Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fabulous garden

We always had a garden when I was a kid, and ever since I moved out I've wanted to have one again. This is my first chance! Not in fertile Mississippi soil, with seasons I instinctively understand and plenty of rain. Nope. Out here in Nevada, in a sandpit backyard, with the wild-west weather and the short growing season.

I'm actually not complaining about the sand. My friend four blocks downhill has 12" of silt on a caliche base - she'll have deep sucking mudpuddles til May. At least I've got well-drained sand, enriched with a little humus, and I do own a very large hair and manure producing machine. Sand + compost = great dirt!


I started seriously trying to figure out how to garden when we bought the house last August. I've been googling off and on ever since then, trying to figure out when you plant stuff here. Last night, I finally found it! If you are trying to garden in the Reno / Tahoe area of Nevada, here's the pdf you've been looking for: UNR's "Getting Started with a Vegetable Garden." (Theoretically) reliable frost-free dates! Growing season! When to plant what stuff!!

I was so excited to find that - and realize that I wasn't actually too late - that I ran out and built my first raised bed. Well, I might not have been quite so excited if it wasn't such a lovely day - it got into the 60s, my lovely sand has dried out, and it's light til almost 6 now.


I've spent six months dithering about what to make the walls of the beds out of. I've priced out fir, redwood, railroad ties, and cinderblocks. I've agonized over sizing and height. And today I just went and raided the woodpile behind the barn and knocked together the biggest thing I could build.

They're 2x6" cedar boards that spent who knows how many years behind the barn. They used to be a deck - there's some paint and stain still visible on them, and the ends of the boards have nail holes. But they haven't quite given their all yet, and I think they should gracefully retire as garden beds. I screwed them to some 3x4" pallet boards that were also in the pile, and I leveled the bed. It's built into a slight slope. I cut the pallet boards with legs that extend about 6 more inches into the ground.

I wanted beds that were 3-4' wide, and the most efficient use of my boards turned out to be 43". I kind of wish I could've built real raised beds, maybe 2' off the ground, but this will do. I've got enough 2x6's to make one more bed, then I've got enough 3"x4" pallet boards to make one even shorter bed. I've also got a bunch of 1x12" shelving boards, but I don't know how long a 3/4" thick board will last. And I think three beds will be enough for my first year gardening. :)

Is there an efficient way to mix compost with existing sand? Should I shovel out all the sand and then layer compost-sand-compost-sand and fork it all together, or is there a better way?

Has anybody tried that Square Foot Gardening thing? It seems really well suited to my situation - tiny beds, lots of soil amendment, irrigation is essential.

What should I plant? I know I want to put in a permanent herb garden - that's one reason I want three beds. Of course I will try tomatoes, but they're hard to grow out here. I must grow carrots to feed to the horse that provides the manure. I'm not going to try corn - not enough space, and I think the wind would demolish it. Definitely bush beans. Definitely squash and zucchini. Definitely radishes and baby lettuce. Maybe turnips. Maybe broccoli and cabbage, but I know they're all brassicas and I have to rotate them carefully.

If I manage to grow tomatoes, and the devil tomatoworms find me, I am going to make my friend come kill them. Tomato worms give me the heebie jeebies like nothing else. Maybe I will catch a chicken and make the chicken eat the worm.


  1. Did your compost pile ever get "cookin'? If it's still hot, you probably don't want to use it this spring. But you could incorporate some of your sand right into the pile if you wanted. Otherwise, your idea of layering, then forking it thoroughly is a good one.
    The "square foot" thing does look like a good idea for your situation. As for what to grow, for me (the queen of dead plants) it would have to be very low maintenance. And processing and storing isn't my forte, either, so I would probably stick to salad plants (HAVE to have sugar snaps, however!). I *might* throw ONE or TWO squash seeds out among the wild flowers, but nothing I have to take care of or freeze or can!
    You, however, seem to eat much healthier than I, so go with whatever your little heart (and stomach) desires!

  2. No, the damn compost is still ambient temperature. It looks more rotted - and even if it didn't cook properly, it still froze/thawed all winter so it should be more decomposed.

    I started two new piles, in the sun, with alternating layers of poop and mooshy hay from beside the feeder. I'll water them good when I refill the tank tomorrow, then I'm going to leave them alone for like a month.

    I do like to cook seasonally. I don't know how good I'll be about preserving my produce - I have the no-guilt card with the chickens. Anything I don't want to eat, I feed to them and get better eggs!

  3. You won't have to make your chickens eat those hornworms... they'll do it with gusto. :)

    One thing you can do to make your beds last longer is to line the inside with old scraps of plastic. It keeps the moisture and organic content away from the wood, and the paint away from your soil.


  4. Ron gave you good advice about the plastic. For free excellent plastic go to your lumber yard and ask for sheets of lumber wrap. It's Tyvek like material that the producers use to wrap bunks of lumber to protect it while it's being transported. The yard here throws it away. I use it for lots of things.

    Another excellent resource is your local Cooperative Extension Service office. You can find them by looking for 4-H in the phone book. Tons of information and help, all free courtesy of you tax dollars!

  5. I'm wondering about the swimming pool liner. It's warm and dry enough that I can drain the pool again today, and the plastic would be an excellent bed liner.

    AKPG, good call on the extension service. We used them a lot when I was growing up in MS. I guess I don't even know what my questions are yet!

    I have an idea for a chicken wire frame stretched across the top of the bed - I think if I had wire on the top, I could mulch heavily underneath the wire and it wouldn't blow away. Cats would dislike the feel of the wire. It might deter birds, but I'm not counting on it. Hmmm...

  6. I've done the square foot gardening thing. I have two 2x4 boxes that I used year before last. It was exceptionally effective, though to keep my dogs out I had to put up ex-pens around my boxes which was both a hassle and slightly unattractive. Everything in it grew *really* fast, produced well, and was all very tasty!