Saturday, March 24, 2012

treasure in our own backyards- is there a Restore near you?

Some of you have already heard me rave about this, but for those who haven't, hold the phone: do you know about Habitat for Humanity's Restores?

Most folks have heard of Habitat for Humanity- the nonprofit that helps people build their own homes, revitalize neighborhoods, and teach general DIY skills to thousands of volunteers every year.  It is a very established group- and for the record, I am in no way affiliated with them: I just can't resist giving them a plug because I see how much good they do in the world and I can't keep my mouth shut about it.  Anyway... Habitat also runs over 6,000 Restores, and that is what I want to focus on in this post.

Restores are nonprofit stores that accept donations of used or surplus building materials (donators receive the necessary paperwork to file for a tax credit with the IRS), and they then sell these building materials for what often amounts to pennies on the dollar.  Their goal?  To make money that is all plowed back into their mission of sustainable, affordable housing and empowered homeowners who help to improve neighborhoods one house at a time.

We had a Restore when my wife & I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and I was bummed when we relocated and Salt Lake didn't have one.  Well, fast forward a few years, and now we do!  I now have a place to donate my extra building materials- the amount of stuff they keep out of landfills every year is just staggering!- and it is also my first stop when I'm looking for materials for new projects around the house or shop.

So, my question is, where's your nearest Restore?  And, have ya been lately?  Let me know if you find any deals next time you go!

Here's a few pics from one of my recent (ok, I go every week!) trips:

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Growing Up is Easy: for vegetables, anyway

Small space gardening is awesome- who doesn't want to get more produce from a given spot?  Once you're up and running, it may actually be easier and more efficient to maintain than traditional garden plots.  In fact, some small-space-friendly principles are just as useful to people who have a lot of room to grow stuff.

Growing vertically is a major theme in small-space gardening.  While it is not exactly rocket science, I still want to devote at least one blog post to it, since it is one of those simple things that often provides the best results at the smallest expense of time, effort, and money.  And it is overlooked far too often.

Vertical gardening takes advantage of the fact that most plants are really happy to grow upward if they are provided with some kind of structure to climb.   That's my main point; I could stop writing now, but I won't, so stay tuned for more detail.  Lots of plants can do fine when they are left to sprawl across the ground, and if this approach works for you in a particular situation, then that's great.  Move along and enjoy the rest of your day!  If you're interested, however, here are three reasons (there are more, of course) why vertical gardening makes sense:

1) Healthier plants
Some plants will be healthier when they are kept up off of the ground- this approach helps ensure a good airflow around the base of the plants, which can help excess moisture to evaporate rather than provide a breeding ground for mold, disease, and who knows what else.  It also provides less nooks and crannies for mice, insects, and other pests to hang out.

2) Larger yields
Some plants will grow and grow and grow when they're given the opportunity, so if you build a simple trellis (it can be quick & dirty or fancy, or somewhere in between.  Whatever works.)... your plants will get bigger and you might just get more produce.  Logical, right?

3) Better produce with less waste
I got sick of finding over-ripe, mushy, maybe even inedible tomatoes that I missed the first time because they were buried under tons of foliage.  I hate to waste food, and I'd rather pick stuff at its peak- this is easy when plants are grown up high and trellised out so you can easily see how things are ripening.  A good trellis makes  it easier to monitor the health of your plants and the ripeness of your coming harvest.

For example, I started out growing tomatoes in the ubiquitous wire cages that are about 3 feet tall.  I did this for years, because that was the only way I knew how, and it worked out ok.  But then I heard somebody- local superstar (in my book) Carly Gillespie, from Wasatch Community Gardens- talking about her tomato plants getting to 7 or 8 feet high, and I was blown away.  Seduced by the promise of growing such whoppers, I came home and built a simple trellis- I mean really simple, just using scrap wood and about 20 minutes of my time.  I built it 6 feet high, and when I planted my seedlings, it looked just ridiculous.  "These plants will never get tall enough to need all this height," I thought.  Boy was I ever wrong (I guess there's a first time for everything).  Our plants blew past the 6 foot mark and I had to add on another foot of structure to the top of the trellis.  This year, I'll be building a trellis 8 feet high.    

In addition to looking awesome, our three "walls" of tomatoes provided far more produce than the old cages allowed for, and they made it easier to keep an eye on the ripening fruit so that they could be picked at their peak.  While I didn't weigh the total amount of tomatoes we produced- I'm curious, but far too lazy- our 25 plants kept us in fresh tomatoes through December, and the gallons of fresh salsa I consumed (yes, gallons) were fantastic. 

If you have any questions on building trellises or other supports, just ask!


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Small Space Gardening

During the winter time, especially with Spring on the horizon but not actually here yet, even pictures of plants make me happy.  This is a great time of year to start looking around and getting ideas about the upcoming growing season.
(photo credit keeping it real @

For many folks, space is an issue, either because there just isn't much of it, or it may not be around long enough (i.e. you're anticipating a move before you get to harvest those delicious veggies), and there are a few approaches that might help.  Here I'll discuss my top 3, in no particular order:

*Container Gardnening

*Vertical Gardening

*Community Gardening

They're all pretty much just what they sound like, but since it is my nature to talk a lot, why stop now?

Container gardening 

demonstrates that you can actually grow a lot in very little space (most "normal" gardens are not very space efficient, and I guess if you have a lot of room to spare, this may not matter, but why wouldn't you want to take an easier, more efficient route in life if there is no down side?)  Just about all herbs are very well-suited to containers- they don't need deep soil or lots of room to spread out.  Even a small balcony can house a very robust container garden.  And when your plants are in containers, you can just load 'em up and take 'em with you if need be, or move them to other spots in the yard, or give them away.

You probably already have good containers on hand- old Rubbermaid tubs (even small ones just 6" deep) might work out great.  You could also hit a thrift store and spend less than $10 for some funky containers that strike your fancy.  Traditional flowerpots are fine if that's your thing, but once you start thinking about it, it is pretty easy to come up with solutions that look good and work great.  Depending on the particulars, you may need to drill a few small holes in the bottom for drainage.

This post is inspiring me, in fact, to set a new goal for my own gardens this year: grow lots of stuff in other stuff.  By which I mean that I'd like to go ahead and plant seedlings in as many things as I can that seem suitable.  Obviously time, space, and sanity will have to limit the endeavor, but how's this for a motto: if there is a container of some sort laying around, I hereby vow to plant something in it!

For a really funny and practical take on this, here's a great blog I post I stumbled upon:

Stay tuned for a post later this week on vertical gardening.  It was my big epiphany last year, and my 8' tall tomato plants were a thing of beauty.  Talk about getting a lot of produce from a small footprint!

Chris Gleason

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Handmade posters and more

I can not resist, as I sit here lazily surfing the web on a snowy Sunday morning, posting about this awesome artist I just found on Etsy. For those not familiar with Etsy, it is a pretty great online store dedicated to promoting the work of artists and craftspeople all over the world. And yes, there is some real goofy stuff on there, but if you look past it, it is absolutely full of some really terrific work.

Anyway, all of the posters at ChattyNora are hand-drawn (not printed, drawn! Sounds like a lot of work to me...) and the prices are really great, especially in light of the amount of work that must go into them. Here's the one that first caught my eye. It shall be mine, oh yes, it shall be mine:

There is also a really great Star Wars one which I am not quite geeky enough to buy, but still like anyway:

If you dig this style, take a look at their work. Not a bad way to spend a little time online:


Friday, March 2, 2012

Yard projects

This winter hasn't been a particularly tough one in Utah- it has actually kind of felt spring-like from time to time. Even though we just got whacked by a snowstorm, this has seemed more like the exception than the rule, and nothing can stop me from thinking about the cool stuff I just might get around to building for our yard and gardens this year. Every year, we add at least one raised bed, so there's that, and who knows what else we might come up with. What kinds of projects are you interested in building this year? And, even more to the point: how can I help? I am really happy to write blog posts that might help you in exactly this kind of endeavor. Please hit me up with any and all thoughts and suggestions! The best idea will win a signed copy of my new book "Building Projects for the Backyard Farmer", due out in April.

In the meantime, here's some pictures I took last summer (wow, it sure was green!) of things I'm inspired by: