Sunday, April 10, 2016

Planting prep

Although our first crop of the year, the snap peas, went into the garden back in March (in the snow), the bulk of the spring planting runs from mid-April to mid-May. So, since we were fortunate enough to have reasonably nice weather today, Brian and I both spent a good chunk of the day outdoors, getting the garden beds up and ready for the season.

The first step was to pull out all the weeds, of which there were many, from the beds. (As you'll see shortly, there were also some other plants that we left behind.) Then Brian opened up the compost bin and dug out as much dark, crumbly compost as he could get—about enough to fill up our four five-gallon buckets twice each. As he filled the buckets, I hauled them down to the beds and dumped them out, and then we both got out shovels and rakes and implements of destruction to spread the compost over the beds.

As we worked, however, we had to take care not to disturb what was already in the beds. The only plant we've actually transplanted so far is the parsley, and of the peas we planted four weeks ago, only a few tiny shoots have popped up above the surface so far. However, there seem to be a few leftovers lingering from last year's garden that might be worth keeping around. For instance, there's a small patch of scallions in the right front bed, roughly where we planted them last year. Unfortunately, since we try to rotate all our crops as much as possible, that's not where we intend to plant them this year; it's the spot we have earmarked for marigolds (right next to the tomatoes, since having marigolds planted in the same bed is supposed to deter tomato-preying pests). Fortunately, the marigolds aren't scheduled to go in the ground for another four weeks, which means we can keep the scallions around until then. A month from now, when it's time to turn their spot over to the marigolds, we can just pull them up and eat them.

Another curious relic of last year's garden is one lone Brussels sprout plant. As I noted in my Changing of the Garden post last December, the Brussels sprouts we planted last year still weren't big enough to eat by the time winter came, so we just left the plants in the garden to see if they'd survive the freeze. As it turned out, they did, and late last January we managed to harvest a batch of little round globes, not much bigger around than a quarter, but enough to make one batch of our favorite roasted Brussels sprouts. After that, Brian chopped off what was left of the stalk, and we figured that was the end of it. Except apparently, it wasn't. As you can see here, the plant has grown a new head, Hydra-like, out of the cut-off neck, and it appears to be developing what looks like a few tiny flowers of broccoli. (In fact, I initially thought this plant was actually a relic of our ill-fated broccolini crop, which did even worse than the Brussels sprouts, but Brian insisted it was the same plant he'd cut the Brussels sprouts off earlier this year.)

So we don't exactly know how this plant survived or whether it will ever yield anything we can eat. But the appearance of the little broccoli heads piqued Brian's curiosity, and he lobbied to leave it in the garden and see what happens. Since we won't actually need that spot until it's time to transplant the eggplants in early June, we really have nothing to lose by making the experiment.

The same can't be said, however, for the other plants we found in that same bed. The Winter Marvel lettuce we planted last year never really produced anything before winter came, and when there was no sign of it by the beginning of February, I figured there was no point in trying to plan this year's garden around it. But apparently my assumption was premature, because when Brian went out to weed the beds this weekend, he found that some of the plants in that bed were unmistakably lettuces. This put us in a bit of a quandary: garden-fresh greens this early in the spring are always welcome, but the spot they were growing in was supposed to be earmarked for the scallions, which were due to be planted today.

Fortunately, we were able to figure out a way to make room for everything. The two squares right next to the one the lettuces are occupying were designated to hold leeks—the one crop that didn't fare very well when we started them indoors. We'd originally planned to try and direct-seed some leeks in the garden at the same time we transplanted the seedlings and see if that would make up the difference, but Brian, figuring a lettuce in the hand was worth two leeks in the bush, made a spot decision to condense the available leek crop into just one square instead, leaving room for the lettuces to stay where they are. So we'll see how big those get, and more importantly, how they taste, before deciding whether to plant more of them this fall. Meanwhile, we also got our first square of spring lettuce planted (the new Bronze Mignonette variety we decided to try in place of last year's disappointing Blushed Butter Oaks), as well as our first two squares of arugula.

In the process of doing all this planting and general tidying up, we also discovered quite a few problems with the garden beds and paths that we're going to have to attend to some time this year. The most troubling is the condition of the beds and trellises themselves, which, after a good seven to eight years of service, are now clearly on their last legs. The beds, which we made out of ordinary, untreated two-by-fours back in 2008, are gradually staring to buckle and even rot away in places, and the trellises are leaning precariously away from their bases. For now, Brian has shored them up with a few strategically placed lengths of scrap wood, but it seems apparent that before next year's crops go in, we'll have to rip out the four entire bed-and-trellis assemblies and rebuild them from scratch.

So the question is, what should we rebuild them with? If we go with ordinary two-by-fours again, we can presumably expect to repeat the process yet again another seven or eight years down the road, so ideally we'd like to use something more durable this time around. So far, I can think of three options:
  • Cedar. More durable than the pine boards we're using now, but it's both pricey and hard to find. A quick search on Home Depot and Lowe's shows that neither one has any cedar two-by-fours in stock, and Home Depot says if it did have them, they'd cost $9 apiece for 8-foot boards. Since a single bed with a built-in trellis requires ten of them, that's a total of $360 for four beds—if we could even find that much cedar. Plus, it's not even clear that this cedar would hold up any better than the untreated pine we used last time; according to Woodweb, the cedar you buy in stores often includes some sapwood, which the author says can break down in as little as two years.
  • Pressure-treated wood. I vetoed this option when we originally built the beds, because some of my gardening books claimed that the chemicals used in pressure-treated wood were highly toxic and should never be used near vegetables you intend to eat. However, since then I've done a bit more research, and it appears that the chemical they were particularly concerned about was chromium copper arsenate (CCA), which isn't commonly used anymore. According to the Oregon State University Extension, most pressure-treated wood these days uses other chemicals such as alkaline copper quaternary ammonium (ACQ), which is nontoxic. (Some copper can still leach out of the wood, but studies indicate it's not enough to hurt you.) At roughly $10 for a 16-foot board, this option would come to about $200 for all four beds. The one thing that's not clear is jut how long this stuff would actually hold up. According to Woodweb, treated wood lasts about 20 times as long as the untreated stuff—but The Natural Handyman claims that even pressure-treated wood really should be treated with a sealant every year to prevent warping and cracking, so I'm not sure which source to believe. I found one sawmill site that says pressure-treated wood in garden beds holds up for "20+ years," so it seems likely we shouldn't have to worry about replacing the beds again for that long, at least.
  • Composite. A composite lumber made with recycled plastic, such as Trex, could conceivably hold up even better than the pressure-treated wood—possibly even well enough that we'd never have to replace it again. However, there are three problems with this idea: first, the design we used for these garden beds is based around two-by-fours, and most composite decking isn't sold in that size. Second, even if we could adapt our design to use thinner boards, we'd still pay something along the lines of $500 for a package of ten 16-foot boards, or $1,000 for all four beds. Given that the stuff is only guaranteed for 25 years, that's a pretty crummy value compared to the treated wood. And finally, Brian has said he's not really comfortable with the idea of using anything in our garden that "won't break down eventually." (Actually, the 25-year warranty suggests that this stuff will actually start to break down after a few decades, but it won't break down into anything natural.)
So it looks like the pressure-treated wood will probably be our best bet for new beds and trellises. Since this year's gardening season is already under way, we'll have to try and make the ones we have last for one year more, but the Changing of the Garden this year will probably have to involve ripping out the beds completely and preparing to put in new ones.

And, while we're at it, we'll probably have to do some work on the paths as well. As you can see from these pictures, the paths we laid in 2013, using garden cloth and stone dust left over from our patio project, just aren't managing to keep out the weeds. In addition to worming their way up around the edges of the cloth, both around the periphery of the beds and around the edges of the fence, they're now poking their way up straight through the cloth and stone dust right in mid-path. So if we really want to get the weed situation under control, I'm assuming we'll have to have another batch of stone dust delivered, yank as many weeds as we can, and then put another thick layer of stone dust over top of what's already there—possibly with an additional layer of garden cloth underneath, as well, to put as many barriers between the weeds and our feet as possible.

A final problem we discovered, while working on all this garden stuff, is that we appear to have an unwanted tenant in our shed—most likely a rat, to judge by its abundant droppings. So at some point, we'll either have to press our rat trap back into service (and hope it works better, or at least causes less collateral damage, in an enclosed area), or find some other way to evict the critter before it can pose a threat to our emerging crops. (I wonder whether there's any way we could recruit the local feral cat population to help us with this job. Could they possibly be bribed with milk?)
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