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New Garden: No-till? Double Dig? Something else?

 
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I'm excited now, as the plan is starting to take shape! I go to church with an arborist, and just messaged him about getting wood chips. I've heard a lot about mushroom compost and am very interested. Our little 1/3 acre homestead dream is really starting to become clearer. We'll have chickens soon enough too, and look forward to making our garden plot as fertile as can be!

Thank you everyone so much for helping me think through this. You didn't have to take the time to, and you did; and I really appreciate that.
 
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Not a problem Nc, ask away any time.

Eric
 
Nc Pfister
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If I wanted to buy compost, anything in particular I should look for? Because of the times, I'd like to keep it simple, and go to a place that will bring it out front to me.
 
Eric Hanson
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Nc,

My personal favorite approach is to use woodchips for a bedding material and then compost that in place.  During the first year you can plant in fertile holes and fertile trenches.  Then you can think about how you want to decompose those chips.  My personal preference is pretty well known on Permies.  I like to decompose the chips with wine cap mushrooms which excel in this respect.  If you want to try this approach I would love to talk more about it.

Eric
 
Nc Pfister
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Thank you, Eric, but I'm actually referring to the compost (instead of topsoil) that I'll be planting in right away. I'll be scooping out small circles/holes in the wood chips, and add compost to plant in.
 
Eric Hanson
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Nc,

Gotcha,

For the first year, you could use manure, which would feed the plants nicely.  If you want a true compost, most commercially bagged ones will probably be pasteurized.  If you can find a local bulk source of compost that would come and drop off a load, you would have garden gold.  Unfortunately these places can be hard to find.  Are you trying to get fertility for the first year?  Compost is a great option.  The real benefit comes when that compost starts to rot down the rest of the chips.

Is this what you are trying to achieve?

Eric
 
Nc Pfister
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Yes, I feel like by placing small amounts of ready compost where I'll be planting, I will be able to grow plants right away. I know I could achieve the same results by placing topsoil, but I think I'd prefer compost. I'll add a couple of pictures here in a bit if that helps to clarify. Thanks!
 
Eric Hanson
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Nc,

I think your reasoning is the same line of thinking that eventually motivated me to grow mushrooms.  I like it!  I would love to see pictures when available.

Eric
 
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I like to decompose the chips with wine cap mushrooms  



So, Eric, I have access to endless wood chips, and have done many things with them, but never any shroom stuff. Do I just buy 5 lbs of spawn sawdust and sprinkle it on the chips and keep it all wet? What’s an ideal thickness for that chip pile? The chips I get are more chipped than shredded, unfortunately, so they take longer to decompose. I’d love to speed that up! Too much rich soil is never quite enough.
 
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Julie,

Eric has a lovely thread detailing his experiment. Around the same time I was doing something similar but with a different goal. I purchased spawn, and spread it in layers. Burlap sack--spawn--woodchips/leaves/small soil clods/. Repeat. I made about a 4 foot layered pile. That was 2 sacks wide. About a month later I spread that burlap on top of flipped sod and covered with woodchips. 4 to 12 inches deep. The woodchips were from a local tree company, not shredded just chipped.

NC, however you're planning to progress, considering making a "compost tea". It can be super involved with molasses and finished compost and all that good stuff. Or it could simply be a 5 gallon bucket with a fish tank aerator and some grass, leaves, soil. Spread as needed, however is convenient. That should help kick start soil biology.
 
Eric Hanson
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Julie,

When I build mushrooms bed I like it to do double duty the first year by having veggies (I prefer tomatoes for this particular application) while growing wine caps at the same time.  This not only gives you two crops, but the tomatoes and wine caps also help one another.  The hyphae (mushroom “root”) and plant roots wrap around and feed each other.  I start with about 12” of chips.  I then dig fertile holes for tomatoes and backfill with a soil mixture (I typically have used bagged manure, but you can use your imagination) and mark so you can find later (I stick in the tomato tower).  Next, dig little 6” pits all around and between the tomatoes, sprinkle in the spawn, cover, sprinkle all over the surface, and cover with 1-2” more woodchips (I use the leftover chips from the fertile holes), water thoroughly, covered with 2-4” of straw, and thoroughly water again.  

At this point there is not much else to do other than watch tomatoes grow.  The mushrooms might well take a year to push up.


I have a long running thread HERE;

https://permies.com/t/120/82798/composting-wood-chips-chicken-litter#main-menu

This documents my complete, anxious mushroom newbie background to eventually having a basic degree of fungi competence.  I am still very much a learner and still make mistakes.  But I keep it updated just to show that you can do it too.  Mushrooms are mysterious for many of us and I keep this thread updated just to show that even if you know next to nothing about mushrooms (like me at the beginning of this thread), you can still do it.

The next thread HERE:

https://permies.com/t/130092/mushroom-newbie

Has a step-by-step process that I used in my first mushroom bed.  It’s not a formula, but may be a guide to sowing mushrooms.  You will have to scroll down a bit to find the step-by-step process.

I hope this helps.  If you need any help, don’t be afraid to ask.  And please keep us updated, I would love to hear how things work out.

Eric
 
Julie Reed
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Thanks Eric! I will check out those threads in the next few days. I appreciate your quick and detailed response! I have dozens of cubic yards of chips and even more rotted manure all free for the trucking (and gas is cheap now!) so I’m stocking up. But I course I want it all to be plantable yesterday! I know zero about mushrooms, nor do I even eat them, except grilled portobellos, so I need to learn pretty much everything.
 
Nc Pfister
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Alright, so we covered the 45x20' section with cardboard, and then about 3" of wood chips (pear, maple and some pine - from an arborist friend). When we planted, we pulled wood chips back, and placed (Black Kow) compost (probably 8" diameter around the plant). We've planted tomatoes, peppers, basil, carrots, spinach, corn, potatoes, leeks, cucumbers and melon. Most everything seems to be doing really poorly, with maybe the exception of our potatoes (6-8" plants look healthy). Our peppers and corn are growing (and peppers producing some fruit), but pretty much everything else seems like its trying to die.

We thought we may have a nitrogen deficiency, and so added some coffee grounds. Now we're thinking phosphorous deficiency (tomato plants are gray, and corn turning purple). We knew this would be a challenge, and are mostly happy that we have given it a go, and think this year's efforts will likely pay off next year. The spot we chose was obviously used as a garden by previous owners, and thinking they were conventional diggers, who probably just used chemical fertilizers, and stripped the soil of its vitality. So, maybe we're just rehabilitating now? We are also composting, and have wood chips left in a pile. I'm thinking there isn't much to do to save what we have (but please correct me if I'm wrong, and let me know if more info, pics are needed!), but I was thinking that come fall, I will lay down more cardboard where we left gaps and have weeds coming through, through some more wood chips, compost, and any other organics on top, and let it sit until next planting season. I also plan on building a simple hoop house over a portion of the garden next spring.

I can upload pics, but thought I'd wait for responses, so I could make the pics more specific. Thanks in advance!
 
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Nc Pfister wrote:Alright, so we covered the 45x20' section with cardboard, and then about 3" of wood chips (pear, maple and some pine - from an arborist friend). When we planted, we pulled wood chips back, and placed (Black Kow) compost (probably 8" diameter around the plant). We've planted tomatoes, peppers, basil, carrots, spinach, corn, potatoes, leeks, cucumbers and melon. Most everything seems to be doing really poorly, with maybe the exception of our potatoes (6-8" plants look healthy). Our peppers and corn are growing (and peppers producing some fruit), but pretty much everything else seems like its trying to die.

We thought we may have a nitrogen deficiency, and so added some coffee grounds. Now we're thinking phosphorous deficiency (tomato plants are gray, and corn turning purple). We knew this would be a challenge, and are mostly happy that we have given it a go, and think this year's efforts will likely pay off next year. The spot we chose was obviously used as a garden by previous owners, and thinking they were conventional diggers, who probably just used chemical fertilizers, and stripped the soil of its vitality. So, maybe we're just rehabilitating now? We are also composting, and have wood chips left in a pile. I'm thinking there isn't much to do to save what we have (but please correct me if I'm wrong, and let me know if more info, pics are needed!), but I was thinking that come fall, I will lay down more cardboard where we left gaps and have weeds coming through, through some more wood chips, compost, and any other organics on top, and let it sit until next planting season. I also plan on building a simple hoop house over a portion of the garden next spring.

I can upload pics, but thought I'd wait for responses, so I could make the pics more specific. Thanks in advance!



When you planted in the compost hole areas, did you remove the cardboard there?
 
Nc Pfister
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No, we left the cardboard, as it was in the ground, rained on, and under wood chips for quite a while before planting. But maybe the roots couldn't get through well?
 
Trace Oswald
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Nc Pfister wrote:No, we left the cardboard, as it was in the ground, rained on, and under wood chips for quite a while before planting. But maybe the roots couldn't get through well?



I would say that is exactly right.  When you first put down the cardboard and mulch, if you plant the area, the usual procedure is to cut the cardboard out beneath the plant so the roots can get through.  If the cardboard has rotted, then you wouldn't need to do that.
 
Nc Pfister
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I'm thinking the mistake may have been not digging through the cardboard when we planted. Considering preparing everything better, counting this summer planting as a good learning experience, and plant for a fall harvest now. Any more advice would be very much appreciated!
 
Nc Pfister
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So, I just found manure for $35 for a skid steer bucketfull. Thinking of getting a couple of buckets. Any thoughts on how I'd best put that to use, integrating it into my current setup?
 
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Nc Pfister wrote:So, I just found manure for $35 for a skid steer bucketfull. Thinking of getting a couple of buckets. Any thoughts on how I'd best put that to use, integrating it into my current setup?



If it's horse manure, make sure their hay wasn't sprayed with preservative or your garden will be ruined for years.  As long as it's clean manure, I would just dump it on top (not on existing plants).  Nature will do the rest for you.
 
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I think there's a chance they use persistent herbicides on steer food too but I'm not sure.  

Easiest way to tell is to get a sample of the poop, mix it up with some known good soil and plant bean seeds in it.  I'm guessing 1 part poop and 5 parts soil?  If the beans grow normally, you're likely safe to use the stuff, ie no persistent herbicides.

I agree on just spreading it around so it can soak into the ground.
 
Nc Pfister
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Nm, have read enough to steer clear of the horse manure. Feeling discouraged.
 
Nc Pfister
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I see all of these conventional gardens around me growing so well, and feel like I'll never make a garden work. Not trying to throw a pity party, but just wanting to find a simple approach. I watched Charles Dowding's no-dig vids on YT, and thought what I was doing should work. It hasn't. Not at all.
 
Nc Pfister
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Okay, I've gathered my thoughts, and this is where I'm at:

+We have 45x20' to work with
+It was probably over-worked in the past. Was lighter in color than the rest of our lawn, and only covered in weeds (no grass to speak of)
+We have a lot of wood chips, and some cardboard, covering this area. I have a pile of wood chips left, and also a compost bin that I built, and have some compost cooking in (not ready to spread)
+We need to re-lay some of the cardboard, as I skimped in certain areas, and have serious crab grass growing
+I roast my own coffee, and can cheaply grind and brew leftovers to add to compost/garden

We really, really want simple. I am an engineer, and understand the benefits of nuance, but getting too much in the weeds (no pun intended) is a tendency of mine. I need to focus on simplicity, and the big picture. I really just want someone to tell me that I can mix a bunch of compost into my wood chip-covered garden and all will be well. Or, if that will deplete nitrogen too much (as wood chips decompose), maybe I just need to lay down more compost (while pulling back the wood chips, and cutting through the cardboard), and use the same method I did initially. Are wood chips part of the issue? Should I remove them? Should I just purchase a bunch of compost to get started? I really do appreciate all of the posts thus far, and am confident this can be a success!
 
Trace Oswald
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Nc Pfister wrote:I see all of these conventional gardens around me growing so well, and feel like I'll never make a garden work. Not trying to throw a pity party, but just wanting to find a simple approach. I watched Charles Dowding's no-dig vids on YT, and thought what I was doing should work. It hasn't. Not at all.



I understand exactly how you feel.  My father grows a conventional garden and has great success.  I think there is a middle ground.  You can have a conventional garden without chemicals or machinery.  Steve Solomon has a book called "Gardening When It Counts" that outlines a method using hand tools and organic fertilizers that seems reasonable to me.  If you are just experimenting, then I would try all sorts of methods.  If you really need to grow food, I don't see anything wrong with having a more conventional garden while you are experimenting with your no-till gardens.  In my experience, no-till gardens take a few years to get established and really working well.  My advice to you is to try not to get discouraged and treat all of this as a learning process.  It takes time to get good at anything worthwhile, and gardening is measured in years, not weeks or months.  Try to enjoy the process and in time you will get better at all of this.  Charles Dowding's methods clearly do work.  They just don't work overnight.  Same with Back to Eden gardens, or any other method.  Talk to some conventional gardeners and you will see that they have crops that fail as well.  I have more advice if you want it.  Try some of everything.  Some will work and some won't, but you'll have some successes to take away the discouragement of the things that don't work out so well.  And you'll learn more from the failures than the successes anyway.
 
Trace Oswald
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Nc Pfister wrote:Okay, I've gathered my thoughts, and this is where I'm at:

+We have 45x20' to work with
+It was probably over-worked in the past. Was lighter in color than the rest of our lawn, and only covered in weeds (no grass to speak of)
+We have a lot of wood chips, and some cardboard, covering this area. I have a pile of wood chips left, and also a compost bin that I built, and have some compost cooking in (not ready to spread)
+We need to re-lay some of the cardboard, as I skimped in certain areas, and have serious crab grass growing
+I roast my own coffee, and can cheaply grind and brew leftovers to add to compost/garden

We really, really want simple. I am an engineer, and understand the benefits of nuance, but getting too much in the weeds (no pun intended) is a tendency of mine. I need to focus on simplicity, and the big picture. I really just want someone to tell me that I can mix a bunch of compost into my wood chip-covered garden and all will be well. Or, if that will deplete nitrogen too much (as wood chips decompose), maybe I just need to lay down more compost (while pulling back the wood chips, and cutting through the cardboard), and use the same method I did initially. Are wood chips part of the issue? Should I remove them? Should I just purchase a bunch of compost to get started? I really do appreciate all of the posts thus far, and am confident this can be a success!



More simple than the post I wrote while you were writing:

Keep doing what you are doing.  Pile as much organic matter on top as you can.  Don't remove the wood chips.  Next time you plant, make holes full of compost and plant in them just like you did before.  If there is cardboard still visible, tear it open.  Keep piling on organic matter every year, as much as you can.  Every year the garden will get better and better.  Compost is awesome,  Add as much as you can.

 
Nc Pfister
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I also have a roughly 15' x 3' "hump" of soil with growth on it behind my garage. The soil seems to have some good organics in it. Could I scalp the top of it (to eliminate weeds), and use some of this in some form or fashion?
 
Trace Oswald
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Nc Pfister wrote:I also have a roughly 15' x 3' "hump" of soil with growth on it behind my garage. The soil seems to have some good organics in it. Could I scalp the top of it (to eliminate weeds), and use some of this in some form or fashion?



I would.  I would rake out the weeds as well as I could, pile it on, and pile more wood chips on top of that.
 
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Very encouraging, Trace; thank you so much!
 
Eric Hanson
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Nc,

Nice to see that you made some substantial progress.  Regarding the cardboard, I always either leave gaps or cut holes for planting so that the plants can reach the soil beneath.  Given that you have plants growing gray and purple, it sounds like a phosphorus deficiency.  Bone meal is a great source of phosphorus.  Alternatively you could use various teas (comfrey, compost, etc) or urine you are open to the idea.  Rock phosphate is another good source of phosphorus, but it is a slow acting formulation which would be good for the long run.

Given the various fertilizers you have on hand though, I think you will have adequate fertility.  Hopefully you can get the soil life going and they will supply plenty of the nutrients already present in the soil and in the materials you added.  I of course would use wine caps mushrooms, but that is a decision you have to make yourself.

Great workings you have and I hope things work out for you.

Eric
 
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Too hasty to pull the plants that look like they're in rough shape? I mean, should I try to amend the soil with phosphorous, or focus on the future? One issue I've had is weeds (crab grass) where I was a bit scant with my cardboard. I want to fix those areas, and add more cardboard and mulch. It would be easier to do that if I didn't try to keep current plants living, but I'm up for the challenge if you think a little natural fertilizer would do the trick.
 
Eric Hanson
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Nc,

In my opinion if you have a plant established, I would try to save it.  Bone meal is a pretty quick acting source of phosphorus and lasts reasonably long as well.  Urine, if you are up to it, works very quickly.  My technique for using urine is to get a cat litter container and pee into it until it is about 1/2 full (since you like your coffee, this part does not take too long), fill the rest with water and go out and apply.  The main reason I dilute is to fill the container sooner and make applying easier.  Of course the manure you got will also work.  Another option is worm castings.  By me I can get them by 50# bags which would last me years back when I still added fertility.

Regarding the crab grass, yeah, it’s nasty stuff.  It likes to grow just about anywhere and I find it grows best on dry, exposed ground.  Crab grass is an annual grass, so as long as it does not go to seed, it won’t survive the year.  Pulling will at least set it back and you could mow or trim to keep under control but it is pernicious stuff.  The best control is shade—hence the reason for the cardboard.  Any chance you could add some more paper, cardboard and woodchips?  

At any rate, I would say that you have a good start, and this is part of a process that is long term.  Keep at it and the soil gets better and the work gets easier.

Eric
 
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One thing I'm trying to figure out is if the nutrient deficiency is from poor soil quality (underneath my cardboard/compost/wood chips) or the roots not being able to get through the cardboard to the soil beneath. My cardboard is single-layer, and has received a lot of water, so I felt like roots breaking through shouldn't be an issue, but my entire garden seems like it's struggling for nutrients, even when planted in a good amount of Black Kow compost/aged manure.
 
Trace Oswald
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Nc Pfister wrote:One thing I'm trying to figure out is if the nutrient deficiency is from poor soil quality (underneath my cardboard/compost/wood chips) or the roots not being able to get through the cardboard to the soil beneath. My cardboard is single-layer, and has received a lot of water, so I felt like roots breaking through shouldn't be an issue, but my entire garden seems like it's struggling for nutrients, even when planted in a good amount of Black Kow compost/aged manure.



A quick and easy test is to put a good organic fertilizer around a few of the plants, water it in, and see if they rebound quickly.  If they do, it is the soil, if not, it's probably that they are struggling with the cardboard.  Either way, I promise you next time will get better, and if you keep piling on organic material, every year will get better still.

If you can, sprinkle on some wood ashes, azomite, or sea-90 for trace minerals too.  You can go very easy on these things, you don't need much.  As far as the other organic material, I pile on as much as I can.  Biochar is great too.  If you could make the whole area 3 feet deep, next year you will be amazed.  I understand that that is far more than most people can do.  Just make a concentrated effort to pile on as much as you can and you'll be good to go.
 
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Trace, do you mean 3' of organic material over the garden area? That seems like a lot!
 
Trace Oswald
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Nc Pfister wrote:Trace, do you mean 3' of organic material over the garden area? That seems like a lot!



It is a lot.  I just mean, the more you can put on, the better.  If you could dump three feet on, by next year at planting time it would be a foot, but just put on as much as you can.
 
Eric Hanson
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Nc,

Regarding your mineral deficiency/rooting problem, if you planted all your plants with black kow manure, I would think your plants should have plenty of nutrients.  That makes me suspect the roots have not penetrated the cardboard.  Have you gone and dug by the roots?

Eric
 
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Not very thoroughly. I'll definitely go look now. Going outside as I type this to lay more cardboard, and cover with more wood chips, where the crab grass is especially bad. Feeling reinvigorated, and encouraged by y'all's help - thank you!
 
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Some encouragement, it seems: I planted two rows of corn, and noticed the one doing substantially better than the other. Now, they were planted in two (somewhat different) composts, but that doesn't seem to be the issue. The row doing better has weeds in it, while the row doing worse does not. Made me realize that this corn was likely doing better because it was planted on the outside of the garden, in a place where I ran out of cardboard, and so didn't cover very thoroughly. I.e. It seems likely that the plants doing poorly weren't able to get through the cardboard layer!

The kids and I carefully dug around each plant, pulled them out, dug through the cardboard and broke up the first couple of inches below the cardboard, and replanted. Who knows, it may be too late for some of the plants, but I feel like we're really learning! And we have some beautiful purple potatoes growing, and mounded them with more compost last night. Now thinking ahead to planting for a fall harvest, and feeling excited. Thank you, thank you!
 
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Nc Pfister wrote:Some encouragement, it seems: I planted two rows of corn, and noticed the one doing substantially better than the other. Now, they were planted in two (somewhat different) composts, but that doesn't seem to be the issue. The row doing better has weeds in it, while the row doing worse does not. Made me realize that this corn was likely doing better because it was planted on the outside of the garden, in a place where I ran out of cardboard, and so didn't cover very thoroughly. I.e. It seems likely that the plants doing poorly weren't able to get through the cardboard layer!

The kids and I carefully dug around each plant, pulled them out, dug through the cardboard and broke up the first couple of inches below the cardboard, and replanted. Who knows, it may be too late for some of the plants, but I feel like we're really learning! And we have some beautiful purple potatoes growing, and mounded them with more compost last night. Now thinking ahead to planting for a fall harvest, and feeling excited. Thank you, thank you!



I'm glad to hear you have moved from discouragement to excitement  Keep us informed of your progress, maybe add some pictures if you have time.  I love seeing garden pictures.
 
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