Beginnings of a Garden

Rainy day here in Roanoke and since we can’t be outside working on the garden, it’s the perfect time to sip a beer and write about the garden! We’ve had a bit of a slow start–with the new house it took a long time to draw up plans and then being gone for half of March, it cut into the prime building & seed sowing times–but things are coming along slowly and surely.

Our house has a decidedly small patch of yard–something we really like about it (you know, plans can’t get too big and crazy), but something also makes us have to really think through every decision since every square foot of ground counts. A vegetable garden was a must (with raised beds–my experience with rows was not quite disastrous but not very fun last year–and, awesomely enough, it turned out that the front yard just to the right of our door was the perfect place to build it! Love some front yard food production!

As with any big project, it takes time, and since both of us are busy with work right now, most of the time was eked out for an hour or so at night and then on the weekends. And with allergies gone haywire, I have to admit that G has done the bulk of the work. He’s one of the best human beings I know (and I owe him for this). First, of course, we had to get rid of the sod. And digging out sod is no small task, even for a small-ish area like ours. Side note: G’s grandfather built that shovel around a century ago (their family had kids really late in life so, no joke, his grandfather was born in the late 1800s) and after the handle broke, his father then refashioned one (his father has since passed away). It’s a shovel with a lot of character and really a joy to use in the yard here. It’s like they’re a part of it too.

After getting rid of the sod (go G!), G went out of town over Easter weekend to see his mother in Pittsburgh. That left me to get my seeds started (which I still have more to do) while he was away and while there wasn’t anything I could do to help with the boxes. I first started with a homemade seed starter mix that was 4 parts worm castings, 3 parts coconut coir, 1 part perlite, 1/2 part green sand. Amazon Prime is a lifesaver for renovations/gardening/home ownership/what have you. We use it all the time–2 day free shipping, I don’t know what I’d do without it! After mixing everything together in a leftover big kitty litter container, I tied groups of four or six toilet paper rolls together, placed them in a storage bin from Walmart (or somewhere like that), and filled the tubes up to the top with the soil. Voila, seed starter containers! (To answer the question of how I had so many–I saved all of the ones we used at work for a month or two.)

Meanwhile, the tulips I planted last fall were all blooming and I planted some annuals (petunias and snap dragons) in our planters on the steps to the front and porch door. I also picked up a forsythia at Lowe’s for 1/2 off and planted it behind where the tulips are on our side yard (we’re on a corner, so both our front and side yard are public). Can’t wait to see how she blooms next spring!

Once G was back in town, he immediately worked on getting lumber to our house (cedar boards from Ideal Building Supply here in town–highly recommend!) and then began to cut and build the boxes to spec. We used Sunset Magazine’s online raised bed tutorial as a guide for ours, building one that is 7’x4′ and two that are 3.5’x5′.

The first one (the larger one), took a bit of tinkering since we have a slope to one side, but G positioned it and dug the post holes for each side’s leg. He then evened out some of the dirt and leveled the whole thing and then collapsed for the night. The other two he built the following weekend (last weekend) over both Saturday and Sunday and they were in place by Sunday evening. (That bit of grass will be dug out as soon as the rain lets out and I’m going to then plant some Scotch Moss or sedum as a ground cover that can be walked on. I abhor grass, so any alternative is exactly what I’m aiming for.)

Meanwhile, a baby/teenage dove landed on one of our planters when I arrived home one evening after work and he was too darn cute (albeit probably paralyzed with fear) for me not to get a picture. I think he hammed it up for the camera–really, look at those eyes! He loved it. The seedlings are doing great in their toilet paper tubes, though some are ready to be planted in the boxes and some seem to need a bigger pot to keep growing in, but all-in-all the experiment is going great. One thing I learned is that you can’t pack to the tubes too close together in each bin–mold will start growing. Eeep. I moved them apart and the mold died off, so hopefully that won’t be an issue down the road. And, outside, our giant rhododendron, the only piece of the landscaping that came with the house that I like, has started to bloom. Oh beautiful purple creature. It’s just a joy.

Our next step is to keep hauling top soil from Lowe’s home to fill the boxes (I hope the quality isn’t horrific), order soil amendments from Amazon (my compost isn’t ready yet and I didn’t have any luck getting manure from farmers this year), mix everything together, plant what’s ready to be planted, build an arch for the cucumbers and beans to grow up, order and plant the ground cover, and, oh, I’m sure there’s more I’m missing. Next week I’m going out to the Virginia Tech Hort Club Native Plant sale to hopefully find some great native plants for landscaping (Roanoke’s is next month at Virginia Western). My plan had been to plant only native plants here, but I obviously messed that up by planting a forsythia. A majority of native plants would be cool at least!

So are any of you planting this year? What are any tricks of the trade you’d like to pass along for raised bed gardening? I’m a newbie and can’t wait to get started; would love to hear your stories!

9 Responses to “Beginnings of a Garden”
  1. eileen says:

    I discovered that toilet paper tube mold issue just today! Fun times. I just scraped off the mold, separated the tubes, and made sure they got a lot of sun to dissuade further incursion.

    And this is so not the best time to say this–but did you know you can build raised beds without tearing out all the sod first? If you do a lasagna bed with layers of newspaper or cardboard, soil, compost, and straw, you can just do it right on top of the grass, and the lack of light & air keeps the grass from growing. Of course I personally wouldn’t want grass in the pathways either, so probably tearing it all up was your best bet for total eradication.

    • Jes says:

      Haha, no bad timing on the sod–we have zoysia (see above) so it’s an extremely aggressive grass that makes my life hell. I’d get rid of the entire yard of it if I could (and will in the coming years, trust me). I think I’m going to put a layer of newspaper down on top of our wire mesh to give even more barriers–great idea!

  2. monica says:

    I can’t really share many tricks of the trade as I’m new to this gardening stuff, but I did want to say I’ve been following your pictures of the garden progress on Facebook and am just so impressed. Some mega raised-bed jealousy going on here. When did you start composting? I started mine last year and thought it’d be ready by now but it doesn’t seem there yet – how does one know?

    Like Eileen mentioned, I did my raised bed straight on the grass – I still get a the odd grass leaf poking through, but my bigger problem is a neighbourhood cat who seems to like using my raised bed as a littlerbox!

    One trick I might try this year that worked well two years ago is creating a mini polytunnel over my raised bed – perhaps not as critical for you as I suspect it’s much warmer where you are. We’re still getting frost in England!

    DIY Polytunnel

    • Jes says:

      Oooh, yeah, polytunnels! We’re building in a system like the one on the Sunset article so we can add the PVC pipes to do it. I think it’ll be really useful for fall/early spring plantings. Definitely warm enough now, but the future I think it’s a must. Love seeing everyone’s designs, thanks for the link.

      As for the grass…UGH UGH UGH. We have zoysia which is one of the worst sods imaginable. It’s one of the most aggressive growers and I’m battling it in all our beds. It’ll go underground for feet (and waaaay down where it’s hard to get all the runners) and the pop up in the middle of the bed. I’m praying to god that by taking it all out and aggressively weeding in between while the ground cover is growing that I’ll be able to keep it out. Probably won’t work, but it’s a nightmare. Damn grass. Hate that stuff. We’re putting down wire mesh on the bottoms of the boxes to keep it out, so I might do what Eileen suggested and throw newspaper on top of that before I put the dirt in. The more barriers the merrier!!

      As for composting, I just started, so I won’t have a batch for a long time. I bought one of the fancy roller kinds off of Amazon ( and am keeping the mix half & half with a compost starter ( and plenty of moisture. Everything’s looking good, but I don’t think it’ll be till mid-summer before I have anything viable (the heat should really help). Will keep updates on that as I go.

      Anyway, can’t wait to read your updates as you go along too!!!

  3. FoodFeud says:

    It already looks great! I hope it blooms soon and well for you. And, yes, that tiny dove – so cute!

  4. You guys are busy! I want to do an arbor too. maybe with some clematis.
    On our raised bed last year I put 2 long pieces of flexible PVC to build a poor man’s cold frame over our raised bed and put bird netting over it one year, so that the squirrels or birds or what have you didn’t get every tomato. It’s a battle out there. (we live inside atlanta and battle voles, moles and chipmunks. The hawks and owls can’t come around enough in my opinion!)
    I did the paper pots for seedlings one year and that worked really well, Do you put the whole toilet roll in the ground and leave it? Love reading about your garden plans, I need to blog about mine soon. My zucchini seeds are sprouting quick but the watermelon seeds not so much yet. I enjoy your blog! Love that dove pic!

    • Jes says:

      Clematis sounds beautiful on an arbor! I haven’t planted the rolls yet, but I think I’m going to peel back a bit of the cardboard layer and plant the whole thing. Everything I’ve read says it’s a good thing, so let’s see. Can’t wait to read about your plans–I miss gardening in Atlanta! It was always an adventure 🙂

  5. Oh Jes! That looks wonderful. G has done a lot of great work on the sod and set up. Your time will come! My raised beds are only a 2×8 high and I want to add to that height one day (someday, one day!) I have the same tumbler you bought. Got it at Costco a few years ago $100. Not so thrilled with it. Even with adding leaves and shredded paper the contents still clump up a lot. It doesn’t seem to matter how wet or dry it is – clumps. BUT it sitill works and I still use it and I am thrilled I have that and don’t have to use the upright box we built where I have to hand turn the stuff… I am excited for your garden!

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