Garden at Rest

It’s been almost two months since I put the garden to bed for the winter.  While I’ve missed the fresh air and home-grown veggies, I’ve enjoyed the break from the daily chores.  My cover crop is taking over (slowly but surely), and my compost pile is cooking down (also slowly but surely).

Inside my warm house, when I have a spare moment from my kid/house duties, I’ve been working on cleaning and organizing various spaces.  My seed catalog arrived recently, and I’m trying to decide what to grow this spring.

We just enjoyed our Christmas holiday, and I was thrilled to receive several garden-related gifts!  My mother gave me two “beneficial bug houses” – one just for mason bees, and one for mason bees, ladybugs, and lacewings.  This is a yet unexplored aspect of gardening for me, so I am very excited to learn more.  Everyone knows about ladybugs, of course, but I know little of mason bees, and nothing of lacewings.


photo courtesy Gardener Supply

I also received a great little book called “Trowel and Error” (my kind of humor!).  It’s filled with little hints and tricks, and something else I really enjoy – quotable quotes!  Here is one of my favorites:

garden quote

I look forward to learning more and planning next year’s garden from the comfort of my warm living room.  Merry Christmas to al!


Final Garden Preps

We had our first FREEZE here a few days ago, and I’ve been working hard to get the last of the garden chores done before the really cold weather arrives.

Last week, I built some walls for my compost pile and planted my garlic and daffodil bulbs.

I also pulled up the last of the tomato plants, cleaned out all the debris from the raised beds, and took down the fence.  I’m going to widen the fenced area just a bit next year.  I didn’t initially realize how much the plants would encroach on my paths.  In late summer, I was pushing my way through a jungle to reach certain sections.

You can see the before picture here.

Here is the after:


Ready for winter!

As you can see, I cut down the nylon netting I used as a trellis for the beans and zucchini.  I do NOT recommend that method for future reference – it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.  I used it because it was all I had at the time, but it wasn’t very sturdy, and it let my vines grow all the way up to the screened porch!  I had no idea they’d get that tall.  Can you imagine trying to harvest stuff way up there?  No.  Plus the vines got so tangled up, it was impossible to clean them off and reuse it.  Re-buying every year?  No.  I’ll add that to the list of “figure out a better way for next year.”

The last thing I did was to plant my cover crop.  I bought some annual rye seed at Home Depot and sprinkled that on my raised beds and watered gently.  Hopefully it will grow and keep the soil from eroding too badly over the winter.  Then in the spring, once it has turned brown, I will just turn it under.  It will provide additional nutrition to my soil for the coming year’s crops.

That’s the plan anyway, if I can keep Ding Dong out of there.

I’ll miss the garden, but I’m looking forward to the rest.  It’ll be time to start seedlings before you know it!

Planting Garlic

One of the crops I wanted to grow for next year is garlic.  I use a lot of it in my cooking, but until recently, I always bought the refrigerated pre-minced garlic in a jar.  I’ve come to know that fresh ingredients really do taste better, so I decided to plant my own.

Garlic is one of those things you plant in the fall.  Even then, it won’t be ready to harvest until next July!  I missed my window of opportunity last year, but I’m not making the same mistake twice.

I ordered some organic garlic heads from, but you can use any garlic bulbs that you like.

Garlic grows in bulbs beneath the ground. Each bulb is made up of individual cloves which vary in size and number depending on the variety and growing conditions. The cloves are in essence the garlic’s “seeds.” You separate the cloves, keeping the outer papery skin intact (if you can), and plant them with the pointy end up.


Cloves & bulb.

There are two kinds of garlic – hardneck and softneck.  As it grows, the garlic bulb puts up a shoot called the “neck.”  The hardneck varieties, oddly enough, put up a hard shoot that feels almost like a stick. Softneck garlic is the kind you see made into braids. It puts up little curly shoots called “scapes” that can be harvested separately from the garlic bulb and used in cooking. They are yummy. And until this year when we got them in our CSA, I had no idea they even existed!

I chose one variety of softneck (which is less cold hardy) and three varieties of hardneck.  One I’m particularly excited to try is called Music.  (We are a family of musicians, so that name just spoke to me.)  Here is what I’m planting:

  • Inchelium Red (soft)
  • Chesnok Red (hard)
  • German White (hard)
  • Music (hard)

This is how they arrived, bagged and tagged.  Strange that the “red” varieties were in the green bags.  Huh.


Bagged garlic.

I dug and prepared my beds a few weeks ago so I’d be ready to plant as soon as the weather cooperated. You’re supposed to plant garlic after the first light frost (which we had earlier this week), so I wanted to make sure I was ready. I made sure to add lots of organic matter to the beds because garlic is a heavy feeder.

Some people say you should soak your garlic overnight in a fish emulsion, but the instructions that came from seedsavers doesn’t say to do that, so I’m gladly skipping it!

I separated the cloves, chose the biggest ones, and set them out on top of the dirt so I could check my spacing.  I like to do it this way because they don’t have any part that sticks up above ground, and I’ll quickly lose track of where I’ve planted.  (The back of this bed is daffodil bulbs, so I didn’t want to get too close to the fence.)


Cloves ready to plant.

Cloves should be planted about 6” apart, although I’m not sure how particular they really are.  My friend Po planted garlic last year in a bed on the side of her house.  On a warm day in February, the kids next door decided to play tackle football and trampled all through her bed, kicking up many of the growing bulbs.  She just put them all back where they belonged, and the garlic was none the worse for wear.  I’m hoping that means mine can take a little abuse from Ding Dong.

I have no idea what to expect from the flavors.  I just chose them because the catalog descriptions sounded good!  I guess we’ll have one giant taste test next year.  But really, though.  It’s garlic!  How can it be bad?

My First Building Project

The first thing I did when I decided to start growing my own food was to pick out an unused corner of my yard for a compost pile.  As I showed you at the end of this post, it’s nothing fancy.

Initially, this worked just fine because the pile was pretty small.  But now that I’ve added an whole new season of leaves and grass clippings and kitchen scraps, it’s kind of getting out of control for the tiny little space I allotted it.

A compost pile needs to be “turned” every so often.  That simply means you get in there w/a shovel or pitchfork or something and give it a good mixing.  It keeps the pile oxygenated which helps the bacteria do their job.

With such a small space and no walls to speak of, every time I turned the pile, it spilled into my shoes, filling them with bits of yuck (technical term).  Since it needs good air circulation, I didn’t want solid walls, but I needed a little more support than what I had.

So I decided to remove the wrought iron fence – whose only purpose was to keep the dog out – and replace it with wooden slatted walls.  My first building project!  Yay!

And scary.

I haven’t used power tools or built anything since I was in middle school and had to take wood shop.  Aahhh, the good ol’ days.  I still remember my teacher – Mr. McMahon – a bearded, red-headed, pot-bellied Scot.  Looking back, I still can’t believe he let us (at 12 years old!) use machinery like that.  Of course, that was after he’d scared the crap out of us with the gory safety videos of someone chopping their fingers off with a band saw or getting a giant splinter in their eyeball because they forgot their safety glasses.  Hahahaha!  Good times.

But I digress . . .

So after taking a few measurements, off to Home Depot I went.  I found the Lumber department easily enough.  And I knew I needed untreated lumber – you don’t want treated lumber for a compost pile because those chemicals will leach into the soil you are making.  Kinda defeats the purpose of growing your own organically, yes?  Untreated lumber will decay faster, but that’s the trade off you make.

I wandered from pile to pile trying to decide what I needed and envisioning how I would use it (not having taken the time to draw up an actual plan for this project).  There was no one to ask for help which was kind of good because I probably wouldn’t have asked anyway.  I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to feel stupid (are there such people? yes, believe me, I know plenty), and I’d rather figure it out for myself.

I knew I wanted my walls to be approximately 4×4, but all the boards seemed to come in 8-ft lengths.  Lucky for me, I heard another customer (a woman!) ask about getting wood cut.  Hey!  Just what I need!  Did you know they’ll do this for you?  For free!  At least, when their saw is working.  Which it wasn’t.

Oh well, I got this!  Last spring, I bought myself a reticulating saw. My first power tool! (If you don’t count the rechargeable drill and screwdriver, which I don’t.)  I had visions of me scarfing up all the free pallets I could find around town and using them to make all kinds of fun stuff (seriously, google it, it’s a thing).  So of course I’d need a saw to take apart the pallets!

Never took it out of the box.

Until now!

I paid for the boards, came home, and performed a feat my husband has trouble with called reading the instructions.  I grabbed my work gloves, donned my safety goggles (thanks, Mr. McMahon!), and got to work.  Using my metal construction worker tape measure, I marked the lengths I needed and, with my trusty reticulating saw, I cut those suckers in half!  All by myself!


Last few boards to cut.

Here’s a close up of the saw.  It’s a little heavy and kinds scary when you first turn it on, but you get used to it.

Reticulating saw

Reticulating saw.

Not owning a pair of sawhorses, I just laid the boards across the frame of the kids’ old sandbox which we were tossing.  It worked fine.

Then it was time to build!

Guess who wanted to help?


Whatcha doin, Mama?

Since each board was 4-ft long, and I had two posts that were 4-ft high, I just made two 4-ft square walls and connected them to the existing fence posts using exterior 5/8” screws.  I wanted the boards toward the bottom of the wall to be closer together to keep the compost from spilling out.  But I gradually increased the spacing as I went higher, using my level to keep the boards straight.

I used my drill with the Phillips head bit (the one that looks like a plus +) to make the work go faster and to get the torque I needed.  Mine has a magnetic head (is that standard?) to help keep the screw from falling off before you really get going.  See . . .


Drill with magnetized screw.

A couple of things that would have made this project easier:

  1. If my yard were level and the fence posts plumb (level & straight), that would have been a HUGE help.  There was just no way I could attach a plumb wall to a non-plumb post and have it work out.  So now my walls are crooked.  Oh well.
  2. If I didn’t have any compost in the compost pile to begin with, it would have been much easier to get the right angle going with the drill.  As it was, I had to step and sometimes sit in a giant pile of wet leaves and grass to reach the right spot.  I’m still itchy.
  3. If I didn’t have a dog who wanted to supervise.  She was the Chief Leaf Inspector and Tool Thief.  Couldn’t turn my back on her for a second.

Here is the finished project:


I built that!

I left a wide opening to make it easier for me to work the pile.  I’ll have to block it off so Ding Dong doesn’t get in there when I’m not looking, but I’ll probably just use some rope or something.  I may also put some wire mesh along the two fence sides to keep the compost from leaking out into the neighbor’s yard.

Anyway, I know it isn’t going to win any HGTV awards or anything, but that wasn’t the point.  It was something I’ve been meaning to do, and I did it.  All by myself.  And I feel much more confident now finding my way around the lumber yard and using power tools.

Hmmm, what should a build next?  Maybe a shed!

Bee Careful

I had a bit of excitement around here this week.  I discovered we have (had!) a yellow jacket nest in the rock wall around our large maple tree.

Ask me how I found out.


It all started with compost.

The cool weather has finally returned to Virginia, and the leaves are falling in earnest.  We had the remnants of TS Karen earlier this week, and lots of leaves were knocked loose by her winds.  I had been eyeing that compost gold all week, hoping to make time to rake them up and put them in my pile before the next round of rain (several heavy days of it, if the weathermen are to be believed . . . ) hit last night.

Leaves are an awesome addition to your compost pile – maybe the BEST addition.  They provide a lot of nutrients, they don’t attract bugs (gnats, flies, etc.), and they don’t get stinky like some kitchen scraps can.  Aside: I hope you know that you NEVER use any animal products (with the exception of eggshells) in your compost pile!!  Veggie scraps can get a little sour smelling, though.  So can grass clippings if you have too many and they are constantly wet.

Leaves are light and easy to move (unless you’re raking on a windy day, in which case I’d have to question your judgment), and the best part – they are FREE!  About the only thing you have to pay attention to is what kind of tree they came from.  Most types of leaves are great in any quantity.  But Oak leaves are very acidic, so you may want to use them sparingly.  I’ve also read that you should never compost Black Walnut leaves because they contain a chemical (called juglone – don’t say you didn’t learn anything today) that kills other plants.  Having neither oak nor black walnut trees in my yard, I was all set.

So yesterday afternoon, I finally had time to go out and rake.

In order to gather the leaves for the compost pile in the most efficient way possible, I use a giant tarp.  I rake the leaves up onto the tarp, drag it to the next spot, rake some more, then pull the whole thing around to the compost pile and dump them all at once.  I’ve tried using bags, boxes, buckets, pretty much every container you can think of, but the tarp seems to be the fastest method.


So I’m out there raking the leaves from around the base of the maple tree, along the rock wall, and out of the flower beds.  I guess yellow jackets don’t like people (unless they’re holding a cup of apple cider).  Or yard work.  Or people doing yard work.  And they certainly didn’t like me.  They started coming out from between the rocks, just a few at first, then by the thousands (ok, that might be an exaggeration).

I dropped the rake and RAN.  And you know what?  Those little bastards chased me!

Luckily, it was a cool day, and I was wearing long pants/sleeves and a hat.  But they still managed to sting me in about the only place they could – my neck.  OUCH!  I haven’t been stung since I was a kid, and I’m not sure I have ever been stung by a yellow jacket, so I was a little worried.

It hurt like crap, and I felt a little tingly and weird afterwards.  It could have been because I was totally freaked out, but just in case, I took some Benadryl.

Then I sat at my computer with an ice pack on my neck and planned their demise.

In between internet searches and youtube videos on how to get rid of yellow jackets, I peeked out the window (the closed window) and took a few pics.  This is where they have the entrance to their batcave, right at the end of the wall.  You can see where I casually put down the rake and walked away.  Uh huh.


Apparently lots of people take care of such nests by pouring gasoline down into the hole.  I was really hoping for something a little less . . . flammable . . . so I decided to call the pest control company.

Normally, I limit or eliminate the use of chemicals wherever possible in our home and yard (and I use NONE in my vegetable garden), but in this situation I was more concerned about my kids being attacked.  My son (who’s eleven) just learned how to use the mower, and he cut the grass right in this spot last week. I’m SO very thankful they didn’t come after him!

The pest control guy came right out and sprinkled magic poison fairy dust onto some of the rocks and inside BOTH (yes, there were two) entrances to their hive.  Or nest.  Or whatever you call it.

Boy were they mad.  But do you know that pest control guy, who showed up in shorts & a t-shirt, didn’t get stung once?  I guess because he wasn’t doing any yard work.

Then we had to wait several hours for all the stragglers to come home and get dusted before I could go back out there.  Here’s a couple of them now . . .

Yellow jackets are members of the WASP family.  Like hornets, they are very aggressive, predatory, and can sting repeatedly.  They are not bees.  If this had been a bee hive, I never would have destroyed it.  Instead, I would have called someone who could move it to a more appropriate location.  Of course, that probably wouldn’t even be necessary because they most likely never would have attacked me in the first place.

Bees are extremely beneficial, and without them, our food supply (and hence our way of life) is in grave danger.  We rely on them to pollinate all manner of fruit and vegetable blossoms so that those will, in turn, give us apples, cherries, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc.

Perhaps you have read some of the reports of mass bee die-offs, lately.  This is no joke.  Please consider carefully before you use pesticides; and if you must, please take every precaution to achieve a targeted application.  I made sure this gentleman knew my stance on chemicals, asked him what he was using (low toxicity puff powder), and asked him to be as careful as possible when treating the area.

This section of my yard is away from human/pet traffic and has no nearby water sources (drains, streams, etc.) for the poison to wash into.  I feel like I was as careful as I could be.  As much as I didn’t like it, sometimes you have to make a trade off to keep your family safe.

Later, when all was clear, I went back out to finish my raking.  I did not take the leaves near the wall because I didn’t want to risk putting any of the poison into my compost pile.

Here is my compost pile after the addition of the first round of leaves.


As you can see, it’s nothing fancy.  Just an unused corner of my backyard.  The only reason I have the little fence there is because the dog kept treating it like a free buffet.

This will “cook” down over the coming weeks.  It’s perfect timing since we are getting several days of rain which will help the process along (and keep the leaves from blowing away).  In a couple of weeks, I can turn the pile and add some more kitchen scraps and newly-fallen leaves.  By next spring, I should have a bunch of good, nutritious compost to add to my garden.

And hopefully a bunch fewer wasps.

Stinky October Weather

It’s hot. 

If the temperature gauge on my minivan is to be believed, it’s 93 degrees in my driveway.  That’s WAY too hot for October in Virginia.

I want my sweatshirt weather back!  Waaaaah.

I’ve been waiting for the cooler weather to really stick so I can finish cleaning out the garden.  So far, not happening.  But on the up side, my tomatoes are going gangbusters.  Kind of makes me feel bad for wanting to rip them out.  It’s like they know.

I also have a bunch of garlic I want to plant.  But it’s too warm!  You’re supposed to plant garlic cloves in the fall “after the first light frost.”  Well at this rate, I’ll be planting them at Christmas.

But you know who LOVES the warm fall weather?  Stink bugs. 

Don’t have stink bugs where you live?  Consider yourself lucky.  They are as yummy as they sound.  Here’s a picture.


They are about the size of a nickel and look like little brown tanks.  They fly, but they don’t bite or sting.

Why are they called “stink bugs,” you ask?  Because they give off a lovely smell when you squash them.  It doesn’t particularly bother me, but my kids say it is the most disgusting thing ever.  Maybe I just haven’t gotten a full dose yet. 

These things have invaded the Mid-Atlantic by the millions.  This time of year, they are literally everywhere.  I can’t work in the yard without being pelted by them.  They literally fly into my head.  And I learned the hard way not to drive with the windows down right now.

They’ve turn my screened in porch into that scene from “Amityville Horror” – the one where Rod Steiger as the priest gets stuck in the bedroom where the windows fill w/flies.  (If you’re under 40, look it up.)  Anywhoooo . . .


What makes these things worse than most annoying insects is that they want to LIVE in your HOUSE.  They are little opportunists.  They wait for you to open a door & then fly in behind you.  Or they squeeze themselves through the very tiny spaces between your window screen and the frame.  Then they look for places to hide for the winter.

Here’s one in what seems to be one of their favorite places – inside my honeycomb blinds.  Try explaining that to your clean-freak mother.


So I’m REALLY ready for the real fall weather to return.  It would be my favorite season . . . if it weren’t followed by winter . . . when I’ll be complaining about how cold it is.

Putting the Garden to Bed

Even though it’s going to be 80 degrees here today, temperatures are going to plummet this weekend, with overnight low’s in the 40’s.  Fall is beginning to exert itself!

One of the chores I need to do is to begin putting the garden to bed for the winter.  I still have produce out there that needs to be harvested – tomatoes and beans, mostly.  I pulled up the carrots and sweet potatoes about a week ago.  I’ll bring everything in (even the green tomatoes – as long as they have ANY color on them, they will continue to ripen) and yank up the plants.  I don’t compost them in case of pests and disease, so out to the curb they go (in a landscape bag, of course).

This is a BEFORE shot.


After I clean it out, I need to get the soil ready for next year.  Yes, now! 

I plan to plant a cover crop, probably annual rye grass.  A cover crop will grow and cover your soil, then turn brown at frost.  Cover crops have many benefits – they help reduce erosion of your soil, help reduce weeds, and they return nutrients to your soil.  Instead of removing or harvesting, you simply turn the cover crop under like any other amendment. 

In addition to that, I need to put a layer of shredded leaves for additional nutrition and weed control.  Leaves are another great soil amendment.  Around here, though, I only have one or two trees that have started to drop their leaves.  I’ll mulch those up with the mower and empty the entire bag on top of the garden beds.  It will be a few more weeks until our leaves really begin to fall in earnest.  Anything I don’t need immediately goes into the compost pile.  I might even steal (kidding, sort of) some of the neighbors’ bagged up leaves.  They’re like gold – don’t let them go to waste!

I’ll also take some time to improve any paths and fencing or other areas that didn’t work so well for me this year.  And I want to dig a new bed or two for some additional things I want to grow.  I know I’ll have my hands full with seedlings in the spring, so it’s best to get as much maintenance as possible done now.

I’ll post an AFTER shot once it is all done.