Gardening at Home
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On this gardening page I don't intend on teaching
anyone how too garden, there are lots of experts out
there writing books and articles that can do that.  What
I am doing is documenting some of my gardening
experience, making some notes about what I am
trying, and if it works then maybe it could work for
someone else.  If I try something and it doesn't work,
then you can learn from my mistakes.  I have
discovered over the years that my garden is rarely a
100 % successful, and I think that is because I always
challenge myself and my abilities.  If I only grew
things that were easy, what fun would that be?
I'm not going to bore anyone with a long history of my gardens over the
years, or of my childhood experiences with gardening.  Instead I'll start
with something more recent, like last year.  For the past few years I have
been looking for a piece of property in which to build my dream home,
but so far I have not found anything that fits the bill.  Therefore I have
been leasing a home in San Antonio Texas.  The back yard of this home
is not very big at all, and it has one very large majestic oak tree right on
the fence line.  I love having this tree, it provides great shade on the back
patio and brings lots of birds and squirrels into the yard.  However, shade
is not really something a gardener looks for when planting a garden.  My
yard is small enough to start with, and with the shady area unavailable
for planting, sunny areas are pretty scarce.
I also mentioned that I was in San Antonio Texas, So in my backyard I
have about 4-6 inches of topsoil and then I hit limestone.  Not bad for
growing cactus, but vegetables usually like a richer deeper soil.
My obvious solution was to plant my garden in containers.  I have done
this in the past with pretty good success, but purchasing containers can
get expensive, especially when you are talking about large containers,  
and then I would need to purchase the potting soil, etc.  Spending a lot of
money to grow a few vegetables just doesn't make a lot of sense to me, I
can always buy organic vegetables at the store, so unless the garden is
cost effective, what's the point?  Now more then once I have had a small
garden in salvaged 5 gallon buckets, and was pretty successful with
tomatoes, bell peppers, and jalapenos, but I was really wanting a little
more garden then that.
I considered building some raised beds.  I know of several places where I
could get old railroad ties, and I considered using something like this to
frame up some beds for planting. Landscape timbers would have worked
also, but once again I would have needed to purchase them, and this
could get a little expensive.  I also considered what my landlord would
think about his backyard being framed up with raised beds.  When I
moved into the house the backyard was pretty barren except for a large
cactus planted underneath the big oak tree, other than that the yard was
mostly weeds and a little St Augustine grass that was trying too hold on.
A small peach tree was planted next too the big oak also, but it is pretty
stunted and small living in the shadow of the oak.  There was one other
tree on the far side of the yard, a fairly large sized Sycamore, but it was
almost dead when I moved in.  The first season I lived here it put out a
few leaves, and then nothing.  I had to cut it down shortly after that
because of safety reasons.  After a lot of consideration, I decided that
raised beds would be too much trouble, and I did not think the landlord  
would approve unless I was willing to tear them down and restore the
yard when I moved out in the future, so it looked like my only choice was
containers.  Then one day I was reading my latest edition of Mother Earth
News, and they had an article about "No Dig Gardening".  In the article
they described how you could use bags of potting soil placed directly on
the ground, and plant directly into the bags.  This seemed like the perfect
solution, so this is how I planted my garden in 2008.
Step one, I went on-line and searched for potting soil.  I checked all of the
major home improvement stores, Walmart, and then called or drove by
the garden centers in my area looking for the best price.  Potting soil I
found out is a little on the pricey side when you are looking at purchasing
12-15 bags.  After shopping around, a lot, I finally decided instead of
potting soil I would use Garden Soil.  I'm going to plant a vegetable
garden, so I figured it should work and it was a lot less expensive then
potting soil.  I also purchased some inexpensive pine bark mulch.  In the
article they recommended using mulch around the outer edge of the bag
for two reasons.  One, it makes the garden look nicer because the plastic
bags are not visible, and two it helps keep the bags from heating up in
the summer heat.  
According to the article, the proper application to use the bag system is
to punch holes in one side of the bag for drainage purposes, and then cut
a large  square out of the other side for planting.  I mowed the yard, then
laid out my bags in the sunniest section.  I strayed away from the article
in one regard however, on some of the bags I didn't cut the entire top off
of the bag, I cut four inch circles out for planting.  My theory was by only
cutting out the circles, the bag would hold more moisture and I would not
have to water as often.

I guess I should mention at this point that I was
trying too create this garden at a bad time
of year.  With the economy slowing down I decided
to take a couple of months off from work and regroup.
So here I am trying to start a garden in June and July
in Texas.  The day time temperatures were getting up
in the triple digits on most days, so that's pretty
stressful on a garden, and the gardener, but I had the
time so I decided to give it a shot.  The months of June
and July in Texas is not the best time of the year to purchase starter
plants at the local garden centers either.  Really, the only plants I could
find were tomatoes, and even then the selection and the plants were
pretty poor.  I did find a few descent tomatoes worth purchasing, a
regular variety and a cherry variety.  For everything else, I purchased
seed packets.
                       Once I got the plants home, I put them directly into the          
                        bags of soils, and then applied the mulch around the             
                        sides and a little on top.  Everything looked really                  
                        great!
                       Now for the seeds.  I scrounged around and found                  
                        some old Tupperware, a couple of lids from some                  
                        take-out dinners, and some thin cardboard.
                       I cut the cardboard to fit the bottom of my containers,    
placed them in, and then covered with a thin layer of potting soil.  The
potting soil I had left over from some indoor plants I had potted earlier in
the year.
I used the cardboard in the bottom of the containers thinking that it would
help hold moisture and in the event I over watered, the cardboard would
hold the moisture and keep the soil from being completely soggy.
Once the containers were ready, I sprinkled the potting soil with water
until the soil was wet but not soggy.  I then sprinkled my seeds on top of
the soil and then sprinkled just a tiny bit of potting soil over the top of the
seeds.  Next I covered the containers loosely with a piece of Saran Wrap
to help hold in the moisture and maintain a humid environment.
I placed my containers on a table in my garage, positioned where for a
few hours everyday the sun would shine on them through the small
windows on the garage door.  Just a little filtered sunlight I figured would
be enough, and the garage was already pretty warm inside so my little
containers were pretty humid as long as I kept the soil moist.

Within a couple of weeks some of the seeds were
beginning to germinate.  As each seed germinated
and started to grow, I removed the Saran Wrap so
it would not impede the growth, and allowed the
seedlings to grow until the first mature leaves had
developed.  At this point I began hardening the little
plants by taking them outside in filtered sunlight for a
few hours per day.  After a week of hardening the
young sprouts, I planted them into the bags of soil.
At this point I have the following plants growing in my bags:

Tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, bell pepper, radishes, pole beans, pinto
beans, cucumbers, egg plant, cilantro, zucchini squash, yellow squash,
pumpkin, oregano.
Click photo to enlarge.
Left to right: cherry
tomatoes, bell pepper,
tomatoes, and barely
visible on the far right
are radishes.
Click photo to enlarge.
Left to right: cherry
tomatoes, bell pepper.
Click photo to enlarge.
Sorry, but this photo was at the end of the growing
season so it's not so pretty.  Remember the Sycamore
tree I cut down?  That's the stump in the middle of the
photo.  I nailed some old fence pickets together and
made a support for the beans.  I drove stakes in the
ground and ran Kite string up to the supports so the
beans had something to climb on.  On the left you can
just see the egg plants, and just to the left of the beans
are the cucumbers.  It may not look like much now, but I
got a pretty good crop of beans during the season, and
had so many cucumbers that I taught myself how to
make pickles so they wouldn't go to waste.
Click photo to enlarge.
At the far end are my
zucchini, and then
moving towards the
foreground, yellow
squash, and pumpkins.
Now for the update; remember I stated that the article I read advised
cutting the top out of the bag before planting? I did this with some of
the bags, but with others I only cut out a 4" hole for planting.  Well,
my experiment didn't work very well.  All of the seedlings I planted in
the 4" openings struggled to stay alive, and in a couple of cases the
plants died.  When I saw the problem with the 4" openings I
immediately cut out the rest of the top, and within a very short time
the seedlings took off and quickly caught up with the other seedlings.
My observation was that when I only had the 4" openings, the soil
remained too moist around the plants, plus I do not think all of the soil
in the bag was getting wet when I watered, so the plants had trouble
establishing a good root system.
As I stated previously, the temperature was getting in the triple digits
on a regular basis, so every day I would stick my fingers into the soil
of each bag and check for moisture, and watered accordingly. For a
while I was watering on a daily basis, or at the very least every other
day.
The garden grew pretty well considering.  It didn't take long before I
was harvesting regular tomatoes and cherry tomatoes on a daily
basis. Shortly after that the pinto and pole beans kicked in and I was
getting a daily handful of these as well, and next came the cucumbers.

My bell peppers grew very well, and the plants were beautiful with
lots of blossoms, but I think the heat stressed them out and I could
not get them to set fruit.  I had the same problem with my Squash,
both yellow and zucchini.
My oregano did very well, and I was gathering leaves off of it as
needed for cooking, but my cilantro didn't fair as well.  The cilantro
plants grew great, but around the time I was thinking of harvesting
some, the squirrels found it, and they didn't leave not one plant for
me.  My eggplants turned out to be a big disappointment.  The
seedlings never got over about 8" tall for some reason.  I nursed
them all summer, but they never took off.
The other big disappointments turned out to be the bell peppers and
the squash.  In both cases the plants grew beautifully, but for the bell
peppers, by the end of the season I only harvested two peppers, out
of 4 plants.  As for the squash, I babied them all I could, I tried
pollinating with a paintbrush in the mornings in case the insects were
not doing their job, and eventually I did get 1 zucchini started, but the
pill bugs attacked it and it died.  Speaking of pill bugs, I had a massive
problem with these little bugs especially in regards to my squash.  
When the seedlings were first planted the pill bugs nearly chewed
them to death, but eventually the plants won out and they did not
appear to be a problem any more.  Then the slugs became a problem.
 I wanted to keep my garden completely organic, so to protect my
squash I cut the bottom out of a few beer cans and buried them in the
soil next to my plants.  I then poured a little beer inside each little
can, and every morning I would find dead slugs and pill bugs.  This
seemed to solve the problem.  The next bug attack came from sugar
ants mining aphids on my bell peppers.  For this I tried numerous
remedies, and most of them had no effect.  I tried putting corn meal
around the plants, I tried cucumber peelings at the base of the plants,
cinnamon powder seemed to have worked a little bit, but finally it was
a mixture of dish soap and water that did the trick.  I put a little bit of
dish soap in a spray bottle full of water, and sprayed this on the under
side of the leaves, and on the affected areas.  This appeared to solve
the problem, but I had to keep a close watch out and repeat
treatments every couple of weeks.
My tomatoes really didn't have much of a bug problem.  I found a few
stink bugs on my tomatoes and when I did I simply squished them
with my fingers.  The thing I had to keep a close  watch for however
was the tomato worms.  If not spotted quick enough, these worms
can eat a large portion of a plant overnight, and I even lost a few
tomatoes to them.  Once I spotted the first one, I plucked him off and
squished him, and then every day I would check my plants.  Even
checking everyday I still lost several tomatoes and portions of the
plants too the worms.
For the most part, that was the problems I had.  Not too bad?
I never did get my squash or my pumpkins to produce anything.

In the beginning the squash and pumpkins struggled under the stress
of the pill bugs and slugs.  Once I handled these issues, and the
plants got well established, they really took off.  The plants
themselves looked great, big green leaves, lots of blooms, but the
blooms were all male blossoms not female.  I tended my plants
everyday, and checked every new blossom looking for the tell tale
signs of a female blossom, and finally I began to see a few.  Once I
saw the first female blossoms I got excited that finally I would get
some fruit, but each bloom wilted and died.  I was afraid at this point
that the blooms were not getting pollinated, so I stepped in to help.
Every morning about 8:00 AM I would take a small paint brush and
pollinate the blossoms.  I touched the brush to the stamen of the male
blossoms coating it with the bright yellow pollen, and then would
work it around the inside of the female blossoms.  Eventually, after
several weeks of patience the female blossoms began setting fruit.
Unfortunately however, once the fruit got to about 3 inches in length
the pill bugs began another attack and ate the baby squash.  This is
how it went for the rest of the season until finally out of the blue the
plants began to die.  I did everything I could to perk the plants back
up, but nothing seemed to help and eventually everything died.  At
this point I decided that maybe the bags of garden soil just didn't
allow enough room or nutrients to support squash, and I didn't worry
about replanting.  Later I would find out what I think the problem
really was.
After my garden had run its course, instead of throwing away the
bags of garden soil, I decided to recycle them.  I was pretty sure I
could not replant into the same bags with any success, even if I
fertilized I felt the soil was most likely deprived of the vital nutrients,
so I decided to dump the dirt into my compost heap.  At the same
time I started my garden, I also established an area to serve as a
compost heap, and all of my garden clippings and kitchen waste were
placed on the heap for next years garden soil.
Once the squash were completely dead, I carried the bags of dirt to
the compost heap and dumped them in, and much to my surprise I
noticed that the dirt was moving.  I sifted through the dirt and
discovered the largest grub worms I have ever seen in my life!  
These things were so huge I considered cooking them for dinner, but
I didn't.  Instead I put a few of them in the freezer, and I plan on
making a paper weight with them inside.  I thought it would be an
interesting conversation piece.                         

                                                                Anyway, my conclusion now       
                                                                 is that the grub worms most         
                                                                 likely fed on the roots of my         
                                                                 squash and eventually killed        
                                                                 them.  So next time if I use           
                                                                 bags for my squash I will              
                                                                 need to find a solution.

The other disaster was my egg plants, they just never took off at all.  I
started them from seed, and when I transplanted them into the bag of
garden soil they appeared very healthy.  At the time of transplant
each seedling was about 6 inches tall, and had good leaf production.
I nursed the plants through the entire season, but they never grew
any taller then about 8 inches.  At the end of the season when I gave
up on them it was obvious they had no root development for some
reason.  I think it was just the wrong time of the year for egg plants,
and the triple digit temperatures stunted their growth.

All in all I believe the "no dig garden" experiment was a great
success.  I effectively grew a variety of vegetables in a very small
area, and achieved a substantial harvest which was a nice addition to
my families diet.  Under the same circumstances I wouldn't hesitate
to do it again.
Check out these grub worms!  You can click
on the image to enlarge the photo.
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