How to Build a 4 x 4 Raised Garden Bed

In the beginning, the naive among us, and that was a lot of us, thought COVID would be a passing thing. I would never have believed I would be unable to visit, hold, and smother my grandchildren with kisses for so many months. In June, when the number of new COVID cases dipped, my husband and I got in the car and drove south, first to Hartwell, Georgia to visit and hug one son and then on to Orlando to see another.

While we drove (and listened to cookbook author Ruth Reichel’s delightful novel, Delicious!), I got to thinking about a way I could stay connected to my grands that was symbolic of times we shared when they lived down the road from us. I thought about this photo that I keep on my kitchen windowsill. You’ve gotta love a two-year-old superhero who wears a diaper.

The photo became my inspiration for a COVID project I hoped would provide outdoor fun for my grandchildren. I wanted to build them a vegetable garden so they could experience the anticipation and joy that comes with watching a seed unfurl its leaves as it pokes out of the ground. That you get to eat the food you grow is secondary to the miracles and discoveries that happen every day in a garden.

Meanwhile, my husband, the builder in the family, was like yeah, yeah … But what is your plan, Judy? Plan? I had no plan. I am more of a make-it-up-as-you-go kind of person. I drew up something for him on a napkin that he translated into a plan.

My Plan:

His:

We went to Home Depot to get supplies.

Here is what we built in one afternoon.

Here is how it looked two months later.

How We Built the Garden

First things first — before you get started building a space for a garden, look for a sunny spot with easy access to water. Next, write up a list of plants you want to grow.

And we’re off…

We bought two eight-foot cedar boards that were 8″ in height. Do not use pressure-treated lumber as the chemicals that keep the wood from rotting will leach into the soil over time.

By all means, let a staff person cut the boards into 4-foot lengths for you. Also, look around for a big piece of cardboard to line the bottom of your garden.

You will need a box of three-inch screws. And, if you are going to divide your garden into squares, you’ll need string and thumbtacks. I would not recommend the twine shown here. It disintegrated within two months.

Next, head to the garden center to purchase soil. To keep costs down, we bought inexpensive topsoil and composted manure for the bottom layers and saved the richer raised-bed soil for the top. You will also need to buy a bag of all-natural “sandbox” sand to help with soil drainage.

The formula for calculating how many cubic feet of soil to buy is as follows. Volume = length x width x height. All the numbers need to be in the same type of units- in this case, feet. Thus, 4 x 4 x .67 (8 inches = 8/12 =.67) equals 11 cubic feet. We bought 12 CF because once you water the soil, it gets compacted, and you need a little more volume to fill it. Soil bags come in cubic feet.

 

If you don’t have a drill, it’s going to be harder to put your raised bed together. You could simplify the process by buying lumber and specialized cement blocks or use a raised-bed kit.

Instructions in Pictures

Planting the Seeds

Stopping to Smell the Flowers

Watering the Garden

One of the discoveries – snake beans that germinated in three days!

Two Months Later

Last week, we planted a few cool-weather seeds.

One day, while the children were on a walk with their parents, they passed this patch of pineapple plants. The homeowner gave them a pineapple and told them to cut off the top and stick it in the dirt to grow their own. I never thought about how pineapples grew.

I think my son and DIL have gotten the “growing edibles” bug because, in addition to planting the pineapple, they have added three fruit trees to their backyard: guava, mango, and fig, and planted seeds to grow cosmos which attract bees and butterflies and my granddaughter. She loves to pick flowers!

Nothing could make me happier than to pass on my passion for growing food to my family. Now, when I FaceTime with my grands, they often take the phone outside to show me their garden. It keeps us all happy and connected when we can’t be together for hugs. My friend, the Reverand Susan Masters, put this notice on her Facebook page. She, like me, is a hugger!

Related Posts:
Edible Landscaping with Nashville Foodscapes
Family Dirt
Fall Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
Putting Your Garden to Bed with a Blanket of Cover Crops

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© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Chicken Chat LIVE!

Here chick, chick, chick.

A few days ago, the production crew of Nashville Public Television’s weekly program,Volunteer Gardener, came over to film an episode on urban hen-keeping. After the team finished filming the TV program, they stayed and broadcast a Facebook LIVE segment. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Facebook LIVE.

The white arrow doesn’t always work, so if it doesn’t, try this link.

Watch the live program and learn things you didn’t know to wonder about like chicken egg production (No, they don’t need a rooster), what chickens do all day, what they eat, their most unusual eyesight, and the requirements for getting a Domestic Hen Permit.

Special thanks to the ever-creative producer of Volunteer Gardener, Greta Requierme for giving me the opportunity to teach about keeping a flock of urban hens. She searches the state to come up with unique and interesting stories for the program and has made it the number one watched show on NPT. Much thanks also to the hilarious host, Julie Berbiglia, Public Education Specialist for Metro Water Services. She was delightful and put me at ease throughout the two interviews.

The end of the LIVE broadcast got a little crazy with the chicken humor, but they couldn’t didn’t edit it out …

Related Posts
Eulogy for a Chicken
Putting Your Garden to Bed with a Blanket of Cover Crops
Family Dirt
Edible Landscaping with Nashville Foodscapes
Roasted Fig Preserves with Lemon and Thyme

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Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

Always check my blog for the latest version of a recipe.

© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Roasted Fig Preserves with Lemon and Thyme

This is what a lush, ripe Brown Turkey fig looks like. Notice the stretch marks. That means it is bursting with flavor.

During fig season, I can see these dark, plump jewels sunning themselves on the tree from every vantage point in my backyard. First, they tempt and then they taunt me until I finally find myself risking life and limb to get to them. Often, I  have to climb a ladder and use a long garden tool like a bow rake to grab and pull down a limb, and then reach even further to pluck one from a branch. This all happens first thing in the morning while the outside temperatures are still tolerable. My friend Linda calls it #pajamagardening.

There are others who desire the same figs. I am in constant competition with small birds, the squirrels in the neighborhood, and my chickens. They know they can eat figs to their heart’s content without fear of being seen by predatory hawks when under the canopy of the broad, palmate-shaped fig leaves.

Here’s a video of one of my chickens reaching for a fig. It is best watched in full screen mode. My friend Carrington calls it #rubberchicken.

 

Ina would use the big leaves to line a cheese platter. Just sayin’.

Growing Figs

Fig trees are native to tropical climates, but a few varieties, such as Brown Turkey and Chicago Hardy, have been cultivated to grow in cooler climes (zones 6-11). We planted our tree in front of a southern-facing brick wall so the heat stored in the bricks could warm the tree during winter. Additionally, and this was purely happenstance, our air-conditioner’s condensate pipe drips over the roots all summer long keeping the tree well-hydrated.

Our fig production and access capabilities quadrupled after I pruned the tallest limbs by almost half last March. Later, in April, my husband fertilized the roots with chicken manure. Now the tree is shaped like a sprawling ball and is loaded with figs.

Everything you wanted to know about fig reproduction, but were afraid to ask.

One of my hobbies is studying plant reproduction. All fruits and vegetables start with a flower that once pollinated starts to grow a pod with either one seed in it, like a peach, or many seeds, such as apples and tomatoes. Botanically, the seed pod is known as an ovary. Aggravating as it may feel when a squirrel or chipmunk runs off with a peach or a tomato you have patiently watched ripen, they are doing what nature intended — they are dispersing seeds. Mother Nature doesn’t care if we like our fruits and vegetables. She cares about plant reproduction and species survival.

With that in mind, the first thing I noticed when my tree started producing fruit was the absence of flowers. This photo was taken on April 7th as fig pods and leaves appeared. The pods emerged from the branches but were never preceded by a flower.

This begged the question, How does the fig reproduce without flowers? It turns out the flowers are inside the fig. Hundreds of them! The color inside a fig comes from its flowers.

Last summer, the producer and host of Nashville Public Television’s The Volunteer Gardener came to my garden to film a segment featuring Jeremy Lekich, an expert on edible landscapes and owner of Nashville Foodscapes.   In the show, Jeremy takes viewers around my yard and introduces them to many unusual edibles and explains fig pollination. You can watch the segment here.

By virtue of where the flowers are located, pollination needs to take place inside the fig. To move pollen from a male fig to a female requires the presence of specialized fig wasps who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with figs. The wasps get a place to reproduce and the figs get access to highly specific pollinators. I found this awesome video that shows how microscopic wasps crawl into figs. This other video from PBS’s Gross Science takes it from there describing what happens next in reproduction.

New varieties of common figs, like my Brown Turkey, have been cultivated to not need a wasp for pollination. The female trees are asexual, and the seeds produced are not viable — they are empty seeds. You will see lots of them when we finally get around to cooking the figs!

Every Christmas I make my grandmother’s Sicilian fig cookies. The recipe calls for dried Calimyrna figs. Calimyrnas are a Californian cultivar of the Turkish Smyrna fig (Calimyrna = California + Smyrna) that does require a wasp for pollination. They produce “true seeds” — seeds that are viable for reproduction. Fertile seeds are thick and crunchy, and have a nutty flavor preferred by bakers. They are the figs used to make Fig Newtons.

How to Make Fig Preserves

I cooked many not-so-delicious batches of fig preserves  on the stove before it occurred to me to try roasting them with herbs as I do my strawberry jam. The results were amazing. Roasting intensified the depth of flavor exponentially. They were so good, I took all my reject batches, mixed them together, and roasted two trays for about an hour. Suddenly, they were all tastier, too.

Ingredients:

4-5 pounds fresh figs (12 cups, once stemmed and quartered)*
5 cups granulated sugar
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
one bunch of thyme sprigs (⅓ ounce) or 3-4 long stems of fresh rosemary

*Today, I saw four varieties of figs for sale at Trader Joe’s!

Instructions:

Remove stems and quarter figs.

Place in a lightly-greased heavy-bottomed pot.

Add sugar and acids and stir. The amount of sugar sounds like a lot, but you need sugar to preserve fruit. Acids help fruit release its naturally occurring pectin. Once mixed, place in refrigerator and allow to macerate for a minimum of two hours or overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat oven to 175º. Add thyme or rosemary and simmer on low heat for about twenty minutes. If using thyme, strip leaves before stirring in. If using rosemary, do not strip leaves; leave stems intact and remove before bottling.

Pour hot figs into two rimmed sheet pans and roast for about 4-5 hours.

One way to tell if they have cooked long enough to gel once cooled is to draw a path through the figs and see if the two sides stay separated. If they do, they are ready. You should be able to smell them if they are sufficiently roasted. If you overcook them, they will become thick and gummy when cool. Better to undercook than to overcook.

Pour hot preserves into clean jars, wipe the rims, cover with screw top lids, and turn upside down while they cool. I store them in the fridge, where they should be good for two months.,

I’ll end this story with one last video of my chickens eating figs in the early morning hours.

 

What are my favorite ways to enjoy fig preserves?

By the spoonful — just out of the oven.

My cousin, Marion, served the fig preserves over a delicious blend of cow, sheep, and goat milk cheeses called Rochetta. It was delish. As soon as I got home, I bought a similar cheese called La Tur at Whole Foods.

I often have fig preserves spread over Homemade Ricotta on toast for breakfast, or I’ll make an almond butter and fig sandwich for lunch.

I love brie and fig paninis. Hard to get a photo of the finished product with these crazy-good sandwiches, though.

Please let me know if you make the preserves!

Related Posts:
How to Make Homemade Whole Milk Ricotta
Oven-Roasted Strawberry and Rosemary Jam
Homemade Grape Jelly
Crab Apple Jelly

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© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Lemon Tree Very Pretty

Inspiration. You never know whence it will come.

Last January, my friend Colleen posted a photo of a bowl of bright Meyer lemons on Instagram with a story about a day spent making lemon shortbread and lemon zest ice cubes. The caption read the lemons were grown by our mutual friend and neighbor, Jennifer.

Jennifer has been growing citrus trees in middle Tennessee for five years. The trees summer in her backyard and are brought inside to her garage to winter-over. As soon as I saw the photo of the lemons I texted Jennifer to see if my husband and I could walk over to see her garage grove. All told she had fifteen plants: lots of lemons, a few limes, and one each of orange and tangerine.

The Meyer lemon trees were loaded with fruit. This photo was taken after the big harvest that sparked Colleen and Jennifer to spend the day making cookies for their neighbors.

Thus inspired, in late April, when local nurseries started stocking lemon trees, my husband bought two Meyer Lemons and two Mexican Key Limes.

The plants were only about ten inches tall.

Here they are on October 21 after he re-potted them for the second time. He said he fertilized them once in the fall with Miracle Grow plant food for acid-loving plants. Since we had a mild fall, he kept them outside until mid-November.

Here they are today in our unheated sun porch.

The bright, lemony, and, yes, happy fragrance of the flowers hits you when you first open the door. The smell is intoxicating.

The two lemon trees have about twenty dark green, unripe lemons and hundreds of buds; most are still closed. The lime trees are behind the lemon trees. They only have five small limes growing but have hundreds of tiny buds.

The question is, In the absence of bees or wind, how are these flowers going to get pollinated? I asked my husband, the keeper of the citrus trees, how this was getting accomplished. He said he periodically goes out to the porch and uses a Q-tip to hand pollinate the open flowers.

As a brief refresher, with flowers, the male reproductive part is called the stamen. It consists of a long, thin filament topped by a yellow pollen sack called an anther. The female reproductive part, the center tube, is called a pistil. On the tip of it is a sticky yellow stigma. In the photo, you can see the stigma is wet (it’s shiny). I wouldn’t be surprised if some flowers are being pollinated by gravity alone as the pollen grains drop from their anthers.

One Thing Led to Another

Henry David Thoreau wrote in The Succession of Forest Trees. “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

On Christmas Eve I stopped by our friend’s house for a quick visit and was excited when 7th grader Simon and 8th grader Julius showed me a collection of sprouted seeds they had nurtured over the month. Why? Because it’s science and who doesn’t enjoy a front row seat to the wondrous moment in nature when a seedling pokes its head out of the dirt and its leaves begin to unfurl?!

Their labeled collection of sprouting seeds contained packages of seeds wrapped in wet paper towels and stored in clear plastic bags. To help the germination process along for the lemon seeds, the boys had split the hard seed shells open before placing them in the damp bags to sprout. They gave me a bag with four lemon seeds in it.

I kept the bag on the kitchen windowsill until January 6th when I planted the seeds in dirt. Here they are seven weeks after they were first placed in the bag to germinate.

Flying Dragon Bitter Orange Tree

It is worth mentioning there is a deciduous citrus plant that grows well in Nashville called a trifoliate orange tree, AKA a Flying Dragon Bitter Orange Tree. My Flying Dragon is three years old and has yet to set fruit. I’m hoping for fruit this summer. Per Wikipedia: “The fruits are very bitter, due in part to their poncirin content. Most people consider them inedible when fresh, but they can be made into marmalade. When dried and powdered, they can be used as a condiment.”

Germinating lemon seeds and pollinating lemon flowers have been fun winter pursuits while waiting for February 14th, the big day. Yup, that’s the time-honored date in our area to plant peas and thus begin the 2019 growing season! To learn more about starting a kitchen garden check out this page.

What to do with all those lemons?

Our favorite way to use a glut of lemons is to make Italian Ricotta and Lemon Cookies.

Another favorite is Lemony Grilled Chicken Breasts.

DSC_1143.jpg

Here is a lemony recipe I wrote for Mason Dixon KnittingSHEET PAN SUPPER: LEMON CHICKEN

This post shows you how to quickly peel citrus: How to Peel an Orange or Grapefruit Quickly.

And how about a nice citrus salad to tide us over while we wait for homegrown tomatoes? Grapefruit and Greens: A Refreshing Winter Salad 

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Always check this website for the most up to date version of a recipe.  

© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.