Compost Success In Spite of Myself

Growing in a bad location leads to the compost bin

Composter? or plant cemetery?

Last year we bought a nifty device called a “drum compost bin”  aka “outdoor retirement home for failed garden experiments, dead squash plants and inedible parts of an onion.”

Composting is supposedly dead simple. Once you achieve the zen balance between carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water, then keep everything turned, watered, aerated, pampered, fed, circulated, flipped, flopped, and cherished, compost appears effortlessly as if by magic.

Compost success in spite of everything!

Compost! Ignore the recyclable bags. They take longer to break down but they will eventually do so.

Compost! -and a few recyclable bags.

We assembled the drum compost bin in under an hour, with the help of an electric drill-driven screwdriver and a few select swear words to get the panels to line up properly.

Once the bin was assembled, I threw in leaves, twigs, a half head of broccoli, and assorted onion peels, tossed in a bit of Compost Starter and water, and waited patiently for a day or so.

Not surprisingly, nothing much happened.

Over the course of a few months, I pushed more onion and cauliflower and broccoli into the mix, added in handfuls of dead leaves if available – spun the barrel, poured a glass of water once a month or so, and spun again.

Then I forgot about the compost heap for awhile… like all winter long.

Winter turned to Spring, so I threw a couple of pints of water into the bin, and spun the bin, twice. It’s now June, and I’ve added two more cups of water since March. I added a teensy sprinkling of compost starter in April, completely ignoring the rules to “Liberally sprinkle 2 cups of starter, turn compost and water. DO NOT SOAK.”

So I did everything just right (for about three months…) then threw caution to the wind, and broccoli to the heap —and a year later, I have compost!

Certain stuff shouldn’t be composted

There are detailed lists of things not to put in the compost bin. These are handy if you don’t know how to play the Animal, Vegetable, Mineral game (or don’t have access to a preschooler):

  • Animal stays out.
  • Vegetable goes in.
  • Minerals are rocks.
  • Rocks taste funny.

There are exceptions. Earthworms are animal but do a great number on compost heaps. I guess they meant dead animals stay out. No chickens, no ducks, no goats in my compost bin.

Before acquiring the nifty compost bin, I read all the instructions on how to compost, got all the nifty tools and kits and stuff, got a stainless steel kitchen compost bin for under the sink, got a special little watering can.  I even got The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, a book on how to compost.

Hint: if you get an under the sink bin, you’ll want recyclable compost liner bags. These will save you lots of washing out the bin.

Caveat Compostor

We live in the high ‘n dry desert. If you live where it rains, and if rain can get into your compost thingie, you may not need to haul a glass full of water from the kitchen every few months. Your mileage may vary.

Compost starter - add two cups, water gently, and stand back!

Compost starter – add two cups, water gently, and stand back!

Composting is not an indoor sport. I’m an indoor gardener. Most of my attempts to garden outdoors are met with disaster, catastrophe, and gales of laughter. Avoid the temptation to set up your compost doodad in your indoor gardening room. Your spouse will thank you.

Close the compost barrel lid before spinning the compost barrel. Yes, yes. I know. You can quit laughing now.

Follow the rules at your own risk. I got some nice compost by ignoring the rules. I might have gotten even better compost by following all the rules.  Or I might have gotten squat. Honestly, I don’t know.

 

To your garden success!
Casey – the Garden Lass

 

Seeds: How They Grow and Why Many Don’t Survive our Efforts

There is plenty of information on how likely it is that your seeds will grow when planted. Between a gardener’s best friend, the Internet, and a gardener’s worst enemy, the Internet, there is so much conflicting information available that we’re likely to throw up our hands and give up in overloaded dismay.

Don’t. Just bite off a little bit and chew on this thought:

Seeds grow best where they’re from

Let me repeat that just for good measure: Seeds grow best where they’re from.

To explain How a Seed Grows (thanks, Discovery Channel!), let’s look at the basics in this video from HowStuffWorks:

If this worked every single time, the view of Earth from Space would probably be a lot greener. Luckily it doesn’t, or we’d all be camped out in giant fern beds beneath giant trees.

Seeds Love a Familiar Hardiness Zone

Seeds want warmth, nutrients, light (sometimes), moisture (sometimes), and room to wiggle.

Seeds are happiest in their home zone. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

(Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.5 License)

Just how much of each they want depends on where they’re from. A seed from, say, Great Falls, Montana,  is not going to be happy in the Sonora Desert.

Likewise, a seed from Phoenix is not going to be thrilled at being planted in Portland.

These area differences are mapped out as hardiness zones or grow zones. Check out this map from the Arbor Day Foundation. Assuming you live in the continental US, can you find your hardiness zone?

As the map shows, the differences can be pretty dramatic. Not surprising at all that some seeds fail!

But, not surprisingly, that doesn’t stop us from trying (and being surprised at the failure).

Note: Just because a seed sprouts in a paper towel on top of your Frigidaire, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to grow out there in a 105F patch of sand near the swamp cooler.

Lots of seed sources will tell you what hardiness zone a seed would like to live in —or a plant that’s already got a foothold. For instance, if you were to want to buy an arborvitae (very nice evergreen for windscreen hedges!) from DirectGardening.com, you’ll see the Hardiness right under the listing picture.

How to Tell if a Seed Will Grow

Parsley in a paper towel? Not yet.

Germination doesn’t happen for every single seed, yet we still want to grow parsley on our windowsills. So it’s handy to know just how many seeds we plant will actually germinate (launch and grow). This is also a handy way to tell if we should have thrown out that parsley seed packet from 1997.

  • Fold a paper towel square in fourths and get it wet (use water…).
  • Open it back up and put a few seeds inside, then fold it up again.
  • Put the square in a baggie, zip it shut, and set it someplace warm where it won’t get stepped on or eaten by the cat.
  • Ignore it until tomorrow.
  • Check to see if seeds have sprouted.
  • No? Close it back up and set it back on top of the fridge. Wait until tomorrow.
  • Check to see if anything has sprouted.
  • No? Wait another day.

If nothing happened, ditch the packet. Even if something happened, if not enough of it happened, go with your instincts (and those of the seeds that apparently didn’t want to sprout).

To your garden success!
Casey – the Garden Lass

Compost 101 for the New Gardener

bad way to compost

Bad compost approach. Bad bad compost. *smack*

My original composting attempt is a failure. I admit it. This is what I get for not doing my research.  What I’m making is a hot mess, not compost. So today I launched my formal effort to start doing compost right. Here are the links and advice and resources that I’m following, as well as a peek at the equipment I’m planning to get.

Gardening 101 Takeaway:
Don’t just dump stuff into a plastic bucket and call it “composting.” The smell alone will knock your moccasins off.

Sooner or later, it’s time to face the topic of compost. We can only go so long on store-bought potting soil and salvaged coffee grounds. So wrinkle up your nose and dive right in. (Don’t take that literally.)

Here’s where I am so far:

The Concept of Compost

Lifted straight out of Wikipedia, the go-to knowledge base on all things, here is the start of their definition page:

Compost is organic matter that has been decomposed and recycled as a fertilizer and soil amendment. Compost is a key ingredient in organic farming.

At the simplest level, the process of composting simply requires making a heap of wetted organic matter (leaves, “green” food waste) and waiting for the materials to break down into humus after a period of weeks or months.

Sounds easy, huh? Believe me, I left out tons of information, including how it all works. You can read it, of course, at Wikipedia – handy if you have an avid curiosity for how things work.

Practical Composting

Unless you have a nice neighbor willing to go sharesies on her compost operation, you’ll have to tackle your own composting,

If this is your first composting project, invest in a bin or system. You’re making soil to put around veggies and herbs that you will eat, so it makes sense to listen to the experts.

Most people will want a two-step system: First, a pail or catch bin in the kitchen to collect household waste headed for processing. Second, the place where the composting actually happens, usually set up outdoors (although there are some setups that compost right in the kitchen).

Norpro(r) Compost Keeper (93)Norpro(r) Compost Keeper (93)

$26.99

10.5″ x 8″ White

Store peelings, egg shells, coffee grounds and vegetable scraps for transfer to your garden composter.

Includes filter in lid to keep compost odorless.
Replacement filter Ace no. 6173736
Brand: Norpro
Availability: in-stock

Buy or make a kitchen pail where you drop scraps that’ll go out to your compost bin. Ideally this will have a well-fitting lid, a filter to remove odors, and a sturdy handle or two. Stainless steel is great since it won’t absorb odors and can be cleaned easily, but a plastic catch pail that’s dishwasher safe is also a worthy choice. My choice – the Norpro Compost Keeper (see green box)

For the composter itself, find a place that is close to a water source and easy to get to from your house.

How to Compost – Resources

I am not going to pretend to know everything about this! Since I am still learning as I go, here are the resources I’m using, and why I’m relying on them:

Deciding on Composting Tools

Spin Bin 60 Gallon Compost Tumbler
Spin Bin 60 Gallon Compost Tumbler
List Price: $179.99
$129.99
Your search for the perfect composter is over now that you’ve found the Spin Bin 60 Gallon Compost Tumbler. Made in the USA of 100% recycled plastic, this composter arrives in four parts cutting down on the cost and materials required for shipping. It’s even green in transit. Supported by a sturdy steel stand, it’s easy to stir your compost – just give the bin a little push and ’round and ’round it goes.
Brand: Clean Air Gardening
Availability: in-stock

These are a few of the devices and tools I’m considering. I am leaning toward the Norpro Compost Keeper for the kitchen. For the outdoor part, I really like the idea of this Spin Bin. First, it’s 100% recycled plastic. Second, it looks light enough that I can spin it around without needing help. Third, it looks like relocating it would be a snap, unlike the box-on-ground systems and heavier spin systems – some of those look as substantial as cement mixers!

Bottom Line:

When I get my outdoor garden area set up (soon!), there’s no way I can afford to buy a ton of Miracle Gro to prepare the soil for my new plants and seeds.  By starting a compost project now, I’m reducing the amount of household waste that gets hauled to the dump. I’m supporting my new garden. And I’m saving some cash!

 

PS.

Thank you for putting up with my trial and error for fonts on this blog. Garden Lass is back to a sans serif font as of this writing. Sorry for the eyestrain!

 

Norpro(r) Compost Keeper (93)

Norpro(r) Compost Keeper (93)

$26.99

10.5" x 8" White Store peelings, egg shells, coffee grounds and vegetable scraps for transfer to your garden composter Includes filter in lid to keep compost odorless Replacement filter Ace no. 6173736 [Read more]

Click to Buy This at Ace Hardware

Brand: Norpro

Geobin Compost Bin

Geobin Compost Bin

$44.99  $31.99

Affordable, easy-to-use, and highly effective, the Geobin Compost Bin is expandable up to 4 feet in diameter. It's adjustable size makes it ideal for homeowners with limited space availability and it's especially convenient in metropolitan areas. This bin features a perforated open-air system whi... [Read more]

Click to Buy This at Hayneedle

Brand: Element Creative Llc

How not to grow potatoes at home

If I could get these spuds to stand up, would it be a Food Pyramid?

Here is how old wives’ tales get started, often stretching back a few centuries to a time before modern technology like air conditioning, in-home refrigeration, and GPS navigation.

One time, back in the 1100s, a potato crop probably failed to take hold  – and the failure was blamed on heresy, witchcraft, or sorcery. Nowadays, a similar failure is blamed on growth inhibitors, soil imbalances, or terminator genes.

Were my best intentions foiled?

After pinning my sprouted fingerling (the “rescue spud”) onto toothpicks, carefully transplanting its fragile form into successively larger pots, attempting to nurse it back to health after the move from the kitchen to the sunny dining room nearly slaughtered it…

NOW I hear that it may not be wise, recommended, or even “possible” to grow potatoes out of the potatoes found in the grocery store.

Source vs Source: Both Wrong?

According to some sources over at Yahoo,  “growth inhibitor” is applied to commercially available potatoes to keep them from sprouting in storage.

According to some OTHER sources found at the Homesteading Today forum, this whole “growth inhibitor” tale is a load of compost – and a potato that has sprouting eyes is going to grow.

One or the other is probably wrong. One is misguided and doesn’t believe in growth inhibitors. One is misguided and doesn’t believe that store-bought taters will grow more taters.

Nothing Planted, Nothing Gained

Here’s one thing I know for a fact: If I don’t plant potatoes, no potatoes will grow.

If I do plant potatoes and they don’t grow, the reason is very likely not growth inhibitors, terminator genes, heresy, witchcraft, or sorcery. The odds are more likely in favor of overwatering.

The Potato How-To

Not a happy potato camper

It’s not a no-planting day, but given the changes in the potato plant (and my curiosity), it feels like a good day to perform a how-to study on the potato.

It’s in terrible shape, my potato plant – or is that potato vine? Granted, I stuck it in a jar to start, then stuck it into a small pot, then stuck that into a big pot, with no ceremony or research on how to actually grow the thing. So, like the runt of the litter, it didn’t really get a fighting chance to start out.

Here’s what happened:

Two inches, approximately 1.25 ounces

Phase 1 – Original Potato Selection:

Potato is picked for size and number of eyes. Too big and it won’t fit in the top of the jar, which leaves out russets and decent size baking potatoes. A red potato, on the other hand, might work.

Here, the role of Original Potato (aka rescue spud) is being played by a similar sized fingerling from a gourmet fingerling package.

The date of the original incident is March 15th – indeed, the Ides of March. Et tu, Tuberius?

The potato measures approximately 2″, weighs slightly more than 1.25 ounces, has five eyes from which grow three purplish leafy appendages, dark tan to light brown complexion.

At this point, the potato is known as a Sprouting Tuber, in what is considered to be the first of six stages to its life cycle. This is also known as Growth Stage 1. The full six stages are:

  • Sprouting Tuber – Growth Stage 1
  • Vegetative – Growth Stage 2
  • Tuber Initiation – Growth Stage 3
  • Developing Tuber – Growth Stage 4
  • Mature Tuber – Growth Stage 5 (harvest)
  • Dormant Tuber – not a growth stage

 

“Toothpick suspension” phase

Phase 2 – Toothpick Suspension:

In order to encourage survival, Original Potato was placed in a glass jar, suspended by three average size toothpicks. Nothing much happened until water was added, in Phase 2a – Water Addition Phase.

According to scientific sources, the potato hasn’t left Sprouting Tuber Growth Stage 1 yet. At this point, nothing is going to happen growth-wise except for the knocking off of several bits of eye growth. If too many of those get knocked off, you’re better off picking another spud.

Water Addition Phase

Phase 2a – Water Addition:

Water is added up to the neck of the jar, which immerses the lower quarter of the potato. For now, that’s it. For Original Potato, I squirted four drops of Miracle Gro into a pint of warm water, and used that water to top off the jar water as needed over the course of a few weeks.

Windowsill next to ceramic cat

 Phase 3 – Permanent Residence:

The most auspicious potato-growing windowsill in the house is the one that I previously thought is facing north. It’s actually east-northeast or something, so that it’s getting some very nice morning sunlight. I placed the spud stand-in near the ceramic Mexican cat to demonstrate location for this reconstruction. It’s still March 15th.

Transplant victim

 Phase 4 – To The Dirt Phase:

April 13th – After nearly a month on the windowsill partially immersed in increasingly-murky water + Miracle Gro, a few roots had appeared and what could conceivably eventually become a potato showed up. At this point, Original Potato got stuck into a 5″ self-watering pot, buried up to its nose in potting soil. This made it VERY happy.

Happy happy Original Potato

 Phase 5 – More Dirt:

April 27th – So happy, in fact, that 14 days later, it outgrew its 5″ pot and desperately needed room to grow. So it got put into a bigger pot. And grew like mad s’more.

According to the experts, this is Vegetative – Growth Stage 2. Plenty of stems, leaves, branches, roots. This stage should last from 30 to 70 days depending on soil temperature, planting date, age of the original tuber.

Unhappy or just catching its next stage?

 Phase 6 – Precursor to the Great Potato Famine

OK, maybe not that severe. However, the plant is not doing “well” when compared to other plants of its age.

At first I thought I had done something wrong, like burned its roots with fertilizer or overwatered or underwatered. But then I found this explanation of the growth stages of the potato from tuber to harvest, and I believe Original Potato is entering its Growth Stage 3 – Tuber Initiation.

In order to determine exactly what stage Original Potato (aka rescue spud) is in, I’d have to dig it up to see what’s beneath the surface of the dirt. Unfortunately, whatever stage it’s at would be its last stage, since I don’t know how to put it back in its pot with potatoes already growing.

Instead, I’m bookmarking this highly detailed site by GeoChemBio.com which demonstrates the morphology of the potato plant – look near the bottom in the Appendix, for “Morphological and molecular characterization of a spontaneously tuberizing potato mutant; an insight into the regulatory mechanisms of tuber induction.” (Fischer L, Lipavska H, Hausman JF, Opatrny Z.)

 

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand 1/10th of what they’re saying. But better to watch their pictures than dig up my one and only Original Potato plant to see how it’s doing!

The Garlic How-To

Garlic for optimists

One of the advantages of having “Do No Planting” days dictated by the Moon – I’ve automatically got time to do other things in support of the garden, like research what things look like while they grow, and learning how to tell when they’re done.

Since I have a lot of garlic with green showing aboveground, I figure that’s the best place to start.

Planting the Garlic:

Get seeds and sets to plant from local outlets like farmers’ markets and online shops, or grab a few cloves from garlic you buy at the grocery store.

Ideally, garlic gets planted in the Fall before first frost. Stick a clove of garlic in well-draining soil, about an inch deep and five inches apart, in an area that gets full sun. The root edge should go down (the pointy bit is where the stem comes out – so point that up). As soon as they show a bit of green, put down a layer of straw mulch.  Some sources I looked at said to plant with the bulbous side down.

At four weeks into Spring, you’ll see shoots. Pull back the mulch and fertilize with a good mixed fish emulsion. Check moisture down to two inches, and water only if dry that far down.

Planted 4/24 but big head start, this is the one Chatterbox attacked

If you were to dig up a clove, you’ll see a bunch of stringy roots about four inches long and a bit tangled. From what I can tell, you’d see about an inch of root growth per week. Once you see green above the soil line, you can expect to see about a half inch of growth per day.

As you get growth , if you want to pull off and preserve the topsets for next year’s planting, do so when the plant has matured. However, if you want to cook with the scapes, harvest those when they’re between four and five inches long. At that length they’re delicious; much bigger and not so much.

Harvesting the Garlic:

When the lower leaves are browned and the upper leaves are green, it’s time to harvest. Grab a digging fork and GENTLY loosen the soil and lift the bulbs. Bring up the entire plant, and leave that attached as you place carefully into flats.

Curing the Garlic:

Lay the whole plants out to dry in a single layer. Once the outer skin is papery, brush off the dirt (don’t rinse), and snip the roots off.

Storing:

Store between 60 and 70 degrees F, but avoid cold storage as you will get sprouting. Store open, not enclosed in bags. Make sure it’s light but not bright – cool but not cold.

In Conclusion:

It takes a bit to get the hang of the growing cycle, and resist the temptation to wash these guys right out of the ground. If you cure and store your garlic properly, you’ll have enough to last you well through to the next growing season.