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Seed Starting Essentials

When it comes to starting seeds ahead of season indoors, there are a few things you will need.  My main goal in gardening is to grow good food for less than what I’d spend in a store, and it’s really not that hard.  But, with that in mind, I generally don’t get into needing multiple tools for the job – my seed starting essentials are pretty basic.  I will share with you what I use because I have a very limited budget, if you use something different that works for you, I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Essentials I use every year:

  • Seeds
  • Seed Starting Mix
  • Containers for Starting Seeds
  • Light
  • Heat Source
  • Water Source
  • A Safe Place to Grow

Seeds: 

This is pretty obvious, but if you are going to start seeds, you need seeds to start with.  You can order them online, from a catalog, or stop in to your local grocery store or greenhouse for seeds. I suggest buying seeds early in the season and storing them until you need them, because your favorite picks might be sold out by seed starting time.  If you are confused by terms like organic, heirloom or open pollinated, I have a post that might help you.

Seed Starting Mix:

When it comes to starting seeds, I prefer a potting mix that has fertilizer to feed for a few months time.  You can buy the special seed starting mix if you wish, but I find that it is more expensive.  A seed starting mix is often much lighter, making it easier for delicate seedlings to sprout.  Potting mix can contain heavier bits like compost or bits of wood which has been said to impede germination, but to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever had an issue with germination because of this.

Containers for Starting Seeds:

This is where you can get creative and frugal.  You can spend money on a seed tray, cell inserts or plug trays, or you can use what you probably already have on hand: old plastic food containers, yogurt cups, k-cups, egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, you can even make your own using newspaper.  Any container that is large or small enough (large enough to properly grow a seedling without being too large which will cost you more in potting soil, but you can’t have the soil level too far down in the container or you won’t be able to get sufficient light to your seedling and it will grow weak and leggy.  Be sure to fill your containers!) and has a way to drain excess water.  Ask friends to hold on to their seedling containers that they often throw out after transplanting and you can reuse these year after year.  I’m not saying an investment in seed starting equipment is bad, but I am saying it is not necessary.  If you plan to do a lot of seed starting, it is probably worth your while to invest in seed trays, inserts or plug trays of various sorts.  They can all be washed and re-used for many years with proper care.

Light Source:

My light sources are fluorescent “shop lights” that are hung on a chain so they are adjustable.  I position two, 4ft lights across my 4ft shelves in the basement greenhouse.  Each has two lights, most are fitted with one ‘warm’ and one ‘cool’ bulb.  You can use grow lights if you have them, for sure.  Lighting is often a worry for new beginners and I want to make it clear that grow lights are not necessary to start seeds, so you can take a deep breath of relief knowing that expense isn’t necessary.   You can try to find them used, but if nothing else I buy them new for between $15-19 per fixture.

During our seed starting period here in Michigan, sunlight alone is not sufficient to grow strong seedlings this time of year.  You may find your seedlings grow tall and weak, lighter in color and eventually fall over.  Some seedlings can be repotted (such as tomatoes), but this is a death sentence for many others. Another consideration is that right next to a window is often cold and drafty, which can stunt and slow the proper growth of your seedlings, also.

Heat Source:

Heat is important for seed germination.  Some seeds prefer to germinate in soil that is quite warm (such as peppers and tomatoes), while other seeds prefer cooler soil temperatures, like onions.  Each vegetable has a specific range in which soil temperature it germinates best in.  While many seeds are fine being started in a room-temperature room, some may need a little help if your room doesn’t warm the soil sufficiently.  You can set the seed containers near a wood stove or near a heat source, or invest in a germination mat that should be turned on and left on until seeds germinate.  You might even be able to build a simple germination chamber which keeps the air warm and humid in a box making it the perfect environment for germination.

Water Source:

This could be as simple as a cheap spray bottle from the dollar store.  When seedlings emerge, some are very delicate. Using the spray nozzle on your kitchen sink may be too powerful for delicate seedlings and if you try watering them with too heavy of a stream they will become damaged and die.  Once they get a bit bigger using the sink spray nozzle should be fine, but for the early days or weeks, a spray bottle is great.  I have a lot of seedlings to water, so I invested in a 1.5 gallon sprayer that I just fill with water each day and I can adjust the spray from a mist to a stream.  You can purchase a larger sprayer, also.  When watering seedlings, you want to water them thoroughly so the water reaches the roots, but don’t saturate them.  It’s ok if the top layer of potting mix dries between watering.

A Safe Place to Grow:

I can’t tell you how many times my poor seedlings have been mauled by my children, dogs or cats.  I’ve had cats poop in my tomato trays, dogs knock whole trays over, children pulling seedlings out and playing in the dirt.  One year I had a dog overturn a piece of wood that held four trays of squash seedlings on a makeshift table.   I work so hard to grow our food that these setbacks are heartbreaking.  Please consider the threats that your seedlings will be under and plan around them so you don’t experience the same fate.  I eventually kept all of my seedlings in one of those four shelved “mini greenhouses” with the cover.  That worked well for a little while, but it trapped too much heat and moisture so I needed to undo the front cover and left my seedlings vulnerable again.  Another option that worked for me was wire dog cages.  I collected a bunch of them from various sources and create long crates wide enough to hold my trays and long enough to fit on a desk or table.  I zip-tie this together and also include cage pieces on the top to keep all animals out.   The wire cages were perfect for mounting the shop lights in, also.  Now I have an actual greenhouse in my basement, and I use the mini greenhouses as my shelving.  I zip the door down each night and nothing bothers them.  It has mesh windows on the side that I can open if it ever gets too warm, but that has never been necessary because the basement seems to stay a consistent temperature and  I control the heat inside the greenhouse using a radiant heater.  I also keep a small oscillating fan in here and turn it on frequently to simulate a gentle breeze, which helps seedlings grow strong.

That’s it!  Do you have a favorite tool or supply not listed here that you use for starting seeds?  Let me know in the comments!

Unconventional Mini-Greenhouses

We have all seen the mini greenhouses in the garden centers – seed trays with a clear, plastic cover that is often so flimsy it doesn’t last much past the essential time period needed to get those seeds off to a good start.  The seed trays often have a longer lifespan than the cover, and this is ok, to a point, because there are other ways we can recreate the greenhouse effect. I have found some success in storing the clear cover inverted underneath the seed tray as the tray is still in use (as they are often purchased), which prevents it from being in the way, however it doesn’t last very long even when stored that way because it is such thin plastic.

First let’s discuss why a cover is necessary for starting your seeds: A clear cover over the top of seeds just started helps retain moisture and heat that will keep the top layer of the seed starting medium favorable for new seedlings to emerge, and provide a beneficial atmosphere for the new seedling to grow.  Without that cover, the seed starting medium can develop a crust, making it hard for new seedlings to emerge, and the environment that it sprouts into can be cold and unwelcoming.  Some seedlings are more sensitive than others, but it’s generally a good idea to provide some sort of a cover until the seedlings have sprouted, especially if you are starting the seeds somewhere in your home that has varying temperatures and/or dry air.

If you are in need of a makeshift cover, in years past I have put the seedling trays or containers in plastic bags and tucked the ends under the tray, and I have also laid plastic wrap over the top of the containers and it is lifted as soon as I notice seedlings starting to sprout.  Poke some small holes in the cover so developing seedlings can still breathe. After seedlings have begun to sprout, I often remove the cover all together, however some seedlings will benefit from continued covering until they have grown a little more.  For plastic coverings that need to be raised off the surface of sprouting seedlings, I have inserted popsicle sticks or similar materials around the corners and some supports on the inside to lift the plastic off the surface of the seed starting medium.

Are seed starting trays with the plastic domes necessary?  While they are helpful, they are not vitally necessary.  There are other containers that will offer the same benefit, that you may already have laying around your home.

Salad trays, rotisserie chicken trays, berry containers, and other takeout containers that have a solid-bottomed container with a clear top will work perfectly.  You may need to add some holes at the bottom to allow drainage and in the top if it is not already vented.  You can also use a milk jug or plastic pop container with the label removed.  Cut the containers in half leaving them connected on one side so you can insert your seed starting medium and seeds, then close the container again.  You may want to tape the container together on the opposite end to keep the top end from lifting.

Another way I have made mini greenhouses is by buying the $1 plastic shoe boxes at the dollar store and drill a few air holes in the box, then use the lid as the tray that holds the seed starting containers and set the box over the lid.

In what ways have you made an “unconventional” mini greenhouse?  Feel free to share what has worked for you!

What kind of tools do you really need?

Sometimes, the cost of starting and maintaining a garden makes people decide not to start a garden after all. Having to buy all those tools, a ground cover or wood for a raised bed, compost, top soil, the seeds… If you are trying to grow food to save money, you may not have a lot of money to throw into starting a garden. I hear ya! If you feel gardening has to be expensive, may I humbly ask you what you feel you really need?

I will warn you that I am a very basic person. My goal is a functional garden that grows a lot of food. To do this, you don’t need much.

The very first year I started a garden, I did a few things wrong, financially speaking. We rented a tiller, purchased seedlings, purchased mulch, and popped it all in the ground. It was rather spur of the moment, and I think had I had time to plan a little better, the garden could have been much more affordable. I am posting this type of an article now, so you have all winter to plan and ponder your future garden. Every year since then, my garden has been grown using more affordable means.

My most frugal garden required a shovel, a hand tiller, hose, a trowel and seeds. I turned over the dirt in my small backyard gardens by hand each spring. My gardens were about 12×19, and some were smaller. I had several spots through the front and back yard. Once I turned the dirt over, I planted the seeds or the seedlings I started from seed. I used a hose to water. I had rabbits at the time, and used their bedding as compost and mulch throughout the garden. The nice thing about rabbit manure is that it isn’t ‘hot,’ meaning you can put it right from their cage into your garden without needing to compost it first.

The most common tool I hear people worry about being able to afford to have access to, is a tiller. It wasn’t until a few years after my first garden that I began using one – and now 15 years later I am using one much, much less! I can assure you it isn’t necessary.

My garden tool collection has added on over the years, but I still find myself using the basics each year. If you choose to start to seeds yourself earlier in the season, you will need different supplies, such as a quality seed starting mix, plug trays (they hold the dirt and seeds), a way to water the delicate seedlings (a spray bottle if you only have a few, or a small compressed air pump sprayer) and most likely shelving of some sort and lighting (regular shop lights work just fine for seed starting).

If your budget allows, you may find a stirrup hoe a great add-on for weeding. A rake is helpful for raking up leaves and debris, and maintaining the mulch on your beds.

The bare basics:

  • Spade shovel, hand tiller or walk behind tiller – or neither of these if you prefer a no-dig garden. See ‘Do you need a tiller?’
  • Trowel
  • Hose or watering can
  • Seeds/Seedlings
  • Ground cover of some sort – cardboard, mulch, and organic matter/compost. Some years I simply used grass clippings and/or leaves.
  • A journal/notebook for record keeping

Nice to Have:

  • A garden hoe, I recommend a stirrup hoe for weeding
  • Rake
  • Seeders
  • Row markers/string
  • Compressed air sprayer, plug trays, seed starting mix for starting seedlings indoors
  • Knee pads and a tarp to sit on
  • Garden gloves (helpful for prickly weeds!)
  • Steaks/trellis/tomato cages/step-in posts with wire

When it comes to acquiring these tools, I highly suggest looking in places like thrift stores and yard sales. I have found a lot of my tools that way. Also, look on craigslist for used tools, word of mouth, and the buy/sell groups on Facebook. Maybe a gardening friend would be happy to let you borrow tools as you need them, so that the lack of tools won’t stand in the way of being able to try gardening!

What would you change on this list? What tools do you use every year?

DIY Garden Journal

I love keeping records.  They have helped me in so many ways.  I keep a binder for most every aspect of my farm.  I will focus on my garden journal here. As my needs change, so does my garden journal. It’s never quite the same year after year, but here are the things that are always included in it:

  • I know when I started my seeds the year before last and how well they did, what their conditions were, when they started to sprout, the percentage of how many made it in the ground, and how the plants did through the season.  I jot down notes nearly daily about what I did and how my seedlings are doing, maintenance in the garden, compost applications, etc. etc.
  • I keep track of experiments.  That way, when I try to remember how my potatoes in 5 gallon buckets experiment went, I can remember.  When I wonder when I planted my beets the year before and how the weather was, I can better prepare the next year knowing that they survived despite wintery weather.
  • I can track my expenses.  Then I can see how much money seed saving is saving me because year after year I try to save different types of seeds.  I can also see how much I spent on nursery trays, starter soil, etc. and see savings the next year when I re-use them and begin to make my own starter soil.  I can track what vegetables sold best, how much I sold, how much profit I made, and prepare myself better for the next year.
  • I keep track of harvests.  I can guesstimate how many tomato plants I need based on the previous seasons planting.  Of course different weather and watering conditions can affect yields, this is just an estimation.  I can also see that “x” number of plants yielded “x” pounds of tomatoes and what I did with them – this helps me better prepare my pantry by taking inventory before canning season to see where I need more of what.
  • I keep track of my schedules.  Spring, summer, and fall gardens.  Succession plantings.  This helps me prepare mentally for the season ahead so I know when seeds need to be started, how many, and I can keep things rolling smoothly.
  • Charts.  I love charts.  I have a section in my binder devoted to charts I have found on the internet.  Charts that tell me, approximately, how much of what vegetable I should grow per person, how many seeds I need for 25, 50 and 100ft. rows of vegetables, planting schedules, companion planting, estimated yields, and lists of what vegetables belong in what family to assist with proper rotation,etc.
  • Inventory.  Perhaps the “bread and butter” of my journal.  I keep a spreadsheet of what seed packets I have, the size of their packet, approximately how many seeds per pack, my goal for planting, list price and what I paid.   I highlight the heirloom varieties so I know what seedlings need to be marked, covered at times to prevent cross pollination, and can keep a general eye on them as these varieties I try to save my seed from, to use the next year.  I don’t yet save seed from all my plants, but I do hope to reduce my seed costs each year by expanding the plants I do save seed from, learning a few more each year.
  • Seed saving notes – I can keep track of seed saving techniques, make note of what plants I am going to save seed from,  and track what I save through the season for next year.
  • Planning – I have a section with graph paper and notes so I can plan out the layout of my garden.  I will be rotating so it will be helpful to keep track of where I planted everything year to year.  I also want to be sure my taller vegetables aren’t shading my shorter vegetables.  I want to make sure the things planted near each other are companions.  Being able to graph all of this out is helpful, so I have a basic idea of where everything should go, how long I want my rows, how many of each veggie I can put in each row, how wide my aisles should be, etc.

You can create your own garden journal using a word processing program such as Microsoft Word or the open source Open Office. If you google terms like ‘garden journal’ you will find lots of pages you can print for free. Others have made their garden journals available for a small fee so most of the work is done for you.

You can buy dividers, or create your own. I like to sub-divide my sections further, so the main category is listed along side the vertical edge of the binder, and the sub-divisions are at the top of the page, horizontally. I tape the name of the category to a piece of cardstock to give the divider some strength.

These can be as elaborate or not as you wish. Some years I will simply use a planner from the store. I summarize what I did in the garden on a specific calendar box, then lay out all the details in the lined pages set aside for the weeks happenings. Sometimes I need to add pages, so I will staple them in or use paper clips. The end of most planners usually has several empty, lined pages. I use those for ‘at-a-glance’ type things.

If you keep garden notes, I would love to hear how you do it!

Do you need a tiller?

Gardening and tilling go together like peanut butter and jelly. But should they?

Every spring, tillers are pulled out of storage or rented, and started up all over the country as gardeners begin to break ground for their new garden season. Tillers will produce a flat, empty, often eye-appealing new slate that is fun to put new seedlings or seeds into. Every fall, gardeners typically till one last time to distribute compost, grind up the seasons plants so they can decompose over the winter, and prepare their garden for the long winter months.

Maybe you don’t have access to a tiller, and it is preventing you from starting your garden.

Let’s take a minute to talk about tilling, and decide if you really need one or not. If you decide to go with raised beds, a tiller is unnecessary. But if you have in-ground beds, you may discover it isn’t necessary for that, either.

Your need for a tiller will depend on a few things. If you are preparing a garden spot in the fall, you could till the grass and weeds under now, cover with cardboard, some compost and a layer of heavy mulch (you would not be tilling again in the spring). The cardboard will smother weeds for now, break down over the winter, the mulch will settle, and the compost will decompose. A word of warning though – if you have weeds that multiple through roots – such as Thistle, you would be better off simply hand-pulling and smothering the remaining weeds vs. cutting up the roots, because in some weeds, each bit of cut up root will sprout a new weed. It can quickly turn into a disaster. Even with smothering, you may need to continually top your garden bed with cardboard and mulch for a few years to starve those persistent weeds out but with diligence, they do eventually go away. I would not recommend tilling your soil and leaving it bare over the winter, as rain and snow can badly compact that top layer, leave it open to erosion, and weeds will readily sprout as soon as they can in the spring. That is why I do recommend covering your tilled area with cardboard, compost, and mulch. If those cannot be obtained, you may cover your garden using other means (check out my post on mulch) or plant a cover crop if you have enough time.

If you don’t have access to a tiller, don’t fret! Instead of tilling and then covering the bare soil, you could simply lay cardboard right down on the grass you wish to turn into a garden spot, top with compost and mulch, and let it rest all winter. In fact – I did this early in the spring last year and it worked spectacular – the only issue I had was getting through the layer of cardboard and initial soil was a little difficult because the cardboard hadn’t yet broken down and the soil was still compacted at the top layer- by the end of the season, compaction was gone thanks to the earthworms that took up residence!

In the fall, tilling is not necessary in a no-till garden – simply refresh compost and mulch. If you have a stubborn spot of thistle or another annoying weed that is hard to get rid of, smother it with another layer of cardboard right on top of your existing mulched bed. Top with compost and mulch, and let the smothering continue. It may take a few years, but if you prevent the weeds from going to seed or spreading, the repeated smothering will deplete the plants energy, thus prohibiting its ability to continue reproducing.

Tilling will allow for an instant garden, should you use a tiller in the spring. It will aerate your soil, spread amendments, give you a pretty new slate to plant in, chop up grass and weeds which will break down quickly. It does have some big drawbacks though – it can lead to compaction lower in your soil (which can hamper you roots and lead to bad drainage), slices apart the biology in your soil that keeps it functioning and fertile, bring up weed seeds that will sprout, and destroys soil structure. You should also avoid planting seeds directly in a newly tilled bed, as the broken up fresh green matter can prohibit germination. By the time the soil is ready to plant in, weeds will likely have taken over if you have not yet covered the soil with something.

You can reduce the harmful effects of tilling by tiling only when necessary, add organic matter every time you till, and change the depths at which you till each time to avoid compaction further down in the soil. Also, do not till if the soil is too wet.

Tilling Alternatives:

If you would like to use tillage to prepare your garden, but cannot access a tiller, there are still other options for turning the soil – a pitchfork can be used to turn dirt over (or better yet, simply loosen soil – you can hand pull weeds easily from there), a broadfork, or a hand tiller (may I also advise you that this will be a great workout as you twist and turn! I used one of these for a few years to till my smaller gardens back in the city).

If you choose to try gardening that doesn’t require tillage, I would love to hear from you. If you already prepare a garden that is no-till, or no-dig, I would love to hear about your experiences so far.

Building a Compost Cage

One of my goals this fall was to become more intentional with my composting. I have always done a “let it sit” approach, which seems to have worked well – but it also takes quite a while, too. As I learned (and continue to learn) about hot composting, I learned that the compost will be turned quite a bit.

Earlier this fall I build a compost bin out of extra fence posts we had hanging around. It wasn’t a permanent set up, because eventually we will use the posts as, well, fence posts for pasture. But they could serve a purpose now, by holding materials for compost. I felt like a kid again, as if I were playing with lincoln logs… haha. I thought it might actually hold my actual compost pile, until I realized how turning the pile worked. I would want to have full access to all the sides of the pile. I could remove the front posts, because I inserted bits of cut up fence post to support the remaining sides – the front posts could just be pulled right out without interfering with the integrity of the bins. But I figured that wouldn’t be enough. So for now, it holds leaves and browns on one side, and greens on the other. Once I use up all the greens this season, it will hold finished compost. If I have any left to sit around.

So a couple of my kids and I built compost cages. We had some woven wire fencing up in a pen that needed to come down. The fencing wasn’t big enough to really use anywhere else but it would be perfect to build a few compost cages from.

This was a great opportunity for math to come to life. We had to calculate the circumference of the bin if we wanted a 6ft. diameter, measure the fencing with a measuring wheel, and cut. But before we cut, we needed to measure the whole length and find out if we could get more than a couple compost cages out of the length of fencing – at some point I would want more than one going at a time. So, we measured length, divided by our needed circumference, and found out we could get about 4 cages. We rounded the circumference to make them all about the same size, then cut.

Before we began putting the cage together, I piled all of our fresh ‘greens’ into the garden aisle and had my daughter run the pile over with the lawn tractor to chop it into bits. Having everything in small bits leads to more surface area and quicker composting.

After dragging them out to the garden, I used zip ties to secure the ends together (this was a mistake), set it up as round as I could, and began layering the cage with my browns, greens and manure. Using Elaine Inghams method, this worked out to be 60% browns, 30% greens, and 10% manure. We counted how many rows of wire were on the fencing and discovered there were 12 – so if we filled the cage up to the 10th row, we could divide the compost layers up based on the height of each row – two rows of brown, 1 row of green, a thin layer of manure, 2 rows of brown, 1 row of green, manure, repeat. Some people also use 10, 5-gallon buckets to get the right amounts, but you would need do that quite a few times in order to have a pile large enough to heat up enough.

I mentioned using zipties as my mistake – they hold just fine, but when it comes time to turn the pile, I will need to remove the cage. Remember how I mentioned wanting access to all the edges of the compost pile to turn it? Well, to turn a compost pile, the top goes on the bottom of another cage, then the outsides go to the inside, and you will the outside of the cage up with what was once the inside. So in order to use my original compost bin made of fence posts, I could be limited on three sides. That is why I built the cage. My plan was simply to cut the zip ties and unwind the fencing but after a few times that creates a lot of unnecessary waste. So now, my plan will be to use bungee cords!

Making a compost cage was very easy and very quick – and will be very effective. Hopefully you can do the same!

DIY Dibble Board

A dibble board is a great tool to have around to help with quick and easy seed spacing. Spacing is important for optimal performance of your plants – if your plants are too close together they will compete with one another for nutrients and water – and pest/disease problems are more likely as well. However, proper spacing can take a bit of extra time and effort, depending on your garden layout, or you end up wasting seed later by thinning your seedlings to reach proper spacing. Who wants to waste seed or time? Sometimes both?

A dibble board is designed to reduce both time and waste in the garden. You can spend money buying one already made, or you can probably make one yourself with odds and ends you already have laying around the house and very basic skills with tools.

What have I tried in the past?

In years past I have broadcast some seeds over the beds and thin later (that equated to lots of seed waste and far too much time trying to thin), I figured time saved just getting seed in the ground would outweigh what it would take later, to thin. Later, I then broadcast in rows, so at least the seedlings would be in the same general area instead of all over. Still, lots of seed waste and time. My next attempt was to use a string tied from one end of the garden bed to the other, marking my rows. I tried to space my seeds along the string. In some cases, I tied knots at regular intervals along the string so I didn’t need to guess too badly at spacing. I have also used a ruler (I’m a perfectionist of sorts….) and tried to set a single seed or just a few in small holes I dug. The string was helpful to keep my rows straight, and I still use a string today to help guide my rows. Making an extra effort to ensure seed spacing and single/double seeds per hole did reduce seed loss by a lot – but the time spent seeding increased.

A few years ago I had an idea – create a board (or several) with pegs that could make holes in the ground and were evenly spaced so I could pop seeds in the holes and get my seeding done quickly. I put together a dibble board, and it has been a great tool that I have been using for years.

I am going to issue a caution here: I used scrap pieces, it’s not beautiful, there could be a better way to go about doing this…. BUT it’s functional and has worked for the past three seasons. That’s a win in my book.

So here is how I did it:

I used a 2×4, a dowel rod (probably 1 inch? It was in the burn pile attached to something so I’m not sure on diameter, but diameter really isn’t important here) and screws. I cut the dowel rod in short segments – maybe an inch but it could (and probably should) be shorter to an average depth of the seeds you plant. Considering very few direct sown seeds are planted at an inch depth, this was one of my mistakes – but I can reduce how far I push this into the dirt and I can control how much soil I fill the holes in with, so I am mindful of proper depth. Then I screwed the dower rods on the bottom of a 2×4 that was cut to the width of my garden. I used a yardstick and measured the distance I wanted the pegs to be. I left a margin of about 6 inches on either side of the board so I wasn’t planting right up to the edge of my garden bed (plant overhang would likely get damaged as I cut my garden aisles, so I felt 6 inches was a good starting point. My beds are about 4 ft. wide, so that is about how long my board is.

After attaching pegs to one side, I then picked a different length and did the other side. I have 2, 4, 6, 12, 18 and 24 inch spacing, two different spacing per board.

Here is how I use it:

I have found this can only be used on bare dirt, so if you have mulched beds your experience may vary. You will have to push the mulch aside to get to the dirt layer (ideally on an already established bed). If your bed has been sitting for a while, your soil hopefully won’t be too compact to use it, a simple clearing of the mulch and pressing the board in the area you cleared will hopefully work. If not, loosen the top layer of the soil somehow – using a hoe, pitchfork, or some other such tool. You don’t want t turn over the whole bed, or even go deep, just deep enough to leave an indentation from the pegs.

I till some of my beds to break the top layer of soil up a bit. Then I get down on my knees with my hands at either end of the board, and using the board with the narrow side touching the dirt, I move the board back and forth to smooth the surface of my bed. if I don’t do this, there will be areas of the garden bed that the pegs don’t’ reach because the soil is uneven.

Once the soil is smooth, I take my board and, with the pegs on the bottom of the board, stamp it into the ground.

I created the dibble board originally to be used straight across the width of the bed (which is why I had included the margins on either end), but in order to use it, that required that I kneel and walk in the garden bed, compressing the soil. I later changed up how I used it by using it in segments across the bed, smoothing soil from top to bottom if I am kneeling in the aisle between beds. I then stamp the dibble board in the dirt parallel to the length of the garden bed starting at the side furthest from me, then stamp additional rows coming back to the aisle I am kneeling in, depending on row spacing. I might place some sticks in the dirt to mark my rows at the beginning of the bed, but I can continue to stamp rows further down the bed as I work in segments as wide as my board, continually clearing, then stamping. I can see where the rows were previously stamped, and continue working off of that as far as row spacing.

I ended up looking online after I made these to see if there was anything like it, and I saw dibbles (also made one of those – love it for pricking out seedlings from my plug trays) and wider boards instead of a 2×4. I think those would be great to use, if they lined up well with the size of your garden bed. The nice thing about the dibble board I put together is that you can cut the 2×4 to whatever length you need – whether it’s the width of your garden bed or an armspan that is comfortable for you. Whatever you do, don’t make it too big to use comfortably.

Have you made something similar? I’d love to see it!

My Favorite Gardening Tool

As a frugal gardener, my gardening tools don’t go much beyond shovels, trowels and rakes. But one year my husband saw this tool in our local hardware store and bought it for me on a whim, thinking maybe I could use it. He had no idea how it worked, if I’d like it, or how much it would change my life. Maybe I am being a little over dramatic, but seriously this tool cuts down HOURS in the garden when I am weeding bare-dirt beds. My kids enjoy using it. Weeding is almost pleasant even for the most anti-weeder.

Meet the Stirrup Hoe.

The type of stirrup hoe I use is a Hula Hoe. It has other names, Action Hoe is another. It comes in a short version, as I have pictured above and here on the side, and a long handled tool with a bigger hoe end that you use standing up. I have both, and I prefer the smaller version because – for me – it’s easier to use. It will give you a great arm workout regardless of which one you use, but I feel like I have more control when I am gardening on my hands and knees so I prefer the shorter tool. The shorter tool cost about $16 or so, and the long handled one was $25 or so. Check your local hardware stores, but if you can’t find them locally I bet you could find them on Amazon.

How to use it:

The tool can be used in a forward, backward, or forward and backward direction depending on your needs. The head is fixed on an angle with some flexion, and the bottom part of the tool that comes in contact with the dirt acts as a blade, slicing weeds apart. Depending on how deep you go, it may pull some smaller weeds out, or slice them apart under the soil line.

The blade is intended to have some wiggle to it, because depending on the direction that you pull it, it will move so the blade is constantly digging into the ground no matter if you are pushing or pulling. If you use more upper body strength, you can dig the hula hoe in the ground and use it to loosen up your soil around your plants. It’s excellent to run over your beds every couple days to slice off all those baby weeds before they ever become a problem in your garden. It’s ease of use cuts off hours of tedious hand-pulling of weeds. It’s narrow enough to run through your rows and you can get right up close and personal with your vegetable plants, slicing off weeds without ever disrupting the root system. When you hand-pull weeds that have taken deep root, it can mess with the root system of the plants you want in your garden bed, leading to stress and shock, which can lead to death of your plants!

Where it won’t work:

Stirrup hoes won’t work well in mulched beds, on wet soil, or with tall weeds. Hand pull the tall weeds and then maintain your beds with the hula hoe – simply finding a few minutes every couple or so days to run it over the soil and remove all the tiny baby weeds will save you so much hassle later on.

Have you ever tried a stirrup hoe?? What do you think about them? You know, if you are local and want to come try it before buying it, let me know! I would be happy to let you test drive one before making the purchase.