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building the oglethorpe garden

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2016: the progression of our garden on oglethorpe ave. i look an overgrown bed and a mess of brushy non-native plants and turned it into three raised beds and a small container garden.

It’s been so hectic here though, between moving and housesitting and unpacking … and now it’s a full on race to get the garden ready. As you can see, an opportunity presented itself that I was not expecting – my very own raised bed! So in addition to the 10-ish containers I’m preparing, I’ve been busy repairing and double digging this 4×8 bed.

Ending up with more garden space than you expected is a boon to an apartment-bound homesteader like me. I’m not complaining, no. I’m relishing. I’m relishing I’m those work-so-hard-you-can’t-move-at-the-end-of-the-day days. That’s how I felt after I double dug the beds and mixed all the potting soil, then ran 10 miles because I have a race to train for, damnit.

Here are some before and after photos of our garden area.

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Once all the physical work was done, it was time for the mental work. I ordered seeds because I time was running out, and I went a little crazy (can anyone commiserate? Those catalogs make everything look so damn good! No, I don’t really need to plant three varieties of nasturtium….). I bought so much seed I actually had a panic attack while trying to sleep that I didn’t have enough room to plant it all. Well, I’m a big believer that things in my life always have a way of working themselves out…. and once again, they did! Now I had a new problem – plenty of space, plenty of seed, no plan. So I’ve had my nose in the books all week, drawing up diagrams.

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The spring garden has been a bit disappointing since I got such a late start, but we’ve still been eating hella salads made with homegrown greens and radishes. Friday night, I made a quiche with homegrown greens and broccoli rabe, along with a salad. Everything had been handpicked at 6 AM that morning before I headed to work. Now that’s a good feeling.

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Having all these greens means there’s a lot of washing to be done. A couple months ago, The Sunshine Is Ours introduced to a new, water efficient way to wash my greens. Previously, I was holding each green under the running water (YIKES). Now, I fill a large kitchen bowl with cold-ish water, and soak a handful of greens at a time for a couple minutes. Give ’em a good dunk, shake ’em off, and throw ’em in the colander to drip dry. When the colander gets full, I lay the greens out on a clean towel to finish drying. When I’m done, I use the water in the bowl to water my houseplants and garden. Cleaning the harvest is my least favorite part of gardening, and I’m hoping this new technique reduces that burden.

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Late spring update: It’s been a prolific spring around this homestead, but the night temps are up in the 70s and my lettuce started to bolt. All things considered, we got a much longer and cooler spring than normal. According to last years notes, I pulled lettuce in early May – I still have some in the ground!

Between the garden and our CSA, we are hardly having to buy any produce at the store! Most of what we purchase is tropicals (avocado, lemon, lime, orange) and garlic and onions. We use hella garlic and onions. I’m growing a lot of garlic this autumn, and I hope to learn how to properly store it. Good practice.

That’s my new motto around here. Good practice. This place isn’t the urban homestead I hoped to move into, but it’s perfect in its own right. Sure I can’t have bees, goats, or chickens; I can’t plant orchards; but I am starting to really understand gardening. It’s incredible how much I have improved in one year. I’m learning to basics – raising seedlings indoors, composting, companion planting, and putting up the harvest. Every morning I wake up an hour early to stroll out into my garden. I harvest what needs harvesting, piddle around with weeding, and plant succession crops. Good practice.

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Watermelon is among my favorite summer treats. This year, I picked up a couple seedlings off Athens Locally Grown to fill some extra space on the garden. I paid 75 cents for both and figured if I get a melon or two, it’d be pretty badass.

Well, my melons are taking over my yard and blooming daily. I have two decent sized ones so far and dozens of babies. The cultivar is ‘Sugar Baby.’ I had no idea growing watermelon was so easy. Perhaps they love their self-watering container? The plants never droop! (note: they ended up producing fairly mediocre watermelons)

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One venture I took on this year was installing a shelf of grow lights in our home and starting plants under the lights.

My grow set up is very basic. I bought four full spectrum light bulbs off Amazon for ~$30. I scored two 4′ shop lights from Home Depot on sale for $11/ each. The only other things I bought were an analog timer ($2) and a bag of s-hooks ($2). Under $50 for the whole set-up. I have the lights hung on a middle shelf on one of those big 4′ wide metal shelving units that we got for free. The rest of the shelving holds household items – all my canning jars and equipment, empty beer bottles, cat food, homebrew equipment, etc.

This year under the lights I successfully started: tomatoes, lettuce, kale,  basil, strawberries, lemon balm, hyssop, stinging nettle, and wormwood. I unsuccessfully attempted: peppers and lavender, for which I suspect I will need heat mats.

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One veggie that I successfully started under the lights is Brussels Sprouts. Brussels happen to be my favorite vegetable. This year I’m growing ‘Long Island Improved,’ an heirloom variety from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. SESE is an amazing seed company that specializes in non-GMO plants adapted to our region. Their mission focuses on self-reliance as they encourage gardeners and farmers to practice seed-saving and sharing. I’ve never saved seeds but it’s on my ‘to learn’ dreamlist, right next to playing the banjo and keeping bees.

Anyways, growing heirloom varieties, saving seeds, and sharing them among regional growers is an A+ way to stick it to the BIG-AG companies and their genetically modified plants. You know I can’t resist the opportunity to stick it to the man. But really, seed diversity is incredibly important. Remember, we vote with our dollars – so every time you support a badass company like SESE instead of buying a bunch of non-organic tomatoes from the big box grocery store, YOU are voting for healthy crops, healthy people, and a healthier world.

My pack of seeds cost under $3 and I germinated about 1/5 of them under my grow lights. I transplanted 16 into their own pots to get big and strong. They will be reared under the lights for the rest of summer and head into the garden once it cools off in September. Think about it – even if they only produce 4-5 lbs of sprouts, my return will be ten fold. One pound of non-organic-likely GMO-shipped from hundreds of miles away-sprouts cost $3 at Trader Joe’s. Yet I can grow sprouts from high-quality truly sustainable seed-completely organically-using free harvested rainwater-fed with free homemade compost-only 100 feet from my front door for the same price.

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I grew some stinging nettle this year. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) could be considered a weed. It can be aggressive here in the southeastern US. It’s best known (hated) by hikers who brush against it while walking in the woods. The plant causes an irritating skin rash. I have a nice little patch in my garden, and brush against it accidentally quite often.

But like most weeds, nettle actually has a crazy amount of health benefits. Rosemary Gladstar calls it a ‘vitamin factory’ – high in B12, iron, calcium, potassium, silicon, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and chronium. It is used to stimulate the metabolism, for reproductive health, and for alleviating PMS. It can be eaten like spinach too (stinging parts disappear when cooked).

Like all herbs, nettle is most effective when taken daily over a period time. Herbs are not magic pills that cure you with one hit. No. That’s the trade-off you get by deciding to take whole foods instead of chemicals. Herbs build good health in the body over time.

I’m harvesting a ton of nettle to dry for a tea blend. It’s that time of year again, the time when I have herbs hanging all over the house drying. Herbs ready to be crushed and blended and make the house smell amazing one rainy day while I listen to records and bag them up.

Grow your own medicine. Eat from the wild. Mother Nature provides us with everything we need to live healthy, happy, and productive lives. It sounds hippie-dippie, but I really believe that.

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Curiosity got the best of me and I dug up my first sweet potato of the year. The cultivar is ‘Molokai Purple’ and I bought the slips from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a company who specializes in rare heirloom seeds. Thanks Baker Creek, for all the important and incredible work you do to preserve seed diversity and cultural richness!

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