Soil- you can grow that!


Hens and chicks in leaf litter.

Here on the front range of the Rocky Mountains, we have alkaline clay soil that ranges from tan to brown in color. I can jump up and down on the blade of a shovel and not make a dent. I use a thrift store knife to cut weeds off at the root, and I have broken two- snapped the blade clean off in the hard soil.
Except in places where I have mulched.
In shrub beds around the yard where I have been piling leaves and wood chips, I can slice into the soil like it was chocolate cake. Well, maybe brownies.
The best explanation for what happens when we add organic matter to soil that I have read is from Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening. Imagine sandy soil is a jar of marbles, water just pours through, moistening the marbles, but not staying in the gaps. Organic matter works like little sponges in between the marbles, holding onto the water and nutrients. Imagine clay soil is like a pile pf playing cards. Water sits on top in a puddle, slowly sinking in. Organic matter works like little sponges in between the cards, creating space for water and air.
So, if you want to build soil, and believe me, you do, here are some ways to do it:
Compost– My favorite compost bin is one that has no bottom, and can be moved around the yard. Every six months or so, I put my bin under another tree, or next to a bush, and when I dump out coffee grounds and orange peels, I enrich the soil in that space. When the bin is full, I move it to a new location, spread out the pile, and have automatic mulch in that zone.
Leaves– I have two big ash trees- they drop copious leaves which I sweep off the patio and rake onto my asparagus, and raspberries, and strawberries, and veggie beds. You may not live in a neighborhood with big trees- some cities have leaf exchange sites where people who don’t want leaves can get rid of them. A few years ago, I participated, and a man brought over a flat bed trailer with a mix of leaves and fresh cut grass. It was heating up as we unloaded the trailer and I spread it around. It made lovely mulch.
Wood chips– I get a pick-up load of wood chips pretty much every year. The goal is mostly to keep weeds down and hold moisture in the soil, but they slowly break down to build soil as well.

A mix of autumn leaves and dead tomato plants, with some sticks on top so it won’t blow away. By spring, it will all boil down to the level of the top of the raised bed.

– I am lazy about “putting the garden to bed” because I know that the stems and leaves of the plants themselves will break down into soil. Weeds with seed heads I usually throw away, although I don’t get all of them. I intentionally leave some seed heads, like for coneflower or sunflowers, for the birds to eat. Tall stems also catch blowing snow and leaves around them so they act as tiny snow fences.

So, whether you have sandy soil or clay, your garden can benefit from adding organic matter to it. This is a great time of year to begin a garden- pile up leaves and let the worms and other critters turn them into soil for next spring.

Rabbit Hole Warning: See CL Fornari’s You Can Grow that site for more ideas of what you can do, no matter where you live.

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Radical Apple Pruning


 

We have a giant apple tree that has been butchered in the past, then ignored, the butchered again, by the city tree trimming crew. It is probably about 50 years old, and most of the apples are developing way up high, because the major branches go up high, then bend over…after researching a lot, hemming and hawing and reading, online and in books, I have decided to renovate it. Slowly, over a few years, I’ll take off major limbs and train young branches to be the new major limbs, at a more convenient height. Convenient for me, not the squirrels.

Let me tell you about apical dominance… there is a chemical in plants that causes the  buds on the end of every branch to be dominant- it turns off the other buds back down the line. This chemical, auxin, is affected by gravity. If the end bud on a branch droops down, there aren’t many buds that will be activated. There will be buds on the tree up high, before the branch starts to droop. So we have very few apples down where we can reach them, and a bunch up high, which then fall down to be half-eaten by squirrels.

 

Another thing about apical dominance is that when the end bud is cut off,  other bud back down the line are activated. This is good when your pinch back flower chrysanthemums to make the plant bushier, so you get more flowers in fall, but not so good when the city crew whacks back your apple tree on a semiannual basis.

Since it is a standard tree, not a dwarf, it is really big. Branches are growing up into the power lines, and the city crews want to prevent that, but they don’t care much about the tree other than that. Every time the city comes to prune, they take out the center aggressively, which causes it to grow back aggressively. It’s pretty bad. There are seven major limbs, up to about 6 inches in diameter at the trunk, and they have kind of an umbrella effect, going up, then curving way down.
I have thought about it a lot, planning, and checking, and finally decided to take off one of the seven major limbs. Next year, I will take out another, never removing more than 25% of the leaf area at a time. Hopefully this will prevent major regrowth of water sprouts. I wanted to clean up the south side of the tree, since that is where I have recently sited a veggie bed and I wanted it to have more direct sun.

So, I chose my first limb, sawed it, then spent some quality time wondering how to get it down without seriously hurting myself. Seriously. It was tangled in so many other branches that even when it was cut all the way through, it just sat there.  I moved the ladder and made some more judicious cuts, then spent a pleasant afternoon cutting it into reasonable lengths for our chimenea.  Next year, I’ll select another limb from the North side of the tree, and work on that one.

The most helpful book for me in this project, which has mostly been a project about thinking, is Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning. Tons of illustrations, tons of examples, written by a woman on a mission.

The Ubiquitous Mason Jar


lots of duckweed, little bit of water

We went to the river park this week. There are steps down to the Big Thompson river, where you can float or splash, or put in your tubes and drift down the river. We didn’t bring tubes, but ran into friends who shared with Kate.  There are sprayers where the little kids can shriek and splash and get soaked in relative safety, and there is a bridge under which the water slows down a little, spreads out into shallows, where you can look for crawdads. This is where we spent the bulk of our time. The boy discovered that when crawdads are really little, they just tickle when they pinch.

In Gaia’a Garden (I know, terrible title, great book) there is a description of a project where you take water samples from several different places, with plants and muck and life, mix them in a mason jar, put the lid on and then watch. The idea is that you are mixing elements and creating an ecosystem that is not quite pond, not quite river, not quite lake, but a blend of the three.
I told the boy about the mason jar project at bedtime, and he was fired up- he couldn’t think about anything else. Right after breakfast he asked for a jar, and kept asking when we could go. Obviously, I needed coffee first. And there was that pesky dental appointment…

We went out in the afternoon, after a wonderful thunderstorm. There is a wetland by Kate’s school, but no way to get to open water, so we wound up going to the Sculpture park near our house. This park has a chain of wetlands, culverts and open water, so we were able to find swampy still water, fast running aerated water, and duckweed covered water.

This lake is usually deeper than this…

The final piece of the puzzle was mud, from the reservoir. They have been lowering the water level alarmingly, and we had to walk out quite a ways in the mud. It was pretty gross.

The water is clearing, and the mud has settled, and we can see stuff swimming around.  The boy had high hopes for a minnow, but I don’t think we caught one.

Yes, I am aware of what 3 cups of pond water would smell like if it spilled on top of legos. We would probably have to move. But, we are also trying not to spill.

Dead Junipers- what next?


The new edge of the bed in the front yard- we’ll be adding some compost and lots of mulch.

Most people who know me would agree, that I don’t seem like the kind of person who would pound stakes into the ground, stretch out string between them, and then follow that string as a guide when making the edge of a  garden bed. I was a s surprised as anyone when I found myself doing just that this afternoon.

Yesterday evening, I was cleaning up the edge of the area where we took out the junipers (link) and I used the garden hose to kind of make a gently curving, voluptuous edge, nipping it in close to the faucet, easing it out near the corner of the house.

Then I thought about mowing that line. I thought about all the other curvy, sensual edges in the yard that have to be mowed, then edged. I decided it would be easier to make a straight edge, and let the plants be curvy.

The bed is about 20 feet long, and the outer line is 8 feet out from the house wall.  (when I said I was going to make the bed about 8 feet deep, DH had a moment where he thought I meant 8 feet from current ground level to top of bed.  No.) I bought 40 brick pavers, because I didn’t want to get out the measuring tape and then do math, so of course I have to pay for my laziness with another trip to the big box store.

 

So, the plan:

buy more bricks

when there’s grass inside the line, pop it out and transplant it outside the line, when possible

pile on 2-4 inches of shredded wood mulch

when the weather cools, start transplanting the plants I want to move from the backyard

order bulbs

snake soaker hose around the bed

Plant list

Hazel bush (transplanted from nursery bed)

Sedum Autumn Joy (thanks, Sharon!)

Purple coneflower (divided from back yard)

Bearded Iris (divided from back yard)

Yarrow (divided from back yard)

Lamb’s Ear (divided from back yard)

Thyme (divided from back yard)

Comfrey (divided from back yard)

larkspur (seeds)

columbine (seeds)

lily (ordering- probably dark reds and oranges)

tulips (ordering, probably red and yellow triumph)

daffodil (basic yellow)

Most of these plants I already have, so this is a very cheap design for me. I also know they do well here, so I am not taking much risk that everything will keel over and die. The exposure is a little different- the north end of the bed is pretty shaded from the ash tree and the house, and the south end gets morning sun. The coneflower and lilies will go that direction, because they need the light to flower.  My “largish” plant is a hazel nut bush, and I want it to form one corner of a triangle with the ash and the Korean dwarf lilac under my window.

The plan for the tuteur- the exact measurements will depend on the wood I find.

I am also planning some structure- as you can see in the picture, there is a big expanse of plain wall, so I will put in at least one trellis, and some containers,  and am thinking about building some tutuers, which are french teepees- using lumber,rather than round wood or sticks. And, you know my policy, it should be done with the wood that is already piled up, going to the lumberyard is cheating! There are still some 1×2’s sitting behind the garage left over from taking down the playhouse, so I will start with those.

Bearded Iris- you can grow that


I just love bearded iris.

Thanks to C.L. Fornari’s meme  last month, by pure luck I had a ton of new visitors to my dusty little corner of the blogoverse. If you’ve come back, thank you, and welcome. I say it was by pure luck because the links are listed on J.L.’s site in alphabetical order by plant name, and my plant was chives. Now for this month…aconite, anyone? Asparagus? AAronroot? I just made up that last one, there’s no such thing as aaronroot. As far as I know.
I decided to go back to the true spirit of the meme, which is that newbie gardeners sometimes get scared off by complicated instructions, or recommendations from one side to be all organic, and the other side to use blue chemicals on a regular basis. What people need is a slam dunk- something so easy you have to give away extras. In my garden, bearded irises are a slam dunk. And toward the end of June, I will probably be giving away extras, if anyone local is interested.
I use Iris a lot as a kind of placeholder- when my Korean lilac was 6 inches tall, surrounding it with iris made it look like a real garden bed, instead of a twig surrounded by mulch. Now that the lilac is about 4 feet tall, and covered with flowers, the iris anchor it, and are ready to be divided and given away.
Making friends with a gardener who is dividing iris is maybe the best way to get them, unless he’s a stalker, which you won’t know until he keeps showing up at your door with bags of rhizomes…
Once you get your bag with plants, sort them out. The best roots are big and fat. There should be at least one fan of leaves per chunk. I trim the leaves to about 6 or 8 inches from the rhizome, and plant it with the dangly roots in the soil, but the knobby rhizome just on the surface. If it goes underground, it rots. In fact, iris is nice and drought tolerant, not really caring whether it gets much water. Cutting the leaves back allow it to establish itself without drying out, but there are still green leaves to feed it while it makes itself at home.
My wonderful MIL is the source of this information, and the source of all my iris as well. She has told me to transplant before July 4th. I don’t know if that is specific to zone 5, or the front range of Colorado, your mileage may vary in other parts of the world.
What if you can’t bring yourself to make friends with a gardener? They sell bearded iris- McClure and Zimmerman has some in their Spring catalog for $11.95 if you buy 3. That seems expensive…but as I’ve said, I’ve never bought Iris. They also claim that a coral-pink variety named “Beverly Sills” is among the most popular. Hmmmm…I don’t know.
Buying them would be the way to get unusual colors- most of mine are light purple, with a couple of plants that are dark purple, and one that is bronze-flowered, which blooms a week or so after the others.
Trust me, you can grow that.

Short on rupees? Aren’t we all.


I used to spend a lot of time on a message board at You Grow Girl.com  and there was a thread once about the advisability of re-using potting soil, and using fillers in the bottoms of pots to take up space, rather than filling an entire pot with soil. There was a lot of advice back and forth about using Styrofoam peanuts, or aluminum cans, in order to avoid buying that extra bag of potting soil. There was another poster, who was on the boards frequently, a guy from India, and he responded to this thread uncomprehendingly, “Why are you so worried, a bag of soil only costs a few rupees, just buy another bag of soil!”

Well, maybe you don’t have very many rupees to start with, or maybe you just spent a bunch of rupees on a really pretty flower pot, or ski tickets, or new shoes…

I do wind up buying new bags of soil every year, of course, because I have a lot of containers. I also re-use soil. I typically dump my annual pots out into a big bin, as well as the pots of things that were supposed to be perennial but didn’t get that information and died anyway. I dump the pots out, break up clumps and stir in more compost.

The other strategy I have been using is to fill space in the bottom of big pots with stuff other than soil. Like I said before, I have seen recommendations for using styrofoam peanuts or pop cans. The one time I tried styrofoam, it was really gross when I tried to dump it and reuse the soil- muddy foam chunks.  It was such a mess, I never want to try it again.

Last year, I read on the interwebs) about a development group  in urban Mexico which was helping people grow their own food in 5 gallon buckets. They got free buckets from stores, but their soil was in short supply, and they were low on rupees (er, I mean pesos) too. They did have access to weeds, sticks and branches. They experimented with chopping up twigs and weeds and filling the buckets most of the way, then filling to the top with good soil. Then they would plant tomatoes and other plants. By the end of the growing season, the sticks and leaves would have decomposed, and they would have rich new soil for the next time.

So, I read this last year, thought about my shortage of pesos, rupees, er, dollars… and thought to myself, I have weeds, sticks and branches… I tried it with two pots, I used twigs no bigger than a pencil to fill most of the pot, then a big wad of dandelions. Since I knew it would break down, I filled it to within a couple of inches of the top, then put in the decent soil and plants.

bucket of weeds- there's more where that came from

One pot held an artichoke, and it didn’t do well at all. I suspect it was because when we left town it got too dry. I was counting on all the organic matter in the bottom to be a reservoir for moisture, but the roots just hadn’t gotten that far down yet when we went on vacation.

The other pot had a pomegranate tree, and it is doing fine a year later. I brought it inside last fall, it went dormant for a couple of months, then woke up again and started putting out leaves with the sun that came through the basement window. The soil level did sink down- it started an inch below the rim, now it is probably 4 inches below the rim.  I had planned on re-potting the pomegranate anyway, the sinking soil just accelerated the process.

In the future, I don’t think I’ll use this method for perennials, it is kind of a pain to re-pot anyway, so doing it twice as often doesn’t seem to be worth it.  I have done it again this year, with a pot of lilies mixed with  sugar snap peas- I want the peas on the patio for snacking on, and the lilies are for color. I could say I want the lilies to act as living trellises for the peas, but that would imply I had planned ahead.  I have a couple other big pots that need filling, for geraniums and stuff, and we certainly have enough weeds and sticks.

You do have a compost pile, right?


I have a little raised veggie bed right outside my back door- it is only 2×3 feet, but super convenient. Last summer, I would go out, pull up a green onion or two for a salad and go right back in.  Next year, I plan to put in tomatoes, which are a heavy feeder- they like a lot of moisture, and a lot of nutrients. I put tomatoes in a different place every year, so disease organisms don’t build up.
Solution- make this veggie bed the winter home of the compost bin, then spread it out in spring.

Luke, I am your father...

I’ve written before about our bin(link to own post)- a Darth Vader head- very ugly, but pretty effective for boiling down organic waste into compost. I move it every few months, spread out the finished compost where it is, and put whatever is not broken down back in the bin in its new location. The partially broken-down stuff is seeded with the compost organisms that will help break down new material.
Because I want the soil to be super rich, the first layer of stuff I put in the bin was comfrey leaves. Comfrey is an amazing plant- it has deep roots that take minerals out of the subsoil and concentrate them in the leaves. When the leaves break down, in compost or mulch, the minerals are deposited in the topsoil. The plants can be whacked back several times a summer and keep coming back on just natural rainfall.

I  add kitchen stuff as it fills up the cup on the edge of the sink, and layers of leaves, too. Kitchen waste is usually high in nitrogen, and can be smelly if there isn’t high carbon material added at the same time. Compost breaks down all winter, although it is slower when the weather is colder.

In about March, I’ll lift the bin off and hopscotch it to another location. I’ll take off  what hasn’t broken down, and spread out the finished compost- moving some to other beds that need it, but saving a lot for the bed. My tomatoes will have a deep bed of good soil to feed on.

You don’t need a Darth Vader head, or any kind of container- compost will break down anywhere. I like my bin, but I recognize it isn’t  necessary.

Bojagi is Korean for Furoshiki


Merry Christmas! Can I have the scarves back?

I probably don’t count my blessings enough, but here’s one- DH gets me. He gave me tons of surprising presents, including earrings with the kind of back I like, dove chocolate, a marble pastry board (!) and he laid out and had printed a book version of this blog. I am amazed.
He also gets my quirks- like the wrapping paper thing. Or, if he doesn’t get them, he puts up with them. I hate wasting paper- throwing away garbage bags full of wrapping paper on Christmas morning- ack! Why are we, as a nation, as a culture, wrapping presents in pretty paper, then throwing the pretty paper away?!!!! He gets it- this year, we wrapped everything in scarves or bags- that’s the Bojagi and  Furoshiki of the title.  We had to scramble to make sure we had enough scarves at the end, but everything we took to Christmas morning at my MIL’s house was wrapped in something reusable.
It was my idea, and even I thought, “well, when we run out of bags, we’ll just do the last ones in paper…”
Umm, no, we did all cloth bags and scarves.

I tried to color code- so the Girl had her presents wrapped in pink, the Boy was either blue or orange, DH was green, and I was purple. By the end, it was just all random scarves out of the scarf box.
All year long, when I have gone to thrift stores, I swing past their scarf display, and usually pick up one or two for a dollar or less. Sarongs are good for larger items, like my marble pastry board (squee!).
Peeking might be a problem if you wrap way in advance. We’re never organized enough to get anything under the tree much before Christmas eve anyway.
I tie most things up like a hobo bundle, diagonal corners tied in a granny knot. This works best for square and rectangular boxes, but it is even good for randomly shaped things, like plastic covered airplane models and stuff.  It is way easier than cutting and taping paper.

Bagged Apples, update


It isn't beautiful, but it isn't as visually intrusive as I thought it would be. That is, I never looked at the tree and thought, "dang, that's ugly!"

Back in June, I wrote a post about growing apples organically by using paper lunch bags to form a barrier against the critters that might want to lay eggs in my apples.  I just picked the apples a few weeks ago, and it worked pretty well.
Some of the bagged Golden Delicious fell off in July or so. My total “harvest” from the Golden Delicious tree is only 7 apples. Sigh.
My other tree (name unknown) had a zillion apples on it, and I only wound up bagging a dozen or so before my stapler died. The bags have to be removed before I pick them so they have a chance to redden. I did pick one, to test for ripeness, and it did need more time.

I will definitely do this again next year, with two differences.

I will put the bags on earlier, and thin the fruit at the same time. I’ll get bigger individual apples, without spraying poisons.

I will pay better attention to when to harvest. The sour apples, from the tree that was here when we bought the house, need time in the sun to ripen. I’ll have to pull the bags off well before the first frost date, which on average is mid September here on the Front Range of Colorado although we didn’t freeze in my yard until October, which is crazy.

Actually, one more difference- I’ll get a better stapler.

get them before they go to seed FAIL! thistle edition.


Doesn't it look pretty, glowing in the late afternoon sun? Yeah. It's a thistle.

I went to a part of the yard that I hadn’t been to check out for  while (no, the yard isn’t that big, but I’ve been busy with school, and taking people to soccer and play practice, and the Girl just started Tae Kwan Do classes, and it was really hot until a few days ago…)

Anyway, the thistles have bloomed. Crud.

Some seed have scattered, some are still attached, so my mode now is to carefully cut off the seed heads and put them in a bag, then put the bag in the trash. My compost doesn’t get hot enough to kill weed seeds, so I avoid putting them in the compost bin.

Philosophically, are my weeds providing me a service? They are holding on to soil, bringing up nutrients from the subsoil, harvesting rainwater, turning atmospheric carbon into fodder for the compost pile?

Yeah.

They do all those things. And more.

But, I don’t want many more of them. Especially the prickly ones. Oh well.

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