Grit Blogs > Of Mice and Mountain Men

Trying New Things in the Garden

Of Mice and Mountain MenSix years ago I tried something new: gardening.

As a youngster I had been slave labor in my Dad's garden, but I didn't learn anything from that except “THOSE are not weeds, THOSE are my plants!” When I decided to try gardening for myself, I knew very little about it. Six years later I'm still trying new things.

My very first garden was a very small patch (6 feet by 12 feet) next to our storage shed: the only almost flat spot on our property. That went okay, so I expanded the following year … and ran into trouble. Planting on a slope means all the dirt I tilled up, amended, and planted washed down the slope and is gone.

Starter garden

So I tried something new: raised beds. Four foot by four foot boxes eight inches deep, dug into the slopes to level them up. I started with a half dozen boxes in the up-slope end of the garden and a tilled patch below for things like corn and potatoes, which I didn't think would grow well in boxes. The boxes broke up the flow of water rolling down the “lawn” and would help keep the tilled soil in place … or that was my theory. It didn't work that way, so the next year I built more boxes.

Square Foot Garden

Originally I went with the Square Foot Gardening Method because the idea of maximizing my crop for space consumed and never having to weed appealed to me. These claims were – misleading. Weeds are perfectly happy to grow underneath other plants, and being underneath other, closely packed, plants makes them harder to spot and harder still to pull without damaging their hiding places. Cramming lots of plants into a small space means using fertilizer to keep the mass of vegetation growing. Lots of fertilizer. And having many plants crammed into a small space greatly promotes disease like leaf blight, especially in a damp environment like The Great Smoky Mountains.

Scratch the square foot method. Keep the boxes, but build more of them.

Compost piles

To deal with soil depletion, I tried something new: making compost. I tried old fashioned compost piles, compost bins, compost doughnuts, and lasagne beds. None of these made compost fast enough to keep up with the demand, but it helped. I still had to buy composted cow manure, but not as much.

Expanding the garden

The garden grew and I tried something new: berry bushes. Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, boysenberries and grapes. To keep these safe from birds and rabbits, I built a berry house. The base is wrapped in poultry mesh to keep out the hoppy vermin, and the bows are covered in bird mesh. It works well.

Square foot gardening did not work out for me, but traditional gardening calls for long rows with walking spaces between: not workable in 4x4 boxes, so I tried something new: hybridized planting methods. Basically this means I ignore most of what the planting guides say about row spacing and use the plant spacing (and a little common sense) as my guide. Of course, common sense is something that grows from making mistakes. For instance, dry bean plants …

Garden Box-Beans

If you plant a whole box of beans spaced 4 inches apart, the plants in the center don't do well and the over crowding causes problems with pest and disease control. So this year I tried something new: I planted the bean plants around the perimeter of each box and am building a lasagne bed (composting technique) in the center. This avoids wasting that space, helps keep moisture in the soil, yet allows for plenty of sunshine and air flow to all of the bean plants. At least, that's my theory, I'll let you know how it turns out.

Potatoes are difficult to grow in raised beds if you line the bottoms with weed barrier – and you have to at first or grass will snake in under the box sides and be almost impossible to keep out. Now that the beds are 5 years old, I could cut the fabric out of some of the boxes and allow deep root crops to grow down into the clay below. Or … I could try something new.

Garden Box-potatoes

Last year, the big rage seemed to be growing potatoes in barrels, stacked tires, boxes, bins, or straw-lined cages. Everyone promised huge yields because the soil level would continue to rise as the vines grew up through the containers, offering much more space for the spuds. What most of them forgot was to plant indeterminate varieties of potato. Determinant (most types of potato) grow tubers at the base of the plant, spreading out and down as the roots grow. Only the indeterminate types will put out roots (and tubers) from the stems if they are buried. There are huge numbers of videos on YouTube of hopeful gardeners digging into their potato experiments and being vastly disappointed.

So I took a different approach. I raised the soil level in the bed by lining the fence box with straw and planted the seed spuds 4 inches down like I normally would. I added a layer of straw on top to help protect any that breech the surface from the sunlight, which makes them toxic. I am expecting the plant roots to travel out and down just like they would in standard potato hills or rows that get mounded up a bit as the vine grows.

I did plant two layers: Main crop potatoes in the lower layer, early crop on top, but staggered so they are not right above the main crop plants. I can pull out the early crop during summer as small potatoes (Yukon Gold are great for this) and leave the main crop till fall for big spuds that will cure and last through the winter. Not that we'd get enough to supply us all winter from one 4x4 box, this is an experiment. If it works, I can plant more boxes this way next year.

If it doesn't work … I'll try something new.