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.