Preparing Garden Beds for Spring

Spring is finally just around the corner. There’s nothing quite like weeks of snowy weather to make the first sights and sounds of spring more beautiful.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been dreaming of getting your fingers dirty in your garden. While the grounds warms up, here are a few simple ways to prepare your garden beds for spring.

Get ready for spring gardening with these simple steps!

Prepare Garden Beds for Spring

Plan your plots

You can probably have a beautiful, successful garden by just plopping seeds or plants in the ground and tending them as they grow. But having a plan, especially if you have smaller beds like mine, helps use the space most efficiently and beautifully.

Plus, proper planning helps ensure good crop rotation. Certain types of soil diseases tend to attack plants in the same family. Planning your garden beds so that you don’t plant members from the same family in the same spot year after year is one of the simplest organic ways to cut down on plant diseases.

A garden plan doesn’t need to be elaborate. I just ask myself a few questions and scribble ideas down on a piece of paper:

  • Of the millions of things I’d like to plant, what are my top choices?
  • How many seeds/plants of each do I have room for/will we actually use?
  • How much space will they take as they grow?
  • Based on where I planted things last year, how should I rotate crops?
  • Where should I put my plants to best make use of companion planting? (See this simple guide for ideas or check out Carrots Love Tomatoes)
  • Finally, as my friend Aneysa encouraged me, how can I make my garden beautiful, not just practical?

My very favorite gardening book, One Magic Square, has dozens of excellent garden plot ideas that make planning easy and ever so fun. (Read my full review here.)

Pea plants

Gather your supplies

Seeds, soil, and toolsIf you’ve been pouring over seed catalogs all winter, but haven’t made a purchase yet, now is a good time to order! I personally love Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds or just wandering down the seed aisle at Lowe’s (though it taxes my self-will not to purchase all fifty varieties of spinach.) Having the seeds before the spring planting rush begins helps make sure you don’t miss out on a perfect planting afternoon.

Check your garden tools. If your five-year-old just happened to forget to put the spades away and they rusted under a pile of snow, add spades to your shopping list.

If you want to grow tall plants like tomatoes and cucumbers, make or invest in extra tall cages or trellises right from the beginning. Otherwise, chaos might happen when your tomatoes outgrow their cute five-foot cages and tumble over the rest of the garden in a tangle. Trust me, I know. 🙂

Spring garden with trellis

See that beautiful trellis? It’s a few feet taller than me. By the end of summer, the plants from one side were halfway down the other side! 

Invest in good soil

Good soil makes a world of difference in a garden. If you prepped the soil last winter with added compost and a thick layer of wood mulch, you should be ready to go. Otherwise, dig in compost and any other soil additives. Covering the plot with a thick layer of wood mulch really helps cut down on weeding and watering. (If you feel like watching a full-length documentary about mulching, this video is pretty interesting.)

Many cities offer free or cheap wood chips, and some tree service companies are willing to drop off a truckload of wood chips for free. Just call around! Try to avoid black walnut compost though, since black walnut trees inhibit the growth of other plants.

(If you happen to have backyard chickenslet them roam through the beds and peck out any bugs before getting to the fun part…)

Spring crops

Every year I tell myself not overcrowd the garden… and every year I do it again. 

Plant early crops

A gardening expert from church (who has gardens so amazing that they send me into garden paradise) told me you can practically sprinkle spinach seeds on top of snow. Once the snow melts, the spinach will grow.

Other early spring crops include kale, lettuce, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, many herbs, and more.

If you plan to grow your own seedlings, they should get started now too. Since I don’t have room in my little garden plots for dozens of tomato plants, I decided to skip growing seedlings this year.

Spring is just around the corner. Get your garden ready for a bountiful (and beautiful) year!

Get your garden ready for spring

While the ground begins to thaw, get your gardens ready by planning your plots, gathering supplies, prepping the soil, and planting spring crops.

 [Full disclosure: links to products in this post are my referral links.]

The Big Problem with Organic Gardening

Our little garden is bursting with spring greens and berries. The tomatoes are finally inching their way up the trellis and tiny flowers grace the peppers. We’ve been enjoying fresh garden salads and bowls of sun-ripened strawberries.

We’ve also been battling bugs. Lots of bugs: asparagus beetles, squash bugs (despite not planting squash), rolly pollies, slugs, and aggressive ant colonies, just to name a few. These pesky bugs are an organic gardener’s nemeses.

I love knowing that our little garden spot is free of pesticides. It just means I need to find other ways to combat the big problem with organic gardening: bugs.


BUGS! They're the nemesis of organic gardening. Thankfully, fighting off the bad bugs organically is doable (and totally worth it!)

A ladybug on patrol (photo credit)

Fighting garden pests organically

Know your enemy (and ally)

The first step to fighting bad bugs in the garden is to know which bugs are enemies and which ones are friends. All bugs are not bad bugs. Even scary-looking bugs may end up being allies in disguise. Lacewing larva, for example, are fierce-looking allies that eat up to 100 aphids a day!

(Full disclosure: links to products in this post are my referral links.) From left to right, the bugs on book cover are: asparagus beetle (bad), lacewing (good), and potato beetle (bad). 

Good Bug, Bad Bug is my favorite bug field guide. It has beautiful full-color illustrations of the most common garden pests, concise descriptions of what plants they attack, and how to organically fight them. The best part of the book is the section on “heroes in the garden,” which has descriptions of fourteen voracious good bugs organic gardeners should try to attract and encourage in the garden.

Water and feed plants regularly

A plant that is stressed from under (or over) watering makes a prime target for bad bugs. Plants that are struggling from lack of nutrients put up a feeble defense. Not only do vibrant, healthy plants not seem to attract as many bad bugs, they ward off attacks much better.

Be vigilant

It’s much easier to squash the first bad bugs of a season than to deal with the colony once they’ve multiplied. A bit of vigilance in checking plants for bad bug scouts helps keep serious problems at bay.

Sometimes, despite my efforts, bad bugs get a footing anyway. Although bugs make me squeamish, I am trying to imitate Will’s enthusiasm for bugs of all sorts and get over it. Together, we have mounted all-out assaults on squash bugs and asparagus beetles. Much to my surprise, these “battles” ended up being quite fun mother/son activities, even though they involved picking up live bugs and dropping them into warm soapy water. I’m grateful I had my five-year-old to bolster my courage.

It's totally worth fighting half the bugs on the planet to enjoy fresh-picked pesticide-free produce straight from our garden!

Be proactive

There are several simple, organic ways to proactively ward off bad bugs: covering vulnerable plants with gauze-like cloth, attracting good bugs with flowering plants, interspersing the garden with companion herbs that help ward off bad bugs, and clearing garden debris in winter.

For those of us with chickens, letting them peck through the garden at the end of the season and again in early spring might help cut down on overwintering bad bugs… though the chickens aren’t smart enough to avoid good lacewing or ladybug eggs.

Fresh spinach, lettuce, and kale from the garden.

Freshly picked lettuce, spinach, and kale. Even though it has a few bug bites, I think it’s beautiful. 

Redefine perfection

As a culture, we’ve grown so used to “perfect” pesticide-protected produce that it’s hard to view a leaf of spinach with a bug bite or two as perfect. It’s time to redefine perfect. Flavorful, sun-ripened, pesticide-free produce should make the cut, even if it has a bug bite in it.

Bad bugs are the nemesis of organic gardening. Thankfully, there are safe, effective methods of controlling them, without chemicals.

Overcoming the big problem with organic gardening

There’s something so invigorating and refreshing about tending my own little garden space. Not only is playing in the dirt a scientifically proven method for boosting your mood, it is so fun getting to serve my family freshly picked, pesticide-free food. It does mean fighting the organic gardener’s nemisis, but it is worth it.

Becoming Poison Ivy Experts

Learn to identify this pervasive itch-inducing plant to protect yourself and your loved ones!

My poison ivy adventure began almost three years ago. The kids and I had just moved into our home. Joshua was still wrapping up his job in Alabama, while I started the unpacking process.

With a long day of unpacking ahead of me, I sent the kids outside to explore the fenced-in backyard. Twenty minutes later, Rose and Will interrupted the unpacking to show off the pretty white berries they had found.

After admiring the berries’ beauty, I warned the kids not to eat them and went back to work. But this nagging thought kept coming to mind that I ought to investigate their newfound source of berries.

The kids gladly led me to the little tree they had discovered behind the shed. Huh, I thought, leaves of three. It almost looks like poison ivy, but I don’t think poison ivy grows in trees. And I’ve never heard of it having white berries. 

Our internet wasn’t set up yet and my phone had splotchy reception, but it was enough to discover that yes, indeed, poison ivy can grow into small “trees” and it does actually have lovely white berries. Yep. My kids had just had a grand time picking poison ivy berries.

I’m paranoid about poison ivy, but tried not to panic. Unpacking stayed on pause while I scrubbed the kids in cold water and wiped down all the surfaces they might have touched with rubbing alcohol. Needless to say, they did not love this experience.

Despite my poison ivy paranoia (that is probably due to horrible reactions my mom and brother had to it), I realized just how little I actually knew about this pervasive plant. One of my homeschool goals is to explore and learn about local flora. Becoming poison ivy experts is a very important part of that goal!

Identifying poison ivy

Deer and bears nibble poison ivy leaves, goats devour them, dogs and cats roll around in them, birds eat the berries, but we humans can’t even touch touch poison ivy safely.

Sensitivity varies a lot from person to person. Often, children don’t get a rash after touching poison ivy, but repeated exposure breaks down their resistance to urushiol, the itch-inducing oil in poison ivy.

It’s not just the leaves that contain urushiol. The stems and roots do too. Even an old, dead vine can spread the oil. It’s especially dangerous if poison ivy gets mixed in with a burn pile because inhaled oils from the smoke can cause systemic reactions.

So, how can you identify this annoying plant? I’m still working on becoming a poison ivy expert, but here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Learn how to recognize this pervasive plant so you can enjoy the great outdoors safely!

Leaves of three

Let’s start with the “leaves of three” part. It can grow as a creeping ground plant, wind its way up trees, or grow into a smallish “tree”, but all its forms have leaves of three. These leaves are usually a shiny green in the spring and summer that change to vibrant shades of red in the fall. Sometimes, the emerging leaves are reddish. Sometimes they have a few toothed edges. Sometimes they don’t.

Of course, poison ivy isn’t the only plant with leaves of three. Strawberries, raspberries, fragrant sumac, and many other plants share that trait. You can usually distinguish poison by the shape of the leaves, the smooth stems (branching off from a sometimes hairy vine), and the fact that the middle leaf is usually on a slightly longer stem than the other two leaves. (If you look closely in the top right of the picture above, you can see the longer middle stem.)

This isn't poison ivy, or poison oak or poison sumac. It's Virginia Creeper, a plant that often grows near poison ivy.

Virginia creeper plant

See the five leaves? This is not poison ivy. It’s also not poison oak or poison sumac like I used to think. This is Virginia Creeper. Like poison ivy, Virginia creeper has shiny green leaves that turn red in fall. To make it even more confusing, sometimes the early leaves do have groups of three.

Even though it’s not poison ivy, Virginia creeper is a good plant to recognize because it very often grows near poison ivy. Both vines might even grow up the same tree! A small percentage of people are also allergic to Virginia creeper.

Hairy vines are another poison ivy warning sign.

photo credit 

Hairy vine

All I’d heard was the beginning of the poison ivy rhyme, “Leaves of three, let it be.” There’s more: “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.”

Not only do the leaves contain urushiol, the vines and roots do too. Even dead vines and roots can cause problems because the oil can live on dead plants for years. When the leaves are out, it’s easier to identify poison ivy, but in the winter this helpful ditty points out an easy way to spot climbing poison ivy on trees or fences: the hairy-looking aerial roots.

This hairy vine trick didn’t apply to the tree/bush growing in our yard. From what I have read, the hairy vines are only on creeping ivy where the roots aren’t all in the ground.

Berries white-- a useful poison ivy identifier

The green flowers that turn into greenish white berries (photo credit)

Berries white

The last part of the poison ivy ditty is “Berries white, run in flight.” (credit)

Judging from personal experience, this is a great line to teach your kids. Hopefully the poison ivy you encounter never gets to this stage (because birds love the berries and spread poison ivy far and wide.) But if it does, the greenish white berries are an extra warning sign to stay away!

The other poisons

Poison ivy can grow just about anywhere but the desert. It survives brackish water and nearly full shade. It springs up in forests and backyards across America. Though first christened poison ivy by Captain John Smith in 1609, it’s even more common now than it used to be.

Want some good news? Poison oak and poison sumac are rare. Like poison ivy, poison oak has leaves of three, but poison sumac has 2-7 smooth leaves that grow on a red stem.

After battling the aggressive poison ivy vine behind our shed for almost three years, I was thrilled to learn that poison sumac has never been documented in my state (it’s most common in the Northeast and swampy ares in the Southeast.) Poison oak has never been found in my county. Check your area to see whether these other poisons are a local problem.

Becoming poison ivy experts

Poison ivy forms vary slightly from region to region making it tricky to identify. But with the help of the silly little ditty “Leaves of three, let it be– Hairy vine, no friend of mine– Berries white, run in fright,” even children can start becoming poison ivy experts. Learning to recognize and avoid this annoying plant makes time spent in the great outdoors even more enjoyable.

Articles and more information, for nerds like me:

How to remove poison ivy, safely

Extracts of poison ivy studies

Steve Brill’s (beautiful) picture guide to poison ivy

MDC Most Irritating Plant

UMW Poison Ivy Guide

USDA Virginia Creeper Guide (pdf)

Jewelweed Study Abstract

Tips for Saving Seeds

Unless you have a ginormous garden or only plant one or two types of vegetables, chances are you have a lot of half-full packages of seeds left at the end of each gardening season. I sure do.

Seeds aren’t expensive, but since I like to plant a growing variety of heirloom/organic plants each year, saving seeds prevents waste. It also helps me plant on time since I already have the seeds on hand and avoids the sad situation of having all the variety of green beans I wanted to plant gone by the time I’m ready to shop.

Properly stored, seeds can last for years-- saving time, money, and hassle!

How to save seeds

Properly stored, seeds can be saved for four or more years. Seeds store best in a cool dry place. This is how I save my seeds.

  • Group the seeds according to season (cool weather and hot weather)
  • Place the seeds inside a ziploc bag, squeeze all the air out, and then zip it up.
  • Store the bag inside a canning jar and keep it in the lower part of the fridge.

It might be a bit extreme, but my seeds have lasted for years. I love starting the gardening season with a good collection of heirloom/non-GMO seeds and adding to them each year.

So how can you tell if your saved seeds are still good? Well, you could just plant them and see what happens. That’s what I normally do.

Or, you can set up a seed-testing station. For each type of seed, set a piece of paper towel on a plate. Arrange ten seeds on the paper towel. Place another paper towel on top. Moisten the seeds, keep them moist, and see how many sprout.

Even fresh seeds rarely have a 100% germination (or sprouting) rate. Normally, at least for me, it’s more in the 75-90% range, depending on the type. Ideally, I’d keep the seeds until they drop down to the 60-75% range, and then toss them… but I’m rarely that scientific about it.

Storing extra seeds is super simple and a good way to avoid waste, save time & money, and avoid hassle!

Save your extra seeds

Saving leftover seeds only takes a few minutes. Storing them properly keeps them fresh for multiple seasons of gardening and saves time, hassle, and money in the long run.

3 Keys to a Successful Hobby Garden

Researchers have recently discovered what gardeners have known for a long time: playing in the dirt makes you happy. Just on a therapeutic level, gardening makes an excellent hobby. Plus you get to spend time in the sun, experience the miracle of life springing from earth, and (hopefully) enjoy organic vine-ripened vegetables all summer long.

Hobby gardening is rewarding and just plain fun. Though gardening takes more time, luck, and grit than making a cake, here are three simple keys to help make it successful if you’re a new gardener: good soil, manageable size, and a good location.

A successful hobby garden doesn't take tons of time or money. Here are three simple keys to set it up for success.

photo credit

3 keys to a successful (beginner’s) hobby garden

Soil, soil, soil

If the key to selling real estate is location, the key to a successful hobby garden is good soil. I’ve read that for every dollar you spend on your garden, 90¢ should be on the soil. Good soil sets the plants up to thrive. Poor soil sets them up for failure. (Want to know how I know?)

Before you start your garden, test your soil with a simple home soil test to find out how acidic or alkaline it is. It only costs a few dollars and will save you lots of garden problems. Many plants grow fine in a broad “middle” range, but some are notoriously picky. Blueberries, for example, need very acidic soil to do well. Which is bad news for me.

No matter what kind of soil you have, add good quality compost each time you plant to replenish the nutrients. (Starting your own compost pile is simple!) After you’ve planted, mulch to keep the moisture in and weeds out.

Keep it manageable

Just flipping through a seed magazine (or browsing the Prudent Homemaker’s garden site) is enough to get me daydreaming of turning the whole backyard into a lush garden landscape. That would be incredibly foolish at this season in life.

Unless you have plenty of experience and hundreds of hours to devote to the garden, start small. If you want to tackle more next season, you can always expand.

Not only does starting small keep you from getting in over your head, it also helps you channel your time and money investment on filling the plot you do have with high-quality soil and vigorous plants.

Keep it close

It’s way easier to keep up with a garden that is near your back door, than one you have to hike to. The more conveniently your garden is located, the easier it will be to keep it watered and tended. Choose the most convenient spot that still gets enough sun all season long.

Most garden problems are due to over or under-watering. By having the garden convenient, you can keep an eye on the health of your plants while going about your normal day and (hopefully) avoid watering woes with consistent watering.

Grow a successful hobby garden

In my highly biased opinion, growing a garden is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding of hobbies. Good soil, manageable size, and close proximity will help set it up for success… even if it’s your first time to grow a garden!

(If you’re just getting into gardening, I highly recommend One Magic Square. It’s my very favorite gardening book.)

Experienced gardeners, what else would you add? What’s the most important key to a successful garden? 

(Full disclosure: links to products in this post are my referral links.)

Spring Garden

Clear skies, warm sun, rich soil, tiny seeds, and a whole lot of hope: the perfect way to welcome the return of spring.

The snow finally melted a couple weeks ago and I have been itching to get my hands in the dirt again. I was going to plant last week, but just as I pulled out the shovels, poor Ned came down with a fever and wanted to be held the rest of that day… and the next. Then it rained. Then we had last-minute company. Then we went out of town for a few days. Then it rained some more.

Though I'm practical by nature, my friend convinced me to plant flowers too. Not only does it make the vegetable garden more beautiful, the beauty draws me out to the garden to tend it.

Gardens should be beautiful, not just practical, my friend Aneysa wisely said.  

Yesterday dawned clear and warm and gorgeous, but I didn’t think there was any way I could get out to the garden since I’d offered to watch my sweet little niece and nephew for the afternoon.

Then, almost miraculously, all four little kids took naps at the same time! Nice long naps.

Gardening with kids is an incredible opportunity to teach them about how we get our food, how seeds grow, and how to hope. :)

Growing a little gardener

While the little ones slept, Rose and Will helped me clean up, dig, and plant in the cozy spring sunshine. Last year, 90% of the planting I did was either in the dark (by flashlight) or just as a rainstorm started. Even though it’s not that hard to pull a few weeds or water my little garden patch with a sweet baby in tow, I find it nearly impossible to actually plant while juggling a baby who would way rather eat dirt than calmly watch me plant seeds.

I love gardening so much that it was worth the rain and dark last year. But planting in the middle of a gorgeous day made me almost giddy with happiness and gratitude.

Thanks to a layer of mulch that decomposed all winter (and all that rain we’ve had), the soil was rich and moist, so loosening it was a simple job.

Set your summer garden up for success, but planning where you'll plant ahead of time... and getting the garden ready! The trellises are for the cucumbers... to grow over the spinach.

Last year, the spring garden thrived beyond my wildest expectations. Both beds were full of spinach and kale (and lettuce). It kept growing and growing and growing. We all fell in love with spinach and kale chips and burned through huge bundles. Though it was a tremendously fun blessing, by the time the spring crops died down it was WAY past time to plant tomatoes and cucumbers.

Though I am not counting on such amazing success this year, just in case it happens, I’m trying to plan ahead better.  While poking holes for spinach seeds, I had a Pinterest-inspired idea. I took two trellises out of winter storage and slanted them to form a “tent” over the spinach. When the weather warms up enough to plant cucumber seeds, I’ll already have their trellis ready. Plus, if the cucumber plants get as unruly as they did last year, they can ramble over the top and form a shade covering for the spinach. Win-win, right?

Filling the garden plots with spring seeds (and a few flowers since a beautiful garden is more worth tending!)By the time the little ones started to wake up, we’d filled the first bed with lettuce, spinach, kale, and cilantro seeds, with a pretty row of pansies along the front… and Will had gotten distracted hunting for worms.

His 2 1/2 year-old-cousin enthusiastically joined in the search. Will marched around the yard in hunt of worms like Christopher Robin on an adventure. Little Elise stumped along behind like Pooh. Cheerful shouts of “I found another worm!” punctuated the rest of our time and little fingers gently settled the “precious treasures” into the garden.

Now the spring seeds are all planted and it’s time to water and hope and wait. Happy Spring!

The Real Cost of Fresh Backyard Eggs

Last year we jumped on the crazy bandwagon of backyard chicken owners. Our adorable little flock of chicks grew into a funny flock of laying hens. Now, in the words of our young neighbor, we get “free eggs every morning.”

His comment made me wonder what the cost of fresh backyard eggs actually is. The real answer is a vague “it depends,” but the geek in me wanted something more concrete than that so I decided to put my math skills to the test.

All you really need to get your “free eggs” are chickens, a coop of some sort, food, water, and bedding. And your time, of course. In exchange, you get the fun of having your own chickens, fresh eggs, and a happy garden full of composted manure.

The real cost of fresh backyard eggs

The cost of hens

We picked up chicks at the hatchery for about $1.50 each, but after figuring in the food they ate until they started producing and cost of the heat lamp, it probably cost about $10 each to raise a darling little chick into a laying hen. (My friend Elissa loaned us a chick waterer and feeder, so we didn’t have to buy them. Otherwise it would have cost more. Thanks, Elissa!)

Our chicken palace

The chickens in their palace! (Full disclosure: links to products in this post are my referral links.) 

The cost of a coop

This cost gets tricky. Joshua asked me what kind of coop I really wanted. I showed him a picture on Pinterest and he spent several weekends making the most darling coop I have ever seen. Was it necessary? Absolutely not. Do I love it? Absolutely! My Pinterest search showed options ranging from free to insanely expensive.

The cost of feed

This also depends quite a bit. Organic feed costs a whole lot more than regular, of course. We opted for regular. Joshua’s parents found a local store that carries 50# bags for just $9. We give the hens table scraps and let them free range quite a bit, so one bag lasts about six weeks. That brings their food to about $1.50 per week.

The cost of bedding

After reading countless conflicting reports about the best chicken bedding, I decided to go with straw. It’s cheap, breaks down into compost quickly, and is easy to find. A huge bundle of straw cost $6.00. I change it out weekly, but one bundle lasts about six months, making the cost per week around 25¢.

The cost of water

We quickly learned that, if given the opportunity, chickens will turn water into a mud puddle in record time. So, Joshua fitted four wonderful chicken waterers into the bottom of a five gallon bucket. Their water stays clean and I only have to fill it once a week or so. According to our water bill, 3,740 gallons of water cost us $2.12. (Assuming I deciphered the bill correctly!) So, their weekly five gallons costs less than $0.003… but let’s just round up to 1¢.

The cost of time

Another very fuzzy category. One of the main reasons we got chickens was because the kids really wanted a pet and Joshua and I really didn’t. Chickens seemed like the perfect compromise. The eggs were a side benefit.

Plus, Will wants to be a farmer when he grows up, so getting chickens seemed extra fun for him. Every morning he trudges out to give them their breakfast. I usually go out at least once each day, just to check on them. Once a week I spend 30 minutes or so refilling their water, changing out old bedding with clean straw, and adding a fresh layer of chicken manure to our compost pile. Between the two of us, we maybe spend an hour each week caring for the chickens and checking eggs.

Total cost per week

Once you’ve built or bought a coop and spent about $10 each per hen, the weekly costs end up being $1.5 for feed, 25¢ for bedding, and a whopping 1¢ for water. If my not-so-awesome math skills serve me correctly, that brings the weekly cost to $1.76, not including the initial investments and time.

What we get: eggs

I spent quite a bit of time researching the best breed of hens. Since we can only have six chickens in town, I wanted to have our “farming” endeavor be as worthwhile as possible. I chose breeds with an “excellent” food consumption to egg-laying potential that generally have sweet personalities. (For the curious, we have three Production Reds, two Plymouth Barred Rocks, and one Black Sex-Link.)

During peak seasons, we get about five to six eggs a day. In the dead of winter, it ranges from one to four eggs each day. (From what I’ve read, giving them warm water when it’s cold out increasing egg production. We had six inches of snow today and still got four eggs.) Over the course of the year, my guess is we will average four-and-a-half eggs a day, or just over 31 eggs each week.

What we get: awesome composted manure

Yes, chickens produce a lot of manure. If you’re not a gardener, this is not such a great thing. If you are a gardener, this is awesome!

I read once that for every dollar you spend on your garden, 90¢ should go toward the soil. Good soil is just that important. Believe me, your garden will gladly use up an insane amount of composted manure. (How do I know? Two springs ago, our super sweet friends dropped off a truckload of horse manure. I thought we would still be using it up ten years from now. It was completely used up by the middle of last summer.)

This is another thing that is hard to put a number on. I bought a bag of cheap composted manure last year, but it was not properly composted, smelled horrid, and I did not use it. Properly composted, chicken bedding and manure make excellent compost.

We’re yet to enjoy our first spring since becoming chicken-owners, but my guess is we’ll have 10 to 20 bags worth of great composted manure by the time spring rolls around.

If you've ever thought about jumping on the crazy bandwagon of backyard chicken owners, here's a nerdy breakdown of what fresh eggs REALLY cost.

So what’s the real cost of fresh backyard eggs?

So what exactly is the cost of the beautiful brown eggs that sit proudly on my kitchen counter? Some of the factors are too hard to put a finger on, like what coop design you choose and how much the beautiful compost is worth to your garden.

But factoring in the factorable (after the initial costs of coop and hens) it costs about $1.76 each week for us to keep six chickens. Averaging the ups and downs in production over the course of the year, they lay about 31 eggs each week. Which brings the total cost, per dozen, to 68¢.

And now for the million dollar question: is it worth it? The answer to that really is, it depends.

I love having super fresh (somewhat) free-range eggs. I love looking out and seeing a cute little flock of chickens playing in their darling coop. I love the excuse to get outside everyday, especially on days when I wouldn’t normally make the effort. I love watching as Will faithfully feeds the chickens and counts up the eggs.

So even though the eggs aren’t quite free, to me, it is worth having backyard chickens.

What about you? Do you have chickens? If not, have you considered getting some? 

Prepare Garden Beds for Winter

The days are shortening and we’re enjoying the last few golden days of fall. As the temperatures begin to drop, it’s time to prepare garden beds for winter.

Not only does a little bit of work in fall make spring gardening more pleasant, following these four simple steps will help preserve your garden soil, prevent plant diseases from spreading, and give you the satisfaction of finishing a job well.

Preserve your garden soil, prevent disease, and prepare your garden for winter with these four simple steps:

Tidy the Garden

You’ve tended your garden faithfully all summer and fall. It might be tempting to leave the garden till next spring. Don’t.

It will probably take less than an hour to get the garden beds cleared and tidied. The amazing feeling of looking out on clean beds before cuddling up near the fire to plan your spring garden makes every second totally worth it.

First, clear away dead annuals. Toss non-diseased plants onto the compost pile [You have one right? If not, fall is the perfect time to start a compost pile!] Throw away diseased plants.

Then wipe the dirt from trellises, stakes, and tools. Just to be extra certain not to spread soil-borne diseases, I usually wipe them dry with a bit of rubbing alcohol. Store till next spring.

That’s easy enough, right?

Prune Perennials

Pruning plants is one of the most daunting parts of gardening. The good news is that even if it’s not quite perfect, a little pruning is almost always better for the plant than none at all.

Look in your favorite gardening guide for specifics, but here are a few general tips:

  • Make a nice clean cut. Jagged edges make it easier for germs to enter.
  • Cut away all diseased branches. Do not throw diseased trimmings in your compost pile because you don’t want to spread the disease to other plants!
  • If you’d like really cut down the chance of disease, daub each cut edge with a bit of Elmer’s glue. It will prevent bugs and germs from entering, but the strong new growth in springtime will grow through it.

Cover Your Garden Beds

If you leave your garden bed bare all winter, it takes back-breaking work to soften the soil come spring. (Want to guess how I know?)

Garden soil does not like to be left bare. Keep it covered. Your back will thank you next spring. Mulch and cover crops are great options.

  • Mulch: I’ve used wood mulch the last couple of years and the results are amazing. The mulch breaks down and turns into rich soil. When it’s time to plant, just scoot over the mulch that’s left, and plant your seeds. The remaining mulch doubles as a weed-preventative and moisture balancer. (This free Back to Eden video makes a pretty compelling case and has much more detail. —thanks Melissa and Elissa for the recommendation!)
  • Cover crop: Cover crops aren’t just for farmers. More and more backyard gardeners are using them to restore nutrients to the soil and provide a green cover during winter. This year I’m planting winter wheat in one of my little beds as an experiment. I’m not planning to actually harvest wheat, but hope that my chickens can get some enjoyment from it.

Take Notes for Next Year

This step is the most fun. Think back over your gardens. What plants did well? What plants didn’t? Did certain plants grow really well together? How will you need to rotate crops to avoid soil disease?

Jot down your notes for next years’s garden. You may think you’ll remember that awesome tip for tomatoes till the day you die. If you’re anything like me, chances are pretty high you’ll forget by next spring.

Cuddle by the Fire and Enjoy a Job Well-Finished

Once the garden is tidied, the beds are covered, and the perennials are tended, it’s time to cuddle up by the fire with your favorite gardening book (here’s mine!) and dream about next spring.

photo credit

Why You Should Start a Compost Pile NOW (& how to do it)

Summer’s soaring temperatures have plummeted and autumn leaves are beginning to litter the ground. Now is the perfect time to start your compost pile.

Approximately 90 billion pounds of food is wasted in America every single year. That’s roughly 30 percent of the food that is sold. (Source)

Why You Should Start a Compost Pile Now

Not only does a compost pile cut down on your household waste, it turns that “waste” into rich and beautiful soil to grow fresh fruits and vegetables in.

Even if you don’t garden, starting a compost pile is worth it. I promise you that the avid gardeners in your life would consider a few loads of fresh compost an awesome present.

So why should you start your compost pile NOW? Because a good compost pile needs two types of materials: greens (like kitchen scraps) and browns (like, you guessed it, dried leaves). Plus, if you start in autumn, your pile will be at least partially composted come spring planting time.

How to Start a Compost Pile

Select a Site for Your Compost: 

Pinterest is full of ideas for cute composters. Me? I opted for a plain old-fashioned pile, hidden behind the shed. I’d suggest tucking the pile in a hidden, but easily accessible, spot. If you have to dodge an obstacle course to get to it, the compost pile is likely to get neglected.

Also make sure it is a spot that doesn’t stay soggy for days after a downpour. A pile that’s too wet starts to smell bad quickly.

To compost properly, the pile should be at least 3′ wide by 3′ long and (eventually) 3′ tall. That size will help it generate enough heat to compost properly.

Build Your Compost Pile: 

Compost piles are not like puffed pastries. You do not have to measure exactly to get rich crumbly results. The general rule of thumb though is 1 part “green” materials to 3 parts “brown” materials.

Green (or nitrogen-rich) materials:

  • Fruit & vegetable scraps
  • Coffee grinds & tea bags
  • Garden trimmings from healthy plants*
  • Eggshells, preferably crushed
  • Farm animal manure, like rabbits or backyard chickens
  • Weeds, that haven’t gone to seed
  • Grass clippings (add in thin layers or stir around so it doesn’t mat)

Brown (or carbon-rich) materials:

  • Leaves, except black walnut leaves
  • Cardboard (even toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, etc)
  • Shredded newspapers, scrap paper, etc (avoid glossy paper though)
  • Straw
  • Corncob husks

Material to AVOID in your Compost Pile

  • Meat, dairy, and oil (you don’t want to attract nasty critters!)
  • Glossy paper
  • Cat & dog (or other carnivore) poop
  • Weeds that have gone to seed (for obvious reasons)
  • Diseased plants (you don’t want to spread plant diseases to your compost pile!)

Speed up the Composting (if you want)

Left to their own, these materials will compost. Eventually. If you want to speed the process up, keep the pile moist and aerated.

Keep the pile moist: If the pile is too dry, it won’t compost well. If it’s too wet it won’t either (and might smell bad). The ideal “wetness” is like a moist sponge. Honestly, when I’m watering the garden in the heat of summer, sometimes I’ll spray the pile down too. I’m not in a huge hurry and don’t worry much about it though.

Keep the pile aerated:  When you first start the pile, it’s usually nice and aerated. As the materials start to break down, use up oxygen, and compress, the pile gets more matted. If you want to speed up the composting, aerated it a bit with a pitchfork. Again, this is optional and something I only do rarely, because I have plenty of other things I’d rather do with my time!

How can you tell when it’s ready? When your compost smells earthy and looks like rich soil not a pile of leaves, eggshells, and potato peels. Sometimes the bottom layer will be ready first and you can just scoop some out to add to your garden soil.

Go Start Your Compost

Starting a compost pile is about as difficult as doing a load of laundry and NOW is the best time to begin. Just pick your site, add your materials, and wait the pile to turn into rich compost.

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Want to start your own garden but don’t know where to begin? Of the stacks of gardening books I’ve read, One Magic Square is hands down my favorite. It’s down-to-earth, informative, upbeat, and inspiring.

 May be linked up at Mama Moments,Works for MeWalking RedeemedGraced Simplicity, & Simple Lives

[Full disclosure: links to products in this post are my referral links.]

photo credit 

Summer Garden Update

Someday, I want to be a master gardener. I’m not exactly sure what defines a master gardener, but I think it means you’ve spend decades playing in the dirt and tending plants as they spring up, grow, and die.

For now, I’m quite happy to play in my little patches of dirt and smile with delight when the children come running inside with crisp warm cucumbers for lunch or devour serving after serving of fresh kale chips.

2014-07-23 19.57.42

A view from my kitchen window: cucumbers, beans, kale, garlic, pansies, leeks, tomatoes, peppers, more kale, marigolds, and basil.  

In my favorite gardening book, One Magic Square, Lolo encouraged gardeners to expect a handful of plants in your garden to grow really well, most to do moderately, and a few to straggle along. (Assuming you care for the garden, of course.)

This year has not been a good one for my tomatoes, but the kale? Oh my! We’ve enjoyed dozens of panfuls of kale chips, cream of kale soup, kale in breakfast smoothies, and I’ve frozen a good bit too.

Cucumber

Cucumber close-up 

Last year, we had a horrible squash bug and cucumber beetle problem. (Imagine thousands of squash bugs swarming over the only squash plant.)

When I asked an experienced gardener at church (who shared a bagful of beautiful squash with us) for advice, she said, “Keep the plants happy. Be ahead, not behind, on watering. Bugs seem to sense a distressed plant and attack it with a vengeance.”

After a delightfully wet spring, we’ve had a long hot and dry spell. To keep the plants happy, somedays I’ve watered twice! (Time to get more mulch, methinks!)

Raspberries

Raspberries galore

When I mourned the loss of two of the raspberry canes I planted, I had no idea that the one remaining cane would be so prolific I have to weed-whack around the bed regularly to keep the yard from being overrun!

Strawberry Patch Strawberry Patch

Gardening is practice in patience. After wanting to plant strawberries for years, it was hard to pluck the beautiful white blossoms off this spring so that they could be strong for next year. But we did.

2014-07-22 14.42.20Asparagus patch: a practice in patience

Asparagus is even harder. You aren’t supposed to pick any asparagus the first year (and hardly any the second) so that the roots have time to develop.

Some of the spears are plump and look so delicious. So far we’ve been good…. master gardeners say the patience pays off in years and years of fruitful harvests.

Hidden behind the asparagus are little patches of parsley. Parsley is supposed to repel the asparagus beetle.

Since our garden seems to have attracted most of the bad (and good) bugs known to man gardeners, I won’t hold my breath.

How does your garden grow? 

  May be linked up at Mama MomentsGrowing HomeHealthy 2Day ,Works for MeWalking RedeemedGraced SimplicityFabulously Frugal & Simple Lives

[Full disclosure: links to products in this post are my referral links.]