Thursday, March 21, 2013

How it all started

     It's funny how things just come together sometimes.  I'm new to blogging, and never even really read one, let alone follow one.  I felt I had things to share, ideas, mistakes, lessons, and so a blog just made sense.  Hopefully it will also be a way to practice writing.  Being new to this blog world, I decided to go out and see what other people were doing.  In this search, I came across You Grow Girl. I was so excited to then find Grow Write Guild!  I definitely don't have any problem with material to write about.  There's years of stories and gardening and DIY stuff to write about.  I could write a couple thousand pages.  But who wants to read all of that.  I needed FOCUS!
     The first topic is to talk about what got you into gardening.  Once again, funny how things come together as I was just thinking about this and talking to friends about it.  The problem is, they have a story.  They remember the first tomato they grew or the first houseplant they didn't kill.  I feel like for me, it all just fell into place.
     I don't remember how it all started, but I remember having plants in my bedroom.  My mother always had some houseplants and I do have memories of being out in her garden when I was very small.  I don't think she had much time for a garden once my sister was born, so I was probably only a few years old.  I remember it looking huge!  Everything is huge when you're small.  Earthworms looked like snakes.  Or maybe they were snakes?
     Back to that bedroom.  My room was on the southeast corner of the house.  It was always warm and sunny.  Somehow my room became the plant hospital.  If a houseplant was sick or not doing well, it ended up on a little table or in the windowsill and I would nurse it back to health.  I had no idea what I was doing, but I did it right.  I loved those plants.  I don't even remember what they were now, but they were loved!  This must have been middle school or high school.
     In elementary school, I remember my sister coming home with seedlings she started.  One was even a tomato that went to space!  But why do I only remember her plants?  Did I never get to do these projects?  Or was it just that a space tomato can make everything else seem like nothing?
     What I do know is that by the time I was 12, I was in the back yard digging up the grass in the back yard for a veggie garden.  It was nowhere near as big as the one I remember my mother having, but it was huge for a kid who wouldn't eat a vegetable to save her life.  And I mean that.  My father used to tell me at dinner, "You'll die in your sleep tonight if you don't eat those vegetables."  My mother took a different approach and told me the vegetables were sad and crying because I didn't want them.  Death was not scary to me.  Making a vegetable sad was just horrifying.
     I grew tomatoes, and zucchini for sure.  Over the years my garden got a little bigger to fit some herbs.  I'm sure there were other veggies too.  I remember tilling the garden every year only to find more and more rocks.  It was amazing how I could pull these large rocks out, and still have to do it again the next year!  We had a rock bed near the veggie bed from all those rocks we pulled out. It still blows my mind when I think about this.  Geology is a magical thing!
     Soon I was helping a friend start a garden in her yard.  We must have been 13 or 14, the two of us digging and digging.  We didn't pick the best spot.  It was surrounded by trees or shrubs and those roots were just exhausting!  We finally got it done and got some seeds and plants in the ground.  I'm happy to say that she still remembers this garden too.  I don't know if she's still gardening, but she did go on to become a nutritionist.  I like to think there is some connection there!
    I survived not eating veggies, and now I eat them all (although you'll probably never find cauliflower in my back yard).  I've had many gardens now from Mass to Chicago, Southern Cal, to the Jersey Shore, and there will be many more.  I'm lucky to share this garden with someone who enjoys it as much as I do.  His story is different, but we end in the same edible paradise.  He was even out there today starting beds for potatoes in the snow!  It still feels like winter, but we have our seeds planted for this summers garden, which will be our best one yet! Until next year, that is.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


     We collect A LOT of material for compost.  I work in the juice bar at a health food store.  It is amazing how much good material gets thrown in the trash there.  I just can't take it all.  I'd love to, but there is just too much!  I sometimes feel like it is a problem, like the problem people have on the tv show about hoarders.  It pains me to see a banana peel, avocado shell, or rotten tomato get thrown in the trash.  Sometimes I watch it happen and sigh.   Other times I convince a coworker to pull the stuff out of the trash and put it in my collection box.  I kind of have them trained at this point.  Every day that I work, I bring home a 10 gallon totes worth of celery and lettuce ends, carrot and beet tops, banana peels, wilted greens that didn't sell fast enough in produce, avocado shells, tomato pieces, egg shells, and whatever else comes along.  I see about the same amount I bring home each day go into the trash.  And then there's the juicer pulp.  I can't help but think about all of the other grocery stores and restaurants that throw away the same or even more across the country.  It's saddening.  Not only is it just thrown into the trash, it is wrapped in plastic a bag or two.  Plastic is another thing I have a problem with.  I've been taking this compost for a little over a year now.  Co-workers wonder how big my compost bin is and think I have acres.  We live on a regular sized lot for this small city, about a quarter acre.  But there are two houses on it, so not much yard left.  I think it's plenty.  There is still so much unused space.
     Back to the compost.  Where does it all go?  We have a couple of bins...

store bought and home-made,
re-purposed materials bin
We started with these.  One is an old store bought bin, the other we made from scrap metal from the old furnace vents in the cellar.  This was obviously not enough.  So we bought another plastic bin.  Then that one quickly filled up, so we built a large holding cell.
     There are so many ways to compost.  You can do the lazy method that my family did years ago, which is to just throw things in a pile.  Those things can be fallen branches, christmas trees, egg shells, yard clean-up, and kitchen scraps.  I only recommend this method if you can pile things quite a distance from the house.  We had a large yard then, and the pile was down hill from the house.  It was also far from neighbors houses.  This method has no way of keeping out critters, so be ready to share.  I don't remember having rats then, but we did have some bunnies who probably kept nice and toasty in there over the winter.

Since we have a small yard and countless critters, 2 of them being vegetable loving dogs, we had to use  closed bins.  These bins either come in black or are painted black to gather more warmth.  In CA, where we came from, temperature wasn't a problem.  Compost pretty much stops its breaking down activity at temperatures below 40 degrees.  The black color gives you a little more time during the year for active compost.  The only problem with these bins is that it is difficult to turn the compost.  You want to turn your compost regularly to aid in the breakdown of material.  This shouldn't be done every day.  We are somewhat lazy composters and do not turn it much at all.  Perhaps they wouldn't be so full if we were a little better at this chore.  Gardening is not at all about rushing things though.
     The picture here is another type of store bought bin.  This one was given to us from a friend who was moving and no longer used it.  It is probably pretty old and still had a little compost in it.  This is a good bin for the lazy composter because it has a crank on the side so you just tumble the compost.  however, we have two potential problems with this bin.  One is its advanced age.  We are a little scared to fill it much and have visions of it's stand collapsing and the bin rolling away.  Another problem is that it is raised off the ground.  Why is this a problem?  How are all those little creepy crawlies that do much of their breakdown work in the dark cover of the soil supposed to venture up into this bin?  The reason compost stops breaking down below 40 degrees is that the crawlies are too cold and hibernating.  The crawlies are the ones that do the work.
holding cell
      Here is our holding cell.  Since our other bins were full, we just dump material in here.  This one we made out of scraps of wood from various projects around the house and yard.  This area is safe from the dogs, and since it is winter, there is not much smell.  It's also located in the back corner of the yard, behind the barn, and away from all neighbors.  It is also under shade, so it will probably break down slower due to the cooler temperatures.  The squirrels love it!  We often find avocado shells, their favorites, scattered around the yard.  We don't mind sharing a little as long as it keeps them away from the bird feeders.  Compost is free, winter bird seed is not.  We have many hungry birds around.  And I guess they're part of the compost cycle in a way too!

 Now we can see some of the contents.  You want to make sure that you have enough green material as well as brown.  Green material is the stuff that's high in nitrogen.  It also tends to be a little more wet.  It can include your fruit and veggie scraps.  We have ended up with a lot of green material.  Everything I take from work is green.  We cook a lot, and those scraps are green.  We don't have many trees on the property and we haven't been putting our spent tomato plant pieces into the compost because of a problem with anthracnose, so we definitely don't have enough browns, or carbon.  Because of this, our compost is a little more wet, and slightly stinky.  We tried gathering grass clippings from a landscaper friend (no sprays used, of course), and letting them dry out a bit before adding them.  You can maybe see some of this on the right side above.  Another good way to get browns is from newspapers, cardboard and junk mail.  Just shred it up and throw it in.  We'll try this idea out soon.

As you can see to the left, we have some sticks for browns.  This is the bottom of the bin, and you can also see it is slightly broken down.  Browns often take longer to break down.  cutting them into smaller pieces will help the process.
     So, the bins are full and it's winter.  What else can we do with this compostable material that I can't throw in the trash?  Throw it directly into the garden!  We wanted to add to our growing space through building some raised beds.  But since they are raised we need to add material to fill them.  We started with a little native soil, dug up in order to lay our recycled pavers down.  This only filled our 200 square feet of bed less than a quarter of the way.  We collected some already composted material, humic compost and mulch from a nearby town that supplies it to residents.  Cardboard also went in.  And then we just mixed in those same veggie scraps.  Since it is winter still, there's plenty of time for it to break down.  It may be cold on the surface, but under all those layers can be nice and warm, so action is still occurring.

To the right you can see our newly constructed raised bed.  There are two now.  We built them out of leftover material from our deck building project.  You can see the green veggie bits mixed in with the nice black humic compost.  The cardboard was used to prevent critters from stealing this material, but it is also a good additive because earthworms love it.  They feast on the glue and break it down real quick.  I'm not sure if you can ever have too many earthworms, another important piece to the breakdown party!

The left picture shows the two beds waiting for spring.

So, what else can you do with compostable material?  Raise worms!  We've been doing this with our share of problems for about 4 years.  They even made the trip across country with us!  Worms you can't be so lazy about.  Here are some good sites to go to for info on worms:
We've had our best luck with the worm factory.  We've built our own bins.  The first was slightly successful.  This one was a large wooden box we had in CA.  Our problems with that were other bugs. It was difficult to keep the ants out.  Ants and worms do not get along, the ants will eat the worms.  One spring some bees decided to call it home.  That was quite a dilemma.  A roommate was allergic to bees and the pest guys were going to kill all of the bees and the worms.  We took care of it ourselves, but wish we could have kept them both.  In the end, the big box was too big and heavy to move around much, and didn't make it to NJ.  It might still be intact and a home to a new bunch of bees.  We've also tried using plastic bins.  Not much luck yet, but that is due to other problems.  That other problem being feeding material.  We were feeding them pulp from the juicer.  They seemed to love it, but too much of a good thing.  This material is nice and small, so easy to break down.  But given the small particle size, there's not enough air space.  We drowned many worms, sadly.  They are now in the raised beds.  Ahh, the circle of life.
   Now what to do with the juicer pulp.  A few customers have been coming in asking for what we have.  It makes a beautiful compost for the top of the veggie garden.  We covered our entire garden with a thin layer, maybe 1/4 inch or so, back in early winter.

pulp Jan 3
pulp March 14
Hopefully you can see the colorful mulch on the left.  Two months later, on the right, it is a nice dark brown, just waiting for some seedlings.  Use caution though, that pulp is slippery to walk on!

That was one of my longer stories.  I hope it's been informative.  Let me know what you're doing with your scraps.  I'll keep you all updated on how this all progresses through the spring and summer!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A walkabout and summer dreaming

     We took a walk around the yard today dreaming.  We were kind of dreaming of spring, more of summer, but even more of distant summers.  We're new to this yard, so it's still very much in the works.  Sometimes it's hard to see all the progress you've made when you're thinking of the things yet to come. The yard is brown, plants are dead, and not too exciting yet, but spring is coming and the crocuses (or is it croci?) are blooming and the daffodils are close to popping.  There were supposed to be tulips somewhere, we don't remember where.  Perhaps they didn't take to the sloppy planting. It was a quick, last second job before the deck was built over them, never to be seen again.  Well, turns out they're never to be seen again anyways.
     It's not the warmest or sunniest day, so inside we go to draw out plans for where to plant all our little seedlings that are finally starting to come up.  It was a little slow going due to some timid watering.    
     While perusing some garden notes we also happened across some photos of the garden and yard.  Now we see the progress!!

The picture on the left is a small grassy field probably May 1, 2011, the day we arrived at our new homestead.  The trailer is still parked in the driveway.  The picture on the right is today.  It sure looks better in the summer when all that brown is green with splashes of red tomato, yellow zucchini, and purple flowers.
One of the first things we did was plant the vegetable garden.  I don't think we even had many boxes unpacked before we tilled our garden plot.  Normally we wouldn't bother tilling, choosing the slow but effective lasagna method, but given it was May 1 and we needed to get stuff planted and quick!
     Below on the left is, once again our first day.  Big slabs of cement that formed a wacky, crooked and slanted driveway.  To the right we have the garage now painted to look like a barn.  People saw it and said "All you need now are some chickens running around the yard."  Soon.  Very soon.  Just have to check with the city on that one.  For some silly reason useful animals are often not allowed. Not that a dog isn't useful.  They're great companions, entertainment, and exercise.  But they don't feed you.

Barley dog, who pops up in many pictures makes sure everything is doing ok in the yard.

We also installed our greenhouse, which I've mentioned in an earlier blog.  The cement was all dug up and relocated to be used as pavers around the vegetable garden and to guide you through the yard.  And of course, we built a back porch.  The left picture is the before.  It just had a small cement slab for a porch.  We love to be outside, and since our house is not too large, and the kitchen is not great for entertaining, we just had to have a nice big porch.  This is also a work in progress, as is everything on the property.  Hopefully this summer we will get around to building a bar and finding some furniture!

Not too bad for doing it all yourself, well, with some help from friends and good neighbors.