moisture from evaporating. It is good in the rains of spring, helping you keep on top of the weeds that keep trying to outpace the crop. Hoe once after a rainy spell and you are good to go until the next rainy spell.
The name of the game here is making it easy. Get your row spacing right, be generous with it. Keep your hoe sharp with an occasional filing. Hoe early and often, before the weeds are visible. All of these details will allow you to grow a big garden with relative ease, big enough to grow some food for other people. And really, that is the point of having a garden in the first place.
When it comes to making a garden out of something that is not a garden, you have a few options. You can rototill it, but honestly that takes forever (at least three passes for sod) and is bad for the soil microorganisms, who get too churned up. Plus you always bite off more than you can chew with a rototiller or god forbid, a tractor.
You could go the no till method, but unless you are swimming in giant piles of compost and woodchips and hay, you are unlikely to be able to make a large enough garden without a prohibitively large budget.
The third option, the middle way, is the shovel. Oh, the shovel. It's pointed snout, judiciously sharpened with a file, plunges down through sod and willingly severs roots. The long handle keeps you from stooping, and the action of flipping each load maintains soil structure while burying the sod down deep enough where it mostly won't grow back.
Today I shoveled over a section of existing garden. It was an area of incredibly crummy soil that broke my shovel five years ago, and I finished turning it with a pick axe, a grueling process that took hours. It is still working its way to a reasonable garden soil, and this year's heavy application of compost should help tremendously. But for now, the flipping action of the shovel helps by increasing the organic matter down deep, as each load inverts the compost spread last year with the clay eight inches down. Spread more compost on top of that, and you are well on your way to a soil that will reliably grow good vegetables, provided you fertilize and amend as well (more on that later).
In many of our other garden beds, we simply use a broadfork to aerate and then spread and cultivate and rake. But if you are starting out, or if you are looking to improve a soil dramatically, go with a shovel. You won't regret it.
First, I want to acknowledge that someone asked if I would share more photos with these blogs. The answer is no. Uploading photos is much more time intensive, not to mention taking them and curating the right one, and my goal here is to do a daily post that takes me about fifteen minutes. So take it as it is, just some gardening advice that isn't meant to inspire you with a beautiful photo. Just words. But thank you for the ask.
Someone else asked if I would talk about how you can grow some food if you only have an apartment with no outside space, and I want to use tonight to honor that request. My experience with container gardening is minimal, but here is what I know.
First, if you can get starts, either at your supermarket (our coop carries them) or at a hardware store or garden center, you will be much better off. While you can germinate seeds, it is far more efficient in both time and money for you to buy starts than to start seeds. You will be harvesting weeks or even more than a month sooner, and it will probably cost you less than buying the seeds etc.
The next consideration is sunlight. You really need to give them as much of the available light as you can, even if that means rearranging your house. Pull your couch away from that sunny windowsill and give it to the plants. Depending on how sunny the windowsill is, you may need to pay extra attention to watering.
One of the ways you can reduce the need for frequent watering and general stress of the plant is to pot them up, or to sow into larger containers, yogurt container sized or even bigger if you have the space. Give the plants plenty of soil space to roam in! And if you can, get some real soil or compost to pot them up so they aren't just in that weird sterile potting soil most starts grow in. That stuff is engineered to have enough fertility to get them to sale, and no further. They will need more space and more earth.
If you are sowing seeds, consider doing large trays of soil, you can even buy plastic seeding trays with a clear plastic lid that help keep the soil moisture in and the temperature higher for improved germination.
Watering is an art. You want to let the soil get to the point of just barely being dry, then give it a good soaking. This obviously can mean you need plates and trays under your plants. Or if you are using yogurt containers, stick some gravel in the bottom to allow the soil to drain at the bottom. Eventually, the plants roots will reach down to this water sink, but obviously not right away.
Despite your best efforts, the plants will get leggy and bend towards the light. Keep turning them to keep them from getting too floppy, and regular foraging will also keep them compact. Good candidates for indoor food growing are herbs like parsley, cilantro, and dill. Thyme, oregano and rosemary are not worth starting from seed but would be worth getting plants of. Chives are lovely to have.
Another thing to consider is forcing vegetable scraps, such as the top of beets or turnips you trim off. Stick them cut end down in a dish of water on the windowsill, and they will put out leaves, drawing from the bit of root that is left.
By far the most satisfying time to garden is in the late fall and the early spring, when having anything fresh coming out of the garden feels like you are pulling one over on the world, at least where I live in New England. This is made possible with the season extension of a plastic cover and some kind of hooping. We have two at the moment, a 10x12 ft hoophouse with saplings used for the frame (and it has lasted a long time, these saplings are going on 11 years now), and a low tunnel that is 4x12 ft and with hoops from metal electrical conduit bent into imperfect arches. The plastic is a greenhouse film specifically designed for light penetration and tear resistance, and lasts five years before it should be replaced. In both places, we can have carrots that go to Christmas without being frozen in, and spinach and lettuce that give a bounty in the late fall, go into stasis and then fire up in April, providing greens for many weeks before anything else in the garden is ready. Everything about our garden revolves around creating these crops. I make sure to plant them with sufficient time to size up, the carrots by the beginning of August and the greens by the beginning of September.
I'm actually far less interested in the rest of the garden than I am in these spaces. Because there is nothing like harvesting a bowl of spinach in the middle of winter. And while I bought the plastic (Johnny's Selected Seeds, $200 delivered for a ten year supply), everything else was scrounged for free. So don't go spend a lot of money. But do devise some season extension for yourself. Because you won't ever want to be without again.
So. I've decided that at least for the next several months, I will use this blog platform to share what I know about gardening. Specifically, how to grow a lot of food without a lot of fuss. I used to be a vegetable gardener, then I just was a gardener for the last decade. My thinking is that if I share this in a more thoughtful way, it might be useful to someone deciding to take the leap into gardening or looking to ramp up their garden in the next couple of months.
These will be short, because they will be daily. Why daily? Because that's the only sort of habit I seem to be able to stick with. So I will keep them short.
Today we got seeds in the ground. It's amazing how important that step is, and yet how we can take days to get around to it. Thinking of all the digging and amending and whatever we need to do... And then we look up and two weeks have gone by. So today my daughters helped me muck out the hoophouse where I had been working all winter, we pulled up the plywood, raked the leaves underneath into the path, broadforked it, spread some fertilizer, cultivated it in, raked it again, and then planted potatoes, carrots, spinach, radishes and lettuce. Then we did the same with an outside bed and planted sugarsnap peas. How long did that take? Less than an hour.
So don't make it more complicated than it needs to be. Go put some seeds in the ground. And if you live somewhere where that is not appropriate, fill an egg carton with soil and sow some seeds in that. Just start something.
So it's been awhile since I shared my bread recipe, and what with the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing going on, I thought it would be an appropriate time to share my recipe, as I know it gives me a great deal of peace of mind to be able to at least bake fresh bread for my family.
I use a very simple, hands-off and forgiving recipe that involves a cast iron casserole pot like a Le Crueset or Dutch oven with a lid. In a pinch I've used a heavy pot with a cast iron frying pan for a lid. Also, a pizza stone helps though is not essential. I use sourdough, which I will address at the end, but you can also use dry yeast quite easily.
Here is the basic recipe:
4 cups flour (any type, but bread flour for much of it will give you more gluten strands and a more open, lacy structure)
3 large (three fingered) pinches of salt (I prefer kosher, but whatever)
1 large pinch of dry yeast if going that route
Once that is mixed, stir in 2 cups warm water. If using sourdough, mix in a pint of starter. You want a shaggy, wet dough that holds its shape but is definitely wet. Don't agonize. Stir only until all the dough is hydrated. Cover bowl with a plate and let rise 8-30 hrs. That's right, it's not a typo. You will get different results but you will get a perfectly fine loaf of bread.
I generally shoot for mixing up a dough in the afternoon, baking the next morning. If going more than 18 hours or so (which I would only do if I couldn't bake earlier), I might gently fold the dough halfway through, right in the bow, and let it rise again.
Half an hour before you want to bake, preheat your oven, a pizza stone if you got one and your pot with lid to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure to replace the knob on your pot with a bolt and wingnut if the knob is plastic, because this temperature will melt it.
Lay out a dishtowel, sprinkle it liberally with flour, and then using your fingers, gently scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the towel. Fold the sides of the dough in to the center, rotate 90 degrees and do it again. Wrap the towel around the dough and let rise until the oven has heated for thirty minutes.
Pull the pot out of the oven and remove the lid. Place the dough, still wrapped in the towel, into the pot, then gently lift two of the corners of the towel, unrolling the dough until it lands in the pot. Score the top of the loaf with a razor if desired. Replace lid and bake with lid on for thirty minutes. Remove lid and bake for fifteen more minutes. Remove bread from pot and prop up to cool.
There are a number of things you can do to streamline the process further. I fill the dough bowl with hot water while I deal with the dough, after which it is easy to clean. I walk outside to shake out the floured tea towel before I put it in the laundry. I don't bother washing the baking pot, ever. I store the bread, cut side down on the board, with no bag on it at all. It should stay delightful to eat for several days this way.
I have gone in and out of using sourdough starters for years, but recently have found the most success with my latest iteration. I created the starter by mixing flour and water and tossing some grapes that grew behind my house last fall into the batter. The bloom on grapes, apples and other fruit that hasn't been washed is the yeast you want to capture, but this yeast also exists all around us, so you don't strictly need this. I stirred this mixture each day and added more flour and water every other day for a week, at which point bubbles started to form, indicating that the yeast had taken hold.
I feed my starter whenever I make a bread dough, simply by mixing fresh flour and water into the same pint jar that I took the starter out of. The residue left in the jar does a great job of colonizing it. I calibrate how often I feed it and how much to how often I need to bake bread. Right now, I am baking a loaf a day with eight people sheltering in our house, so I basically leave a couple of tablespoons of starter in the jar, and mix it up full again with flour and water, and by the next day it is ready to go again. At other times I have fed it very sparingly so that the jar is full basically when I am ready to bake another loaf. Sometimes the starter can go flat and separate out and smell like alcohol, and all you need to do is feed it again to get it going. You can stick it in the fridge for months at a time if you need to.
Alternately, you can spread some out on a try and let it dry out completely and then freeze it. If you are reading this because you asked for some of the starter flakes I am giving away, then this is what you are getting. I've never done it, but my understanding is that if you soften the flakes in a bit of warm water, then mix in some flour and water, the yeast will recolonize that and you'll be off and running.
Good luck! Have fun! And feel free to ask me any questions.
Today I started pruning the Christmas tree groves, but really there was very little actual pruning of trees and much, much more clipping and cutting of the endless waves of saplings that grow up through the conifers, along with a certain amount of cutting all the extra growth from the balsam stumps themselves. There is so much of this to be done that I never get to all (or even most) of it in any given year.
As such it is a great example of overwhelming work, the kind of work that feels unbreakable, never ending, eternal. Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill. I have ten acres of trees, and each year I'm lucky if I can do this to two or three acres. My goal is to leave an area completely clean, all the trees well defined by clipping branches to make that clear 10" of trunk that helps people really see it, the right smaller trees and sprouts leapfrogging off the stump, and the general growth of the branches allowed only in the right directions where they won't crowd out the trees themselves. I cut back all saplings except those I'm keeping for poles (I need about 30 a year, a pace the local forest edges along the road can't sustain) and the really good ones I'm pruning up super high to grow into full sized trees. The undergrowth gets clipped when necessary, except for azaleas and rhododendrons, and paths get carefully cleared and all the brush piled up out of the way.
When I'm done with an area, I don't need to return to it for several years, and when I do it is in much better shape than it was originally. This process, leaning intensely on a portion each year, works much better than trying to do the minimum amount to everything. When I have tried to do the minimum amount to everything, nothing got better and in fact everything slowly slipped farther and farther into chaos.
I think this is a good approach when applied to any overwhelming work, one that you can never hope to completely take care of at any one time and that will continue to need work in the future. I take this approach to maintaining our house (each year I tackle the most pressing three projects) and with the grounds (I tend to ignore thickets or tangles of stuff until I tackle it completely). The important thing is to do just a bit, and to do it as thoroughly as possible, so that it won't need your attention for years to come.
Slowly, bit by bit, the ratchet of improvement lifts everything up.
Summertime holds so much promise. You wake up to a fan, and bare feet on the floor, and there is no fire to light in the stove, no snow to shovel. Getting dressed takes half a second, and everything is easy.
But then there are the other demands the season places on your time. The lawn needing to be mowed. The meadow needing to be mowed. The garden to be weeded and planted and fertilized and thinned and turned and planted again. The repairs to the house and the projects you would never undertake in the colder months, rebuilding the chicken run or clearing brush.
It is easy to lose the sense of ease that the summer brings. I used to work jobs (sailing, farming) that required me to work the hardest during the summer. More recently, I worked most weekends of the summer, either going to markets or teaching at home or elsewhere. There was money to be made and I was hungry to make it.
This year is the first year that I have deliberately refused to teach on the weekends, keeping them open instead for projects and family time. This is also the first year in many years that we have stayed on top of the garden, keeping it watered and weeded. Who knows? Maybe it will be the first year in many when I truly relax into the easy promise of summer.
One thing is for sure. It will only happen if I make that choice. Because that ease? That's a vacuum. And everything, at all times, tries to relentlessly fill a vacuum.
Here's how it works: I go through life cramming more and more into the space and time I have, until I hit a breaking point. With physical objects it manifests as a need to rearrange. With my time, this shows up as a need to recalibrate how I articulate TO MYSELF how I spend my time.
I am at one such moment. I sort of have known this was coming, but there are so many variables of how opportunities and obligations come my way that I don't know for sure if I'm there until I'm there.
I know I'm there when the story I tell myself of how I should be spending my time doesn't match up well with how I actually need to spend my time, and I find myself doing things like just now, axing out an order of blanks on a weekend, generally cramming more and more work into every available moment. Time to take a step back and review.
What's actually happening is several things are piling up, and I need to take a day or two to deal with them before filling more orders. I have two manuscripts needing to be edited by midweek; I need to write an article for the magazine and send all the articles and photos from all the contributors to our new format guy (very excited about that, but it does mean that I can't shove it off til later like I'd been planning); I need to box up and send out almost 50 polishers and burnishers; I need to do a regular post office run with all the orders from this last week and I need to prepare and make a bank deposit. That may all fit into tomorrow, but likely it will spill over into Tuesday, especially editing the manuscripts. Then, by chance, I'm teaching half of Wednesday, all of Thursday, and half of Friday. I have tried very hard to hold teaching to one day a week, but somehow I booked all of these.
To top it all off, I've been getting less and less certain of when I'm actually booking work now, as my day planner has gotten muddled. So today I actually ordered a new day planner, and I will be re-writing all orders from here on out, adding in all the new obligations I know of now, and we'll see where that gets me. I'm getting close to the cut-off date of when I need to close non-local orders for the year, and I won't know until I write everything out again.
So I'm due for a recalibration, and I need to clear the decks a bit. I'll see you on the other side.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.