This year I replaced an 800-square-foot area of sun-bleached front yard with wildflowers, and it has been a lot of fun and very rewarding. I’ve even learned from my mistakes (I think.) I was amazed to discover how simple the process was–all I needed was an action hoe, some elbow grease, some wildflower seed, and a water hose. Providing the elbow grease can be a problem for me, as I tire easily. So I had to chip away at the project a few square feet at a time. (Better add planning and patience to the list of requirements.) Since I started prepping the area in November of 2013, that gave me plenty of time to gradually clear the ground and sow the seed.
I’ve been rewarded with striking displays of color, an unusual array of bugs and butterflies, more photo ops than you can count, a closer relationship with my neighbors, and even a request from a professional photographer who wanted to walk through the garden and do a photo shoot. And wildflowers re-sow easily, so I’m already looking forward to next year!
Here’s the slideshow with before-and-after pictures as well as intermediate steps in the process.
East side of front yard in July 2013, before conversion to wildflower garden: nothing but bleached-out Bermuda grass and sand burs.
East side of front yard in July 2014, after conversion to wildflower area and rows of field peas.
November 2013 - clearing area for wildflower garden. Soil surface has been scraped clean with an action hoe; gridlines for rows have been marked off with the point of a shovel.
June 2014 - Wildflower Garden in Full Bloom - Gloriosa Daisies, horsemint, and clasping coneflowers blanket an area that was once scalped, withering Bermuda grass and sand burs.
Action Hoe: The Magic Wildflower Implement. To prep the areas prior to sowing wildflower seed, the soil surface was scraped clean with an action hoe. No digging required; all that is needed is seed-to-soil contact.
Late April 2014. A smattering of bluebonnets and Some corn poppies: the bluebonnets did not fill in solid, which was disappointing. Everyone tells me it takes 2 years to get good coverage.
May 2014 - Young Sunflower Plants in Row 6. Sunflowers planted in the wildflower garden's back row are still about a month away from blooming.
End of May 2014 - Surrounded by Spring. It's a beautiful time to just sit in the middle of the garden, where clasping coneflowers and horsemint predominate and the gloriosa daisies are making an appearance.
Mid June 2014 - The Back-Row Sunflowers Join In. Rows three through six have filled in nicely with gloriosa daisies, cosmos, more horsemint, Firecracker sunflowers, and common sunflowers.
Growing no-till field peas is embarrassingly easy. It’s so easy, I never would have thought of it myself because I like to dream up complicated scenarios that involve a lot of steps. Having hatched such a plan, I become so overwhelmed by its intricacies that I become discouraged and talk myself out of doing anything before I can even get started. Thus it’s a miracle that I stumbled across a garden plan that was so simple and appealing, I was actually able to follow through and do it.
I already knew about Purple Hull peas because I’m from southern Arkansas and my mother grew them every year. Back then, the old country folks did not know anything about environmentalism or sustainability; the earth was something to be plowed, poisoned, and pounded into submission. It was the only way they knew, and they did the best they could.
Doing the best you can with what you’ve got: that’s what they did back then, and that’s what I’m doing now. I don’t have land to speak of; just a quarter-acre city lot, and the part of it that gets full sun is in my front yard. I don’t own any equipment nor do I want to, as I cannot bear the sound of the gasoline engines that give yard equipment its jaw-clenching, grinding whine. (Even some of the electric equipment is pure noise pollution: if it’s a leaf blower or sounds anything like one, get it the heck away from me!) And I don’t have a lot of energy: I get up with the chickens and by lunchtime, I’m exhausted and get nothing else done that day.
Nevertheless, despite limited resources and energy, and armed only with a butter knife and some pea seed, I produced 13 quarts of purple hull peas from my front yard last year. This is good news for anyone who thinks they don’t have the time, the money, or the skill to grow some of their own food. Turns out, you can start out with almost nothing and still succeed at growing a crop of field peas. As I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t have dreamed this up entirely on my own. I surfed around and found an article by a man who has done something similar; I’m grateful to him for sharing with the rest of us. Check out Jack Guidry’s article on No-Till Peas.
I did a couple of minor things differently, such as physically planting each pea seed and marking it with a small stick, because I’m so anal I have to know exactly where the seeds are; and I’m so hungry for gratification that I have to see the seedlings coming up in three days. So here’s the slideshow demonstrating my version of no-till field peas, and I will follow up with some extra detail.
The peas are being planted directly into turf grass by making a half-inch deep slit in the ground with a butter knife, dropping in the pea, then smoothing a bit of dirt over the slit to seal it.
Purple Hull pea seedlings emerge through the turf grass less than a week after being planted.
Although the turf grass is thriving, the month-old Purple Hull pea seedlings planted in it are growing even faster than the grass.
Three rows of Purple Hull peas, 20 feet long each, on the east side of the driveway. I have been trimming the grass between rows by hand.
Seven weeks after planting, the purple hull peas are in bloom and have produced beautiful, healthy vines.
The pea patch is popular with lady beetles. Not only are they beneficial, they're pretty darn cute!
The pea pods are turning purple, which makes the peas that are ready to pick easy to spot.
It isn't necessary to wait until the hulls are totally purple to pick the peas; pods that have developed purple stripes are ripe enough and easy to shell.
A picking of purple hull peas in a colander, needing to be rinsed, blanched, and put in the freezer.
What You Need:
A section of yard that gets full sun, drains well, and preferably is growing some kind of plain old turf grass. Or even weeds and stickers. It’s good to have some kind of vegetation already growing to serve as living mulch for the seeds while they’re germinating and for the young seedlings while they’re getting established. (I only know this because I did it, and it worked.)
A lawnmower. Yeah, sorry. I’m anti-equipment but some tasks cannot be avoided; yards have to be mowed to be in compliance with city codes. Leave enough space between rows that you can mow between them until the pea vines get established. I suggest three feet, but this will vary based on the width of your lawnmower. Fortunately, my husband bought a very quiet electric lawnmower, so nothing disturbs my pastoral tranquility but the sound of eighteen wheelers on the nearby interstate.
Field pea seed. Local feed stores are good places to buy seed cheaply in bulk. I bought a half-pound of purple hull pea seed last year, planted 100 feet of row, and had seed left over for this year. All for less than two bucks.
A butter knife. Just raid your silverware drawer. Surely you have some cheap stainless that you can press into service as a yard implement.
A water hose. Soaker hoses are nice but not necessary. Just be sure to water your rows thoroughly right after planting, and for a couple of weeks after the seedlings are up (if you’re like we are in Texas and never get enough rain.) After that, keep an eye on the plants and water if they look like they need a drink.
Elbow grease and patience. The plants will do better if you keep the grass around them short–although, again, that’s not strictly necessary. I yank off the long ends of surrounding grass by hand, and my husband mows between rows. The peas should start blooming about 6 weeks after they come up, and a couple of weeks after that, you’ll get to pick peas!
I know I’ve left out some details; I will go back through and expand this post later. A good resource for more information is http://www.purplehull.com/index.htm . It includes links to publications produced by the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service that go into depth about conventional methods to raise field peas; it also contains the article by Jack Guidry which inspired me to start this project.
It has been one to two weeks since I transplanted several varieties of winter squash seedlings to the in-ground clay planters that I dug for them. It’s time for what I consider to be the most odious task required in gardening: thinning out the plants. It feels so unfair, choosing who will live and who will die, when all the seedlings have grown to be so healthy and robust.
I’ve tried various tactics in the past to avoid this step, such as only planting a small number of seedlings with a lot of space between them so that thinning would not be necessary. When I do this, invariably something happens to my small group: they are eaten by animals or bugs, or I clumsily step on some of them, or they simply fail to thrive. Thus, grudgingly, I have come to accept thinning as a necessity. To make the task more palatable, I thank each plant that I have to pull up, telling it I’m grateful that it has lived and been of service, making the world a greener place. I thank it for supporting its fellow plants.
At this point, I should be saying that I put the plant in my compost pile so it can become food for the next generation, but I don’t. Here I must confess one of my failings as an amateur gardener: I can’t make myself follow through on composting. Yes, I bought a compost bin, a Soil Saver, last year; yes, I tried to compost my vegetable garden last year, chopping up a bunch of my purple-hull pea vines when they were through producing and putting them in the bin along with layers of brown; yes, I read that the carbon-to-nitrogen mix should be 25:1 or 30:1. What happens is, I can’t remember to keep it wet, and I’m not strong enough to turn over the pile. Therefore, senior moments plus a lack of upper-body strength have resulted in me wasting a lot of beautiful plant debris.
Hopefully, now that I’ve confessed, I’ll forgive myself and solutions will begin to present themselves; so that in the future, I can do something constructive with my thinned-out plants and not feel so sorry for them.
Here’s the latest slideshow on the winter squash project:
Young Waltham Butternut squash prior to being thinned out. There are 11 plants in a 4-foot by 1-foot area, which is too many. I will be thinning these by half, though it saddens me to do so.
After being thinned, there are 6 Waltham Butternut squash remaining. This is supposedly still too many for the space they are in, but I cannot bear to part with any more.
Three days after thinning the plants, the Waltham Butternut squash now have leaves 8" in diameter.
The Buttercup squash next to trellis three prior to thinning. . Conventional wisdom would say I should only leave three plants here, but I decided to leave six.
Buttercup squash just after thinning. I removed one of each pair of plants; six plants are left.
Buttercup squash 3 days after thinning. Like the Waltham Butternuts, they now have leaves over 8" in diameter. When this morning picture was taken, the okra one row over was casting large shadows on the leaves.
Bush Buttercup squash in terrace one-south prior to being thinned. This variety of squash is doing the best among the types of seedlings I transplanted.
Bush Buttercup squash after being thinned. Now these guys will grown like the proverbial weeds.
3 days after thinning, some of the Bush Buttercup squash have leaves that are 12" in diameter.
Spaghetti squash prior to thinning
Spaghetti squash after thinning
Spaghetti squash 3 days after thinning are growing faster.
Armenian cucumbers and one Jack-Be-Little pumpkin on 08/13/14. I will not be thinning these, but I will be adding a buried fertilizer strip.
Armenian cucumbers and Jack-Be-Little pumpkin on 08/16/14. The buried fertilizer strip is speeding their growth.
Oh, the unbridled enthusiasm I feel with each new batch of seedlings! I started a half-dozen varieties of winter squash in small pots filled with peat moss; I planted some Waltham Butternut, Buttercup, Bush Buttercup, Spaghetti squash, Jack-Be-Little pumpkins, and I’m gambling on some yellow straight-neck squash also–vine borers typically wipe these out, but perhaps they won’t since I’m planting this late in the season. I was thrilled to have a nearly 100% germination rate, even though the packet expiration dates were in October 2013. That means more work, of course, as I have had to prepare more of my “in-ground clay planters” for the seedlings to grow in. I actually had success using this method last year, (see Fun With Bad Clay) so stay tuned as we walk through the production of (hopefully) a bumper squash crop!
I wasn’t quite done transplanting all the seedlings when I strained my back badly enough that I will be sidelined for a couple of days. While I am resting, icing my back, and twiddling my thumbs, I might as well start documenting this project. The following slideshow shows what I’ve done and how I’ve done it thus far.
Waltham butternut squash seeds are germinating only 3 days after being planted in damp peat moss. The pots are on the back patio, receiving about 4 hours of sun per day.
Five days after planting, we have a pot full of healthy seedlings.
I have dug an "in-ground clay planter" four feet long, one foot wide and eight inches deep next to trellis four. I have filled it about half full of water and let the water soak in.
The butternut seedlings have been removed from their pot. The entire contents of the pot came out in one piece, and now individual plants can be separated for planting. This is done by putting a couple of inches of clay soil in the bottom of the pot; standing a couple of 4-inch long toilet paper rolls up in the clay; filling the tp rolls and surrounding area with damp peat moss; and planting the seeds about a half-inch deep. I planted 11 seeds in a 6" diameter pot and all of them came up.
I dumped about 1.5 cubic feet of Sta-Green sphagnum peat moss in the hole I dug, then mixed it in with the native clay soil. I dug a 2-inch wide, 2-inch deep trench along the length of the "planter" and sprinkled in 3 cups of granular 10-10-10 fertilizer. I covered the fertilizer strip with more soil, then planted the Waltham butternut seedlings a few inches away from the fertilizer strip and watered the whole area thoroughly.
Five days after transplant, the squash seedlings have developed true leaves and are looking great.
Moving on to Jack-Be-Little pumpkins, I plan to plant a half dozen seedlings in the front row of the wildflower garden, which I converted to a more formal flower bed.
A couple of JBL pumpkin seedlings. I dug another of my in-ground "clay planters" for them, mixed in some Sta-Green Tree & Shrub Soil, and after transplant I gave them collars of very soft clay mud.
The next variety is Buttercup squash. These seedlings are ready for a new place to live.
I have dug another in-ground clay planter alongside trellis three for the Buttercups. To the left is a row of okra.
All the Buttercup squash slide out of their starter pot as a unit, due to the use of sticky clay underneath the peat moss.
The Buttercup squash seedlings immediately after planting. I used the same method as I did for the Waltham Butternuts.
Three days after transplant, the Buttercup squash have true leaves and are thriving.
Terrace two has spaghetti squash and JBL pumpkin seedlings. This area was prepped differently: I dug down one foot deep and filled in with straight peat moss, intending to grow parsnips here. The parsnips have failed to germinate, and I'm certainly not going to let a prepped bed go unplanted!
On to terrace one-south, where I'm planting Bush Buttercup and Early Prolific Straightnecks in my usual in-ground clay planters.
Digging down at least eight inches to create another in-ground clay planter.
I've dumped peat moss next to the planter area to amend the bad clay.
The two-inch wide and deep fertilizer trench has been dug and filled with 3 cups of Sta-Green 10-10-10 fertilizer.
The trench has been covered and the peat moss mixed into the planting area.
Bush Buttercup and Early Prolific Straightneck squash have been transplanted to terrace one-south.
A couple of Bush Buttercup squash seedlings. One was started in a toilet paper roll and I transplanted it, roll and all.
One week after transplant, the Bush Buttercup squash seedlings are doing great...and now, we wait!
I live on a hill covered with bad clay, and have read that a whole lot of work must be put into soil amendment to grow anything in it. That’s not necessarily true; field peas and wildflowers will grow in anything, even if mixed in with a lot of weeds and grass. As for growing anything else, I like to think I’ve been given an endless supply of in-ground clay planters. I dig out sections of clay about eight inches deep, a foot wide, and three or four feet long; add several inches of water, then fill with a mixture of potting mix and peat moss, as well as adding a buried fertilizer strip (reminiscent of planting an EarthBox). I add my plants, keep them watered, and they grow like crazy. I also use my bad clay as a sculpting medium; with it, I shape “pseudo-terraces” shored up with paving stones set in a clay channel. The stones dry in place, giving me terraces that help with the conservation and channeling of water. Here’s the slideshow showing how I do it:
I rescued several wild sunflowers on the fourth of July from their death camp: a construction site that had been bulldozed for the building of yet another strip mall. I had pulled up several more of them the previous week for transplant, but there was a huge hill of fill dirt covered with hundreds of sunflowers that I couldn’t save. When I came back ten days after my initial rescue, the hill had been flattened and all the sunflowers destroyed. There were a few survivors around a storm drain that the bulldozer could not reach, and I pulled up four of them. That’s the good thing about wild sunflowers; they are exceptionally tough. I simply yanked them out of the ground. The roots are so strong that they retained a lot of their native soil for a root ball. When I transplanted them to row five of my wildflower garden, I just dug holes slightly larger than the plants’ root balls, filled the holes halfway with water, set the plant in the ground, and filled the dirt back in. In less than a week, it was impossible to tell the plants had ever been moved, and some of them were blooming! That’s about as close to an instant wildflower garden as you can get; the plants were three to four feet tall already, did not have to be cut back, and the existing buds remained viable and bloomed as they normally would. Absolutely awesome!
Coming in the next few days: documentation of this wonderful, minimally-invasive way to start gardening with whatever ground you have, and to improve the soil in the process.
I got the idea by reading Jack Guidry’s article on No-Till Peas. I’ve modified his method a little bit due to having a rather small yard, as well as being far too detail-oriented for my own good. The above photo is from my first front-yard garden, planted in 2013.