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Make Tomato Cages that will Last Forever

Have you bought the typical metal tomato cage at a garden center? They are everywhere at this time of year. They maybe quick and easy to buy and install, but in a southern garden when indeterminate tomatoes reach 7' tall or more, a little 54" tomato cage just doesn't work. After a season or two the welds come undone and you're stuck with a useless piece of metal. At $5 or more a piece, it can add up to a lot of wasted money. That is why it is much more frugal to invest in making tomato cages that will last forever out of concrete remesh.

Concrete Remesh Tomato Cage Supplies

The kicker here is the price for materials. I needed 18 cages, I had to buy a large roll of 150', which costs $107 at Lowes. It's a lot up front, but I was able to get 20 tomato cages out of one roll, which makes each cage $7.50 to make. That's less than one of the fancy, plastic tomato cages.  If you only need a few cages, you can buy remesh in smaller sheets for about the same price. I was able to make 19 cages in 2 hours all by myself. Not bad for something I will never have to do or buy again!

This roll is heavy. I had to have someone load it in the truck for me, and my husband and I had a heck of a time getting it out. Once on the ground, though, I just rolled it to where I needed it to be. I started out this process on one end of my yard. Keep in mind, I'm a smallish woman and I managed to make 20 of these in a few hours so once it's on the ground, it's not too labor intensive.

Making Remesh Cages


1. Roll out the mesh to your desired length. My cages are 2 1/2' in diameter, you could make them up to 3'  but of course you would get fewer out of the roll.




2. I weighed the loose end with a large block, measured my cut (7 1/2') and used bolt cutters. When cutting, I cut right behind the squares so that I had a long piece of metal to hook around and latch. This way I didn't have to purchase additional fasteners.



 3. Once my 7 1/2' piece was cut, I made a tube by securing the wire around the other end.



4. There are a couple of options to secure the cages to the ground. You can use stakes or rebar to secure them, or simply cut off the bottom bar, similar to how we cut the sides to leave wire to wrap around. If you cut just the bottom bar off, you have 6" prongs to push into the ground.

I now have indestructible, non-tippable, long-lasting tomato cages ready for even the largest indeterminate varieties. I have seen these in action in other people's gardens and they are amazingly strong.




If you already have a bunch of those flimsy cages, don't worry, they have other uses. They make great structures for growing cucumbers and beans.

Making Simple Newspaper Pots for Seed Starting

Over the last few years, I have experimented with all kinds of seed starting methods. I’ve used store-bought seed starting mix, all kinds of different ingredients, peat pots, plastic containers in the windows -- you name it, I’ve probably tried it. Of all the options I have tried, making simple newspaper pots for seed starting is the easiest, cheapest and best seed starting process.

Why Use Newspaper Pots

Lots of gardeners start with those little peat pots, including myself. After dealing with several plant failures, I discovered that the roots of many of my crops weren’t able to grow beyond that little net that surrounds the peat pellets, preventing them from growing properly. I was also disappointed to find many of those little nets were not breaking down very quickly in my soil. My solution is creating my own truly biodegradable plant pots out of newspaper. Not only do I save money by making free containers, I also save a lot by mixing my own simple seed starting mix.

Seed Starting Mix

For a frugal, basic seed starting mix combine equal parts:
Compost
Vermiculite
Soil (store bought or from your own garden)

Making Newspaper Pots

When making simple newspaper pots for seed starting, I used a pint beer bottle because I like the aluminum and it’s taller than the standard soda can, but you could use a kitchen glass, or just about anything to make your newspaper pots.

Planting Seedlings

When it’s time to plant, I put the whole newspaper pot in the ground without disturbing my fragile plant roots. It takes no time at all for newspaper to break down in the soil and give the worms something yummy to feast on!


How do you like to start seeds?

Warming the Soil Before Planting

Spring is here and the sun has returned to take the chill out of our bones. For those of us in the south, we are weeks away from planting summer crops. Those of you further north are probably working on spring veggies. Regardless of where you are, you may want to start warming the soil before planting. If the soil temperature is too cold, seeds will not germinate and plants won't thrive. A tomato seedling, for example, won't die in soil that is too cold (unless the plant is exposed to freezing temperatures), but it also will not thrive and grow until the soil temperature raises, subjecting it to weakness, pests and disease. Stressed plants attract pests, and that is not a battle any of us desires.

Expose the Soil

While I encourage heavy mulching, particularly over the winter, one of the first ways to warm the soil is to remove all mulch and expose soil to direct sun. This is about the only time you should actually see exposed soil in a no-till garden. When things warm up after planting, mulch again and keep the soil covered for the remainder of the year. Allow a few weeks for exposed soil to warm before planting. Check the soil temperature to make sure it is warm enough for what you want to plant. There's a great chart here on Gardener's Supply with optimal planting temperatures.

Use the Sun

In general, I like to avoid plastic products, but if you are in a big hurry to plant, you can use black or clear plastic to attract the sun's heat and warm the soil beneath. Either cut a hole in the plastic to plant, or remove it before planting. I would suggest removing all plastic and add mulch around plants before it gets very hot to avoid cooking the soil.


Small efforts like ensuring the proper soil temperature before planting helps prevent problems later in the season. Save yourself some time and energy by waiting to plant until the soil temperature is correct.

Are you planting anything in your garden right now? 



Putting the Garden to Bed for the Winter

Putting the garden to bed for winter keeps the soil biologically active, prevents weeds, and prepares the space for spring planting during the cold winter months.

Methods

Cover Crops

There still may be time to get winter cover crops started in the garden, depending on your location. Even if you don’t have time to plant cover crops for the winter, there will still be time to plant them in early spring to “wake up” the soil biology before summer planting.

Mulch

We are in the season of ample free mulch. While tree leaves don’t offer much in the way of nutrients, they do break down and add valuable humus to the soil. Humus is what gives you that loose, crumbly soil that those of us with clay soil so desire. Whole or shredded leaves can be added to the soil once crops are removed. This process insulates the soil, prevents winter weeds, prevents soil compaction from rain and snow and protects from erosion. Never leave the soil bare over the winter.

Compost

If you have been working hard all year to make compost from kitchen scraps, this is a great time to add it to the garden. Over time, the nutrients collected in that compost pile will leach out, fertilizing the soil under the compost pile. Go ahead and move that pile to your garden beds so those nutrients are located where they are most useful.


The best spring gardens begin in the fall. Putting the garden to bed for the winter will keep those beautiful soil bacteria and fungi healthy and happy all winter, creating an environment ready for your spring crops when the weather warms again.



What do you do to put your garden to bed for the winter?



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Leaves: Making Use of this Free Garden Gold


It can seem a bit sad to watch the leaves fall because it indicates that winter is coming. However, each year I get excited for the trees to shed their foliage because my garden gets a healthy layer of valuable, free, slowly decomposing material.

Benefits of Leaves in the Garden

There are several benefits of adding a layer of leaves to the surface of your garden over the winter. Keeping the soil heavily mulched prevents compaction and soil erosion from winter rain and snow, prevents winter weeds, and keeps the soil biology active. Microbes and fungi in the soil still need to feed over the winter even though there are few plant roots to feed and keep them active. Leaves slowly decompose, offering a steady supply of food so the soil is active and healthy when it’s time for spring planting. If you want leaves that are completely decomposed by spring, run them through a leaf shredder before adding them to the garden.

I also keep bagged leaves by my compost bin for an endless supply of brown materials to make compost throughout the year.

Garden Expansion

Leaves are also a valuable element for expanding the garden. In November I prep new beds by laying down a thick layer of cardboard and topping it with at least 8” of leaves. When it’s time for spring planting, I dig a hole and place my plants. By the end of summer, all the grass is gone and has been replaced with dark, loose soil. No tiller needed!


Not only do I move all of my own fallen leaves to the garden, I import them from my neighbors. Several of my neighbors rake and bag their leaves in special bags that they buy from the city. I have asked them to bag their leaves in regular trash bags and I will come pick them up. They save money and I get extra leaf mulch.


What is your favorite way to use leaves in the garden?


Growing Garlic: What You Need to Know About This Easy Crop


Growing garlic is easy, making it a perfect crop for beginning gardeners -- it is rarely affected by pests and is a pest deterrent when planted near other crops. It is not fussy about soil conditions, is cold-hardy, and stores well. If you ever wanted to try growing one thing, garlic may be for you.

Why Grow Garlic

Garlic is a staple in my little kitchen. We go through a couple of heads a week, more in the winter because it’s in every soup recipe I make. It’s the first thing I look for when I start to get that sick feeling (chicken soup, anyone?) and it’s in my plague tonic, which I’m positive has spared me from many a cold virus. It’s safe to say, I always need garlic and I need it in large quantities. 

Time Frame for Garlic

Seed garlic can be purchased online from many retailers, including Gardener's Supply, and should be planted at the same time as flower bulbs, in late October or November. It will begin to grow during the cold months and will really take off in early spring. Garlic is usually harvested around mid-June, left in the shade to cure for two weeks, then can be stored for the following winter.

Tips for Growing Garlic

  • Space cloves about 4 inches apart. Any closer and the heads will grow smaller, farther apart and you’re wasting space and making room for weeds. 
  • Every online resource will tell you something different about planting depth for garlic. That’s because everyone plants in a different climate. For those of us in NW Arkansas, planting each clove one inch below the soil’s surface is ideal. I like to top with a few inches of mulch for weed control and to insulate the soil. 
  • Garlic is as complicated or simple as you want to make it. You can purchase fancy varieties online, or simply buy a few heads at the Farmer's Market.
  • Garlic is a root crop, and as such needs well drained soil. The looser the soil, the larger the heads will get, so break up the area well with a spade to get bigger garlic.
  • Nutrient-rich soil is always best so add a good quality compost into the soil before planting.
  • Soft-neck garlic grows scapes. Trim these off in the spring before they bloom to get bigger garlic heads. Cook the scapes or pickle them -- they have great flavor!

Types of Garlic

Softneck:  Milder flavor, better storage
Hardneck: More flavorful, doesn't store as well as softneck
Elephant Garlic: Not a true garlic, as it is more closely related to onions. Great flavor, easy to cook with.

Growing garlic is an easy process, but it does take some time. As your garlic grows, observe the process and enjoy each step!

What is your favorite way use garlic in the kitchen?
 

Preparing for the End of Gardening Season


In areas that experience below freezing temperatures, it is inevitable that we must prepare our garden space for the end of the gardening season. To determine your first expected frost date, visit the Farmer's Almanac. The first expected frost date for Northwest Arkansas is October 31.  That doesn’t mean that frost isn’t possible before, or that we will get frost on that day, it just means that is the average first frost. This is the guideline gardeners use to determine when to clean up the garden, remove frost-sensitive plants, or prepare season extending procedures. Gardeners everywhere run out to harvest as much as possible before the first frost hits. If you look carefully, you can watch us shiver as we remove green tomatoes and tiny peppers.

Preparing for the First Frost

Frost sensitive plants

If you want to keep your frost-sensitive blooms and veggies around as long as possible, be prepared. We typically get a few light frosts through the month of November, so keep some old sheets or frost cloth around for those cold nights. Watch the forecasts carefully and, when there is a chance of frost, cover your sensitive plants. Burlap and paper will also work, just don’t use any kind of plastic, this won’t protect from frost. I like to secure my fabric to the plants with clothes pins to make sure the wind doesn’t blow away my protection.

Frost tolerant plants

There is still time to grow frost-tolerant plants. Kale, chives, cabbage, and broccoli will survive the first light frosts. In fact, I have grown kale and chives all through a mild winter with no cold damage at all. They are very hardy. During harsher winters, you can make a low tunnel with hoops and greenhouse plastic or frost cloth for harvests throughout the winter. Mums are my favorite frost-tolerant blooms and they are available at all the garden centers right now.

Prepare for spring

This is the perfect time to prepare for next year. Lasagna gardening -- layering organic materials -- is the best way to prepare. Just lay down layers of cardboard on your desired garden space, then add layers of organic material. Straw, leaves, and grass clippings are perfect. Over the winter, these materials will breakdown, the paper products will suffocate weeds while the paper and mulch feed the soil. By spring you will have moist, well-fed soil in which to plant.

Season extenders

Year-round gardening is possible in NWA with season extenders like low rows, hoop houses, and greenhouses.


The best way to prepare for the spring growing season is to be properly prepared for the end of this gardening season. Take care of your existing crops by planning ahead and be prepared protect your winter crops to avoid losing them too early.


Do you plan on growing anything over the winter?

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