untitled due to lack of theme

Using a chainsaw is tiring but rewarding work. I fired mine up yesterday and took care of a lot of the leaning trees and winter deadfall in the woods before the poison ivy has a chance to come into its glory. A good feeling, cleaning things up and getting a jump on next season’s wood pile.

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The chicks look like junior high boys trying to grow beards. The Isa Brown feathers that will eventually cover everything are popping out randomly, making them look like bag ladies. I installed their big girl feeder (which of course was no problem for them to figure out) and the heated nipple waterer I made. I spied on them through the the window for a while and at least one enterprising girl has figured out what the red things are for.

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And finally, I moved another of the compost bins to its new spot down the front row of the garden. The only remaining bin is full of black gold from last year. One year old composted horse manure, black and sweet and full of home-cooked goodness. Bake at 140 degrees for three weeks and let it settle for 11 months. A decent supply that will be the source of contention between myself and my wife. “We got this from my friend’s horses,” the wife will say indignantly. “Why do you get so much and I only get a little freakin bucket?” “Wait, I was the one who lifted and hauled and checked temperatures and turned while while you girls were eating bonbons and painting toe nails”

Or something like that. Should go over fantastically. I know what women like to hear.

I’m pretty proud that I was able to hold back this much composted manure for that long. It’s really tempting to raid the till whenever some is handy, but then come Spring ya got nuttin. I love being able to add a scoop or a shovelful of compost as seedlings go into the garden, and planning ahead with restraint is remarkable for me.

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spring things

I decided to move the compost bins down the row and plant the area where they sat last year. Why not? I think I’ll put peppers in there, since they’d be least upsetting to me if something went horribly wrong. The piles needed turning anyway.

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It was exciting to see a little steam rising from last fall’s pile of shredded leaves and coffee grounds. It’s coming along well, and should be ready for use by mid-summer.

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The fall-planted garlic is poking through the shredded leaf mulch nicely…

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And every Spring a pair of geese or ducks makes our pond their honeymoon suite. We were walking the grand-dog and were surprised when a mama goose popped up from the edge of the pond honking, leaving her nest with four or five eggs.

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I’m not sure how bright geese are. Last year they built their nest right on the edge of the water, and when the pond rose the nest flooded and none hatched. Their nest is pretty close to the water again this year, so I hope it’s not a real rainy month.

rotate compost bin locations?

Last winter I made some new compost bins. They’re modular, so that each section can fit on top of any other section (a genius idea that came from here…). Right after they were finished, I started thinking hmmm, they’re movable; what if I rotated them in the garden beds just like crops?

But there would be a problem once the bins hit the middle of the garden. No access for trailer loads of manure if I should be so lucky.

Then yesterday the concept poked its head back into mine when I read this article from Mother Earth News. Guess I’m not the only one. It really is tempting to try planting ground that’s spent a year underneath a compost pile. So I’m reconsidering. Maybe keep them in the front of the garden, but still move them within that front row every year.

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So my question is to you. Have you ever planted vegetables on compost bin soil? I know the plants would be amazing, but what about the yields? Too much of a good thing?

I’d like to hear your experiences if you have, or your thoughts if you haven’t.

tomato holes and water lines

After 51 days, our water lines have defrosted.  A testament to the brutality of this past Michigan February.

But now, the thumb-twiddling, mid-40s, dreary Spring. It make a person antsy. It make a person look for things to do. We’ll start by filling up the space under the grow lights…

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And instead of thumb-twiddling, I decided to do what could be done. Starting with aspirin. Last year was the first year I tried spraying the tomato plants with an aspirin-in-water solution. Whether it helped or not I’m not certain, but I do know I had far fewer tomato disease problems than ever. So why not?

Aspirin sprayed on tomato plant leaves is supposed to poke their immune systems, I guess sort of like smallpox vaccines do for humans. The dosage I use is four 83 mg tablets per gallon of water (or in this case, one tablet in a quart). I started spraying a little later on last year, but I wanted to try it on my seedlings. I shouldn’t pretend to recommend this; I’m not a doctor. But I think it’s safe and it worked for me. I crunched the pill with a pestle and dissolved it in a little warm water.

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(It needs to sit a little bit. This isn’t fully dissolved.)

After getting rid of tomato headaches, I unburdened myself of the stash of pulverized, dried banana peels that I’ve been hoarding all winter, saving back some for the tomato holes.

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And since I was outside, I decided to get my two early tomato holes cooking. First, a deep dig to loosen things up.

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peat moss to mix in with the soil from the hole

Supplies gathered:

  • about a tablespoon of banana peels for potassium per hole (sort of a guess) because my soil test recommended more potassium
  • a tablespoon or two of Epsom salts (also tried last year) to help absorb the excess phosphorus in my soil. It also contains sulfur, which was something that my Extension agent said would help lower the soil pH
  • a couple of cups of worm castings
  • a shovel full of compost
  • about a cup of used coffee grounds (just wanted to…bad reason)
  • and a shovel full of peat mixed into the soil that I removed from the hole. I’ve not read anything about peat in tomato holes, but it worked well for me last year. Our soil is alkaline, peat is acidic. Our soil is sandy, peat soaks up moisture.

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It seems reasonable to me to get these potions into the planting hole early so they can start doing their things for a bit before the plants go in.

I don’t know. It’s sort of scientific, but also kind of voodoo. Science is too exact for my pea brain, so I usually end up just swinging. Something to do when there’s nothing else to do.

at least something’s thawing

The clock says springtime and the thermometer said 13° two nights ago. Someday I won’t have to go out at night and disconnect the hose to keep water flowing in the house. Right?

At least the compost piles aren’t bricks any more. The late fall pile of shredded leaves and coffee grounds has started to thaw out, and it’s so nice to turn the top layers.

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The chicken run got a final dose of framework, and tomorrow it’s on to a couple of doors. I’m afraid of doors. Doors and me stare each other down, and then the doors win.

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learning about compost

Hoping to make use of the white, frozen-piped days, I try to learn stuff.

It’s not always easy to find gardening information that really perks the senses. So much of it is re-hashed opinions and common knowledge. That’s why this sentence on composting from Organic Gardener’s Composting by Steve Sullivan sat me right up:

Decomposition must be rapid and aerobic, but not too aerobic. And not too hot.

Interesting. My logic always told me to burn, baby, burn. Let it fry. But maybe I just learned something. (To put it in context, Steve is writing about Sir Oliver Howard, originator of the Indore Method of composting in the 1920s, named for the area in India where he was experimenting):

Quite intentionally, Indore compost piles were not allowed to reach the highest temperatures that are possible. During the first heating cycle, peak temperatures were about 140°. After two weeks, when the first turn was made, temperatures had dropped to about 125°, and gradually declined from there. Howard cleverly restricted the air supply and thermal mass so as to “bank the fires” of decomposition. This moderation was his key to preventing loss of nitrogen.

Moderation is Da Man! I have to admit that I’ve never gotten my piles much past 140° anyway, but anal-retentive gardening? Yeah baby.

Provisions were made to water the heaps as necessary, to turn them several times, and to use a novel system of mass inoculation with the proper fungi and bacteria…Howard was pleased that there was no need to accept nitrogen loss at any stage and that the reverse should happen. Once the C/N had dropped sufficiently, the material was promptly incorporated into the soil where nitrate nitrogen will be best preserved.

Ok, that’s not completely helpful (all the ‘sufficiently’s and ‘as necessary’s) but gardening’s all about doing things that jive with what you know is true. It hasn’t been long that I’ve understood that adding even nitrogen-rich organic matter to the soil can temporarily deplete soil nitrogen, so this is scarily making sense.

Maybe composting a little longer at slightly lower temperatures means that the soil doesn’t have to work so hard at processing nitrogen that it’s actually depleting nitrogen. Maybe the quick-compost schemes are like most other quick things…not as good.

But the soil is not capable of doing two jobs at once. It can’t digest crude organic matter and simultaneously nitrify humus. So compost must be finished and completely ripe when it was tilled in so that:

“. . . there must be no serious competition between the last stages of decay of the compost and the work of the soil in growing the crop. This is accomplished by carrying the manufacture of humus up to the point when nitrification is about to begin.”

Garden Nerd Love to you, Steve.  I hope to be ‘carrying the manufacture of humus up to the point when nitrification begins’ really, really soon.

steering clear of the devil’s workshop

It’s winter. Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. Not this time Devil, because I’m getting busy.

Before we go any further with this, a disclaimer; I haven’t actually tested this seeding mix in these proportions. From experience with other proportions and mixes though, I believe it to be a sound recipe, and have high hopes. Although hopes and a buck fifty will get you a bad cup of coffee.

I love this process, which started more than a year ago with 1000 red wigglers, then continued three months later with a trailer-load of enticingly-scented horse plops. Now, with two buckets of black beautiful worm castings and compost in front of me, I can finally get my hands dirty.

It’s another sort of harvest, and I can’t stop myself from fluffing the stuff with a little garden fork and patting myself on the head. Good little gardener.

It’s a cathartic thing, mixing seed-starting media. Like baking, only with poop.

The mix is simple:
2 parts compost (for nutrients and moisture retention)
2 parts peat (to lighten the mix and add drainage)
1 part vermiculite (also for moisture retention)
1 smidge of worm castings (for flavor)

I would have added some perlite too, but didn’t have any on hand. No matter.

It makes a light, fluffy, enticingly dark mix. I started measuring what I had the least of (peat) and mixed that 2:1 with vermiculite. Then started dumping equal amounts of that mixture and compost into the wheelbarrow until I ran out. Finally came a couple of cups of precious vermicompost. It’s hard for me to actually use my composts. I want to KEEP them. But the garden moves on, and composting never ends.

garden freebies everywhere

There really is a ton of free stuff you can find to make your garden happy, if you look.

Until recently I would collect maybe 6″ of dead leaves to spread in a layer over the soil, and burn the rest. Part of that had to do with my kids loving ‘Fall Day’ (mind you, my girls still screamed and jumped in leaf piles into their 20s, and then I’d stupidly burn the pile so they could smell it).

Well that’s changed. Now I collect all the leaves my ambition and energy allow and find a way to store them. Come summer, they somehow get used. Over-wintered leaves are great mulch. They have that extra broken-down quality that disappears them over the course of the summer.

Summer’s also full of nitrogen-heavy materials for the compost, but hardly a piece of free carbon to be found. Makes for stink if you’re looking for that ideal 3:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio. Those stockpiled leaves make a good summer compost balancer. I keep some in my center bin over winter, where they’re handy to mix with layers of green stuff in the other two come summer.

The last couple of years, I poked around in the phone directory for a while and finally located the guy who runs the local Department of Public Works. I think I might have annoyed him with all the calls, but he’s a public servant, so he needs to adjust. Anyway, I finally ended up with all the free wood chips I desired. Just drove over and he filled up my trailer over and over again with his publicly purchased equipment. They’re not beautiful chips like you buy for $3 a bag at the gas station. But they’re beautiful to me, filling the garden paths. If you put wet cardboard or newspapers down on the paths first, you won’t have a weed all year. Maybe a fungus or two, but I dig fungi.

And if you’ve read many of my posts, you know I love me some Starbucks. Shredded leaves, moisture, and coffee grounds? Mama! I’ve learned that some Starbucks franchises welcome you with delight, and some say, “Sorry, we didn’t save any for you even though you phoned a day ahead. Would you like a latte?”.

When you’re getting free stuff, you have to learn a little patience and humility. It’s worth it.

And grass clippings. Great, great stuff. They heat up the compost, and make beautiful mulch (but it’s better to let them dry out first for mulching. Some major stink if you pile them deep and they start decomposing around your petunias). I just let mine sit on the lawn for a day to dry in the sun.

But the prize of prizes is free horse manure. My wife’s friend allowed me to shovel her horse barn till I dropped last year, although things didn’t get quite that far. I like its smell. Much nicer than decomposing grass clippings or wet county wood chips. With frequent turnings, the manure I piled up in March was deep, black goodness by July.

So many freebies and so little time.

a quick trip

With our nights in the 20s and days in the 30s, I was feeling like visiting a warm, relaxing place.  Maybe two.  So I headed out to the compost pile and experimental outdoor worm bed.

Ahhh.  First stop, the worms.  Sunny and warm with highs in the mid-seventies.  The sunken water bucket warmed with a 25w aquarium heater seems to be holding its own against the cold.  Hopefully the worms are too.

worm bin temperature

Then off to Fabulous Compostapulco.  Those Starbucks grounds I picked up last week are having a party with my moist, shredded fall leaves, and things are heating up!

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What a vacation.  I’m pooped.  Now for a siesta.

too much compost?

In the spirit of continuously questioning all of my habitual garden practices, the thought occurred to me that maybe conventional wisdom needs questioning. Could I be using too much compost?

“Linda Chalker-Scott, a horticulturist at both Washington University and Washington State University, with experience in forests, landscaping, and gardens, devotes several entries in her “Horticultural Myths” column to proving that one can indeed use too much compost…”

Freak out.

“The nutrient content of compost and other organic amendments is much lower than that of most fertilizers. When it is mixed with soil at a ratio of 1:4 or even higher, there’s a huge, but slowly- released nutrient load. Compost increases the nutrients in soil not only by adding those it contains, but also by boosting the activity of microbes that release nutrients already in the soil. The nutrients contributed by compost, therefore, far exceed those actually in it.”

OK.  I ruminate on that.  Mixed with soil at a ratio of 1:4?   I’m horrid at math, but I can come close sometimes.  And there’s no chance, none, that a normal person, with normal compost piles and a normal garden has a compost-to-soil ratio of 1:4.  Maybe someone with a bulldozer and windrows of compost.  Not me.

Still the concept makes sense.

According to the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences-Coooperative Extension:

“Applying too much compost … can lead to excessive nutrient levels. Excessive levels in the soil can be as detrimental as deficient levels. … Availability of nutrients to your crops will depend on the balance in your soil.”

Balance. I’m good with balance.  It’s a little word with a big meaning, and something I’ve determined to achieve in the autumn of my life.

So as I read Ms. Chalker-Scott’s stuff more carefully (and I’m sorry but I’m a pig, and skeptical of people who hyphenate names), it becomes clear that she knows what she’s talking about.  But what she’s mostly talking about is adding compost to areas of permanent landscape that might suffer from the extra organic matter.

There’s more stuff about chemicals and soil that makes ultimate sense:

“Just about every gardener knows about the three main fertilizers, the primary nutrients, required by plants: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). These three nutrients so dominate many gardeners’ horizons that nothing can be seen beyond them.”

“The development of synthetic fertilizers has encouraged a simplistic approach to agriculture and to gardening: providing the right chemicals solves all our problems. But nutrients alone cannot keep plants healthy if they’re in poor soil. “

Yep, absolutely.  Balance. Moderation.

And in the end I decided that I’m overthinking again.  Generations of gardeners have used mountains of compost for Millenia, and it’s worked so well that compost has become a fundamental principle of modern gardening.  Putting lots of compost into permanent landscapes can probably mess them up.  But I can’t imagine using, let alone making enough compost to screw up my vegetable garden.

Being an old guy, I’ve subscribed to tried and true. I question it, but still trust it. Tried and true says compost is almost always good. A couple of probably reputable sources say too much compost, in some instances, isn’t. Draw your own conclusions.