A Happy Garden Update!

You have no idea how long I've waited to write this post!
Growing up in Cleveland, my family had a decent sized house with a relatively large yard. While most of it was grassy, wonderful for playing, and we had a grape arbor/swingset and club house we built, we had many different distinct areas for gardening. A vegetable garden in the very back, where we grew all sorts of things like asparagus, rhubarb, corn, chives, snow peas, zucchini, and tomatoes. A garden along the side with blueberry bushes, gooseberries. A garden along the other side with raspberries and wineberries. Various fruit trees like apricots and peaches. Another little area with mint and horseradish. And in the front a flower garden with strawberries, and on our tree lawn, around our tree, we grew Jerusalem artichokes.

My mother has a green thumb and loves gardening. I've wanted to be like her and garden, growing my own food as much as possible, instead of buying it from the grocery store. But we lived in a rental apartment the first five years we were married, and we never knew how long we'd be staying there, so were loathe to invest in a garden that we would have to leave behind.
Eventually, though, after we'd been there for 4.5 years we said that if we'd been there that long already, we'd probably be there another while too, so why not just make a garden already. We planted tomatoes and swiss chard... and then decided (and rather suddenly, at that) to move, because we'd had it up to there with our hellacious landlord. We gave away our chickens and rabbits, packed up our house, and moved to an apartment that not only was half the size of our previous one, but also had no yard whatsoever.
For the next 5 years we were in that apartment, having no idea when we'd be able to afford to move to a bigger place. I got more and more into frugality and self sufficiency, really wanted to garden, but had very little success. Any gardening I could do had to be in pots and planters.
Most plants that I attempted to grow from seed never actually grew. The ones that did start to grow, overall, did not do well in the planters. We had a few moderate successes, but my experiences made me think I was just a plant killer. The few plants that I had growing that I managed to not kill, and even could harvest from occasionally, were aloe vera and purslane.

Once I knew that we would be moving into our new home with both a front yard and a back I wanted to take advantage of that dirt and use it to help be more self sufficient, and hopefully transform my "black thumb" into a green thumb.

Because we really don't have much space in which to garden, or much yard space at all for that matter, I decided that I wanted to make as square foot garden, a method of gardening that tries to utilize every last inch of space by planting in a square grid. Additionally, I wanted to garden without laying out a lot of money, especially since my attempts at growing vegetables the last few years in my window boxes weren't too successful to put it mildly. So I decided to start small.

I wrote about my mini makeshift edible garden, where I've been growing kale, garlic, onion, beets, mint, lemon verbena, wild swiss chard, dock, and aloe vera. I'm very pleased to say that, other than the celery which I planted in it, every single one of my plants survived, and is doing well. I've regularly been harvesting from my garden.

At the top of my post is a view of the entire right side of the walkway when you come towards our front door. Everything was free and organically grown.

These pictures that I snapped of my garden make me really happy, because I am growing my own food, and seem to be turning a page as to my gardening ability.

After a time that I thought the lemon verbena would die, it seems to be doing well. It hasn't grown enough for us to start harvesting it yet for tea, but I'm sure in the near future we'll be able to do so.

These beets that I got free and planted grew some gorgeous leaves, and I've been trimming them regularly to use them in various dishes, from salads to soups to stews.

The onion and garlic greens have been picked regularly and used as as additions to my food, generally in place of fresh garlic or scallions.

My little volunteer kale, that surprisingly replanted itself in one of my window boxes has been doing really well.

It has been getting harvested regularly, and used as I do the beet greens. 

Mmmm kale. Just one of my many batches of kale that I've picked from just this one plant.

My family and I are big fans of mint, as a spice, in tea, and in mixed drinks (among others) but rarely buy fresh mint as it spoils so quickly. My mint is now growing so well that I regularly harvest from it and get to enjoy it.

My aloe vera, on the left side of the path is also doing quite well. These are just some of the many plants there. We didn't realize, but a few mint plants also ended up getting transplanted with the aloe, and since the pictures were taken have since started growing really beautifully.

A neighbor gave us a geranium cutting which is currently growing next to the aloe.

My wild swiss chard/sea beet is doing beautifully as well- 4 out of the 5 plants that I transplanted into my front yard survived, as did one of my dock plants.

These pictures that I shared are not so recent, but they are the prelude to what I did next, hence sharing them. At this stage my plants are nearly all in the flowering or seed stage, and I am waiting for the seeds to be fully mature to collect them to plant again, after which I will pull them out and plant new things where they are.

None of my plants other than my celery (which was an experiment anyhow) died which gives me the encouragement to take this to the next step and begin an official square foot garden.

Square foot gardens usually are made in raised beds, typically with a wooden frame and a soil mix made from compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Since I don't have a car and don't have an easy way to get to a gardening supply store, using the standard soil mix for square foot gardening isn't likely to happen, especially since I am hesitant to lay out much money if any on gardening supplies, especially since I don't have the best track record with growing plants and keeping them alive. We tried making a compost pile since we moved here, and currently have a giant pile of decomposing organic matter in our backyard, but I wasn't doing it properly and the compost is taking longer to be ready than usual, so I don't have any ready to use in my garden. My brother in law is a gardener with a car, and I did request that he bring me a few bags of ready compost next time he goes to the gardening supply store, so I will spread that on the dirt in the meantime once it arrives.
 As for a raised bed, I did want to do that, if only for asthetics, but I figured if I waited until my husband and I had time to build the frames I'd be missing a window of opportunity for gardening, and didn't want to do that. So I decided that, for now, I would use what I had on hand to make a square foot grid in my garden, plant some seeds, and hope they grow.

I used string and tied it onto/wrapped it around nails that I hammered into the ground into this grid shape. I measured each square foot and then added some extra inches onto each one, to give them a little more space because I'm not using ideal soil.

As you can see from this picture, the square foot grid is two deep and 14 wide, along the right side/wall of the right side of my garden. This gives me 28 squares in which to attempt to grow things, and depending on how that goes, I will add more squares along the other edges of the garden.

I used seeds that I previously bought or were given to me by other gardeners, and we'll see what happens. I followed the guideline of plant spacing in this square foot garden chart. So far I planted carrots, radishes, beets, fennel, celery, leek, zucchini, and butternut squash. For the squashes, I put them in the back along the garden wall, and plan on building trellises for them to grow up onto, instead of sprawling all over the garden.

Worst comes to worst... if these plants don't actually grow from the seeds I planted, I'll wait until I have my compost and buy some seedlings from a nursery to transplant.

Wish me luck!

And as for my backyard, currently I have about 6 lambsquarter plants of various sizes growing there, along with some amaranth and two wild swiss chard plants. I've seeded it with a lot of other wild plants that hopefully will start growing too.

Do you have a vegetable or herb garden? What do you grow? What method do you follow for gardening?
Any tips for someone like myself who used to be a plant killer, and is now slowly turning over a new leaf (pun intended) and attempting to turn my black thumb green? 

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. I love gardening! I do a mix of raised beds and traditional tilled beds. We have quite a bit of room for gardening, but I still like the square foot method because it requires less weeding. We also have a lot of organic matter (leaves, grass clippings, animal manure), which makes the soil nice for free. I do "sheet composting" or "lasagna gardening" for compost, and so far it's worked great.

    I have a relatively large garden that can be a lot of work, but to me it's worth it. In my area we don't have market vendors that give away free/reduced produce, so every dollar's worth that I can grow makes a difference. This year I'm planting sweet corn, lettuce, onions, potatoes, carrots, oversized beets for the animals, peppers, just a few tomatoes, and one hill of summer squash. I've also planted some flowers and have perennial fruit (strawberries and raspberries), flowers and herb plants that have been growing for a few years now.

    My biggest problem is keeping the weeds at bay. In the raised beds, a layer of grass clippings is usually sufficient. The problem is mulching around crops like onions or sweet corn. It's a lot of work to collect grass clippings for an area of 100+ square feet!

  2. We have a container garden in our yard. Some things grow more successfully than others. Beet greens/chard are probably my favorite food. We grow chard and harvest it regularly.

    Basil, mint, and thyme are super useful. My kids find it amusing to grow different varieties of mint. Right now, we have a peppermint that started off as a volunteer coming from under the neighbor's fence and a nana plant. At one point, we also had a lemon mint and my favorite: a chocolate mint. We use these mints for tea, ice cream, tabouli, mint water; the basil for pizza and pesto.

    I also like to grow flowers to cut for bouquets. I used to plant sweet peas in the late fall, and then we'd have enough for gorgeous bouquets all spring long. Then we realized that a couple of us were allergic to them! No more sweet peas for our family. :(

    But we have zinnias growing now. I usually grow a variety called "cut and come again" which does just that. You get bouquets from June all the way until November in this climate.

    The amount you pay for a packet of seeds is less than what you'd spend on a single bouquet. Pretty cool.

    Right now we have tomatoes and "burpless" Persian cucumbers growing also, and a couple onions. And strawberries! But I find that as my family gets bigger, we can't grow very much in the amount of space we have, and thus it's not like we're really keeping up with demand the way we are with the chard and the herbs.

  3. we had a tremendous vegetable garden when we lived in the states, we grew carrots, cucumbers,tomatoes,zuchinni,lettuce,strawberrys. they were used in our daily salad!. I dont have a yard now,so its only shopping for me! enjoy the garden!

  4. Be careful of your mint plant! Once it gets a foothold in your garden, it can easily take up the entire space! I learned that the hard way haha. Basil as well.

  5. I'll join with Anonymous in warning you to be careful not to let the mint take over everything! Mine got excessive last year. I'm trying to control it this year with a combination of sheet mulching and transplanting mint from the front yard to the back, where we need all the plants we can get for erosion control on a steep slope. You can see pictures of my small but diverse front garden in my article on Darwinian Gardening--which means planting what you've got and seeing what works out!

  6. Another great post. Thanks for sharing. I'm a decent gardener provided I have sufficient sunlight and no mosquitos. My current home has not enough light and too many biters. In the past I've used hanging planters for vine like veggies (cherry tomatoes, beans, etc.)
    And I have an idea of what to do with all that undeveloped compost you have acquired. It's called trench composting. You dig a trench—or any shape hole—approximately 12 inches deep in an empty space of your garden, add roughly 4 to 6 inches of compostable materials, such as kitchen scraps, spent garden plants, small prunings, and weeds, and bury them with the soil you dug out of the trench or hole.
    You can google it for more details, but I love this version of composting.

  7. Out tire garden is struggling. I didn't plant Kale this year because as soon as it had some growth on it, the bunny family striped every stem! We love our rabbit family though!

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