What We Learned about What “They Say”

cart-full-of-melonsWe live out in the boonies, in south-central Tennessee, in an old house that has been sticky-taped together over five generations. Five acres, or so, is all that remains of the original homestead, with an old “baccer barn” (built for tobacco) and a few random outbuildings. The house and buildings weren’t built by our family, but by someone else’s family – we bought the place as is. But our large family of five kids and a semi-useless hound dog is eternally grateful for their work. We have grand, grand fun here! Picture kids hanging from rafters, crawdads from the creek thrown at unsuspecting sisters, live snake identification parties, comical chicken capers – yup, our country adventures are pretty colorful. And so we all know that we are very, very blessed.

Our “garden” is about 80′ x 100′. When we first moved here, our wonderful neighbor was kind enough to turn over our backyard with his tractor, cure it out, disc it up, and leave it fluffy and ready for our new “Grow Your Own Groceries” lifestyle! My goodness, we had fun getting started. We planted a pizza garden for the kids, with sunflower houses and cucumber tunnels – ideas suggested by some very creative gardening types who probably aren’t actually trying to feed themselves.

But for all of the fun we had, we had just as much hardship. We invested a lot of labor in climbing trellises for cantaloupes and other vines that we didn’t need. Our gas-powered tillers and other small engines were constantly needing costly repair – my poor husband finally threw up his hands one day and said, “That’s it. I am small engine cursed!” Our watering infrastructure, which cost more than an entire year of groceries, seemingly required a civil engineering degree to operate effectively, and it broke in it’s first season. Our garden quickly became an expensive grass-growing venture, and we jokingly referred to it as the “Johnson Grass Nursery.”

Having failed time and time again by following “They Say to…” advice, we decided to become our own innovators.

Even though “They Say” not to plant your climbing beans with sunflowers, we did. We planted a double row of mammoth sunflowers 18 inches apart, with 3 feet clearance for walking. We planted whatever climbing bean seeds were on sale at the next full moon on each side of the sunflower starts, about 10 inches on either side. We plopped free cardboard down the middle and on each side, leaving a little space for rain to penetrate quickly.

beans-on-sunflowersNow, the beans don’t produce as fast, and of course the sunflowers are well-fed and Gigantor, but when the beans do put on, we’re done with most of that late spring/early summer busy work in the rest of the garden, and ready for the added chore of bean harvesting. They have nice living trellises, and they put on constantly until heavy frost. We’ve learned to stop harvesting beans in September, to let the last harvest fill out and dry on the dead sunflowers for storage. We’ve noticed that ladybugs love the bean/sunflower combo, and it’s a favorite place for them to make their homes. And the birds throw parties on the ripe sunflower heads, leaving the rest of the garden in peace. One 80 foot double row produces plenty of beans for one meal each week for our 7 people – including three teenage boys. Two rows would certainly be enough to put some up, if we were so inclined.

Even though “They Say” to water your garden with regularity, over the last 3 years of drought in Tennessee, we found that it cost more to water our garden year-round than it cost to run our household – and that’s a lot of showers. Not efficient, in my book. So we stopped watering and started paying attention to when the rain came. In our valley, even in years of drought, we noticed that late winter was a wonderful time to plant, as expected. But we also noticed that mid-June almost always brings a second little rainy season, perfect for a second round of seeding. No expensive drip systems, and no hauling buckets up from our year-round creek. We simply planted the seeds further apart (squashes, as an example, were seeded diagonally in a raised row at two feet apart), and we put down a bunch of free cardboard to suppress the weeds. Memo – don’t place the cardboard too close to the young plants. Regardless of what “They Say” about cardboard letting water through, it does block and absorb some water that your young plants need, especially in drought conditions. With absolutely no extra watering, and not much rainfall, our garden did absolutely fine.

Even though “They Say” that summer squash doesn’t keep as well as winter squash, we have learned from our insanely productive yellow squash harvest this year that indeed it does. Let a few squashes get quite big early in the season. Bring them in before they get woody, and do not wash them. Store them in a reasonably cool room and they will keep just fine for up to 4 months or longer at room temperature. We just run a veggie peeler over the cured exterior and take out the seeds. Those zukes and yellow squash are still very fry-worthy, or shred/casserole/bread-worthy, straight from an unwashed pile in a box.

our-son-with-sweet-potatoes“They Say” to keep your sweet potato runs weed-free. But we’ve learned that as long as the row is raised and sandy, 100 slips in a 100 foot row produces plenty of sweet potatoes for fall eating and winter storage with only 1 session of weeding at about 6 weeks after planting. After that, we leave the darned things to do their thing! my six-year-old loves rolling back the vines to discover his treasure piles, and I love that as we roll back the carpet of vines I find a gorgeous, fluffy, weed-free bed for my fall kale. Done.

As we began to create our own cost-saving solutions for our grocery garden, we were unwittingly funding a silent enemy. The enemy lurking in the wonderful, tilled soil that first season was dozens of Johnson grass rhizomes. They had just been given the keys to the kingdom – fluffy, clear soil, sunshine, and lots of room to play. Our Johnson grass had a veritable Disneyland, with an unlimited credit card in hand. And we were footing the bill. In a garden the size of a baseball diamond, I might add. Memo to the novice gardener in the southeast – tilling is not your friend. Nope. Even if “They Say” you should till, think twice.

johnson-grassOur solution? The only solution available to us by our fourth year – dig. Lots. Deep. Up to two feet deep, one 100′ x 4′ row at a time. All spring. And then hand-pull those rhizomes out. Sometimes they would come out as long as my kids’ arms and as thick as my thumb, all gnarly and nasty and tricksy. These suckers are like alien life forms from sci-fi movies. Even the smallest bit broken off becomes a vigorous 12 foot plant in just one season, and can breed a stand 10 feet in diameter. So much for time-saving. This was certainly muscle-building though!

There was light at the end of the tunnel! My teen boys and I worked a 40′ x 60′ area from March to May, planting as we cleared. In each row we dug out, we laid down free cardboard from behind the Dollar General store down the road. This idea came courtesy of my sister, who is a brilliant gardener and is always learning new innovative ways to grow food for her cooperative community in New England. Dollar General throws out tons of lightly inked cardboard that is stacked neatly in bins behind or beside every store. This resource is easily accessible to dumpster-diving-gardeners such as myself.

Free! Easy! Exercise! Food! The enemy has been put in its place, and we should have enough groceries from our garden next year to share plenty with the other families in our area. Blessings abound for our 7-ring circus and our semi-useful hound dog. Now if I could just get this dog to take out the armadillo that keeps taking out my precious parsley…

Thanks to Susannah Sammons for participating in the [Grow] Network Writing Contest.

We have over $2,097 in prizes lined up for the Fall 2015 Writing Contest, including all of the following:

– A 21.5 quart pressure canner from All American, a $382 value
– A Survival Still emergency water purification still, a $288 value
– 1 free 1 year membership in the [Grow] Network Core Community, a $239 value
– A Worm Factory 360 vermicomposting system from Nature’s Footprint, a $128 value
– 2 large heirloom seed collections from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, valued at $103 each
– A Metro-Grower Elite sub-irrigation growing container from Nature’s Footprint, a $69 value
– 2 copies of the complete Home Grown Food Summit, valued at $67 each
– 3 free 3 month memberships in the [Grow] Network Core Community, valued at $59 each
– 4 copies of the Grow Your Own Groceries DVD video set, valued at $43 each
– A Bug Out Seed Kit from the Sustainable Seed Company, a $46 value
– 4 copies of the Alternatives To Dentists DVD video, valued at $33 each
– 4 copies of the Greenhouse of the Future DVD and eBook, valued at $31 each

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