Building a Raised Garden 3 Ways

posted in: Simple Garden | 0

Inside: Building a raised garden can be a good option for the home gardener, particularly when resources are limited.

Growing up I was surrounded by gardening experts, especially my grandparents. They and everyone else in our area planted garden in much the same way–till up the soil, add manure and other fertilizer, plant seeds. So the flat bed of soil, worked up with the tiller before planting and then tilled between rows to keep weeds down as the plants grew, was the only garden model I knew. In my early gardening years I remember the frustration of bugging my father to run a plow through my plot–which really didn’t do much but cause ruts–because I didn’t own a tiller. I would end up spading much of my garden, which was slow, tedious work. I remember one particular summer when my daughter was small. By mid-season I hadn’t planted a thing, but I was desperate to at least put in some tomatoes. Grass had taken back much my original plot. Dad was ever the busy farmer and didn’t have time to help me. In desperation, I dug holes, planted the tomatoes, and placed a layer of newspaper and mulch around them to form a little bed. Lo and behold, it worked! Which taught me a valuable lesson. There was more than one way to grow a garden.

Along my gardening journey a wonderful book found its way to me which further shaped my thinking: Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza. My gardening practices are greatly influenced by techniques I learned from this seasoned grower. When building a raised garden, I used much of the lasagna layering method for my traditional raised bed.

Building a raised garden, traditional bed.

Last fall Hubs assembled this raised bed from some old wooden beams, and slowly but  surely I began to fill it up with layers of cardboard, soil, compost, manure, grass clippings, leaves, spent hay, and some trimmings from bushes, not in that order. Admittedly, I’m not very scientific in my approach, but I added things little by little, careful to use a variety of organic matter. Notice I could have fit more plants in this plot, but I like a lot of space between my tomato plants. They’ll thank me for it later!

Raised bed gardening using hay bales.

I decided to try my hand at hay bale gardening this year. Most people use straw, but I had some old seasoned hay bales that worked perfectly. Mom has tried this for a few years now with some success, so I knew the basics. If unseasoned, wet the bales really, really, really well before attempting to transplant anything. We’re talking several days of watering. And by all means, first stick your hand down inside of the bale before planting. If it is extremely hot, it’s not ready yet. Turn the sprinkler on the hay (or straw) to prepare it some more. The best solution is to set up your bales on edge (non-twine side up) in the fall. No changing your mind about moving them once they’ve been through the rains and snows of fall and winter, as they will become quite heavy! By spring those square beauties are ready for your plants. If planting seeds, gardeners suggest layering about four inches of top soil on the top of the bale. I chose to transplant peppers. For the last two years we’ve had heavy rainfall in the summer, and my peppers suffered from muddy roots. My thinking was that if we had a third rainy summer they’d be fine tucked away in the hay. If it’s hot and dry, I’ll need to be watering them more often.

The border around the bales is made from logs of various lengths and widths simply lined around it, nothing special to hold them together. The wood has stayed in place better than I had anticipated.

A log works well when building a raised garden.

The third method I have used when building a raised garden is called hugelkultur, a German word meaning “hill culture.” Admittedly, this experiment was entirely by accident. About fifteen years ago a tree had fallen in the yard, and after we had someone cut and haul away most of it, a large portion of the trunk (about four feet long and a foot in diameter) remained. No one had a use for it. Including me. I wanted it gone. But while we were away on vacation, Mom decided to surprise us with landscaping the yard, and she used this log as the center of a flower bed, placing pots with flowers on top and flowers surrounding the log. Instead of getting rid of the trunk, she decided to “work with it” as she told me later.

Fast forward all of these years later, and the flower bed continues with several perennials and annuals that reseed themselves. The log has gotten smaller over time, slowly decaying, and at the same time feeding the soil. I have never fertilized this bed–have never needed to–and the soil remains soft and crumbly. The rotting log also acts like a sponge, retaining moisture for the bed. It doesn’t take much to keep up with it, yet I get an amazing show of lilies, zinnias, marigolds, salvia, and heuchera. I love this flower bed!

So there you have it–raised bed gardening at its finest. These methods don’t require a lot of money, the weeding is easy, and the results are comparable to those traditional flat garden plots from my youth. I will keep readers posted on the harvest from these beds in the fall.

Do you use any unconventional garden practices? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Bucking Bales: A Family Tradition

This past week I surprised myself. After nearly two decades, I stood on top of a trailer load of hay, stacking square bales while my brother Vince and nephew Bradley tossed them to me. My sis-in-law Lisa was behind the wheel, keeping things moving steadily along as a gentle breeze kept us cool in the June sun.

Bucking bales.
Bradley tossing another bale to me.
Picture courtesy of Lisa Harke

The surprising part for me was that, after a little coaching from Bradley, my hay stacking knowledge all came back to me like the proverbial riding a bike. And the memories of former days in the hay came back to me as well.

From my earliest days I remember when Vince and I would run out to the front field to catch my dad’s brothers as they loaded a flat wagon full of square bales. One of our uncles would hoist us up on to the load to ride. As they stacked the hay, we’d climb higher and higher. What a ride!

Not so many years later, I wanted to help out in the fields, too, though the crews were all guys. I’m not sure how I talked Dad into letting me work, but he did, and though I dealt with teasing—girls weren’t supposed to be out in the hay—I eventually gained respect.

In my late teens and early twenties, bucking bales was a regular summer ritual, not only for our farm, but many in the area. In fact, I remember our county paper running a story, calling it a “rite of passage.” And it was then. Although some farmers started gravitating toward round bales, the square variety still made up the majority. Ads in the paper for hay crews were common, charging so many cents per bale. I even lured the guy I was dating then (and married to now) out into the fields to help. I remember those days, working the flatbed wagon, Dad and Mike throwing bales to me as I stacked and Mom drove. My younger brothers would roll the stray bales in line so Dad and Mike didn’t have to walk as far. Eventually those brothers ended up working the wagon, too.

Years later Dad bought a small round baler, and we didn’t put up as many square bales. But we still worked the fields. Then we’d roll those bales on to the wagon, and he’d store some on the loft. He even added an extension to his loader bucket to hoist them up with the tractor. Kids and dogs loved jumping on those round bales, my daughter included.

At some point we stopped doing hay ourselves. As Dad got older and the boys traded in the hay field for the mission field, there were more cows to feed and milk, and it made more sense to buy hay elsewhere. Our days bucking bales were behind us. So many of the neighboring farms abandoned the tradition as well.

Yet now we find ourselves back to our old ways, bucking bales. People still need to feed horses and cattle, after all. Which brings me back to this moment in time: Me, standing on the trailer, stacking hay, recalling all the little things from days in hay fields’ past—hay inside my clothes and in my nose, tiny scratches on my arms from handling the bales. The conversations, flowing like the stray breezes as we move from bale to bale. All of us together, out there, under the forgiving sun. Seeing Dad in the back of my mind, patiently tossing up another bale for the top of the load.

And me, loving every minute of it.

The end result of bucking bales.
Bales stacked in the toolshed. Picture by Mike Moore

Unique Containers for Gardening

posted in: Simple Garden | 2

Ah, summertime! So many things to love. Trips to the garden center and plant stands to find some bargains to bring home. And, once home, the challenge of which plants go together and in what pot. Most of my flowers are displayed in containers, some functional, some decorative, and some creative (cheap). And while each container serves a purpose, the creative—cheap—ones are some of my favorites. Finding unique containers for gardening isn’t difficult. You just need to think outside the box. (Or container, that is.)

Unique containers for gardening.

It’s been a while since this charcoal grill has seen a steak. Nowadays it holds a bunch of colorful coleus.

Even the lid has been put into service, with the addition of begonias.

Unique containers for gardening.

This gives new meaning to the word pot. An old cheapie sauce pan I previously used for making candles has become a home for marigolds.

Unique containers for gardening.

These old dairy parlor boots of mine are serving a new purpose—host to trailing vinca.

Unique containers for gardening.

The holes which made them unwearable years ago make them perfect as a planter.

Unique containers for gardening.

We inherited this ice cream maker from Hubs’ mother years ago with the intention of actually churning ice cream, but the parts were broken, so it sat. That is until I persuaded Hubs to drill some holes in the bottom. I love to plant grasses in it.

Unique containers for gardening.

These are my creative and cheap containers that I love. I hope to acquire more in the future, but until then I’ll be on the lookout for any old serviceable containers I can press into service to hold my flowers.

Do you have any unique containers for gardening? Share them with me in the comments.

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5 Delicious Ways to Use Up Strawberries

posted in: Simple Food | 2

5 Delicious ways to use up strawberries.So it’s June and my strawberries have stopped bearing. (They’ve always been more May-bearing, actually.) It was a lovely harvest with plenty of fresh berries as well as a few gallons in my freezer for future use. The problem, if you can call it that, is I have limited room in said freezer. I need to start using up some of them to make room for the rest of the fruit and veggies coming my way this season. What follows are my suggestions for five delicious ways to use up strawberries.

Shakes. This is an obvious choice. Hubs has a shake nearly every morning for breakfast, which is a perfect use for some of the softer, less than stellar berries. I’ve been doing more shakes myself, and when I compare the price of organic strawberries with mine grown the same way, it’s a bargain. Not to mention the satisfaction that comes from growing something yourself!

Salads. Moving on to the midday meal, strawberries make a refreshing addition to a light summer salad. Take your favorite salad greens, slice about one fourth of a cup of strawberries per serving on to the greens, toss in a couple of tablespoons of pecan halves, and top with my homemade balsamic vinaigrette: 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, 2 tablespoons of a good extra virgin olive oil, 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and 1 or 2 teaspoons of sweetener of choice (sugar or honey for those without diet restrictions). Whisk these together until mixed and dress salad. Yum!

Pound cake. I love to serve cut up strawberries mixed with a little sweetener (to make the berries release their juices) over pound cake and topped with my whipped topping of choice. Here’s a fantastic low carb pound cake recipe I absolutely love. I often make this for Fourth of July.

Ice cream. In keeping with the dessert trend, I’m a fan of strawberry ice cream. We recently received an electric ice cream maker for a gift, and we’ve been making low carb versions of the favorite summer treat. For a really simple recipe, take two cups of heavy whipping cream and two cups of frozen strawberries, sweetener or sugar to taste, and blend in a blender. You can either finish making in an ice cream maker or freeze in a large container that you put in the freezer and stir every hour or so until it reaches the desired consistency.

Preserves. My best berries will be made into strawberry preserves that I’ll be giving away as gifts in Christmas baskets. I found this jam recipe on Pinterest recently from the website Return to Simple, and it looks pretty good.

So there you have my five delicious ways to use up strawberries. Try one of these simple ideas today!

Related post: My Three Essential Tips for Growing Strawberries

Best Time of the Day

Guest post from writer Patsy Reiter

Best time of the day. Morning coffee.Their chirps are alerting me that I’d better get moving. Rising early has never been an issue for me because it’s the best time of the day. Who on earth would want to miss the sunrise, cool crisp air, and sparkling dewy grass?

A quick peek in the mirror assures me that I have bedhead trauma. I carelessly run fingers through my hair. As the pre-programmed coffee perks, I pull on jogging pants and adjust them underneath my calf-length cotton nightgown. My nose follows the scent to the kitchen for my wake-up brew. A pinch of sugar substitute and half -n- half, and then I savor my first morning sip.

I rummage through the fridge for grape jam, boil a cup of water with sugar for the hummingbirds, and set it aside to cool. I slip my arms into a fleece then grab a mixing spoon and jar of jam. Placing my back against the screen door, I push my way outside.

I drop a gob of jam onto an orange plastic lid and rinse the memorial-given cement birdbath from my husband’s funeral clean before filling it with fresh water. Within seconds, a handsome male oriole is dipping into the jam, unthreatened by my presence.

Best time of the day. Male oriole.

Someone down south took good care of him or he’d be leery of me.

With arthritic hands, I struggle to pull the top off the black oil sunflower country seed mix and carry a full pail to the feeding station under the leaning pine tree. I hurry back inside for the cooled hummingbird mix and fill the bright red feeder.

I stop, breathe in deeply, raise my hands to heaven, assess my work, and then return to the house to freshen my coffee.

I reach for my devotional before shuffling out again to the wooden swing set. Needs a good power washing, I think before sitting down. I wiggle and twist until I find a comfortable resting position and pause before reading. Gazing above at the shards of light bursting through the red maple tree branches, I watch my feathered friends flitter about, swoop down for their breakfast, and harmonize thank you.

Patsy Reiter, author of Best Time of the Day.Patsy Reiter has been writing stories for children and adults for over fifteen years, with five credits in two e-zine magazines and a piece in the Genesee County Family Resource Guide. A Michigan native and member of SCBWI-MI and American Christian Fiction Writers, her inspiration is fueled by her grandchildren and an offbeat sense of humor. In 2009 she won first place for her e-zine story “The Necklace.” School visits and opportunities to inspire children are high on her agenda. She enjoys spending time with family and friends where ideas consistently sprout. Patsy has just completed her first inspirational novel.

Memorial Day: Let Us Always Remember

Memorial Day: Always Remember

Memorial Day.

Let us always remember their great sacrifice to protect our freedom.

The Old Farmhouse

Poem about an old farmhouse.

The Old Farmhouse


I ain’t what I used to be.

Seen too many winters.

My steps creak, my porch is saggin’,

and half my shingles is gone.


But I seen a lot in my day.


Got to know folks.


That farmer and his wife—they came here

when they didn’t have a lick of sense.

She finally got some.

He never did.


They done like married folks back then.

Had babies, worked with the sun, worried over bills.


Waited for rain.


He plowed the fields, tracked dirt over my floors.

She planted flowers at my feet.


Sometimes in the evening, after he’d fall asleep,

she’d bake bread in my kitchen.


I always liked it when she baked bread.


They done some hard livin’ in their time—fifty-three years of it.

‘Til his heart gave out.


They told her to leave then, those kids of hers,

all growed up and moved to the city.

What do they know, anyway?


Now the youngest pulls up in his fancy car,

threatens to tear me down again.

But he’ll forget about me.


When it’s my time to go, I think I’ll sink quietly

back into the ground, the scent of her flowers in my nostrils.


God, how I miss that woman!


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2 Links for Introverts and Detailed Thinkers

posted in: Good Reads | 0

2 Links for Introverts and Detailed Thinkers.

I came across this post today and wanted to share the love. It’s from Michael Hyatt, and the title says it all: “How Little Things Can Lead to Big Results.” Detailed thinkers, this one celebrates you!

Hubs sent me this article the other day (rural speak for anywhere from three days to six months ago), and I’ve been meaning to dig up the link: “12 Signs You’re an Introverted Extrovert.” I balked at the idea when he suggested I might be one. (He happens to be).

“Just read it,” he said. “You’re better with people than you think.”

Turns out I happened to have eleven of the signs. Who knew? Obviously he did!

How about you? Are you and introverted extrovert or detailed thinker? Leave me a comment.

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My 3 Essential Tips for Growing Strawberries

posted in: Simple Garden | 2

3 Essential Tips for Growing Strawberries.

Growing strawberries didn’t come easy to me. I’ve been raising the June-bearing variety for about a decade now, and it’s only been the last several years that I’ve finally gotten the hang of it. The problem wasn’t with the berries but rather the grower. I didn’t give them what they needed.

To begin with, the soil wasn’t in the best condition for growing the little gems. The bed needed more organic matter to get that perfect dark crumbly soil we gardeners love–obviously the strawberries do, too. And I didn’t spend enough time watering them. Not that they like their feet wet, but my plants were not getting what they required.

So what changed? I decided that if I wanted a good crop of strawberries, I needed to learn more about them and put that newfound knowledge into practice. And I realized that I had to devote the time to nurturing the plants even though the payback–handfuls and handfuls of fresh berries ripe for the picking–would be delayed a year or two. I focused on growing beautiful green plants and temporarily forgot about the fruit.

To help you avoid making the same mistakes I did, here are my 3 essential tips for growing strawberries.

  1. Mulch them. I took the time to lay down newspaper and straw or dry grass clippings. This solved a few problems. It helped hold the moisture in so my plants got enough water and helped keep weeds at bay. Eventually the newspaper and straw and grass broke down, adding humus to my soil.
  2. Go after weeds ruthlessly. Strawberries don’t tolerate weeds well. Weeds choke out the plants and keep them from growing and producing as much as a healthy strawberry plant with room to stretch out.
  3. Renovate post season. Admittedly, this was hard for me because I don’t like hacking away at vibrant green leaves, but when I made my peace with taking my weed whacker and cutting back the plants an inch above the crown, my strawberry patch thrived. While I had it in mind to thin out the plants and get rid of most of the runners last year, my strawberries have spread out to cover the entire patch this year! It’s a challenge finding places I can step between plants! Ideally it’s best to have space between them, so I will have to be more aggressive in my renovating at the end of this season.
    3 Essential Tips for Growing Strawberries.
    My strawberry patch in all its glory.

    Of course you want to make sure to fertilize the plants. I did this a couple of times last year. Basically, though, it’s a matter of taking care of your plants so eventually they take care of you! I’ve only begun picking this week and have already filled a gallon bag and am halfway to filling a second, not to mention how many berries I’ve snacked on and used fresh. Will keep you posted on how many gallons I get.

    How about you? What are your essential tips for growing strawberries?

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