Raised Garden Beds and Year-Round Gardening–How We Transformed a Tiny Yard Into a Suburban Farm

As you’ve seen on the blog, last year, we (and by we, I mean my husband) installed a series of raised garden beds and started adapting multi-season gardening approach. This week, a friend from church contacted me and wanted to know more about how we transformed a postage stamp-sized backyard into a thriving, year-round vegetable garden. While I’ve documented the garden a lot over the past year, here’s a more in-depth look at how we did it.

First, just so you know, the distance from the porch to the  fence is only about 12 feet. We spaced the beds so that the mower could fit between them and the fence on all sides. Our beds are just a basic construction, and you can find plenty of instructions online. Pioneer Woman had a good, beginner tutorial on her blog way back in the day.

Next, we calculated how much soil we would need, and I ordered it from Lowes for delivery. A professional nursery can help you with the calculations if need be.  We tried sourcing the soil locally, but my nursery wanted about two-times the price of what we could get at Lowes. This was an expensive initial investment, but well worth it. We started with good soil suitable for raised beds, but we also sometimes add compost or fertilizer when we switch out crops as needed. I know it’s tempting to go for the cheap topsoil to save money, but that’s a bad plan. By the time you add the stuff you would need to make it workable/grow-worthy, you might as well have invested in decent dirt. If you really want to guarantee success, you can test your soil and see what it needs for your plants. It’s simply a matter of how deep a mental dive you want to take. But long story short, raised beds and container gardens succeed or fail on the soil quality. That’s the shortcut you cannot take.

In garden adventures past, we stuck to summer crops, usually tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and melons, with an occasional experiment. Also, I have a kitchen herb garden with basil, rosemary, thyme, and sage. So, when transitioning to the multi-season model, we found that the LSU Ag Center had excellent information online about what would grow in our area and when to plant. So, I’d check out your state resources, especially university agricultural programs. Based on what we found, we planted cabbage, carrots, spinach, broccoli, and strawberries (note, we plant strawberries in the fall here for a spring harvest). We based our selections on space, and obviously what we would use. Overall, all of our winter crops were a success. While I have several gardening books that are “supposed” to be geared to our region, I’ve found that our state agriculture resources are much more realistic about what can grow here and when.

If you look my posts from last summer, you can see that our tiny garden fed the dang neighborhood. So, if you are thinking about starting your own raised bed garden, here are my quick takeaways:

  • Building the beds is fairly easy if you have minimal knowledge of a power drill and a level.
  • Soil is an investment, and is what will make or break your garden. Just like you have to cut your hair, you have to occasionally add stuff to your soil to keep it healthy.
  • Local garden clubs, agricultural centers, or state-based information sources are great avenues finding out what grows in your area and when to plant it. Mass-market books may be overly optimistic/uninformed for your region, which I learned when I saw guidelines for planting things which no farmer here would ever plant.
  • Year-round gardens require planning, but it can be done (obviously depending on your climate). By adapting to a year-round model, we are making the most of both the space and investment.
  • Even with a garden so small, we have excess. We can items religiously, share with neighbors, and freeze anything we didn’t can. You can make friends, fill your freezer/pantry, and take a tiny step toward more mindful eating. Bonus points for sharing with those in need.
  • Even if you can only start with a pot of tomatoes on apartment balcony, just go for it. We all need a little more green in our lives.

So, that’s the intro on the garden. I’m dreaming to tomato pies, tarts, and replenishing my stash of Roasted Tomato-Lime Salsa. I may hate summer in Louisiana, otherwise known as The Hellmouth, but it sure is dang tasty.

Summer’s End–Family, Community, and Canning.

School started this week, and for the first time, its arrival felt bittersweet. Usually, by this time, I feel like I will sell my soul to their teachers in exchange for removing the Heathens from my home for a few hours a day. August means we’ve devolved into who-looked-at-who the wrong way, which in turn, ends up being a crossover between “Who Moved My Cheese?” and The Hunger Games.  This year, however, summer seemed to fly by at a too-rapid pace. It doesn’t help that G-Man is a junior, Bear is a freshman, and Bean is in (gulp!) first grade. I wish I had a few more days at the pool or the camp, but in the end, the promise of less than 100-degree heat means that I’ll get over it quickly. So, the summer recap:

We had our epic family reunion with my 80-plus cousins who are just as zany as we are, fun days at the Gulf and the camp, questionable fishing, and general mayhem:

There was some knitting, which I will post about tomorrow:

I smoked and cooked at bit (including hosting 4th of July for our neighborhood, and tackling fresh pasta):

But, if I had to sum up this summer, I would call it The Summer of Canning. We spent the spring installing and planting several raised beds in our postage stamp-sized back yard. We hope to adopt a year-round gardening plan down the road, but ultimately, I think the Husband and I feel called to find a balance between the frantic digital pace of modern daily life, and the skills, traditions, and values that we internalized from our parents and grandparents.

We want to raise well-balanced, knowledgeable kids that have adequate life skills by graduation, or at least some exposure to many things and the attitude that they can figure crap out if they try. This isn’t just about gardening. G-Man must have changed tires on the family car six times this summer as we dealt with failing tires and those pesky nails the contractors down the road kept dropping. He also has a bank account, and I’ll send that kid to the Kroger at the drop of at hat, which means he now knows where to find vinegar and pectin, and the difference between a poblano and a banana pepper. G-Man and Bear can cook a meal, bake a mean cookie, and follow a recipe while adapting if needed. As such, the garden is another extension of our desire for fresh produce and deliciousness, while modelling life skills that might keep our kids from being left for zombie bait in the event of a Walking Dead scenario. Kidding…Kidding…

But, with that garden, came the dilemma of keeping up with it. I swore to the Husband that I would not let his efforts go to waste. I’ve written about canning before, but this behemoth was beyond my ability to manage, or at least my available time. But then, the blessing came. My neighbor had never canned and wanted to learn, so I did a quick recipe with her (that she brought over) so she could get the basics. One thing led to another. Before long, we transformed into a well-oiled operation of shared labor and shared bounty. We worked side-by-side each week, harvesting, prepping, and putting up recipe after recipe. We fought the bugs, the heat, our restless kids, and the burn of hot peppers from forgotten gloves. As the days blended together, we visited, shared stories and memories, and ended up with overflowing pantries of salsa, jalapeno jelly, serrano jelly, pickled peppers and onions, cucumber relish, pickles, spicy tomato jam, pickled jalapenos, and more.


We even put together and vacuum-sealed bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers for fall and winter entertaining. A full pantry and freezer soothes my soul and makes me feel more connected to the strong women in my family tree. That was something I didn’t expect, but I’ll take any day.

Over these intense kitchen sessions, I noted to my neighbor that I can now see why chores like canning, quilting, butchering, and harvesting historically often turned into group events. People helped their neighbors or friends with these labor-intensive activities not only to share the load, but also to connect in a way we now have lost, and which we often miss in our disconnected, overworked, digital lives. (and yes, I get the irony of saying that on my digital blog, but I do believe we can all find a better balance between the power of the internet to connect and educate us, and the temptation for it to consume us at the expense of genuine experiences). Whether we were enveloped by steam from the canner, or got lost in the hours of chopping 12 pounds of tomatoes at a time, we strengthened our bonds as both friends and neighbors in a way that made me feel closer to her, and my family’s history and traditions.

So, as I come to summer’s end, I still feel like it flew by, but as I reflect, I also think of it as time of connecting with family and neighbors, cultivating skills, and transitioning from the tragedy of losing my father to letting the light back in. That, if anything, was probably the best takeaway of all.

But you know what’s even better about summer’s end? I can now plan the Halloween decorations and party. Mwhahahah!

The Summer of the Fish

It’s no secret that we love to fish, and now that Bean is older and a wee bit more patient, we get to go a lot more often. Thus far this summer, we’ve fished the waterways of south Louisiana, a local lake, and down on the shores of Galveston. We still have plenty of side trips planned (assuming the brutal Louisiana heat doesn’t cook us to death), so I hereby declare this the Summer of the Fish!