Mounded-earth Raised Beds (and Wheelbarrow Advice)

When we finished digging up the yard for more vegetable garden space, I looked around me and started to cry.  My yard used to be pretty, with a perfectly reasonable-sized bed for growing food, and now it’s an expanse of mud.   When my friend Karen called and I told her about my little garden seizure, she said, “You have to crack eggs to make a quiche.”  Now the mud garden is taking shape, and my mood has brightened.

The Mud Quiche.  I'm hoping that once the beds are planted I'll be able to shake the morbid feeling that our yard looks like it's full of freshly-dug graves!
Part of the Mud Quiche. I'm hoping that once the beds are planted I'll be able to shake the morbid feeling that our yard looks like it's full of freshly-dug graves!

We decided that instead of constructing wooden raised beds, we would take the mounded soil route suggested by Northwest garden doyen Steve Solomon (author of the bible, Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades).  In the moist Pacific Northwest, wood-rimmed beds provide a perfect harbor for slugs, snails, and earwigs.  Mounded beds are less effort, less money, and offer more flexibility.  They also provide more planting space, since the soil around the edges is accessible.  For mounded beds, Seattle Tilth recommends heaping composted soil high–12 -18″ to allow for settling.  Solomon suggests spreading good soil six inches or so beneath the surface, then heaping it only a few inches above ground to help prevent runoff.  We took a middle road, digging down several inches, and then building the beds up about six inches above the surface of the garden path.  This is, like most aspects of gardening, an experiment!

My cute dad, Jerry, helped me work on the raised beds.  Working with my dad, I still feel like a little girl.  Here's his contractor's wheelbarrow alongside my beloved little orange one.  He said, "Make sure you point the wheelbarrow the way you want to go before you fill it up."  Durned if the thing wasn't pointed the wrong way every single time I went to move it.
My cute dad, Jerry, helped me work on the raised beds. Working with my dad, I still feel like a little girl. Here's his contractor's wheelbarrow alongside my beloved little orange one. He said, "Make sure you point the wheelbarrow the way you want to go before you fill it up." Durned if the thing wasn't pointed the wrong way every single time I went to move it.

Dishdrainer Sprout Garden

A bowl of seeds for sandwich sprouts, alfalfa sprouts in the dish drainer ready to eat, and soaking mung bean seeds.
A bowl of seeds for sandwich sprouts, alfalfa sprouts in the dish drainer ready to eat, and soaking mung bean seeds.

We’re sprout eaters.  Tom heaps alfalfa and clover sprouts onto his lunch sandwich, and I love to sprinkle them on salads, or nibble them as fresh tasty snacks.   That’s why I’m rather embarrassed to admit that until last year, we bought most of our sprouts from the store.  Those containers-full of green goodness are expensive, and I never could think of a decent re-use for the plastic boxes they come in.   One day I remembered the countertop garden my mom (and all my friends’ moms) kept in the seventies.  Sprouts were in back in the day, and my sister Kelly and I were in charge of rinsing the sprouts whenever we walked by the counter in our platform sandals.  I had another sprouting phase in my pre-marriage single-chick apartment, where I kept trays of sunflower seeds sprouting in the window.   I wonder what happened?  Lots of people still eat sprouts, but the habit of growing them is generally regulated to bygone faddishness.

As soon as I realized we needed to become a sprout farmers, I walked down to our local health food store, just the sort of place we would have obtained our sprout supplies when I was a girl, though even mainstream suburban grocery stores had sprout seeds, jars, and lids.  No sprout seeds!  (“Hmm…we should think about getting some,” the guy behind the counter mused.) But at our local food coop I found plenty of sprout-worthy seeds in bulk.  Organic alfalfa or mixed clover are $9.95 a pound, which is almost free (there are about a trillion of those tiny seeds—several month’s worth– in a pound!).  Claire is the Princess Sprout-Rinser-in-Charge.  It’s been a delight to be growing food indoors throughout the winter, and benefiting from these yummy, vitamin-mineral-enzyme rich little wonders.

My favorite way to sprout seeds is the jar method:

  • Place a couple tablespoons of seeds in a quart jar, then cover the opening with cheesecloth and a canning jar rim.  Cover the seeds with water, and let sit several hours, or overnight.
  • Rinse the seeds with cool water several times a day, and invert them to drain.  We keep ours in the dish drainer.
  • When the sprouts are the size you want, pop them into the fridge.  You can set them in a window for a few hours first, if you want them to green up a bit.  If they are tiny alfalfa/clover sprouts, you might want to rinse the hulls off–just put them in a bowl, cover with water, and the hulls will float to the top where you can pour them off.
  • Don’t forget to start some more right away so you won’t have a lull between harvests!

There’s a terrific article on sprouts and sprouting, with recipes, in the current Mother Earth News article, “Kitchen Counter Gardening:  Try Sprouts.”  If you can’t find sprouting seeds in your local shop, try one of the online sources, such as Sproutman.

So far we’ve mainly sprouted sandwich/salad mixes (alfalfa/clover/mustard), lentils, and mung beans, but you can also sprout chickpeas, radish, adzuki beans, and much more.  I’m ready to try some more adventurous sprouting, as I wait for the earth to warm for the spring garden..   It hardly gets more simple, local, healthy, delicious, or cheap—Happy sprouting!

Home Restoration–Phase II

Our house in 1938. That's a chicken coop in the back, and a whooping cough quarantine sign on the door.
Our house in 1938. That's a chicken coop in the back, and a whooping cough quarantine sign on the door.

We live in a West Seattle farmhouse that was built in the 1920s.  Over the decades the fruit orchards that surrounded it were removed and replaced with houses—most of them in the 1940s, some in the 70s.  The interior suffered many bad remodels, and was restored a couple of years ago by the previous owner, just before we moved in.  He lovingly scraped away layers of paint to reveal the original grain in the thick molding of local Douglas fir.  Glued-down linoleum was peeled back, and the floors beneath it—more fir—were sanded and oiled.  The kitchen was gutted and replaced, and the exterior was painted a pleasing shade of green.

We are grateful for all this work, as none of it sounds very fun to us.  Turning to the kind of work that better suits us, we have ourselves embarked on what I like to think of as Restoration—Phase II. According to Eric Partridge’s etymological dictionary (one of my most treasured tomes), the word restore evolved from the Latin restaurare, meaning to give back something either lost or removed. How lovely!  So in that spirit we are returning a chicken coop to the back yard of this home that once produced so much food and sweet fruit.  A plum tree has been added, an Asian pear, and two little columnar apples.  A sweetgum was replaced with an apricot tree (the sweetgum went to a good home).  We’re expanding the vegetable garden, and adding cold frames for the Seattle spring.   Meanwhile, as I enjoy my  favorite pastimes–baking, knitting, sewing–I think of the women that inhabited this home in the depression years, and over the last century.

So often we think of restoration as an aesthetic endeavor, but expansively it can be so much more.  We can remember that even our small yards constitute “land,” and begin to give back to this land its “lost” innate fertility.

Many cities have archived photos of historical homes–contact your city clerk’s office for info.  In Seattle, search our city’s historical home census online.