Tagged: brooklyn gardening

Maple-Proofing your Raised Bed Garden

When we first built our raised beds over top of the roots of our neighbors’ maple tree where the previous owner grew a crop of weeds for years, I did my due diligence and learned the best way to keep the tree’s feeder roots from getting into the fluffy moist veggie garden soil we planned to put on top of them and wanted very much to keep them out of was to put down a layer of landscaping fabric under the beds before placing the soil on top.  Optimistic, that is what we did.

Fast forward two years and our beds were so full of feeder roots, last summer the beets were crowded out and growing on top of the dirt!   After more research where I learned  a) it was best to give up and,  b) if you didn’t want to give up then bullet proof it so we decided to tackle the remediation head on.

First we removed all of the soil from the raised bed, placing it on top of a tarp.  It’s good organic stuff and we didn’t want it to mix with the potentially contaminated soil from our Gowanus Canal neighborhood.

Roxy the dog surveys the work

The next step was to lay down a layer of landscaping fabric, cutting it slightly larger than the bed frame.  We lifted the frames gently and slipped it under the edges.

the landscaping fabric goes out underneath the edge of the frame

After the fabric we put down a layer of 1/4″ hardware cloth under the edges, also cut slightly larger than the frame.  Hardware cloth is a fine mesh of metal you can buy by the yard or the roll at most hardware stores. When calculating the amount you’ll need be sure to allow for overlap.  It will most likely take two lengths x the width of your box.  Each section of our bed is 4′x5′ so two, 16 foot rolls was enough to do one.  All together we put down three layers of landscaping cloth (A) and two of hardware cloth (B), so the sequence is A-B-A-B-A.  The maple roots may grow back, but hopefully they’ll get lost for a few years inside the layers and not venture past.

next comes a layer of hardware cloth

Finally, after a long afternoon of digging and sifting we planted the rhubarb back.  We’re so excited the raspberry canes are leafing out everywhere and little strawberry shoots are popping up in the bed next to it.  It’s their third season and we’re optimistic it will be a great berry crop!  We also learned last year when NOT to plan our vacation (during the first week of July) or we’ll miss peak berry season in Brooklyn, NY.

Yay! The soil is back in the raised bed


In the last photo you can see the next bed we have to do – half of it is a double height bed where the tomatoes grow and it’s completely filled with feeder roots.  If you are planting over a maple tree, all I can say is good luck and bring on the hardware cloth!

our next project...the bed next to it

Supplies You’ll Need

- Lanscaping Fabric, enough for three layers

- Hardware cloth, enough for two layers

- Scissors to cut the landscaping fabric

- Tin Snips to cut the hardware cloth

The Big Dig

Today was such a gorgeous fall day and there were a million indoor things on my to do list so naturally I thought, “Hmmm…maybe I’ll work outside for a bit?”  Well, a bit turned into a whole morning of trimming raspberry canes and chopping barren tomato vines and eggplant stems and I finally did something I’ve avoided for a couple of years now – empty the processed compost out of the bottom of the bin.  It needed to happen to make room for our Halloween pumpkins.  How adorable are they?  Seriously – I love the way the contorted faces reveal their inner ghouls.  The one on the right even ate the lids of the others.

Halloween Gouls

We discovered our compost bin after a lengthy internet search and the best feature is that it works year round including through sub-zero weather thanks to an insulated sleeve.  It is a ‘Green Johanna’ hot composter from Sweden where they know all about cold winters.  Our hope was to compost 100% of our vegetable scraps and amazingly, we’ve done just that.  Although the instructions say it will do meat and cheese we’ve avoided it – an occasional egg scrap or baked goods with butter but that’s about it.

Our Green Johanna with rich compost coming out the side door

Amazingly, as the waste decomposes, the volume of the bin compresses and it seems like you can add scraps forever without filling it up.  This is perfect for lazy gardeners like me.  However, they recommend taking compost out each spring and fall so after two years it was long over due.  Although I love the idea of composting, each time I visit the bin with a new bowl of scraps it’s not unlike the feeling I get entering an outhouse – my senses are aware there are organic things afoot connecting me with my waste cycle.  A little nervous about what might jump out, I carefully opened the side panel but it was only dirt on the other side – a rich sticky soil resembling worm castings. I’d noticed the composter becoming more of a worm bin last spring and consulted with the fellow at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket one Sunday who pronounced this beneficial – even ideal when this happens.  He also assured me the melon-sized clutch of grubs who’d moved in were also friendly residents.  I wasn’t so sure about that.  Worms I’m ok with – but grubs have a certain ‘ick factor’ closer to cockroaches.

Digging rich compost out of the bin

Timid at first, I cautiously dug out bits of soil.  Eventually I would be down on hands and knees, covered to the elbows with sticky compost like a six year-old making mud pies. I dug out about three cubic feet of compost thinking any minute the ceiling of material above would collapse on my arms but it didn’t.  A combination of archaeological dig and spelunking – pulling out the rich, dark soil was a thrill and I also discovered what’s not so popular on the invertebrate menu: avocado skins, fruit labels, pine needles, and anything that’s extra twiggy.

Rich worm-filled compost for the garden

Satisfied, I surveyed the growing mounds of nutrient-loaded soil covering the vegetable beds.  Our commitment to composting not only keeps garbage out of the waste stream but turns that garbage into beneficial fertilizer for next year’s vegetable garden.  Our neighbors are amazed when we tell them we don’t throw anything out (and I should add, also confessed after the first year they were wary it might smell and attract rodents).  Our small bag of garbage at the curb once rather than twice each week is a welcome sign we’re keeping our footprint small.

Maybe I’ll dig just a little more,” I thought, sticking my mud and glove covered hand deeper into unknown territory.  I could no longer see what I was hacking at with the trowel, but more good soil again fell down onto the floor cavity of the bin.  And then it happened, the contents started shifting and the first thing to fall was the clutch of grubs.  That was it for me.  Done.  I sealed up the side cover on the twisting mass and hosed off my gloves.  They could have the rest of the compost.  Until spring that is, when I’d be back.

More info about the Green Johanna:



Fish Heads, Fish Heads…

Tomatoes in the foreground with a view of the fortified strawberry patch on the right

Inspired by how they plant tomatoes at Love Apple Farms, I’m going to dig ours up today and re-plant them. Dunno if this is a good idea or not, but who knows, it may help. I planted them back in April straight into the ground – duh! And here we are, sitting on gobs of worm castings from our basement worm set-up and lots of crushed eggshells.  The only thing missing are fish heads and those should be easy enough to get from our local fish monger.

Wild salmon head, crushed eggshells and organic fertilizer

Later: well, got the fish heads and my 8yo helped put them in the holes.  The kids are having a blast telling everyone about them.  8 yo to friend: “Do you know what we have under our tomatoes? Dead fish heads!”  He wanted to pop the eyes before we covered them up but I was too squeamish.  Thanks to hubby for cutting the heads (quite large, from wild salmon) into more manageable halves.

It’s been a week now and after some initial shock and a dropping of all their lower leaves, the tomatoes are now busting out.  What a difference the fertilizer brew seems to be making!  The plants are greening up, setting on blooms and have grown several inches.  We also planted them deeper into the ground so they’ll hopefully have a solid support system as they grow up.  Here’s hoping!!

8/9/12 – Update, three of the tomato plants died, one is flourishing.  I was baffled because they were doing fabulously and then suddenly started to brown and die except for one plant in the corner.  I was so sad!!  Then, while reading a book on companion planting I learned the reason they died was the potatoes I planted next to them.  Because they are from the same family, they are more susceptible to blight which is exactly what the tomatoes died of.  The potato plant is ailing too compared with a sister plant elsewhere.  I also had a total fail with the radishes planted in the same box. Turns out tomato roots release and exudate that radish roots do not like.  I should have planted the radishes with the beets but not next to the eggplant (it’s in the same family as tomatoes).  Next year I will be much smarter!!

Spring Thoughts

Path made of Ohio foundation stones

Nothing like winter’s chills to get us thinking about spring. After so much work on the inside of the house, we spent the spring and summer months of last year planting in the garden and enjoying our first harvest of vegetables and flowers. Mom and dad K helped us install a bluestone cap to the unfinished retaining wall in the back and brought hand-hewn flagstones from Ohio that used to be in the basement of the farm house dad grew up in for a path in the front garden.  (For their age, my parents totally rock!) The kids love meandering via the garden to the front door while we unlock it and it’s a lovely sentimental connection to our country roots.

Away went the old scruffy holly and gangly rose bushes (mom replanted them at her house in Ohio – she loves orphan plants) and we repurposed gravel-bound hosta and day lilies to new locations in the updated layout, added an assortment of flower and foliage plants topped it all off with a Japanese Stewartia tree.  The garden now looks like the start of a shady woodland path with clusters of like plants grouped together and interesting discoveries to make as you wander along the path.  The top photo was taken shortly after the garden was planted in July and the one below is how it looked when we first moved in.  In October we planted hundreds of bulbs for waves of spring color along the path and clusters of crocus and daffodils here and there among the bushes.  A bed of bearded iris will make a big show in front of the stewartia tree through June and July. The kids have no idea and I can’t wait to see their faces when the things wake up and the delight begins.

Front Garden, before: hosta & holly and gravel covered dirt
Mom & Dad buttering the wall
Bluestone sets the retaining wall off nicely

In the back we planted raspberries, tomatoes, beans, strawberries, onions, eggplant and herbs in raised beds along the fence and in March started our family composting operation that includes worm bins in the basement and a year-round compost system in the back garden.  Because the soil is contaminated from the nearby Gowanus Canal with industrial waste from the last two centuries, we are careful to practice safe gardening and installed a barrier at the bottoms of the new beds to keep the roots contained and put clean fill in the beds.  We’ll use the composted organic kitchen waste in the garden.  We mulched tree leaves to provide winter cover for the flower beds. Both the front and back will likely undergo major changes with future renovations – thank goodness they look half way decent now in the mean time! It was a lot of back breaking work – especially digging all the trash out of the back flower beds.  That was a project that took the whole family weeks!

We sifted buckets of debris from the back flower beds

We used a pick axe and our hands to break up the cement-like soil packed with bricks, rocks, broken glass, household trash and riddled with roots. Next was sifting 10 gallon bucket after bucket of gravel and glass shards from the remaining soil and adding back at least a dozen bags of soil and amendments to take the place of all the rubble removed before finally planting roses, shrubs and flowers. The difference was amazing.  Mom and dad took the buckets of gravel for their driveway in Ohio so I suppose you could say we traded some small rocks in for some bigger ones. Every time they visit now they bring us a truck load of good Ohio topsoil – we’re so lucky!!

Construction of the raised garden beds
Before: rear garden weed patch

Over the winter we have a couple more projects: building a fence with a gate to protect this year’s vegetable garden from the digging adventures of our new pup, Roxy, and installing a raspberry trellis before spring comes and thorny canes take over the yard.  We’ll be sure to post pictures of the bulbs when they come up in spring and keep you updated on plans for the vegetable garden.  Last week we worked close to forty pounds of worm castings into the soil and have plans to raise one of the containers another 12″ for nice deep tomato roots.  This year I’m buying plants instead of growing from seed – we only need six tomato plants so it’s a lot more practical.  We’ll definitely plant Japanese eggplant again, some pole beans and look forward to our first season of mature raspberries and strawberries – that is if we can outsmart the critters who like to eat them. The down side of having one of the only gardens around is you’re the go-to snack joint for the local birds, squirrels and raccoon population.

Summer eggplant growing in the vegetable garden