When you have time to think: grow more food!

When I have an unexpected break in the flow of my weird days, it doesn’t take much to get me to think about gardening. Or future projects. Or chores undone as the weather threatens this or that. Or to check out the plethora of garden bloggers and You Tubers that I follow, looking for those golden nuggets of wisdom. Then I match it all against my training as a Master Gardener and all of this leads to a very long To Do List, perhaps with a wacky experiment here and there. While my heart will always belong to the landscaping of flowers, bushes, and trees, my latest focus has become a quest to GROW MORE FOOD!

Growing More Food in the Secret Garden

This simple space that was once created as a dog pen has graciously become our Secret Garden. Indeed it holds many “tricks and treats” that have come into the light over the 2022 growing season here in USDA Growing Zone 5b/6a. Here’s a list for inquiring minds that want to know with more details to follow if you comment or send me a message below.

  • Companion planting helps!
  • Tepee trellising maximizes space.
  • Grow bags work!
  • Cover crops improved soil fertility of this in-ground bed along the house.
  • Sunset runner beans are pretty in bloom and can be eaten fresh or dried for later. (Pictured here drying on a tepee in the far right back corner and draping the gate. Two tepee trellises.)
  • Tulle fabric works well as an insect cloth.
  • Saddle grow bags from Smart Pots beautify the fence.
  • Composting rocks! (Middle left with makeshift pallet gate)
  • Having a holding area (left foreground) is valuable for transitioning/nursing plants.
  • A cold frame is a game-changer for extending the growing season, starting seeds in the spring.
  • Placing the cold frame along the southern wall of the house added even more warmth when needed.
  • A Univent affixed to the lid of the cold frame regulated internal temps really well.
  • Elevating planters/grow bags deterred bunny damage.
  • Make growing spaces beautiful simply by adding mulch and annuals to enhance enjoyment, utility, and even increase pollinators.
  • Adding native plants nearby significantly increases pollination and production of edibles.
  • Use all vertical elements for growing more food! (There are cucumbers outside the fencing in the distance.)
  • Rings of “chicken wire” at ground level (cucumbers and others) are my go-to for protecting exposed plants from rascally rabbits. A multitude of sprays, hair, cayene pepper, etc. just haven’t worked for long enough even when methods are rotated.
  • Aromatic herbs help deter pests as well. (Rosemary grew between the large French marigolds and calendula.)

Overall I can say that re-purposing both garden spaces and supplies fun! Did you catch the pool noodle that elevates the drape of the green tulle fabric? Now let’s add the next chapter in the Secret Garden this fall where the in-ground bed transitioned for the colder weather.

The open ground is now covered in over a foot of leaves and will soon house sections from our GreenStalk vertical garden. (Sections are disassembled and the leaves will provide insulation to overwinter Seascape strawberries.) The cold frame along the wall has a “blanket” of bubble wrap affixed with black office clips to the poly carbonate panel in the lid to add additional insulation without blocking all of the light. I can easily access the grow bags by removing the plastic clamps purchased from a hardware store. I find that it’s important to check the soil every day or so for watering needs, uncovering the front side of the grow bags on warmer days as the soil can heat up quickly! It’s not unusual for temps to reach 80 degrees under cover when outdoor temps are in the 60s.

The plants include:

  • Strawberries and perennial herbs of oregano and pineapple sage overwintering in their grow bags.
  • Newly planted leafy greens of Red Russian kale, pad choi, spinach, arugula and romaine lettuce sprouting from seed also in their grow bags.
  • Carrots, radishes, and Mizuna mustard growing inside the cold frame.
  • Flowering calendula and French marigolds that will remain until they succumb to the cold.

I’m not sure how many of these will reach maturity but chances are good that most of them will make it through much of the winter here. If a crop looks like it is struggling then I will harvest them as microgreens! Last year I grew leafy greens in what I deemed a “Bubble Garden” made from halves of 5-gallon water jugs. (You can see the Daikon Radish cover crop next to it in the photo below.) While most plants inside the Bubbles didn’t put on huge growth over the winter and some became somewhat bitter, virtually all of them were still alive in the spring. That is, if they were not already eaten!

The Secret Garden has come quite a ways since the days of the BG . . . Could there be a green house in my future? That would fulfill the namesake of Hope Beyond, for sure. Tee hee. :JJ

The Technical Side of Green

Now for a little detour from my usual posts to a topic from my professional website on the benefits of viewing greenery in the landscape.  Be sure to take in some natural plantings this Winter wherever you are.  What evergreen trees and bushes are still leafed out or putting on a show from their peeling bark or knotty branches of interest?  Subtle hues of beige and cream, dark brown even red can pop against a fresh snowfall, glisten when covered in layers of ice.  Taking a moment to capture these scenes is good for us!

Here’s my article published this month in the Allen County Master Gardener newsletter and at Two Step Solutions.  Enjoy!

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The Technical Side of Green

By Julie H, Advanced Master Gardener

There probably isn’t a person big or small that doesn’t like the view of a lush countryside, bubbling brook, or vibrancy of the Fall colors in the Midwest to brighten his or her day. “Natural elements grab and hold our attention in effortless ways, even in urban settings,” and this has a profound beneficial effect on us according to research by Dr. William Sullivan, Professor and Head of the Department of Landscape Architecture at University of Illinois.

In his book chapter* entitled, “In Search of a Clear Head,” William Sullivan shares research supporting the premise that:

It is clear that being in or looking onto a green space can improve people’s ability to focus their attention. But is the effect of green space on attention useful to a variety of people under a variety of circumstances? The evidence shows that a wide range of people benefit from exposure to green spaces. Studies have demonstrated links between green spaces and higher performance on attentional tasks in public housing residents, AIDS caregivers, cancer patients, college students, prairie restoration volunteers, and employees of large organizations.

Green spaces help us to recover from mental fatigue, help us make better decisions, and behave with less irritability. Simply put for our homes, work, schools, and communities:

We need nature at every doorstep!

Further, the more senses that are engaged, generally the more stress reduction occurs as well. In one study, students looking out a classroom window onto a natural space had the power to improve test accuracy TENFOLD! So why are we sending students into windowless classrooms? This is something important to think about as we craft study and workspaces at home and in our communities.

So you might ask if these benefits would include an adult playing golf? A child engaged in athletic team sports? “Yes” for the golf although probably more from the exercise than the putting “greens,” and “No” for outdoor sports. Although the playing field may be a green space and it is usually good to be outdoors, the benefits are better during unstructured activities. Better examples would include walking in display gardens (!), growing a few vegetables, viewing natural waterways, and even observing animals in their native habitats. Taking a walk outside is generally a good idea for many reasons yet in another study, only students who walked in an arboretum showed statistically better test scores than ones who walked in the downtown area of their college town.**

To boost the restorative benefits of everyday contact with gardens and green spaces, view and actively engage in those spaces around you. Such is the heart of the Master Gardener (and other community horticulture, 4H, gardening) programs isn’t it? Engaging the public in educational, exploratory, and experiential gardening activities is the fun and heart of what we do as Master Gardeners for persons young and old. A little “dose of nature” is a great low-tech idea for all of us.

*Fostering Reasonableness: Supportive Environments for Bringing Out Our Best; Edited by Rachel Kaplan and Avik Basu.

**Based upon William Sullivan’s lecture entitled “Attention Restoration” presented at Gardens that Heal: A Prescription for Wellness; Chicago Botanical Garden, 5.10.17.


The County Sheriff and a mobile compost pile

Sometimes the dirt in your life follows you around for awhile . . . literally!

The weather was unusually warm here in the Midwest of the United States this past December.  By “warm” I mean that it was still in the 50’s and that was all I needed to do a little gardening project still left undone from the prior season.  Factor in the heartache of having been too sick to do it earlier, you can see why I jumped at the chance to get some dirt under my fingernails before the snow was set to fly!

And so I did.  The borders around the flower beds and tree in our front yard were re-cut and tidied up for the wintry freeze to follow. A Master Gardener simply cannot have her front yard unkempt when visitors were set to come for Christmas celebrations . . . even if they are not into landscaping!  Afterwards I felt a little better about the whole thingy.  The cuttings went into the bed of my truck like they always do with the intent of making a quick trip to dump it at the town compost pile.  That never happened.  Such a bummer being sick virtually all of the time . . .

Flash forward two months.  I was headed in my truck to my doctor’s office, hoping that they would see me on time.  Usually we patients can call ahead to see how far he is running behind and to leave our phone number for a call when they have an exam room available for us.  The phone lines were either turned off or unanswered when I had tried to call so I hurried to get on my way, lest I lose my appointment altogether!  This arrangement is a minor inconvenience for most folks but a major undertaking for me these days.  I had a more severe seizure attack waking up that morning and barely had enough time to get ready, grab some of my special food for the day (these appointments require 3+ hours plus I had an IV treatment at the hospital next door for another 4 hours later on), and focus enough to get myself out the door.  Maybe I should have had Steve drive me to the appointment?

Clearly I was a little distracted.  The purpose of the appointment was to re-evaluate the first month of IV treatments for Lyme disease.  I had first treated Lyme disease 4 years ago and it was a disaster; the next 4 years were spent taking down other infections and toxicities to get ready for intense treatment of Lyme that likely had been underlying ongoing health issues for a very long time.  The process has been most difficult.  I would learn in this appointment that the burning in my forearms that occurred during the past 5 infusions of the antibiotic (Rocephin) had caused superficial phlebitis!  All I knew is that they hurt.  More treatment recommendations would follow to add to my already complex treatment regime.  Everything came clearly into focus when I saw that beige-n-brown Dodge Charger sitting alongside Auburn Road.

As soon as I saw him I knew that I was in trouble.  That’s the color of the County Sheriff vehicles and I was traveling 14 miles per hour over the speed limit!  I thought I was only 9 MPH but unfortunately I did not see the traffic sign until my trip home!  He followed me for a block or so before turning on his flashing lights.  I sat stunned by the side of the road.  The Sheriff turned out to be friendly young lad, albeit dressed in his intimidating finery.  He recognized my last name and asked if I knew someone that he did by that name in another town?  Nope.  I could hardly speak.  “May I call my Doctor’s office?  I am running late for an appointment,” I asked.  “Sure,” he replied as he took my ID cards and walked back to his beast on wheels.  If he was friendly did that mean that he would have mercy on my story and not give me a ticket?

Nope again.  The “icy” conditions warranted a citation.  He spouted off more instructions than I could understand then left me with a cheap ticker-tape style TICKET.  All I could do was pull over onto a local street to gather myself to figure out what to do next.  The Doctor’s office finally answered their phone, apologized for not picking up earlier as they were short-staffed and stated that the Doc was running 1 1/2 hours behind schedule (as usual!).  “Would I like to leave my phone number for a call when they were ready?”  Sure, no problem I thought to myself . . .

Somehow I managed to contact my hubby at work and return home.  The struggle to leave the house earlier that morning resulted in a very expensive speeding ticket with funds earmarked for adjunct treatments not the county coffers.  I was upset at myself and upset at this wretched illness.  I was guilty of speeding.  I had not even looked down to see how fast I was travelling.  Driving a truck makes you a little over-confident in inclement weather and that false sense of security had caught up with me.  Gee, did he also notice that I still have a quarter of the bed of my truck filled with dirt, plants, and sod pieces in the middle of winter?  Perhaps not.  The pile has already begun composting into a fertile loam on sunny days!  They should make a nice, top-dressing the vegetable bed by Spring!  Maybe I’ll just leave it in there?

Sigh.  Life goes on and sometimes the State trooper is the one to remind me of this.  Regardless, if it really does get to 57 degrees tomorrow (on February 19th!) I will be digging some, Lord willing.  There’s much to do and the IV treatments are helping me feel some better.  Besides, I have a lot more room in the bed of my truck that needs to be filled dontcha know?  You can never have too much of that “black gold” stuff anyways.  :JJ

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How the professionals load compost!