Monday, March 12, 2012

Ready and anxious to plant!


Update on our status. First of all, March 15th seems SO far away! That's the earliest date for planting maize outside in our zone. It's very important to know your zone so you can determine when and what to plant. We reside in zone 7a here in Durham (but our friends in neighboring Raleigh are in zone 7b, so it's very important to check!) Find out what zone you live in here.

We have sourced all the materials for our container garden. For our Three Sisters container we are using a large oak half-barrel which contained bourbon in a previous life. It smelled so strongly that even several days  after unloading it, the CR-V still smelled like whiskey! We also bought a couple bags of pebbles to place in the bottom for drainage, several bags of topsoil and a bag of peat moss. For the olla, we chose a 10" terra-cotta flower pot and saucer, and we picked up Gorilla Glue, caulk, and a bit of oil-based paint. We also got an 84" wrought-iron double shepherd's crook planter hanger for the 2 inverted nightshade planters. After building the olla (procedure forthcoming on the olla page) and drilling some drainage holes, we were able to put everything together and now we're ready to plant maize on the 15th! I'll post a procedure for the container soon as well. We'll have to wait until we have seedlings to put the nightshade planters together.

We also got seed. We purchased seed for tomatoes, pinto beans, spaghetti squash, and, on a lark, some cilantro seeds. We hadn't really planned to do cilantro but we have a spare planter sitting around and we use a lot of both cilantro and coriander (the same plant: it's an herb until it bolts and then becomes a spice!). We didn't buy any maize seed; instead I pulled about 40 kernels out of the popcorn jar and wrapped them in a moist paper towel to see if they were any good. After just 3 days over 70% of the kernels had germinated, and so we went ahead and planted the most promising ones in some peat pellets. As of today five out of six have sprouted up through the peat moss

Here is a picture of the germinated maize:

And here are the young shoots, just showing their faces:

A couple notes:
Normally, you would plant multiple seeds in each of the peat pellets, then thin out the weaker ones leaving the strongest plant, but we had a lot more of the pellets than we needed and we knew all 6 seeds were good so I decided to sacrifice some pellets to be sure we pick the strongest individuals for use in our garden.
Also, it's still too early for our maize seedlings to be outdoors overnight, we just took them outdoors for better light to take the picture.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Hello and welcome to my blog on backyard horticulture. I had my first introduction to horticulture as a child. I grew up in a fairly diverse, multi-cultural neighborhood. Many of the families in my neighborhood, as well as my own parents, kept vegetable gardens and grew everything from tomatoes, strawberries, and cucumbers to exotic Indian snake gourd and chilis, even shitake mushrooms. The bug never really bit me until I got older and began to miss the fresh, wholesome vegetables that my childhood neighbors used to trade and share. As I have grown older, I have also become increasingly committed to social justice, environmentalism, and sustainability. As a natural outgrowth of that intersection between my past and present, I have become interested (some around me might even say obsessed) with local foods.

This blog will detail my adventures in raising food in a container garden on the back stoop of my apartment in Durham, NC, USA. My partners in crime are my wonderful girlfriend, Jess, and our adorable and extremely enthusiastic Lab-mix, Jasmine. There will be a special emphasis on permaculture and sustainable technology, with an eye to helping more folks become the change through a radical DIY mentality and a commitment to the maxim: "Think globally, act locally."

DIY can be a brief flirtation with disaster, an occasional cost-saving measure, a hobby, or a philosophy and way of life. My father has always had a strong DIY ethic which he imparted in me. From brewing beer and wine to fashioning his own musical instruments to building backyard decks and custom PCs, my dad taught me to be fearless and inquisitive. And although these attributes sometimes get me into trouble, they also take me places I might otherwise never go. They lead away from the neat, sanitary rows of supermarkets and big box stores, and out into the wide world with all its imperfection, chaos, and staggering beauty. I hope that in sharing my own DIY journey with you, I can help you to avert the odd disaster, save a buck, have some fun, and maybe save the world.

This season we will be conducting two different horticultural experiments. The first is a container Three Sisters garden. The other will be the use of ollas, a sustainable irrigation technology.

The Three Sisters are maize (corn), pole or runner beans, and squash (not bush squash.) These three plants have been planted together for their synergistic effects for ages by Indigenous American people. Maize is very nitrogen-hungry and this can really tax the soil, but beans have a remarkable ability to "fix" nitrogen (converting it from the form found in animal waste and decomposing matter into the form useful to plants.) The squash spreads out with its broad leaves to cover the ground, protecting it from the full sunlight all three plants prefer, and keeping weeds and other pests down. Of course, this thick, low canopy would also strangle out our nitrogen-fixing beans, except they've run up the cornstalks, reaching towards the sun! Together, the Three Sisters combine to produce a garden plot which is very easy to manage, requiring virtually no maintenance aside from watering.

Enter our olla, a terra-cotta vessel filled with water and buried amongst our plants. Because the terra-cotta is water-permeable, osmosis will ensure that the perfect amount of water wicks through the olla, into the soil, and then to the thirsty roots of our Three Sisters! As an added bonus, it provides a convenient method of applying water-based fertilizers.

This blog will follow the progress and results of these experiments, as well as our other gardening adventures involving members of the solanaceae (or Nightshade) family. Specifically, tomatoes, and possibly chilis, which we will be growing in inverted planters for the first time this year.

As time goes on, we'll have photos and a procedure up for our olla, our container setup, and to chronicle the progress of our plants. Add us to your RSS aggregator and don't miss a moment of exciting horticultural hi-jinx!

So again, welcome to my garden, I hope you enjoy your visit, learn a little something, and better still, teach a little something also! Namaste!