Tag Archives: compost

My Gardening Arsenal

Garden Arsenal

Dear Reader:

There have been so many cool local goings-on I hardly know where to start: do I finally blog about my incredible Goodwill fashion finds? Or the awesome certified organic farm stand up the road? Or my trip to the Portland Museum of Art plus dinner at locally-owned restaurant, Nosh? Or the wedding shower I went to recently for my cousin’s fiance (Hi, Holly:) where the presents were either local, organic, natural, homesteady (think canning jars and cookbooks, perennials and pot-holders) or… red wine?

With so many topics, I chose the most local of all: my front yard garden.

Straw bale in May

Remember this?

Now it looks like this!

Straw Bale in July

There is a real difference between the tomato plants on the house-end of the bales and the road-end. I think the house-end plants get just a smidge more sunlight…enough to make a huge difference, not just in tomatoes but also in the pumpkin plants on the very ends as well as the corn and beans on the ground below. (I couldn’t resist a Three-Sisters planting or four!) While the Early Girls are already ripening and the two German Striped heirlooms are setting on fruit, the large brandywine in the center back bale has an issue. There have been plenty of blossoms, but then, sadly, the blossoms break off at the stem-bend just where the plant should be pumping some energy to create a band of strong material to hold a big, plump, juicy fruit.

Thinking maybe I’d either over-nitrogened the thing and underfed it some other vital nutrient, I got down to Plummer’s Hardware to pick up some organic fertilizer specifically for tomatoes and veggies. This one has nitrogen, posphate, potash, calcium and sulfer made from feathers, poultry manure, cocoa meal, bone meal, alfalfa meal, greensand, humates, sulfate of potash, and gypsum. Ask for Espoma Organic Tomato-tone at your local garden center. I noticed a big difference right away in all the ‘matoes…they all grew even taller and lusher within the week. Now I’m waiting to see if old brandywine there actually sets on some more fruits other than the two bottom ones that popped out just after getting home from Snell’s greenhouses.

Healthy Bee Balm

Now, some of you long-time readers will remember my past gardening woes including powdery mildew and Japanese Beetles. (See Of Pests and Powdery Mildew from August 2010) I am sad to report that the beetles are back, along with new friends–aphids and ants. My poor crabapple tree is an infested mess!

It’s my own fault. People gave me advice about sprinkling some kind of powder underneath to kill the beetle larvae. Instead, I planted garlic around the tree, hoping it would somehow repel the pesky pests. No such luck, though I do hope to have some green garlic soup very soon. In the meantime, I continue with my usual methods of pest control: a jar of bleach water for the beetles and a quick pinch and pull to get rid of the aphids and the ants milking them. Yes, ants “raise” aphids and milk their secretions. Gross, except, well, think about us with cows and goats. By the time I get to the aphid farms, the little stem or branch of the tree is pretty sick and generally comes right off in my fingers. Then those ants get angry and bite me! I’m serious. They are NOT happy to lose their farm at all. I say, go west, young ant!

And then there is the powdery mildew. Now, you all know my thoughts on trying to be a food producer here on my wooded, exurban, one-acre lot. It’s pretty much an exercise in futility, really. I keep trying new things, but in the end I may be defeated. I thought I’d come to terms with the pine and beech tree shade and the sunny but tragically unusable leach field. The new garden boxes were to be my saving grace, my compromise with reality. I could practice vegetable gardening in the miniature, experiment with many types of plants, and treat said veggies like highly-irregular ornamentals…that I could nibble. They do look fabulous. See how the pink & black box has grown.

On May 30th

This was Memorial Day weekend.

July 18 garden box

Now, the cucumbers are running like crazy, and by that I mean they are flowing out of the box and onto the ground like leafy snakes. Tiny cuke-spikes grow behind the pretty yellow blossoms, fatten, and lengthen until they just aren’t pickling size anymore at which point I pluck them, peel them, and serve them on salad for dinner.

Beautiful Cuke

I’ve picked six of these babies so far…and there are more to come as long as nothing happens to them. The zucchini are blossoming. The summer squash are already beginning to fruit. All looks well until…

I notice the big patch of bee balm in my front perennial bed, just beside the cuke and squash boxes, is covered in powdery mildew! Now, we’ve had so much heat and humidity that I shouldn’t have been surprised. A little more research, and I learned that overcrowded conditions also contribute to the mold problem. That bed was looking a little crowded this year. Looking back at previous photos, I see that some of the old plants in the bed had powdery mildew in previous years, so the spores were probably there in the ground just waiting to bloom.

No matter. What mattered was that if I did nothing, that mold would spread to the just-about-to-produce squash and cukes and kill all my hopes and dreams for fresh garden salads and zucchini cooked over the grill and summer squash casserole. I got out my gardening blades and chopped that darn bee balm right off and buried it in a pile of leaves in the woods far from the boxes. Now my perennial bed looks like a second-grade boy with a summer buzz-cut and I’ve pretty much decided to plant shrubs in that spot this fall (rhododendron? azalea? winterberry?).

Squash Blossoms

In the meantime, my cucurbits are in grave danger. I noticed one small summer squash had already turned brownish on the blossom end and had gone soft and limp. It was dying, if not already dead. And this was before one sign of mildew on the leaves! I did moreresearch and learned that while you can’t reverse an infestation of mold, you can prevent it with anti-fungal sprays. There are commercial products, but I was intrigued by the remedy recommended on a number of organic gardening sites: baking soda, vegetable oil, and water.

Now, the baking soda is supposed to change the pH of the leaves, making them inhospitable to the powdery mildew. The oil helps the solution cling to the leaves. I made mine with 1 tablespoon soda, 1 tablespoon Maine sunflower oil, and 1 quart of water. I mixed it in a pitcher, poured it into a plastic spray bottle, and sprayed all the leaves on top and underneath after fertilizing and watering this morning. A healthy plant is much less susceptible to any sort of pest or problem.

Why do I have powdery mildew problems, anyway? Simple. Mold likes moisture and heat. We’ve had high humidity and high temperatures. In addition, my lot is surrounded by tall trees acting very effectively as windbreaks. Nice in the winter (except when said trees fall over), but in the summer that means the tops of the trees across the road may be tossing in the wind, but in my garden the pretty little set of chimes Hubby gave me doesn’t even let out a single cling…or clang, for that matter. In other words, we get no air circulation thanks once again to the trees.

I pulled the peas up today to give the zucchini and summer squash in that box a little more breathing room. Hopefully that will help. But to be honest, I may not do veggies again. Or else, forget the cucurbits. I can buy plenty at the local farm stands and farmer’s markets.

On a happy note, an application of tomato food to the greens boxes has made a huge difference. Take a look!

Romaine and Greenleaf and Chard

Small cukes, green beans, spinach, lettuce

Out of the micro micro-greens that refused to grow, I decided to pluck up everything but the spinach which looked somehow…different, as if it had potential. My instincts appear to be correct as it is now growing nicely behind the shade of the green beans. Perhaps the greens boxes get more sun than they need? Maybe I should grow a sheltering row of flowers or something in the front squares next year? The last-ditch planting of kale seeds in all the squares where nothing grew has produced some sprouts, so perhaps a fall crop of greens will be forthcoming after all.

What I’ve learned? Fertilizer helps. I love the idea of using only home-produced or at least locally-produced compost, but I’m beginning to suspect that in order to get all the nutrients needed for a really good crop in a box, a balanced fertilizer is a necessity. In a double-dug bed, some of those nutrients would be present in the soil, and perhaps a yearly application of good, home-grown compost from the remains of plants grown in those beds would suffice. Or maybe growing a cover crop of some nitrogen-dense plant would work. But in these self-contained garden boxes? I think a little extra additive is a necessity.

Which brings me back around to my other point. Do I continue to play with vegetables? Or do I simply work with ornamentals and use my money to support the local farmers? Imagine what they could have done with the $200 plus I spent on straw bales, boxes, compost, additives, seedlings, seeds, etc. Probably fed a couple of families, while I get few handfuls of peas, some pickling-size cucumbers, thirty or forty tomatoes (please, oh please!), some basil, some squashes…

It all depends on what happens with those squashes, people! If they don’t work out, I will cast around for another direction for my one-acre “homestead.” I still have this idea about growing shiitake mushrooms

Stay tuned for more … Outside the Box.

Spring Box Step

Repurposed Futon Frame Potting Bench

Dear Reader:

Happy May Day to you! May 1st was (and is) a celebration of the beginning of the growing and grazing season, the beginning of summer in our Euro-Pagan past, celebrated with garlands of flowers, bonfires, and earthy fertility rites. Here in modern-day Maine, we still celebrate the old ways with the creation of May baskets filled with flowers, or maybe some candy, hung anonymously on a neighbor’s door. When I was little, my sister and I would hang baskets and then run. The recipient gave chase and would try to kiss us. What fun!

Crab Apple Blossoms

Even though May 1st is supposed to be the beginning of summer, in Maine we are still smack in the middle of spring. The daffodils have blossomed and are beginning to fade just a bit. Dandelions dot my sparse lawn. The perennial beds are bursting with fresh greenery and a few early bleeding hearts. Best of all, the cutest little johnny-jump-ups are truly popping up everywhere in cheerful little clumps near my front walkway. Even the dark pink crab-apple is blossoming nicely this year. Ahhhh, spring.

I missed my garden boxes last summer while we visited D.C., so this year I am itching to plant. I had purchased four new pre-cut garden boxes at Ocean State Job Lots last spring, so I dragged those out and set them up right in front of my house where I hope they will get more sun than the old boxes. I also moved one of the old boxes up with these four, turning them on the diagonal for what I hope will create some interesting plantings near my front door.

Empty Garden Boxes

I put these right onto the grass, and then I lined them with a few layers of newspaper I’ve been saving down in the cellar (cellah’) for years now. A trip to Lyman to Tibbett’s Family Farm yielded a truck-bed full of the most gorgeous finished compost you’ve ever seen. Tibbett’s removes manure from area dairy farms, mixes it with other materials, and turns it into a rich, moist, crumbly, non-smelly compost just FULL of worms! To a backyard gardener like me, this stuff is pure gold–for the amazingly low price of $35 for a cubic yard!

Garden Gold...Compost!

Not only did the load of compost fill all five new garden boxes, I was also able to top off the old boxes (they were down to about half full), and I still had enough for some small piles I will use to top dress the perennial beds. This stuff is so awesome, I’m sure I will go back for another load and finally get to create the permaculture “Apple Guild” I’ve had in mind for the front of the property for the last couple of years. Permaculture guilds are the planting of companion plants that all work together harmoniously, mimicking the work of nature. In an apple guild, you can plant daffodils and garlic around the tree to deter pests and suppress grass. Artichokes and comfrey as a living mulch. Yarrow, chicory, and plaintain to help get nitrogen and other nutrients out of the ground. Some of these plants also attract beneficial insects for pollination. Plus, it will be pretty!

While outside working with my boxes (which are, in essence, big planter containers), I decided I wanted to make a potting bench. I went “shopping in the cellar” once again and came back with two white-painted arm-rests from a now-defunct futon frame. I figured a couple of plywood boards on top would work fine. Of course, I couldn’t find the power screwdriver thingy machine. I propped everything up the best I could and proceeded to pot up my poor Christmas cactus which definitely needed more room. Later, when I told hubby about my plan, he kindly took over and built my bench. I think it came out pretty snazzy.

New neighbors down the road, D.& D., recently added their mailbox to ours, creating this handsome stand. My contribution would be flowers. I transferred some of the jump-ups to pots and dug the pots into the ground next to the mailboxes. I also amended the salty, gravelly soil with some potting soil (and later, some of the good compost) and transplanted a few little perennial sprigs–ground geranium, bleeding heart, a yellowish-green ground cover, some other dark browny-red no-name plant I know I should look up and record for gardening posterity. And then I took all my old leftover seeds–peas, beans, marigolds, and who-knows-what and pushed them into the soil. I will water the tiny mailbox garden when the soil gets dry, throw some more compost down there every so often, and we’ll wait and see what pops up this summer.

I have very high hopes for a productive and beautiful front yard this summer. How about you? Drop me a note, share your favorite tips, let me know what you’ve been up to this spring. I always love to hear from you, my dear readers. Happy spring!

Next up: Planting peas and lettuces, our cool weather plants. And getting ready for straw bale gardening . . . Outside the Box.

Local Season Opener

Spring Daffodillies

Dear Reader:

You didn’t think I was writing about baseball, did you? No, this is my “Spring Season” opening day because the ground is warm enough to walk barefoot in the grass, the daffodils are bursting with golden frilliness, and the rhubarb is sprouting-leafing up through the garden dirt after a winter’s hibernation.

Rhubarb

When we were kids, my sister and I would sometimes visit the rhubarb patch and break off a pink-green stem and chew it, wincing at the tart-sour taste. I wasn’t especially fond of rhubarb pie (strawberry-rhubarb was much better), but now I’m already planning to make a pie as soon as the ‘barb is ready. I even found some REAL lard at The Cornerstone Country Market in S. Waterboro over the weekend. With the whole wheat white flour from the co-op and this lard, my rhubarb and some sugar, I will be able to create an almost totally local pie. Not sure if I could substitute maple syrup or honey for the sugar, but I will look into it.

Speaking of the Cornerstone Country Market, if you live in this neck of the woods, I highly recommend stopping in there. They have a deli counter. They have local (Lyman) beef in the freezer section. Local eggs. Lots of dry-goods. (I heard they had local milk, but I didn’t see any and didn’t ask this particular time). They also carry a dizzying amount of cake decorating products–candies and sprinkles and such for cupcakes, birthday cakes, etc. Baking mixes. Flours.

I purchased some steel-cut oats for my breakfast and a jug of Maine maple syrup since I missed Maple Sunday at Hilltop Boilers a few weeks ago. I would have grabbed some of the beef, but I had just stopped in to Kniffin’s Specialty Meats also in S. Waterboro for “steakburger” and chicken legs for this week’s menu. All of Kniffin’s meats come from Maine farmers. No pink slime here!

Compost Bins In Action

As you can see from the photo, we’ve been busy “harvesting” carbonaceous material (a.k.a. beech and oak leaves) from the lawn to compost. The bin on the far right has been composting for a year or so. The two bins on the left are full of this year’s leaves plus some table scraps thrown in. Beside the right-hand bin is a small, dark pile of nearly-ready-to-use compost that I will spread into a Lasagna Garden later this season over near the rock pile. No, this does not mean I will be growing ingredients for lasagne (eggplant, peppers, onions, oregano, tomatoes, zucchini), though that would actually be cute and fun. Lasagna gardening refers to the preparation of the garden bed through layering of carbon material, nitrogen material, manure, straw, etc.

I am also psyched about the idea of trying Straw Bale Gardening. I ordered Joel Karsten’s pdf manual (easy, easy) and now have all the info I need on a file here on my computer. Hopefully, this will allow me to grow tomatoes on the one part of my lawn that gets adequate sunlight–on the leach bed. I think the straw will lift up the plants so they won’t be in any danger from the leach field, the beds won’t take up much space on top of the field or interfere with its processes in any way, and the extra heat generated by the composting straw will be perfect for those heat-loving globes of red juiciness (heirloom tomatoes? Lead me to ’em!)

On my way back from the meat and lard shopping, I stopped into the antique store to see if I could find a ring or pin with an owl motif, as I’m still recreating my Modern Minerva outfit on the local scene. I scored the red sweater at Goodwill last week. Alas, no jewelry fit the bill, though they had mucho floral pieces I will revisit later.

Moooooo!

However, this adorable creamer pitcher just had to come home with me! Now, I need to start buying raw milk again so I can get some thick, rich, yummy cream into the pitcher . . . and then into my morning coffee.

Speaking of coffee, where oh where is the Green Mountain Island Coconut java this year? It is not to be found in any of the usual spots, not even the branch of the used-to-be-Maine-but-now-owned-by-a-multinational-conglomerate supermarket chain. I once worked for said chain and truly enjoyed the experience. So disappointing to me that it is now part of a multinational . . . and no matter what the advertisements say, shopping here is NOT like shopping “local.” When the profits travel out of town, out of county, out of state, out of COUNTRY, it is not local. Some CEO somewhere is making a hugemongous salary, and he’s not paying local property taxes (unless a Belgian businessman has bought land in south-western Maine and I didn’t hear about it.)

However, to be fair, said supermarket does employ many Maine people, and they pay good wages. The working conditions are very good. I would still work for them . . . and then spend my paycheck at Kniffin’s and Goodwill and Plummer’s Hardware. I’d call it “operation reverse money drain”…sucking money from the conglomerate and dispersing it to the local businesses via my purchasing power.

As we head into the growing season, dear reader, I wish you all the best with your gardening, harvesting, and preparing of early crops. Peas. Spinach. Rhubarb. Strawberries. Don’t forget to visit your local farmer’s markets and roadside stands and berry farms. Consider locating local meat markets in your town or state. The prices may be a little higher, but consider the greater nutritional value. Eat less but gain fewer pounds while enjoying a nutrition-dense product that suports the local foodshed. It’s a win-win . . . Outside the Box.

Yard At Work

Pile of Pallets

Dear Reader:

I don’t know about you, but something about autumn makes me want to work outside. Maybe it is the cooler air. Maybe it is just the instinct to nest. Maybe it is wanting to gather as much sun as possible before the snow flies and the days darken. Whatever the reason, fall finds me perky and industrious out of doors, and this year is no exception.

Settling in here at home in Lake Arrowhead after my summer away, I took a critical look around my front yard. My friend “The Hydraulic Power Junkie” was kind enough to save some wooden pallets for me to construct into additional compost bins, and before jaunting off to the city, I’d thrown them in a a messy pile over by the garden boxes.

My lone bin just isn’t adequate for proper piling and turning, so this past spring I dug into the pile, found all the good decomposed stuff on the bottom, and deposited this “black gold” beside the bin thinking I would dig it into some new beds. Of course, I never got around to it, so the compost just sat there feeding who knows what seeds over the long, hot summer. Sure enough, by September the pile was lush with gigantic weeds and some leggy tomato plants with teeny, immature fruits dangling from slender stems.

What a waste of good compost!

My Pink Hammer

Disgusted with myself for such blatant procrastination, I got to work. With some ingenious use of rocks wedged under corners, bent wire coat hangers, and bungee cords cadged from Hubby’s garage, I soon had a triplex of compost bins lined up in the corner of my lot.

Completed Bins

I had just enough chicken wire (somewhat rusty) to wind around and form a barrier in front. Now all I need is some latticework to fancy the project up a bit.

After all, who wants to look at rotting lettuce and coffee grounds and eggshells and piles of soggy leaves?

The “LAC Chickens” (a.k.a. crows) don’t mind seem to mind the mess. Our first day back from D.C., I went to the market to restock my ‘fridge, and when I came back, seven large, black crows were pecking around on my front lawn looking just like a flock of particularly sleek hens. I think the crows are a good sign–hopefully a sign of beneficial insects and whatnot in my garden area.

By the way, early morning cawing is much more annoying than the gentle clucking of laying hens, despite the prejudiced rules in my homeowners association outlawing “livestock.” However, I’m quite fond of “my” crows, just the same. They are fun to watch and have a wide variety of calls and cries, sometimes even chuckling as if they’ve found something incredibly amusing, probably my attempts to dig out root systems of maple saplings (see below).

Image from Goodreads.com

Crows and ravens are intelligent birds. I learned this while reading A YEAR IN THE MAINE WOODS by Bernd Heinrich. This memoir records the author’s year spent in a remote cabin on a mountain up near Mt. Blue State Park. Heinrich brought his pet raven to live with him that winter, and the stories make for some delightful cool-weather armchair traveling.

If you don’t feel the actual need to go and live in an under-insulated cabin in the woods with no running water or electricity but feel it would make for an interesting and enlightening read, pick up a copy at your locally-owned bookstore before the snow flies.

As for me, I still had work to do. I mowed the lawn, weeded out a perennial bed, transplanted some flowers, and chopped down the vegetation that had grown up near the “rock wall” and the somewhat cleared area near the garden boxes.

I then began digging out the root system of a particularly stubborn maple sapling that had been crushed by a fallen pine tree a couple years ago. The double-trunked pine came down in a rain storm while we watched from the safety of our basement. If the wind had been blowing the other way, our house would have been crushed. Instead, a small maple and some oaks took the hit.

All the sapling stumps now inconveniently sprout a new bristle-brush of shoots every time I clip them off, and as I’m trying to create a perennial bed there around the pine stump, these suckers are annoying. I’ve tried to smother them with leaf litter and old carpets to no avail. It’s bad enough I have to camouflage the ugly reminder that we live beneath one-hundred foot, one-hundred year-old pines with shallow root systems inadequate to anchor the top-heavy giants when the earth gets soaked and the wind blows hard, but now I have to dig out entire root systems as well?

I’m complaining, but there are compensations to living with anti-chicken rules and scary and/or irritating trees. The lake is beautiful, and I never thought I would be so lucky to live so close to the water. If I manage to give up my obsession with growing food crops (too shady), I will be able to enjoy growing shade-loving plants and creating native woodland gardens.

Like most things in life, you can choose to focus on the negative or the positive, which reminds me of a saying I used to hear in church: “Two men looked out from behind prison bars; one saw mud and the other saw stars.”

Not that I’m feeling imprisoned here, or anything– wink-wink.

Rewards of Hard Labor

After a day of hard labor, I rewarded myself with a hot cup of coffee sipped from a favorite locally-sourced Barnswallow Pottery mug from Newfield, Maine. I filled the bird-feeder and hung a cake of suet. Maybe the chickadees and goldfinches will come back to keep me and the crows company this winter while the snow flies and I’m curled up with my knitting and enjoying the change of season—and wondering how the compost is doing out there in the bins transforming from garbage to rich soil beneath an insulating layer of snow.