Simple pole bean towers

I’m planting pole beans for the first time this year, in the hope that going vertical will give me maximum production in a minimum of space. (Don’t worry – I’m planting something like six varieties of bush beans, too.) As a result, I was in need of something for those pole beans to climb. As much as I love the beautiful bean trellises I see at the garden center, they weren’t in the garden budget. Instead, I came up with a simple DIY option that I’m hoping will work just as well.


A few months ago, I purchased a roll of 3-foot-wide galvanized steel fencing from Lowe’s for less than $30. I used part of it for my pea trellises, but I figured the rest could work for growing beans and squash, too.

To create a bean tower, I cut a six-foot length of the fencing, and then bent it lengthwise into a cylinder. I secured the sides together with zip ties (cut off the extra ends so they don’t look quite so junky) and stood the tower in the garden. I pounded three wooden stakes around it, and again secured it with zip ties. Easy, cheap, and hopefully effective. No serious storms have come through since I installed my new towers, so I’ll let you know how they hold up.


I planted the pole beans at the base of my new towers today. Bush beans will go in later this week, I think. Now I just need to figure out how to keep the rabbits away from the bean seedlings once they emerge!


What went down in the garden: April

A photo of a pig statue, painted hot pink.
Garden supervisor.

A lot has been happening in the garden this month, and I don’t just mean the addition of my new friend above. (She is still nameless – suggestions?) It always amazes me that, no matter how slowly I feel like the garden is moving, when I compare photos from last month and this month, so much has changed.
A few blossoms on my pea plants.
The peas are finally starting to bloom, which means that the first snap peas should be coming along soon. I’m trying to decide when to start the cucumbers at the base of these trellises — I know they’ll grow fast, and I don’t want to cut pea season short.
A big green strawberry sits on the dirt.
Last year’s strawberry plants are starting to fruit, and there are several handfuls of little green berries. Every day I check for the first signs of blush. I’ve been debating the merits of covering this raised strawberry bed in bird netting so I can actually eat some of the berries – I think I’ll probably go for it, as long as I remember to buy netting.
A shot of a pepper plant from above. A freshly planted tomato plant in a blue metal cage.I finally broke down and bought a few tomato and pepper plants to get started. I haven’t totally given up on mine, but they’re still so tiny, and I was starting to worry that nothing would ever ripen. If mine get big enough, I still think I can find some room to tuck them in later in the season.
A wide shot of the garden on April 26, 2016. It's still mostly dirt, but a little more green than last month.
The main garden bed is finally boasting a tiny bit of green, and more should come soon. Our heat/rain cycle lately means that I need to spend some time playing catch-up on weeding, but my plants are starting to perform, too. I’ve been harvesting radishes, lettuce, spinach and baby kale for salads (see my monthly totals, below). Bean seeds are going to go in the ground tomorrow or Thursday, once the major storms in our forecast blow by. Those wooden stakes lying in the garden path in the photo above are waiting to secure a pole bean tower.

Even as I wish for the crazy growth of summer, I’m trying to appreciate the little joys of spring. The irises have just stopped blooming, the spirea is putting on its lovely show, and my pink peonies and roses should start bursting open any day. The weather is heavenly (when it’s not raining), and we even set up our new hammock for some relaxing evenings in the yard.

A blooming spirea bush covered in white blossoms.
The spirea is putting on its annual show.

April’s Harvest Totals (so far):
Radishes – 1 lb., 15 oz. (57 radishes and greens)
Spinach – 2.4 oz.
Lettuce Mix – 9.6 oz.
Delaway Kale – 2.2 oz.
Oregano – 0.1 oz.

Sometimes you need a good rain

A hand holding a bunch of dirt-covered radishes.
A handful of radishes just pulled from the ground.

We got a good rain here yesterday. For most of the day, it fell steadily, and in the afternoon it flat-out poured.

Stuck inside all day, I missed my garden, so when the skies cleared in the early evening, I hurried out to see how everything was doing.

A transformation had taken place.

An overhead shot of a healthy kale plant with drops of rain.

Peas reach onto a trellis, finally higher than the garlic.

In the dry days before, the garden had been looking a little sad. And if I’m being honest, I’d been frustrated. The plants grew so slowly. They looked scrawny, and a little-off color. And every critter and insect was eating its fill, so soon in the season!

But after that good rain, the garden looked a little different. The greens were lush, and healthy-looking, even as they bowed under the weight of the water droplets. The peas seemed to have grown six inches during the day. Each plant looked beautiful, standing out in contrast against the dark, damp soil.

A close-up of a radish just starting to push itself out of the ground.A strawberry blossom against the dark wet wood of the raised bed.
I’m not sure if the garden changed in the rain, or if it just looked better in the sparkly aftermath. Maybe a little of both. I’ve been struggling lately, too, feeling worn out, unproductive, stuck. But for a moment, in the sweet, cool garden, even I felt refreshed, more ready for a season to come.

Sometimes you just need a good rain.
A bowl of lettuce covered in raindrops.

Lessons Learned: Vol. 1

If failure is the best way to learn, boy, do I learn a lot from my garden. It seems like every week there’s something that I wish I’d known sooner. Too often, though, these little lessons slip by barely noticed, and I make the same mistake the next year. I thought I’d start a running series of posts about these “lessons learned,” in the hope that I can prevent repeat errors.

A very small red lettuce plant.
This tiny lettuce has been here for weeks and weeks, and has hardly grown at all.

1. The small garden bed next to the fence on the south side of our yard is too shady to grow vegetables. I hoped that the partial sun would still be enough for cool season crops, like radishes, spinach, and lettuce. In fact, I even hoped the shade would extend the season for lettuce. Instead, everything I’ve planted there is growing at a glacial pace. See that little lettuce start? It’s been there for weeks, and is only a tiny bit bigger than it was when it went in. On the plus side, herbs and partial-shade flowers seem to do well here, so that’s what I’ll focus on from now on.

A plastic label marks the home of marigold seeds.
Finally got my act together and started labeling seeds.

2. Label your seeds! I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but every year I plant seeds and fail to label them, despite knowing that I’ll be searching for lost seedlings in a week or two. I even planted my new rhubarb right on top of some flower seeds I’d sewn earlier. I’m resolving to do better, as evidenced by this marigold marker.

3. Mulch the garlic with straw. I did this the first year I grew garlic, but this year I was too lazy to find straw, and I figured it would be fine. It probably would have been, except for the lousy squirrels. They keep digging around the garlic, displacing the planted cloves, exposing the growing bulbs, and generally wreaking havoc. I’m thinking the mulch might have prevented some of their antics. Next year, garlic, I promise.

Cucumber starts that are clearly too big for their britches.
Cucumbers are bursting out of their start containers, but not ready to go anywhere yet – oops.

4. Don’t start cucumber and zucchini seedlings indoors. This is apparently common garden knowledge that seems to have escaped me. I just learned that cuke and zuke starts don’t transplant well – some people have even reported that their starts produced cucumbers LATER than the seeds sewn directly into the garden did! Of course, I learned this after I started seeds, and now I’ve got eager seedlings with nowhere to go yet. I might start from scratch, or tuck these somewhere I wasn’t planning to grow cucumbers and see if they make it. I’m cursing myself for taking up valuable grow-light real estate for no reason.

5. Thin radishes right away. Luckily, I’ve had some radish success so far this year, but I recently learned that I was thinning them too late. You want to get them two inches apart as soon as their first true leaves appear, to give the roots plenty of time to grow. Otherwise, they might never “radish up.” I’ve become a relentless radish thinner!

Sweet gums ring a kale start. They failed to protect the first one.
Don’t be fooled: Those sweet gums didn’t protect that kale plant. That’s the second start that’s gone in that spot.

6. Sweet gums are not an effective rabbit deterrent. Who knows where I read this – don’t believe everything on the internet, kids! – but it seemed logical to me. If I were a rabbit, I wouldn’t want to step on these prickly things. Plus, we have an abundance in our neighborhood. I picked up a few and surrounded my kale starts. Two mornings later, the starts were munched and the sweet gums undisturbed. Major fail. Of course, I still haven’t found anything that DOES work against rabbits, although I’ve got a couple more folk tales to try out. Have you had any luck? Tell me your secrets!

Garden data

A picture of a digital kitchen scale. Fair warning: my gardening is hitting the next level of nerdery this year.

Inspired once again by Rosalind Creasy’s approach to edible landscaping, I’m determined to keep some careful records of the yield in my vegetable garden. (Go here for an article about how Creasy planted a 100-square-foot garden and then tracked its yield.)

Screen shot of an excel spreadsheet tracking harvest quantities of each variety of produce in my garden.
Click on the spreadsheet image if you’d like to see it bigger.

To that end, I bought a new kitchen scale this weekend (the last one met a sad end in a sink of soapy water), and designed a pretty spreadsheet for myself. As soon as the garden starts producing, I’ll weigh and track what I harvest. I’ll also research grocery store and farmers market prices for each item, so that I can come up with a “value” estimate. Of course, nothing can account for the value of growing a pepper outside my door and being able to pluck it right before dinner. But still – there’s something interesting about knowing exactly how much your garden creates, and what you would spend to purchase that same amount of produce elsewhere.

Why am I trying this project? Curiosity, mostly – this winter, when I thought about what had produced well in last year’s garden, I realized that many things had actually done quite well, even though I had thought of the year as a “failure.” Having hard data offers on objective look at the garden’s production. Plus, there’s some useful information that could be gleaned: Over how long of a period does a certain crop produce? Does it fall off so much in its last month that it would be better to pull it out and put in something else? Are some crops more worth growing than others, especially when compared to their grocery store value?

I’ll keep you posted on the garden’s production in my monthly updates. And if you’re ever tracked your garden’s production, let me know in the comments how it worked out and what you learned!


What went down in the garden: March

Kale sprouts in early March (top) and late March (bottom) show how quickly spring growth happens.
Kale sprouts in early March (top) and late March (bottom) show how quickly spring growth happens.

A monthly round-up of garden activities seems like a relatively effective way to keep track of the garden’s progress, so here’s what’s been happening in March.

By now, I’ve started three varieties of kale, three types of lettuce, six peppers, three tomatoes, four basil, two chives, chard, calendula, globe amaranth, parsley, cabbage, broccoli, cosmos, two types of cucumbers, zucchini, and summer squash. Whoa, that seems like a lot when I type it all out like that. They’re growing in four flats indoors under a rigged-up fluorescent light set-up, but whenever possible I take them out into the sunshine to toughen them up (and utilize the free energy).

Photo of seed trays from early March and late March.
Seed trays in early March (top) and late March (bottom) are making nice progress.

They’re sizing up nicely, and I’m hoping that the kale, cabbage and broccoli might be ready to plant out as early as next week. Just in time, too, because I (whoops) impulse-bought three more tomato varieties, and I have to find a place to get them going.

Garlic, radishes and strawberries are all looking happy at the end of March.
Garlic, radishes and strawberries are all looking happy at the end of March.

As for what’s already outside, the radishes and peas are coming along nicely, and the garlic I planted in the fall has really started to take off. Scapes will be here before we know it! The strawberries I planted last month look happy, too, and I’ve been pinching off their blossoms to encourage them to grow strong and root deeply. We planted a few strawberries last year, too, so I’m hoping those might bear fruit while the others settle in.

Radish sprouts and sage plant with light coat of frost.
Radish sprouts and sage were kissed by frost, but seem fine.

Of course, at the end of last week, nature felt the need to give me a little reminder that it wasn’t quite through with the cold yet, and brought a nice coat of frost.

And then, a couple of days later on Easter, it went all-out with a dusting of snow. I get it, spring. I won’t get too far ahead of myself just yet. Fortunately, everything outside already is hardy and nothing looks worse for the wear. And frost-free days are coming soon!

Pea plants are several inches high, despite snow.
Despite a dusting of snow, the pea plants are going strong.

There are a handful of seeds in the main bed, too – radishes, beets, carrots, spinach, lettuce, bachelor’s buttons, etc. – but I’m still waiting to see everything but the radishes. No matter how many times I watch seeds sprout, I’m still skeptical that it will happen the next time. So my fingers are crossed that I’ll start to see more growth soon – and that April will bring the first of the bounty!

These container designs are sketchy

The two whiskey half-barrels that I picked up in February are already sprouting with their first round of plantings, so it’s high time to share the plans I dreamed up for them. As I re-read The Bountiful Container, I took the advice about planning for visual appeal and seasonal changes to heart, and created spring and summer versions of each planter.   Two sketches show designs for spring and summer versions of barrel 1.

Barrel One: The spring arrangement for this planter features Delaway Kale (it came with my Seed Savers membership this year). Around it, I’ve planted a row of Bull’s Blood beets, and they are surrounded by the Seed Saver’s Lettuce Mix. The outermost ring is cherry bell radishes.

For summer, the centerpiece of barrel one is a Principe Borghese tomato plant  (a favorite variety, and determinate, so it should do OK in the container). It will be surrounded by bush beans of various colors, and the whole container will be ringed with Globe Basil. Two sketches show designs for spring and summer versions of barrel 2.Barrel Two: To the back of this barrel, I attached about three feet of fencing to provide a trellis. For spring, Green Arrow snap peas will send up tendrils. In front of them, I’ve planted Albino beets, spinach, and a mix of radishes and Paris Market carrots.

For summer, the peas will be replaced by Minnesota Midget melons, which are supposed to have well-behaved 3-foot vines. In front of them, I’ll transplant miniature yellow bell peppers. The carrots from spring will hang out through the season, and the front of the container will feature Tip Top Nasturtium to add to the yellow and orange color scheme.

Time will tell if the real-life barrels bear any resemblance to these sketches – or if my seasonal timing will even work! I’ll keep you posted.

I took a chance on early peas. Worth it?

Shelling peas about an inch tall, planted Feb. 21.
Shelling peas planted Feb. 21.

I am an impatient gardener under normal circumstances. But give me gorgeous, spring-like weather in February, and I’m likely to do things that are…inadvisable.

The prep of my expanded vegetable bed helped with my garden longing this year, since I was too sore to do much else. My hands were still dirty at the end of the day, so I felt like I was doing SOMETHING. Starting seeds indoors helped, too.

But before long, temperatures in the 70s and lovely packets of pea seedlings resulted in the inevitable: I planted seeds on February 21.

February 21.

That’s a good three weeks earlier than you’re supposed to plant peas around here. Was I crazy, I wondered? Probably. Would the peas fail? I told myself they would. But still: The forecast was promising, and I just could not wait a moment longer.

In went the peas, three varieties, on the far edge of my garlic beds beneath the new trellises. And then I waited, and watched, and waited.

And waited.

A little panicky, I started researching what would happen if I started peas too soon (sure, it would have been smart to do that research BEFORE planting, but who has time to be smart when the weather is freakishly warm?). Sure enough, the experts pointed out, seeds are slow to germinate in cold soil, and might not sprout at all.

I bit my nails and waited some more.

Shelling peas grow about an inch above the soil
Shelling peas planted Feb. 21.

Finally, on March 6, right on the edge of their 7- to 14-day germination window, the first pea pushed its way out of the soil. Over the next few days, others followed.


Snap and snow peas are already about two inches tall.
Snap and snow peas, planted Feb. 21. Disregard that lost garlic in the middle – I think the squirrels helped move it over the winter. It will be pulled out to eat as green garlic soon.

They’re growing merrily now, and I hope they’ll reach up and take advantage of their new trellises soon. For comparison, I planted more shelling peas in one of my whiskey barrels on March 6. I could see the first of those poking up on March 10 – much faster! Despite being planted two weeks later than the first round of peas, they’re less than a week behind. It’ll be interesting to see whether there’s any notable difference in the two plantings as they grow and produce peas.

Later planted shelling peas just above the surface.
These peas, planted March 6, are just coming up.

The lesson here is probably that it’s not worth it to plant peas early. But in reality, when the forecast looks good, and the need for spring is getting desperate — sometimes, you just can’t wait. And that might not be such a catastrophic thing.

Shelling peas in whiskey barrels just starting to sprout.
Shelling peas planted in whiskey barrel on March 6.

Inspiration for the 2016 Garden

After last year’s major gardening slump, I was in need of some inspiration to get me revved up again. And boy, did I find it. A handful of blogs and books have me excited about gardening again, and have convinced me to think about vegetable planting in a whole new way.

First, two blogs that have been particularly inspiring to me this year:

Logo for Living HomegrownLiving Homegrown: Written by Theresa Loe, who is also an executive producer of PBS’ Growing a Greener World, this blog is packed with great content on gardening and canning, another love of mine. This winter, Living Homegrown introduced me to the term “foodscaping” (see more below), which has me totally re-envisioning my garden. There is also a wonderful weekly Living Homegrown podcast that I recommend checking out.

Favorite posts:
Why You Should Rethink Food Growing
Ten Show-Stopping Edibles
8 Delicious Ways to Use Up Leftover Preserves

Logo for NW Edible LifeNorthwest Edible Life: Erica’s blog is full of no-nonsense advice no matter what level of “homesteading” you embrace. I love her tips on vegetable gardening, and she also has plenty of recipes, food preserving advice, and even how-to posts on topics like making your own soap and home-brewing. Both Theresa and Erica have given me serious chicken envy, too. I’m not quite ready for my own coop, but I love vicariously experiencing theirs.

Favorite posts:
Lawn to Garden in a Single Weekend
How to Make Succession Planting and Year-Round Gardening Really Work
Which Seed-Starting Supplies Are Worth It? And Which Aren’t?

A1F8vI99cmLNext, the books. A post on Living Homegrown (I think) led me to the work of Rosalind Creasy. Creasy is a pioneer in edible landscaping, or what has popularly been termed “foodscaping.” I picked up her book “Edible Landscaping” during the depths of winter when I was most in need of encouragement, and it is full of envious landscapes. The idea behind foodscaping is to grow edible plants as if they were ornamentals, taking factors such as plant shape and size, texture, foliage color, and blooms into consideration. Rather than utilitarian rows, you end up with a cottage-style garden that is both productive and beautiful! Edible Landscaping even includes photos of the experimental foodscapes that Creasy has planted in her own front yard over the years. As I tackle arranging edibles in my expanded backyard veggie beds, I’ll be turning to these inspirational images again and again.

The cover of "The Bountiful Container"I actually purchased a copy of McGee and Stuckey’s Bountiful Container a few years ago. It’s packed with useful information, and when I first bought it, I was a little overwhelmed by everything there was to learn. But when I picked it back up this winter while planning the 2016 garden, I was motivated anew to try some of the authors’ tips and planting arrangements. I’ll be using a lot of the advice here in deciding how to fill my two new whiskey barrel containers.

What resources are serving as your garden inspiration this year?

Changes to the garden in 2016

The view of the garden from the driveway.
The 2016 garden, waiting.

This is my most impatient time of the year.

Sure, there are seeds sprouting inside, and I’m trying to get a jump on some early peas. The garlic I planted in October is poking up through the soil. But I am restless, eager for the sun to come out and the soil to warm so we can really get going in the soil.

To give myself something to do while I wait (not to mention fulfill this year’s goal of expanding the veggie garden), I’ve been busy making some changes.

You can see here where we put in three raised beds and carved out a tiny section of lawn for gardening last year.

This year, we went a step farther, encroaching even more onto the lawn. (Less to mow = happy Kate!) The bed might look awkward, sticking out into the grass, but I keep reminding myself that it’s part of abigger plan. Someday, I hope to install a patio in the back of the yard, and then the veggie garden will butt up against it.

Plastic landscape edging carves out a section of lawn where the expanded vegetable bed will go.
Vegetable bed expansion in progress. Forgive the photo from my phone, taken after a long day of working.

After roping off the new bed with some plastic landscape edging, I heaped the doomed lawn with several inches of soil and several inches of compost. I’m crossing my fingers that will be enough to smother the grass and create nice, fertile soil. It might not be perfect this year, but I think next year’s garden will be in great shape. I’m trying to remember that I’m in it for the long haul, now that we’ll be here for a while.

A small strip of soil against the south fence is edged and mulched with compost.
Tiny strip of land against the south fence. More herbs, flowers and maybe leafy greens will go here this year.

While I was at it, I also edged the strip of land next to our driveway, against the south fence. These herbs flourished last year, which convinced me that it was worth trying to plant more there. Wherever I can snatch up a few extra inches of soil!

A photograph of my garden, with changes labeled.
A closer look at the changes for this year.

This year, I’m also hoping to get more cut flowers in the ground. I added compost to a couple of neglected beds in the back corner of the yard and along the opposite fence and finished them off with some mulch. These beds are too close to questionable neighbor gardening tactics (and neighbors working on cars) to make me comfortable about growing edibles there, but I’m hoping to fill them with flowers and get a grip on the weeds that tend to take over by July.

View of the garden from the west, standing at the back of the yard and looking toward the house.
A view of the garden from my imaginary future patio.

How are you passing the time in the garden early in the season?