I’ve been sitting on a pile of Reader Questions for awhile. I love your questions – they’re the best source of inspiration and really help shape what I write about!
It’s my experience that if one person has a question, 20,000 people have that question. And if I don’t have an answer – one of you will, because readers of this blog are very smart people (also witty, charming, and exceedingly good looking).
So I think it’s time to haul our Reader Question series out of mothballs and tackle a few, don’t you?
This round: expanding a garden in Spring, the best gardening tools, why we homestead, sand in the chicken coop and more.
Best Way To Expand My Garden In Spring?
We are expanding our in-ground garden (yes I should have started in the Fall but with early pregnancy sickness I was too damn lazy). How do I expand the garden this late in the year? Right now it is sod. We have a rototiller and we also own a tractor but everything I have been reading is telling me to not disrupt the soil with those means.
The more I read, the more confused I am. I know you utilize raised beds but was wondering if you had any recommendations. Thank you for reading this drawn out email and thank you for the time you put into your blog.
I’d start by covering your sod where you want to garden with plain brown cardboard. Then I’d make deep-bed lasagna garden type mounds atop the cardboard with every bit of organic matter you can find – old straw, rotten manure, compost, chicken bedding, kitchen scraps, the worm bin contents – whatever you’ve got. Try to get 12-16 inches deep. Then top with a 4-6 inch layer of wood chips. Don’t mix wood chips in – keep them on top. Do this all right atop the cardboard-covered sod.
Then I’d cover the bed mounds with black plastic to help retain heat in winter and encourage microbial life to form as much as possible. You’re basically doing a giant compost-in-place bed at this point.
You can layer in mineral amendments right along with your organic matter no problem. In fact it’s a good idea to add some slow release nitrogen, like seed meal, to the mix as you go, just to counteract the nitrogen tie-up from the decomposition process. If your chicken bedding is sufficiently poop-covered don’t worry about this.
In spring, plant stuff that’s transplant-y, like tomatoes and squash, into the bed and make a kind of “hole” of potting soil within your mounds that you transplant into. This gives the plants a more “finished” soil around their baby roots, then as they grow they will go out into the mound to find what they need.
By next spring the whole thing should be so nicely broken down that you can direct seed without issue.
Advice on Homesteading in Bend, Oregon?
We are moving from Southern California, where we have a 10′ by 10′ backyard garden, to Bend, Oregon and 20 acres. I get to be the gardener in charge of growing as much food as possible for our 2 families. I am super excited but feeling overwhelmed. Any direction you could give this Northwest newbie would be much appreciated!
I’ve been to Bend a few times. It has a very unique, and a little challenging, climate. You’re basically high desert up there – so expect extreme temperature swings day to night, late frosts, and not too much rainfall.
If the goal is maximum food production, I’d look at setting up a hoop house as early as you can. The added season extension and moderating influence of crop protection for that climate will make a huge difference in your ability to consistently get two crops per year per chunk of land.
Grazing is good in Bend as I recall – goats might be an ideal livestock for you. Be very sensitive about water use and water catchment. The cheapest place to store water is in the ground. If you aren’t familiar with permaculture, please investigate swales on contour for an idea of how effective passive water harvesting can be if you just dig your ditches right.
Geoff Lawton has a series of free videos that might be useful. They are behind a subscription firewall, but they are free and totally worth it. On 20 acres, with thoughtful design, you can build yourself a paradise.
Any gardeners from Bend able to weigh in on this?
What Are The Best Gardening Tools?
Do you have any advice on selecting the best gardening tools?
I sure do!
First – you need fewer things than you think. Second – some of my favorite gardening tools aren’t super expensive. So while you do generally get what you pay for, there are some really clever tools out there that don’t cost an arm and a leg.
I recommend skipping the “garden sets” that you see at big box stores – you know, they usually have a trowel, a hand fork, some useless cotton gloves, and a bucket. Those things are terrible.
Here are my top 5 essentials:
For almost everything, you want a soft, flexible glove with nitrile dipped fingers to keep your hands dry and give you great grip. I buy mine 6 pairs at a time, so I (usually) manage to have a complete set clean and dry. Gloves like this are great.
2. Japanese Hand Tools
The last name in hand pruners is Felco, and they make some exceedly great tools. But, I discovered last Spring that Costco has released a Kirkland signature brand of hand pruners that are perfect Felco knock-offs. So if you’re a Costco member and you want to save some coin, check out the house brand clippers.
With the money you save, you can buy a Felco folding hand saw – essential for pruning anything too large to tackle with your pruners.
4. A Good Hoe
Slop giggling. We all need a really great hoe.
I strongly prefer the style of hoe called stirrup, scuffle or hula. This type of hoe looks like a metal stirrup, like you’d find dangling from a horse’s saddle. It cuts weed roots on both the forward and back stroke, and I feel strongly that a hoe should do excellent work on both the push and the pull.
I’m not too picky about brand. This one gets good reviews.
5. Metal, Flexible Rake
I love rakes! I have 6, I think. But my absolute, all purpose favorite is my spring metal rake. This is a rake with about 9,000 tines*, all made of thin, flexible metal. Again I’m not a snob about brand – I just want something sturdy, with tines that keep their shape and a handle that will last despite my inevitable neglect. The rake I love is very similar to this one.
How Is The Sand In The Chicken Coop?
Do you still use sand in your coop? Also, what do you recommend to use as a floor in any outside runs? I don’t have grass in the area I want to make an additional run and wondered what would be best to put down.
I do still use sand, and I really like it! The coop floor and inner run are both sand, and we’ve been very happy with how it’s performed. Our yard has a high water table and the improved drainage from the sand has helped keep the coop clean(ish) and dry.
In the outside run, I typically use arborists wood chips because they are free, high carbon, and great at absorbing chicken poo. When the chicken manure and wood chips are composted together, they make a really lovely soil amendment. I don’t recommend straw outside in the Pacific Northwest – if it stays wet it tends to mat down and get quite moldy and full of icky spores.
Help! Great Looking Greenhouse?
I need a plan to build a greenhouse that looks great architecturally and is large enough to possibly accommodate some in-ground tomatoes, to extend their growing season.
I know that this may be out of the realm of this forum, but that is what I need. :-)
It’s true – once you go greenhouse, you never go back. The greenhouse I have – a small Juliana model – is pretty functional looking. For a really architecturally handsome option, I’d guess you’re hoping for something like this:
Unfortunately, of course, greenhouses like this come with a price tag to match their splash.
LSU’s Ag Department has a pretty comprehensive selection of greenhouse plans. I’d start there and see if anything strikes your fancy, then modify plans as needed to give you the look you’re after.
Do you know of any really great sites for greenhouse plans?
Why Do You Homestead?
Why do you homestead? I mean, I think there are lots of answers to the question and a main one would be to know where our food comes from but why is that important to so many people all of a sudden? I’m pretty fascinated by the ‘why’ of people’s actions.
Yes, it’s saving money and food confidence and the political statement and the lovely challenge of it all. But more than that, it’s simply that I love the life.
I can’t answer this question for anyone but me, of course, and homesteaders come in all shapes, sizes, and acreage levels. But I feel like I’m more who I really am when I live this way. I feel like my practical life is more aligned with the values that shape my aspirational life. And the feeling of closing that gap makes me happy.
I suppose I could embrace the good fortune that allows me to be a stay at home mom and spend my hours shopping at Target and getting my toes painted (I do live in suburbia, after all), but that kind of thing makes me want to punch myself in the throat. So I do what I do because it feels like a more honest expression of me. And that makes me happy.
Want more? I tackled this issue in a bit more depth here back in 2012.
This answer will be different for everyone – so tell me, why do you homestead?
Want to ask me a question?
It’s easy, and I’d love to feature your question on next month’s Q&A! Just follow these steps to make it easier for me to answer your question:
- Send me an email with “Question for Erica” in the subject line.
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- Start a new paragraph and provide any additional details that are relevant to your question.