Tagged: gowanus

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

Foundation Fix-ation

The next big push in our renovation is finishing the basement and opening it up to the garden.  Before we get started though, I’ve been wondering if we should repoint the rubble stone foundation first.  In fact, I’m actually losing a little bit of sleep over whether our poor neglected base will crumble right out from under us and back into the pile of rubble it came from.  Check out the photo below and you’ll understand my anxiety – large communities of house mice would fit nicely between the chinks.

Our mortarless foundation - yes, this is our house and that white stuff is mortar dust pouring out of the wall

How did it get like this you ask?  Well, the previous owners made a party room downstairs in the 1960′s which was lovely for them but meant the walls were covered by paneling when we bought the house – paneling that trapped moisture and caused the 150 year old mortar to crumble.  Our plans involve removing the back foundation wall, replacing it with windows and excavating a foot in the back half of the basement floor for more head room in the new space (the current 6.5′ works for me, but isn’t for everyone, especially when ducking under the even lower main beam).  With all the demolition planned, I’m thinking strong walls are a must.

I’ve been checking around to find someone to fix it and am beginning to realize it’s going to be EXPENSIVE to have it done correctly and thinking hey, how hard could it be to do this?  Soo…

A little research yielded this nice link to Old House Web and explains why it’s important to treat historic buildings with care when re-pointing.  It turns out the mortar they used before the early 20th century was different from the portland cement we use today.  While not of any great significance, being from 1864, our place qualifies as historic and is definitely a candidate for old-style mortar.

So what is the right kind of mortar and why is it important?  What I learned is the stuff right out of the bag from Lowe’s is not it.  It’s way too hard and not porous enough for historic work.  It lacks the flexibility of old mortar and can actually damage the foundation.  Definitely want to stay away from that!   I found another article on the same site that gets specific about what to use for old stone and how to apply it.  Stone mason Ian Cramb, author of,  The Art of the Stone Mason, explains:

A two-step process to re-pointing stone walls
“Ian’s approach involves two separate steps – tamp pointing and then finish pointing.
In the first, he cuts back into the joint at least 3 inches. Then he packs the first 1 1/2 to 2 inches with mortar and a tamper. The mortar is made of 7 parts sharp sand, 1 part lime and 1 part cement (no more! he says).
This initial layer is topped with finish pointing. It should be a uniform depth so it dries evenly but never less than 1/2 inch thick.
Ian mixes his final pointing mortar on a board, by hand with a shovel, not in a mixer. It consists of 6 parts sharp sand, 1 part lime and 3/4 part cement.
Instead of mixing up a day’s worth of mortar and adding more water as it dries out, Ian recommends mixing only as much as you’ll use in a half-hour.”

Sounds easy, right?  Wait, what is ‘sharp sand’ and how is it different from smooth sand?  How would I know how much I’d use up in half an hour?  Do they have all this at King’s? How much will I need to buy?  Hmmm…I think maybe I’ll get a couple of contractors in to see what it’s going to cost to fix things after all.  At least now I’m an educated customer. :)


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!!