March 20, 2017

The "Food Court' at Mootopia

Last year was the first year I really decided to go full-in on growing food for myself and my family.  The only sizable sunny spot in our yard was an ancient asphalt tennis court that was so rough you couldn’t dribble a basketball on it.  One major asset it did have was a tall fence on both ends that used to catch stray tennis balls.  Plus, there was already a fence along a third side, which made it a real possibility to actually keep deer out of it without having to spend an arm and a leg on a fencing system.  So we decided to give the Mootopia garden a go.

We knew that we wanted an organized garden that would follow us into our older years, so the first challenge was acquiring durable garden beds. We didn’t want the low garden beds because we knew that it would become increasingly difficult to garden as we aged, so we set our sights on high raised garden beds. We skimmed the market and quickly found that they were out of our price range. We wanted 40-50 of them, and at $100-$300 each, it was too much. Next, we explored building our own. Again, we found that most DIY options were $100-$200 on just the materials. So, being a curious engineer, I tried my hand at building durable garden beds without breaking our bank.  

A couple years back, I made an early mesh and fabric version that we implemented in other parts of the yard, and they were working well enough, so we decided to continue on that theme not realizing that they would eventually become a marketable product.  The raised beds were tall enough to be convenient, large enough to hold a large plantable area, and inexpensive enough to make quite a few for a reasonable investment.  And we needed quite a few in order to grow enough food to make a dent in our diet and our budget.

(Early version of Garden Circles from 2012)

In addition to the raised beds, we tried straw bale gardening.  We like straw bales, especially for tomatoes because we used to have blight on our tomatoes every time we grew them.  With straw, we can get a new bale each year that doesn’t have blight.  It does require fertilizer and my wife had good success using fish emulsion.  It works well for us.    
Tall tomatoes in bales can make a nice place to retreat to.

We also used some extra bales as a “lazy bed” for potatoes.   I had read about planting potatoes under loose straw and decided to try it with a bunch of potatoes that had sprouted in my basement.  We layed down some straw, a thin layer of black soil, the potatoes, and then a thick layer of straw.  

Both the tomatoes and potatoes were actually on a part of the tennis court that had been turned into a sand volleyball court by a previous owner.  That is how this particular part of our Mootopia micro-farm became known as the “Food Court”.  

Early shot of the “Food Court” as we filled our first batch of Garden Circles

We ended up putting about 48 round garden beds in place in 2015 and they grew a lot of food.  I am a newbie gardener and have given myself (optimistically) five years to learn the basics.  Last year we tried growing many things and learned some of those basics.

Sweet potatoes - From just a dream to a dream harvest.  Raised beds work well for these in our Northern Minnesota climate.  There were a few little mites chewing holes in the leaves.  We tried some soap spray product for them but it wasn't extremely effective.
Tomatoes - we had many varieties planted in about 60 bales.  It was cool to see the different types and sizes.  It’s mostly new to me.  We sauced bunch!
Carrots - I learned how to thin carrots.  If we had gotten them in earlier in the season we would have grown larger carrots, but there were a lot of them and they tasted great.
Peas - The peas were not as successful as I expected.  We only had a few plants actually grow well.   I think we will give them more space this year.
Squash - We grew several varieties of squash. The vines were so large it was scary.  Squash is easy to keep well into the winter, so we will grow more next year.
Spinach - It was interesting seeing the different phases of spinach through its growth cycle.  
Lettuce - There are so many varieties of lettuce out there (we grew 4 different varieties) and they all have a delicious place in a salad.  
Kale - The purported super food grew very well for us and its cold tolerance allowed to keep harvesting late into November.
Chard - I think we under-utilized this particular crop because it was in the bed that the chickens could get into.  
Celery - Can you say gourmet ants on a log?  And a super soup additive!
Pole beans - These were amazing.  I was really disappointed when my first batch of seeds didn’t really come up.  Luckily the next batch did.  We planted them densely and they still thrived and produced many pounds of beans to freeze.
Kohlrabi - Funny story - I put some kohlrabi seeds in pretty much every group of garden beds we had.  I didn’t know much about them.  We had LOTS of kohlrabi well into autumn.  The nice thing is that it goes in just about anything from stir fry to veggie blends in the freezer.
Beets - Some of our beets needed more time, others needed more sunlight because they were under huge squash leaves.  The ones we got were appreciated, though.
Zucchinis, yellow squash - I partly planted these just because I wanted to be sure to have some garden success and they are always easy to grow.  They were beautiful and we made zucchini everything from fritters to chocolate blueberry zucchini cake.
Cucumbers - We had great cucumber vines.  My 5 year old became the best cucumber hunter in the world.  We made a lot of pickles.
Cilantro - Cilantro is one of my favorite herbs.  It just adds so much brightness to any food.  I really enjoyed having a lot of it to work with in the kitchen.
It was great seeing it mature beyond what I normally see in the grocery store, and we ended up with coriander seed.
Basil - My other favorite seed.  I discovered pesto relatively late in life.  It is amazing.  Basil helps bring life to so many other food combinations.  Having a bumper crop of basil in my own garden was a distinctly decadent feeling, without the guilt.
Broccoli - We ate some good broccoli, but we also lost some to worms in the stems.  All part of the learning curve.
Cauliflower - Luckily we had a late fall because these did not mature till quite late in the season.
Cabbage - We discovered that slugs like cabbage.  Regardless, we still grew a good bunch of cabbage and made some sauerkraut.  My son got some pet slugs in a jar for a while.
Sweet Peppers - My wife just reminded me that technically, we got two tiny green peppers from a bale.  We could have used many, many more.  This year we will plant them in a raised bed.
Produce we eat a lot of, but didn’t get into the garden last year:
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Corn
  • Cantaloupe
  • Watermelon, ok, we grew one baseball sized watermelon in a bale.  Next year...
  • Pumpkins
  • More kinds of beans
  • Asparagus
  • Cheeseburgers

It was a revelation to me how much time I spent in the pleasant space of the garden.  It was where I wanted to be in the evenings after work.  Sometimes the kids were with me.  Sometimes it was quality time just working with my wife.  Sometimes it was just me watering plants, thinning carrots, and listening to the sounds of the birds and children playing in the distance.  And occasionally it was even the sounds of children playing with birds in the distance.  Ahh, the fun of chickens.  But I digress...

We also had some tasty surprises.  There are an amazing variety of volunteer edible/medicinal weeds that popped up.  Most of the time if the plant looked like a tasty garden green, and tasted ok, it turned out to be edible.  It was a fun learning curve to realize that not all edible things are cultivated and many do not look like they do in the grocery store.  If nature wants to feed me, I’ll let it.   
Here are some of the delicious, edible weeds nature provided us:
  • Amaranth - We liked the young leaves and the chickens loved the plant when it got bigger.  The seeds turned out very hard to harvest because they are so small.  Some practice needed.
  • Lamb’s quarter - It just springs up everywhere and is delicious when it is small.  It is about as useful as spinach and just pops up spontaneously.  
  • Purslane - This little succulent is a little tangy was a very pleasant surprise.  Some people don’t like it, but my family ate it pretty well.
  • Common Mallow - Turns out the seeds on these are kinda like crunchy little peas.  Thanks to Travis Grimler for identifying it for us.
  • Stinging Nettles - While I regretted letting these grow in some places (ouch) they are edible after boiling.  Or you can dry it and make excellent nettle tea.

This is what our garden looked like last year. We had a family friend take over one corner and her squash grew all the way up the 10 ft fence.
Stay tuned for updates.  If you are planting in Garden Circles this year, give us a shout out and let us know how they’re growing.

May your gardens grow, connect, and thrive,
- Ryan, aka King Moo

Thank you for taking the time to read about my newbie garden journeys in Mootopia. I’m running a Kickstarter right now to help support our Garden Circles effort. Check it out here. There’s an awesome video with a cat in a hat-bandana combo. As a part of the Kickstarter, we’re donating a bunch of Garden Circles to community gardens and garden programs through, so let your local garden programs know!