Make watering a snap

As I put away my hoses and shut off faucets for the winter, it reminded me of something I figured out a few years ago that saves me a little time and effort. So, I thought I’d share this quick tip to make your watering chores a tad easier too.

I use a variety of nozzles on my hoses; hand nozzle, extended handle nozzle, oscillating sprinkler, and soaker hoses, depending on the application. Twisting these on and off each time I needed to change to a different one was a pain. So, I installed quick-connects on both of my hoses, and each of my nozzles. Now its literally a snap to switch them out.

A quick-connect is a device that allows you to push on a nozzle, and remove it by pulling back a ring. This is much faster, and far less frustrating then fighting to remove nozzles you’ve over-tighten to prevent leaking, or that have rusted in place. By the way a little plumbers tape placed around the threads of the quick-connect couplings before attaching them to your hose and nozzles will help keep those from leaking or getting frozen in place as well.

quick connct
Hose Quick-Connect

You can pick a set of quick-connects up at any hardware store for about $5 for a set of 2. There is a great set on Amazon for $11.99 that will outfit 2 hoses and 6 nozzles.  Where ever you get yours, make sure you get mettle. The plastic ones are likely to crack and not last more than a season. You’ll get many years out of a good aluminum or brass set for only a buck or two more. So snap up a set of quick-connects when your picking up an extra extension cord for those holiday lights, and you’ll already have one task simplified for next spring.

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Why I welcome my weeds, and why you should too

Dandelions. The single word that strikes fear in the heart of every suburban homeowner. The yellow spring invaders disturb the sanctity of pristine expanses of green grass in every subdivision from coast to coast. And we respond with pulling, burning, and all-out chemical warfare. How misguided.

I’m here to tell you that rather than a blight, dandelions, and the other frequent lawn invader, clover, are a great blessing. If you’re goal is food production and greater self-sufficiency, these gifts from nature are the way to turn your lawn from a money sink, to a source of nutrition for your garden, and for you.

If you live in a typical suburban neighborhood, and particularly if it has an HOA, lawns are going to be a fact of life. Even if you’d prefer to commit 100% of your property to gardens, and never push another mower in the hot sun ever again, for reasons of regulations, conformity, and not upsetting your neighbors, you will likely need to maintain some portion of your property as lawn.

Plus, lawns are not completely without utility; as access ways, picnicking spots, spaces to play ball with your kids and let the dog run, patches of lawn do have value. But if we drop chemical fertilizers and weed killer on them, they suddenly become expensive to maintain, and potentially toxic to those kids and that dog. And you sure don’t want those chemicals leaching into your gardens.

You can get even more utility out of that lawn as a tremendous source of green mulch if you let nature be. Dandelions and clover are two of the greatest nutrient mining plants you’ll ever find. Dandelions have tap roots that pull valuable nutrients including magnesium, zinc, potassium, iron, and calcium from deep in the soil. Clover mines nitrogen out of the air. By inviting these wonderful agents of fertility into your lawn, you can harvest them to feed your fruits and vegetables. And the great part is “inviting” them takes zero cost and effort. Just don’t spend time and money killing them.

Instead, let them be. Then, every other time you mow your lawn, bag the clippings and spread the as mulch around your plants, or add them to your compost pile. The blend of clover, dandelion, and grass makes for a great, nutrient packed fertilizer that you obtained for free from your yard. How cool is that!

These same helpful plants also fertilize your lawn. Notice my recommendation was to bag ever-other time you mow. On alternate cuttings simply use the mulching setting on your mower and add the clippings back to the yard. If you stay on top of your mowing, you won’t have so many yellow flowers or white puffy heads that it disturbs your neighbors or invites a “helpful” notice on how to control weeds from your HOA. (full disclosure: I got one of these once when a vacation allowed my lawn to get away from me). And we haven’t even touched on the many ways dandelions can be directly consumed. But I’ll save that for another post.

So my advice is become a “weed huger” and embrace natures volunteer plants. You’ll do less work, spend less money, and get more fertility as a reward. Where else are you going to get that kind of deal!

The Easiest Green-House You Can Get

Many gung-ho gardeners yearn for a back-yard green house to extend their growing season, or to have a spot for starting those seeds and early spring greens just a bit sooner in the season. But before you build that back-yard hoop house, why not look to your own house, you know, the one you live in, instead?. Do you have windows? Is your house heated in the Winter? Do you have any house plants? Well why not house vegetables?

A small window garden is the perfect introduction to cold season gardening with minimal expense. At a minimum, every gardener should keep a few herbs and greens growing in a sunny indoor spot in the colder months. There’s no reason not to.  You probably have most of what you need in your garage or shed already.  A few small pots with basic potting soil and regular watering will provide you with fresh herbs in no more space than a couple of window sills or a small stool or table. Start with 3 or 4 favorite herbs, and then see if you want to set aside additional space for your indoor garden.

Several salad greens like arugula, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, and endive all do well in 6” pots. You can get 3 or 4 cuttings from each by harvesting the outer leaves, then replant. Start a new set from seed every two to four weeks from October to March and you’ll have fresh, indoor greens until you are ready to put in your early spring garden.

Want to go for something more exotic? Many gardening catalogs sell miniature citrus trees, often grafted with lemons, limes, and tangerines on one bush meant to be kept as an indoor plant. What could be better than picking fresh citrus from your kitchen for your favorite dish or cocktail garnish?

Yes, you can keep growing food all year, and you don’t have to take on a big building project to do it.

Simple Dirt

One of the best ways to create rich, beautiful soil, and make use of otherwise wasted resources, is to compost. Many hesitate however because of the presumed untidiness, expected smells, and effort involved in tending compost piles. So how to make use of all those kitchen scraps and yard waste you simply have too much of just to use as mulch? Simple – bury it.

Yep. You can just find a spot where you want to build some future soil and start burring the same stuff you’d otherwise pile up. Now there are some caveats here. Best to do this inside a fenced area where animals won’t dig things up, and you do need a patch of dirt that isn’t too difficult to dig into or it could be more work.

But if you have walk-ways between your garden beds that have already been mulched, or a place you want to expand your garden, just burring your kitchen compost with a little chopped up yard waste will get the fertility process started.

I used this method to build the habit of saving compostable materials before I was ready to tackle a traditional compost pile. You can do the same. And when you run low on decent burial sites, or are ready to create large volumes of compost for spreading, you can graduate to a dedicated compost bin or pile as well.

Meanwhile you’ll get benefit from materials that would otherwise would be waste, and maybe even start changing the way you look at stewardship of the earth and its resources.

Local Food for the Non-Gardener

As hard as it is for me to imagine, not everyone is into gardening. I know, a shocker. Well for those who want the freshness and localness of a garden, without all the time and effort, there I an alternative. It’s called Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA for short.

A CSA is a local farm that sells a subscription-like service to its produce. Usually called shares, these subscriptions are either monthly or annual purchases that entitle each owner to a weekly portion of the produce form the farm. Each week a CSA member receives a delivery, or picks up a container holding an assortment of in-season vegetables, freshly picked from the local farm. In return, the farmer gets a steady dependable income from local customers. This exchange keeps money flowing through the local economy and reduces food miles at the same time.

CSA shares can vary in cost depending on the amount of food you get, and the frequency of payments. So, what are some of the advantages to joining a CSA?

  • You get great fresh, local, in-season food
  • You pay someone else to do the dirty work
  • You could still keep a small garden while expanding the variety or quantity of your local food.
  • You support local farmers helping assure long-term food security for your area

Being a member might also expose you to new varieties of vegetables, and inspire you to try new dishes you might not otherwise have discovered.

You will likely pay more in a CSA then you would for vegetables in the grocery store, but you are getting a much higher quality product. Most CSA’s grow organically, whether certified as such or not. The food will also be fresher and more nutrient dense, as it’s picked when best to consume, not best to ship.

If you want to give CSA’s a try you can learn more and find a CSA near you at https://www.localharvest.org.  Who knows, maybe a CSA will strike the right balance between local and simple for you?

Storing Herbs

There are many health, medicinal, and flavorful reasons to grow herbs in your garden. Plus they tend to be among the easiest plants to raise as they are hardy and prolific. These characteristics also mean you are likely to have a lot more then you can use during the growing season. So you are going to want to preserve them for use the rest of the year.

Setting aside the more medicinal preparations like infusions, distillations, and tinctures, let’s focus on two basic, simple preservation methods for cooking use; drying and freezing.

Drying

I’m sure you’ve seen homey pictures of a room full of bundled herbs hanging from the rafters in a old Colonial kitchen or farm house. While this works, it also takes a lot of time and space to tie up all those little bundles, hang them, and wait weeks for them to properly dry.

My method? Cookie sheets and an oven. Simply wash your herbs gently in a colander, spread a layer of paper towels on cookie sheets, and spread your washed herbs out on them. Remove excess stems and pat dry. Set your oven on bake at the lowest possible temperature setting (for me that’s 175°) and place the trays of herbs in for 15 to 20 min.  Check on them frequently to ensure they brown, but don’t burn. When the leaves crumble easily, remove and let cool.

After 5 minutes or so you should be able to grab the stems in one hand, and gently pinching the stem with the other, slide the pinching hand down the stem to remove the leaves. Do this over the paper towel on your cookie sheet. When all stems are de-leaved, place the stems in your compost bin and transfer the leaves to a glass mason jar by lifting the paper towel and pouring them in.

Common seasoning herbs you should dry: basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley.

Freezing

The other way I like to preserve for recipes calling for fresh or green herbs is to freeze them. Start by gently rinsing and laying your herbs out, once again, on paper towels on top of cookie sheets, and pat dry. See how easy this is going to be to remember!

This time you need to separate the green leaves or chop your herbs first. Spread out the chopped herbs in one thin layer on your sheet. Avoid clumps if you can. Place the trays in your freezer for about 30 minutes. Remove and place the frozen herbs into resalable freezer bags.

The purpose of freezing them first on the trays is to avoid having one giant lump of frozen herbs. This way when it’s time to use them, you can easily open the bag and take out just what you need.

Good herbs to freeze: chives, mint, parsley, cilantro.

 

And there you have it. In only about an hour, you can have your herb bounty stored and ready for use all Fall and Winter until you can get them going again fresh next spring.

Sharing – The Simple Solution to Saving Money

The Sharing Economy. We hear about it every day. Independent contractors who “share” their homes or cars through some central entity to make a few extra bucks.  Well, I’m not so sure about that definition.  The sharing I’m familiar with doesn’t involve money changing hands. No, it’s the good old-fashioned kindergarten level sharing I’m talking about as a simple way to save money on your gardening or home repair projects.

I’m referring to tool sharing of course. If you are just starting out as a gardener or homeowner, you’ll find the initial outlay on tools required to put in and maintain a garden, or tackle a renovation project, can run into the hundreds of dollars. Instead of buying everything you need yourself, why not find a group of friends or neighbors in the same boat and share tools with one another.  Don’t know who to ask?  Reach out on Facebook. There are already thriving sharing communities on-line you can join. Sometimes called “tool-libraries” these groups facilitate person-to-person tool borrowing, or sometimes have central locations (like the actual community library!) where tools can be checked out like books.

If you can’t find a tool-share nearby, just start one with a simple post stating “Fugal home-owner seeks other like-minded tight-wads to share home and garden tools.” Post it with a picture of your pitifully empty shed and see if you don’t have get a bunch of sympathetic replies.

The Secret to Soil Fertility

Want to boost your plant growth and vegetable production without a log of work? Want to grow bitter and healthier vegetables next spring? then use this farmers secret this fall to replenish and add to your soil fertility.

No I’m not talking about some mysterious chemicals or rare substances. I’m talking about planting cover crops. What is a cover crop you ask? It’s simply a specially chosen annual plant, or mix of plants, which germinate in the Fall, hold and cover your soil in the Winter, and get cub back in the Spring.

Typically from the legume or grass families, cover crops return nitrogen from the atmosphere, and trace minerals from deep in the ground, to your top-soil. They also generate healthy bio-mass and mulch. My favorite site for learning about and selecting the proper cover crop for your application is Peaceful Valley Farms at GrowOrganic.com.

Sowing cover crops is easy. Here is what you do:

  • Rake – Gently rake a thin layer of soil, just deep enough to plant the cover crop seeds. Don’t till!
  • Scatter – Scatter your seeds by hand or with a spreader.
  • Cover – Cover your seeds with a thin layer of soil using your rake, or you can spread fresh top-soil or compost over them. Then lightly mulch; just enough to protect the seeds from birds and retain moisture.
  • Water – Water well after mulching, then every couple days until the crop is well established.

In about a week’s time your see your crop emerge. Many cover crops such as clover will flower as well adding fall and/or spring color to your garden.

Come planting time next spring, cut down your crop using a scythe or mower. Depending on the height of the crop you chose, you may have to cut it in stages. You want fairly small cuttings in the end, because this will serve as mulch for your spring garden. A double bonus because you got nutrient replenishment in the off-season, and you don’t need to bring in another mulch in the planing season.

Remember, here at Dirt Simple we practice Permaculture, so you are not going to disturb your soil biome by tilling in your cover crop. We are just “chopping and dropping”. Dig only as much as required to put in any plants you are transferring to the ground from pots, or to bury seeds. Your cover crop was an annual so it is not going to regenerate and compete with your vegetables. If a few plants do re-qrow, no problem. You can cut them again and keep adding them back to the soil to nourish your growing produce.

Use the cover crop secret this Fall to increase your harvest and save time, money, and effort in your garden next spring.

The 5 Mistakes New Gardeners Make – And How to Avoid Them

So you want to start gardening. That’s great! There are many reasons to grow your own food, from enjoying the freshest posable produce, to having control of what goes into your body, to the joy of being out-of-doors with your hands in the dirt.

But if you’ve just been bitten by the gardening bug, you’ll want to avoid a few common pitfalls to ensure you stick with it for years to come. 

Mistake #1: Going to Big.

Ok, you decide, I’m putting in a garden. You run out and rent a roto-tiller and start converting half your lawn into beds. You have visions of rising 90 different kinds of vegetables and replacing 50% of your calories with home-grown food.  I applaud your enthusiasm but stop. You may have dreams of your yard looking like the picture above, but if you are just staring out, your setting yourself up for failure.

Gardening, like any other skill, takes time, patience and practice to do well. It’s far better to start small, learn and experiment, and find out what works and how much time you’re willing to invest before burring yourself in a massive project. A few potted tomato plants, or a single 4’ x 8’ raised bed should be plenty to start you off. You’ll be surprised by how much you can produce in this limited space.

Also limit the variety of vegetables you plant. Three or four will do, along with maybe a couple of herbs. Tomatoes, peppers, beans, and onions are a great choice for a single bed. The different plant heights allow them to share space, and they complement each other well on your plate. A little basil and oregano round out the mix nicely.

Learn what it really takes in terms of time, effort, and money on this small scale, and the pleasing results will encourage you to expand in future years.

Mistake #2 Not Preparing your Soil Properly

If you are going with potted plants, some garden vegetable potting mix will do the trick. But if you are going in-ground or with raised beds, smart preparation is key.  Most suburbanites converting a patch of lawn are going to find a lot of rock and hard clay beneath their grass. Digging up a bunch of sod is also a lot of work. Luckily you can avoid both.  Here is a simple formula for getting those beds going.

  • Start in the fall. Yes, that’s right. It takes time for soil to build so use the fall and winter to your advantage.
  • Cut the lawn in the areas you want to convert at the lowest setting with a mulching mower. Don’t bag the clippings.
  • Lay down 2 -3” of compost over the area.
  • Cover the compost with plain newspaper (not glossy) or cardboard and soak thoroughly.
  • Cover that with another 3-4” of compost.
  • And finally add a 3-4” layer of mulch. What is mulch? It’s any brown plant matter such as fall leaves, grass clippings, straw, or chopped up pruning’s from other plants.

Keep your new beds moist with weekly watering until the first frost, then let nature do its thing. In the spring just clear away a little mulch where you want each plant (do NOT turn over the entire bed!) and dig into the nice rich soil nature has been hard at work building for you.

Mistake #3: Not Protecting Your Plants

It’s additional work, but fencing, frost covers, and bird netting is key if you want a yield from your garden. Birds, rabbits, and deer will make short work of your plants if you don’t protect them. If you’re constructing a 4’ x 8’ raised bed, add posts about 4 feet tall from the corners of your bed, and center of the long sides.  Connect the posts with cross-beams. 1” x 1”’s or bamboo poles work well for this. Attach bird netting to the top and sides of the frame, overlapping by about a foot at various points on the side to create entrance points you can lift back for harvesting. The netting will keep out most garden interlopers. The frame can also be used to support frost covers if planting early spring greens, and to attach supports for your tomato’s or other climbing plants.

Mistake #4: Not Automating your watering

New gardeners without an established routine are easily side-tracked by other commitments and can forget to water each day. You may even want to take a vacation sometime and not come back to dead plants.  It would be wise then to invest a few dollars in a watering system. A $5 sprinkler and $15 watering timer (assuming you have a hose) are all you really need. Set it to water on a gentle setting for about 20 min each morning before the heat of the day.  It’s one less job and one less worry for you, and your plants will thank you for it.

Mistake #5: Not Planning for Abundance

If you’ve followed the first four tips, you are going to be rewarded with substantial yield from your garden.  Nothing is more discouraging then seeing ½ of it go to waste because you were not prepared to preserve your bounty. Once plants start producing you should be checking for new ripe veggies every other day. Pick all that have reached a desired size, are ripe, or are nearly so. Better to let a few vegetables finish ripening on the window sill then drop to the ground to be eaten by bugs.

Decided before you plant your garden if you are going to freeze, can, dry, or give-away your surplus. Stock up on the supplies you’ll need when you are buying your plants, and watch instructional videos while those plants are growing. That way you’ll be all set to go when you harvest, and won’t have to see your harvest spoil because you couldn’t get out for a week to buy canning jars.

 

Follow these 5 tips and you’ll find your first foray into gardening will be rewarding, successful, and inspire you to keep growing year after year.

Welcome to the Dirt Simple Blog

Dirt Simple is a new feature here at BeLocal. It’s a forum in which I’ll provide easy ways you can pursue a more sustainable, self-reliant, and local life style – even if you don’t have a lot of time to do it.

I’ll share simple and effective tips on growing & preserving more of your own food, maintaining and extending the life of your home and possessions, engaging with your community, and building useful skills. All while saving time, energy, and money.

Sound good? Then come back daily for new short-cuts, tools, hacks, and advice on moving toward a resilient future, without turning your life upside-down.