compost

Make Earth Day Your Own

Earth Day began back in April of 1979 coinciding with the birth of the environmental movement. Poor air and water quality were fundamental to the movement, along with protecting endangered species, a push that drew support from all sides of the political spectrum in an effort to save the earth we inhabit. We’ve come a long way since those first days but we’re not there yet. While many of us yearn for a gas and oil free lifestyle, our technology is not quite there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make real differences in our every day lives.

Most of us recycle our plastics and glass, newspaper and cardboard. Many of us conserve water with every flush, every faucet turn, but how about moving our conservation efforts into the kitchen, the backyard? Eating is a must for life, but sometimes we prepare too much. We seal the leftovers, eat what we can, but why not compost? What goes in, must come out, right? :) As I tell the kids, there’s nothing easier than growing our own dirt. Kitchen scraps, fall leaves, grass cuttings–it all works! And the things our compost pile can grow–squash, beans and sweet potato (as seen below). It’s so EASY!

compost progress

It’s a real way to make a real difference. A good beginning. As with any new endeavor, start small, allow those new lifestyle actions to grow into habits. How about saving the gas it takes a truck to haul your fresh veggies around town, across the country, and grow your own? It’s a lot easier than you think. I mean, if my compost pile can do it, you can do it. And instead of depositing that old newspaper into the recycle bin, use it as “mulch” around your plants in the garden. Does a wonderful job of retaining moisture and breaks down into the soil without any harmful effects. More

Trying My Hand at Chickpeas

Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are one of my favorite beans. I love them in hummus, fresh on my salad, mixed with Indian curry spices… In my opinion, there’s nothing not to love about these beans. Which brings me to my latest venture. As I always say, “Grow what you’ll eat.” I eat chickpeas. I should grow chickpeas. My compost pile seems to have no problem growing them! (That’s them, to the left. They look sort of like ferns.)

 compost chickpeas

Shoot. If my compost pile can do it, I can do it, right?

First up, I amended my soil with the very same compost. Seems a no-brainer. Next, I set out a drip hose (chickpeas like low water and NOT on their leaves) and planted my organic beans along its line. Once they sprouted, I scattered some corn gluten (excellent weed preventer) and voila — chickpea sprouts! NOTE: Wait until you have sprouts before scattering your corn gluten. Otherwise, you guessed it. Like unwanted weeds, your chickpeas won’t sprout, either.

chickpeas

Aren’t they adorable? Chickpeas don’t require a lot of fertilizer, especially nitrogen. As with other legumes, they fix nitrogen into the soil, so choose a fertilizer that is low to nil on the nitrogen. I like a bit of seaweed emulsion and bone meal.

Each plant will yield several pods, each containing about 2 peas. Not a lot, which is why I planted so many! Seeing as how these are doing so well, I’m already planning another row of them. After all, I have 23 beds in my backyard garden. Why not fill them with the stuff I love?

Hello Spring!

With spring upon us (well, some of us :)), it’s time to finalize your garden plans.  By being prepared, you’ll be certain to be ready for your first day of planting.   While this day varies from region to region based on frost dates, most gardeners can plan on March-April to begin their outdoor festivities. 

But why wait?  You can start many of your seeds indoors and get a jump-start on the season!  Which brings us to the first item on the checklist:

1 – Order seeds.  Grow what you’ll eat—not what’s easy.  I know it’s tempting, but there’s no sadder day than the one when you witness perfectly good food withering on the vine because no one wanted to harvest it. The “excitement” factor was missing. The “ah-ha” moment, if you will. Rule number one: Gardening should be fun!

2 – Design layout.  If building container beds, get your lumber now.  I don’t know about you, but my husband likes a bit of notice before he’s asked to perform.  Getting your creative juices warmed and flowing now will help speed the process later.  “Oh, honey…  About that little favor I mentioned! “

3 – Sharpen your tools.  Or simply clean them off, know where they are, organize them.  You get my drift. The last thing you need is to be searching for that trowel when you need it.  Mine is indispensable because it weeds (its primary function), digs, buries and levels.  You gotta love a multi-tasker.  Other essentials include gloves, hat, sunscreen and water bottle. 

For you serious gardeners, you might want to add a long-handled hoe (I prefer the triangular-shaped head) for the job of cultivating your rows.  Not me.  I’m a busy gal with a bad back — “till as you go” is more my speed!

4 – Turn your compost.   You do have a compost pile, don’t you?  It’s too easy not to—just toss, pile, and turn.  Easy as 1-2-3!

5 – Organize your rows/containers based on companion planting.  Like people, plants do have their favorites, so keep them close.  Besides keeping the harmony, it provides a natural pesticide helping ease your workload.  The sooner you break out the excel program (my preferred garden journal), the sooner you’re planting seeds and keeping track.  Bear in mind your crop rotation as well—unless this is your first time playin’ in the sunshine!  For serious techies, try this nifty program for planning your garden.  Really cool.

6 – Check your water supply.  Now’s the time to fix those leaky drip hoses or grease any squeaky sprinkler heads.  And if you can’t fix them–replace them–before spring fever hits and they’re scooped from the shelves by other eager beavers.  Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency in the eyes of the store manager.

7 – Gather your mulch.  Discarded newspapers, lawn trimmings, hay, pine straw and bark…  All of these lend themselves well for use as natural mulch, though be sure to wet your newspaper down (or layer it with another form of mulch for a good thick cover).   Trust me.  Your neighbors will not be happy when your “mulch” blows across their lawn. 

8 – Prepare soil.  Remove weeds and add compost.  100% organic, it provides an excellent soil amendment, rich in the nutrients your plants need.  Also, till your beds ahead of time.  This will introduce air into the soil and accelerate bacteria activity, which in turn helps release nutrients into the soil.  If your worms have been busy, be sure to harvest their castings ahead of time, giving the “worm poop” plenty of time to dry before use.  Word to the wise:  after you’ve taken the time to remove weeds from your soil, be sure to cover your beds with row covers (or a hefty dose of mulch).  Otherwise, you’ll be wedding again before your seeds/seedlings arrive on scene.  In my house, that’s call for mutiny.

9 – Soil test.  If you’re not sure what shape your soil’s in, take a sample to your local garden store.   I take mine to the seed and feed and they test it on the spot.  You do-it-yourselfers will prefer a home test kit.  They’re simple to use and give a good idea where you stand soil-wise.  Then, depending on what you’re planting, you might want to adjust the pH (acidity-alkalinity) by adding lime to raise pH, or peat/pine/sulfur to lower it. 

10 – Dream.  Until your seedlings are ready to hit the garden, sit back and wistfully dream of the day when your beds will be lush and full, and flourishing with life.

It helps to pass the time until planting season really begins!

Summertime in the Garden

Summer is not the time to be gardening. Not in Florida, anyway. It’s the time for vacations with the kids, days at the beach, the lake, a friend’s house. Summer is too hot for gardening in Florida. Pretty much too hot for anything but water fun! However, I’m a year-round gardener which means there’s ALWAYS something growing in my backyard. And I’m not talking grass, I’m talking edible. :=)

Sweet potatoes love the warm weather and grow all summer long to deliver a bounty of golden goodness come fall. These babies are sprawling into the beds on either side where I have dutifully made room for them.

sweet potatoes in bloom Okra is another plant that loves it sunny and hot and as you know, this year I’m playing around with a new variety! Red Okra, of the “Billy Bob” variety (the name still makes me smile.

 red okra

My Valencia peanuts are thriving, burrowing away so that we may have peanuts to boil come football season. You have tried my Southern Boiled Peanuts recipe, haven’t you? More

Time to Break Some Ground!

Put your “fun cap” on because it’s time to get your hands dirty!  It’s time to break ground for your new spring garden!  Already have a garden?  Perfect, but you can still get in on the action as it’s a good idea to work your soil for a fresh start.

Now, while I’d like to say this is the easy part—that would be a lie.  This is the part where you get your exercise.  Stretch those cold stiff muscles and get limber again.  Remember, we reap what we sow and we can’t sow if we don’t dig.

Are you smiling yet?  Good.  Now, one of the secrets to great plants is loose soil.  Loose soil promotes strong, deep roots and encourages a healthy plant which means a productive plant.  I learned this the hard way with carrots.  Have you ever seen an “L” shaped carrot?  I have.  As a general rule, carrots will grow down as far as they can easily manage, until the going gets too tough, and then they grow sideways.  Literally.  Packed soil is not their friend.  It’s not friendly to any plant, really, because it doesn’t promote good aeration which helps the plant take in the nutrients it needs. More

Lookee What We Found in the Compost!

You know it’s a good day in the compost pile when this little fella is making his home in your homemade dirt.  Can you see him?  He’s the curvy-looking stick. :)

It means nice, damp conditions.  It means nutrients.  It means this compost will be AWESOME for garden use–all of which we learned this week in our lessons (listed below).  But better yet, a compost pile is just plain fun. More

I’m Ready for Fall Gardening!

And I have a new secret weapon.  But first, how did I get to the point where I needed a new secret weapon?  I mean, I’m organic, I rotate my crops, my soil is in tip-top condition, right?

Yes, well, just when you think you have it all figured out, the bugs find you.  The ones you can’t see.  The ones that lurk beneath the surface and devour your plants one by one–even as you plant them!  It’s awful.  Discouraging.  My spring garden was not what it could have been.  So I solarized the beds to kill the varmints and now I’m ready for fall planting.  Yes, those are my plastic-covered rows plus everything but the kitchen sink.  Do you know how hard it is to keep that stuff down during an afternoon storm in Florida?

It’s not easy and I have no shame in using whatever it takes to keep my paper down–bricks, tiles, rusted iron rods–you name it, I used it.  However, when I pulled back the black sheets, my soil didn’t look so good.  Now “they say” that solarizing the soil helps to release the nutrients within.  Hm.  Funny, but it didn’t look that way to me.  Rather than healthy nutrient-rich soil, it looked like a bunch of hot sand to me. 

So I decided to amend my beds.  Now I have a compost pile, but it’s nowhere near enough to cover my garden.  As you can see, my garden is big — 100 X 40.  And I have a big appetite for this fall’s garden.  You might be thinking that I marched right down to the “compost store” and loaded up on the stuff.  Nope.  I’ve been hearing rumors about something better.  Similar, but better.  It’s called mushroom compost and according to those who have gardened with the stuff, it’s simply AMAZING.

And cheap.  We were able to buy a trailer full of the stuff for $10.  Yep.  No kidding.  $10.  Enough to fill the entire bed of a full-sized pickup truck.  (In Central Florida, we contacted Monterey Mushroom Farm–but they have branches across the US.)  Once home, it was time to unload the secret weapon.  Caution:  mushroom compost stinks.  Raking it into beds is not only hard work, but stinky.  As you mix it in, it’s not so bad.  But take a couple of tips from me.

***Rent a tiller.  You’ll still have to shovel the compost into your row, but rent a tiller to mix it in.  Unless you want your workout for the week to count as one day in the garden and then you’re good to go.  :)

***And use the commercial-grade paper to line your walkways, NOT the black weed paper.  It disintegrates.  If you double it up, like I did here between my squash and zucchini rows (pictured below).  It will hold up better, but trust me–raking those beds was like déjà vu.  Feels like I’ve done this before!

As it stands, I have my red beans, okra, squash and zucchini in.  Here’s another tip:  instead of forming individual holes for your beans, make channels down the length of your bed–like you do for carrots, only deeper–and then drop the beans in, about 4 – 6″ apart and then cover with an inch or so of dirt  .  We used organic compost to cover the beans, hoping that it will hold the moisture better than that depleted-looking sand next to it.  Normally, I form wells around my newly planted seeds, as seen above with the squash and zucchini.

The kids helped with this one and the job went much quicker.  (Yes, this Labor Day weekend we labored.)  I formed the channels, she dropped them in, he covered them with compost.  The white dots you see are snail bait.  This was last season’s tomato row and I didn’t have time to solarize it, nor do I think that red paper helped in dissuading the varmints from taking up residence.  

But our efforts will prove worth it.   Ultimately, once I uncover all the beds, I’ll use the heavier black paper to replace the lighter-grade paper you see her walking on above.  I enjoy gardening, but I do not like to repeat my efforts when I don’t have to–it’s not smart!

And we’re smart gardeners. :)  I’ll keep you posted on how my magic mushroom compost works out!

Tami’s Last Hurrah

After a long summer of vacay and summer rain, Tami’s garden has survived, albeit her tomatoes and compost have succumbed to neglect.  What can she say?  She’s busy.  It’s hot.  You get my drift.  It was a valiant first effort that will blossom anew this fall, with more tolerable temps and a fresh new attitude.  But not all is lost.  Her green peppers look great.

Turning to red as they mature.  While it doesn’t look as pretty, it will taste sweet and delicious.

Don’t even ask about mine.  Talk about succumb!  I’m not sure who was harder on them—me, or Mother Nature.  But we won’t go there.  We’re talking about Tami’s garden at the moment.  The basil is blooming up a storm.  Needs pinched, but it’s still producing, still thriving.

Her aloe is gorgeous and full and the perfect remedy for an oven burn.  Slice off a piece of one thick, juicy leaf and smear the oozing liquid over the burn and voíla!  No scar, quick healing.  Careful:  the stuff is stinky and it will stain.  So take care when using.

The blueberry looks lost but not forgotten (entirely).  A little weed pulling and this baby is back in action! 

Now for all you tomato lovers, take note:  this is what hornworms can do to your plants.  In a matter of hours. 

Yep.  It’s ugly—and the main reason you want to make daily visits to your garden, for the sake of vigilance.  Beyond the garden is the compost pile.

Or two.  The overgrown pile in the foreground can easily be remedied with a weed whacker and transferred/mixed in to the second pile.  No big deal, giving the dirt time to “ferment” and turn rich and organic.  I do love nature when it proves low maintenance, don’t you?

Now, for my next project….  Who will it be?

Compost 101

What is compost?  It’s the mixture of decomposed remnants of organic matter (those with plants and animal origins) used to improve soil structure and provide nutrients. 

How do you create compost?   

Air + Water + Carbon + Nitrogen = Compost

Like most living things, the bacteria that decompose organic matter, and the other creatures that make up the compost ecosystem, need air.  These microbes also need the right amount of water; think “wrung out” sponge.  If too wet or too dry, optimum conditions for bacteria activity will not be met and decomposition will be slowed or halted.  This is the reason some folks “turn” their pile.  It improves air flow!

Me?  I’d rather put Mother Nature to work.  I’ve learned my compost pile works fine without a single turn from me.  (LA-zy!)  Basically, I pile plants, lawn clippings, kitchen scraps and the like and let nature takes its course.  The materials break down and become black gold in our garden.  Composted soil provides nutrition for vigorous plant growth, improves soil structure by creating aeration, increases the ability of soil to retain water, moderates soil pH, and encourages microorganisms whose activities contribute to the overall health of plants.  LOVE it!

What not to compost?  Diseased plants, weeds gone to seed, coal ashes, dog/cat manure, lawn clippings that may contain herbicides. 

Once you’ve established a location for your compost pile, it’s important to know how much carbon versus how much nitrogen to include.  Too much nitrogen and your pile will smell, because excess nitrogen converts to ammonia gas.  Too much carbon and the pile breaks down too slow, because microbes need nitrogen to increase their population.  The ideal is a 30:1 C/N ratio. 

 Carbon is used for energy by the microbes and comes in the form of leaves, straw, hay, sawdust, etc.  These are the “browns” of composting.  Microbes also need nitrogen for the proteins that makeup their tiny bodies.  Matter high in nitrogen are the “greens” of composting (though not always the color green) and consist of “fresh” plants, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and the byproduct of animals such as manure and worm castings.

There are two types of composting:  hot and cold.  Hot composting is accomplished more quickly and best done within a bin.  Made up all at one time, it’s allowed to compost without further addition of material, although it does require frequent turning and proper moisture control.  Bacteria give off heat as they digest the material.  The enclosed pile will insulate the heat raising the internal temperature to 120 – 190 degrees.  This attracts more bacteria whose breakdown continues more rapidly. Hot compost is good because it kills pathogens and many weed seeds.

A cold pile (70 – 90 degrees) takes longer though it manages a steady stream of material additions; perfect for the family backyard pile (as in mine).  Simply begin your pile with the organic material of your choice, i.e. leaves, kitchen scraps, etc. and continually add to the top of the pile.  Within 6 – 24 months (depending on climate conditions) the material will break down—though turning the pile will speed up this process.  The bottom of the pile composts first (higher heat due to insulation).

When your compost is ready, you’ll know it.  Your material will be unrecognizable from its original form and look like gorgeous black dirt.  Like I said, around these parts we call it “black gold” for the garden!

Maintain Vigilance

One thing to keep in mind about gardening is maintenance.  Not only do things go “bump in the night,” they go chomp in the garden.

Tami’s lettuce have gone to flower, now taller than her okra, and the bugs are in hog heaven–sans the swine.  Ick.  At this point, Tami need only remove the plants and put them in the compost pile–her new compost pile!  Yep, she’s decided to join the organic ranks and start her own compost pile, beginning with the pile of oak leaves she recently raked up.  Smart.  Very smart.  Best of all, it’s mere feet from her garden.

The okra are growing gangbusters and spitting out “cobs” all over the place.  One thing to keep in mind when you’re growing okra, is these guys are fast operators.  Once they begin producing, you’ll want to visit every day.  This will ensure you harvest your okra at its most tender because trust me, large cobs of okra are tough and NOT delicious.  Great for seed saving though!

Always a silver lining (if you know where to look).  Moving right a long… Tami has her first watermelon.  Isn’t it adorable?

Won’t be long before this little guy is burgeoning from the vine.  Note on watermelon harvest:  in Florida, these babies have a tendency to explode during hot summer days, so while you’re visiting each and every day, keep an eye on the melons.  Give em’ a tap and when you hear the nice dull “thump” sound, pull that rascal from the vine and haul it onto the picnic table.  Another good indicator is to check the curly tendrils.  Light green = not ready.  Brown and dry = thump it baby, thump it!

Another technique is to press your thumb nail into the skin.  If it makes an indentation, not ready.  No mark, you should be good to pull.  Tomatoes are a much easier fruit when it comes to harvest detection.  Red, they’re ripe.  Green they’re not–unless you’re a Southerner and like your tomatoes green.  Tami’s are looking mighty fine.

Her basil could use a little pinching.  I prefer to pinch the budding blossoms from mine before they reach 1/2 inch, then toss them into my lunch salad.  Mmmm…  Aromatic and delicious.  Did you know that basil eases digestion?  Wunderbar.  Nothing like making my roughage go down “easier.” :)

Have you seen the recipe for my favorite summer salad?  Strawberry and goat cheese and oh-so-delicious!  Add basil for an added delight.

And since we’re speaking of maintenance, these squash need some attention.  Fungus.  Very hard to rid the Florida garden squash of fungus, what with all our rain and humidity, but we must. 

This plant wants to survive and produce more squash.  It simply needs a helping hand.  So Tami will remove the diseased leaves and allow the center healthy green ones to thrive.   Remember, your plants want to produce and sustain you.  They just need a little help sometimes!