100 A year restoring the garden

100 A year restoring the garden

A year ago, I adopted neglected land to restore and enjoy while we live in an apartment nearby. So much has happened since.

I restored the garden house–well, mostly. We cleaned up endless amounts of trash and cut free trees and paths. We also added a second plot.

Even more has happened there. But let’s go back to the beginning.

Note: The video version of this post gets released on Wednesday, June 12.

After starting a balcony garden last spring, a neighbor told me about this neglected plot. I’d literally had to cut free the garden house. But all I saw was potential. So, I signed the contract. I am now the steward of this land–and all the trash on it.

Every inch was overgrown, and there was trash everywhere. Undeterred, I went to work.

The garden house needed urgent attention, so I started there. Blackberries were taking over everywhere. Sun was shining through the roof, and water damage was obvious. But so far, the roof structure seemed okay.

The first tool I bought was a string trimmer. It has gotten endless use since. Slowly, I uncovered the garden house from underneath fruit trees, hazelnuts, and blackberry brambles.

There was no way to fix the roof. I’d have to learn how to build a roof.

The first ripe fruit brought deliciousness and motivation. The currant bushes were heavy with berries.

I borrowed a tall ladder and got my first good look at the state of things. The top of the roof was in worst shape. So, I added a temporary fix, and planned the new roof.

Whenever it was too windy or my brain too exhausted, I worked on uncovering the land. For hours, I trimmed the tall grass and uncovered what was underneath.

And then, the rains started. For the past 18 months, it has rained way more than is typical here. During every break in the weather (and often in drizzle), I carried in roof supplies.

I used rainy days and rest days to clean out the garden house. A moldy mattress and mountains of trash had been left behind.

I used the first ripe blackberries as an excuse not to clear this part of the land yet. Instead, I opened up the roof.

Most of the nails were hard to remove, some impossible. And the tar-like goo on the panels made it a messy job. Animals had also chewed up the styrofoam which flew everywhere.

To harvest the ripe blackberries, I had to reach them. My plan to ignore these bushes didn’t work out. I spent a few very sunny days fighting with brambles. Honestly, the blackberries won this round.
As most were new brambles, the harvest was minimal.

But I uncovered another cherry tree underneath. Worth the struggle.

After doing a lot of research, I decided on an approach for the roof. I started rebuilding–from the bottom. This would turn out to be one of the largest mistakes.

As I was working alone, every board was a workout. My core strength went through the roof. Soon after this, I’d realize that I’d have to redo the entire first side of wood panels. The old roof structure was more uneven than I thought–and I’d made a mistake with the measuring.

I also needed a flat surface to work on, so the old terrace had to go.
The boards and pallets were rotted through. It took hours and hours to take apart.

The trash piles were growing. I’d have a lot of trips to the dump ahead of me.

Once I realized the boards were misaligned, I took off the first side, and started over. Twice. I also found two elder bushes right next to the roof. More perennials with edible uses. Yay!

In the end, I did it. The first side was done. Well, the first layer of the first side.

Friends were coming to help soon, so I was in a rush to get the old roof off the second side.

The trash piles kept growing and growing. And much of this is special waste. The owners of the land had promised help with driving off the trash. Help that would never come.

I had taken the summer off from studying, as I’d finished my bachelor a semester early. But with week’s of delay thanks to endless rain, I was running out of time. I’d have to close the roof before classes started up again–or the endless rain.

Two friends came by to help out. I’d meant to finish the wood and get their help with the outer layers. I hadn’t been able to finish in time.
Together, what had taken me weeks took hours. We were also able to start at the top as intended. But I’d have to do the hardest part alone.

A lucky sale for a color going out of style allowed me to change plans last-minute to a better roof. I carried more than 400 kilos of roofing supplies that day. And brought them all into the garden.

I highly recommend getting help for this part of the process. This was not fun. This was not easy. But my husband was at work, friends and family far away, so I had to get it done alone. Two hands and two clamps, a tall ladder, and a lot of creativity got this done.

I used every bit of flexibility to hold things for myself. Metal edges will make this roof last longer. I only need it for two years but I am building for longer. Hopefully, whoever takes over the garden will get good use out of my work.

The winds were getting stronger. The days were quickly getting shorter here in Northern Germany. I spent every free minute on the roof.

I ran out of material with only one segment missing and had to use a different style. But in the end, the step I hated so much was done. I was so happy to be done with the heavy huge sheets.

The roof tiles were much easier to handle than the large sheets. Much easier for working alone. And a lot prettier, too. Who cares that this color is supposedly no longer cool. Tiles meant a lot more up and down, but they were easier to handle.

During some time off, my husband was able to help with the final steps. We got the metal edges finished together, so I could cover the second side. The connection of the top looks horrible but it will work.

Soon after, I was starting the second side, one roof tile after the other. Even the much smaller tiles are heavy, and the winds started picking up, so every step took a lot of energy.

The end of the roof project turned into a literal rush to the finish line. But in the end, with days to spare, I finished the roof. A happy dance was in order.

I am proud to say that I built a roof. It isn’t perfect but it will work just fine. And now, I have the knowledge.

With the end of the roof project came a return to trash duty. The hut was covered in packaging. The trash piles were growing, and I didn’t yet know that the promise to pick them up would not be kept.

Eager to have them pick up as much as possible, I cleaned and piled up more trash. I even took apart the furniture. Can you call this mess furniture?

I took apart as much of the second hut on my land to have the materials on the piles. Weird crates of white powder, dead chicken in the roof, and a whole lot of half-rotted material.

The roof was in the worst shape: too rotten to keep, to intact to fall and make it easier on me. I tried to cover the hut with foil. This was harder than it should be and the next storm made it futile. I’ve given up on this hut by now.

In late October, the gardener on the adjacent plot decided to give up her land. I decided to take it. The owners made up for their broken promises with free “rent” on the second plot. I’ll likely never pay for this.

The land would not officially be mine until January but the previous owner let me have the garlic bed early. So, in October, we spread straw as mulch, something I wish I could have done with all the beds then. Two kinds of garlic and a mix of onions went into the beds.
My first crop was getting planted. I was excited. From construction worker and cleanup crew to gardener, yay!

But with winter coming soon, garlic and onions were the only crops in my first year.

Now that I knew the trash would not be picked up, I tackled the problem–one trunk load at a time. I’m glad I don’t care when my car gets dirty. My car is a tool, not a fun mobile.

For weeks, any trip into town that didn’t require clean clothes meant a trash trip. Progress was slow but I was determined to get it done. This would have been much easier with a trailer or a van. But I didn’t have either, so I made do.

When my dad gave me a cart for my birthday, and it arrived early, I put it together, eager to get more trash moved. That night, winter arrived in North-East Germany.

Within hours, the trash piles were hidden underneath snow and the forest white. The world was a winter wonderland.

Even I found it hard to hate winter that day.

With freezing fingers, my husband captured the beautiful views. Pepper wasn’t amused. He hates winter more than me. A snow storm arrived soon after. We even got snowed in for a few days. Two missed classes that I was healthy enough to attend and no way to continue in the garden…

I tried to get to class. But because the snow crew was on strike, the major roads were no better. So, I turned around. On the way home, I checked on the garden. This was the roof’s first snow load. It dawned on me that the trash would need to wait a while.

Winter had arrived.

The roof was covered in snow but seemed to be standing strong.
The garden looked magical covered in snow with trash and projects hidden under a white blanket. We enjoyed the snow for a few more days. Pepper and I ran to keep warm.

My health took an expected turn to the worse in winter. The lack of light gets to me. The lack of garden work also made my chronic pain worse. I wasn’t feeling well at all.

The winters here are like living in perpetual twilight and darkness. There are only a few hours of daylight each day and even those are dimmed. I try to keep busy and work on projects inside but it only helps so much.

This winter, I finished the kitchen. There is now a lot more storage space in the tiny room.

If you care to see what I kept busy with all winter, there are videos about a lot of it. This one is about the garden.

The last days of January brought the earliest signs of spring. The snow had melted (though not for the last time), and I got a good look at the garden. After months of little light and a lot of health struggles, I could see a literal light at the end.

Not everything had survived the winter and the strong storms. Most things did. I cleaned up the shards–though I kept finding more for months. Mostly, we only drove to the garden to dump our kitchen compost in the bins.

But slowly, the sun was coming out more, and temperatures rose above freezing on most days.

February was spent on the couch with a nasty flu that even kept me from making videos. Once everyone was recovered, Pepper and I enjoyed the first rays of sunshine in the garden.

With the trash no longer covered in snow, I restarted my drives to the dump. I freed the cherry I’d found under the brambles just before the annual pause in trimming to let birds nest.

Inside, I removed the obscene graffiti from the wall. I’d sanded off the homophobic ones in fall.

This also gave me a chance to inspect my roof from the inside. I’d been so nervous about this. But no sign of water damage anywhere. The roof had made it through winter and winds.

Spring also brought the first wild herbs to eat. Yum!

And then it was finally time to get started. My mom had given me some trays for my birthday, and I used them to start the first seeds in March.

Diligently, I labeled everything and dropped the seeds into the trays.

Last-minute changes, an accident and a vacation, and a really severe rain storm will mix a lot of this up. I’d also lose some of these plants because of a skipped garden day. But for now, there was green!

I sorted my seeds, made a planting schedule, and started more seeds over the next days. Slowly, my bedroom was turned into a plant nursery. There were pots and trays everywhere.

All kinds of peppers joined the tomatoes. I did not enjoy working with the pre-filled trays at all. I also started some wine grapes on my windowsill.

Neighbors gave me a lot of tulips, so I figured out where to place them. I dug up these planters from the overgrown plot, and placed them as a terrace outline.

Pepper enjoyed the time outside. We’d all been inside too much this winter. Sunny days were few and far between, so we stayed inside on most days, tending to the seedlings and our home.

I cleaned up the balcony after a long winter. Soon, I wanted green on here. I removed the hanging planters that had never worked for us to make room for all the planters I’d been given last year.

I couldn’t see all the trash anymore. It had to go. I spent days driving off trash. While I was making progress, I was losing time to prepare beds. In the end, I asked a neighbor to borrow his van.

Potatoes joined the seedling party in my bedroom. I’d gotten a lot of seed potatoes.

The tulips came and went. I’d gotten them too late, and only some managed to bloom. I realized the planters would be empty until next spring.

But there were first signs of life everywhere. The current bushes were growing first leaves.

Eager for a place to store my water barrels, I added another demo day for the second hut. The wood of the walls was in good shape–but I would not be able to help them stay that way.

The roof needed to come down before I could continue work in here.
Despite a lot of motivation and an afternoon of my best efforts, I could not get the roof to come down. It is held up by one board. I don’t dare cut it. So, the hut is now off limits while I focus on other things.

Instead, I finally started preparing my beds. The garden was a mess of grass, flowers, and wild growth. To get an idea of how bad this would be, I sat down and began weeding by hand.

Weeding by hand was slow but after trying a few options, it is still my favorite. I will buy a garden fork at some point to make this a whole lot easier. But weeding by hand remains my favorite way. it is also the least destructive method I’ve tried.

But progress was slow, and the soil much too compacted to serve for most crops. It was probably good plans changed for this bed.

But first, it was time to add a little home base to the garden plot: a small cheap plastic greenhouse. The instructions were horrible, so this entire build was an exercise in frustration–even with help. An entire morning was spent sorting the parts and building the base frame.

That afternoon, my husband joined me with two extra hands.
Both of us were sure this greenhouse would never come together, let alone last a storm. We had to redo some steps because the instructions were unclear–and for three different versions of this thing. But in the end, we figured it out.

We replaced the roof panels with the correct side panels. Frustrated, we had to accept defeat when the light faded and hunger forced us home.

During a break, my husband captured this stunning view of my cherry tree in full blossom. We’d had to replace our drone, as the old one kept crashing into trees. This one makes me a lot less nervous.

The next day, I was back alone to finish the rest of the greenhouse build while my husband returned to work. The manual definitely didn’t instruct me in how to build the door or window. Trial and error got this built.

A storm had been forecast, so I had to get this done and fix the structure.

I returned that afternoon to collect rain water from the forecast storm. I attached the last hose as the first drops started falling.
The rain water collection system was up–well, at least for the greenhouse. I even got home before getting soaked. But then the rains came.

At home, things were turning green. Soon, all of these would need beds to grow in. My bedroom was covered in increasingly large pots while I waited for the weather to let me work on the beds.

My toilet paper plant and the wine were looking good. And the first radishes on the balcony were growing in.

When the weather improved, another lucky sale allowed me to get a fence for Pepper. This is an electric fence but it’s rated for small dogs without power. Pepper will no longer need to be on a leash while I work on this plot.

A neighboring gardener offered me some thyme that was overgrowing his plot. So, I gave up on tulips. Instead, I planted thyme and lavender in the pots.

I spread cardboard in the greenhouse to smother the grass. The old shelf from the kitchen moved in as two smaller ones. They would serve to grow seedlings and as storage for things I needed a lot. For now, I could spread out all the potatoes.

When I posted my weeding on Mastodon, someone introduced me to Irish beds. So, I changed plans for the potato beds. Seven “lazy” Irish beds meant a lot of digging for someone who believes in not disturbing the soil. But I learned a lot from creating these, and still think it was the right way to go.

And these beds won’t be dug again. They’ll be cover-cropped whenever they are not in use. Avoiding bare soil will be one of the main guiding principles.

This won’t be my land for long. In another year or two, I’ll take my knowledge and move on. Growing potatoes will be one of the things I hopefully learn this year.

But as potatoes will need water, and there were more strong rains on the forecast, it was time to collect water. With a lot of improvisation and adjustments, the gutters went up.

I’ll need to learn to use an angle grinder to finish them but they’ll collect water for now. The barrels below them had been filled for months, so I made room.

We went on vacation at the end of May, so I was in a sprint to get everything prepared. I learned how to create soil blocks with a tiny living-room setup. I am a huge fan of the principle. We’ll get a proper metal setup for next season.

In the gardens, I needed a way to get the cart through to the growing plot. So, I moved the compost out of the way yet again, and opened up the fence between the plots.

The entire fence needs replacing but I won’t be the one to tackle that project. I can’t focus on everything. I don’t own this land. With limited energy and funds, I have to pick my battles.

Green was taking over everywhere in the garden. My hazelnut trees blocked most of the overgrown plot. Spring had arrived.

Th last two potato beds were dug in lawn instead of a half-weeded bed. This made things both easier and harder. The grass was harder to cut through, but in some places, I could actually fold over the grass as intended.

Pepper enjoyed the sun while I worked hard to get the now shriveling potatoes into the ground.

After falling into one of the sunken rain barrels and injuring my dominant hand, everything got more complicated.

I’d had to skip a garden day, and some of my seedlings were in dire need of rescue. With one hand in a splint, I did the bare minimum to get them into the ground. Some mulch, some water. It was all I could do to give them a chance.

With some soil from the compost I’d moved, I spread cardboard in a second row around the rescued plants. It didn’t look like much but it was a start.

I found strawberries and dug them out of the weeds. Old damaged planters served as an outline to the bed.

With only a few days until I’d leave the garden with neighbors, I moved most seedlings into the ground.

At home, I prepared everything for my absence, as well. The most fragile seeds were the tiny tomatoes. They got potted up into the larger soil blocks as buffer.

Pepper and I gave the garden a final check (and filmed a May garden tour), and then it was time to leave.

A neighbor trimmed the entire plot for me to prevent the weeds from taking over while I was gone.

The potatoes were growing in nicely. The raspberries we’d rescued from a neighbor’s greenhouse were in bad shape but I had hope for regrowth.

A few seedlings would need to stay in the neighbor’s care, as they were too small and there was no bed ready.

I’d also potted up and moved the melons into the greenhouse. They’ll stay here all season.

I’d even managed to add mulch to some of the potato beds before leaving. These will change the most in the week I leave them. But I’ll share that in the next episodes.

A lot has happened in my first year on the land. I’m excited for what’s next.

So long, and thanks for being here.