A few weeks ago, my seed starting operation was in full swing and I was at a tipping point of having too many seedlings and nowhere to put them! I have a heat mat which can hold four trays of seeds. Each tray can hold 8 six-packs of seeds although I only use space for 7 for easier watering access. I start fast growing things such as lettuces, spinach, kales in six-packs. I start bigger plants in larger containers mainly because I want to do as little up-potting as I can before the plants go out in the ground.
At the beginning of March, my problem was that I have three trays on my grow light system and it was filled to the max. This means I had to do a lot of shuffling around when my newly sprouted seeds come indoors to the grow lights. My top tray is for seedlings in their first week of life and as the plants grow bigger they get kicked down to the medium tray and finally to the bottom tray. I have rigged the lights on each level at various heights. Now the problem lies with the lowest tray which has the tallest plants. These plants look big enough to be transplanted outside but one always worries about the impending last frost (that may or may not happen). So a few plants are now bravely outside.
Last weekend, I finally got out and added some plants into the ground. I first sifted my large compost pile and dug big holes into the ground. I put in a huge bucketful of my compost into each hole, added egg shell powder and some E.B. Stone Tomato and Vegetable Food into each hole.
After preparing the soil, I planted some tomatoes. My front yard has a little strip of land between my driveway and my neighbor’s. This would normally would be non-productive grass but I converted the space to be one of my main tomato beds. Amongst the lavender and fruit trees I planted 5 tomato plants. I used one of my raised beds in my backyard for the rest of the tomatoes.
Here are the varieties of tomatoes I have in the ground so far:
- Fox Cherry
- John Baer
- Better Bush
- Persimmon (2)
- Big Boy
- German Pink
- Black Krim
I interplanted tomatoes with basil, borage and nasturtiums. I am really hopeful that this year is my year for tomatoes since last year was so pathetic. I’ll keep you all posted on the progress. Wish me luck!
Here are a few photos from my garden today:
I haven’t been good about my garden tally lately but February was a one-veggie-harvest. All I harvested was kale! I have been eating about 4 cups of kale a day in my delicious kale caesar salad which has completely stripped my Lacinato plant bare. I had to give it a rest and let it grow a bit so it was the first month I actually had to BUY kale. All to feed my kale habit. March added lettuces and strawberries to the harvest. I’m looking forward to my upcoming harvests!
As you may know, I have been battling some sort of rodent in my compost for awhile now. Small mice were living in my black stacked compost bin a few months ago so I took apart my bin to make an open air pile (taking apart my bin involved a lot of screaming from me and the mice and play out in a similar fashion to this earlier episode). So I thought taking my bin apart was going to allow me to turn the compost more often and discourage the mice from living there. I didn’t see any more mice, however each time I went out to put some new scraps into the compost I noticed large tunnels into the compost. Like tennis ball size… One tunnel even went under my compost, under my DG path and up into my raised bed! I tried to do some research about mice tunneling but I didn’t come up with much, plus these tunnels were huge. Every time I went to my compost I would just cover the holes and hope this would discourage whatever was making them.
About a week ago, I went to take out the compost and in the very corner was the largest rat I had ever seen. I almost thought it was an opossum it was so big! Unfortunately for this guy, he was looking rather poor and definitely on his final breaths. He didn’t even try to move away from me. He died right there next to a kale stalk and a spent pepper plant.
Well, even though he lost that battle, I am done battling the rodents! Enter my new solution: a 50 gallon tumbling composter!
Isn’t it beautiful?
My plan is to put all my kitchen scraps in this bad boy so I wont attract any rodents and then when it is partially decomposed I will move the contents into my open air pile. I think this will be a good system going forward.
And since the death of my rat friend… no more tunnels!
Finally some rain!
My garden and I have taken a little break from each other. After the hustle of the height of summer, I needed a little time away. The weather changed perfectly this week to provide some cozy time inside. Last week, we had our first “real” rain in longer than I can remember. You know you are in a real drought when you have a 16 month old and she has never seen rain fall from the sky before.
Deconstructed compost bins
The new open air compost pile. It looks so nice because there is an obscene amount of coffee grounds thrown on top!
The garden seems to be happy with the rain. In Sacramento, the summer season really seems to extend quite a long time. Last year I was still harvesting tomatoes in November! This year I think I will take down the tomatoes earlier though to get my compost piles ready. Yesterday I pulled apart both compost bins and made one huge open air pile. I like doing this in the fall so that I can easily turn the pile and things seem to decompose much faster this way. Plus I don’t have room for all of my old summer plants in the bins so a huge open pile is the way to go.
Synchronized Trombetta di Albenga squash!
There is still plenty to harvest. Basil, peppers, squash, kale, and tomatoes are still coming in. I planted some fall seeds directly into the ground although I still have not fully committed to my fall garden yet. I am feeling a bit tired from gardening so I might take this season off just to plant cover crops, build up my compost piles and work on soil fertility. Sometimes the garden needs a break from me too.
Corn was replaced with some fall seeds
Don’t worry though… I am sure we will reconcile after we both have our space.
I’ve been busing trying to prepare the garden for the East Sac Edible Garden Tour while keeping an eye on my little one in the garden. I would say that I am a pretty messy gardener. My garden is a working garden, meaning that when you walk through it you see all stages of the gardening process and it isn’t all lovely flowers and pristine plants. A lot of gardening is about death, and decay as well. My garden works for me to feed my family and if you are going to have a sustainable garden it sometimes means that there are also signs of death in my garden. My beans have been dying back and the pods are drying on the plants. In this death, there is rebirth with the gift of seeds for next season. Spent tomato, squash, and corn plants make a nice messy pile in the corner of the garden to be cut into smaller pieces and composted. In this decay, new rich soil will be made for next spring’s garden. Now a working garden isn’t always perfectly manicured and picture perfect. It should be messy. And if it doesn’t show plants in all of their glory (even their dying glory) then it isn’t a garden from which I can learn or which sustains me from year to year.
However, this weekend I will have lots (hopefully hundreds of people) walking through my garden. So this adds a layer of complexity to my decisions in the garden. Normally I would leave plants in the ground to die back in their own sweet time but it doesn’t look particularly nice. Normally I would have my garden beds overflowing onto the walk ways in which passing becomes a feat in acrobatics. Normally, I have tools, bamboo poles, and trellises laying about. But none of this makes for a pleasant visit to my garden.
So the this week will be a fury of garden chores so that people can pass through my garden and not get injured.
I hope people can appreciate a working garden. Any time I go on garden tours, I first try to find the compost piles. Partly because I am really strange and partly because the compost pile (or lack thereof) tells me a lot about the type of garden this is. I want to see dynamic gardens because those are the ones full of life. A compost pile tells me that this garden is about a complete process and not just about plants that look great. Even when I went to Butchard Gardens on Vancouver Island, I was peering over the fences to see if I could find huge compost piles (I didn’t see any by the way). If you ever see me on a garden tour, I am probably in the back corners of the garden in search of a compost pile while everyone else is smelling the roses. Honestly, I’d rather be smelling compost.
Since I harvested the bottom tray of my worm bin, it was the perfect time to set up a new tray for my worms.
For my worm bedding, I have been using coconut coir fiber. The coir comes in a compressed block about the size of a brick and is made from coconut husks. It has a high water holding capacity and can hold up to 10 times its weight. I buy mine at my local nursery, Talini’s, for $2.99. The compressed brick expands when you add water so you really only need one. Just put it in a bucket, fill with a generous amount of water and enjoy the endless entertainment of watching something absorb water (I wish coconut coir would follow my daughter around whenever she drinks anything). Wait until the center of the brick has absorbed water. You can always wring out excess water if need be.
I also like using shredded newspaper to add on top of the coir. The worms seem to really love the newspaper. Since I don’t subscribe to a newspaper, I save my Inside East Sacramento newspaper to shred for my bin.
Eggshells are always a great addition to your compost because they provide essential grit for worm’s digestive systems and the calcium in eggshells can help neutralize acidic conditions in your compost pile. I have always just thrown in my eggshells along with everything else but they always take so long to decompose. This is nine month old compost and you can see that there is still a large remnant of eggshell in the compost. I have always wondered how the worms actually get the benefit of the eggshells if they are often still in the exact same shape as when I threw them into the compost months ago. I know the worms are not taking huge bites out of these shells (haha, worms don’t have teeth). Some gardeners don’t like the look of eggshells in their compost and wont include them but I don’t really mind the look. However, I was thinking that ground up eggshells would be easier for the worms, especially the worms in my worm bin, to process. I started separating eggshells from my kitchen compost bin, slightly rinsing them, letting them dry and putting them in a separate container. When I had enough I lined them on a cookie sheet.
The next time I had the oven on for tomato sauce I threw in the pan of eggshells too. I wasn’t so concerned about the temperature but just wanted to give them a while in an oven. So the eggshells sat in a 350° oven for about an hour. Then they went into my food processor for a quick whirl.
Eggshell smoke puffed out.
I was much happier with the consistency of the eggshells using this technique. Previously, I had tried blitzing some eggshells in a blender but without putting them in the oven and I wasn’t able to get as fine of a powder as I was by baking them first.
I don’t think I will use this technique all time but will definitely use it from time to time to add to my worm bin. I have noticed that halved eggshells in the compost provides perfect pockets for pill bugs, worms, and other little insects to set up camp in the compost pile mainly because eggshells don’t tend to break even with the weight of the compost material on top of them. Come to think of it, when I am in the kitchen using eggs I always think of how fragile the eggs are but those same shells are surprisingly strong in the compost! I have always noticed when I turn my compost lots of little insects coming out of the safe pockets of the eggshells. There are definitely benefits to the lazy-woman’s approach to adding eggshells to the compost!
I think I will also use the oven-baked eggshells next year to put in the bottom of my tomato holes (usually I just throw in a few whole shells) but maybe the plant will be able to utilize the calcium faster if it is crushed up. Something new to try!
I do hope the oven-baked eggshells will keep my worms happy!
The very first time I ever got my compost pile to heat up… I mean really heat up to the point of visible steam coming from the center of the pile… I was ecstatic! It was pretty much all I could talk about for a week. I had a pretty large open-air pile that was about half way through the decomposition process. I decided I really wanted to work on getting a finished product more quickly so every day after work I went to the nearest coffee shop to get spent coffee grounds. I threw these on top of the pile and the result was STEAMY compost.
Ever since then, I have been a true believer that coffee grounds as an addition to your compost pile makes for faster and hotter compost plus your compost smells like coffee. So that’s a winning compost pile if you ask me.
Every few weeks I go to Peet’s Coffee and Tea to get my pound of coffee and I always ask if they have grounds to take away for my garden. I love my Peet’s because they will help me carry the usually very heavy bag full of coffee grounds and their filters to my car, which is especially helpful when I have the baby in one arm and my coffee in the other. This stuff is black gold my friends and they just give it to you for free!
Usually I just dump the coffee grounds directly into my compost pile. I take a little extra time to tear up the filters into smaller pieces because I find that they take much longer to decompose if I don’t and they are so large that I am worried they will create a smothering layer in my compost when I want to be promoting as much air as possible. I also throw a few grounds onto my blueberries from time to time since they love the acidity. I haven’t used coffee grounds directly in my garden beds but I think it isn’t a bad idea if you use it sparingly since worms go crazy for coffee grounds.
So next time you are in a coffee shop just ask if they have grounds for your garden. I find most coffee shop employees are more than happy to help you. Most coffee shops have some system (some shops don’t separate out their grounds from their garbage) so find out what works best for them and best for you. I have even left a 5 gallon bucket at the shop for them to fill up during the day and then I pick it up in the evening. Sometimes I ask for grounds and I get blank stares from the employees but I find that most employees have an understanding that the grounds can be used in gardens and it isn’t the first time they have been asked that question. Also once you build a relationship with your coffee shop it is much easier to get grounds.
What could be better than a free resource that you help keep out of the waste stream while it helps you build your soil? Plus you can get a nice cold afternoon latte as a treat!
Recently I have been using freecycle to obtain some gardening items. Freecycle is a website that allows you to get and receive things for free in your local area. Basically it is a big “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” forum.
And boy did I get someone’s trash…. about 30 gallons of it.
Isn’t it glorious?
A woman in Fair Oaks has two horses and a miniature pony. Every year she posts her composted horse manure for people to take. When I drove up her miniature pony came running over from the far side of the pasture to greet me. Armed with my trusty Hunter boots and many 5 gallon buckets, I filled as many buckets as would fit in my car. The pile was as tall as my shoulders. She said that the pile had been sitting for most of the year so it was pretty well composted. There were mushrooms and a few worms in the pile. Gloves and high boots do come in handy when you are trampling around in a large pile of poo. I highly recommend bringing these items if you plan on doing this.
When I came back home I had to decide what to do with my bounty. A few bucketfuls went directly on my garden to await spring planting and the rest I threw on my compost. I mainly made this decision to put the manure on my compost because of lack of time to do anything else with it. And it ended up being an excellent decision! I created the open air compost pile which was about half way through the composting process. I threw the horse manure on top and piled it high. The added volume of the horse manure allowed the compost to heat up and the next day the middle was nice and steamy. It heated up so quickly! The compost finished in under two weeks.
The other great thing about this is that it was completely free! You can buy bagged chicken or horse manure at the garden stores but if there is a source willing to give it for free all the better!
You need to make sure you find a source that has well composted manure. Many people will give away their manure but do ask how long their pile has been sitting there. This will give you the information you need so that you can decide if it can be used straight away in your garden. Do not add fresh manure to plants as this can damage young plants. I also recommend adding the manure with other compost to make sure you have a good balance of material. Composted manure doesn’t smell and aside from a few larger chunks it should look like soil.
Now let me tell you why I am going to all the trouble of hauling away horse poo back to my house. Last year I planted intensively in my garden. I have a small space so I am trying to maximize every space I have and if I dont give back to my soil I will have unhealthy yields the next year. Currently I don’t have a source for animal manure so I have to go to the source. If I want to continue to grow my own veg then manure and composting are my answers to keeping a productive organic garden. Happy soil = happy vegetables = happy me!
… or maybe not. There was a lot of screaming coming from my garden yesterday. And that screaming was coming mainly from me. I’m not afraid of rats or mice but I do get scared when they jump out at me. For the past few days I noticed that when I went to take out my compost (mainly at sundown since that is when the baby goes to sleep) there is a rat at the very top eating my fresh compost scraps. So I made a mental note that it is time to turn the compost. I was pretty sure this rat was just visiting so if I turned the compost in the middle of the day he wouldn’t be there. Well I was right… there was no rat. But two mice came bounding out of the top after a few shovelfuls into the job. My sister was there to witness my screaming. I took a break and went back later in the afternoon to finish the job. I worked very slowly because I was so afraid of running into a bunch of baby mice. Thankfully I didn’t see any baby mice but 5 more mice jumped out at me. They couldn’t climb up since the level of the compost was lower at this point so they ran out the bottom, running into me then down the side of my house into the front yard somewhere. And not all 5 jumped out at once either… they decided to pop out at random intervals making me increasingly more nervous as I continued emptying the bin. I’m glad my sister went home so she couldn’t witness the rest of the afternoon of screaming. Well it took all afternoon but I finally emptied out the bin and moved it into the round composter to finish off.
Some lessons learned from yesterday:
1. My compost was really dry. I read somewhere that mice like nesting in dry compost piles so I will have to do a better job of keeping my pile moist.
2. I need to do a better job of covering fresh scraps going into the compost to discourage rats or mice.
3. I need to turn the pile more often. A disturbed pile does not make a good home.
4. I read up on the dangers of mice droppings and urine in the compost including Leptospirosis which is caused by inhaling infected rat urine. Once the urine dries, the pathogen doesn’t survive. Mostly I am reassured that the compost is still safe to use but I couldn’t find much information on this in regards to gardeners. Still I am going to be cautious even though this is exceedingly rare.
5. I am probably going to need some therapy and some anti-anxiety medication.
Sorry there are no pictures of any mice coming out of the compost. I was too busy screaming.
My friend over at Seed Sowing Mama made me this awesome compost sifter last year. It is a simple frame, and particularly easy to use in a small space. My composting area is very small and I don’t have too much room to work so sifting the compost would be much easier if I had a little bit more space. This sifter does the job quickly even though it takes a little bit of effort.
These three photos show you the progression of the compost being sifted. The sifter really keeps out bigger items so I end up with this lovely looking stuff:
Here are my two finished piles. The pile to the front is the finished compost and the pile to the back is all the bigger pieces that didn’t go through the sifter. Usually I would throw the bigger piece pile back into my active compost in order to let it break down a bit more but my compost is full to the brim! The finished pile is going into the garden right away and the second pile will wait near my compost. Maybe I will use it to cover up any fresh kitchen waste to detract any rodents. Also I was only able to sift about half of my finished compost before it got too hot and I was ready for lunch. I have to get back out there and finish this job!
If you are interested in how Seed Sowing Mama made this compost sifter click to see her DIY Compost Sifter.