The Straw Bale and Other Easy Raised Beds

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There are many ways to create raised beds.  My favorite right now would be to use straw bales to create a rectangle, place a piece of cardboard in the bottom to suppress weeds (and prevent roots from accessing the soil before it is properly cleaned), then fill with soil.  That would take a bit of organic soil, but we could put a few inches of wood chips in the bottom and make it even more rich.  The soil can be half way up the bales.  We will be putting mulch on top anyways (no exposed soil!).  In the early spring and late fall an old window can be placed over the bales to create a simple cold frame.  We can sit on the bales for ease of reaching.  We are using a natural means of holding the soil in, and as it breaks down we just release the strings from the bales and blend it into the soil or use as mulch.

Old pieces of wood can be fastened together.  Large scavenged rocks can be used to rim a garden as well.  Our only limit is our creativity.

Large containers could be built to place on concrete.  Small ones to be placed on a picnic table.  Then, of course, the smaller of the raised beds is simply a pot!  There are many ways to incorporate vegetables and fruits into the landscape.

The Art of the Cold Frame

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In this lifestyle bartering is a way of life and I was happy to trade an herbalist class for help moving and a homebuilt cold frame.  My friends built this beautiful wooden structure with windows that open and screens.  It is made from old barn wood and even has an old Christian fish symbol burnt onto a board.

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I was concerned that even at the height of day the entire box was not bathed in light.  The southern half was in the shade all day.  It is built so that the back is higher than the front.  The clever builder believed it would still work and indeed it did!  Pots lushly filled with peas, collards, chard, and kale and then promptly died.  The first real freeze came along and froze every bit of life out of them.

‘When the heck do you use the cold frame then?’ I wondered.  It extended the season until the end of October.  We did have that unusual cold snap (A bit of an understatement seeings how it was twenty-two below zero!) at the beginning of November.  Perhaps it would have survived longer in the average late autumn.

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This spring I was ready though.  I didn’t do it too early.  A few weeks ago I planted tons of pots of cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries, and Chinese onions and placed them in the cold frame as an experiment.  Most things have germinated and are growing well.  Not as fast as last autumn’s batch but certainly the temperature is right for germinating.  The tomatoes have not come up yet but the ones in the greenhouse are a bit slow as well.

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A very cold night last week prompted me to take action.  I piled bags of soil up around the cold frame (I bet bales of straw would work too) and placed a blanket on top.  Everything is still growing.

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I am still experimenting with this new medium to extend the season but I think it could potentially bring greens and other delicious foods to the table later and earlier than expected.  It is doing a fine job of holding my seed starts as well.

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Remember that in any situation when starting seeds one must keep the soil moist until the plants come up.  They cannot germinate in dry soil!  Don’t overwater seedlings or they will dampen off, which is sad.  Check every other day to see if the top 1/2 inch is dry.  If so, give a sip!  When the plants are trying to germinate they like the hot, humid space but when they get to be plants open the windows of the cold frame on really warm days to let air through.

Plant what you love to eat and watch it grow!

Year Round Greens

You know you are a homesteader when things like poop that doesn’t have to be composted excites you.  Alpaca poo isn’t “hot” like other types of manure so it doesn’t have to be composted for six months.  We filled a wheel barrel full of alpaca droppings and took it over to one of the raised beds to spread.

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Now in November I had every intention of getting every bed cleaned out properly, covering them with compost then mulch for their long winter’s nap.  A good kink in my shoulder decided otherwise.  It would have been nice to have it all done, but it will surely wait for me, I decided.  So, on the bed that we started putting manure on, I noted emerald green from the patch of otherwise browned kale, chard, and collards.  Tiny Swiss chard leaves, two inches high were trying with all their might to grow.  It certainly was an epiphany for me.  If I cover the greens well with loose straw next year, I could be harvesting well into January!  That is without the help of a greenhouse, hoop house, or cold frame.  An easy way to extend the season.

Since I did not expect any more greens after November, I had been diligently snipping greens and freezing them.  No blanching necessary.  I have no desire to eat slimy food…ever.  All you do is pack sandwich bags with greens, release the air, and zip closed.  Put in freezer.  Now, the next day it will be frozen solid.  Don’t let it thaw!  Just crush it between your fingers so that the greens are crumbles.  When you need greens, crush the ones on top more and sprinkle handfuls into whatever you are cooking.  Replace the rest in freezer immediately.

I have been putting greens in all kinds of soups, in omelets, scrambled eggs, on potatoes to be roasted, and in sautés.  There are innumerable ways to use greens and the nutrients are especially desired this time of year.  The perfect blend of calcium and magnesium to make it bio-available, iron, A, C, E, and K, full of anti-oxidants and cancer killing properties.

Greens are one of the foods that I would have with me if I were trapped on an island…along with margaritas.  Is that a food?