My First Garlic Bulb

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This is the first garlic I’ve ever grown. Last winter, I planted some cloves that had started sprouting in my Earthbox Junior, which I had inside my house in front of my south-facing picture window.

I’ve heard that you’re supposed to plant garlic in the fall and let it overwinter, so I wasn’t sure if this would work, but apparently it has.

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I Made a Worm Compost Bin

I’ve been reading about making compost with worms (vermicompost) and the benefits of using worm castings in the garden for some time; it’s been on my garden to-do list.  Unlike an outdoor composter, a worm composter can be placed inside and is also great for apartment dwellers to keep food scraps out of landfills and for making beneficial plant food at the same time. My wife was very grossed out about the idea, but I knew that if I researched it well and did it right, she’d come around.

So here’s what I did: I looked on YouTube for some instructions and found two methods that both use Rubbermaid-type tubs. One method uses two bins. In a nutshell, you drill holes in the the floor of the top container so the “worm juice” can drain into the bottom container. Gross, right? That worm juice, a combination of the moisture from the food scraps and worm castings (poop), can be used as compost tea to give a boost to your plants. I do love the idea of free fertilizer.

The other method I came across, and the one I decided to use for now, is the one-container method. In this method, you have to be more careful about how much you feed the worms so that the container doesn’t get too much moisture. If done right, there’s no need for drainage because there isn’t too much juice.

As the video instructed, I used one bin and drilled air holes around the top and in the lid.

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Air Holes are Drilled in the Side and in the Lid

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Rather than the recommended regular peat moss for the bedding, I used some Pro-Mix that I had on hand for the bedding. It’s mostly peat moss but has some limestone in it to make it less acidic.

Ingredients in the Promix
Ingredients in the Pro-Mix

After adding some water from my rain barrel to moisten the peat, I added the worms and some shredded paper on top and let them chill out for about 24 hours before feeding them. If you use chlorinated water for moisture, you may let the bin set for 24 hours without the worms so the chlorine can evaporate.

Red Worms from the Bait Store
Red Worms from the Bait Store

 

Acclimating to Their New Home
Acclimating to Their New Home

The next day, I added about half a cup of food. In the corner, I made a small “nest” out of some more shredded paper, put the food on top of that, and then covered with a little more paper. The paper is supposed to help regulate the moisture in the bin and also to somehow deter fruit flies.

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First Feeding of Kitchen Scraps and a Little Grass

I checked the food the next few days and didn’t see the worms devouring it. According to the website that accompanies the video, it is normal for the worms not to eat that much at first. I also noticed that the worms were going deeper into the soil. Though they are supposed to be red wigglers, or “red worms” as the bait store owner called them, I have wondered if they are actually night crawlers. Red wigglers like to live at the top of soil in leaf litter, whereas night crawlers are the ones that tunnel through the soil and aerate it nicely.

The original food was gone in about a week. I noticed little mites on the food that helped it along its decomposition process. I was worried at first when I saw these little white dots moving slowly on the food, but after looking it up, I’m not worried. There’s also no bad smell, just like the outdoor composter.

I fed the worms once more before I went out of town for a bit more than a week, and the food was mostly gone when I got back and the worms were still alive–sheww!

Since I had only three little bait-sized containers of the worms, I took our pastor and his wife up on their offer to give us some of their extra worms. They have a thriving bin made from the above-mentioned two-bin method. The advantage I see in that method is that they can put lots and lots of kitchen waste in there without worrying so much about too much moisture. I have to be careful about moisture with my bin. So I may, at some point, convert mine too. But since I have an outdoor compost bin, I’m not in a hurry at this point.

 

New Friends
New Friends

I noticed that these new worms stayed in the food, though they were in the food from the beginning. So I still wonder if these are the actual red wigglers and if my bait store worms are a different type. But that’s okay, because even though red wigglers are faster at reproducing and eating, vermicomposting can be done with many types of worms.

So whether you’ve thought about vermicomposting or have never heard of it, it’s really easy to do. And for those who already have a worm bin, I’d love to hear about your set-up , successes, failures, and advice.

I’ll post an update once I have some usable worm castings. You know you have a gardening problem when the thought of compost is exciting.

Why You Shouldn’t Cover Your 5-Gallon Bucket Planters with Burlap

When I started this little blog, I decided that I would write about not only what I was growing but also to keep a record of some of the new things I’m trying in the garden. Of course, when one tries new things, they can go really well, neither well nor bad, or bad. This is a case of the bad.

In one of my first posts, I wrote about an attempt to make my homemade Earthboxes, AKA Global Buckets, more presentable by covering them with burlap coffee bags. Look how nice they look when you make them!

A five-gallon bucket planter covered with burlap.
A five-gallon bucket planter covered with burlap.

Now only a month later, nature has taken its toll on the burlap. Because the overflow drainage holes in the buckets are covered, I just watched the sidewalk under the buckets to know when the buckets had enough water. One problem with that is it soaks the burlap at the bottom each time. I didn’t think that would be a problem with the heat and the fact that I don’t water every day, but here is what happened to the burlap:

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Upon closer inspection, here’s what was growing/living on the burlap:

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That is Just Disgusting!

If that weren’t bad enough, I found that one of the overflow holes on one of the buckets was clogged. When I removed the debris from the hole, this happened for about three minutes:

So, I had a completely swamped bucket. I’m surprised anything grew in there. So that explains why, when I watered, the top bucket would lift up from the lower bucket. Of course, that should have been a tip-off that there was a problem, but when my buckets were covered, it was outa sight, outa mind.

Here’s what my buckets look like now. Not pretty, but functional and mostly blocked by my plants that have filled in.

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Does this mean it’s ugly bucket or nothing? Not necessarily. Another idea worth trying is covering the buckets with decorative duct tape, and then there’s always painting.

Soon, I’ll be having my giant silver maple in the backyard removed, so I should have enough sunlight to move them to the backyard where they will be out of sight and not need to be so pretty.

If you have any creative ideas to make your planters look nicer, do share in the comments below.

An Easy Hands-Free Way to Tie Up Tomato Plants

Several years ago now, The Tomato Lady, AKA Aggie Nehmzow of Oak Lawn, IL, gave a presentation at my local library about growing tomatoes. This was the first year I decided to grow my own tomato seedlings in a sunny window and wondered why the stems were so tall and flopping over (what I now know is a “leggy” seedling that needs more sun).

Anyway, I want to share a clever idea she had for tying up tomatoes. She recommended using an old t-shirt, but with a twist. First, she cut a long fringe in the t-shirt that would be the length of the strip to tie up the branch. Then she wore the shirt over another shirt and went out into her garden.

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When she needed a strip of fabric, she simply pulled a fringe off her shirt:

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Voila! Her hands were free and no scissors were needed in the garden.

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She said that once she used up the first level of fringe, she simply cut a new level of fringe a little higher and repeated the process.

Now will I, a 41-year-old man, be wearing this out in the garden? No, I won’t. But, I will carry the shirt around with me and use the technique.

I checked the web to see if the Tomato Lady maybe had her own blog or website, but I only found references to her appearances at local libraries from a few years ago. I hope she is still out in her tomato garden tying up tomatoes with her funky t-shirt. Thanks for the great tip, Aggie!
 🍅
(And thank you to the lovely Pamela for modeling the Tomato Lady t-shirt).

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Sprouting Seeds in Paper Towel Rolls

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Chervil After Repotting

20140630-114025-42025687.jpg The idea of sprouting seeds in paper towel and toilet paper rolls is going round the web right now so I decided to give it a try. Besides being cheap, the promise is that they can be planted right in the ground so they’ll decompose. Here is a photo of some new sprouts from the Seeds of the Month Club that I’m growing under lights. My thoughts are that the paper towel rolls are great for sprouting, but while these sprouts are ready for a larger container (and need to be thinned), they are not ready to go in the ground in my opinion. While reading about these on Google+, someone voiced an opinion that these would not decompose fast enough and should be removed before planting in the garden. I think I will carefully remove the roll before transplanting into a larger container.  These remind me a lot of using egg cartons for sprouting tomatoes—great for seed germination, but not ready for the ground. One more thing—they do grow mold.

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How I Converted to Organic Lawn Care in Five Steps

This was going to be one post with five steps, but it was getting so long that I decided to break it into five parts. This is part one of a series about my transition to organic lawn care.

I was at the carnival yesterday at our local park district, and while I was waiting for my daughter to finish her ride, I looked down at grass growing out of dirt that appeared and felt like concrete. Have you ever seen this? This is also the park district that, while backing up to our town’s lake, sprays liberal amounts of chemical fertilizers and herbicides all over their fields and other property.
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That’s Dirt—Not Soil

Speaking of their other property, I sent my daughter to the park district’s preschool program that was held in the lake’s summertime beach house. It’s a beautiful setting that also has a playground right outside the door. Unfortunately for the kids (and the lake), there are certain days in the Fall and Spring when the kids can’t use the playground because of an unsafe herbicide treatment. Why would we want to spray with chemicals that are unsafe for humans and pets? Especially at a preschool in a park district?

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Photo credit: Peter Organisciak

Anyway, staring down at the concrete-dirt reminded me of when we moved into our home about twelve years ago: we had dark green lush grass and soil as hard as a rock. That’s because the grass had been treated for years by a lawn service. From what I’ve read, using chemicals are kind of like fast food for grass; it feeds it quickly with a boost of nitrogen, but does nothing to improve the soil itself. Over the years, the life in the soil slowly leaves, changing the living soil into common dirt.

Organic amendments to the lawn like organic fertilizer, compost, leaf clippings, and shredded leaves are derived from living material and they add and encourage beneficial microorganisms to move into our lawns. In addition to the microorganisms, beneficial bugs and earthworms set up shop and aerate our lawns, improve soil structure, help decompose dead material like grass clippings and shredded leaves into available nutrients, and protect against the bad microorganisms that cause disease.

Chemical fertilizers provide an “empty” type of food directly to the plants. This is like the empty calories we get from eating pure refined sugar. Microbes provide full service to the plants. They decompose dead plant and animal residues to humus; combine nitrogen and carbon to prevent nutrient loss; suppress disease; produce plant growth regulators; develop soil structure, tilth, and water penetration/retention; clean up chemical residues; shift soil pH toward neutral; retrieve nutrients from distant parts of the soil; decompose thatch; and control nitrogen supply to the plants according to need. Besides that, if a chemical fertilizer contains NPK of 10-10-10, nobody knows what the 70% of unlisted stuff is in the chemical bag that is not fertilizer.

Source: Gardenweb

I didn’t know anything about organic lawn care at the time, but I did know that I didn’t want to pay for the lawn service. What one learns when one stop feeding chemicals to a lawn is that it quickly turns from dark green to a light green or even yellow in no time flat.

For years, I’ve been reading about organic lawn care and I feel like I’ve finally have a lawn that’s as green, healthy (probably healthier), and weed free as my “weed and feed” neighbors . Here are five steps I have followed:

Step 1: Mow High

I do want to mention that I am writing about cool season grasses that will take a higher cut. If you live in the southern United States or a hot climate, you probably grow other types of grass (like St. Augustine or Bermuda grass)—some of which need to be mowed shorter.

In my front yard where I get full sun all day, I set my lawnmower blade as high as it will go–about four inches high. My neighbor, God bless him, cuts a golf course for a living and treats his lawn like a putting green. And just as he has to cut the golf course several times a week to maintain that super-short length, he actually mows his lawn 3-4 times a week!

The experts all say to never remove more than 1/3 of your grass blade at a time. Otherwise, we stress the plant and it often turns yellow. So if you’re trying to maintain a lawn at two inches, you have to mow as soon as it grows to three inches. That translates to several times a week since short grass grows faster.

Why does short grass grow faster? It makes sense when you realize that mowing short cuts most of the leaf off of the grass plant. Without the leaf, the grass plant can’t make food via photosynthesis. The grass goes into survival mode and uses its energy to grow a new leaf as quickly as possible. This stresses the grass plant, which is why once the summer heat arrives, my neighbor’s yard gets these huge brown patches, while mine remains tall and green. Stressing the grass by scalping it also makes the grass more susceptible to disease.

Since my blade cuts at about four inches, I can go longer periods before my grass needs to be cut. In fact, even if I let my grass get to six inches, I’d still be removing only 1/3 of the plant if cutting to four inches. And since the long grass has plenty of leaf space and can do lots of photosynthesis, the plant is strong, healthy, disease resistant, greener, and more drought tolerant.

In addition to longer grass being greener, a second great benefit to long grass is that it spreads. Grass spreads by rhizomes under the ground, but it won’t do this if it is always under stress and trying to rejuvenate its leaf. So if you have some thin patches in your grass, mowing high may be more effective than reseeding. Of course, if you mow high, your grass may go to seed a little bit before you cut, and that will naturally seed your lawn.

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Tall Grass Blades=Less Mowing + Greener Grass + Less Water

The third benefit to tall grass is that it cuts down on weeds. In order for weed seeds to germinate, they need sunlight. Talk to shades the exposed soil where weed seeds land and prevents them from germinating. Even if they do germinate, a sick turf will eventually squeeze them out. I will talk more in another post about weeds, but if you have a weed problem and are cutting your grass short, consider raising your blade to see what happens over time.

I also want to mention that if your grass is in the shade or if it is very thin and prone to laying down, consider lowering your blade a little bit. For example, my grass in the backyard is in partial shade and is not as firm as my front yard grass in the full sun. Therefore, I have to lower my blade down to about 3 inches to prevent the grass from laying over. If your grass starts to lay over, it can smother the grass it covers.

In part two of How I Converted to Organic Lawn Care, I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned about feeding the lawn.

What about you? If you practice organic lawn care, please chime in with any tips. Did I miss something or make a mistake? How have your results been by mowing high?

This is Not the Garden I Had in Mind!

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Oh Silver Maple,
I love your shade in the heat of the summer.
I hate how you shade my garden.
I love that you are home to so much wildlife.
I hate your weed seeds in my gutters and beds.
Maybe a trim.
Each year I get an estimate,
And do nothing.
Wish I could do it myself,
But you’re above power lines, my fence, roof, and neighbor’s yard.
OCD neighbor would leaf-blow for an hour if one leaf fell on his yard.
What to do?
Probably nothing as usual.

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A squirrel nest six feet off the ground.

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When a Fun Hobby Becomes Work

I’m so tired . . . of planting. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it’s true. Here’s why:

On June 6, I got the following email from a church member looking to find a home for her coworker’s extra vegetable seedlings:

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Since I just can’t seem to say no to free plants, I agreed to take ten of each plant, but (foolishly) said that if she couldn’t find a home for the others, I would find a place for them. Despite a full home garden and pretty full church garden, I ended up with 196 seedlings, as well as some extra super-hot peppers and tomato seedlings that the woman’s husband had already saved for me.

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A Portion of the Donated Seedlings

I do have a few fellow volunteers at the church garden who could normally help me plant these, but I was going on a vacation the next day and no one was available to help that day. So, promising my wife I’d be home really soon to pack, I realized that I had undertaken a huge task. Suddenly, what is usually a relaxing and meditative hobby became work. I suddenly felt a solidarity with all of the farm workers who rush to get things planted and picked and don’t get the satisfaction that this is their garden from which they will eat.

Okay, I’m being dramatic and I know that I can’t compare planting seedlings for a charity garden to the back-breaking work of farm workers, but it didn’t feel like a hobby anymore.

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After finding every extra square foot of the church garden to plant, I took the rest home and stuck peppers, broccoli, and tomatoes in any spot of my landscape I could. I extended my raised beds, I plopped a few peppers in between my lilacs in the front yard, and removed a 3×4 section of Lily of the Valley in a little island in the front of my house to plant even more. And this was mostly after I got back from vacation, so many of these plants were dying to get out of their plastic cups!

20140624-204616-74776324.jpgGood-bye Lily of the Valley! I have food to grow.

Finally, a full two weeks later, I took the remaining plants (mostly pumpkins) back to the church garden. Luckily—I guess—some of the seedlings I planted were devoured by no-see-ums, so I had new room for the remaining few peppers, broccoli, and cucumbers hiding amongst the pumpkins. Finally, I planted the remaining pumpkins about three feet apart in our giant compost area consisting of old pumpkins from the church pumpkin sale and shredded leaves. It’s actually beautiful compost.

20140624-205439-75279731.jpgSqueezing Every Last Plant In!

This was the fastest planting I’ve ever done. I scooped quick holes, set the plants, and watered them in with our new hose. Hopefully they’ll survive (we had lots of volunteers in there last year), but if they don’t, people at the food pantry can’t eat Jack-o-lanterns.

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