Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Garden Hacks

At the beginning of the summer when I realized I had NO TIME for my garden, I thought, I’ll figure out some garden hacks and then I’ll blog about them. Sadly, not all my hacks worked, but there is still potential and the information is worth sharing, so here we go….

Let’s start with the biggest flop with the potential to be the biggest success. I do think this one is a keeper, but it needs some modifications and a lot more attention.

Gutter Step Garden
Nick built this lovely idea for me last year to house the strawberries. We had to relocate them so we could tear out the garden that was their home of the past twelve years and replace it with an expanded driveway. They were happy in the gutters and looked beautiful all summer and fall.

The garden is basically four gutters with caps on both ends mounted on a set of stair stringers and then given a frame to add stability. We didn’t poke holes for drainage because the caps were not a good seal and they leaked beautifully. Also, the gutter step garden is on a slight slant, so the water naturally drained off one end.

Lucky for me, I didn’t put all my strawberries in the gutter garden. I sagely planted half of them in an inground garden. Why am I lucky you ask? Remember last winter? The seven-month-long bitter, miserable slog through below freezing temperatures, daily record breaks, and endless snow? Why yes, that winter. By spring my strawberries in the gutter garden were dead beyond dead.

So, I retooled. Pulled out the dead strawberries, added some more dirt, fertilized the whole mess and planted seeds – lettuce, kale, green beans, cherry tomatoes, basil, and jalapeños. Let’s see what happens I thought. This could be good!
And it would have been – if someone had remembered to water it. And we didn’t have the driest summer in years. Actually, that’s not right. First we had the wettest summer in years and then we had the driest. Remember the lack of drain holes? Yup, maybe not the best idea.

So, the moral of the story is this- A Gutter Step Garden is a great idea, but it needs daily attention.

Three great things about a Gutter Step Garden:
1) Its relatively inexpensive to build.
2) It takes up very little space and is portable.
3) It saves your back, so would make an excellent garden for those of us who are no longer on the first half of our century.

Three things I’d do differently next year:
1) Poke some drainage holes in the bottom of the gutters.
2) Water and fertilize MUCH more.
3) Plant more lettuce and herbs and less beans; beans didn’t really work.

Garden Umbrella 
Normally I use lettuce boxes for summer lettuce. But this summer, I just didn’t have time to find the boxes, fill the boxes, and then move the boxes (to follow the shade). So, instead when my oldest son came home from the After Prom Party with his prize – two big beach towels and a huge beach umbrella, I hit on an ingenious idea – use the umbrella for the lettuce! And it worked great. We opened it on the hot days and closed it on the cloudy days and grew lettuce pretty much all summer. Steal this hack!

The Tool that Saved my Canning Habit!
First, I have to say that sadly this is not a paid advertisement. (I wish it was or at least that I’d gotten this particular item for free in exchange for this review. Neither happened. Sigh.)

I learned about the Victorio Strainer, aka wonder machine, from a student in the adult ed class I taught last fall on Intentional Life. One of the classes in the six-week session is on Canning and I planned to incorporate making homemade applesauce into the lesson. One of my students said she had a strainer that made applesauce go much quicker. So I said, “Bring it on!” (One of the things I love the most about teaching is that I always learn something!) On the night we made applesauce and canned it, Kate singlehandedly made as much applesauce as the rest of the class did in the same amount of time. I was sold.

That was way cool, but the strainer’s next trick is even better. It can process tomatoes without peeling, seeding, or coring them! Before this summer, I dedicated entire days to processing and canning tomatoes. We put up over 100 jars of sauce, salsa, and marinara. I’ve written about it and written about it. This summer we did that many jars again but in a fraction of the time thanks to my Victorio. We discovered that the best tomatoes for the Victorio are the San Marzano paste tomatoes. You can literally pull of the stem and drop them in the machine. I can puree 20 pounds of tomatoes in five minutes. No lie.

I’m pulling it out again this week for applesauce. Apples are not quite so quick as tomatoes, but still it’s a huge time save. You quarter the apples and remove the stem. Cook them until they are softened and then drop the apples in the strainer, seeds, skin and all. Out comes lovely smooth applesauce. My only complaint is that I LOVE chunky applesauce, so I still do a pot of chunky by hand. It takes easily four times as long to make my one pot, but alas sometimes there’s just no hack to be had.

Fending off the Blight

After watching my tomatoes succumb to the late blight year after year, this time around I decided to experiment a little. I planted tomatoes in seven different locations, including the gutter garden, a pot, and below the manure pile. I treated everyone the same (I pretty much ignored them and then freaked out when things went wrong). This way, if the blight was going to strike (and it always does), it wouldn’t take all of my tomatoes.

Here’s what I learned:
1) The blight is much, much, more clever than me.
2) Tomatoes that get any shade at all are more likely to blight faster.
3) San Marzano paste tomatoes are the bomb. Even as the blight crawls up their vines, they continue to ripen. They aren’t afraid. Mortgage Lifters also fend off blight well.
4) Specialty tomatoes whose seeds cost too much die first. Rule of thumb.
5) It seriously slows down the blight if your tomato plants are not touching each other AT ALL.

Potato Storage Hack

I planted lots of potatoes this past summer. Everyone eats them and we have a nifty root cellar for storing them, AND they don’t mind a few weeds.

The potatoes did fine, but when it was time to dig them up, I discovered that nearly two thirds of them were riddled with holes and spots from some type of pest. No, I don’t know what kind of pest it was. In other years, I would have taken pictures and stalked the internet, contacted the extension service, and then lamented my loss with too much wine. This year there was no time for any of that.

I diced or quartered the potatoes, tossing the sections that had been mutilated. Then I blanched them and filled freezer containers with my bounty. Now I have twenty quarts of diced and quartered blanched potatoes ready to be baked or tossed into soups this winter. Brilliant. Thanks random bugs, you saved me all kinds of work later.

Moral of the Garden Hack Story – make do, make up, make the best of it.

#gardenhacks #guttergarden

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