My Mini-Orchard and Backyard Fruit Production

The third time is a charm.    Two years ago I planted two mini-dwarf Jonagold apples in containers.   They looked great until one windy fall day a strong wind snapped them in two.    Last year I ordered several mini-dwarf trees and ended up killing them all due to the weather and a few really stupid mistakes (like forgetting to put drainage holes in the containers and then getting a torrential downpour, possibly over-fertilizing with rabbit manure, poor mulching and not having enough organic matter in the soil to allow oxygen to circulate).       So I’ve made some expensive mistakes, but I figure that if I don’t learn from then and try again it will be a complete waste…. This year is going to be different.

So far I’ve put in two mini-dwarf Jonagolds and an Enterprise.   I just picked up a two year old columnar apple from a garden center as well.   I’m planning on visiting that garden center again right before they close on the 4th of July to see if they have any more of these trees on sale.    I also put a Pix-Zee mini-dwarf tree into the ground in my front yard and right now it looks great.      I ordered three beach plums, which are kind of like a shrub.    Only one of them is growing, but that’s ok.   They were only a couple of dollars and if one takes, I’ll be happy.        My crabapple and stella cherry I put in the ground last year are growing, although they didn’t grow as much as I would’ve liked last year.

I have four or five large containers open that are suitable for mini-dwarf trees and I’ve been doing what I can to get the soil ready for trees.    I’ve been stirring up the dirt and trying to work more carbon material in.   I drilled a lot of holes into all of my containers so they should have good drainage and I’m hoping to get some good worm activity in each one, so they’re more like an extension of the earth rather than a large plastic bucket with a lot of dirt in it.      Hopefully I’ll be able to fill them this fall.

I planted three currants (two red, one black), three lignonberries and one gooseberry in containers.   I put one blueberry into the ground and that’s doing well.      My blackberry patch is three years old now and going apeshit.   I can’t remember if I started with two or three canes of two varieties and now there’s probably about a dozen including a few black raspberry canes that made it over from the guy next door.    I have three aronia bushes which are growing kind of slow due to limited solar exposure.   I tried to transplant them the other day to a sunnier area, but their roots were too deep so I gave up – I guess that’s a good sign.  Hopefully this year they bear fruit.    Last year was rough because it got warm quickly and then we had a late frost while everything was flowering.

Last year my kiwis didn’t do anything because of that cold snap.   All they did was stay alive, which I guess I should be thankful for.   I think they’re starting to grow this year and hopefully I get some kiwis out of them.      I put in two grapevines this year, one that I’m going to train to climb my deck and one that I want to train along a privacy fence.    Both are growing, so we’ll see what happens there.

Last year I didn’t get any strawberries, or at least not many.    I think this was in part due to the cold snap and a puppy that trampled them.   I think there was also a bit of confusion between me and the wife over who was going to water them and pick them that year too.     This year I have about twenty plants in whiskey barrels that are starting to put on baby strawberries.  They’ve also spread outside of the barrels into the ground around them.    I put in about fifteen plants, including a few everbearing varieties into a rockbed on the front of my house.    Hopefully they go nuts.   The nice thing about a sprawling plant like that is that they’ll go anywhere they can grow.   My front yard is shady so planting anything can be hit or miss – the strawberries themselves can determine the right spots to grow better than I can.       I don’t know if I’ll get much out of the new plants, but if so that should be a pretty good haul.

The funny thing about having all of this is that my average-sized yard really doesn’t seem all that busy.     Here in Zone 5, there’s all kinds of things that can grow here.    There’s all kinds of things that grow anywhere.   If people would open up to the idea of putting in plants that produce fruit over purely ornamental ones as well as the idea of eating a wider variety of fruits, we probably wouldn’t need to fly in as many strawberries from California or Mexico or apples from Chile.

Another cool thing about most of these plants is that once they’re established, they don’t take much work.     My blackberries, for instance, I took about five to ten minutes to prune back the canes this year.   I haven’t watered them at all (but then again, we’ve had a ton of rain).   I know where they’re going to grow every year and when.   That takes away a lot of the guess work/planning that comes with annual plants.

Right now I’m working on the soil in a few of the containers and hopefully I’ll fill them with some more mini-dwarf trees in the fall.    I’ve been stopping by a certain garden center to see if they have trees on sale – if there’s a good enough discount, I’ll clean them out of columnar apples.

I also planted about a dozen ground cherry plants around the yard, hoping that they end up taking off on their own next year.   They are a wild edible in this part of the world.

Here’s a few photos:


A line of mini-dwarf apple trees behind my raised beds.   The first one is a columnar something-or-other and then there’s the jonagolds and enterprise.   Further down the line are currants and gooseberries.




Pix-Zee mini-dwarf peach tree with some strawberries in the rock bed.

Winter Gardening


Over the past couple of days we were hit with a big snowstorm.  I think we got about a foot or so of snow, strong winds and single digit temps.    Today was sunny and 15 degrees so it was a great day to make a video today of some of the things I have going on in the way of winter gardening:

Last year I built an insulated cold frame in a woodworking class with an old window.  I used it to start some seeds in the late winter, which worked out pretty well.  It’s keeping some arugula, beets and spinach alive right now but I think it doesn’t get as much sunlight as it should for a few reasons.   Either way, it’s working


Petco had a sale on aquariums earlier in the year so I picked up a 40 gallon one for as many dollars.   Honestly, you can probably find used aquariums on Craigslist or whatever for dirt cheap but I figured the price wasn’t too bad and if I did decide to do an aquaponics system, I could use it for that during the other three seasons.    I like the idea of using an upside down aquarium for a greenhouse because it’s really simple AND effective.


Close up of arugula and spinach under the aquarium

The greenhouse I’m using is this one:

So far I’m into it.   It’s a little over $200 (Amazon’s free shipping really feels like a deal on this one), 8′ x 6′ and 7′ high.  It was easy to put up and it held up just fine with the heavy snow on it and the winds blowing.   I bought the stakes and put a couple of them in.    I need to put a thermometer in there, but it definitely feels a lot warmer in there than it does outside.   I have 4′ x 8′ garden beds and it fits comfortably over one of them, with enough room to move around on one side.  You can enter from the front or the back, so it’s easy to get around.

I’ve got snow peas, pac choi, turnips, beets, carrots, spinach, lettuce and radishes as well as some random dill, cilantro, onions and some kind of brassicas.

I go out and check on the plants just about every day, but I think I could get away with letting them go for a week or so between visits.   They don’t need much water because the covering keeps a lot of the moisture in.   The greenhouse is very humid and the aquarium always has condensation.

We’ve had some warm days this winter and some cold ones that probably would’ve killed these plants if they weren’t protected, but from what I read solar exposure is the key factor for winter growing over warm temps.   My plants are growing slower than they would in the spring, but that’s because the days are so short.

I read this book a month or so ago, which gave me some good insight on winter growing as well as some interesting history about market gardening and great photos:

I think it’s geared towards commercial growers over backyard growers, but there’s still a lot of good info in this one.

I’ve been using what I’m growing very sparingly, just because it’s not growing very fast.   I’ll have a small salad every now and then or a few leaves of kale with a stir-fry.  Oh yeah, I’m still using kale and collards from the garden, but that will be gone in a matter of days.   The arugula tastes really good right now, the weather makes it a bit milder.   The stuff that we had growing through the summer tasted like gunpowder.

Leafy things are doing better than roots.   I thought my radishes would do better, but they aren’t.    The spinach looks great and I’ll probably start eating it next week.   There’s quite a bit of it too, so if the sunlight picks up I might be able to make it until spring.

It will probably get consistently colder from here on out, but since today was the winter solstice we’ll get a little more daylight each day.   My original goal was to at least make it to the new year, but it looks like that shouldn’t be a problem.   Maybe I’ll check back in later in January.

So that’s what I have going on right now.    It’s nice to have something to tend to during the winter and to be able to go out and see that vibrant green in the middle of the snow.   EAD, Jack Frost.

Oikos Update 5/29/12

It seems like the lettuces in my garden have been winding down, but still coming in. My spinach is almost entirely bolted, my remaining mustard greens will go shortly and a couple overwintered collard greens have bolted. C’est la vie. I’m enjoying fresh salads from the garden while I can. I’ve been plucking a few beets, radishes, turnips, parsnips and carrots here and there and eating greens (swiss and rainbow chard, kale, mustards, collards, beets and turnip) just about every day, which is nice. Within the past week I’ve harvest a ton of snow peas and I’ll probably start freezing them, just like I did last year. Actually, I still have some frozen snow peas from last year. My fennel is looking good, there’s a few volunteer tomato plants from compost starting up that I’ll let take their course, the tomatillos are looking vibrant and we put in a few bell pepper and eggplants within the past week or so. The strawberries have been coming in as well and I think we’ve probably picked about a pint or two from our whiskey barrel planters. The new mini-orchard is starting to take off as well.

On the herbal front, I’m getting some things sown from seed coming up. My dill is going nuts and I have all the oregano, chives and catnip I need. Basil, peppermint, chocolate mint, cilantro and parsley are at the point where I can use them, but I have to be a little careful. Everything is looking better after this weekend’s rain and sun.

We had the first official CSA delivery last week, which was nice and a good supplement to what we’ve been getting from our garden. Got some radishes, spinach (which was nice with ours just having bolted) and lettuce.

I just finished Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis (Portfolio) by James Rickard yesterday, which I’ll probably review shortly. Just started on A Gift to My Children: A Father’s Lessons for Life and Investing by Jim Rogers, which will be a quick (and insightful!) read.

Silver has been down lately, in the neighborhood of $27-$28. I’m thinking about buying, but I have a feeling that turmoil in Europe could cause the dollar to go up a little more and send the price of metals down a little more. Based on where the prices have been over the past couple years, this isn’t a bad time to buy. We’ll see what happens. If I buy now or at $24 (just speculating…), I still think it’s a good mid/long term play regardless.

I bought a few shares of Herbalife (HLF) earlier this month when the price tanked based purely on a few comments by David Einhorn and the prospect of him making a few more comments about that business. So far the price has been level at about what I paid for it, but nothing has actually changed with the business so I’m anticipating that it will climb up somewhere back in the neighborhood of $75 in the near future. That hasn’t panned out yet, so we’ll see how that foray into swing trading works out for me. Fortunately I don’t have a ton of money on the line that this will make or break me, but enough that I don’t want to lose it. I might just have to hold on to it a little longer than I wanted to.

Murray now looks like a big dog:  

He’s earned the nickname “Honey Badger” or “Badgerius” (saw the Improvised Shakespeare Company recently who used this name for a character) due to his behavior and appearance.

Also, yesterday was Memorial Day.  I try to be thankful every day that I’m on this earth and make the best of it in honor of my comrades in arms that never made it back home.


This is some Greek oregano that established itself somehow in one of my rock beds last year and seems to be doing just fine again this year:

Oregano is a perennial herb that originates from the Mediterranean region and can naturally be found in the cuisines of that part of the world (Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, Spanish, some French, Turkish, etc.) and places influenced by that part of the world (Mexico and Cuba, for example).   It does well in partial shade and doesn’t really need a whole lot of attention.  It’s fairly low growing and seems to be just fine in places with marginal growing conditions (i.e. my shady rockbed).   I think oregano would be one that would be a good choice for food-minded guerrilla gardeners and/or those practicing permaculture due to these reasons.  Although it is a perennial, it is often grown as an annual in cold/temperate climates.   I think I just got lucky with the mild winter this year and it managed to make it through the winter or reseed itself.  It can be grown in a container fairly easily as well.

When cooking a little bit goes a long way with oregano and sometimes it’s better to err on the side of caution when winging it with a recipe.    Typically oregano is added towards the end of a recipe because excessive heat can alter the flavor.  It’s probably most widely known in our part of the world for being in most anything Italian with tomatoes (marinara, pizza, etc.) and in many Mexican dishes.    It also goes well with a bit of mint on lamb for a Greek-influenced dish.

Not only is it good in pasta sauce, it also has some notable medicinal qualities.   Oregano is considered a good herbal antiseptic and used as a remedy for respiratory conditions like colds, bronchitis, tonsillitis and asthma, especially infused into a tea.    The essential oil has been used to ease inflammation, especially in toothaches and joints.    Like many other herbs, oregano aids in digestion by stimulating bile flow and reducing flatulence.  Oregano contains vitamin K, some essential fatty acids, antioxidants and  fiber.




The Greatest Existential Threat To My Garden


…is a little terror named Murray.   Got him about six weeks ago.    We put up chicken wire fence around our garden beds to keep our dogs out last year, which worked.   The fencing started to sag a little bit and he’s found his way in several times and started digging.  I don’t think he’s done any serious damage, but there’s a high likelihood of it.    I had the bright idea today of putting some stakes in the middle of the fencing and using wire to attach the fence to the stakes in order to keep it up.   We’ll see how that works.

Our adult dog Juno never even tried to get in last year, but we caught her laying in the garden beds a couple of times this year.   Hopefully tweaking the fence a little bit helps.

First Plantings

The other day I decided that it was time to plant some spring vegetables.   I had a small area with swiss chard, dill, radishes, spinach, arugula and butterhead lettuce planted in a cold frame a week earlier, but with what looks like a weeks worth of unseasonably warm temperatures, I think we’re in the clear to start some things without the aid of the cold frame.

I planted beets, radishes, arugula, fava beans, snow peas, spinach, salad greens, mustard greens, carrots, fennel, parsnips, collard greens and swiss chard.

It looks like my spinach from last fall overwintered well.  In fact, we had a spinach salad last night.   Right now that spinach is going nuts growing, which is a plus.    There are some collards and chard that made it through the winter, as well as some kale plants that are beginning to regrow after being harvested last fall.    A good amount of kohlrabi that I planted too late in the season last year made it through the winter and looks like it will be ready shortly.   I also see a few leeks sprouting back up, as well as some garlic and a random onion (every little bit helps, I guess).

In January I intended on lining a repurposed small animal cage that I had filled with dirt to grow lettuce with plastic to make a greenhouse.   I had some difficulty making that work, but I planted some lettuce and radishes during that time.   Obviously they didn’t do anything in January, but I’m now seeing these seeds beginning to sprout, which is a pleasant surprise.

I had some problems with getting my cabbage and other brassica seeds to sprout possibly due to using water from a bucket that had vinegar residue (for cleaning) to water them.   I’m debating on whether or not I can pull off cabbage in the spring, but at any rate I’m going to get some new seeds going for tomatoes, some herbs and peppers shortly.

I still have some work to do on building new beds and acquiring soil.    Mushroom dowels have been ordered and I found a good source of logs.    So far things are looking up, all things considered.

Early Progress in the 2012 Gardening Season

So far things are looking good and all the warm weather has me thinking that spring will be here at any moment, but I know that mother nature can throw a curve ball every now and then.   I’m hoping that in the next two weeks I can start things from seed like radishes, beets, turnips, greens and lettuce.   We’ll see.

Last night I picked up enough lumber to build 3 4×8 garden beds.   I’d like to have those clobbered together within the next two weeks and then start procuring soil/yard debris to fill them in.   Last year I used a ton of sticks and leaves as filler material at the bottom of the beds, which meant that I needed less soil.  It also means that I’ll have more decaying organic material and a store of water, per the principles of hugelkultur.     I’m not sure if I’ll have enough room for a fourth bed (bringing the grand total to eight beds), but if I do I’m sure I’ll put it in.     The beds are fairly easy to construct, so that’s not a big deal.  It’s just a matter of finding the time and decent weather.

While going through my current beds, I found some carrots that appear to have overwintered, as well as a lone onion.    It appears as if my kale, spinach and swiss chard overwintered as well and is beginning to show signs of life again.

In my woodworking class I finished my cold frame – this thing is a beast.    I came into the class with a general plan based off 99% of what’s out there on the internet, which is “clobber together a box, get a window, put some hinges on it and fasten it on”.   That idea wasn’t good enough for the instructor, so he got out the drawing board and designed a plan for it (I’ll post pictures shortly).   As far as posting plans, I’ll have to see if I can come up with something to modify some of the cuts as equipment that is probably not readily available to the average DIYer was used.      Five or six people signed up for the class and for the past two sessions, I was the only one that showed up so the instructor was able to put a lot of time and effort into the plans.    I think this one is definitely sound enough to get some things through the winter.

I put the cold frame out and started some spinach, butterhead lettuce, dill, swiss chard and radishes.   So far nothing has sprouted, but it should be a matter of days before I start seeing things.     It would be nice to start getting a few things from the garden around the first-middle part of April – we’ll see.

The soil cubes are off to a good start and I’m getting some sprouts.   I’m going to start some more shortly to get some herbs going.    Right now we have cabbage, a few Italian broccoli plants, a couple cauliflower seedlings and brussels sprouts as well as a mustard, collard and swiss chard seedling.   I should be looking good there.   In a few weeks I’ll start some tomato and pepper plants.

I haven’t ordered my trees yet, but it’s looking like we’ll have the largest mini-orchard in Central Iowa.    I have about $600 worth of plants in my Raintree Nursery wishlist.   I’ve been sitting on it for a few days to see if I *really* think I need everything, but I think we can handle all of those trees, I think they’ll be worth it, we’ll be able to take them with us when/if we move and it should be fun.     Planting that many trees into large containers will be a chore, but manageable.

I need to get a new rain barrel after last year’s collapsible one broke.   This was my fault – I put it on uneven ground and it filled up during a storm and fell over – the force of the water tore the top off.   I bought a collapsible one because I thought I was going to use it at an offsite garden.   Had it been on level ground, I think it would have actually been a good piece of gear to have, considering you can easily store it away in the off season and it would be good for temporary situations (renters, offsite gardening, etc).  Here is a link to it:   Smart Solar Rain Barrel  .    Iowa Prison Industries was taking reclaimed 55 gallon drums and adding the necessary hardware to them and selling them at a low price ($20 if memory serves me right).

I also need to procure some hardwood logs soon in order to get some mushrooms started.   I totally dropped the ball on this one last year.   Mushrooms do better in wood harvested early in the spring, so I need to start getting serious about this one.    I know of a property I can check out for fallen/about to fall branches and if that doesn’t work, I might contact a park ranger and ask if he knows of any recently fallen trees I can take from.   You never know…

So everything is starting to come together right now.    I think we’re set for a good year in 2012.

Looking Forward to the 2012 Garden and Looking Back at 2011

Tonight I made a few soil cubes and started some seeds underneath the grow light.   So far we have a dozen cabbage going, 3 cauliflower, 3 romanesco cauliflower, 3 brussel sprouts, 1 collard green, 1 mustard green and one swiss chard plant to get an early jump on things.   Tomorrow I may get a few herbs started.    Although we’re not in the clear yet, the weather has been very spring-like lately and I’m getting anxious to get started.

In 2008 my dog dug up the tomatoes I had going in containers. In 2009 I had a few herbs in containers and killed some tomatoes through overwatering.   In 2010 I grew a few herbs.   In 2011, we put in 4 4×8 beds, put in some berry bushes and kept a ton of containers.   We had some successes and some failures, but we learned a lot and got a lot out of our efforts.

The year started with a failure – we were planning on gardening off-site on some land in the family that was on the market, but no one was biting on.  One day I went out and tilled up a few old beds and planted some early fall crops.   Strangely enough, while I was there planting someone made the first offer in over a year on the property.  I knew this was a possibility, but I didn’t figure it would be that quick!   In fact, we made a loose offer on the land and thought it was going to work out for us.      We then decided that we were going to try to do everything in our backyard.  The initial objection to this was that one of our dogs, Django (recently deceased, RIP little buddy), would have definitely dug up anything we planted.   We solved this problem by making a chicken wire fence that surrounded each bed that still allowed us to reach over.   This worked out well for us.


We made a few other mistakes with timing and like many others, going overboard with what we wanted to plant.   It’s almost always advised to beginning gardeners that you should start small, but I think we took on quite a bit – and to our credit, we kept up with it all and we’re looking for more this year.

As a kid, I always liked the idea of gardening and did it occasionally.  I remember helping my grandmother who lived in a rural area outside the city planting and harvesting her large garden and enthusiastically tackling the small garden we kept at home.   The taste of freshly grown peas and the smell of tomatoes definitely brought back great memories that can’t be purchased at the supermarket.    We could buy our produce from the store.  We could even get it from a CSA or farmer’s market, but there isn’t much more satisfying than tending to and harvesting your own produce from your own patch of land.

I’m going to get “out there” a little bit, but I think I found a bit of a spiritual factor to gardening – I felt more connected to nature and the cycle of life having to take into account things like weather and the relationships between organisms (i.e. pests, beneficial insects, weeds, etc) that would go relatively unnoticed otherwise.   I felt a better connection to my heritage, as we were doing some of the things that my not-so-distant ancestors would’ve done like canning, pickling, dehydrating and so on in conjunction with gardening.   I had something to wake up for and felt a sense of purpose managing it all.   Also, there’s a great deal of satisfaction to knowing that you helped to create something of value through your efforts and achieve some level of self-reliance.

Although we probably didn’t produce more than 5-10% of what we consumed, what we did produce was very significant in the way it influenced our eating – almost every meal during the growing season had fresh herbs or something from the garden in it one way or another.  This makes a significant difference in the quality of your food. Even now, I’m still eating pickles almost daily, using dehydrated squash and occasionally drinking dehydrated herbs as tea.   We still have some tomatoes canned, pickled green tomatoes, frozen green beans and canned chow-chow.

Anyways, on to this year…

We’re planning on going from 4 beds to 7 or 8.    I will purchase the lumber for that project shortly.   We have a better idea about what to plant and when, so I think we’ll have a significant increase in output.   I think I tried to do too much with herbs in containers and ended up with too much of some herbs, too few of others.   I will try to balance this out by making a dedicated herb bed (beneficial insect attractors!) as well as using the containers a little wiser.

We’re going to extend our season through a cold frame (I’m building now, will post about it later) as well as some grow lights and a 6 x 8 greenhouse.

So far I’m pleased with the lights we bought and I think it will help us best utilize the space and time we have.   I’m considering getting another one to double up – I’m sure we will get enough value out of it  Growlights

The greenhouse looks like a great deal, considering Amazon’s free shipping (it weighs a little less than 100lbs).  We’re going to throw that up to harden off some plants and get some things going until we’re in the clear with the weather.  Greenhouse    The reviews on it seem promising, the price is definitely agreeable and I think this is something else that we will get value from.   Also we plan on eventually having a larger greenhouse when we move someday so the experience of dealing with a smaller novice-level one will be beneficial.

We haven’t placed an order for new trees and shrubs, but right now we’re looking at going nuts with mini-dwarf trees and possibly throwing in a few new fruit-producing shrubs.   Last year we had mini-dwarf apples that did well, but a strong wind broke them in half.   I guess they were serious when they said you should keep them staked.

We’re going to do some mushrooming underneath our deck too.

One of my goals for the year is to sell something commercially.   I’ve expressed interest with a local farmer’s market to come and be an occasional vendor peddling some produce and potted herbs.   I have a few ideas and I hope I’m able to make this happen.  That would be a great feeling to be able to produce a lot of our own food AND bring in a little bit of money out of our yard, providing people with a product that I believed in and would give people value.   Hopefully this plan works out – I’m willing to put the effort into it.

I’m kicking around the idea of a small aquaponics system to raise about a dozen tilapia.  Adena doesn’t care for the idea, but we’ll see.

So that’s where we’re at right now as spring seems just around the corner.   I can’t wait to get my hands dirty again.