Monday, March 28, 2011

Harvesting compost

This is Harvest Monday.  See for more.
Harvesting compost.  I guess that’s my way of saying there wasn’t anything to eat out of the garden this time.  After a few days of sunny mid-70 degree days the weather turned cold, like early February, and not much growth has happened.  I got busy with the compost bin because the beds will need compost and the beds must be fed, especially the two newest beds farthest from the house.  What follows is a chronicle of how I'm handling compost this year.  Everybody does it different, and next year I'll probably go about it differently.  It's a primitive system, but until it rots into dust I'll probably continue using it.  For a very basic composting system that doesn't take a lot of space it works reasonably well.  
The shredded leaves that were added to the compost bin about two weeks ago have been decomposing really fast, but need a few more weeks aging.  Broccoli, kohlrabi, and bok choi seedlings will be ready to go into the trapezoidal bed in a few more days.  Before any seedlings are planted I needed to get at the oldest compost at the bottom of the bin and move it into the bed.
The bin consists of 4 stacked modules made from 3’ long 2x10 pine boards end-nailed to make an open box – very primitive.  I lifted the top module off the bin, turned it over and set it next to the existing bin  

The top layer of the compost pile is leaf mold that was shredded on March 12.  Blood meal and water were added to promote decomposition.  The leaves in the compost bin and in the cart were shredded the same weekend.  It’s apparent in the picture that the leaves in the bin are well on the way to becoming compost, while the leaves in the cart haven’t started to decompose at all.
I began adding shredded leaves from the cart into the new bin.  A layer of leaves from the cart was shoveled in, two handfulls of blood meal were sprinkled in and the layer was watered, then more leaves were added.  The thinking here is to get the newest material into the bottom of the bin, so I can get to the aged material in a few weeks.  
Once the first module was filled with leaves the second module was lifted off the old bin and set onto the new bin.  The rest of the leaves in the cart were shoveled into the new compost bin, filling it to the top of the second module.  I'm hoping that I can take enough compost from the bottom of the old bin to leave room for all the new material.
At this point the next module could not be lifted off the old bin without spilling compost.   I hate to move manure twice, but there wasn’t much choice but to shovel this compost into the now empty cart until the module was empty.  Actually this was probably a good thing, because the compost at this level had not been turned too well and it smelled like dog poop.  So the compost got turned over as it went into the cart and again when it went into the new bin.   This compost still has a lot of eggshells and plant stems but does not have far to go.  

The now empty module was lifted off the old bin and set onto the new bin.  It was waterlogged, heavy and a little rotten, but still holding together.  Most of the compost in the cart was shoveled into the new bin until it reached the top of the bin. 

That left the compost in the bottom module, which had been in the bin about a year, and was finished enough to go into the brassica bed – two wheelbarrow loads.   I’m going to leave it there a few days then dig it into the bed. 

The last module was then set onto the top of the new bin, the remaining compost in the cart was shoveled in and the lid set back in place.  Yes it was a lot of shoveling.   The newest material is now at the bottom of the bin, and the partly finished compost above it should be ready in a few weeks to go into the remaining beds.  From now on I plan to turn my compost faithfully. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

More spinach

I picked 0.4 pounds of overwintered spinach this morning by thinning the rows in the greenhouse bed.   There was one large Space plant and 4-5 small Double Choice plants that were getting crowded.   The pictures were taken before harvesting.  The first pic shows the half of the bed that was planted about Sep 20 with lettuce and spinach.  I wanted to plant earlier for fall harvest but the ground was too warm.  The lettuce did not make it through the winter.  I set out 2 bok choi and 2 kohlrabi a few days ago where the lettuce was.  The brassicas always seem to really take off once they get outdoors, once they get over the initital shock.  I’m seeding them in 3” deep pots this year.  Their root system develops much better in the deeper pots and the root/soil mass comes out of the pot intact.  The tray contains onion seedlings.  I decided to move them outdoors now that about half of them have germinated.  The wood stake has a remote temperature sensor on the other side.  I'm monitoring the bed temp from inside the house.  Ain't technology great?

The pic below shows the half bed planted with spinach and lettuce about mid October.  Some of the lettuce made it through the winter from this planting.  The first lettuce started indoors was at about the same stage of development and I mixed in with the overwintered lettuce where space allowed.   There is one row of Double Choice and one row of Bloomsdale side by side.  I think the Bloomsdale, a savoyed variety, has the best flavor.

I’m starting to catch up on projects.  The last of the tree debris was removed and the beds repaired.  The oak leaves that were shredded, put in the compost bin and enriched with blood meal are composting really fast.  I don’t have a compost thermometer, but it is too hot too hold my hand in the compost for very long, and it’s already a dark brown.  It gets turned every other day.   I hope it will be composted enough to go into the brassica bed in about a week, when the next set of seedlings is ready.   The brassica bed held tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and okra last year – all heavy feeders.  Probably not so good to follow with brassicas, also heavy feeders, but this was the best rotational plan I could come up with.
I have to replace the landscape timbers around terraced beds behind the deck with something – a job I wasn’t planning on.  The timbers are not pressure treated and are rotting away.  (One of these days I'm going to make a post on treated lumber and the options available now).   It’s a wet, shady environment and the beds are planted with hostas and other shade tolerant plants.  Right now I’m thinking about two possible projects for the coming warm weather.  The first project is an extension of the back porch deck of about 10 feet.  I drew up some plans and did a cost estimate of the materials.  The second project is a bit more ambitious - a shed addition to the pole barn for a workshop.  I haven’t made a materials estimate yet and the cost will determine yea or nay.   Cheers. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Harvest Monday March 14, 2011

It’s the first green harvest of the year:   3 spinach plants that overwintered – 2 Space and 1 Double Choice hybrid – totalling 10 oz.  I tasted some of the oldest outer leaves right away to see if they were bitter.  They weren’t at all strong, but very sweet as if the sugars concentrated in those leaves, which were almost like a succulent leaf.  They made a terrific spinach-cheese omelette.  The next day in the produce section of the supermarket I noticed how pathetic and lifeless their spinach looked.  Nice to know I won’t have to buy any more of that stuff.      

Only 5 Copra onion seeds germinated out of 90 seeds planted in 45 cells, after 8 days in 75 F soil – a massive fail.  These were 2010 seeds from Pinetree.  Using onion seeds for a second year has never been a problem in the past, so this is a shock.  I went to Lowe’s on Sunday and bought a packet each of Burpees Spanish Gold hybrid and Ferry Morse Utah Jumbo hybrid seeds.  Hope they are as good as Copra.   I seeded those and also some Red Long of Tropea onion from Pinetree, so here’s hoping for some germination this time.  The first set of brassicas – kohlrabi and bok choi – are just about ready to go into the greenhouse bed, as well as some lettuce starts. 
There is still a lot of work to do in the yard and garden.  Usually in the fall I rake up the oak leaves, which are the last to fall, shred them and put them in the compost bin, but the weather turned foul before I could do that.  Oak leaves are supposed to acidify the soil.  My soil initially tested at pH 7.7 at a real lab, so it needs a lot of acidifying.    Saturday things were dry enough to rake and shred some leaves, and today I finished this project, getting about one cubic yard of shredded leaf mold – that’s a lot of leaves.   I added some blood meal  to the shredded leaf mold as it went into the compost bin to give the microbes some nitrogen to feed on, as the leaves are a bit on the “brown” side at 50:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio.  After 2 days the leaf mold was already quite warm a few inches beneath the surface, so maybe I’ll get a little something out of this when I put compost into the garden in a few weeks.  This is the first cartload on Saturday, the second load filled the cart to the top:
The other ongoing project, besides the bathroom remodeling which apparently will never end, is the removal of what’s left of the cherry tree from the garden area.  I’ve taken down a few trees around the property and have been fairly accurate in directing the fall of the tree.  Even though I was careful to sight in the direction I wanted the tree to fall and marked out the cuts with spray paint, the tree fell about 20 feet off target and tore up 2 of the beds.    
Saturday the chain was sharpened,  fresh gas was purchased and mixed with oil.  The cart was loaded with the saw, a pick, a 2x4 for leverage, gas and chain oil then hitched to the garden tractor for the trip to the disaster site 100 feet away.  Most of the upper branches were too rotten to use for firewood, but the main trunks (it was a forked tree) were solid.  Cut up into logs they made 4 cartloads – nearly ½ cord (a true cord, not a face cord).  Cherry is a very hard wood, not as dense as oak, but very difficult to cut through.  I had to sharpen the chain 4 times.  I was toying with the idea of working on the stump with the chain saw to make some sort of seat facing the pond, but seeing how difficult this wood is to cut, it seems like not such a good idea.  Nice to know I’ve already got enough wood cut for next winter.  This pic was taken before I cut up the forked section on the ground, which probably weighed about 500 pounds.  My reward is on the picnic table.

Friday, March 4, 2011


This morning three deer, a buck and two does, were browsing in the field across the pond.  They look like yearlings.  The pictures are a little foggy since I took the shots through a window – if I had stepped outside I’m sure they would have spooked and run off.  The property across the pond  was formerly a cow pasture that has been neglected for about 10 years (my best guess) and is undergoing succession, that is the progression from weeds, shrubs and grass to forest.  A number of trees have already established themselves – red oak, tulip poplar, black cherry, ash, hickory and sycamore.  There is a small grove of black walnut further back.  The field will probably look a bit like a park as the trees get some size, although the grass and weeds are head high.

I don’t mow around the pond.  The first owners cut the grass up to the pond’s shore, all around the perimeter .  I tried mowing all around the pond once.  It took most of a day, and that was the last time for that.  Not only is all that mowing a waste of time but it eliminates wildlife cover at the pond's edge and slows the development of a well-rooted stand of vegetation in a graded soil that lacks organic matter.  Tall grass around the pond also discourages Canada geese, who don’t like walking through it since it might hide predators.  Maybe the best argument for not mowing around the pond is the lack of mosquitoes around the deck in the summertime.  The tall grass provides habitat for numerous dragonflies and the shoreline is thick with frogs.  After dusk the bats come out to feed.  The skeeters just don't have a chance.

Twice a year I cut down any tree saplings that have started within about 30 feet of the deck, and scythe the taller weeds.  Clusters of cattails are expanding around the shore and I’m hoping that they will establish around most of the pond.  Cattails harbor marsh wrens and redwing blackbirds, block erosion, clean the water, and they look great.  They aren’t likely to take over a large area since the shore slopes steeply enough to limit them to a narrow band. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Looks kinda springlike, off to a slow start, trees

Now that the storms have passed through this area is getting some nice sunny weather.  The rains in the last 2 weeks  have brought the pond up about 4 feet and it is now up to the overflow pipe.  The water is still too turbid to see any fish – later they will hang around by the deck waiting to be fed.  I took some pictures this morning.  There wasn’t any wildlife about, except for 2 flocks of snow geese overhead which I could hear but not see.  I took a shot of the red oak tree just outside the back door – it’s about 40 inches in diameter – a big old tree.   Just to the right of the tree and across the pond is another red oak that’s 5 feet in diameter, although there is no sense of scale from the picture.  Last summer it lost 2 branches, each about 2 feet across, in a storm.  I cut them up for firewood.  The tree on the right is a shagbark hickory.  Hickories are unique to the Americas, they went extinct in Europe during the glacial advances and retreats of the Pleistocene era.  .  

This is a pic of the garden facing south.  The line of trees does not shade the garden until about mid-October, then everything stops growing.
The brassica seeds started on the 19th germinated in 3-4 days with the heat mat speeding things up - they are just starting to show true leaves.   Only bok choi and kohlrabi were started  for this round since there is limited space in the greenhouse bed.  The next set, to be started on March 6, will include broccoli and cabbage.  It will probably go into the brassica bed unless there is some room in the greenhouse bed.  The lettuce seeds, which are Burpee’s mixtures from ‘09, show very little germination to this point. I may have to buy new seeds.
I’m not sure about onions.  Last year I started Copra indoors in mid-March and planted them as multis, with 2-3 plants in each cell.  The tops fell over in July and they were ready to harvest in August, which seems really early for a 105 day onion.  The onions were small but nice, rock hard onions with great flavor that kept well.   Initially I decided to start onions later thinking they would mature later, when cooler conditions will help them store longer.  But then I read that onions should have as much greenery as possible by summer solstice, so maybe the problem was that they did not get a sufficiently  EARLY start for a long day onion.  And other gardeners were starting onions in February.  So I went ahead and seeded 5  9-cell  pots with 2 seeds each.  That should produce about 40 setouts of Copra.   This time I’ll thin them to one plant per cell, as I think the Copras do better when planted singly.   In a week or two I’m going to start some Red Long of Tropea onions, and since those are long and thin they should do okay planted in groups of 2-3.  

I keep looking at these other blogs of really serious gardeners.  They have racks of seed flats with banks of lights, full of seedlings practically busting out of their pots.  I just don’t garden on that kind of scale.  At any rate, I’ve found that two seed flats and a 4 foot shoplight are adequate to raise all the starts I need to set out, although at some point in April both flats will be full.  One reason I can do this is I don’t start any tomato or pepper plants, which require large pots.  There is a terrific farmers market in Bloomington and also a very good greenhouse (May’s).  In the spring a lot of the vendors at the farmer’s market offer all kinds of heirloom tomato and pepper seedlings.  May’s also has a nice selection, most of them hybrids.  I can try new varieties every year without buying seeds that will likely go to waste.  Cheers.