When Mark Weinberger and his wife Lisa moved into their new suburban home in White Bear Lake, Minn., they completed the installation of an existing landscape plan that called for perennial flowers, shrubs and trees. Seven years and two kids later, their priorities have changed.
In 2002, Mark built an 8 x 16-foot raised bed to grow vegetables for the family and quickly realized that growing vegetables was his new passion. "My dad had a few tomato plants and a community garden when I was growing up in St. Paul, but we really weren't big into vegetable gardening," says Mark. But now he loves it. "There's something special about growing your own food and I like when my kids Matthew and Alexandra help out," he says.
Mark grows tomatoes, sweet corn, carrots, squash, broccoli and his favorite, Anaheim chiles. He loves roasting peppers. "We often go skiing in New Mexico in the winter and green chiles are in many of the foods we eat there," he says. "I like the Anaheim variety because it has some spice, but doesn't overpower you with heat," says Mark. He uses the peppers from his 12 plants in pasta sauce, chili, stew, pizzas and burgers.
Mark didn't need years of gardening experience to realize that growing an abundance of healthy vegetables requires healthy soil. This is what got him turned onto composting. He has a Pyramid Composter that he uses nonstop. "In the past four years, I haven't thrown out any vegetable or fruit waste," says Mark. Everything gets composted. "It's paid for itself ten times over," he says. To jumpstart the decomposition process, he adds a little compost starter and some shredded leaves every time he empties a bucket of food scraps into the composter. "I'm amazed that once spring arrives, and things begin to thaw out, I can have finished compost in less than six weeks," says Mark. He is usually able to produce three to four batches of finished compost each year.
During the cold winter months, Mark keeps adding to the compost pile even though the material freezes. He occasionally breaks up the frozen material in the composter with a shovel. "That way in spring the smaller bits of organic matter break down faster," he says. Mark calls this process "speed composting". The speed comes from shredding or cutting up the organic matter and adding the right amount of carbon-rich material or "brown" materials to the mix. "I find the smaller the size of the material you add, the quicker the compost finishes," says Mark.
Mark likes using Gardener's Supply Vegetable Ladders for his pepper plants. "They're very sturdy and I can plant more pepper plants in less space because the supports hold the plants upright better than stakes," says Mark. Mark estimates he can plant 30 to 40 percent more peppers by using the vegetable supports. This year, he also tried the taller Tomato Ladders and found them equally helpful.
Mark's garden is primarily organic. To control weeds around the yard he uses a Flame Weeder. "It works well along the border of the garden, especially between the rock edging. Since I don't use chemicals to control weeds, this is a good alternative," he says.
Mark is in the process of removing some of the old landscaping that was installed with the house, to make room for more veggies. He's taking out an old concrete waterfall and garden shed, and plans to build a new patio and more raised beds. Though growing his own vegetables gives Mark a tremendous sense of satisfaction, what really touches him is the way his children have become involved. "It's fun to watch my kids pick vegetables from the garden," he says. It helps them understand where food comes from and appreciate fresh food. "My son is a picky eater, but he loves dad's tomato soup made from fresh tomatoes," says Mark. Healthy soil, fresh food and young kids are a good combination.
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