Our Deep Mulch Garden — Year Two

deep mulch garden method

I’m really good at messing things up.

Lest you think the Prairie Homestead girl has it all together and things always run smoothly, let me be the first to assure you, they most certainly do not.

I’ve had more than my share of flops over the last six years of homesteading, including horrendously awful dehydrated eggs, a hugelkultur bed that refused to grow anything the first year (not even weeds), goats that annihilated my very expensive trees (multiple times), and the list goes on… And on…

But last year, I happened upon something that actually worked. And it worked darn well.

For those of you who’ve been following me for a while, you’ve heard me singing the praises of the deep mulch gardening method. I stumbled upon it last year and nervously decided to take the plunge. I had nothing to lose, considering my garden was completely overtaken by massive amounts of weeds, and I was getting ready to throw up my hands and add gardening to my list of massive FAILS anyway.

My initial mulching last year. I might have had slight heart palpitations while doing this...
My initial mulching last year. I might have had slight heart palpitations while doing this…

So I tossed some hay (Ok… not some… it was actually a LOT of hay) on the garden, held my breath, said a prayer, and waited to see what happened.

You can see my fantastic results in this post, but needless to say, I was hooked.

After last year’s amazing harvest, I was dead-set on repeating the method again this year. So I covered my garden with a fresh layer of hay last fall, and began to scheme for this year’s growing season.

deep mulch garden method

And then the doubts started creeping in…

“So now that you’ve told the whole world how much you like the method, what if it doesn’t work in subsequent years?”

“What if the ground is as hard as a rock next year?”

“What if year #2 is a total flop and you have to scrape off allllll that hay and start over?”

Oh boy… what did I get myself into?

I nervously waited for planting time and hoped and prayed I hadn’t led you all astray.

After our monsoon rains finally stopped, I dutifully grabbed my bucket of seeds, threw the pitchfork over my shoulder, and headed out to the garden.

I pulled the hay aside, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and plunged my pitchfork into the earth…

*gulp*

When I finally raised one eyelid, I stood there with a gaping mouth.

On the end of my pitchfork was the richest, moistest, most worm-filled dirt I had ever seen.

Hallelujah!

deep mulch garden method

After I did a small happy dance, I proceed to plant every bit of my garden, without a rototiller in sight.

When I posted a pic of the soil on my Instagram account, I got lots of questions, so here are all the down-and-dirty details about round two of my deep mulch garden adventure—>

Deep Mulch Gardening: Round Two

My biggest fear I faced was the ground becoming rock-hard after winter’s worth of weather, winds, and snow.

Last fall, I had made sure to cover every square inch of the garden plot with a generous layer of mulch, but I had no idea what it would look like when I uncovered it this year.

In my previous traditional gardening efforts, by the time planting rolled around each spring, the exposed ground would be dry, crusty, and hard, with a complete carpet of weeds covering the whole thing.

deep mulch garden method

Task #1 was always to drag out the rototiller, work the soil, and plant as fast as I could before the weeds start coming back.

This year?

I had a few stubborn weeds popping up through the hay mulch as I waited for planting season to arrive, mostly wear I had allowed the mulch layer to become too thin, but that’s it.

And as I mentioned above, the traditionally dry, crusty soil was instead, moist, dark, and rich.

However, the most shocking part to me was the sheer number of worms I found as I dug. We’ve had *some* worms in the past, but this year, nearly every single time I dug into the earth I would pull up at least one worm. It ‘s crazy, I tell ya. Crazy!

How I Planted This Year

This year’s planting efforts closely mirrored what I did last year:

deep mulch garden method
Pulling back the mulch to expose the dirt for the rows

1. First, I pulled back the hay to form rows where I wanted them

deep mulch garden method
Quickly loosening the soil with the pitchfork

2. While the soil was still very moist and soft, thanks to the mulch, I still stuck my pitchfork into the soil and turned it/shook it a bit– just to prepare it a bit for the seeds. It took me about three minutes to work an entire row with my pitchfork, and it was far from back-breaking. :)

deep mulch garden method
Planting in the dirt, as usual

3. I planted the seeds in the soil. (I used my hand to break up any big clumps I found, and to smooth the surface out a bit, as needed). As the seedlings come up, I will pull the mulch around them.

Did I mention I didn’t need my rototiller for the first time in six years?! I want to scream it from the roof tops. I want to throw a rototiller-retirement party. My goal of a no-till garden is finally becoming reality!

Daily Tasks in the Deep Mulch Garden:

I only spend a few minutes each day in my garden (mostly admiring my work, *ahem*). But here are a few things I check on a regular basis:

1. I check to make sure the mulch hasn’t blown/moved across the rows. This happens infrequently (which is surprising, considering the violent thunderstorms we’ve had), but you want to make sure the hay isn’t snuffing out any emerging seedlings.

deep mulch garden method

2. I adjust the mulch or add more mulch to any area that seems sparse. Last year’s mulch is still going pretty strong, however, I added around two extra small square bales to this year’s garden, just to fill in some gaps.

The above photo shows some of my sparse spots with the weeds that did pop up. It’s still pretty impressive, considering in the past I would have had a complete carpet of weeds by this time with my previous method. These are the areas I covered with fresh hay.

3. I water as needed, and pick/cover any weeds that are trying to pop up. The most “intense” period of weeding is while I’m waiting for the seedlings to emerge. During this time, I weed along the rows and between the new seedlings. However, once the plants get a bit bigger, I will pull the mulch around the plant, which reduces the weeding even further.

My Results so Far?

deep mulch garden method

We’re cruising right along! It’s still early in the game, but so far, so good. My pumpkins, lettuce, kale, and beans are sprouting (we were late to planting this year, thanks to one of the rainiest springs on record…), the onion sets, cabbages, tomatoes, and broccoli I transplanted have all happily taken to their new homes, and everything else is right on track.

deep mulch garden method
Happy Broccoli

I’ll keep ya updated as the season progresses, but at least for now, I’m happy to report that my deep mulch gardening efforts appear to remain a success.

Wanna Dig Into More Deep Mulch Garden Info?

Grab my deep mulching ebook explaining the whole process– start to finish– for FREE. I included a ton of pictures, FAQs, and my best tips, too—>

weedwarfeaturebox

deep mulch garden method

 

 

 

DIY Spoon Garden Markers

diy garden markers spoon

Someday I will have perfectly manicured gardens; complete with decorative flowers (edible, of course), a quaint stone walkway, and a bird bath with crystal-clear water.

Today is not that day.

Although my garden and I have been getting along much better since I implemented the deep mulch method, I’m still all about just getting it done around here.

A lot of that probably has to do with the fact we are in the midst of a massive remodel project, which caused us to rip off half of our house. That’ll kinda get in the way of your manicured dreams, ya know?

Anyway, in the midst of our chaos this year, I have been feeling the urge for at least a tiny bit of tidiness, and I’ve been waiting all year to put in a kitchen herb garden in the pots near our deck.

diy spoon garden markers

It makes me all warm and fuzzy to walk out on my deck barefoot to harvest vibrantly fresh herbs as I cook meals. It’s truly the epitome of farm-to-table, and the flavors of just-picked herbs are second to none.

I fell in love with these hammered spoon garden markers the minute I saw them. Not only are they repurposely a cast-away item (my favorite thing to do EVER), they also are durable and classy way to tell all those green seedlings apart.

And they’re much prettier than the duct-tape-and-rebar garden markers I’ve used in the past. (You think I’m kidding? I’m not… I won’t be posting any pictures of those.)

Here’s how to whip up your own homemade spoon garden markers in a jiffy.

DIY Spoon Garden Markers

You Will Need:

  • A variety of old spoons
  • A hammer
  • Small rubber alphabet stamps
  • Permanent ink (either an ink pad or marker)

diy spoon garden markers

Don’t have a bunch of old spoons just laying around? Neither did I. Thankfully, thrift stores always have bins full of lonely, mismatched spoons. Perfect.

diy-garden-plant-marker

Grab your hammer, and think of something that makes you really angry. Now take out your aggression on the spoon. I found it was easiest if I first pounded on the back side of the spoon on the rounded portion first. (I had a piece of flat metal under my spoon, but a piece of scrap wood will work too) Continue to hammer until the spoon is nice and flat.

repurposed-plant-marker

Like this.

diy spoon garden marker

I got my alphabet stamps at Hobby Lobby for a buck. You can usually find sets like these at craft stores for pretty cheap. (I found these on Amazon (affiliate link), but check your local craft store first– I bet you can find them for a better price.)

diy spoon garden markerUsing a Sharpie or permanent ink pad, thoroughly ink the stamp.

diy spoon garden markerProceed to stamp out the name of the plant you’re marking on the spoon. (One caveat: since you’re using permanent ink, your stamps won’t really wipe clean afterwards. This didn’t bug me, though, considering I only paid a buck for my stamps)

diy spoon garden markerStick ’em in the garden, and you’re all set! No more wondering which plant is which. And you’ll look all crafty and creative, too. Bingo.

What About Metal Stamps?

Initially, I wanted to stamp my spoons with metal stamps. Because, I dunno, it just seemed cooler.

I ordered this set of metal letter stamps on Amazon (affiliate link) and was excited for them to arrive:

diy-plant-marker

Sadly, when I went to stamp out my spoons, I was dismayed to find the letters were way too small. You could barely read them. Bummer.

Therefore, I decide to just stick to my rubber stamp method. It’s cheaper (the metal stamps were $20), and even if they rub off a bit from year to year, it only takes a second to re-stamp them.

I do think metal stamps would work, though, if you got set with larger letters.

diy garden markers spoon

6 Tips for Successful Desert Gardening

high desert gardening

Today I’m welcoming Melissa from Ever Growing Farm to the Prairie Homestead. We share the challenge of gardening in less-than-ideal climates, and I love her ideas for gardening in the desert. Take it away Melissa!

Growing food in the high desert can be an incredible challenge, but I am living proof that you can be successful at it! If you follow a few simple methods to help combat the hot, dry, and windy conditions that are the norm in the southwest, you can be almost guaranteed a bountiful harvest.

Six Tips for Successful Desert Gardening

1. Find the Right Seeds – Seeds that have been grown in and adapted to the high desert are going to be your best bet in the garden. There are countless heirloom varieties that have been protected by the companies that make it their life’s work to preserve the history of our fruits and vegetables. Find them at your local nursery, Farmer’s Market or order them online via NativeSeeds.org, Baker Creek Heirlooms or Seed Saver’s Exchange.

How to Grow Your Own Food in the High Desert - Purchase seeds that are adapted to your unique, harsh climate

 


2. Nurture the Soil 
– The soil in the high desert is full of sand, gravel, and clay and must be amended. Amend your soil with organic matter, such as compost from your own pile or from your local nursery, knowing this is the foundation of a successful garden. Amending, to some extent, will need to be done annually, and starting with your first planting.

You might also consider planting some cover crops during the off-seasons so as to continue building (and maintaining) your soil.

How to Grow Your Own Food in the High Desert

3. Commit to Lots of Water – The high desert has a unique, incredibly arid climate which not only affects plants at their roots, but also affects the plants ability to draw water in through their leaves. Given this, it is essential that, when watering your veggies, you optimize the amount of water they receive. The easiest ways to do this is through drip irrigation and heavily mulching your beds.

  • Drip irrigation is a series of small hoses that allow water to literally drip slowly into the ground around the base of the plant and down into the root zone. The set up involves a network of tubing, pipes, valves, and emitters. Depending on how extensive your garden beds are, setting up your drip irrigation could take a few hours, but the end result is more than worth the effort put in at the beginning. Setting up drip irrigation will not only offer you peace of mind, knowing that your plants are getting the water they need, but it will also save you hours each week since you won’t have to water everything by hand!
  • Water catchment, in the form of rain barrels, can be a life saver (if it is legal in your state). Allowing the rain water to be diverted from your roof and into large barrels or cisterns on your property can help offset your water costs (or alleviate some of the stress on your well) when used to spot water plants that require a bit more water than others. Alternatively, you can set up your rain barrels with hoses and a gravity feed or a timer to water your plants, but that’s another post entirely.

4. Mulch It! – Whether used in the form of straw, pulled weeds (before they go to seed) or the bags you can purchase from your local nursery, mulch pulls triple duty by

  1. Keeping weeds down
  2. Protecting the soil surface and the base of your plants form the elements
  3. Holding moisture in the soil

(Jill: If you’re wanting to dig deeper into the topic of mulching, I highly recommend the deep mulch method. I’m going on my second year of using it our own difficult climate, and I am in love!)

How to Grow Your Own Food in the High Desert

5. Watch that Sun – The sun in the high desert can literally fry your vegetable plants due to the high altitude and the intense UV rays. In order to avoid burning our plants, I’ve found that the following two strategies work best:

  • Companion Plant – Companion planting is usually thought of in relation to safeguarding against harmful pests, but it can also be utilized to shade lower growing plants beneath the taller, hardier plants. For example, you could grow kale or chard beneath a pole bean tee-pee.
  • Shade Cloth – Shade cloth is a wonderful and fairly inexpensive way to protect your tender veggies form the sun’s rays and baking heat. I’ve found that Summer and Winter Squash benefit greatly from a bit of shade at the hottest time of day! You can achieve this by simply inserting PVC pipes in your beds as you would when creating a hoop house or low tunnel and then securing your shade only over the very top of the PVC pipes using small clamps so your plants get some sun, just not the hottest sun of the day.

How to Grow Your Own Food in the High Desert

6. And the wind… The wind in the high desert can take a vegetable plant and lay it out flat in the course of just a few seconds! In order to protect your plants (and all of your hard work), creative windbreaks are essential.

Ideally, walls and/or fencing can be constructed to protect your garden area. However, if that is unrealistic, straw bales can be placed around your garden area to protect your plants. Whether you surround the whole area, or simply create a wind break protecting your plants from the direction the winds usually travel in, every bit of protection is better than none!

We have tried trellising and supporting our plants, and are not opposed to it entirely, but have found that the wind is often stronger than any trellis we’ve put in place! The plants do survive, most of the time, but tend to be a bit worse for the wear.

desert garden

Growing your own food in an extreme climate can be a bit intimidating, but it is absolutely doable by simply adding a few tips and tricks to your desert gardening arsenal! So, let’s learn from each other!

Share your tips and tricks to growing food in your unique climate in the comments below.

Melissa Willis of Ever Growing Farm Melissa Willis shares about her family’s adventures in Urban Farming on 1/8 acre in the high desert of Santa Fe, NM on her blog Ever Growing Farm . With 20 laying hens, five fruit trees and 425 square feet of active growing space, every extra hour in the day goes into producing as much of their own food as possible and learning many of the old skills that have stopped being passed down from generation to generation. Melissa can also be found on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest

Homemade Potting Soil Recipe

homemade potting soil recipe

I’m back from the dead.

Or at least that’s what it feels like, especially if dead = first trimester.

That’s right, there’ll be a new Prairie Kid on the homestead come October.

The funny thing about me and the first trimester (actually, funny really isn’t the right word…) is that my personality pretty much completely changes…

I go from this hyper-motivated, homesteading, business-running, gardening, cow-milking mama who loves life and loves activity, to someone who really doesn’t care about much of anything, can’t open the refrigerator without dry-heaving, and can barely get off the couch.

So yeah, it’s safe to say there wasn’t much from-scratch cooking happening in my kitchen these last few months. Which explains the lack of recipes here on the blog. I don’t even want to tell you what I’ve been eating. It’s all-about survival-mode, baby…

BUT, I’m officially 14 weeks and I think I’ve finally turned the corner. And let me tell ya, I’m ready to roll off the couch and get back to being my hyper, dig-in-the-dirt, cooking-up-a-storm self.

And what better way to celebrate finally feeling better, than… homemade potting soil. Am I right?

I’ve always kinda cringed when I’ve thrown those green and yellow bags of potting soil in my shopping cart at the garden store. I figured there was a better way, but never took the time to figure it out… Until now.

Thankfully, homemade potting soil is pretty darn easy to throw together. And it’ll save you some $$ too.

potting-soil-recipe

Why These Ingredients for Potting Mix?

Truthfully, mixing your own potting soil isn’t rocket science, and there are plenty of ways to make it happen. A good potting mix will:

  • Be firm enough to support the plant
  • Be light enough to allow air/water to flow with minimal compaction
  • Be free of weed seeds and potential pathogens

But here is why I chose the ingredients I did:

homemade potting soil recipe

Coconut Coir: Many DIY potting mix recipes call for peat moss, but since there is so much debate regarding mining from peat bogs, I decided to steer clear of it and opt for coir instead. Coconut coir is a by-product of the coconut-processing industry, and is basically ground-up coconut husk fibers. It is a fantastic choice for soil-less potting mix, as it retains water beautifully. I got mine in a big brick, and had to soak it in water before it was ready to use. You can substitute it 1:1 for peat moss in potting soil recipes

homemade potting soil recipe

Perlite: Perlite is a lightweight volcanic rock. It holds water and helps to aerate the soil and keep it from compacting. Some people also use vermiculite or plain ol’ coarse sand in place of perlite in homemade potting soil recipes, too.

homemade potting soil recipe

Compost: Well, you know what compost is, so I really don’t have to explain this one. Compost adds nutrients to the soil and it’s usually pretty much free if you make it at home yourself. Just make sure to use finished compost to avoid “burning” your plants or introducing weed seeds into your pots. Also, I used the finest compost I could find in my pile– you may need to sift yours if you have chunky stuff. Worm castings are another great option here.

What about Dirt?

Sorry… I meant to say soil. (I always get at least one reader correcting me when I call it dirt instead of soil.) 😉 You can absolutely use regular ol’ soil in your potting mix, and many folks do. However, it’s advised to sterilize the soil first, to eliminate weeds and potential pathogens. This can be accomplished by baking the soil at 200 degrees in your oven.

Why didn’t I do this? Because I could only imagine the mess I’d make trying to bake 10 gallons of dirt (er… soil) inside my kitchen… It just didn’t sound like fun, so I opted for coconut coir instead. Also– using straight soil in your pots can open you up to issues with compaction. So, even if you *do* decide to use sterilized soil, make sure to add some sand or other lightener in there, too.

homemade potting soil recipe

Homemade Potting Soil Recipe

(this post contains affiliate links)

*a “part” can be anything you like– a measuring cup, a coffee can, a five-gallon bucket, etc. It just depends on how much potting soil you want to make.

If your coir came in a block, you’ll need to hydrate it.

homemade potting soil recipe

I did this by allowing the coir “brick” to sit in water until I was able to break it apart. I then added more water until it was easy to flake apart in my hands and very moist.

homemade potting soil recipe

Next, mix the coir and compost. Add more water if you need too– I found it much easier to handle/mix if the mixture was damp.

homemade potting soil recipe

Add in the perlite, give it a stir, and you’re ready to go!

homemade potting soil recipe

Use your DIY potting mix like you would storebought mix.

DIY Potting Soil Notes:

  •  Keep in mind this recipe is super flexible and lends itself well to substitutions.  In some of the other recipes I’ve seen, people substituted sterilized soil or peat moss for the coconut coir, vermiculite or coarse sand for the perlite, and all sorts of different fertilizers (kelp meal, bone meal, blood meal, worm castings) for the compost.
  • This stuff is mucho easier to mix if it’s damp.
  • How does it compare in price? I paid $15.96 for an 11-lb brick of coconut coir in Amazon and $16.70 for a bag (18-quarts) of perlite. My local garden stores are pretty dismal when it comes to specialty ingredients, so it was unlikely I could have found those things here. The compost was free. Considering I only used a fraction of my ingredients for my first batch,  they should last me for a while… And if you substituted coarse sand or sterilized soil, it would be even cheaper.

homemade potting soil recipe