The Human-Powered Veggie Garden- Part 2

Deep Digging and Rock Removal

The second round of digging is the hardest work of the whole project. The process is much like the first round, except the goal is to be able to bury the whole head of your shovel in loose soil when you are done. This time, if you hit a rock in the process of achieving that, it has to go. As you back up, some of the rocks will expose an edge you can get under with the shovel. This is where buying good tools, and sharpening your shovel is really going to pay off. Use the shovel to poke under an exposed edge of a stone to create leverage and pry it out. You may have to go slightly off track or attack from a different angle, but if you stick with it for a few seconds, you will find a way to easily pry most of them out. In the instance where you hit a rock that extends far back under the ground you are still standing on and have yet to dig, skip it and remove it while digging another row that exposes enough of it for you to extract it easily. Stay hydrated. Keep your eye on the prize, because when this is done you will be left with the beginning of a great garden bed that only improves with time.

Make Rows and Beds and Smooth the Paths

At this point in the project, if the amendments you used included any non-composted manures or fibrous organic matter, like grasses or leaves, I would let it sit for at least two weeks. If you amended the soil with “well-rotted” compost, you can begin the next step immediately. Depending on how large it is and how your garden is configured, you will need to dig some paths and create more than one bed for the plants. The idea is to not have to step on the beds, thereby eliminating a lot of potential damage to roots. When you avoid stepping on the beds, they stay loose and well-drained, allowing maximum root penetration and oxygen delivery. Dig your paths according to how easily you can reach into the bed to tend to the plants. To dig the path, simply use a transfer shovel to move soil from the intended path up and onto the beds that you will be forming. Dig it down about 6-8” below the tops of the beds you are making. Even out the beds and smooth the paths. Finally, rake the tops of the beds with a ***stone rake to remove rocks and loosen up a seedbed. The beds are now ready to be planted.

Spacing of Plants

The spacing of your plants is critical in the philosophy behind a garden like this. I mentioned earlier about the highly intensive gardening practices used and recommended as part of conventional wisdom. Growing as many plants as possible in a given space is fine for modern society, when we can be reliably sure that we can run irrigation in our gardens on-demand. This works fine when we have chemical fertilizer and literal tons of compost and soil amendments available at multiple retailers in every community. The point here is that if gardening is to work in a survival situation, you may be forced to largely rely upon the rain that falls for your watering.

Spacing becomes an issue because when a canopy of leaves forms, the plants generally stop getting bigger and hit their peak of water consumption. Plants that are spaced closely will be small when this happens. This means they have shallow root systems with small footprints. They don’t penetrate deeply, and if a drought hits, they will need constant supervision to survive until the next rain. Although you can most definitely recover a plant that wilts in the sun from lack of water if you address it quickly, the stress this places on the plant will set it back days and possibly weeks. Plants that are allowed room to grow large before a canopy forms will have deep roots and large, sturdy stems. They can better survive both harsh weather and longer periods without water than plants that are spaced close together.

Every plant has different requirements, so my general rule of thumb for spacing is whatever the seed packet says, I at least double it. The first year of this garden, I grew sweet corn. I did two 10 foot square beds and put four rows of corn in each bed with individual plants spaced 12 inches apart within the rows. These plants had plenty of room to grow and were over six feet tall before any of their leaves touched. They ended up topping out over eight feet, with some plants growing lateral branches and secondary sets of ears. Conventional wisdom might say this is wrong, but if you offset the rows, there is still enough wind protection, and I didn’t have any fall over in that particular year. The second year, I grew peppers in that bed. I did a total of 12 plants in both beds, arranged in four corners, plus two in the middle arrangement. There were bell peppers in one bed and habanero peppers in the other. I was pushing the spacing way out this time, trying to see how it would affect the yield. When I grow habaneros in a raised bed, I might get a dozen or so ripe peppers from a healthy plant. These plants each had over 75 ripe peppers, with the best three having more than 100. Give your plants room to grow. Their odds of surviving long enough to produce go up when they get bigger faster. The payoff in yield will be worth the weeding.

Weeding

Remember the sharp hoe? This is the primary weeding tool, and if you take it with you on your daily patrol of the garden you should never have to dig a weed by hand. If you see a green shoot that is in a position you didn’t plant a seed, use the corner of your hoe to lift it up out of the soil. That’s it. If will almost definitely shrivel and die as soon as the sun hits its now exposed tiny roots. If one happens to slip by you for a couple days, the sharpened bevel of the hoe will easily chop it off just below the soil surface, cutting off the energy supply of the root below. That will die just as easily as the ones you pluck out. The key here is discipline. You can weed once a week if you choose to, but your plants will grow more slowly and the weeding will be more difficult every time. You don’t want to skip a week. Just weed every time you visit the garden. Be diligent about not letting any plant that you don’t want growing in your garden steal vital nutrients from your vegetables. Weeds die very easily when they are young. Once your plants get big and form a canopy, this chore diminishes, but if you are disciplined it never gets hard in the first place.

Here’s a note on “weeds”. A lot of the plants that we typically don’t want growing in our gardens, like wild spinach, dandelions, wood sorrel, and sheep sorrel to name a few, are not only edible but nutritious and delicious. I grow some of each in my garden every year. In a survival situation, simply turning over sod and letting the “weeds” grow could provide you with a lot of food in the form of leafy greens that grow very quickly. The seeds are already in the ground, waiting for the conditions to germinate. Turn the soil over, and they will grow. You would still need something to eat while the garden grows.

Watering

Watering is pretty simple if you space your plants properly and live in a place with consistent rain. Where I live, rains tend to be concentrated in spring. We also have frequent afternoon thunderstorms in summer months, making the amount of watering I do for my double-dug gardens nearly zero. Even on a hot, dry day, if you go down an inch or so into the soil, you will find plenty of usable moisture. As long as the grass isn’t getting crispy, a garden like this with properly spaced plants will not require much watering input on your part. If you do water and you chose a sunny, well-drained location, it’s pretty hard to overdo it if you are watering by hand. I prefer to water in the morning rather than the evening, so that I am not soaking the roots with cold water before hours of darkness. Soil temperature makes a big difference in how quickly things like germination and early growth take place; therefore, I try to water when the sun is coming up so the plants get warmed immediately. There are innumerable strategies for storing and moving water in a grid-down scenario, and they have been covered on this blog in great detail. Your individual strategy will vary from mine, but I plan on running a hose to my garden to gravity feed from an artisanal well.

Maintenance

The ongoing, year to year maintenance of this type of garden is much simpler and less time consuming than the initial start-up. Your thoroughness and diligence in removing large stones and digging in deep the first time through will be rewarded with deep, loose soil that roots can penetrate easily in search of the space they need to make large, resilient plants. When you are finished growing for the year, remove all the above-ground vegetation. I don’t put much thought into whether or not I get the roots out. If you leave them in the ground, they will rot down and add both nutrition and organic matter to the soil for next year. If you remove them from the garden, they will presumably become part of a compost pile and the end result will be nearly the same. After the vegetation is removed, you can be finished and come back when the ground thaws, plant cover crops, or spread amendments that might take some time to break down. These would include un-rotted manure and fall foliage– two that I have used in the past. When you are ready to start again the following spring, you simply spread any amendments you want in the soil for the season and make one pass with the shovel to incorporate the amendments and prepare the soil for planting. It will be easy work this time, since the soil is loose and previously worked. Dig your paths to form the beds, and you are ready for another growing season.

Satisfaction

At this point it would be natural to conclude that this is a ton of unnecessary labor for what you might assume to be similar results to a rototilled garden. This is partially correct in that the labor is currently unnecessary. There are easier ways to garden, and there is currently an abundance of relatively inexpensive, high quality tools, seeds, fuel, and soil amendments. It is also partially incorrect, because if this method is followed and worked with discipline, the results end up far superior. For me personally, gardening was originally inspired by a combination of nutritional reasons and the desire to prepare for harder times by learning a valuable skill. This style of gardening satisfies both requirements for me, while training and instilling confidence in me for the type of gardening that would be required during an extended crisis. This practice will give you a good gauge based on how many hours per week you put into your garden for the yield you get. You can multiply this out to plan for how much land you could personally cultivate as a full-time endeavor. This will give you a good estimate as to whether you currently have enough manpower to grow as many calories as you are planning to need. This information can be used to adjust food storage plans now.

I hope you will find this to be an informative guide on how you can hand-dig a garden that can easily adjust from the current bounty to times of crisis, and that it can be accomplished with a small budget and dedicated work. I’m not recommending you sell your tractor or rototiller, but this is a good way to expand your survival skill set in the comfort of modern luxury with enjoyable and rewarding results.

The Human-Powered Veggie Garden- Part 1

A small amount of land, in some cases as little as half an acre if managed correctly, could supply a bountiful vegetable garden even without the luxuries of fossil fuel-driven technology or animal power. The key to the survival of an individual or a family who is either under-prepared or through the course of events is somehow unable to use any fossil fuel-driven technology or animal power is being able to quickly produce edible crops on the ground that they have using nothing but hand tools. The methods necessary to do this are inexpensive to implement, physically rewarding, and beneficial to the long-term health of your garden. Implementing them on a small-scale now will be immediately beneficial to your health via increased nutritional quality and physical activity. You will also gain the confidence of knowing that if gardening should ever be forced upon you as a full-time job, you would be able to put food on the table for the people who are relying upon you for protection and guidance.

I will detail my own experience, gathered over the course of the last four years, which was inspired by the book, Gardening When It Counts by Steve Solomon. It is a brilliantly presented, scientific, yet accessible step-by-step guide to maximizing the production and minimizing the chemical input (to zero, in his case) of your garden. This guide will be a description of how to do it on a small scale. Deciding how to implement it is really up to you and depends on a lot of factors, all of which will vary from one person to the next.

The double dug garden is not a new concept, but it is rarely practiced. Most people use rototillers. Generally speaking, that works given that the power is on and the modern, relatively intense gardening practices can be kept up. (I have more on this later.) Double dug means that all the digging is done with a shovel by hand. Double means you do it twice, until you can bury the entire head of your pointed shovel in loose soil. Does it sound like a lot of work? It is, but after I describe the technique in detail, I will tell you a little more about why it is worth the effort.

Location

To begin, a location must be chosen. If you already have a garden established, you can either use a part of that one or expand it nearby with this technique. For those using this as their first garden, the top priority when choosing a location should be sunlight. Be realistic, and make sure to account for spring growth and summer foliage when looking at nearby tree shadows. Enough sunlight is relative. Read up on what you are growing, considering how often you get a day of full sun, and choose a place where you can generally expect to get at least six full hours of direct exposure to the sun. In the northern hemisphere, orienting towards the south or southeast exposure is the best. I like having the morning sun hit my garden, because I can water it early in the day and the roots get warmed up relatively soon. Drying off the dew early in more humid climates will also benefit the health of your crops when it comes to mold. An easily overlooked but very important aspect of site selection is proximity to the house. The closer you are to your tools and your plants, the better care you will give them and the more and better food you will get in the end.

Tools

Speaking of tools, here are the bare essentials:

  • Shovels– pointed and transfer/scoop style.
  • Sturdy hoe
  • Stone rake
  • Hose with a switchable shower-style nozzle
  • Hat with 360 degree brim
  • Metal file

That’s pretty much it. There are things that would make life easier, but if that’s all you have you can garden.

Sharpening Tools

So, to get started, the single biggest effort and time saving advice I can give you is to grab that file and sharpen the hoe and pointed shovel. Most of the hand tools you buy, in fact any of the ones I have seen for sale even if they are of fine quality, are not sharp. The difference between having a 1/8” piece of flat steel of a sharpened bevel at the end of your implement many seem trivial, but when it comes to slicing through hard ground full of rocks or simply flicking your wrist to kill a weed with the corner of the hoe, the effort pays off immediately and requires little initial input and even less upkeep. Sharpening these tools is pretty simple. Secure them with one hand and a sturdy object like a workbench, and file a bevel onto the leading edge of your pointed shovel up to about five or six inches out from the point. Do the same to the working edge of the hoe. The first filing takes a few minutes, since you have to grind through the thickness of the metal to bevel it, but once the edge is ground maintaining it after a day’s work takes literally seconds.

Killing the Sod

Now that the site is chosen and you have a sharp shovel, it’s time to kill the sod, which is a mat formed by the grass and its intertwining root system. Ideally, the ground breaking takes place in fall, but with proper timing you should be able to follow this advice and still at least grow some summer and fall crops, even if you have to start this project after the ground thaws in the spring. Killing the sod is pretty simple. Using the pointed shovel, start at the “top” edge of your garden. You will be advancing to the rear as you dig, so keep in mind that going downhill, if grade is even slightly a factor, is much easier. Using your foot, drive the shovel through the sod. There is no need to go for big chunks of dirt. The only goal at this step is to turn shovel-sized chunks of sod over roots up so that the grass dies. Lay the first row of sod on the ground in front of you, laying subsequent rows onto the bare ground that is now where the first row of sod was growing. Repeat for the entire length of your growing area and after all the sod is turned over, you can walk away for a week to ten days to let it die.

Check Out Soil and Gather Amendments

During this time, check out your soil and gather your amendments. For me, amendments fall into two categories: nutritional and water/root management. Nutritional amendments, like fertilizers, compost, and wood ash, feed the plants throughout the growing season. Amendments, like peat moss, vermiculite, and sand, are used to alter the quality of your soil regarding how roots can grow in it and how water is held and drained. Since everyone’s needs are different, I will describe the amendments that went into my garden. I had a lot of rocks to deal with and a slight tendency towards clay but nothing that wouldn’t drain. I decided to add approximately an inch of peat moss across the entire garden to give some improvement in water retention and also to help break up some of the clay. I could have used more, but since my nutritional amendment, composted alpaca manure, would also help with soil tilth I decided an inch would suffice.

Compost

Compost is a touchy subject and opens up huge debates that I’m not going to weigh in on. The stuff I use is made from the composted manure of my parents’ alpacas. When their pens get shoveled out, the “beans”, straw, and whatever urine is mixed in gets piled in rows about four feet at the base and maybe three feet tall. I turn them and let them sit for a few weeks; then, I turn them again until it reduces down to a dark brown, highly potent, all-natural fertilizer that has never failed to grow large and bountiful versions of whatever plant I nurture with it. There are plenty of other ways to make compost, and depending on the quality of the stuff you end up with you may or may not need other methods of fertilization. For my garden, the compost I make is the bulk of the nutritional input. I also dig in some fall foliage to the garden bed, and both wood ash and plant waste are tossed onto the manure pile throughout the year.

After the week has passed, spread half of your amendments onto the overturned sod, which should be mostly dead anyway. You are about to finish it off for good on the first of two rounds of real digging. Start in the same position as when you were removing sod. Drive the shovel through the amendments, dying sod, and as much soil as you can bite off with a good kick. Rock the shovel a little to free any small stones and scoop the load forward, away from you, just like you did with the sod. Unless they come up easily, disregard any large stones you clang the shovel off if they are more than a couple inches down. They will be dealt with in the next round. Once you finish a row, you should have a small trench dug with a pile of dirt in front of it. Go back about six inches, or half a shovel head length, and dig the next row, using the materials you turn over to fill in the trench you just dug. Take your time to chop up any big chunks of sod that are left and cover anything green that happens to have survived. Do this for the entire garden. It’s tough work but not the worst, and when you are finished with this round you will already have a result on par with rototilling. An adult man in decent shape should be able to dig a 10×5 area in about an hour, maybe 90 minutes. In subsequent years, the input is significantly reduced, so don’t fear that this admittedly difficult part of the process will have to be repeated annually. After digging, cover with the second half of your amendments, and get ready for the final dig.

Sun Drying Fruits and Other Foods

The ability to preserve your own food without refrigeration is an important preparedness skill, it’s also something that’s fun to do and can help cut down on your grocery bills.

Sun Drying Foods

Sun drying is one of mankind’s oldest and most reliable ways to preserve food. Archeological sites in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia show this method of food preservation has been used since 4,000 B.C.

Sun drying is actually pretty simple; it relies on the sun and airflow – that’s pretty much it. While newer methods like electronic dehydrators speed up the process, sun drying is a slow gentle process that can really bring out the flavor of your food. It’s also a reliable method of preserving food during an emergency.

What can you Sun Dry?

You can actually sun dry just about any type of food; that being said, fruits are the safest thing to start with and are preferable because of their high sugar and acid content – something that helps prevent spoilage during the drying process. During an emergency you could use this method to dry meats and vegetables, but during normal conditions I would advise using indoor methods unless you really know what you’re doing.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Hot, dry, breezy days are best. A humidity level below 60 percent is best.
  • A minimum temperature of 85ºF is required, but the higher the temperature goes the easier it will be to dry the food.
  • It takes several days to dry foods out-of-doors, so before undertaking this method make sure you keep an eye on weather reports.
  • At night, fruits must be covered or brought inside to prevent moisture from seeping back into the food.

How to Preserve Fruit by Sun Drying

The first things you’re going to need are some good drying racks.

Small wood slats, bamboo, grill grates, and stainless steel screen mesh are all good material to use for the racks. You can also use cake racks or build small wooden frames covered with cheesecloth. Just remember that your racks cannot be solid, as you need air to circulate around the drying food.

Avoid any grates coated with cadmium or zinc. These metals can oxidize, leaving dangerous residues on the food.

Pretreating Fruit: Most fruits need some type of preparation before the drying process can begin.

  • Fruits with pits should be halved and pitted
  • Light-colored fruit like apples, pears and apricots should be soaked in lemon juice or an ascorbic acid wash to prevent browning. Soak the fruit in the solution for 3-5 minutes
  • Cutting your fruit into uniform pieces will help them dry more evenly, and at the same speed.

It’s time to start drying some food.

Place the pretreated fruit in a single layer on the drying racks. Then place your racks in an area that receives direct sunlight, and a good breeze. Try to pick an area away from animals, traffic exhaust, insects and dust. Once the food is placed on the racks in direct sunlight, place cheesecloth or netting around the racks to keep off dust and keep out insects.

  • At night, make sure you bring your food indoors or cover it to prevent moisture from seeping back into the food.
  • Turn food once a day, or flip the racks if you have dual layer racks.
  • If possible, place a small fan near the drying tray to promote air circulation.

Fruits and vegetables take anywhere from 3 to 7 days to dry in the sun, depending on your local conditions. When the food is just about two-thirds dry, move it into a semi-shady but airy area to prevent the food from getting scorched by the sun.

Pasteurization & Conditioning

Before storing Sun dried foods, you should condition and pasteurize the food.

Conditioning Dried Fruits

To improve storage times and to ensure the safety of your food dried fruits should be conditioned before storage. Conditioning evenly distributes moisture present in the dried fruit to prevent mold growth.

  • Cool the foods on the trays.
  • Place cooled dried fruit in a plastic or glass container two-thirds full; seal and store for 7 days to 10 days.
  • Shake the containers daily to distribute moisture. If condensation occurs, place the fruit in the oven for more drying and then repeat the conditioning process.
  • Check for any signs of spoilage.

Pasteurizing Sun-Dried Fruits

Pasteurization is especially important because it will destroy any insects and their eggs. It can be done using either a freezer, or an oven.

  • To pasteurize using an oven, place the food in a single layer on a tray and then place in an oven preheated to 160°F for 30 minutes.
  • Maybe consider a solar oven to dry and to pasteurize product for long term storage. It would be off the grid sustainable and adjustable for low heat and ventilation to dry.
  • To pasteurize using a freezer, simply seal the dried food in freezer plastic bags and place them in a freezer set at 0°F for 48 hours.

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How to Keep the Hot Sun from Harming Your Plants

How to Keep the Hot Sun from Harming Your Plants

Sometimes you need to find a balance between sun and shade, depending on the conditions in your backyard, as well as the crops that you are growing. However, even if you have plants that require full sun, they may be getting too much light, particularly in the summer months when the weather is very hot. This harmful light can bleach out leaves, and disrupt the growing process, even in plants that supposedly thrive in very hot weather. Thankfully, there are some things that you can do to prevent this from occurring.

1) Know what to look for.

White leaves that look like all of the color has been bleached out of them is the most obvious sign that your plants are being harmed. By the time that you see this, it may be too late. The sun can harm the inner structures of the leaves in ways that are undetectable to the naked eye. You may end up with stunted growth, fewer vegetables than normal, or even plants that do not grow at all. Unfortunately, there is no true way of knowing that your crops have been harmed until the bleached or discolored leaves pop up. Once they do, be sure to spring into action.

2) Cover your plants with a sunshade or other material.

There are special sunshades that you can purchase to cover your plants, and as long as they are made of organic materials, they will work nicely. You do need to steer clear of plastic and other man-made materials, as they can actually keep the heat in, causing additional damage to your plants. (This is why plastic makes a good winter cover.) If you don’t feel like purchasing a sunshade, you can use burlap or bolts of cotton that can be loosely wrapped around each plant. These will allow air in, while keeping most of the heat out. Just be sure to remove them as soon as the weather cools down.

3) Keep the soil moist.

Water is incredibly important, even more so when the weather is hot. Check your soil daily to make sure that your plants have enough moisture. If it gets too dry, the damage caused by the sun’s heat will get even worse. You also need to be careful about the time of day that you water them. If water ends up on the leaves during the hottest part of the day (usually mid-afternoon) their “sunburns” will get even worse. This is why it is recommended that you water your plants either in the early morning hours, or in the evening once the sun has begun to set.

4) Use mulch.

Place mulch around the base of your plants. This will protect the root systems and keep moisture in. The mulch will also absorb some of the heat from the sun, preventing it from harming the stems and roots. Without this mulch, the soil will get very warm and the roots might begin to “cook,” further harming the plant from the inside out. You don’t want to place too much mulch on the ground however, a layer that is around two inches thick will work nicely.

4 Keys To Keep A Newly Planted Garden Growing Strong And Healthy

newly planted garden
Newly planted tomatoes off to a good start

The first few weeks after planting is a critical time for vegetable plants. It is when tender seedlings and transplants are at their most vulnerable stage.

Up to this point, most vegetable plants have spent the majority of their life inside. They were watered regularly, and kept sheltered from wild temperature swings and the burning hot sun. And now, they have been planted outside to deal with the harsh realities of Mother Nature. Talk about tough love!

But with a few simple things in mind, you can get your newly planted garden off to a great start. And that of course, means a great harvest later!

Here’s a look at 4 of our biggest and best tips to get your garden growing into a lush, vegetable producing machine.

4 Tips To Keep A Newly Planted Garden Growing Strong

#1 Keep Foot Traffic Away From Root Zones

Whether you have a traditional garden, raised rows, or raised beds, keeping foot traffic away from your plant’s root zones is critical to their long-term success.

In the first few weeks of a newly planted garden, vegetable plants are desperately trying to establish a healthy root system underground.

newly planted garden
Mulching around each plant with compost is a great way to feed them too!

Those roots are crucial in soaking up much-needed water and nutrients all summer long. They also hold the plants strong against wind, rain, and the heavy load of veggies in mid-summer.

If the area 12″ around each plant is left undisturbed, it allows roots to more easily grow and expand. Compacted soil from heavy foot traffic in this zone can leave roots shallow and small. Be careful as you walk through the garden to stay in the walkways, and off of the root zones.

It’s one reason raised rows, raised beds and container gardens are so effective. By nature, they are designed to keep the root zones out of harms way.

#2 Mulch Those Plants!

More than anything else, be sure to apply a healthy dose of mulch around the base of each plant!

Mulching helps retain valuable moisture in the soil. That keeps young plants from drying out too quickly, and you from having to water too much. Mulch also aids in keeping the soil temperature regulated from the burning hot sun and cooler nights. Consistent soil temperature goes a long way in keeping plants growing strong.

Last but certainly not least, mulching plants helps keep weeds out. Those weeds steal valuable nutrients from the soil needed by young plants. So keeping them out is more than just keeping the garden looking pretty.

What are the best garden mulches?  Grass clippings, finished compost, straw and shredded leaves all work wonders.

#3 Watering Smart

When and how much to water a newly planted garden can be a tough chore to size up.

Too little water and plants shrivel up.  Too much water can keep them from developing a deep root structure needed to grow strong.

A good rule of thumb is that plants need about an inch, to an inch and a half of water per week. That equates to about 1/4 of a gallon of water to each plant’s root zone 3 times a week. If it’s not falling from the sky, then you need to supplement.It is best not to water every day unless you are having extremely hot weather. If you water every day, the plants will never send roots deeper. That results in less hardy and underdeveloped roots and plants.

#4 Boost With A Little Natural Fertilizer

The best time to fertilize a vegetable garden is when it first starts growing. A little boost of all-natural nutrients when plants are young can help them power up for the season.

We like to apply a little compost or worm casting tea to each plant about every 14 days, for the first 45 days after planing. After that, it’s best to stop fertilizing. Fertilizing too late in the season, or applying too much will keep plants growing leaf and root structure, and not vegetables.

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Garden Hacks – Repurpose Everyday Items

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When it comes to preparedness – or life in general – there’s a ton to buy. When we can reuse something, it helps. One, there’s the direct cost application. Two, looking at something and seeing its ability to be something completely different has enormous benefits in opening the mind in general.

If we’re preparing for a crisis, gardening and the ability to provide fresh foods in the gulf of winter and spring take on a far greater importance than just a hobby or a passion. Happily, there are some things that can be salvaged for free or found at very low-cost that make a world’s worth of difference. Channel your inner Julie Andrews with me as we look at a few of my favorite things. There’s some non-gardening uses for each listed as well.

DVD Racks

Years ago I picked up a free DVD rack to be a bean trellis for a Rubbermaid tote garden. I have since been in love, and it’s one of the things I consistently watch for at yard sales, curbside pickup listings, and foreclosure cleanup sites.

I got lucky, and mine have a rounded top at the sides. If you find some that don’t, just glue on a milk jug cap for some of its applications.

They go way beyond trellising.

They work for the far ends and sometimes central support “poles” of low poly tunnels or low hoops for garden beds and rows. A little free bamboo or PVC to span distances, some binder clips (Dollar Tree) to clamp the plastic on, and you’re in business.

They can also be set up long-wise down the middle of a bed to form an A-frame style “camping tent” poly cover if desired, which works really well for peas, with roots and salads to the outer verges, and converts well to later tomato beds.

They also form plant racks for inside near windows, against pale walls, or outdoors to keep salads conveniently close or make use of vertical height.

Mine all hold square plastic coffee tubs (they need a length of string along the front unless it’s a really well-protected area), #2.5 cans (the large tomato or peaches can), and V8 bottles without any modification at all. They’ll hold 2L bottles on their sides for longer, shallow containers, or Lipton and Arizona tea jugs of both types and sizes either cut off vertically or horizontally.

I can do square juice jugs as well, but they overhang enough to make the dog tails an issue on their sides, and I’m more comfortable with some twine or wire looping them to the back bar.

I prefer the open-dowel construction type, just because it leaves me options. I can add thin saplings, bamboo or thin sheathing to convert them if needed, but the open frame allows more light and nestles the rounded-bottom containers well.

Outside Gardening the DVD racks have the ability to hold larger canned goods and bottles of water, be used to dry clothes as-is or be half of a frame of dowels or saplings to create a larger drying space, and the poor kid used to have a pair that were hung with a curtain, topped with a chunk of (free) plywood, and outfitted with $2 in hooks to hang her uniform shirts and pants, like a mini closet that was also the mirror and vanity.

Storm Doors & Windows

These guys don’t multipurpose to the same degree as the DVD racks. They’re really handy to run across, though. One, having a backup is never a bad thing. Two, they are ready-made cold frames and pest exclusion frames.

I like a 3’ width for garden beds, permanent or bounded, and they fit pretty perfectly as-is. I can tighten up and use straw bales to create a different kind of cold frame with them laid across the top. I can run them in series or as individual structures.

An A-frame can be pretty quickly mocked up and is one of the easiest builds for getting your feet wet. It’s also handy in that it sluices ice and snow build-up and is more resistant to winds. The doors and windows get hinged at the tops, any stick or tool props them so they don’t flip the frame or ka-bong off your noggin, and cats, dogs and goats are less likely to stand on them.

Just the mesh from storm doors and windows is useful. So is mesh that comes off when you repair those.

It’s going in the garden, so some stitching or a little duct tape on both sides to repair a rip isn’t an issue. All it’s doing is protecting seed-stock squash from cross-pollination or keeping creepy-crawlies from eating the brassicas, lettuce, and beans before you can.

The advantage to taking out the mesh is that it’s an even easier build yet. There’s no hinges (unless you hinge the whole frame) and there’s less weight. That means more materials become potentials for the frame itself. You can tie some loops to go around a brick or post, or add some eye hooks to keep it in place.

Do keep the builds small enough that you can lift or flip by yourself once plants are in there. Some posts to the inside of the bed or rows can create a pivot point for flipping.

Painter’s/Construction Drop Cloth

My first set of drop cloth came from a part-time job in high school. I have been in love ever since.

It’s not super expensive, and it’s a toss-up whether the construction poly or the garden poly is cheaper to buy new, but it’s usually the totally clear construction drop cloth in our area. The 5+ mil I use is fairly durable in Southern wind storms, sun rot, ice and freezing rain, and Mid-Atlantic snow.

Contact handyman type businesses and painting businesses – for these as well as the windows and storm doors, and the mesh from those. Usually they’ll only use them for so long and as with the mesh, a few duct tape patches and the paint stains won’t impede too much structurally or light-wise.

Should you see them pop up cheap or free somewhere, don’t neglect those fancy-people outdoor grill, furniture and sofa covers, or any clear, thick, translucent vehicle covers.

Like the totally clear and colorless painter’s plastic, they all make for great garden hoop houses. Some of them can also be outfitted with sturdier construction to form a more permanent greenhouse.

Outside Gardening drop “cloth” or storm doors and windows can also be assembled into wind and snow-blocking shields around exposed doors at the home, or can enclose part or all of a porch to turn into a mudroom in an emergency or during snowy weather. Doing so creates a buffer chamber so there will be less polar vortex entering the house with every human and pet.

Plastic can also be used to cover windows and doors inside or out to decrease drafts and increase insulation value.

The painter’s plastic has the same value for livestock in extreme environments, especially if a normally warm climate is experiencing sudden return-to-winter weather after flocks or rabbits have adjusted to 60s-70s-80s, or if it’s so rare to have severe weather, coops and hutches were never built for extreme cold.

Drop cloths and poly covers can also be used to line bedding for the young, ill and elderly, so that every sneeze and cough or “mommy, I feel- blech” does not lead to disinfecting a mattress as well as changing bedding.

Wire Shelving

Really, do you ever have enough shelving? I particularly like seeing the simple-frame, open-weave, metal-wire shelving for bathrooms, laundry rooms and closets pop up in junk piles, yard sales, and Craigslist, because it’s super handy, super versatile stuff.

Like the DVD racks, it’s indoor-outdoor tiered plant stands, either year-round or during seed-starting and transplant season(s).

It can also be wrapped in our reclaimed plastic sheets or form part or all of the structure for salvaged windows or poly covers to make a mini greenhouse on a porch, beside a house or garage, for growing later and earlier in the season.

Then it gets even more useful.

Even if the whole is a little rickety, the shelves themselves can be removed and then turned into trellises. They can be rearranged around their original legs-stand or affixed to bamboo or the legs from old tables or chairs to form short garden fences to discourage turtles and rabbits, and limit dogs running through beds.

As an added bonus, if you have a senior gardener or an injury, sinking some of those sturdy table legs or a bundle of 3-4 larger bamboo canes 18” deep and up to hip or rib level can be a major aid in keeping them gardening.

The sturdy supports can then be covered with netting or sections of storm door mesh to act as a further bird and pest exclusions.

Outside Gardening there are endless uses for shelving, from water collection to organizing anything at all. Wire shelves also offer a lot of airflow for drying clothes.

The shelf “planks” of wire units can be used to patch and shore up fences and coops, especially somewhere something dug. They can be used to cover vehicle and house windows to limit damage from thrown bricks or if a storm window is damaged during a crisis.

They can also be reconfigured into a cage or crate for rabbits or small birds, to expand flocks or because they happened to be stacked from Craigslist and Freecycle runs ahead of time and now there’s a puppy to crate train or weather has shifted and we’re worried about the next generation of layers.

The shelves can be used to sift the largest chunks out of compost or soil in some cases, help form a gabion to slow water and keep it from increasing erosion, or can be lined with mesh or cloth for drying foods or seeds.

The shelves can usually be easily reconfigured with larger or smaller gaps than originally intended to facilitate buckets, larger boxes, or drying seeds and grains.

They don’t pop up as much as they used to, but some can still be found on the freebie sites as curbside pickup, or for <$15-20. They also sometimes pop up at Salvation Army/Goodwill, and if you cultivate contacts, sometimes you get your hands on just the shelf parts because the rest of the racks have been lost during multiple transfers or all the pieces weren’t donated.

Garden Reuse-its – My Favorite Things

These are just a few of my favorite things to re-purpose for growing veggies. The world is full of things like laundry bags we can use to prevent caterpillars and squash bugs on our cabbage and beans and zucchini, and old carpeting we can layer deep in garden walkways to cut down on maintenance time.

Any time we can reuse something, it cuts down on waste, making for a better world – not just the world around us. If we’re saving time and money, and if we’re developing some creativity and a new way of looking at things, we increase our preparedness and better our own world directly.

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