A science experiment- you can grow that


Tomato A, with rich chunky, water retaining compost.

Tomato A, with rich chunky, water retaining compost.

I had a paradigm shift this spring. I love that. I have always read that tomatoes are heavy feeders, that they need rich soil, so I have planned my rotations to give that to them. I hopscotch my compost bin around the garden, trying to balance out the need for soil improvement with the pain in the neck factor of walking all the way to the back corner of the yard when I need to dump avocado peels.
I read in The Tao of Gardening, by Carol Deppe that tomatoes will produce fruit earlier when they are grown in poor soil. So, they would be heavy feeders if they were allowed to be, but it makes them slow and lazy.
I decided to test it. I had the lovely, chunky nutrient rich black soil, with some still identifiable avocado peels (those things take forever to break down) where I had intended to place the tomatoes in the first place, and a few feet away, some clayey, brown soil. It wasn’t terrible, It has had compost added to it in the last few years, but it wasn’t the rich soil I usually reserve for the tomatoes. They both get about the same amount of sun, and while they are different varieties (Fourth of July and Juliet) they both have about the same number of days to maturity and I have given them the same amount of water.

Tomato B, no soil enrichment.

Tomato B, no soil enrichment.

In my day job, I have had a paradigm shift as well- I have always taught English, and beyond that, I have always been an English teacher, with that mindset. This past year, I have been working with students who are learning English in their math and science classes. It’s been weird. Good, but weird. I had to think in a way that I’m not used to. Staving off dementia one hypothesis at a time.

So the hypothesis in this tomato experiment was that the tomato plant with lush soil would produce a lot of leaves, but would fruit later, and the plant in poor soil would make fewer leaves, but would fruit earlier. Well, on August 4, I don’t have ripe fruit from either of them. The one in poor soil has slightly pinker fruit, but not by much. There are many more tomatoes on the plant in richer soil, so i would prefer to balance out quantity over earliness. Another detail, which I wasn’t hypothesizing about, is that the one with rich soil is much more drought tolerant. When we left town, temperatures got over 100 degrees F. When we got back, the plant in good soil was still lush and green, and the one in poor soil was slightly withered. I think it hasn’t completely recovered from that drought stress, where the other plant had enough moisture reserve in the soil that it did fine.As you grow, remember that it isn’t just about the fruits and vegetables, you can experiment and learn and improve.

Science- you can grow that.

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Dear Asparagus


I don’t know why I can’t quit you.I keep trying to grow you, trying to make a home for you that you can keep coming back to, year after year. And I keep coming back, broken-hearted.
I try to tell myself that you aren’t worth it, my kids don’t like you, you’re difficult, you make my pee smell funny. But inside, I know it’s just a lie- I want you, I miss you. I find myself worried when you aren’t home, I find myself looking in the ditch, knowing that if I found you, I would bring you home and clean you up, cook you, and eat you. Maybe pickle you, if there was enough…

I just love you, and I can’t face paying 3.99 a pound for you at the grocery, and you aren’t even at the farmers market. At least not when I’ve been there. Are you avoiding me? It doesn’t matter- I forgive you. I’ll keep trying to make this relationship work. I’ll dig a trench near reliable water, but also in complete sun, I know how much you love the sunshine, I’ll plant out your little roots, and watch for your little shoots to poke out from the soft compost.  I just love you too much to give up on you.

Signed:

Carrying a Torch

 

Why did I put my compost pile so far away?


That black bin...way over there...that's the compost bin.

That black bin…way over there…that’s the compost bin.

It has been really flipping cold. Pardon my language. I keep my orange peels and coffee grounds in a big plastic cup on the back of the sink. If I have to put on boots and a scarf and assorted warm woolies to dump that cup, it just isn’t going to happen that often. The next time the temperature gets above 50, I’ll move the bin closer to the house. Like, right by the back door.

 

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.

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.

Pumpkins!!!! Adorable Little Pumpkins!!!!!!


Que pasa, calabasa? That's Spanish for what's happening, pumpkin?

I got a Wee Be Little pumpkin plant last spring, because they are just so darn adorable. No other reason.  We just harvested, in time for a jack o’lantern. We have a total of 7, and 6 of them will go to pie and bread.

Don't fear the reaper- actually, there was an unfortunate mishap with the scythe. It got sliced off, but we plan to replace it...

The Girl brought home a lovely cinderella-coach-shaped squash from a bonfire/fall party, and carved an intricate grim reaper scene into it. We roasted the seeds, and they were really tasty- thin hulls and nutty insides. I may try to figure out what variety it was, and plant it next year, because it is so darn adorable, in its own way.
The wee be little doesn’t take up much space, about a 4×4 foot square. I planted it in the former location of the compost bin, so there was a ton of rich compost for it to feed off of. It did sprawl in the wrong direction, I tried to nudge it the other way, but it kept encroaching into the sugar snap peas. By July it didn’t matter, because the peas were finished anyway.
The Boy was able to carve this independently, which is nice- I really hate getting my hands in pumpkin guts. It’s just gross.
We will probably wind up getting a big grocery store pumpkin, so we can have the classic picture of the monstrous jack o’ lantern eating the tiny one.

And when I said we would make pies from 6, I must have meant 5, because the Boy is carving another one.

He said, "write on your blog that I'm performing plastic surgery."

Get Them Before They Go To Seed, Bindweed Edition


Morning Glory and Moonflower's uncivilized cousin- bind weed.

It is the time of year for bind weed to bloom in my yard- cute little white or pink cups on vines with heart shaped leaves. They’re everywhere, and because I avoid herbicides it take a lot of careful hand pulling. The strawberries, the namesakes of the blog, are especially bad with bind weed this year, I suspect because I let them get away last year, and let them go to seed. Ack!
Bind weed spreads from seed and from any tiny stem or root, so it is really difficult to get rid of entirely. There is supposed to be a biological control, a disease or fungus that only attacks it, but I don’t know if it is on the market-I don’t honestly even know if it is anything more than a rumor. The best I can do is detente, I pull it when I see it, carefully tracing the stems back to the ground if possible, and pulling out as much of the root as possible.
Since it can grow back from roots and stems, bindweed is the one organic matter I don’t usually put on the compost pile- I put it in a bag in my trash can.
It has gotten so that when I see morning glory, the domesticated cousin, my immediate reaction is to think they are giant mutant bind weed, and they most be destroyed. That is why I no longer plant morning glories.
I can occasionally rake or roll up mats of bind weed, and that is the most satisfying thing ever! Well,  not ever, but pretty satisfying. However, it is usually tangled up in stems of strawberries,  or roses, which is the worst, because you can’t just yank it out, you have to untangle it. Actually, the worst is when it is so tangled around a thistle that you don’t see the thistle, so you grab it and get pricked. Argh…

Asparagus Update


The shoots of Asparagus in the new, horseshoe-shaped bed are up- thinner than pencils, but they show me the plants are alive. I’ll carefully layer more compost on top (carefully, because I don’t want to knock anything over). I’ve had to grub out some thistles that like the compost and moisture, too. Once the trench is up to ground level, I will put on a thick layer of mulch to keep down the weeds.

Little asparagus shoots, before I dug out the grass and thistles.

Let’s move the compost bin


Conversation in the faculty lounge turned to compost the other day. I mentioned that the worm guy http://www.flickr.com/photos/vhayward/2917500802/  recommended moving the compost pile every six months to avoid tree roots growing up into the pile. One of my colleagues insisted that she was not going to take the time, not going to “get a sub so I can flip my compost pile twice a year!”   I didn’t argue with her- there is no arguing with some people, but honestly, you don’t need to take a day off work.

3 steps (maybe 4…)

1: lift bin off of old pile.

It's easy to slip the bin up off the pile, then scoot it a few feet over.

2. Put the most recent additions into bottom of bin in new location.

That's not compost yet, that's just gross. Needs more time.

3. Use finished/almost finished compost on plants.

There are still some identifiable chunks in here- leaves, of course, and flower stalks.

(4 might be add water to new pile, depending on what hasn’t broken down. I dipped buckets out of the fish pond, which also helped empty the fish pond.)

Moving the pile adds oxygen, which will help things break down. Mine had a lot of leaves that had matted, and some identifiable avocado pits- they take a long time, but eventually, everything breaks down. I guess step 5 might be to wash your hands and get a glass of iced tea. It really is pretty easy. 20 minutes start to finish, and that includes taking pictures.