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Sunday, September 20, 2015

DIY Cute Step Stones

Greetings to my DIY, artistic, creative gardeners and upcyclers!

I have an easy DIY way to make step stones for your garden here:

You Will Need:

1. Quickrete Cement Mix
2. Water
3. Many bottle caps and/or stones and/or ceramic pieces and/or other smooth, flat colorful items
4. Cement dye (optional)
5. Plastic tray/dish for under pots
6. Plastic bucket for mixing
7. Stick or shovel for mixing


1. Mix the water, cement mix and cement dye (optional) together in the bucket.  The mixture should be the thickness of porridge once combined.

2. Pour the mixture in to the plastic tray and spread flat.

3. Let sit for about 20 minutes so the cement is set but still damp.

4. Press bottle caps, stones etc. into the cement in any pattern you like! (This is the fun part!!)

5. Allow to harden for 48 hours.

6. Place in the garden and enjoy!

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Project #4 - Brighton Victory Garden

Edited picture from
 This year, I have started helping at the Brighton Victory Garden. So far I have assisted with planting, weeding and hoeing rows. I hope to assist with harvest in the fall.

The victory garden is a community garden run on behalf of the Livingston County Hunger Council by Ms. Kay Simmons. The Brighton Garden Club also maintains an herb and flower garden at the front of the Victory Garden. The garden sits on a full acre of land loaned to the hunger council by Brighton NC Manufacturing Solutions. Kay leads a team of volunteers from local schools, businesses, organizations as well as interested individuals to plant, grow and harvest vegetables that are then donated to the local food bank. The garden provides over 10,000 lbs of free fresh produce to families in need each year.

Brighton Hunger Council's Victory Garden - June 2016.
 The Hunger Council was established in 2009 with the  goal to "eradicate hunger in Livingston County."  According to their website, by "December, 2010 – With a year of collaborative efforts complete, the members of the Livingston Hunger Council could boast a total of 3,855,423 additional meals, reducing the hunger gap by almost 77%."  Because of the efforts of the Hunger Council, Livingston County is considered to be one of the few food secure counties in Michigan.

Not only does the Victory Garden provide fresh vegetables to the community, it also provides allotments to individuals.  In exchange for volunteer work in the garden, individuals are given the opportunity to use a portion of the acre of land on which to grow their own produce.

Hoeing a row of pumpkin at the Victory Garden.
The Hunger Council works with a variety of agencies inluding: The Salvation Army, The Well Church, Hartland Consolidated Schools, Livingston County United Way, St. Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital, Livingston County Senior Nutrition Program, Livingston County Dept. of Public Health, Love, Inc., Hidden Springs Church, SonRise Church, LESA Head Start, Stone Coop Farms, Greater Brighton Area Chamber of Commerce, Family Impact Center, MSU Extension, OLHSA, St. Agnes Food Pantry, St. Joseph Pantry, Olinik Family McDonalds, Livingston County Department of Human Services, Livingston County Catholic Charities, Gleaners Community Food Bank, Fausone Bohn, LLP, Livingston Adventist Church, Society of St. Vincent de Paul at Holy Spirit Church, and Livingston County Sunrise Rotary Club.

 If you are interested in volunteering at the garden,  please contact Kay Simmons and/or view the website at

To view the garden, please visit at NC Manufacturing Solutions - The field to the left of the building - 7300 Whitmore Lake Rd Brighton, MI 48116.  

Picture from

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

DIY: Reflective Grow Shelf

Seeds waiting to germinate in the grow tent.
Here in zone 5b Michigan, the average first frost date occurs somewhere between the last week in September and the first week in October.   Although we have had a few 80F (27C) days lately, the cold weather is closing in fast.  This means that the houseplants that have been "vacationing" outside need to come in to the house soon.

As the weather gets colder, the days get shorter as well.  This means that there is much less light than is optimal for most plants.  So what is a gardener to do?

The answer: Grow lights.  These are full spectrum light bulbs that can be used to either supplement or replace the natural sunlight in the winter.  Better Homes and Gardens has a good article about how to choose a grow light.  To read it, click HERE.

In addition to the grow lights, it helps to have a reflective "grow tent" to bounce the light from the full spectrum bulbs towards the plants and to optimize the amount of light that the plant receives.  But these grow tents can be expensive!  New, they may cost anywhere from $70 to $500 before you even purchase a grow light. 

But not to worry! I have found a way to create an inexpensive DIY grow tent.  The whole thing cost me about $40 including the lightbulbs!  However, I did have an old shelf available. If you do not have an old shelf, the whole project may cost you $40-$70 depending on where you purchase a second hand shelf.


Step1: Assemble the old wire shelf

 1. An old wire shelf -   The pop-together shelves used in dorm & children's rooms work perfectly for this.  You may have one of these sitting around.  Otherwise, you can probably find one second hand in a garage sale, Salvation Army store, or on sale at a big box store for a price range of $0 to $30.

2. Three full spectrum light bulbs - You should be able to find these in a pack of 3-4 for a price range of $3-$10.

3. Three bulb sockets with cords.  I found these online for $8 each.

4. The handyman's best friend: DUCT TAPE!  You can get this at the dollar store.

5. Three or four mylar emergency blankets.  You can find these for $3 each or less either online, at most drug stores, or at a big box store. (Note you may need more for a very tall or wide shelf.  The shelf I used was about 2 ft. x 1ft x 5ft)

6.  A couple of zip ties - You can find these at the dollar store.

7. An extension cord or adapter plug - optional.  This should cost less than $5 and can be found at any big box store, or perhaps your dollar store.


1. Assemble the shelf per shelf instructions.

2. Attach the bulb sockets to 3 tiers of the shelf using zip ties.  Run the cords along the outside of the shelf.  If you want, you can zip tie the cords in to place as well. Hang the bulbs so they do not touch the outside edges of the wire shelf.  This is in order to avoid making contact between the bulb and the mylar sheeting.  If the mylar heats up, it could melt or possibly burn.  Please use caution, common sense, and cool light bulbs.  (NO HEAT LAMPS!!!!!)
Step 2: Zip tie sockets to wire shelf

3. Screw the light bulbs in to place.

4. Use 2 of the 3 mylar emergency blankets to wrap the outside of the shelf.  Secure the mylar in to place with the duct tape. Wrap the left side of the shelf with one mylar sheet, and the right side with the other, leaving an open, over-lapping seam up the center of the back of the shelving so that you can access the pots from the back of the shelf. Be sure to cover the top of the shelf entirely. This step is fun because it's a bit like wrapping a giant Christmas present!!  :) :) :)    (See picture below.)

5. Cover the bottom shelf with the 3rd mylar sheet to reflect light upward into the shelf from below. Tape this in to place with the duct tape.

6. If you are placing the shelf against a window, leave one side of the shelf open / NOT covered by the mylar.  Place the shelf so that this open side faces the window to collect as much natural sunlight as you can.  A south-facing window is best, but any window will do in a pinch!

Step 4: Wrap the shelf in mylar. Leave an access opening in back.
7. If you are placing the shelf in a basement without a window, then go ahead and cover the shelf entirely with the mylar using the 4th mylar sheet.  If you choose to do this, you may want to consider which types of light bulbs you use as grow lights a bit more carefully.  The prices for these can range into the $100's and vary considerably in power, and light spectrum. Better Homes and Gardens has a good article about how to choose a grow light.  To read it, click HERE.

Step 6: Wrap the shelf in mylar with one side open for placement towards the window
 8. Plug the bulb sockets in to the wall or the extension cord.  Make sure that the bulbs are securely in place and turn them on!


Place the plants or pots on the shelf.  Try to load the shelf from the bottom upward so that it does not become top heavy and tip over.

You can use the shelf either to help keep your house plants happy through the winter, or for seed starting in the early spring (or any time of year, really!)

Most plants need about 12 hours of sunlight per day.  If the days are long enough, and the light bright enough, you may be able to leave the lights off for a time.  Once the days shorten, simply turn the lights on in the shelf in the morning and then turn them off 12 hours later.

Remember, in Michigan, the fall equinox is September 23rd and spring equinox is March 20. So you should certainly turn your grow lights on between 9/23 and 3/20 to supplement for the shortened day / missing sunlight.

If you are forgetful, you may want to plug the extension cord in to an electrical timer set to turn on and off every 12 hours.  These timers cost as little as $4 at a big box store.  Well worth the savings to your electric bill!

Note:  The shelf does not insulate very well, and it is dangerous to use a heat lamp with the mylar (fire & toxic fume hazard).  If your plants require a certain temperature, please control this via the central heating system of your house.


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Vegetable Garden Soil - From Scratch!


Having moved in to my home only last summer, I thought that it was a good idea to do one or two garden beds at a time.  If I tried to do them all at once I would be biting off much more than I can chew!

This summer, I completed the herb garden and the small mailbox garden.

Next spring (2016), I plan to plant the vegetable garden!

It is true that a good garden begins with good soil.  Unfortunately, when I did my soil test on the bed that I planned to use, I discovered that the soil was very poor in nutrients and had a high (alkaline) pH of 7.8!  Something had to be done to rectify this before I can plant anything!

On top of that, there were 4 burning bushes in the bed blocking the western sun and spreading some gnarly roots throughout the bed.  To complicate things further, there are 2 wires running through the bed.  One to the pump for the sprinkler system, and one for the dog's electric fence.  Clearly the area would need some work before I could plant anything!


 First, I cut back the four, 8-foot-tall burning bushes and dug out the stumps.  This took the better part of a day, but was well worth it. The bed went from being part sun/part shade to nearly full sun.  There is some shade over the bed for part of the day due to the oak tree 50 feet away in the neighbor's yard, but the effect of this is minimal compared to the shade cast by the four large bushes that were directly in the garden bed.

My sandy, nutrient poor soil.
These bushes left behind an extensive root system.  Some of the roots were up to 1inch diameter. 
These were spread throughout the bed and made for some difficult digging later on.


 The next step was to improve the soil.  The native soil in the bed is sandy, alkaline and nutrient poor.  The advantage to this is that sandy soil drains well.  The problem is that nutrients wash out of the soil easily with the water.  For this reason, sandy soil is often low in the nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium - NPK) that plants need to grow well.

My goal was to improve the texture of the soil so that it holds a bit more moisture and nutrients, to increase the nutrient content of the soil, and to acidify the soil so that it has a pH in the range of 6.8 to 7.0.

In addition, I needed to pull the roots of the former burning bushes out of the soil, and to loosen the compacted soil.

Double-digging the trench - note the root and wire sticking out.
Originally, I considered tilling the soil to break up the root systems and to add my chosen soil amendments.  Tilling would have saved me a lot of time and effort because I could use a machine to do the hard work of digging. However, there were 3 problems with this: 1. There are two wires going through the bed for the pump and the electric dog fence.  If I used a tiller, these wires would be destroyed, and I could be injured.  2. I would have needed to rent the largest and most expensive tiller available from the big box store in order to cut through 1 inch roots. 3. Unless I tilled very carefully and lightly, there was danger that I could work the soil into a fine powder which would destroy the soil tilth and lead to worse compaction than I started with!

spreading soil amendments in the trench.
So, I decided to bite the bullet and double dig all 300 square feet of root-filled soil by hand. This process allowed me to add soil amendments, to loosen the soil and to rip out the old roots a little at a time.  Double digging involves making a trench in the soil, adding compost and soil additives to the bottom of the trench, then spreading the top soil and some compost back over the top of the trench. In my case, I chose to add a mixture of 3/4 composted horse manure, 1/8 sphagnum peat moss, and 1/8 recycled used coffee grounds. Once I covered the compost in he trench over with the top soil, I also spread a thin layer of soil acidifier, peat moss, coffee grounds, and compost to the surface of the soil and covered that with mulch. Double digging the entire bed, by myself, by hand (including hauling the manure from a pile to the back yard) took me approximately 15 hours of time, spread out over several weekends. (It also caused me to grow Pop-eye like muscles ;) and gave me a nasty, blistering sunburn!!)

Luckily, I should only have to double dig this garden ONCE.  Now that the soil has been loosened, and a base layer of organic matter has been added, I can maintain the soil more easily in the future simply by adding compost to the hole when I plant, and spread about an inch or so thick over the surface of the soil.  Also, now that all of the roots have been removed, digging holes for planting will be WAY easier! 


I spread my soil amendments about 2-3 inches thick along the bottom of the trench that I double-dug, and then mixed the topsoil back over and in with the amendments. The amendment mixture I used was made up of the following: 

1. Composted Horse Manure -  I do make my own compost, but did not have nearly enough to cover the 300 square foot area of my garden.   So I loaded up a truck with some lovely, FREE, composted manure from Brighton Rec Stables.  3/4 of my added soil amendment was made up of horse manure. Horse manure is high in organic matter and has NPK values of approximately 0.7-0.3-0.6.  (Please see this website for more information on the nutrient content of various manure types: Manure NPK.) As you can see, the nitrogen content is low enough that I do not need to worry about "burning" my plants.  Actually, unless you bury your plant with a ridiculous amount of fresh, wet manure, it is very difficulty to cause harm to most plants.

Cute compost makers!
2. Recycled Coffee Grounds - Starbucks, and other coffee vendors will give you their used coffee grounds for FREE if you ask for them at the front counter. 1/8 of my added soil amendment mix was made up of used coffee grounds. These grounds have an NPK value of 2.28-0.06-0.6 and a pH of 6.2. They are also high in copper, and earthworms love to munch on them! (For more information see test results at the Sunset website.)  There is a rumor going around that used coffee grounds are dangerously acidic.  This is not true.  Ideal soil pH is 6.8.  Used coffee grounds have a pH of 6.2 and are being mixed with your native soil.  Once mixed with the soil, the pH of the coffee grounds is negligible.  Unless you are planting in pure used coffee grounds, or soil that is mostly made up of coffee grounds, this should not be a problem. It is even less of a problem in my garden, with my super alkaline soil of pH 7.8.  My soil needs to be acidified!

3. Sphagnum Peat Moss - Peat moss contains little in the way of nutrients (NPK), but is great for adding organic material to the soil. 1/8 of my soil amendment mix was made up of peat moss. The peat moss helps to hold moisture and nutrients in the soil.  It also has a very acidic pH of 4.0 (way more acid than coffee grounds!).  This pH is low enough to actually lower the pH of the native soil and is often used to acidify the soil around azaleas and blueberries.  Because my soil was so alkaline (pH 7.8), I chose to add a small amount of this as a soil amendment along with my compost and coffee grounds. 

Raking the soil back into the trench after adding soil amendments.
4. Soil Acidifier - The soil acidifier that I used was 30% sulfur.  The package recommended using 12lbs per 100 square foot of garden space for every 1 point in pH reduction desired.  I only used about 6 lbs over the entire 300 square foot space.  The reason that I used less than was recommended was because I was already adding peat moss, coffee grounds and compost to the soil. The combination of these items, especially the peat moss, should lower the pH somewhat already.  I did not want to lower the pH too much. Therefore, I added much less acidifier than recommended.  In the spring, I will test the soil pH again and will add more acidifier if needed.  The reason that I am not testing the soil pH now is because I want to give the earthworms, insects, weather, water, and "Mother Nature" in general time to "mix" my soil additives in to the native soil of the garden.  By the time spring arrives, the peat moss and sulfur should be worked in to the soil enough to change the pH somewhat.  I can make adjustments from there.

5. Mulch -- I already had some wood-chip mulch on the garden bed, left over from the previous owner.  However, this mulch had partially decomposed and was not enough to cover the surface of the bed to a depth of 1-2 inches as I would prefer.  So, this fall, I will be dumping shredded leaves from the local oak trees onto the bed as a mulch.  This will help hold moisture in the soil and prevent weeds.  Leaves are also very high in nutrients and break down into "leaf mold" as they decompose.  In addition, earth worms, beneficial bacteria and beneficial fungi love to eat them!  They should greatly enhance the viability of the soil over all.

Note:  Everyone's soil is different! Please test your own soil and decide what you want to add to your particular soil.   If you have acidic soil, you may want to add lime to "sweeten"/add alkalinity to the soil.  If your soil is neutral or between 6.8-7.0, you don't need to adjust the pH and may only want to add compost.  If you have heavy clay soil, you may want to add a lot more compost than I did. (Never add sand to clay soil! Never add clay to sandy soil! This will turn your soil into CEMENT!! Do add compost instead!)  If you need advice about what to add to your soil, please get a soil test and/or contact your local extension office for advice! Click here for the link to MSU extension "Ask an Expert".  Click here to find out how to test your soil.


 Next spring, I will be planting vegetables in the garden.  Before I do this, I will be adding corn gluten meal (organic Nitrogen - N), bone meal (organic phosphorus - P), and potash (organic potassium - K) to the soil in the amounts recommended by the soil test that I had done by the MSU lab.
My home-made compost before and after.
I will also be adding 2lbs of azomite rock dust to the soil in order to boost some of the trace mineral elements in the soil.  Azomite only has an NPK of 0-0-0.2.  But it contains 67 other elements including  1.8% calcium, 0.5% magnesium, 0.1% chlorine, and 0.1% sodium. 

In addition, I will test my soil pH again with a home soil pH testing kit to see if I need to add more soil acidifier or not.

Finally, as I plant each vegetable, I will add some of my home-made compost to the hole and soil surface for an extra boost, as well as to help maintain the amount of organic matter in the soil.


To keep my soil healthy, I will continue to add compost and/or manure to the soil each time I plant.  I will put some compost in the hole, and will spread some over the surface.  I will also add a thin layer of coffee grounds each year, as well as the recommended amount of corn gluten meal to keep up the level of nitrogen.  Nitrogen needs to be added yearly in a controlled amount because it dissipates into the plants, and into the air over time.   I will continue to mulch with leaves in order to keep up the level of minerals in the soil.  I plan to test my soil pH yearly using a kit from the local big box store, and to get a soil lab test every 3-5 years, or if my plants show signs of problems.


Pimp My Soil!!
Pimp My Soil - Part Deux!   
Soil - Timing is Everything
MI Free Compost
Make Compost Tea
Red Worms & DIY Vermicomposting

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Pinterest: @MiLakeGarden
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DIG!! DIG!! 


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Busy busy!

Sorry for the lack of new posts, everyone!

I have been busy helping the Brighton Garden Club clean up the Brighton Library garden, delivering veggies to Pinckney for the Brighton Victory Garden, double digging my future veggie bed, starting cuttings, and other miscellaneous garden chores.  

I have been photographing as I go, so keep an eye out for articles on the following in the near future: 

1. Double digging / prepping the vegetable garden soil.

2. How to start soft wood cuttings.

3. How to DIY build a reflective grow hutch with lights for indoor plants.

4. How to protect potted outdoor plants over the winter. 

5. A rant about why tall trees should not be planted under power lines, how to remove a small tree stump, and suggestions of what to plant under the power line instead.

6. Fall garden clean up tips.

So please check the blog again soon!

Also for pictoral updates on the garden, flowers, insects and cute critters, follow me on Twitter (@alhramAndrea) or Instagram (@MiLakeHomeGarden).