De-weeding the Compost Pile

by Sandy Swegel

Playing in the dirt is, of course, the most fun reason to garden. This week I’ve been playing in the compost which is doubly fun because I get to play with the earthworms too.

De-weeding the compost pile

My compost style is very passive. I keep three big bins going. Starting the bin is easy. I make sure there’s a couple of inches of finished compost at the bottom to inoculate the pile. Every week I clean up something in the garden and throw it on top of the compost. I generally don’t put in sticks unless I feel like cutting them up into smaller pieces. The most important addition to the pile is vegetable scraps and greens like grass clippings. I put those in the middle and tuck them down under the dried up spent foliage. The vegetable and green scraps invite earthworms in so my pile is breaking down in the traditional way that browns and greens break down and earthworms are doing their thing at the same time. Sometimes if there’s too much organic matter, I throw in a shovel or two of soil. I water the pile if we haven’t had rain. In Fall I throw some leaves on but also have separate bins for straight leaf mulch.

 

This is Cold (or Warm) Composting. This is not the fancy layering and turning that extension services advise composters do to kill all the seeds and disease. The pile gets hot in the middle, but without the regular turning and fine-tuning of ratios of browns and greens, my weed seeds don’t all get killed. I don’t put diseased foliage into the pile. But with a minimum of work, I get a lot of compost.

So what do I do about the weed seeds?
Basically, I get them to germinate then cut their heads off. De-weeding the compost pile.

Sometime in August or September, I scrape off the completely uncomposted material and put them into another bin. Then I vigorously turn my pile and mix it together. It’s about 80% finished. I leave it alone except to water it if needed. Each week all the weed seeds germinate into little green plants and I shovel up that top two inches of little weeds, breaking their necks and put them back into the compost pile. The next week, more seeds have germinated and I break them up too. Usually, after about three weeks, the weed seeds have mostly all grown out and the compost is ready to get spread on the garden after the soil freezes.

Easy and not much work.

 

 

http://sarasota.ifas.ufl.edu/compost-info/tutorial/methods.shtml
http://tncns.com/winter-time-composting

Straw in the Garden: Be Careful!

by Sandy Swegel

Straw bales are one of my favorite garden tools.  They are useful to the gardener in so many ways.  All nicely tied up, straw bales are like giant Lego blocks that can be stacked to make so many things. I’m using the term “straw” bale, but old “hay” bales have the same great features.  Three bales make a great compost bin.  A row of bales makes excellent walls that double as sitting places.  Open the bales up and you have the perfect mulch to keep strawberries or squash off the ground or to make a path protected from mud.  Give the chickens one bale and an hour later they have spread it evenly over the coop floor in their pursuit of worms or food in the bale.  A square of bales with some plastic thrown over is an excellent cold frame.  And I haven’t even begun to touch on the usefulness of bales as a fort.

So it was distressing this week to be reminded that we can no longer just trust the wonderful bales that we scavenged in the past because modern agriculture has rendered hay, straw, and even the gardener’s best friend, manure, unsafe for growing food.

This conversation came up because tomatoes are very sensitive to herbicide damage.  The most common cause of herbicide damage extension agents used to see was from “herbicide drift” where chemicals sprayed nearby go airborne and are spread by the wind onto your garden.  But my experience this week was with tomato plants, a very susceptible plant – sort of the canary in the mine.  After considering dozens of diseases from virus and fungus and bacteria that might be stunting a friend’s tomatoes and keeping them from setting fruit, we had to face the likelihood that the culprit was last year’s straw that was liberally mulched throughout the garden.

Hay and straw become hidden poison bombs in the garden when farmers use the new generation of weed killers (that are very effective on weeds) like Milestone or Forefront or Curtail.  Milestone is aminopyralid it is a very persistent killer of broad-leaf plants.  Farmers like it because it kills weeds and because unlike other weedkillers, they can feed treated pasture to their animals without any waiting time.  The label says clearly that while animals can still feed on the pasture, the herbicide survives being eaten by the animals, and it survives composting.  So even year old hay that you’ve composted or nice old manure from free-range animals on pasture still has enough herbicide in it to kill your tomato crop.

The bottom line is you can’t just get straw at the feed store or old hay or manure from a neighbor’s barn to use in your garden unless you know how the original pasture was treated this year and last year.  It’s another sad but true example of the destructive environmental impact even small actions such as applying some weedkiller can have. And it’s not even just the farmer who has to take care.  Grass clippings are a gardener’s favorite mulch…and some of the new weed killers or weed and feed products contain these long-lasting poison time bombs.  It’s easy to want to kill some thistle…but you have to read the very tiny small print to see if you are destroying your own garden by using the organic practices of mulching with grass or hay or straw that generations of gardeners have sworn by.  It’s not your father’s straw bale anymore.

http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/fletcher/programs/ncorganic/special-pubs/herbicide_carryover.pdf
http://www.motherearthnews.com/Grow-It/Milestone-Herbicide-Contamination-Creates-Dangerous-Toxic-Compost.aspx

My Number One Secret for Growing Tomatoes

by Sandy Swegel

A local grower and I were chatting today about all the ways people grow tomatoes. My friend was laughing at somebody who had an elaborate setup with walls of water in the snow. I don’t necessarily use walls of water, but I understand our local Zone 5 competitions to have tomatoes by the 4th of July. The walls of water help warm the soil and of course, entertain the gardener.

There are many “secrets” to growing tomatoes. Some people put their hope in fertilizers and supplements like Epsom salt. Others do a lot of pruning of “suckers.” And there is no substitute for regular consistent water that doesn’t let the soil dry out.

But for me, the most important part of growing tomatoes is digging and preparing the hole you’re going to plant in. I generally plant little plants…2-1/4 inch pots…somewhere around May 15th. And I do believe in planting deep so roots can grow all along the stem. But back to the importance of preparing the hole you’re going to plant in.

My secret for great tomatoes is a big humongous hole at least half full of compost.

Step One. Take a five-gallon pot (a bucket can work too) and dig the hole so big that the bucket fits completely in the hole. That usually means you have to keep going back and widening the hole to get the bucket all the way down. And it’s usually a pain digging into that subsoil. If the soil is very clay like, I loosen up the bottom and sides by slicing cuts in both for draining. I fill at least half the hole with finished compost. I put in some finished composted manure if I have it. I throw in some rather unfinished compost too. I mix in an organic fertilizer that includes phosphorus. I’ll also add any other goodies I have like kelp or alfalfa meal. Leaf mulch if I have some. I don’t mind if a worm or two ends up in there too. I then fill the rest of the hole with original soil and mix it well. I water it.

Only now is the hole ready for the tomato. I pluck off its lower leaves and plant the tomato up to its neck. I put the trellis or whatever support I’ll need now. And that’s it. I personally run a drip line with a timer since it’s so dry here and I don’t want my sporadic memory to sporadically water. I’ve done comparison tests year after year with people who dig holes only large enough to squeeze the plant in. They never get the number of tomatoes I get. My large composted planting hole means the tomato puts out a huge rootball that gobbles up all that good compost and fertilizer food produces a huge crop of tomatoes. If you only have a shovel-sized hole in the ground for your tomato, you only have little roots to feed the plant. If you don’t believe me, when winter comes this year, pull up your tomato and see how big your rootball is.

So if you want a lot of healthy tomatoes this year, take out your shovel and work up a sweat preparing that soil!

Photo credit:

World Tomato Society

 

Best Free Seed Starting Container Ever

By Sandy Swegel

If truth be told, growing seeds and especially food is really just a hobby for me. I do it quite earnestly and often obsessively, but it’s not like I’m not going to eat if I don’t grow my own food. That has not always been true for my ancestors or for people around the world. If they don’t grow their own gardens, they don’t eat. And they don’t have extra money to buy fancy seed-germinating setups.

A great-grandmother I met described for me how she grew seeds back in the Depression of the 1930s living on the plains in Colorado. It’s a method that she still uses because it works so well and costs nothing. In her retirement she lives in a city townhome and but she still gardens in big pots on her patio…and each Spring she has egg-carton trays full of eggs with seedlings on her windowsill.

We’ve often heard of putting potting soil right into egg cartons. But if you plant right into the eggshell, you don’t end up with broken soggy cartons…and you putting calcium right into the garden where you need it. People who keep earthworms know that earthworms need calcium for reproduction. Eggshells in compost and in the soil make for more earthworms and better soil.

It’s super simple to start your seeds in eggshells. Save some egg shells. You’ll want to rinse them out or you’ll get that nasty sulfur smell if you leave old egg inside. Use a pin to pierce a hole or two in the bottom. Fill with some clean potting or germinating soil. That’s it. Absolutely free. Put the eggs into an egg carton on a bright warm windowsill. The eggs keep moisture in much better than the carton would. When it’s time to plant just crumble the base of the eggshell right into the garden before planting.

I sometimes get the clear plastic egg cartons. Those are really useful because the closed plastic makes a great tiny greenhouse.

You already know how to save money if you’re growing seeds. Growing from seed means each plant costs you pennies instead of dollars when you buy plants. Now you don’t have to pay for the seed containers either.

And if you time it right, you can have super cute eggs full of tiny seedlings for table decorations.

 

 

Photo Credits

http://foodstorageandbeyond.com/2011/03/feature-friday-eggshell-seed-starting-pots/

Best Heirloom Vegetable Seed

Wildflower Seed

Wildflower Seed Mixes

Grass Mixes

 

 

Gardening as Winter Looms

by Sandy Swegel

Nothing like the first deeply freezing temperatures followed by a warm day to get people in Zone 5 areas asking if the gardening season is really over if they can still tackle their garden to do lists even though Thanksgiving is around the corner.  We have two conflicting impulses…the really good bulbs are on sale at our local garden center AND there’s an inch of snow and refrozen ice on the garden bed.

What does happen to our soil in winter? Once soil temperatures are in the forties, all the creatures and denizens of the soil put themselves to sleep through dormancy or through laying lots of eggs or spores that will hatch when temperatures are warmer.  Seeds stop germinating or else require weeks and weeks at low temperature to come up.  They’re smart…no point in germinating if sub-zero temperatures in another few weeks are going to kill young growth. So the soil goes into stasis until the temperatures warm.

Here are some of the questions I hear people asking as our soil begins its freeze:

Can I still plant bulbs? Can I transplant daylilies now? Yes, if you can pry the soil open and get water to the plant, there’s a good chance your bulbs will bloom and the daylily will be fine. Daffodils especially prefer getting planted earlier to have some time to make roots. Sometimes blooming is delayed the first season, but I have had good success in planting bulbs too late…especially if I throw in some compost in the hole and don’t plant too shallowly. I’ve also had years when the bulbs just ended up being frozen mush…so plant earlier next year.

Can I put in a cover crop? In Zone 5, it’s too late.  The temperatures are too cold for seed germination.  Put lots of mulched leaves over the soil to cover it.

Do I have to water? Ideally, you got the garden well watered sometime in Fall through rain or irrigation.  If not or if there are long dry sunny spells, you should winter water.

What do I do with my Fall greens that are freezing solid? Keep eating…they get better every day.  Spinach frozen at 8 am is delicious at room temperature.  If you cover greens with row cover or a cold frame or even throw big bags of leaves over the plants, you can keep harvesting easily through January or longer if you haven’t eaten them all.

Can I still use herbs? Yep, remember where your herbs are and you can put your hand through a foot of snow for snippings of intensely flavored frozen thyme or oregano leaves.

Can I still fertilize? You can, but the soil organisms won’t be processing it.  Organic fertilizer like alfalfa meal stay on the soil and will eventually be used when things warm up next Spring.

Is there something I should plant?  Winter hardy violas and pansies don’t mind a little snow and ice.  In a sunny location, they’ll keep throwing up blooms all winter long…a surprise of color in a white or brown winter-scape. Plant well hardened off plants and keep them watered.

For more details on the science of soil in winter, check out this article from the Bountea compost tea company. http://www.bountea.com/articles/lifeinwintersoil.html

Photo Credit:

http://indianapublicmedia.org/focusonflowers/year/;

Truffles – Orange Frost Fest

Four Ways to Winter Compost

by Sandy Swegel

 

Now that winter is setting in, what do we do with all our great food scraps?  My first winter in Colorado I decided to have a worm bin under the kitchen sink.  It actually worked great but some of my city housemates thought it was disgusting having worms inside the house in the kitchen.  I tried a worm bin in the unfinished basement, but out of sight, out of mind meant the worms got forgotten and went dry or anaerobic.  I know people who have success with keeping the worm bin in an unheated garage.

Over the years I’ve come up with three other great ways to compost in winter.

Compost Bin in a Protected Sunny Spot.

I kept one of those square black plastic bins against the house on the sunny side.  It was just outside the kitchen door.  I started with the bin half full of partially finished compost that I had put lots of kitchen scraps in so there were lots of worms.  The center of the pile near the ground stayed thawed even when it was -10 degrees so the worms stayed alive.  The compost didn’t process a lot during winter, but on sunny days, it would crank up.  The only con of this was the year the raccoons discovered the bin with fresh food.

 

Hilled Compost under a Tarp.

The tarp keeps moisture and some heat in.  You just slip the food under the tarp.  Worms show up.  There’s the varmint issue and some mice do move in for the winter. Come Spring the pile is partially composted and giving the pile a good turn sets it to work.

Trenches in the Garden.

Our soil freezes solid in winter, so I can’t just dig the scraps into the ground.  One Fall I dug about an 18-inch trench where I was going to plant the tomatoes next year.  I left the soil in a pile on the far side of the trench.  All winter, I’d go with a bucket of scraps, pour them in the trench and pull frozen chunks of soil on top of the scraps.  Snow fell and watered and insulated the trenches.  Worms in the garden flocked to the food scraps in Spring and by May when I wanted to plant tomatoes, the tomato holes were full of mostly finished compost….which tomatoes LOVE.

What’s your plan?

 

Photo credit:

http://blog.gaiam.com/winter-composting-should-i-just-scrap-it/

http://calypsoftp.tumblr.com

 

How to Become a Plant Nerd

by Sandy Swegel

You know you are a Plant Nerd When…
(Or How to Become a Plant Nerd)

You know every garden starts with graph paper. You draw a scale drawing with trees and fences.

You create an Excel file listing the times to seed and days to harvest. Your file shows when to plant second crops for fall veggies.

You automate your garden
You put a timer on for watering. Your smartphone calendar alerts you six weeks before the last frost. You have to use a moisture sensor to know when to water.

You know the scientific names of your weeds.

You make the most of what you have.
You never plant in rows…you know it’s more efficient to plant densely in quadrants. If space is limited, you grow vertically. If all you have is a balcony to grow on you figure out how to make a hydroponic system out of a Rubbermaid container.

Your garden is full of experiments.
You test everything before you believe it. You have one section of peas planted with inoculant and one section planted without inoculant to see if it matters. You plant carrots with tomatoes and measure yield to see if it made a differences

You collect data.
You have a max-min thermometer to see the actual temperature in your yard. You write down how many days it took pepper seeds to germinate. You record when the apple trees blossomed and when you got your first tomato. You weigh your giant pumpkin to see if it weighs more than you do.

You make use of technology.
You use frost cloth and low tunnels to extend your season, and red plastic mulch to increase tomato yield.

 

You have taste testings to see which tomato tastes better.

You know the variety names of the vegetables you eat.

You love problems in the garden because it means you get to come up with a solution!

In other words, you garden smarter not harder.

You’re my superhero.

 

Photo Credit:  http://www.pinterest.com/pin/174796029262705028/

 

 

 

1000 bags of leaves and what to do with them

by Sandy Swegel

Fall leaves are Nature’s parting gift from the growing season to the gardener.  Tree roots run deep and wide and have collected minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil.  These are nutrients that then spent the summer high in the sky at treetop collecting sun rays and are now being placed abundantly at your feet.

If you’ve been gardening any length of time you know how valuable leaves are.  They decompose beautifully in the compost bin when mixed in with the green matter.  You can run them over with the mower to break them down and use them as mulch in all your garden beds.  You can keep piles of them in a shady moist corner of the garden decomposing down into leaf mold which is a superior soil amendment.

The most important thing gardeners in my neighborhood do within Fall leaves is collect them.  Our neighbor Barbara is the Queen of Fall Leaves and had taught us about how valuable leaves are to the gardener.  She lives on a busy street and puts a big cardboard sign in front of her house every year that says “Bagged Leaves Wanted.” Pretty soon bags and bags of leaves start piling up, brought from strangers all over town who are happy to have a place to recycle their leaves.  Barbara gets the first 1000 bags and about fifteen of us split the next 1000 bags of leaves.

So what do you do with 1000 bags of leaves?

Mulch the garden beds. Some of the leaves have already been chopped by blower vacs. These leaves easily go on perennial beds.

Mulch the garden paths.  Big dried leaves that are slow to break down like oak leaves or pine needles go on the paths to keep the weeds down.

Put a layer over the vegetable garden. If you don’t till in the spring, a thick layer of leaves will block light and suppress weeds and keep in moisture. But wait, you say, the wind will blow the leaves away.  That’s when you put the bagged leaves on top of the garden. It’s a place to store extra leaves and the weight of the bags keeps the loose leaves from blowing away. Moisture collects under the bags and earthworms come to feast there.

Till the molding leaves into the soil in Spring with the cover crop.

Insulate the cold frame or greenhouse with bags of leaves stacked around.

Line the troughs you dig for your potatoes next year with rotting leaves.

Make easy Leaf Mold.  Stack the bags that look like they don’t have holes somewhere (as insulation or just as storage) and put the hose in to fill the bag about ¼ way with water.  This makes speedy leaf mold.

Use as free litter for chickens and bunnies. If you have farm animals, dried leaves are perfect free litter for the bottom of the coop or cage. And the manure is already pre-mixed with carbon for composting.

Feed the Goats. The most fun thing to do with the leaves (aside from jumping in piles of them) is to feed the goats.  Apparently, dry leaves are yummy like potato chips to goats and they come running to eat the crunchiest ones when I’m hauling the latest bag of leaves to the backyard.

Happy goats running with floppy ears flying is a highlight of my day.

Photo credit:  http://www.onehundreddollarsamonth.com/mavis-garden-blog-how-to-find-free-compost/

A Gift for Wild Animals

by Sandy Swegel

After the first big cold snow of the season, I find myself drinking coffee next to the window, captivated by the Wild Kingdom drama of the outdoors…watching the many different kinds of birds foraging or lurking near the bird feeder waiting their turn, or hearing the rustling of unknown small furry creatures in the garden debris.

The best gift for outdoor animals is a heated bird bath.  I might even put two out, one on the deck rail for the birds and one on the ground in a wild area for all the other thirsty creatures…rabbits, squirrels and even the field mice. When it’s super cold like it is now, snow doesn’t melt and there are no natural water sources near my house.  Maybe a water source will keep the squirrels from eating holes in my irrigation pipes.

Holiday Shopping List for all the Animals in Your Life

Dogs:  Plump baby carrots are the gift of choice for my dogs.   I had to fence off the main garden from their enthusiastic digging, but I leave an area of little round carrots and beets for them to “discover.” Cats:   Catnip of course. Don’t waste your time on anything else. Chickens:  Swiss Chard is my chickens’ most favorite food. I think they like its natural saltiness. I throw bags of dried leaves on the garden bed as insulation just so I can harvest some greens from under the bags all winter. Wild birds:  Sunflower Seeds naturally…and any seeds. I discovered dozens of little birds the other day in the snow in a patch of lambsquarter and tall weeds that I had foolishly allowed to go to seed. Bees:  Wildflower seeds of course. Rabbits:  A wild clover patch, anything green. Field Mice:  Any seeds left to fall on the ground.  Overgrown zucchini and pumpkins left to rot. Squirrels:  Pumpkins.  The Halloween pumpkin left out is the perfect squirrel buffet. Owls, hawks:  Any of the above-mentioned seeds left in the garden bring the mice and voles and other rodents that are the perfect gift for the birds of prey.  The rodents double as gifts for the snakes. Soil microbes: What else but moo poo tea is the ideal gift for the soil Earthworms:  Make them a compost pile.  And forget to harvest some of the root vegetables. As the vegetables decompose in place in early spring, hundreds of hungry earthworms show up for the feast. Humans:  All the vegetables are the perfect gift of health and vitality for the humans in your life, especially when packaged with the love you grew them with.

I wish to all this Winter:  abundant food and water and a warm place for all good creatures.

Photo Credit:

http://birdsandbloomsblog.com/2013/11/09/winter-bird-bath-tips/

http://dipperanch.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-last-purple-rattlesnake.html

3 Ways to Compost in Winter

by Sandy Swegel

It snowed yesterday.  It’s going to snow again today.  This makes me so happy because it means I get a vacation from working.  My gardening business is a lot like a teacher’s schedule.  Work like crazy most of the year then get a wonderful interlude to catch up on the rest of life.  Working in the garden may come to an end during Colorado winters, but eating usually continues and we continue to make lots of food scraps that any gardener would hate to waste.

When I lived on acreage, I did all my food composting by sending it through the chickens.  The backyard chickens loved food scraps and eagerly ran around when I brought the compost bucket. Even if it was just onion scraps and things they didn’t like to eat, they relished scratching it around and mixing it with the coop bedding and poop. Spring compost in the making.

Without chickens, there are still at least three things you can do to capture your kitchen scraps:

Use your regular compost bin.  I empty mine to about ¼ full of compost in progress with lots of worms.  I fill it all the way to the top with dry leaves and sort of hollow out the center. The leaves don’t freeze solid and all winter I drop the scraps down the middle of the leaves.  The leaves provide some insulation and the food scraps and leaves at the bottom of the pile are warmed enough by the earth that a tiny bit of composting keeps happening even when temps get well below freezing. The earthworms are slow but still keep working and reproducing.

Dig a Trench in Fall One year I dug a foot-deep trench the entire length of my garden bed where I normally plant tomatoes each year.  I left the excavated dirt on the side of the trench. Every time the indoor compost bin was full, I just took it out to the garden and dumped it.  If things weren’t too frozen, I pulled some of the excavated dirt on top of the food. If there was snow on the ground, I just put the scraps on top and eventually, it fell into the trench. The key to the success of this method is that the trench was easy to reach from the back door so I didn’t have to hike through the snow.  Come March and April, the trench was crawling with decomposers and happy earthworms. By end of May, it was broken down and I planted tomatoes right into the new compost.  No heavy lifting.

Make a Worm Windrow Compost. John, the Worm Man, Anderson in northern Colorado keeps his worms happy all winter by setting up long short windrows of compost, food scraps and worms.  He throws old carpet or tarps over the top.  Periodically, he lifts the carpet and puts new scraps on top of the piles.  The worms slow down in winter but keep working and reproducing.

Photo Credit: http://nynofabeginningfarmers.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/workshop-re-cap-producing-quality-food-and-a-green-community-through-urban-farming/http://voices.yahoo.com/how-prepare-compost-bin-cold-weather-12398636.html?cat=32