Growing Sweet Potatoes in a Small Garden

Freshly harvested sweet potatoes

Freshly harvested sweet potatoes

I LOVE sweet potatoes.  LOVE them.  Tasty.  Pretty.  Healthy.  Easy to grow (seriously, super easy).  Store well. You don’t need to devote a lot of space to them, either.  As a result, they are a staple in my little backyard garden.

A Sweet Potato in the hand

Growing these little orange jewels in Texas is pretty straight forward and relatively problem free. The biggest issue I have with them is controlling the wealth of vines the sweet potatoes try and spread out across the garden.  Left to their own devices, those vines would cover half my backyard like something out of a sci-fi film!  But as long as you don’t leave them to fend for themselves for long periods, you can tame those enthusiastic vines.

So…where do you start? Well, you are going to plant your sweet potatoes in the Spring, so you need to start preparing your slips in February.  “Slips” are the little sweet potato shoots you plant in the garden that grow into your sweet potatoes.  You can buy them from nurseries and from many sources online….or you can grow your own, like I do.  Much like my post about growing white potatoes, if you want to grow your own sweet potato slips, you need to head to the store and buy a few sweet potatoes.  If you buy from a nursery or online, you will know the exact variety of sweet potato you are growing, but if you buy from the grocery store, you will not.  I know that I prefer sweet potatoes that are dark orange, so I look for that type in the store.  I buy a few, bring them home, and cook one.  If it is the tasty thing I was hoping for, I sprout the remaining sweet potatoes.  If it wasn’t what I was looking for, I head back to the store.  You will have the most luck sprouting organic sweet potatoes, so opt for those if you can.

Okay, so now you have a handful of sweet potatoes you know you like.  Now what?  Here’s the super hard part.  Ready?  You set them out on your kitchen counter and leave them alone.  Difficult, right?  Just let those sweet potatoes sit there until they start to sprout out of one end.

Sprouted Sweet Potato

Now that you have some sprouting going on, you need to put the other end of the sweet potato in some water and set it in a sunny spot, like on a window sill.  I usually use a small jar for this.  To be clear, you put the end with NO sprouts coming out of it in the water, and the sprouted end is the one on top.

Sprouted Potato in a jar

As you can see from this picture above, the potato will continue to grow sprouts out the top, and little roots on the bottom.  Each of those little sprouts on the top are a “slip.”  You can get quite a few from one potato.  I usually just need to sprout two sweet potatoes to get all the slips I will need, and then some.

Once your slips are several inches long, and have a leaf or two forming, you can remove them from the sweet potato and plant them immediately in the garden.  It doesn’t matter if they get a little longer and more leafy before you plant them (like the one below), so don’t feel pressured to rush them into the garden if it’s not warm enough outside yet. You want to set them out when it is warm during the day and all danger of frost has past.

If you feel good about it being the right time to plant, then you are going to want to snip each slip off the potato with sharp, clean scissors – right at the point where it comes out of the potato.

Sweet potato slip

One note – you don’t have to cut them all off at once.  If several are big enough to cut off and plant, but a few aren’t, then remove the ones that are ready and set the potato with the remaining sprouts, still attached, back on the window sill.  Once they have grown a little more, you can snip them off and plant them with the others in the garden.

Now that you have your slips ready to go, you need a good spot for them in the garden. Sweet potatoes are root vegetables, so they will a need nice, deeply tilled, sunny patch that is relatively free of rocks.  Rocks, and other obstacles, will cause the sweet potatoes to grow crooked.

Bent Sweet Potato

Bent Sweet Potato

Looks a little like a boomerang!  (Still tasty, though!)

Root vegetables also need well drained soil – they will rot in the ground if they get water logged.  Squishy, rotted, potatoes….ew.

How big a patch you decide on, will depend on how many potatoes you want to grow.  I usually plant about 7 slips in a square that is roughly  2′ 6″ x  2′ 6″ – and from that small space I am harvest enough sweet potatoes to get me through the Winter.

So, pick your spot, make sure it gets plenty of sun, make sure it doesn’t get water logged, till it up nice a deep, remove all the rocks and other debris you can, and add in a little compost if you think your soil needs it.

Time to plant!  Sweet potatoes grow in a cone shape below the main plant (which will be the grown up version of that slip you are about to plant), so you want to leave a least a 8 inches or so between slips.  Planting the slips is almost as hard as that “setting them on the counter” thing you did earlier.  You take that cute little slip and…drum roll….stick it into the dirt.

Planting the slip

That’s really it…you just gently push the slip into the soil a few inches.

CU of slip being planted

Boom!  Sweet potato planted!  The little baby slips will need to be kept watered for a few days till they establish roots and can move on to a more regular watering like the rest of your garden.  You don’t want them soaked all the time, just don’t let the sprouts dry out completely for a few days.  After that, your sweet potatoes will be off to the races – meaning they will start sending out vines like you wouldn’t believe!  Seriously, they will grow all over the place if you let them.  So before that starts happening and your garden is overrun, you will need a plan.  I have found placing a trellis in the ground right behind the sweet potato patch when I plant a good solution.  Then as the vines grow, I toss them up on to the trellis (they won’t agree to this on their own, you will have to direct the vines yourself).

Sweet Potato Vines

Don’t be fooled by this picture – this was still early in the season when the vines were just getting going.

You can trim back particularly long or unruly vines if you need to, but since the vines are the potatoes’ source for gathering sunlight you will need to leave plenty to feed the sweet potatoes.

One note more on the vines.  Vines laying on the ground will, eventually, send down roots that will grow more sweet potatoes.  Those sweet potatoes won’t grow fast enough to really show up this year – they will be the ones that spring up in your garden next year.  So, if you allow your vines to sprawl happily through your garden, then next year you will have little sweet potato plants sprouting in unexpected places.  This may, or may not, be okay with you, so plan accordingly.  Since one or two vines are bound to get away from you somehow, even with your diligence, this is going to happen to you a few times.  Depending on where they pop up, it might be a pleasant surprise.  On the plus side, it’s not like they are invasive in some way.  Just a few errant sweet potatoes now and then.

The mighty fur beast guarding the sweet potato patch

The mighty fur beast guarding the sweet potato patch

When to harvest?  It will take all Summer long and into the Fall for your sweet potato crop to mature.  If you are in the mood for a sweet potato in late Summer, and your soil is loose enough, you can gently stick your hand down into the soil near one of the plants and see if you can find a potato of adequate size for your dinner.  They are attached to the main plant by a small root, so they are easy to snip off, leaving the rest of the plant undisturbed.  As for the remainder of the crop, you will know all the sweet potatoes are ready to harvest when the vines begin to die off.

Dying vines

Dying vines

When this happens, it’s time to dig.  Ever so gently, so you don’t damage the potatoes, dig up the entire patch.  I tend to go about it like an archaeologist – I dig slowly and carefully, unearthing one potato at a time.

Just uncovered

Be sure to over turn the entire area in your hunt – some sweet potatoes manage to wander a bit from the rest of the group.

Fresh out of the ground

Ah!  Orange deliciousness.

A pretty big reward, for relatively little work.

Big bowl of Sweet Potatoes

I’m sure you have your favorite way to prepare these nutritious powerhouses, but here are two of mine.

Baked Sweet potato

You can’t go wrong with the baked sweet potato – they also cook up nicely wrapped in foil on the grill.

But one you may not have ever tried, is oven baked sweet potato disks.

Sweet Potato disks

You just peel the sweet potato, slice really thin (like with a mandolin), toss with olive oil and pepper, spread on parchment paper, and bake at 350º till just starting to brown. You do have to keep an eye on them towards the end – they go from perfect to burned in seconds.

That’s it!  Even the garden with a small area to work with can grow sweet potatoes!  And devoting the space for them is so worth it!  Now get out there and garden!

Advertisements

Potato Towers – Growing Potatoes in a Small Garden

PotatoesI love potatoes.  LOVE them.  Baked, fried, mashed, in soups and in curries – you name it, I love it.  With such a deep fondness I had no choice but to try my hand at growing these starchy little jewels in my small backyard garden.  But what is a fervent gardener with a love for potatoes and a tiny space to grow them in to do?  My solution for most space related garden issues is to go vertical, so naturally that is what I did with my potatoes.   Not only were the planting and hilling processes super easy with these towers, but harvest was an absolute snap.  Potato towers are now a permanent addition to my Spring garden.

The first thing you are going to need are seed potatoes.  You can buy them online from garden sites, get them from your local nursery, or take your chances with that store bought potato that started sprouting on the counter.  Online you will have to buy in large quantity – way more quantity than my little garden needed – but at your local nursery, you may be able to buy by the potato instead.  As for the store bought one that you didn’t get around to eating before it started sending out shoots, the only real issue with those is that they are often treated with a chemical to slow the sprouting process, which is not awesome when what you are after is a thriving potato plant.  But if what you purchased is an organic potato, or if it is sprouting with great enthusiasm, then I say plant it.  The red potatoes in this post were all purchased as seed potatoes from my favorite local nursery, but the Yukon Gold potatoes were ones that managed to sprout before I had cooked them up and stuffed them in my face.  I got a pretty good yield from both.

If you purchased seed potatoes, you are going to need to get them to sprout before you can move on to planting.  You will want to place them in a warm dry place for a few days to a week to get those little buds going.  Be sure to buy your seed potatoes early enough to allow time for this.  In Dallas, you will want to plant your potatoes sometime in February, so it is a good idea to get your seed potatoes by mid to late January to give them time to sprout, as well as cure (I’ll talk about that in a minute).

Alrighty, so you have a nice little pile of potatoes with sprouts on them…now what?

Sprouted YukonFirst, be careful not to break off any of those cute little sprouts.  Those babies are the potato plants of tomorrow – the parents of your potato harvest to come.

Sprouted Yukons ready for cuttingSecond, you need to decide whether or not to cut the potatoes into smaller pieces.  You want at least 2 or 3 sprouted eyes per planted potato, so if you potatoes are small, you may want to leave them in one piece.  But if you have larger potatoes, you may want to cut them…which is what I decided to do.

Sliced YukonsAfter I finished with the Yukon Golds, it was time to do the same with the red potatoes.  Next step is let your potatoes dry, or cure, for 3 or 4 days so the cut sides can scab over.  I laid mine out on a baking sheet with parchment paper and wrote the variety names on that parchment paper so I wouldn’t loose track of which ones where which.  You don’t want to put them in an airtight container since you want them to dry out at this point, not rot.

Cut PotatoesWhile your potatoes are busy sprouting and curing, you can get their new home in the garden all ready for them.

I decided to grow the two varieties of red potatoes in towers and plant the Yukon Gold in the ground – giving me a good comparison of the two methods.  For the towers, I used part of a roll of this green welded wire.

wire rollHere is a view of the label so you can see exactly what I used, but anything similar that is easy enough to form into a cylinder, but sturdy enough to hold it’s shape will do the trick.

Welded WireFigure out how large a cylinder you want to make, measure out that much of your wire mesh, and snip snip snip.

cutting the wireForm your mesh into a cylinder and secure it.  In the case of the mesh I used, I was able to secure the structure by bending in the ends of the wire on one side and wrapping it around the wire from the connecting side.  I apologize for bad focus on the following picture…it’s kinda hard to take pictures and bend wire at the same time…and the dog is no good with a camera.

building the towerIf the previous steps have gone well, you should now have something that looks a little like this:

The wire TowerNow you are probably saying, “Laura, you are nuts!  If you put dirt in that thing it will just fall right out through those big holes!”

You are so right!  Those big holes allow plenty of light in during the growing process, unlike a closed cylinder like a bucket, but will let the dirt OUT if we don’t do something about it.  My initial answer to this problem?  Burlap.  (I will explain why it was my “initial” plan in just a moment.)

You get yourself a nice big strip of burlap and measure it into a length slightly more than the circumference of your tower and about two feet tall.

BurlapAnd roll it into a nice little tube of burlap.

 

Rolling the BurlapPut your potato tower in place, secure it will some sort of stakes, and put the burlap roll into the base of the tower, with the loose end facing down.  You want it arranged so that  as you unroll the burlap up the sides over time, you unroll from the inside out.

Putting the burlap in the towerPart of growing potatoes, is hilling up dirt around the plants as they grow.  This burlap roll lets you do that without having to add new strips of burlap each time you hill.  The plan is to tuck the end under the dirt at the bottom of the tower, and then as you need to hill up the dirt over time, you can just unroll the burlap up the inside of the tower and then add your dirt – allowing for maximum sun for your plants, and minimal effort for you as the dirt level needs to rise.

Next, you add a layer of dirt to the bottom of the tower, securing the loose end of the burlap underneath it.

Putting the dirt in the towerIsn’t it adorable?  Of course it is.  Let’s talk dirt for a moment.  Potatoes need loose soil that is free of rocks, sticks, and other debris.  One of the many reasons these towers are perfect is the fact that you can give your potatoes the perfect soil in which to grow.  I used a mixture of Miracle Grow’s garden soil and a nice organic compost.  Mmmm, delicious.

Hopefully, by now, your potatoes are all sprouted, cut and cured.  Just one more step for them before they nestle into their new garden home.  They need a little dusting of sulfur.  The sulfur will help protect your little seed potatoes from disease an help keep them from rotting.  You can buy dusting sulfur at that same nursery where you bought your seed potatoes.  I live in Texas, the land of the evil chigger.  If you are not familiar with the chigger – lucky you – it is a nasty little insect that drills hole in your flesh that itch like nothing you have ever felt.  I love to hike, which can take me to places inhabited by the evil chigger and give them a chance to climb up my legs and make my life miserable for days.  To combat the evil chigger, I keep what is called a sulfur sock on hand –  you fellow Texans know exactly what I’m taking about – to smack around my shoes and ankles before heading out into chigger country.  It is basically a tube sock, filled with dusting sulfur, and tied in a knot at the top.  I found my trusty sulfur sock to be the perfect way to dust my little potatoes with sulfur without risking damage to those cute little sprouts.

Dusting with SulphurBe sure to avoid getting the sulfur in your mouth or eyes, and wash your hands thoroughly after you have finished handling the sulfur.

Now that our potatoes have a thin dusting of sulfur, it’s finally time to plant. The big dog says, “It’s about freaking time!  Let’s do this!”

Helper DogFor the red potatoes, I just placed them into their towers…

Planting the red potatoes…and covered them with more of that tasty dirt.  Last step was running my drip irrigation system into the towers…with enough slack to raise the emitters as the dirt level rises.

Ready TowersThe Yukon required a little more work.  I needed to dig a trench for them in front of the towers.

Digging a trench for the YukonsOnce I had a nice trench, I placed my Yukon Gold potatoes in neat little row.

Row of planted YukonsThey were then covered in the same delicious mix I used in the towers and were given water emitters as well.  Potatoes like water, but need to stay well drained or they will rot – another benefit of the tower is it’s natural drainage.

Alrighty.  The potatoes are all planted…nothing to do now, but wait.  The dog approves of our day’s work.

Dog Helping againSoon, sweet little baby potato plants will appear.

Baby potato shootsOnce they have grown up a good ten inches or so, you will want to start hilling – this basically just means adding dirt to your towers around the plants.  At the same time that I added soil to my towers, l hilled around my in-ground potatoes as well.  Your new potatoes will form from shoots sent out by the plants in this hilled dirt, so it is an important process.

Growing plantsAs you add soil to the towers, just unroll a bit of the burlap up the sides to hold the new dirt inside.  Super easy with the towers.

A little harder with my Yukons.  It was a little bit of a challenge to try and make an effective hill in such a small space without the walls of the tower to hold the dirt in place.

Growing YukonsIt was about this time in the process that I developed a problem with the burlap in the towers.  My plan was working perfectly.  I was very pleased.  Unfortunately, the neighborhood squirrels were also pleased.  Pleased that I had kindly provided them with an awesome nesting material.  They went to great lengths to pull as much of the burlap out of the holes in mesh as the little buggers could manage. Grrrrr.  New plan.  I had window screen in my garage…surely squirrels can’t use window screen to build nests.  Surely not.  I wrapped the screen around the base of my towers…

Screen around the TowersAnd sewed it on with wire.  Take that, squirrels.

Seam on screenIt worked.  For the record, the burlap would have worked perfectly if I hadn’t had thieves in my garden.  Grrrr…..

More growing, more hilling…

GrowingAs the plants grew, it became harder and harder to hill dirt around the Yukons in the small space, but hilling the towers was a breeze every time…just pour a little more dirt in and spread it around with your hand and move on to other garden adventures.

You continue to hill your potato plants periodically until they flower.  When they start flowering is when they are also busy growing potatoes under the surface.  So exciting.  You can start sticking your hands down in there to hunt for baby potatoes a few weeks after flowering, or wait until a few weeks after the plants die to harvest larger potatoes.  I chose to wait.

I harvested the Yukon Gold potatoes first, mostly because they were in front.

Freshly dug Yukon GoldThe harvest went fine, but required a lot of careful digging to find all the potatoes without damaging any of them.

Yukon HarvestWith the Yukons out of the way, I just pulled up the stakes holding the towers in place…and tumped the first one over.  And joy, oh joy, potatoes just spilled out the bottom.

harvesting the towersBeautiful red potatoes.

Red PotatoIn short order I had dumped all the dirt out of the towers, collecting all the potatoes as I went.  Easy breezy.

Freshly Washed Although I got similar yields from the towers versus the in-ground method, I found the towers to be a better solution for my small space.  Easier to prepare the dirt, easier to hill, and WAY easier to harvest.  And since the towers, themselves, survived the whole process without incident, they will be able to do this all over again next year!

All that remains now is to get washed up and start eating!

Baked YukonBake them up and top them with roasted poblano peppers…also from your garden.

Roasted PotatoesRoast them with garden onions.

Or my personal favorite…

Waffle BrownsShred them, stir in a smidgen of olive oil, and cook them up in your waffle iron to make what I call Waffle Browns.  Outstanding.

However you like to eat them, with a potato tower, you can grow delicious potatoes in your garden even if you don’t have a lot of space. Would love to hear your ideas on space saving ways to grow potatoes, or your experiences trying potato towers.

Get out there and get your hands dirty!

The Strawberry Tower – a lot of berries in a small footprint

strawberriesI love strawberries.  I know what you’re thinking, “Laura, you are a vegetarian with a garden…you love all produce, don’t you?”  Why, yes, I do…but berries rank among my most beloved.  Here in Texas it is hard to grow my very favorite, the blueberry, because it gets a little too hot for those little blue gems.  But strawberries love it here.  And strawberries are delicious!  The challenge for a gardener with limited space, like me, though, is that to get much of a harvest, you have to devote a good deal of space to your strawberries.  And since space is something I don’t have, but strawberries are something I MUST have…I went vertical and built strawberry towers.

The towersAbove is picture of those lovely towers last Spring, shortly after the berries were planted and were just getting started on growing.  As you can see, you can cram a whole lot of berry plants into a very very small garden footprint with these babies.  Below is a closer shot of how they looked a little later in the season when they were growing strong and producing berries.  Is your mouth watering yet?

Tower full of berriesMine is…hmmmm….berries….okay….focus, Laura.  If you are still reading, I’m guessing that means that you are interested in these tasty towers, so I will now do my best to tell you how I built mine.

The pipe itself is PVC drain pipe.  I used drain pipe instead of standard PVC because it is thinner – giving a dainty flower like myself a shot at cutting all the necessary holes in the pipe with minimal cussing on my part.  I cut my pipe to about 8 feet in length so that after I buried about 16 inches of it, I would still have over 6 feet of strawberry tower.  I see no reason you couldn’t leave the pipe whatever length you purchase, if you want to carry a ladder out to reach the top berries, or if you are really really tall.

Here is the pipe before I started work on it.

The pipeHard to believe that, soon, this plain, boring tube will be the home of sweet deliciousness.

Okay…next you need to cut all the holes for your berries.  You don’t want the holes so small that it is hard to get the berries in, and not so big that you have a hard time keeping all the dirt from running out.  I used a 1.5 inch hole saw and it worked just fine.  I’ve had the towers for two seasons now and feel that size is just perfect.  If you aren’t familiar with holes saws, here is a picture of the one I used.

Hole sawIt fits onto a drill just like a regular drill bit, and you use it just like a drill bit.

Now you drill holes.  As you can see, I offset my holes so I could fit more on the pipe and not weaken the whole thing by having them too close together.  I also put holes on only three “sides” of the pipe since I knew that the remaining “side” would not be facing the sun.

Tower with holesTada!  Pipe with holes.  Notice that I didn’t put any holes in the bottom end – we will be burying that part in the ground, so it doesn’t need holes.  I allowed for 16 inches to be buried, since I wanted my towers to be good and sturdy.

Plant the towersHere they are buried in the garden.  For each one, I dug a deep hole, stood the pipe in the hole, and then tightly packed the dirt in around it.

Now, before we fill those towers with dirt, let’s talk about watering. The nature of the towers makes them very difficult to hand water, and since adding a watering system to the inside of the pipe would be close to impossible to do AFTER the strawberries are in place, the time to put something in is after they are standing, but before you add dirt and plants.  I am sure there are many awesome and creative ways of handling this problem – here was my solution.  I use a drip watering system for my entire garden.  If you wander the aisles of your neighborhood home improvement store, you have probably seen all the parts and pieces for a drip system over near the plumbing and sprinkler parts.  If you saw my earlier post about how I put in my garden (if not, click here), you saw all the PVC we added to run water right to the plants.  Several of the valves that poke up out of the ground in my garden run on a sprinkler timer – and it is to these valves that I connect my drip system.  You have to connect a pressure regulator to the water source to reduce the water pressure so it can flow into the small tubing of the drip system without blowing the whole thing apart, and then you need the adapter that reduces the size from a hose fitting down to the small tubing size – you can see both attached to the valve in the picture below.

Water systemThe little black tubing you see in the picture then carries the water all around my garden to all the little fruits and veggies -with small emitters at each plant.  For the strawberry towers, I found they make a soaker hose that fits with this system and knew that it would be perfect to run down the inside of the towers.

A teeny tiny soaker hose. Isn’t it adorable?

mini soaker hoseI attached the solid black tubing to the watering system, ran it up the outside of the towers, connected it to a length of soaker hose that I ran down through the inside of the pipe, and then used one of the system’s little plugs to cap the end of the soaker.

Here you can see what the connection at the top look like – a little dirty, but you get the idea.

The hose connectionFor those considering trying this method, here are a few things I learned:

1.  You do want to run the water up to the top of the tower with the solid hose and let it run down the inside in the soaker hose.  If you try and run it from the bottom, it is very hard for the water to make it all the way UP in the soaker hose.

2. Because it takes a lot of pressure to push the water up even the solid hose, it will need a home run of it’s very own – meaning that there should not be any other emitters on that line from the time it leaves the water reducing adapter.  You CAN use Y adapters off the main valve to create more water pathways – each with their own pressure and size reducing adapters – but the towers should each get their own run after those pressure and size reducing adapters.

Okay…so the towers are drilled, standing, and have a watering system…time to add dirt.  I wish I had pictures of this next part, because they would be funny, but all hands were needed to handle the tricky business of getting dirt in the towers…and getting it to stay.  Since part of my main concern with the towers was them drying out too quickly, I used a moisture control potting soil mixed with compost as my filler.  Wearing protective eye-wear, I put my hands over the holes at the bottom of the tower, while Todd poured the soil mixture in the top.  It was messy and hilarious.  As we filled, I moved my hands up the tower to cover the holes as best I could – soil did spill out the various holes as we went, but in the end we got the job done.  The mixture was slightly damp as we put it in, which helped keep it from just pouring out the holes – you wouldn’t want the mixture really wet, but slightly damp did seem to be a benefit.

Now we have a strawberry tower with a watering system and soil…time for the strawberries.  To fit through the holes you drilled, you will need bare-root plants, not potted ones.  I prefer to order mine in bulk from places like Burpee.com and HenryFields.com.  When you do order them in bulk (one or more for each hole you drilled), they come in a bundle like this:

Strawberry bundleFirst order of business is to find the rubber band holding that bundle together and give it a little snip.

Cut the rubber bandNext, you need to break the bundle gently apart into it’s separate little strawberry plants.

separate out the plantsYou will need to identify which is the root end, and which is the crown of the plant.  With these healthy specimens I got from Henry Fields, that is pretty easy to do.

The plantNow for the actual planting process.  You take your cute little bare root strawberry, use your fingers to dig a spot for it inside one of the holes in the tower, then gently stuff it in the hole root first, using your fingers to snug the soil around it until all that is sticking out of the hole is the crown of the plant.

plant the strawberriesTo keep the dirt and the plant from just falling out of the hole before it’s had a chance to stretch out and root itself, I use strips of burlap.  Just cut a little strip of burlap, wrap it around the base of the plant and tuck it in the hole.  By the time the burlap deteriorates, the plant will be established, and the soil will stay in the hole.

Cut the burlapPut in the burlapAll done!  With a little time, sun and water…

Berries…you will have fresh berries coming out of a very small footprint in your garden.

Tasty tasty berries…

Berries and yogurt

To add fertilizer to the tower in coming years, you can just tuck a few alfalfa fertilizer pellets in each hole, or squirt a little compost tea in each hole.  Easy Peasy.

Good luck!  Now get out there and garden!

How I Built My Backyard In-Ground Garden

With it still being Winter in Texas, this is no time to be thinking about a Spring garden, right?  Wrong…oh so wrong.  If you already have a garden space, it is time to be planning what you will be planting this year, prepping your garden, and planting things like onions.  If you don’t already HAVE a backyard garden, but are thinking of starting one this year, and I hope you are, it is time to start planning AND building.  The success of your garden depends greatly on the quality of your soil and proper planning of what to plant where, so you don’t want to wait until it’s time to plant and rush though the prep process.  So what kind of garden should you go with?  When it comes to backyard gardens there are many directions you can go: container gardening, raised beds, in-ground, or a combination.

Containers are good for small spaces, but need a lot of water in the heat of the Summer.  Raised beds are good if you have bad soil and don’t want to have to amend what you already have, but you will have to fill those beds with soil and compost, and the cost of that can add up.  In-ground let you use a lot of what you already have and don’t require as much water as containers or raised beds, but do require a lot of labor to break up the existing soil and get it ready for planting.  Each one has it’s benefits – it’s really up to you to decide which will work best for you based on space, money, and time.

When I was taking my first baby steps into gardening, I started with containers.  Mostly standard pots at first, then I added a large tubs and a couple of sheep troughs.

My little patio garden.

My little patio garden.

I learned a lot from this small garden and got some tasty produce, but my ambition grew and soon that patio space was just not enough for all the things I dreamed of planting.  No question about it, I needed to expand.  The main problem I faced was that I have a tiny backyard, and most of it is graded for drainage…so not suitable for a garden.  Hmmm….what to do?  The only part of the yard that wasn’t part of the drainage slope was the 5 foot space directly around the patio.  Perfect!  Now what?

I decided I wanted an in-ground garden – building raised beds around the patio would have hemmed me in a little too much, and while raised beds allow for a longer growing season since they warm sooner than in-ground gardens, they also require more water during the hot months to keep them from drying out.  Unfortunately, my yard soil was atrocious (almost entirely clay) and would need some serious amending to make it usable for the garden.  Time for the fun, and the hard work to begin.

After a bunch of online research and talks with area nurseries, I decided I would amend my gross clay soil with compost (lots of compost), lava sand, Texas Greensand, and regular sand.  A note about compost – I am not a fan of manure based compost.  I know a lot of people swear by it, but since it is made from livestock animal manure, if it is not cured properly for any reason, it can carry things like E. coli.  Most of it is probably completely safe, but since I want to eat the food from my garden, it is a risk I am unwilling to take.  As for the other amendments; the lava and Texas Greensand add nutrients and minerals that my plants will love, and the regular sand helps to further break up the dense clay of my original soil.  If your soil is not as clay based to begin with, the regular sand it probably not needed.

 

We needed to rent a small trailer to gather up the bags and bags and bags of amendments.

Little trailer piled full of garden goodness.

Little trailer piled full of garden goodness.

And then pile it all in the backyard.

We marked off the perimeter of the garden, and Todd brought out the rented tiller.

Todd getting ready to start the tilling process.

Todd getting ready to start the tilling process.

It took a long time and a lot of blisters to till up the hard clay soil.  Luckily, Todd is a determined man and doesn’t give up easily.

Bye bye grass.

Once the clay had been thoroughly broken up, it was time to start mixing in the amendments.  We decided to do it in stages to be sure the whole garden received enough of each amendment.  First up was the compost…lots and lots of compost.  We dumped the bags in the center, then I spread it over the surface with my hoe, then Todd came through with the tiller.

compost, compost, compost.

compost, compost, compost.

Next up: lava sand and Texas Greensand.  I mixed them both together before tilling them in to the garden.

The lava sand and Texas Greensand made such a pretty color.

Tilling in the lava sand and Texas Greensand.

Last amendment: regular sand.

Finally, with all the amendments tilled in, my new garden soil is something my plants will find delicious.

Good dirt for growing happy plants.

Good dirt for growing happy plants.

But we weren’t done yet.

With my busy schedule, we knew that if we didn’t put in a good watering system, my poor garden would perish in the Texas heat when I became too busy to water it every day. Todd, the man who can do just about anything, came up with a plan to supply my garden with water.  Unfortunately, I can’t go into detail about the particulars of this part of the garden because it was Todd’s brainchild and involves a lot of plumbing…I try to avoid all things plumbing.  Basically, we put a sprinkler type system in the garden itself – the green valves run on a sprinkler timer and the red valves always have water available – there are three of each in the garden.  From the green valves I run small hoses to each plant with small emitters – since they run on a timer, I can decide how much water the garden needs and what time of day is best and can easily change it as the weather heats up in the dead of Summer.  As for the red valves, I can hook regular hoses to those for any other water needs I have in the yard.

IMG_0247

Putting in the watering system.

IMG_0248

Valves at the corner and at each end.

Once the watering system was in, the garden was ready for some edging…and PLANTS!! In this picture you can see the little black hoses that run from the green valves to the individual plants.  (I will have more on this in a future post.)

IMG_0265

Happy little garden

With good dirt and plenty of water, my garden quickly thrived.

How to build an in-ground garden.

My garden growing like crazy!

I know it seems like a lot of work – and, boy howdy, it was – but if you are interested in having a garden, all that labor is totally worth it.  Eating your own strawberries, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, etc…there is nothing like it.  So even though it is still chilly outside, start making your plan and gathering your supplies.   Before you know it, the weather will warm it will be time to get some tasty things growing!