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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Zinnias, Raised Beds, Birds & Cats

If you have chosen to try seed starting this year, hopefully you have some little plants that have emerged and are coming along nicely. In addition to peppers and tomatoes, I also like to grow a huge amount of Zinnias.  
 
Zinnias can be started inside, or be directly seeded into the garden after the last frost. I grew them direct-seed for many years. Unfortunately, the birds seemed to enjoy this method so much that I didn’t get even HALF of what I planted to actually germinate. I honestly wasn’t sure for a couple of years what the problem was. Where did they go?  Did I not water enough? Did I water too hard and then wash the seeds out of the ground? Finally, I witnessed the reason. Clearly, I put out quite a spread and the whole Covington bird community turned out!  
 
Hmm. How should I proceed now? Seed starting was a few years into my future. My solution was to cover the beds with netting draped and secured over stakes. Still the birds got in. 
 
The most distressing thing that happened was this: twice, birds got a foot caught in the netting and couldn’t escape. Not only is this frightening for the bird, in and of itself; it also makes for an easy, tasty morsel for the neighborhood cats! Fortunately I’m not a squeamish sort, so I got a pair of gloves and scissors and was able, each time, to get the birds to lay quietly for just a brief moment while I clipped the netting. I sure am glad I was home and caught them right away. Birds are funny little things. They get frightened and panic, flap-around and fuss. But, if you are very quiet, move very slowly and deliberately, they somehow sense that you are there to help. 
 
Either that, or they are just petrified with fear. Who knows! In any case, no easy meals for the cats.  
 
Since I have started my Zinnias inside for the past several years I haven’t had any problems. It is a good solution for the Zinnias and the bird issues.
 
Some seeds shouldn’t be transplanted and have to be started in the garden. Some of these are lettuces, radishes, and turnips. Early seed starting outside is helped immensely by using raised beds. If you have a large garden that needs to be tilled, a couple of raised beds will enable you to start earlier. If the main garden is too wet early on (a common situation), you can start with the raised beds. They drain easily and you don’t have issues of soil compression. Root crops and Garlic benefit from light, loose soil.  The Turnip roots and heads of Garlic can expand easily in this less compacted medium. Generally, you work around the edges of raised beds and have no reason to step in them or stand in them yourself. Raised beds are great for early crop seed starting. 
 
Raised beds do require a little forethought to be really useful… forethought regarding cats. 
 
It seems a lot of urban gardening centers around accommodating cats. Cats always think that anything humans do must be just for them. You trapped birds just for them, didn’t you? Now you have installed the most luxurious pair of litter boxes they have ever seen!  This must be addressed. I have sections of wire fencing in a smaller grid stretched across the tops of my raised beds secured with screws on the sides. They just slip on and are easy to remove. I leave these over the beds year-round. No more cat gifts. 
 
Cat poo is not suitable fertilizer. 
 
In the spring, to protect early plantings and seedlings, I can stretch garden fabric, or even old white sheets over the fencing and secure it with clothespins. This takes care of the bird banquet as well as the cat loo. When the plants are big enough, I just take the screen off.  
 
In the fall, when I plant garlic, these screens are perfect for protecting the crop. Cats stay out and the garlic can grow up through the grid. It works really well.  
 
Here’s a side note:  When installing raised beds, there is one important thing to do. Be sure that you loosen up the soil in the ground under your bed and amend it with greensand, peat moss… anything to loosen up that hard pan soil underneath. Urban soil can be very hard and compressed with loads of clay. You’ll be much happier with the productivity of your beds over the long haul if you take this step.  
 
In addition to the usual soil amending, I hope you will avail yourselves to these simple insights into managing the urban livestock. With just a little effort, everyone can be happy. Except the cats. The cats will have to suffer the indignities of working just a little bit harder than they are accustomed to in preparing their toilettes. Pity.
 
 
The River City News is proud to produce this regular feature column, "The Intrepid Urban Farmer". Every couple weeks, our local expert will offer tips, stories, and more for the urban gardener. Questions for The Intrepid Urban Farmer? Email: [email protected]