Monday, June 4, 2012

An update on worms

I have upgraded the worm bin to worm bin 2.0. It was previously a toybox but it has been storing blankets and discards for a year or more. My wife wanted it out of the office so she could move the futon there.

This is a huge upgrade. The old plastic worm bin had poor ventilation and a lot of moisture problems. I had placed a new sponge and a dessicant pack from some recent electronics purchase (not the tiny sugar packet size, the resin bag size) inside the bin and it still glistened from moisture.

The new bin has no such problems. I used the doorknob hole bit on the drill to put ventilation holes along the bottom of one end and and along the top of the other end. I duct-taped screen in place across all holes and made a rather tidy job of it. The bin has no moisture problem. In fact, I fear I might need to add water. It sits up off the ground about two inches. I drilled a few quarter inch drain holes in the bottom so it could drain water if needed. It is a wooden bin, or as close to wood as anything is anymore: some kind of laminate. The hinge on the top is designed to not open more than about a 60 degree angle, which is the only annoying thing about the box.

The worms are thriving, even though the heat is already into the 90s. The bin is in the garage and I have stopped worrying about the worms overheating.

Here is the best new thing about the worm bin, though: black soldier fly larvae. Yeah. I opened up the bin last week and had that Indiana Jones moment. "Why does the floor move?" The bin was crawling with these black-and-white maggots. Big ones. Not housefly maggots. Not "That's not rice. Michael, you're eating maggots." Not those kind. These look almost like mealworms.

A first I was worried and then I read up on the BSFL as they are called. They're cool. They're buds with the wigglers. They help with the composting. And that's the goal. I mean, I'm not a worm farmer. The goal isn't to have lots of healthy worms. The goal is to compost the kitchen waste and have awesome castings for my plants. So let the BSFL help.

Here is my only worry. Larva are just kids. Someday they grow up. When that happens, I will have black soldier flies. I don't want a lot of them in the garage. I guess the larva I have had to come from somewhere. That implies I already have black soldier flies in the garage in some quantity. I just don't want these cute little fellas to grow up and fly away. I want them to keep working for me.

One final note which will seem obvious once I point it out. Black soldier flies are insects. Their larva are immature insects. Not worms. Eisenia fetida are roundworms, not insects. These are completely different phyla from the animal kingdom. They are all small critters, so it is easy to lump them together but they are fundamentally different. This is a good lesson for the kids.

New bin update

Nymphs on parade
A couple of weeks after I noticed the black soldier fly larvae, they started leaving. They were crawling out of the box and all over the garage. Apparently you can make a bin specifically for them, but you have to provide an escape route for them into a collection bucket. Then you collect them and feed them to your fish or your chickens. I don't have fish or chickens. I fed a few to one of the dogs. Mostly I just throw them out in the yard.

The problem is that a couple dozen of these suckers would crawl around the garage each day and invariably get squished. We don't want a garage full of squashed immature black soldier flies. It turns out the answer, as is so often the case, is Velcro. I bought some hooks and loops at the craft store and ran it around the rim of the box It turns out the larvae can't climb over it. I won't know for sure that it has worked for a day or two. I hope to see a significant reduction in escaping larva.

Still, it is only natural for them to crawl out, so I still need to add in the escape tube and collection bucket. Also,  I have seen several adult soldier flies. I must find them right after they crawl out of their pupae because they are very easy to catch and don't fly so well. I have only found a dozen or so and I just put them outside. There have been a couple of fast flyers hanging around the box--no doubt laying eggs for the next generation of garbage-eaters.

Planting and harvest
I've been pulling in a steady handful of strawberries each week from the conventional bed. The linear feeder is nearly empty because the plants there have mostly died and the remaining ones have not been putting off fruit. The vertical planter is a disaster. No fruit at all since I put it up. The weedcloth and small amount of soil mean that the plant roots dry out much too quickly. I'm going to relocate those plants back to the conventional bed and try a pilot project in the vertical planter with plastic bags inside the weedcloth pockets to see if I get better water retention and maybe more successful plants. If that doesn't work, I will try planting something else there.

I have put a bunch of tomatoes in the ground and yesterday the girls and I pulled in a few handfuls. We ate most of them while we were still in the garden. The yellow heirloom cherry tomatoes from Goodwood are fantastic. The Celebrity tomatoes come in at a good size for snacking--about three times the diameter of a regular cherry tomato. I even have some of the heirloom green zebras that are nearly ready to pick.

Last week I transplanted all of the tomatoes from the nursery into the garden. Over Memorial Day weekend I got a scare with the hot peppers. I didn't water for four days and everything wilted. Most of them came back. That was when I determined to get them out of the flats and into the ground. I planted a big patch of them out front yesterday. I had not planned to each the hot peppers, but to use them for pesticide and to discourage the raccoons from going after my bell peppers.

I brought in some plants to the office to give away and someone mentioned how good the chilis are stuffed with cream cheese. So I tried it and it is fantastic. I just cut off the top, take out the seeds (and save them) , microwave them for 30 seconds and fill in the middle with cream cheese and some fresh basil. Delicious. Yes, I know they are better deep fried but there is plenty of cholesterol and fat in a big lump of cream cheese.

I'll have to put up a current picture of the garden, but the new Blogger interface seems to not like my pictures.

Fruit trees
By now I should have a good idea of how much fruit I'm going to harvest this fall. The pomegranate blossoms have set and I have about a dozen potential fruit. I think I need to ramp up the watering early in the spring so more of the blossoms stay on the tree. Some of them could still drop. I'm just hoping to beat last year's harvest of three pomegranates.

The persimmon has never had a flower on it. This year has been a victory because its leaves didn't get eaten back to the nubs by white flies. I soaped the leaves early, but only once and I do have two nasturtiums (from the dozens of seeds I planted) at the base of the tree, which are supposed to deter white flies. I also did foliar feeding for the first time this year with the plant food my parents brought me. No fuyus this year.

The blueberry bushes in the backyard have nothing. No blossoms this year. No fruit. The local U-pick-em place is reporting low yield due to a late frost in February. I don't know if that affected my plants or if they're just having a rebuilding year. The plants have grown and filled out a bit. I've been dressing them with topsoil, watering them conscientiously and mulching them with pine straw. They still don't get much sunlight where they are. I may transplant a couple to the front yard this fall.

I have one other plant that is coming along. Of the dozens of seeds of the three varieties of sunflower I planted, I had three successful sprouts, two of which survived transplanting to the front yard, one of which is still alive and well and looking to bust out with a big head of seeds later this summer. It is a Mammoth (that's the variety) sunflower so I have high hopes for a big seed head and plenty of seeds to propogate. I'd like to have a small patch of sunflowers next summer.

That's the latest. I will try to get the photos to embed.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A hodge podge of tasks

The strawberry wall is not working well. I transplanted plants into it from the flat bed and other than the initial berries already on the plants, there has been no new fruit. The remaining plants in the flat bed have continued to yield new fruit and the linear planter has also had a modest yield. Some of the leaves are browning and wilting in the vertical planter. The soil dries out quickly and I have to soak it thoroughly every other day. In the middle of summer, these strawberries will need water daily to survive. Contrast that with the linear planter which contains and conserves water by design by reducing evaporation.

I still like the vertical design, but I think I need a more suitable plant for it. Maybe aloe.

Recent progress includes moving my nasturtiums and sunflowers to the front yard. I had tried twice to start nasturtiums from seed and each seed packet yielded only two sprouts. They are spindly and small. I hope they survive to flower. Nasturtiums are annuals and are reputed to deter white flies. I planted them at the base of my persimmon tree which has been very susceptible to white flies in the past.

I had similarly bad yield with my giant sunflowers. I have three surviving sprouts now in a pot in the front yard where they should get the most sun. They are spindly and not growing quickly.

A person at work gave me several aloe plants about three inches high. I planted them in a new bed in the front yard that is made up of compost and reclaimed silt that had pooled at the end of the block near the drainage ditch. Something is burrowing in this soft, sandy patch and the aloe plants have slowly disappeared. I started with a dozen and only one remains.

To deter whatever was burrowing, I planted several garlic cloves. It seems I planted too little too late.

When I bought the house, two large planters full of aztec grass that I ignored. It's hardy stuff but it doesn't feed me and it's not particularly attractive. I was able to pull up the whole pot of soil by the massive rootball and flip it. I planted garlic in the bottom just to see how well it would work. The garlic sprouted in a week and when the tops die and fall over I should have a new crop of bulbs that I can harvest and dry and then replant one or two bulbs for another crop.

I continued work on the big leaf pile, which is now almost at capacity. I need to begin a regular watering routine and start turning it. I just purchased my garden fork for this purpose.

I finally put some tomatoes in the ground. I need to add some additional trellising in the center of the garden beds. I tried a new technique with a couple of the tomato plants. They were about 18 inches long. I dug a trench in the soil about four inches deep and planted the majority of the stem in the trench--horizontally. So only the last four inches or so of the plant sticks above ground, perpendicular to the rest of the plant. The idea is that since the tomato plant can root from the stem, having more of the plant in the ground will make the plant stronger and make it grow better. In the same bed I have other varieties planted the conventional way, well the way I conventionally do it. I start the from seed, get them a foot long or so and plant them as deeply as I can (six or eight inches). They are not all the same variety, so not all variables are controlled but I should be able to compare the success of the plants.

I have volunteer squash plants popping up in a lot of places. I don't know what variety they are though they are likely pumpkin or butternut. I know that my Earth Machine has not been composting hot, so seeds remain in that soil and

are getting mixed in with my potting mix. I have moved the volunteers to a single, crowded pot. Once the vine borer adults have come and gone I will try to transplant them into one of the beds.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The New Strawberry Planter

This is the old strawberry planter design--the linear planter. It is fifty feet of four inch pvc black flexible drain pipe with two inch holes spaced six or eight inches apart. It has a sprinkler hose running through it and is filled with soil (organic compost and biochar). The weedcloth underneath it is new. The problem I have had is that the strawberries end up on the ground and in the weeds and though they grow big and beautiful, they all have nibbles out of them. Frustrating. I hope this weedcloth improves the outlook for these strawberries.

Not pictured is the conventional strawberry bed. Plants in the center east bed planted through holes in weedcloth that covers the whole bed. This bed is a different variety of strawberries. They are prolific, though the berries are not as big as those growing in the linear planter. Many of the berries are hidden under the foliage of the plants and they spend a lot of time on the ground. Subsequently, the berries are nibbled a lot.

In the course of building the new planter, I removed many plants from the conventional bed to add to the new planter. I saw no worms in the soil at all. It was wonderfully dark and rich and terribly devoid of life. One of the problems with using weedcloth is that it complicates adding compost and mulch to the bed. Adding soil and organic material on top of the weedcloth defeats the purpose of the weedcloth. Not doing so precludes building healthy soil. So this is my sea change on weedcloth.

Part of the motivation for using the new planter design with no idea how well it would work is that the existing conventinal bed is not working. I am growing lots of strawberries, but most of them are not usable because they are sitting on the ground and getting nibbled.

So here is the new design:

I saw this concept on YouTube. No link, sorry. There were several different approaches. I started with the idea of a wooden frame and burlap. Then I found a discarded piece of chipboard on the roadside and covered it in plastic from garbage bags (waste from the big leaf pile) to weatherproof it. I went shopping for burlap and found first that the big box hardware store didn't have any and second that if they did, it would be right next to the weedcloth. Since I was pulling up weedcloth, I realized it was a perfect material and I already had plenty of it. I cut it very sloppily into approximately one foot squares, folded it into pouches and staple-gunned it to the plastic-covered chipboard. Then I filled the pouches with soil, compost, and strawberry plants. Total cost: $0. :)

I am really pleased with the result. The berries are off the ground. Watering and foliar feeding are simple and quick. The real test is what I get for edible yield. Time will tell.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Plants native to my lawn: wood sorrel

What's that three-leaf weed in the lawn. Must be clover, you say? Hmmm, clover doesn't have purple flowers like that. Nope. That is oxalis. This variety, Oxalis debilis, has large trefoils and little purple blooms. I also found another variety that has smaller leaves and yellow flowers. Both are edible. They have a bit of a citrus flaver to them. The flowers are sometimes called sour flowers. If eaten in large quantities, oxalic acid can is toxic.
These seem to grow year-round and the flowers are a near-constant source of food for bees. Despite their reputation as a weed, these are low maintenance flowering plants that add a bit of color to the yard.

I've also seen another variety in the yard that is much smaller and has yellow flowers.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Plants native to my lawn: vetch

I recently experienced one of my sporadic fits of curiosity about the various weeds wild plants that make up my lawn. I grabbed a few samples and took some pictures. I have tried to identify them. I will post some of the pictures along with what I know about them.

Common Vetch
I'll start with a little success story. I finally identified this fern-like plant. It looks similar to chamberbitter, but chamberbitter grows individual seeds hanging from the central shoot (on a fern it is called a rachis). This is vetch. I'm guessing it is common vetch because I don't expect anything more exotic in my yard.
Near the top of the picture you can see the seed pod. If it looks like a pea pod, that is because vetches, genus Vicia, are legumes. On the right is a rather sad example of the purple flower that caps off this little plant.

Edible? Not for me. Ruminants can eat vetch but people should not. Some varieties are toxic when consumed in large amounts.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Some Light Reading

I've been reading The Dirt Doctor's Guide to Organic Gardening by J. Howard Garrett. I found some useful things that I wanted to make note of. First is his foliar feeding recipe. First choices are fish emulsion and liquid kelp. I don't have ready access to those, but some of his other suggestions are interesting.

He recommends molasses as a biostimulant: 1 pint per acre for broadleaf plants and 1 quart per acre of others. My two beds are about 200 square feet or less than 0.005 acres. Maybe a tablespoon is enough for that.

Hydrogen peroxide as a healing spray. He recommends 8 ounces of 3 percent solution per gallon of water. In my quart-size spray bottle, that's a shotglass of H202.

Vinegar has many useful purposes. One tablespoon per gallon for foliar feeding. It is acidic and good for acid-loving plants. So heavy concentrations can actually be used to kill weeds. Garrett discuss many uses for vinegar.

He offers many other suggestions for foliar feeding, but the ones I've listed are cheap, quick, and readily available. I don't need to make compost tea or purchase fish emulsion. However, thanks to a Christmas present from my parent I have some of the Garden Guy's Extreme Juice. I began foliar feeding with it this past week. Too early to tell how much of an effect it has. I'll have to continue weekly feedings. I'm especially interested in how my persimmon tree and blueberry bushes come along this year.

One other interesting recipe is for pesticide. You can use garlic spray or garlic/pepper tea. Use the liquid of two garlic bulbs and two hot peppers to a gallon of water. Then use no more than a quarter cup of that per gallon to spray. The pepper can kill some small insects--including the good guys. So this will be a good spray on the front lawn when it is swarming with white flies.

His primary focus for pest control is biodiversity. Healthy plants and plenty of competition will keep most harmful bugs in check. When that doesn't work, his drug of choice is diatomaceous earth.

The Dirt Doctor's focus is mostly on enhancing the soil through adding organic matter and promoting microscopic life. He talks some about pH. The most surprising position he takes is that NPK doesn't matter. This utterly flies in the face of most of the things I've read. Most of those things were not strictly organic. He contends healthy soil with lots of good microscopic life, plenty of worms and a good bit of oxygen. He claims oxygen is what is most deficient in most soil. It makes sense, if the air can get in, the mycorrhizal fungi can help extract (by hosting bacteria) nitrogen from it and help it get into plant roots.

He has me convinced enough to give it a try.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Paper Pots

I employed a little child labor to help with paper pots. It was mostly an experiment and it went really well. Drop dead simple, too. We just rolled newspaper strips around a can and folded in the ends. We made six pots. We planted seeds from a grocery store apple. Long odds that they'll sprout or grow or ever fruit, but the kids wanted to try apples. Why not.

I also added more chicken wire to the leaf pile so it can reach a height of about six feet. It probably has about 200 cubic feet of leaves with capacity for that much more again. I'm piling up leaf bags at the open end so they can keep the volume contained and I can add from them as the pile settles. Turning it might be a hassle but I plan to leave it for a few years before I start mining it. It will be leaf mold, not finished compost. It should be a suitable fall dressing on fallow soil or mulch for winter crops.

The best part--I didn't rake any of these leaves. I stole them all from curbside.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Heirloom tomatoes

Planting has begun. I have a few overwintered tomato and pepper plants in the west bed. Today the girls and I went to Goodwood for the heirloom tomato sale. We got a Concord (little yellow fruit) and a Green Zebra (exactly what you would imagine) and a Hank (pert little red guys). I told the girls to leave the little label sticks in the tiny pots, which they of course removed. So we won't know which is what until they fruit.

The nursery is mostly full of hot peppers of different varieties and sprouting seeds that I mostly remembered to label. It should be worth photographing in a few weeks.

On the craft front, I researched making newspaper pots, which is quick and easy and lets you make lots of pots (which I am running out of) for no cost that you can stick right in the ground (just like a peat pot). So that reduces the shock to the roots of removing the plant from a pot. It should also be a fun activity for the kiddos.

In the world of soil improvement, I've shifted most of the kitchen scraps into the worm composter. To make up for it, I've started randomly pulling weeds and shoving them into the Earth Machine. Today I grabbed a bushel of galium aparine, also known as Sticky Willy because it is covered with velcro-like hooks. It's fun stuff for a weed and it has medicinal value, too.

Also, I have kicked big leaf pile into gear. Last week I pulled the idle chicken wire from the strawberries where it failed to serve its intended purpose. I used it to start a leaf pile in a scraggly, dark corner of the yard. Today, I borrowed a truck and swiped a few dozen bags of leaves from curbside to fill it up. Dump, water, repeat. Now I've got another roll of chicken wire to make the pile taller. Pictures when phase II is complete.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

More little critters

This guy whizzed past me and I tracked him down. He's a beautiful, horny scarab with a brilliant copper carapace. He kept his legs tucked in while I was photographing him and showing him to the kids, but as soon as I put him in the composter, he walked right in like he was home. I haven't heard from him since. I googled him, of course. Phanaeus imperator is his name and he is a professional carrion crawler.

This wolf spider was actually in the house, not the garden, although I have seen many of them in the garden and yard. He's a ferocious hunter, so I actually don't mind him and his family being in the house and growing to substantial size. Two inches long, plus a little more for the legs. It is a bit disconcerting that we always seem to meet up in the middle of the night. I groggily flick on the light or look up from my laptop and he sits in the middle of the floor, patiently waiting for me to thank him for the fact that I never have to see living palmetto bugs in the house. If my wife finds him, he ends up dead. If I find him, I throw him outside and tell him where to find the bark lice.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Tiny critters

The exciting news is that I have begun vermicomposting. I bought my worms today from Ladybird Organics through Native Nurseries. My assistants and I put together a worm bin and bedded it with damp newspaper. We fed them some strawberry tops since that was what we had in the cuttings bin. In the past all of the cuttings, refrigerator fossils and vacuum contents went into the Earth Machine. Now the food cuttings will go to the worms. In about three months I will try to harvest some worm castings.

Here is a picture of one of the little guys. They are generically called red wigglers, though not all of them are
necessarily Eisenia fetida.

The other cool tiny critters we have seen lately are the bark lice on the crepe myrtle in the back yard. I had never noticed these before and was sure they presaged doom for my aging shade tree. A quick googling revealed they are in fact beneficial and live off the fungi on the tree. So, not really beneficial for fungi. But for the tree,
they're like an egret on a rhino's back. It is tough to see these little guys in the photo. They scrabble around in a herd and if you wave your finger at them they scatter--very slowly. I wish I had a good lens for up-close photos.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I stopped in at Gramlings to buy some seeds this morning and I realized I was really excited about planting them. It was a big contrast to how I felt going to work. I like my job, but I'm rarely excited about it. I just couldn't wait to get home to plant the seeds.

I bought nasturtiums and marigolds and sunflowers. My daughter and I planted them, along with columbines and some smaller sunflowers. They'll be in the window case for a few weeks until they get sprouted. The marigolds and nasturtiums are good for deterring a lot of bugs. White flies usually go after my persimmon tree, so I'm going to plant the nasturtiums out front. I usually put marigolds in the garden. Last year I let them all die of neglect. This year I'll do better.

The columbines are something the kids chose at the hardware store. They are perennials, so they will be a nice contrast with the annuals and I can use them to illustrate for the kids how they come back without having to be replanted.

I love sunflowers but the birds always seem to eat them before they sprout or they don't get enough sun. I have a spot picked out in the front yard and I'm going to provide some supports so they don't fall over.

Tom Petty was right, the waiting is the hardest part.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Shunning the dark side

The evils of Monsanto have been documented thoroughly. I've often wondered about the seed varieties I use and which are spawned by the evil empire. I will use this handy reference in the future:

My local feed store, Gramlings, has many seed varieties of its own.

Spring 2012: A New Beginning

It isn't that I didn't have a garden last year. I just got lazy with the blog. Last year was characterized by low yields and high attrition. The vine borers wiped out all of my squash, cucurbits, and musk melons.

I finally built a cold frame and overwintered bell peppers and sprouted many tomatoes and hot peppers, as well as a few squash. I also had a cauliflower and broccoli that were suppressed all summer by leaf-eaters and delivered surprise yields in winter.

I'm going to try to post regularly and not try to be as comprehensive this year. I think the reason I neglected the blog is because I always tried to post huge, epic descriptions. I'll be more brief. Some things to detail: my experiments with biochar, my expanded composting/leaf molding, sprouts from seed, new strategy for the vine borers and targeted planting. Maybe more.

Here is a start:
Broccoli gone wild. Florets become blossoms if you let them.
This is what broccoli looks like a week after you should have picked it. This plant has a thick, healthy root and multiple heads. If I can keep the leaves from being devoured, I may get a summer crop.