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.

Chicken & Spinach Lagagna Roll-Ups

It’s the last week of school, and needless to say, it’s crazy busy around here. However, I took some time today to cook one of the Heathen’s favorite dishes: Chicken & Spinach Lasagna Roll-Ups. This super-easy meal gets a fast flavor cheat by using ranch dressing mix to season the chicken and spinach filling. I prepped it in the morning so all I had to do was pop it in the oven, and serve it up with a side salad and some garlic bread. And wine. Lots of wine. Did I mention it’s kinda crazy around here right now?

Chicken & Spinach Lasagna Roll-Ups

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Ingredients

  • 2 (8-ounce) packages Neufchatel cream cheese, room temperature
  • 2 packages powdered ranch dressing mix
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded (or about 3 cups of cooked chicken)
  • 1 (12-ounce) bag of frozen chopped spinach, thawed
  • 1 box lasagna noodles, cooked according to package directions (about 15 noodles)
  • 2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
  • 1 cup half and half OR 1-1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a medium-sized bowl, combine cream cheese and ranch mix until incorporated. Remove about 1/3 cup of this mixture and set aside.
  2. Add chicken and spinach to the bowl, stirring until the mixture is well blended.
  3. Carefully spread about three to four tablespoons of the chicken mixture onto each noodle. From the narrow end, roll up each noodle and place seam side down into a casserole dish
  4. Combine reserved 1/3 cup cream cheese with tomato sauce, whisking until blended. Add half and half OR cream, stirring to combine.
  5. Pour sauce over roll-ups and cover the casserole with foil. Bake for 25 minutes. Sprinkle cheese over roll-ups and re-cover loosely with foil. Bake an additional 10 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.

Cook’s Notes:

  • I cook for 6 people every day, three of which are hungry guys, so I tend to make a lot of food. You can easily half this.
  • Don’t forget to add salt to your pasta water. Salting the pasta water separates the good pasta cooks from the not-so-good pasta cooks.
  • To make the noodles easy to work with, lay out some foil or parchment paper on the counter and spray with non-stick spray. After you drain the noodles, lay them out in a single layer on the foil to prevent sticking.
  • Cook a few extra lasagna noodles. Inevitably, some will tear during the cooking process, so it’s good to have backups.
  • Grab a rotisserie chicken to cut the prep time if you want. I cooked a big batch of chicken in my Instant Pot and used the rest to make chicken salad.
  • Variation ideas: Add roasted red peppers or sundried tomatoes to the chicken mixture. Top with jarred alfredo sauce instead of the tomato sauce. Substitute chopped cooked shrimp or turkey for the chicken. Garnish with a little chopped basil or parsley.

Bayou-Mama Tries Yoga and Gets Her Butt Handed to Her

So, as part of my whole spring reboot, I decided to finally check off one of those things I wanted to try but never got around to: a yoga basics class at my local studio. My experience with yoga extends only to that time I played WiiFit, despite the doctor telling me for years I needed to take it up to help my back be less of a a**hole sometimes. I bit the bullet and paid for a drop-in class, convinced that I would hit up Planet Fitness or the rowing machine afterward for a “real workout.”

So, I walked in to the class, which was full of senior citizens, sure that I was going to breeze through this basics gig and sign up for the more advanced classes on my way out.

I….WAS…WRONG. SO VERY WRONG.

By the time the hour was up, my muscles were shaking, I was sweating to an embarrassing degree, and my Fitbit told me I burned over 300 calories during what I assumed would be a glorified stretching hour. Meanwhile the experienced (and way more limber) senior citizens probably took bets on whether I would fall on my face before the class was over.

I survived…barely. Thoughts of my “real workout” went out the window as I mentally ate my humble pie and hobbled right out of there on wobbly legs. Glorified stretching, my butt. To add insult to injury, I had not had a pedicure in months, so my hobbit-like feet were on full display to further my humiliation.

However, as much as I was dyyyiiiinnnggg after the class, I keep going back. Hopefully, it will be another tool in the toolbox for rebuilding my fitness and health.

Something must be working though, because I convinced my husband to give it a try. He will be joining me tomorrow.

This should be interesting.

 

Totally About to Go All Marie Kondo Up in Here

Do you ever feel like you are a master imitation of a broken record? I finally realized that’s exactly how I sounded when, for the 1000th time, I remarked to a friend this that it’s been a tough year. Scratch that, a tough four-plus years. After losing Dad last year, we went on to lose both our neighbor and good friend, followed shortly thereafter by my uncle. Considering that I already win the award for “Most Unhealthy Ways to Cope with Grief,” I’m not at all surprised that I’ve been operating on semi-toxic fumes for far too long.

But this last week, we took a long-planned family vacation, which was amazing, exhausting, and magical. When we came back to Louisiana, spring was in the air, with the wisteria in full bloom and the grass already filling in the winter-brown lawn. I know the hellfire summer is just around the corner, but something about coming home to a landscape transformed on the tails of a truly epic vacation gave me the kick in the ass I sorely needed. I spent the past couple of days thinking about what needs to change, and as the title suggests, I’m about to go Marie Kondo both literally and figuratively on myself, and my environment. It’s time for some physical, emotional, and spiritual spring cleaning, and part of that is returning to this space and getting back to the things that spark joy, as cheesy as that sounds.

So before I get back to it, let’s take the 50-cent recap of the past months, shall we?

First, I invested in an amazing smoker and subsequently smoked allllll the things, including all my neighbors’ Thanksgiving turkeys, lots of pork butts, bratwurst, and so on. One day, I want to volunteer with Operation BBQ, and help those suffering from disaster or displacement.

Bean joined the Cub Scouts!

She’s having a blast.

I knit a blanket for a special baby and won second place at the State Fair:

We did a winter garden of cabbage, broccoli, spinach, and carrots. (We also planted strawberries in the fall for a late spring/early summer harvest):

And finally, I finished all of the Knitterati 2018 blocks (though I have yet to assemble the blanket and add the border):

Oh, and one more project. Dad’s wife asked me to make pillows from some of his dress shirts:

So, even if I was not at my best this past year, I can say that I kept making. However, I think it’s time to dust off the cobwebs and realize that maybe there’s a bit more nuance between seemingly normal and truly healthy. If anything, at least my house will be cleaner…maybe. Probably.

Definitely maybe.

Finished Knits

Pattern: Gradient Lapghan Block 5 which is part of the ongoing Cascade Yarns Knitterati 2018 KAL. It’s available for purchase on Ravelry.

Yarn: Cascade 220 Merino in Pale Lilac colorway.

Needle: US 7

Notes and Mods: No real notes on this one. It was easy and straightforward.

Pattern: Protest is Patriotic Shawl by Nycraft Craftivist, available for free on Ravelry

Yarn: Loops & Threads Woolike in Red, White, and Navy

Needles: US 4

Notes and Mods: I knit this as written, but carried the red and white yarns up the side rather than weave in 1000 ends. If I were to make it again, I would follow what others did and use white beads for the stars rather than the white yarn. The stitches are too small to really pop against the blue. Otherwise, I love it. Also, I was pleased with the yarn in general, and it’s a good option for projects on a budget.

 

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!

Shoepeg Corn Salad–Cool Food for a Hot Day (And a Nearly Effortless Potluck Side Dish)

We had our family reunion last weekend, which is always such a fun and blessed time. We cooked, we laughed, we ate, we played games, and mostly, we continued the tradition of togetherness that my grandmother and her siblings created for us. It’s easy to get lost in the stress of the day-to-day, but when you come together with about 80 of your nearest and dearest, it’s a good reminder about remembering what’s important.

Anyway, I made a few dishes to contribute to the weekend, and this salad was a big hit. It’s a crisp, cool dish that is the perfect antidote to the hot summer days. It’s also an ideal contribution for potlucks. If you need a refreshing salad that is sure to help beat the heat, this is it!

Shoepeg Corn Salad

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Ingredients

  • 2 cans shoepeg corn, drained
  • 1 can English peas, drained (preferably Le Sueur brand)
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 3/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1 TBS water
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. black pepper

Procedure

    1. In a large bowl, combine corn, peas, green onions, bell pepper, and celery, stirring gently to combine.
    2. In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, water, oil, sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and remove the mixture from heat as soon as it begins to boil. Let cool.
    3. Pour vinegar mixture over corn mixture, stirring to combine. Refrigerate at least 6 hours, better if overnight.