Patio Permaculture

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When I realized it’s been over six months since I last blogged, I realized that I had two choices when it came to my first post back: 1: Attempt to go back and re-visit every single moment that I didn’t journal, or 2: just start writing again.

Alas, those of you looking for your next novel to read will be sorely disappointed.

I’ve decided to just pick back up and start where we are now, not where I left off. It’s now the end of March, and we’re squirming to see the fruits of some early garden labor. We have four beds prepared with some cover crops to kickstart our summer grow season – radishes & turnips, oats, peas, spinach, and even some potatoes for summer! We moved to our new home in August of last year, so when the ground got cooler we set up some beds with fall cover crops to start introducing some nutrients.

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We knew three years ago that wherever we ended up, we wanted to have a main area of our garden rooted in permaculture. This idea of never-ending food and food that cares for itself is exciting for us – how else to help nature but by helping nature help itself? Plus, after the initial energy of planting, all it takes is some general upkeep and the plants will take care of themselves. A big aspect of permaculture has to do with planning and utilizing the land fully – tracking the run-off and grading of the area, plus the availability of sunlight and wind, etc.

For us, our permaculture will be our patio. We are blessed with a beautiful patio area, sheltered by two gum trees (we now hate gum trees – and are now taking recommendations for using those damn sticky balls!) and until spring break it was enclosed by a plastic and wooden lattice system that provided privacy but not much else.

So, we attacked it! Evan did most of the heavy lifting, while my mother-in-law and I undid screws, zip-ties, carted the lattice to the side yard, and cleaned the beds of the sticky gum balls, mulch, and excess leaves.

Now that the lattice and posts are out, we plan on widening and raising the beds with pavers. We’ve already begun the research and have started sketching the different ideas we have for the beds – certain plants benefit each other, while others are unhelpful and attract more diseases or pests in combination. (For example, blackberries and raspberries pass diseases between one another and should be kept apart.)

As of now, we’ve planned on blueberries, raspberries, herbs of all varieties, pollinator plants for the bees, birds, and butterflies, a dwarf apple tree, hibiscuses, a rotation of peas and beans, lavender, asparagus, strawberries, and then maybe onions and garlic to tuck in between. It will take a season or two, but soon we’ll have a patio alive and thriving and also providing us with food and medicinal benefits.

Natural Bug Repellants

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This week was my spring break, and we managed to find a day off together where we spent all day outside. We grilled pizza for lunch and cooked a beef stew all afternoon – and when we pulled it off the fire, it was the most delicious and savory stew we have ever tasted. Better yet, we had made it from scratch in our own kitchen, with grass-fed and humanely-raised beef, and with vegetables we already had in our pantry and in our fridge. What an amazing day!

This spring is shaping up to be a beautiful time of year – the flowers are blooming, trees budding, birds calling, nature is waking up. Oh, and don’t forget the bugs – they’re waking up, too! (Cue exasperated sigh…)

Now, in every ecosystem and environment, everyone has a vital role. From the bacteria in the soil to the leaves decaying to the bee pollinating clover to the rabbit in the vegetable garden all the way up to the humans and big predators, we all have our own role and we must be allowed to play it. What’s unfortunate is that this line of reasoning includes the bugs as being important and critical to the cycle. (Cue another exasperated sigh.)

Now, I respect the role of nature and the different roles that are played by every step of the ladder, but that doesn’t mean I want them to carry out that job on my skin or on my patio. So how do we discourage the bugs from visiting without killing the bugs, or my gut flora?

I started investigating more natural ways to create repellants and kept turning to my collection of essential oils – my husband and mother-in-law have been showering me lots of delicious oils for Christmas and my collection is always growing. I like the natural effect that aromatherapy has on improving a variety of ailments, from mood to headaches to congestion and more. Their pungent qualities make them excellent for all things bug repellant, too!

So this week, I set out to develop two new items that will join us on the patio in the coming months: candles and bug spray.

Part 1: Candles

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I’ve heard that a lot of citronella candles are only so effective because they don’t contain true citronella oil – they just contain a chemical that smells like citronella and not the real stuff. So I set out to make citronella candles with the actual citronella essential oil!

First, I gathered my materials…

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  • soy wax (paraffin wax is made from either coal, petroleum, or oil by-products, so I stayed away from that!)
  • candle wicks
  • jars for candles (Mason jars are thicker and therefore less likely to break with heat)
  • essential oils – in addition to citronella, I bought lemongrass and used the grapefruit I already had in my collection
    • Citronella is excellent at repelling most flying pests, but grapefruit is an added tick protector and lemongrass is also helpful for mosquitoes and flies

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And the items needed for assembly…

  • Double boiler or DIY double boiler (glass or steel bowl in a saucepan with boiling water)
  • Spatula to stir melting wax (avoid plastic because of high heat)
  • Hot glue gun to glue wicks to bottom of jar
  • Pencil or chopstick to prop up wick while cooling

All in all, this candle-making was quick, easy, and surprisingly not messy – all my materials and bowls cleaned up quickly because I washed them while everything was still in liquid form – no scrubbing and scratching away hardened wax!

My bowl was small, so I made enough for one candle and then repeated the process for a second.

Using a make-shift double boiler, (steel bowl over a pot filled with boiling water), I melted down approximately 4 cups of wax (equals approximately 1 to 1 1/4 cup of melted wax) and added about 3-4 drops of essential oils for each cup of wax.

While the wax was melting, I used my hot glue gun to glue the wicks to the bottom of my jars. I sat the jars next to the pot on the stove so they would stay a little warmer – you don’t want to risk them cracking when introducing hot wax to cool glass.

When the wax was all the way cooled, I poured it carefully into my first jar, using a piece of wax paper to catch any spills (that way, I could throw any wax spills away rather than scrub my counter to within an inch of its life.)

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Then, I repeated the process for jar number 2. For each, I propped up the wicks with a chopstick or pencil to keep them from leaning to the edge of the candle. It wasn’t perfectly straight, but they’ll burn fairly straight, so that’s all that matters!

Leave them to cool overnight, and you’ll wake up to scent-a-licious and beautiful candles the next morning! For all new candles, I’ve heard the recommendation that the first time you burn them you should let the wick burn long enough to melt the top layer of wax so that the wick can soak up a little and “remember” for the next burning.

 

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Part 2: Bug Spray

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If candles were easy, then homemade bug spray is the equivalent of eating Girl Scout cookies – easy, fun, and over way too quickly. This recipe was a mixture of the same essential oils from my candles but with the added witch hazel to act as a sterilizing agent (keeps bacteria from growing in the bottle).

In a dark spray bottle, mix the following:

  • 2 oz. distilled water
  • 1.5 oz witch hazel
  • 30 drops of citronella essential oil
  • 25 drops of grapefruit essential oil
  • 15 drops of lemongrass essential oil

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Keep in a dark and cool location, and break out in times of outdoor frolicking. Shake before use, as the oils and water will separate.

I’m looking forward to trying both of these products on our patio with our new patio set – I hope they will be as successful for you as I am sure they will be for me!

Part 2: Feeling Irish with Potatoes

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Yep, you read that right. Today is the first day of spring, and it’s 81 degrees out. We’ve had an abnormally-toasty weekend, and the plants are loving it! The average temperatures in March are usually in the 50s and we tend to experience our last frost date in mid-April, but we might be lucky this year. We had a couple of bad cold snaps last week, but we’ve been unseasonably warm for a couple of weeks now, so we decided to jump in and plant our potatoes and onions this weekend. We’ve typically gone by the idea that we should start onions and potatoes as soon as the ground is warm enough to work, but I also love the fun saying that you should plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day.

 

 

Last week, I wrote about how we were gearing up for growing and waiting out those last few cold nights to venture out and plant potatoes for St. Patrick’s Day – and the warmth this weekend meant it was finally time!

We like to start with seed potatoes, and I like to let mine sit for a while to really encourage the eye growth and start the development process. When they look sprouted and begin to get a little shriveled and I go ahead and cut mine, usually in half, but enough so that each piece has its own growth.

 

In the past, I’ve had good luck with a modified-raised bed for potatoes where they can grow up rather than out, so we headed out to our city’s compost pile to collect supplies. We’re really lucky that our city not only collects compost but also provides the finished compost back to city residents at no cost – there’s a small fee if you want it by the truckload, but otherwise everyone is welcome to come load up pots and containers.

The finished compost is beautiful – warm, rich, light in your hands, and deeply nutritious. We filled 6-8 pots, which was more than enough for my potato pile.

Back at home, I took a small roll of 12″ tall chicken wire and used it to create a ring that would be the home for my potatoes for the next six months or so. To keep all the dirt from spilling out of the chicken wire, I lined it with some old newspaper from the garage.

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In addition to the compost, I used some old peat moss that we needed to get rid of, and I think it’ll help to have a little extra water retention in a raised and isolated “container.”

I put down a layer of 2-3 inches of dirt and then laid down my first layer of tubers, keeping 4-5 inches in between them for room to grow. I added another dirt layer of 4 inches or so and put down another layer of potato cuttings, trying to offset them as best as I could remember so they wouldn’t run into each other as they grow up through the soil. All in all, my 8 potatoes (16 cuttings) ended up in three growing layers.

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Up next, the onions! When we weren’t grilling and hanging out on our patio with Evan’s best friend, Cole, we were sowing rows of onions in the garden. We are planning on trying to grow the onions intermixed with tomatoes and peppers rather than give them their own dedicated patch – they can make great companion plants for peppers and tomatoes and help them fight off disease and pests. I am a little nervous about the tomatoes blocking their sunlight, but I’m excited to find a new way to use as much space of our tiny patch as we can. Intensive gardening methods can help you get so much more yield out of your square foot than traditional gardening methods (think rows and lots of empty soil between plants), and so far we’ve enjoyed reaping the benefits.

I picked up a big bag of baby onion bulbs a couple of weeks ago, though I’m kicking myself because I forgot to count how many we planted! I’m guessing that we put close to a hundred in the ground… (Thanks, Cole!)

This beautiful weather and the lack of freezing – or even frost – forecasted in the next week meant it was time for some of my indoor plants to soak up some sunshine. They rejoined the patio after a cold winter indoors and basked happily with us in the warm rays – a pixie grape vine we rescued from a garden center clearance sale (no longer the sad stick – now blossoming and growing strong!), cilantro seedlings, some rose of sharon seedlings I propagated last fall, St. John’s Wort, and a new growth of lilies of the valley (the bed & breakfast at which we were married let us take a few as a wedding keepsake).

 

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Spring has sprung, and it is a beautiful time of year to spend outside.

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Time to Explore

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The calendar says we are still weeks away from spring, but our cats assure us that spring is most assuredly here. They beg by the back door to be let out into the warm air, rotate from window to window in search of warming sunshine, and stare in fascination at the growing flock of birds that frequent our feeders outside our front window. This morning the three of us – Cattigan, Olivia, and I – ventured out into the unusual warmth to do a little spring tidying out back.

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Early buds on our lilac bush.

We mulched many of our potted plants with leaves and sheltered them by the house from the worst of the cold winds this winter (and even then, we didn’t have many). This fall, my husband raked a bunch of our oak tree leaves into a DIY cage up-cycled from some old fencing wire so we can always have mulch at our disposal – we fell in love with using grass clippings on our garden beds to add nitrogen and this summer we might mix in some leaves as well. We tend to get very hot and dry in August and September, and our poor cucumbers can use all the help they can get to shelter their roots from the heat.

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I spent some time raking out the leaves from the woodpile and straightening up the logs, while the cats lounged and explored. Olivia has a new favorite task – she loves patrolling the neighboring fences and rolling in any dirt patches she can find. The cats only go out under our watchful gaze – we don’t need any “presents” or complaints from the neighbors about digging into garden beds, plus it’s bad for the bird population to allow the cats to kill for pleasure rather than need. (Trust me, they’re well-fed.) Here, on the outskirts of town, we get the occasional coyote visitor and birds of prey, and while I don’t worry about my hefty Cattigan I do worry about how petite Olivia will fare against a hawk.

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Olivia, mid-roll in the dirt.

Tomorrow, our task will be to sort and turn our compost pile. We take any organic matter from our kitchen – egg shells, onion peels, wilted spinach, juicing remains, coffee grounds, tea leaves, you name it – and deposit it into this giant compost pile. If you haven’t invested in a compost bin, I cannot recommend it enough; we store all of our kitchen scraps (no meat) in a sealable container in the kitchen, and when it gets full we take it out to the yard and dump it in this bin. Every few months you should turn the pile and make sure that it stays moist so the decomposition process can move speedily along. Adding compost to your garden is one of the best fertilizers you can give it, and it’s absolutely free. It gives new purpose to your kitchen scraps, and the chopped up taco topping leftovers that you left in the fridge for too long no longer stare guiltily up at you from the bottom of your trashcan – they return back to the earth they came from and give your plants new life.

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This bin is one of the cheapest I’ve found in the process of looking at building or buying our own – when we purchased it, it cost $30 on Amazon. “Geobin” is made of 50% recycled plastic and comes as a roll of mesh that you open to your desired width and hold together with plastic keys on one side. Unless you’re sticking your nose over the top of the pile, there is absolutely no smell with this open air compost – I can be standing right next to it and not notice it is there. It’s a big capacity bin, holding up to 216 gallons and measuring 4 feet in diameter, as you can see with Cattigan as a size comparison in the picture above. I highly recommend checking this one out! We purchased our Geobin from Amazon here.

Cattigan and I checked on our crop of garlic from last October – we planted some hard neck garlic and let it overwinter, and these last few weeks of warm temperatures have made them thrive. Their bright green stalks shot through the leaves and they basked in the sunlight after I fertilized them with some of our smelly fish fertilizer. (The cats always sniff the bottle very curiously when it comes out of the cabinet!)

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When our garden is full to bursting, we’ll find the cats navigating the maze of tomato plants and investigating the strange smells of peppers and bean flowers. They love to lounge on our warm patio stones and sniff the breeze – we can’t wait for more warm days that we can spend outside as a family to relax and explore what we’ve grown and cared after.

 

But now, for a nap.

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