Country Lore: June/July 2018

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Photo by Kyle Chandler-Isacksen
The backyard pond halfway through the building process.

Building a Backyard Pond

Guided by a friend with pondbuilding experience, we were able to complete a backyard pond in just three hours with the help of a seven-person “worker bee” team provided by Reno’s Permaculture Northern Nevada group.

Through this pond, we sought to add the soothing qualities of water to an area of our homestead where we spend time hosting guests and eating meals. We also wanted to add another habitat that would diversify our land’s ecosystem — supporting birds, aquatic plants, and insects.

Building Steps

We began digging the dimensions of the pond, roughly 7 feet long by 4 feet wide, and 2 feet deep. We kept the edges as vertical as possible. The size of our pond was in part determined by the size of the recycled pond liner given to us by a friend. We made the pond a bit irregular — with one end wider than the other — to give it a slightly more natural look. We also added about 2 feet to each measurement for the liner, knowing we’d have to cover additional length over our sandbags.

We used sandbags filled with the extracted soil to raise up the sides of the pond. We stacked them two bags high to give us about 8 inches above grade. Sandbags are great for this, as they’re malleable, smooth (no sharp edges to poke the pond liner), and easy to maneuver into place.

We leveled the bags using a level atop a long 2-by-4, and then tamped down or fluffed up the sandbags as needed. On one end, we left a foot-wide spillway intentionally lower by a couple of inches. This will be the outlet should our pond overflow.

We filled in the gaps between the bags and ground with wet, clay-rich soil extracted from the pond hole. We cut back any roots that were poking through the base and edges of the hole. Then, we laid an old polyester-blend blanket at the base and up the sides as much as possible, to act as a cushion for the pond liner and reduce the risk of puncture.

Next, we lined the sides of the hole and up and over the bags with scraps of old billboard vinyl. We used nails to tack the billboard vinyl to the bags. Old billboard signs are a great urban resource — call your local companies and ask for their old signs. They usually measure 40 by 14 feet and cost from $25 to $55.

We then lowered the pond liner into the hole and over the other materials, placing a large rock roughly in its center point. Lastly, we filled the pond with water.

Since this “worker bee” event, we’ve covered and lined the pond with “urbanite” (salvaged concrete chunks) and rocks to hide the plastic and help settle the pond. We also added some aquatic plants, a log perch to make the water accessible for birds, and a disc that promotes the growth of a certain bacteria that inhibits mosquito larvae development. Mosquitofish, which eat mosquito larvae, are on the way as well. In the future, we’ll add flowers and plants in the urbanite and rock cracks, as well as a small sitting area at the edge.

Kyle Chandler-Isacksen

Reno, Nevada

Keep Celery Fresh

Celery often goes limp quickly in the refrigerator. To keep it fresh, cut off the bottom and place the stems in a vase full of water. Then, place the vase in your refrigerator. You’ll be amazed at how long your celery will stay crisp.

Diane Sterne

Coalmont, British Columbia 

Senior Gardening

I moved to a senior living complex eight years ago, and chose this place because it had an established garden.

The first year I planted in the community garden, nothing grew. Kale plants wouldn’t grow and wouldn’t die; they just sat in the ground where I’d stuck them. Other gardeners had nice results, but they were using a chemical fertilizer, and I wanted to grow a more organic garden plot.

I then noticed that the garden’s heavy clay soil hosted hardly any earthworms. Seeing that as a treatable problem, I began raising earthworms in my garage during winter and deposited the worms in the garden the following spring.

I also started gathering leaves for compost, using a lawn mower to partially shred them. I would catch night crawlers and add them to the compost pile. I started saving all my kitchen scraps, tea leaves, coffee grounds, eggshells, and spoiled vegetables to blend up and add to the compost. This smelly mush appears to have been just what the night crawlers needed. This year, I began to see positive results. Huge, lively night crawlers have appeared in the leaf compost, and many more worms have made appearances throughout the garden.

John Wallace

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Dung Beetles for Soil Improvement

When implementing rotational grazing, be sure to learn the life cycle of your local dung beetles! Dung beetles carry pieces of manure into the ground, further spreading nutrients and building soil.

After you understand the life cycle of dung beetles in your area, you’ll be able to calculate when to send your chickens out to pasture. This ensures that your chickens won’t be killing the dung beetles when you send the birds to scratch the manure around behind your cattle.

You can encourage your chickens to scratch the manure — and eat the fly larvae out of the manure — in two ways. First, you can either feed your cows oats, which they can’t digest and therefore excrete whole. Second, you can walk behind your herd on the day you want your chickens to scratch around, and drop a handful of oats onto the manure.

Robin Schreckengost

Columbus, Montana 

Rodent-Proof Raised Garden Bed

We live in the mountains, where numerous rodents make gardening very difficult. After sacrificing half or more of our gardening efforts for a few years to various rodents, we came up with a raised bed box to keep our vegetables protected. I have a personal sawmill, so I was able to mill the lumber needed to make several boxes. Since we started growing vegetables in these garden boxes, we haven’t lost any of our produce to rodents.

Construction and design.

The measurements are 30 inches wide, 60 inches long, and 18 inches high, but you can alter these dimensions to suit your needs. The raised-bed portion is 6 inches high and 2 inches thick. We plant spinach, radishes, carrots, and lettuce in these boxes. I also built some that are higher to accommodate peas, zucchini, and beans. What I also like about the raised garden box is that with the 1/2-inch hardware cloth, I can water the plants without having to raise the lid.

The tools you’ll need to build the box are a hammer, a screwdriver for the eye brackets, tin snips, a hand saw, a mini framing square, and a regular framing square to help achieve tight-fitting joints.

Materials you’ll need are 2-by-6s for the box, 2-by-3s for the framing, one 1/4-by-4-inch piece of lumber for the lid, and 1/2-inch hardware cloth. My lumber was true to size because I milled it myself, but dimensional lumber from a lumberyard would work equally well. I chose not to use pressure-treated lumber, because the chemicals used to preserve it could slowly leach out over time and contaminate my garden. Instead, I applied a quality wood preserver long before I planned to use the box so it would soak into the wood and not into the soil which would later fill the box.

Step 1:Box. I started by cutting the pieces to length and height before assembly. It doesn’t make much difference which joint is used as long as the result is tight and strong. For the pictured box, I used half-lap joints on the upper pieces. On the box itself, I used butt joints with eye brackets at each corner. I also used a waterproof glue on all these joints, along with galvanized nails at each corner of the butt joints. The eye brackets, nails, and waterproof glue will keep each joint strong for many years. I also cut 1/2-inch hardware cloth to fit the bottom of the box, and attached it with 3/4-inch galvanized staples to keep rodents from burrowing up from the bottom of the box.

Step 2: Frame. Next, I cut cross supports for the three upright posts so they would fit firmly between the posts. I nailed them into place with galvanized nails and glue to hold them secure. I then took the partially completed box outside and applied a good coat of wood sealer to protect the box from repeated exposure to moisture. After the sealer had fully dried, I stapled hardware cloth around the inside of the uprights, making sure there were no gaps accessible to smaller rodents.

Step 3: Tops. The only part remaining was to make lids for the box. I chose to make two lids that came together in the middle. They’re hinged at each end so I can plant one type of vegetable at each end. I could’ve used half-lap joints but instead I chose to use a 1/4-inch-thick plywood gusset at each corner. I liberally applied waterproof glue to each gusset and also used decking screws to affix them in place. This produced a very secure and square set of strong tops. After an application of protective sealer, I stapled hardware screen to each top and then attached sturdy hinges. To keep the tops from opening too far, I used a 1/4-inch rope affixed with screw eyes. I had some foam insulation tape left over from when we put a cap on the back of our pickup truck, so I put that along the top rail to cushion the top if it falls or is dropped.

These boxes have proved to be effective at keeping rodents out, and they’re also durable. Once, we looked out the window and saw a bear standing on top of one! All we needed to do (after the bear departed) was push the hardware screen up from the bottom to give the screen a slightly rounded crown instead of the concave one caused by the bear. The hardware cloth allows sunlight, air, and water to reach the plants. Occasionally, the sun gets really hot at 9,800 feet elevation, causing small, tender seedlings to wither and die. To prevent that from happening, I place a piece of black 50-percent sun screening over the box.

At the end of each growing season, I simply remove the soil from the box and store the box in a protected, out-of-the-way location. That way, the soil is automatically turned and aerated when we begin gardening the following year. Any weed roots that came up from the bottom are easily removed. The roots of the vegetables, depending on how much soil you put in the box, will grow through the hardware cloth at the bottom and into the soil below.

Bruce McElmurray

Fort Garland, Colorado

Dual-Purpose Box and DIY Plant Labels

While at a home improvement store during gardening season, I noticed a large box full of store merchandising materials. Inside, I found 2-inch-tall plastic plant flats, the kind that are used to store and display individual starter plants. I asked the store employees if I could have a few. They said it was no problem because they planned to throw them away.

Using glue, my husband and I covered the base of the plastic plant flats with a screen panel we had in the garage. I now use these trays to harvest mint from my garden and to dry herbs.

I use craft sticks to label my mint while it’s drying. I love craft sticks because if I need to move the mint to my dehydrator, I can move the sticks with it, placing them on the dehydrator trays to keep the herbs labeled.

JaLynn Knight

Albuquerque, New Mexico