From the Ground Up

5 Creative Garden Design Ideas

James Whitehanging strawberry vertical garden

A garden can be an outdoor refuge that allows you to escape the stress of everyday life, show off your gardening skills to family and friends, or even be an outlet for your creativity. You can make your design truly unique with labyrinths made from tall hedges, cobblestone paths and strategically placed water features. There are many different ways to create a garden. No matter what your design preferences, you’ll find something that speaks to your gardener’s heart and soul.


Hugelkultur is a process for composting. Basically, fallen wood and other natural debris is used as the base of a raised bed with a growing compound placed on top. The process is similar to what happens in the forest naturally, creating a nutrient-rich, moist environment for plants to grow. This type of gardening works well for areas that are a challenge to gardeners, such as urban lots or areas with poor drainage.

Hanging Gardens

If you don’t have a lot of ground space, hanging gardens may be the perfect addition to your home. Hanging gardens are a beautiful accent to your indoor or outdoor décor. The best veggies and fruits for hanging gardens include: lettuce, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, peas, some smaller types of peppers and Asian eggplants. Herbs also make excellent plants for hanging.

Keyhole Garden

Keyhole gardens are popular in Africa, but have made their way to the United States in areas where it is hot and dry. If you were to look at a keyhole garden from above, it looks like an old-fashioned keyhole, round with a notched area on one end. This notched area is where a compost pile is kept to add rich nutrients to the raised-bed structure of the garden. Use stones for a natural look to build up your keyhole garden. You can also add a pipe down the center for better irrigation.

Vertical Gardens

Urban areas in particular can benefit from vertical gardening. This means utilizing a wall and allowing plants to vine up it. One example might be to place a long rectangular container against a wall and plant tomatoes in it, but to also have cucumbers vining up a trellis that is placed against the wall.

Hanging vertical bags can be used to grow strawberries. You can also build a vertical herb garden out of two-by-fours and rectangular planters. A PVC pipe with holes drilled in it can hold a variety of smaller plants.

Enchanted Food Forest

This is a design that is meant to mimic food being grown the way it would in nature. The key to this type of garden design is to make sure everything is working well together, including anything living in the garden — plants, animals, bugs. For an enchanted forest garden to work well, you must plan out how each plant works with others and place them so they help one another. For example, you have to create layers of vines, tall trees, shrubs and groundcover.

These are just a few of the garden designs you can use to overcome gardening challenges and make the most of the space you have. Today's gardening focuses on sustainability and making maintenance easier. The right design will allow you to get the most out of your garden and feed your family healthy foods for a fraction of the cost of store-bought.

5 Tips to Keep the Bugs Away When Gardening

James Whitebugs away when gardening

I hate bugs. Just hate ‘em. Too many legs, too many eyes, too many wings. I hate them.

Did you know that researchers have identified more than a million different types of insects? That’s not all: Scientists estimate that 30 million more bug species haven’t even been classified yet.

Surprised I have all these facts? I know my enemy. I have to. There are probably about 10 quintillion individual insects in the world. In case you’re wondering, that’s 10 followed by 18 zeros.

I do my best to keep bugs out of my house, but I especially can’t stand having them around when I’m gardening. I know, I know … not all bugs are bad for your garden and I wouldn’t have amazing veggies growing without those pollinators. But there are some things you can do to just keep the bugs away when you’re outside gardening.

1. Dress for Success

When I’m working in the garden, I always wear boots, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. An extreme bug situation calls for clothing that’s been sprayed with peppermint essential oils. You can even buy clothes pre-treated with bug repellent.

Manufacturers add permethrin, which drives off a wide variety of bugs. The Environmental Protection Agency considers this clothing as safe to wear. However, wash it separately from everything else, because some of the permethrin might come off in the laundry.

2. Spray Your Way

Bug spray seems like an obvious and effective choice, but there are so many kinds. Which do you choose?

Repellents that contain DEET are at the top of my list. I know some people worry about side effects, but recent studies don’t find any problems if you follow the application instructions.

A product doesn’t need to be more than 50 percent DEET to keep mosquitoes away. You need at least 20 percent DEET to repel those nasty ticks.

If you’re still leery about DEET, other effective product ingredients are lemon eucalyptus oil, catnip and citronella.

3. Clean Your Scene

Mosquitoes are one of the worst offenders. They’re terrifically annoying, and some carry diseases.

I take steps to make my property an unattractive breeding ground. Mosquitoes love standing water. Even a little is enough for them to lay eggs.

• I don’t leave anything lying around that can hold water. No empty bird feeders, flowerpots, buckets, wheelbarrows, hollow logs or old tires.

• I clear my gutters of decaying leaves and other gunk every spring.

• I level off any low-lying areas that crop up during the winter.

4. Lifesaver Flavor

In terms of annoyance, gnats are not far behind mosquitoes. They’re so tiny, and they get everywhere. Have you ever inhaled one?

I rub a little vanilla extract along the brim of my hat. This seems to help keep them away from my face, at least. No more nose gnats.

5. Vent the Scent

Bugs like strong floral scents, so I never go outside smelling like a piece of fruit or a flower. My soap and shampoo are fragrance-free, and I don’t try to impress insects with cologne anyway.

Same deal for laundry detergent. It doesn’t need to make my clothes smell like a spring bouquet. It just has to get them clean.

I wish bugs would adopt the motto “Live and let live.” Leave me alone, and I won’t bother them. Until they have a change of heart, though, I’m going to go after them with elbow grease and a little ingenuity.

How to Get Rid of Mice in Your Food Storage and Garden

James Whitemice in barn

Mice and other small critters, such as voles and shrews, can cause major problems for you and your garden. Tearing through your food storage, leaving droppings everywhere and breeding like crazy are just a few habits that make these rodents more than just an annoyance. Thankfully, keeping your goods safe from pests doesn’t have to be a losing battle. With a few tricks, you can easily take back your garden and win the war against critters.

If you’ve been looking for methods to get rid of mice that actually work, take a look at the list below:

Peppermint Oil

Since mice have pretty poor eyesight, they rely on their noses to find food. Overpowering their senses with peppermint essential oil is a great way to deter curious mice from entering your garden or storage areas, but won’t do much to get rid of existing mice.

Soak cotton balls in undiluted peppermint essential oil and place them around problem areas. The overwhelming scent of peppermint will deter new mice from building homes in your garden or storage. You can also make a peppermint spray and generously coat entrances to storage to keep pests away.

Cat Patrol

Allowing a cat to prowl your property can reduce the number of mice and voles you have, though not drastically — one cat can only hunt so much. The threat of being eaten may be enough to cause some of the animal population to relocate. Once rodents catch a whiff of the cat near their home, they may decide the risk isn’t worth it.

Owls may also help reduce the pest population. To encourage owls to roost near your home, set up perches for them.

Lawn Maintenance 

Mowing your lawn regularly destroys areas that shrews and other small creatures could hide in. Mow around structures and check for signs of tunneling damage to see if you already have a pest problem. Rake up foliage and clear away dead branches or garden waste. Clear overgrown shrubs and low-hanging limbs that may entice pests to build a home nearby. Move firewood stacks into the garage.

Make Food Inaccessible

Most little creatures find food using their sense of smell, so doing your best to mask scents will go a long way toward keeping your supplies safe. Keep foods in airtight containers that mice can’t sniff out. Taking the appeal away from your shed is the first line of defense.

Always clean up any leftover bird seed or pet food. Although animal food is not the first choice for pests, they will eat it if it’s available.

Block Entrances

If your storage shed has seen better days, it’s entirely possible that critters are finding their way in through gaps in the structure. Thoroughly check your shed for holes or cracks. Even the smallest space may allow mice to get in — they can fit through spaces as small as a nickel. Seal any gaps you find or use a small wire mesh to cover them and prevent rodents from slipping through. 

Get Rid of Insects

Shrews love to chow down on insects as well as mice, snakes and even other shrews, so getting rid of things that attract insects will make your habitat seem a lot less inviting. Make sure there’s no standing water around your house that will attract bugs, and take care not to overwater your garden. Remove litter from the yard to take away insect breeding areas and throw out any containers that could trap water.

Check Items Before Storing

If you’re carrying items into storage that already have pests hiding away, you’ll have a hard time getting rid of them. Make sure you always check boxes before storing. Inspect any outdoor furniture or equipment you plan to put away in case tiny creatures are hiding there.

Getting rid of unwanted guests doesn’t have to mean breaking out the poison — you can easily control your pest problem without surrounding yourself and others in toxic fumes. Keeping pests out in the first place is always your best bet, but if that fails, using the tips above should have you back in control in no time.

The Average Farmer Is Pretty Old: Here's What the USDA Is Doing About It

James WhiteIt’s no real secret that farming in America is an industry in deep crisis. With each passing year, the age of the average farmer increases, and we see fewer and fewer young people adopting this difficult but supremely rewarding way of life. With nothing less than our nation’s food supply on the line, it’s a big problem.

According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, the average age of farmers in the U.S. currently sits at 57 and is steadily rising. There’s only one farmer under the age of 35 for every six farmers over 65.

Considering the important place that farming has in the American way of life, as well as the deep personal satisfaction that comes from homesteading and other forms of small-scale agriculture, this is a serious problem. Thankfully, the USDA is making strides to improve the situation. But will it be enough?

The Roots of the Problem

Part of the problem comes from the fact that farmers and their families, once they retire, have a tendency to remain in residence on the family farm. And more and more, modern farmers are encouraging their children to seek out a living elsewhere, thanks in part to the lack of support the U.S. government is showing farmers these days.

farmer couples

As a result, the USDA is renewing its focus on encouraging brand-new farmers to adopt this lifestyle, to fill the void left by families exiting the industry.

A website specifically targeted at new farmers received a complete overhaul recently, making it much cleaner and easier to use — a clear gambit designed to speak directly to a generation that grew up using the Web. According to Eric Hansen, of the National Young Farmers Coalition, the website is a “watershed moment” for a country that’s lost its focus on and esteem for the people who keep this country fed.

Empowering New Farmers

But you’d be right to point out that a new website isn’t enough to revitalize this ailing industry. While the New Farmers website is designed specifically to highlight the sort of USDA assistance that’s been going on for decades — farm subsidies, loans, day-to-day guidance and other important resources — it’s also set out to give these forms of assistance an overhaul of their own.

The short version is that the USDA is shifting its funding toward encouraging, educating and empowering brand-new farmers who want to break into the industry. It’s a difficult thing to do, seeing that Congress holds the purse-strings for the USDA and has been characteristically glacial in addressing the problem. So, while the Department’s source of funds hasn’t changed much in recent years, how it’s used is in the process of changing significantly.

One way the USDA is changing its monetary policies is to redirect funding toward new and upstart farmers. In 2009, for example, 30.5 percent of USDA-backed loans were earmarked for beginning farmers. But by 2017, USDA leadership hopes to raise that figure to 57-60 percent to reflect the changing face of the farming industry.

Hansen is quick to point out that existing farmers won’t be left in the lurch, but it’s clear that established homesteaders and farmers don’t face the barriers of entry that new farmers do. It’s a matter of priorities.

Another development that’s making great strides toward turning farming into a more enticing career choice is the rise of more efficient technologies. Companies like CAT have made a point to develop equipment and machinery that prioritize sustainability and efficiency — characteristics that can greatly lower the cost of entry for new farmers. To put it another way, farmers have better and better tools at their disposal to help lift some of the burdens that accompany a life in agriculture.

In other words, what we’re seeing in the agriculture industry is an uncommon example of the public and private sectors working together for the common good.

It’s a National Crisis

But apart from the question of funding, there’s also a distinct challenge before us: education. To put it simply, farming isn’t really thought of by young people today as an obvious career choice. The cause of this, or perhaps the result, is that the USDA is simply not “present” enough in the collective consciousness to encourage the younger generations to seek this way of life. For example: Did you know you could get a USDA-backed mortgage with no down payment if you buy a home in a less developed, more agriculture-heavy part of your state? If you didn’t, you’re hardly alone.

The truth is, the USDA is doing great work, but it’s not enough. The next step is for our Congress to re-address their priorities and empower farmers the way they used to. In the words of Nick Offerman, we must “exalt the farmer” and the good they do in our lives — nothing less than that will reverse this crisis.

How to Start a Straw Bale Garden

James Whitestraw bale gardening

If your homestead includes a pasture to support larger livestock like sheep, goats and cows, you might be considering harvesting and baling your own hay to support these animals during the winter. You can also bale your own straw so you have a constant supply of fresh bedding for your barnyard friends. Baling your own straw and hay is a great investment in the long run.

If you’re like most people, though, you may find that you have more bales of straw than you know what to do with after a while. Fortunately, from decorations to construction, there are many uses for straw bales. One of the best ways to recycle your unused straw, though, is to start a straw bale garden.

What Is a Straw Bale Garden?

A compact, rectangular bale of straw can be used as a cheap and convenient planter for vegetable plants and flowers. Straw bales can be easily set up anywhere thanks to their light weight, and it’s much quicker to set up a straw bale garden than to dig new garden beds, especially in areas with heavy clay or rocky soils.

Best of all, the hollow straw stems act as a wonderful insulator that allows your straw bale garden soil to warm quickly in the spring. You can get an early start on planting without worrying about freezing and thawing soil. Straw bales also drain well because they are above ground level, making them an ideal spring planter.

How to Start a Straw Bale Garden

To get started, choose a sunny location and place your hay bales sideways so the twine holding them together runs along the sides rather than across the top of the bale. This will keep your planting area clear of obstructions and help hold your bales together as they start to decompose.

It’s actually the decomposition of the straw that creates a rich environment for your plants, and you want to encourage it. To do this, prepare the bales for planting by sprinkling each bale with two to three cups of a balanced, organic fertilizer and watering well.

Water the bales every day, and add the correct amount of fertilizer every day for the first week. During the second week, continue to water but cut the fertilizer in half. After 10 to 14 days, you should notice the bales starting to break down, and you should feel the heat if you poke a finger inside.

Planting the Plants

Once the bales have cooled off and are and starting to turn dark brown or black, you are ready to plant. Transplanting seedlings is easy — just separate the straw with a trowel and toss in a handful of potting soil to keep the roots nourished and protected. Then, tuck your seedling in.

To germinate seeds, cover the bale with an inch of seed starting soil before sowing. Water everything well, and you should see plants taking over your straw bale as spring progresses.

Best Bets for Straw Bale Gardens

For easy care throughout the season, set up a trellis for peas and beans when you plant. You can also run a soaker hose right across the top of a line of bales for easy irrigation. Straw bale gardens require little weeding and care once established, and after the growing season, you have a jump start on a new, fertile compost pile. 

If you have extra straw bales, save them until the spring and give straw bale gardening a try. This is the ideal way to make sure nothing goes to waste on a homestead and to add one more sustainable trick to your repertoire for green living.

How to Clean your Hot Melt Equipment

James Whitehot melt

You might not be familiar with the name, but if you know basic crafting tools then you know what a hot melt machine is: an industrial version of your favorite handheld hot-glue gun.

Hot melt adhesives are fantastic for low and moderate temperature applications because they bond to just about anything, dry or cure quickly, and are extremely versatile.

The hot melt machine is fantastic for filling large gaps in a project, and can be easily stored for long periods of time without the need for any special environmental considerations. For many projects, hot melt is the perfect adhesive solution.

Reasons to Clean

Unlike your household hot glue gun, a hot melt machine must be regularly cleaned and maintained to stay in top working condition. Why is cleaning your hot melt equipment so important?

1. Safety

There’s nothing worse than having your hot melt equipment break down when you’re in the middle of using it. Not only does it negatively affect your productivity, it can lead to dangerous repair attempts while the machine is still filled with hot melted adhesive. Normal cleaning and preventative maintenance can help to prevent unscheduled shutdowns and emergency repair calls.

2. Longevity

Normal wear and tear will eventually wear your hot melt equipment to the point at which it no longer efficiently creates adhesive bonds. By performing cleaning and preventative maintenance, you can help to increase the machine’s lifespan exponentially. This maintenance also helps to reduce the occurrence of normal equipment failures, such as clogs and char.

3. Reduced Char

In hot-melt systems, char in the adhesive pots is often caused by external contaminants like dust or wood shavings, depending on where the machine is being used. Cleaning your hot melt machine can prevent this char from clogging your adhesive lines. If left unchecked, char can cause hoses and nozzles to fail permanently, resulting in costly replacements.

4. An Improved Bottom Line

For many businesses, monetary saving is the most important reason to clean these versatile hot-melt machines. Clogged lines or dirty machines cost money to repair or replace — money that a startup company may not have to spare. The cost of a cleaning solvent or kit is minimal when compared to the cost of replacing an entire hot melt unit.

How should you go about cleaning your hot melt equipment to make sure it lasts as long as possible? Keep in mind that these are basic guidelines, and you should always follow your individual unit’s cleaning instructions to ensure that the equipment isn’t damaged.

How to Clean

Start by shutting the machine off and removing as much adhesive as possible. Most cleaning solvents will break up the remaining adhesive in the machine, but you don’t want to stick your hands into a tank that’s still full of hot melted glue if you can avoid it.

Next, add your cleaner and turn the pressure pump back on. This will flush the cleaner through the system and remove any remaining adhesive that you may not have been able to reach.

Finally, drain the cleaner out of your hot melt system, add new adhesive and — as soon as that has reached the right temperature — you can get back to work!

Clean your equipment periodically (depending on how often you use it) and it will last as long as you have projects that require the use of hot-melt adhesive.

How to Install a Water Storage Tank

James Whitewater tank enduraplas

For the average homeowner who’s looking to cut down on their water expenses, a water storage tank may be just the thing.

Perhaps the most obvious application is rainwater harvesting: You’d be surprised by how much water you can collect during the rainy seasons, which can provide you with just about all the water you’d need for gardening and lawn watering.

Pool owners and farmers can also benefit from water storage tanks — by collecting and storing water, you can ensure a continual supply for your pool as well as a reliable source of drinking water for your livestock.

But no matter how you plan on using your tank, you’ll want to be sure you take the time to install it properly for years of reliable use. Here’s a quick guide to help you get it right the first time.

Step 1: Prepare a Base for Your New Tank

As with most home improvement projects, getting a strong foundation is most important. To begin with, choose a location that’s conveniently situated near your garden, pool, or any other area that you plan on irrigating using your stored water.

Once you’ve chosen your location, tamp down the soil thoroughly and remove any rocks or other foreign matter that could interfere with the base of the tank.

Add about three inches of crusher (or road base) to finish your preparations, and tamp it down again. If the ground looks level and stable when you finish, you’re ready to proceed.

Step 2: Pour Your Concrete Foundation

Your next step is to pour a three-inch reinforced concrete slab in the location you’ve chosen for your storage tank. The slab should be flat and level in both dimensions, and it should be larger than the tank itself.

You can purchase concrete mix at any of your local hardware stores or home improvement warehouses — just make sure you don’t start mixing it until you’ve finished the preparations outlined in step one.

Note that your foundation should be about twenty four inches larger than the water tank itself — this will ensure stability. You should also build a retaining wall around the concrete base. Over time, washout and even vermin can cause erosion in the area, but a retainer will help keep small environmental changes from interfering with your tank.

Step 3: Install the Overflow Drainage Pipe

Depending on where you purchased your water storage tank, it may already be fitted with an overflow drainage pipe. Regardless, properly installing and positioning this pipe will ensure excess water runoff won’t compromise the stability of your concrete base over time.

If you have a storm water drainage system nearby, you can use it as a receptacle for your storage tank’s piping. If your property doesn’t have storm drainage, you can simply use a length of piping to redirect excess water from your storage tank to an area of the yard that’s away from your home and won’t be adversely affected by the excess runoff.

Step 4: Install Fill Pipes From the Roof

Finally, to complete your new setup, you’ll need to install fill pipes to complete the water’s path from your roof to your storage tank.

The most common types of fill piping connect either directly to your gutter or act as an outlet for an individual downspout. In either case, think carefully about how this water is most likely to be used.

If, for example, you intend to use it for human consumption, follow any manufacturer-provided instructions that concern the installation of a water filter. If you plan to use your captured water for irrigation purposes, you can skip that step.

You’re Ready to Go!

As a final note, an abundance of resources are available online from rainwater harvesting enthusiasts. They can provide you with some great ideas and help you with any troubleshooting should the need arise.

As you can see, investing just one afternoon of moderate-to-hard work can provide you with a water storage solution that will last you for many years to come — and net you some great savings. So what are you waiting for?

 Photo by Enduraplas.