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Archive for the ‘Composting’ Category

We are blessed with a LOT of trees here in the Pacific Northwest.  We have not only evergreens which we are known for, but we also have lots of deciduous trees.  This means we have lots of leaves to use in our gardens each year.

The leaves that fall at home I shred and use directly on the garden beds each fall…it makes a great winter mulch along with grass clippings.

The leaves that fall up at our lake cabin are a different story.

As we don’t have a garden at the cabin, and not wanting to waste such a great resource, I rake them, bag them, and haul them back home.

I take all my bags full of leaves out to the garden.  Then I add a scoop of garden soil into each bag.  I then poke a few holes in the top and a few in the bottom for drainage (wet Northwest winters) and I’m done…there they sit all fall and winter.

Leaves that are not shredded will take between 6 to 12 months to break down completely.  I, having no patience what so ever, use mine at the 6 month mark.  In the spring I open up my bags and find the leaves to be reduced by about half.  I also find that a few worms have moved in through my drainage holes!  I then use my leaf mold in my trenches, mounds, and pots in the garden.

Leaf mold itself does not have a lot of nutrients like compost does.  But it is a marvelous soil conditioner.  It improves your soil texture and helps tremendously with water retention.  Leaf mold also is great for providing habitat for soil critters like earthworms and even beneficial bacteria!

Leaf mold is simple to make and free!  So if you are lucky enough to have a tree or two…or a hundred…go get out your rakes and make yourself some leaf mold…your garden will thank you!


 

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Making Mulch

Leaves make the best all natural mulch for flowerbeds and your edible garden beds. The worms love it and it does a wonderful job of keeping weeds at bay and it does wonders to help retain moisture. Leaves also help improve the soil over the long term as the worms turn them into the soil. The best part is that they’re FREE! I’m lucky that our gardens are surrounded by giant trees so I have leaves in abundance, but we also collect leaves from our neighborhood leaf drop off center as I don’t think you can ever have too many!

I prefer to chop the leaves up with a mower as this makes a better mulch. I find that they don’t get matted down and slimy in the spring when you do this. Adding some green material also helps the mulch break down faster and I have found that it helps insulate my garden better since the two mixed together seem to provide a little extra heat.

I often spread a 3-6 inch layer of mixed leaves and green material on all my garden beds in the fall. In the spring I leave it on some garden beds, mainly the ornamental ones as it helps prevent weeds from germinating. I usually mix them into the soil in my edible beds when I’m getting ready to plant.

Do you use leaves in your garden? What do you like using for mulch?

I can also be found at Chiot’s Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, and you can follow me on Twitter.

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Lately I’ve been thinking about things I can do to save time in the garden and I decided trench composting would be a great way to do this. I started composting directly in the garden areas that need the most help. Now I don’t have to worry about nutrients leaching from the compost pile, which is something I’ve been reading about. If your compost pile isn’t covered, the rain will leach nutrient from the compost into the soil below. Why let all that hard work get leached away? I started trench composting a couple months ago. My parents used to do this when I was growing up. It’s a quick and easy way to compost all that stuff from canning.

All you have to do is dig a trench in the garden area and add a layer of your compostable things. Then back fill with the soil you removed. By spring it will have turned become compost and the worms will have distributed it in the garden. No turning, no layering, it’s quick and easy! You can dig one long trench and simply fill along as you add the compost items.

I still have my regular compost pile for the large amounts of garden waste, but I’m thinking of starting to put this pile in the garden areas I need to amend, that way any nutrients that leach out with the rain will at least be going into a garden area I’ll be using in the future.

Do you practice various forms of composting?

I can also be found at Chiot’s Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, and you can follow me on Twitter.

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I love old books…the yellowed pages, the stained covers, the old book smell.  There is something about an old book with out of date writing style and pictures of people from long ago that I just adore!

My favorite bookstore to hunt for old books is Powell’s Books.  If you old book obsessed then Powell’s Books in Portland Oregon is truly a spiritual experience,  if there is a bookstore in heaven it will be Powell’s!  A few years ago when I was wandering its maze of aisles I found myself in the gardening section…ok I admit that is usually where I end up!  I spotted among the new and shiny garden books, with their covers of perfect cabbage roses and sophisticated Japanese maples,  this plain water stained cucumber green, enormous but squat book. It had  nothing on the cover but the words “The Complete Book of Composting by J.I. Rodale and Staff”  My first thought is how in the world could there ever be over 1000 pages worth of information on just composting?  My second thought is darn this is one ugly book!  I flipped to the Introduction page,

“Compost is the core, the essential foundation of natural gardening and farming.  It is the heart of the organic concept”

Across the page was written “SIXTH PRINTING-DECEMBER 1969″.

I didn’t know that there even was an “organic concept” in 1969!  Next I checked out the Table of Contents, here are just a few of its 27 chapters:

The History Of Compost,   The Basics of Compost,   Composting Methods For The Gardener,   Applying Compost On The Farm,  The Earthworm’s Role In Composting, Personal Experiences,   Compost And The Health Of Animals and Man,   Humus-The End Product, and even Compost And The Law

I was hooked, its old, its about composting, and not just a superficial look at composting either but a 27 chapter 1000 page behemoth of composting . With its great old black and white pictures and price tag of only $8.95 how could I resist?

After owning this for years and referring to it often I can say that anyone who has either an old book, or compost fetish that this is a great addition to your library…if you can find it!

Compostbook1

Never judge a book by its cover!

Compostbook2

You’ve got to love a woman who composts in a dress with her hair done up!  Very attractive compost bin.

Compostbook3

I thought this was a novel idea.  A compost bin with a cement floor that slopes down to grooves that funnel the rain water turned ‘compost tea’ in sunken cans in the ground.  With the amount of rain we get around here I would need a couple of 5 gallon buckets instead of little coffee cans!

So do you collect old books?  How about old garden tools?  Maybe even great old farm signs…

Kim can also be found at the inadvertent farmer where she raises organic fruits, veggies, critters, kids, and… a camel!

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Compost: is there any other way to get free, nutrient dense, loamy soil with minimal effort? There are many ways to compost waste, but there are three major types including aerobic, anaerobic and vermicomposting. Any way you do it, the end result is the same that you’d find in any woodland – a rich, dark, soil that will fix up almost any type of problem dirt in your garden and help strengthen your plants.

Aerobic: Also known as “hot” composting. This type of compost usually requires a bit of manipulation. Frequent turning will aerate your pile keeping microbes very active and raise the interior temperature and thus speeding up the decay. Many additives are available to aid in raising the temperature from peanut meal to manures. Grass clippings and other high nitrogen “greens” will do the job as well. There are no foul odors associated with a well-maintained aerobic compost pile and therefore should not attract any unwelcome guests in the way of critters or insects.

Anaerobic: This is what happens on the forest floor or when you create a compost pile or bin and allow time to decompose the waste. Over time the weight of the waste will compact and most of the air will be eliminated. Slower working microorganisms decompose this type of compost and it can take several years to get any results.

Vermicompost: Using worms to decompose your kitchen waste. Special bins are available to house “red wigglers”. They feed on your scraps on the top of the bin and leave their castings and decomposed materials behind to sift out of the bottom.

I won’t attempt to rewrite any of the many books or articles available on compost. Instead, here are a few informative sites that you may find extremely helpful.

The Garden of Oz – The Basics of Composting

Benefits of Recycling – Types of Composting

Ecocycle – Composting Made Simple

The Compost Gardener – Balancing your nitrogen and carbon (greens and browns)

Compost Info Guide – 10 tips to better compost

Compost This! – Search engine for compostable items

You can purchase or build a container to house your compost. I leave mine in an open pile, shaded by the woods and delineated with logs. My mother-in-law has a large hole dug in her yard – complete with a lid. You can use chicken wire, wooden pallets, or fencing to keep your pile intact. I know someone whose homeowner’s association does not allow composting. She’s dug a hole in her garden deep enough for a large trash bin complete with drainage holes and no one knows the better of it.

*****

So, do you compost – and if so what type of composting do you use?

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I friend of ours Michelle posed the question over on the message board asking for ideas to use for teaching an after school gardening class for Kindergarten through 6th grade.  The class would be for 1.5 hours once a week.  She has asked for some ideas on things they could do.

So here is where we all come in.  I will throw out some ideas and would love it if you could too…I think together we can think of some things that may just get some kids interested in gardening!  This could be the perfect way to start out the new year/decade by recruiting the next generation of gardeners!

When I was an active WSU Master Gardener (before I couldn’t keep up with volunteer hours due to having babies) I specialized in children’s gardens for the county extension.  I would go around and talk to parents groups and help set up gardens at elementary schools.  By far and away the favorite thing I demonstrated and helped promote was worm boxes.

Setting up a worm box is easy, it requires only a container, bedding, food, and of course worms!  Here are a few of the things that you could do with a group of kids with a worm box…

  • Set up the box including shredding the paper and gather food such as kitchen veggie scraps
  • Measure worms and chart sizes
  • Observe worms with magnifying glasses or microscopes
  • Observe and then draw worms with the older kids labeling the parts of a worm
  • Discussing the role of worms in the garden
  • Charting each week how much the worms eat
  • Discuss the role of soil in the garden emphasizing the importance of organic practices for the sake of beneficial helpers including the worms

If anyone wants a great book on vermicomposting it is ‘Worms Eat My Garbage’, both the original book and the classroom activities book which is packed with  fun ideas for working with kids and worms!

Now it is your turn…what are some ideas that you might have for working with kids to get them excited to get out and garden later in the spring?

Kim can also be found at the inadvertent farmer where she rasises organic fruits, veggies, critter, kids and…a camel!

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I don’t know about you but at the end of the main growing season I always have all these notes in my head about what I loved and what I would do differently next spring.

So instead of taking the time to go try to find some paper that isn’t wrinkled and scribbled on and a pen that actually has ink…and then try to keep track of the list for 9 months…

I am going to make my ‘notes to self’ right here on the blog…hope nobody minds.

NOTES TO SELF

  • Tomato cages are wayyyyy better than this…it worked well for the cool spring but tomatoes need cages to grow up in…those tunnels did not control them nearly enough.

tomato tunnel

  • Remember to build more tomato cages before next year.
  • Yarn does NOT work as well as twine for green beans, it stretches in the rain and all the beans fall down…so don’t be lazy and go find the twine next time!
  • Put a self-closing hing on the garden gate…the dog likes cucumbers.
  • While we are on it…cucumbers do well with water.  Bitter is not the best flavor.Plant more flowers…

sisters1

  • Make more compost.
  • Growing peppers and eggplant in tunnels is an EXCELLENT idea, please remember do this again.

eggplant plate3

  • Pumpkins are great fun to grow…more are needed next year.  Try some new colors.

blk wht pumpkins

  • Squash takes up a LOT of room, remember this so the compost bin doesn’t get covered with vines.
  • Barrels are great for potatoes but you would need many, many more to have a large harvest.
  • Plant out gourds sooner…

spider grd1

  • Plant out cantaloupe later.

cantelope3

  • Yum, yum peppers are simply the cutest and sweetest peppers ever…grow lots more!
  • 6 foot wire fencing is perfect for growing peas.

pea picking1

  • Chickens fly…chickens escape…chickens invade!
  • Chickens love young pumpkins, which will grow up to be ugly hen pecked pumpkins.

eggs6

  • Remember to enjoy the process…
  • Always, always  involve the kids…even when they annoy you.

tomato napper1

  • And don’t hate the camel for doing what a camels does…

broccoli8

Which is anything he can do to try to reach your precious garden.

  • Reinforce the garden fence!

Finally…

Remember why you do this every year…

For the health of your family and the health of the planet.

Besides…

Its fun!

So fellow gardeners…what notes have you made to yourself for next year?

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When my kids whine that something is not fair I am quick to point out to the little darlings that life is not fair…get used to it!

Well life was not fair in the pumpkin patch this year either…

have1

Can you guess what one big exuberant pumpkin on the right got that the other puny anemic pumpkin on the left did not?

 

have2

Huge and healthy…

 

have3

Not quite so much…

Those of you that guessed compost give yourselves a pat on the back…yep I ran out on the last pumpkin plant.

Same seed packet, same tender loving care under the grow lights, same fish fertilizer, same plastic cap to protect from early spring cold snaps…the only difference between these two plants is that the big one got a shovel full of compost at planting and the smaller one did not.

 

have5

They both are being faithfully visited by pollinators…

 

have4

Yet the little guy has only 5 pumpkins while the big guy is up to almost 30!

So lesson for me is to make more compost…

Lesson for the little pumpkin plant…

 

Life is not fair…get used to it!

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Russian comfrey

Russian comfrey


Comfrey: super-plant or overrated weed? Have you ever wondered why useful plants are usually delicate creatures, yet weeds just thrive, without any care at all, and pondered wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was such a thing as a useful weed? Comfrey is it.
comfrey roots

comfrey roots

A perennial herb, a member of the borage family, its deep tap roots mine the soil of nutrients, filling its leaves with minerals such as the holy trinity of plant food, nitrogen, and phosphorous and potassium, along with calcium and iron. It remains only to harvest it and make a comfrey “tea” (concentrate) to use as a plant food, use it as a mulch and even feed it to animals. Comfrey leaves contain more Nitrogen and Potassium/Potash (K) than farmyard manure or garden compost and more Phosphorus than farmyard manure. They have a low fibre content, so they readily decompose, producing comfrey tea and a relatively low carbon to nitrogen ratio so that they don’t rob the soil of nitrogen as they decompose (when laid on the surface or dug in).

If I plant it, will it spread like a weed? That depends on what variety of comfrey you have. Common comfrey Symphytum officinale, seeds freely and therefore may well become a problem. Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) on the other hand, produces very little viable seed, so conveniently stays where you put it. But it will always stay where you put it, as you’ll never dig it out without breaking off a little bit of root, which will re-grow, so choose the position of your comfrey patch with care. The Bocking 14 cultivar of Russian Comfrey was developed during the 1950s by Lawrence D Hills, founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now called Garden Organic) and is even richer in the useful minerals. The Bocking 4 cultivar was developed to be more suitable as animal fodder but I can’t source any in the UK or France and have only found Richters in Canada selling it.

How do I grow comfrey? Without seed, we propagate it from root cuttings. Simply plant your root cuttings just below the surface, water them in and wait comfrey patch new(you can mulch them with cardboard, as we’ve done here, see photo). One extra tip, use some anti-slug and snail strategies until the plants get up and going, as these gastropods really like comfrey (another of its uses to place cut leaves around plants as a slug barrier, as the slugs will go for the comfrey, in preference). If you’re starting off, I suggest that you buy no more than six plants. You’d be surprised how much leaf material you’ll be able to crop once the plants are established (leave them a year before you start cropping).

They might mine all these nutrients for you but they also appreciate being fed and are greedy for nitrogen when growing; they can cope with fresh (i.e., uncomposted) chicken manure, so we tend to clean our chicken house onto our nearby comfrey patch.

comfrey root cuttings

comfrey root cuttings

You’ll also then be able to propagate further plants by lifting one and divide the roots into offsets and cuttings (see photo: offsets at the top, cuttings below) and then plant these as you did with your original cuttings, and don’t forget to put one bit back in the hole where you lifted the original plant from.

When and how to cut comfrey? Use ordinary hedge trimming shears and chop it off 5cm (2 inches) above the ground.

cutting comfrey

cutting comfrey

Think about wearing gloves as the bristles can irritate your skin. Cut in spring, when the plants are around 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop. Once the plant is well established—I’d give the plant a year to settle in before you start harvesting leaves—cut every time the plant reaches 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop and you should get several cuts a season. At the end of summer, stop cutting, letting the plant grow on and build up its strength to see winter through.

comfrey in dustbin

comfrey in dustbin

How do I make comfrey tea?
Making comfrey tea – liquid concentrate. I think that the video explains all. This photo shows the plastic dustbin full of leaves which reduces to the goo in the video, don’t add water. Dilute to use, 20 water to 1 comfrey juice (by volume) when it’s thick and black or 10:1 if it’s thinner and brown in colour.


Do animals like comfrey? Whether fair or not, the spread of wild comfrey along roadside hedgerows is often attributed to gypsies that fed comfrey leaves to their horses as a tonic. It’s said that Russian comfrey was introduced into Britain specifically as a fodder plant. We’ve got an established comfrey patch. The chickens peck at it en passant, a sort of “Drive-Thru” eatery, and Bunny Lapine scoffs it, so I recently thought I try out our pigs and goats on it. Fellow NotDabbling writer Monica, told me that she planted comfrey some years ago, “but the sheep ate it all before it could get going and I lost it.” So it’s thumbs up from sheep. However, our pigs, who are free range, and so have a wide variety of stuff to snack on, didn’t seem desperately interested and, as for the goat, watch the second video for our scientific taste test and make your own mind up.


Comfrey as medicine? A vernacular English name for comfrey is “knitbone” and medieval herbalists called it “bone set”. It contains a substance called allantoin, which promotes healing in connective tissue. Effective as it is externally, don’t take it internally, as it contains alkaloids, which can cause liver damage in large quantities.

Thanks to the following books for their information: Comfrey for Gardeners published by and available from Garden Organic (Henry Doubleday Research Association); Flora Brittanica by Richard Mabey; The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates by Patrick Whitefield and Wikipedia.

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seedlings waiting for warm weather

seedlings waiting for warm weather

 To get a jump on gardening we need to be ready, but the weather doesn’t always cooperate.  We start seedlings with the anticipation that the weather will comply, and be dry and warm enough for our tender babies.  But that usually isn’t the case in early spring. 

A great low-tech way to start seeds and keep the seedlings warm during the first tender growth is to use a hot bed.  Common in Europe for market gardens, the idea was readlily adapted to big city market gardens in the US as well, since there was never a shortage of hot horse manure from livery stables in every city.  After the Civil War, Peter Henderson was a very successful market gardener, stretching his growing season using the hot bed method for growing lettuce in the off season, and forcing other popular vegetables for sale in the big city.

On any farmstead there is always manure to be had, and this is one way to squeak one more use out of this precious commodity before it heads to the compost pile.   

hens and hotbed

hens and hotbed

 We have two small 20′ x 20′ greenhouses that we built for brooding chicks when we sold eggs.  To make these user friendly, we planned a personnel area for the humans. It is a great place to store feed and extra bedding and also a warm, toasty area for starting plants and keeping them warm until the weather breaks. 

Hubby built a 2′ x 3′ bottomless box out scraps for my small hotbed.  I fill this with manure and bedding about two weeks before I want to start seeds.  I want the compost to reach its peak temperature, and then when it starts to decline and reaches 80°F, I can place my flats of seeds on top of the compost.  That temperature is a good range for most seeds, if you’re starting tomatoes and peppers, 85°F would be better.  I keep the hot bed loosely covered with a piece of plastic, to keep the humidity up.  Once the seedlings emerge, the cover comes off during the day, unless it is very cold.  At night the cover goes back on in case of a frost.

60 degrees

60 degrees

 I am hardening these brassica and salad green seedlings off now, so 60°F is a great temperature.  I am not covering this at night.  These plants are almost ready to plant out. 

cover on cool nights

cover on cool nights

I also use electric heat mats to start seedlings, but this method is free, using no electricity.  I have two boxes, and to have a succession going, I need to have another box heating up and ready while this one is cooling down.  When the compost gets too cool to start seeds, you can lift off the box, remove the pile and refill with fresh manure and bedding.

If the box does not heat up, you need more manure, or if you are confident you have quite a bit of fresh manure, add water.  Monitor the temperature, if it doesn’t rise in a few days after adding water, you do need more manure. 

With a few scraps and  a wheelbarrow of manure, you can have an effective non-electric way to start seeds and wait out Old Man Winter!

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