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Blogging on gardening

[In the blogosphere, I’ve noticed a special kind of post, and I realized after writing it that this is one too:  it’s a “Why-I-haven’t-been-blogging-much-lately” post…]

When I started blogging about my “yard farm” back in February, I knew that I would not have quite as much time to write about my garden once the weather warmed up and I’d be outside, actually working in my garden with my plants instead of writing about them.

And the boys — well, they’d want to be outside if it were 33 degrees and pouring rain — but they want to be out in the yard and garden as much as I do when it’s been as pretty as it has been lately.

In addition to the call of the nice weather and growing “to-do” list in the garden, a few weeks ago I accepted an offer to work part-time for an organization I’ve been volunteer teaching with (Teach the World Online).  All of the work I do for TWOL is online, so that’s a couple hours of time in front of the computer each day (all quite interesting, though!), so as soon as I get done I’m rounding up the boys from their naps and heading out the door.

Needless to say, my blog has fallen a bit by the wayside in the past couple weeks due to the new job, glorious weather, and the start of the growing season here in the Southern Appalachians.  But we’re still here, hands in the dirt and feeling summer coming on strong!  Stay tuned!

 

Worm composting update

A little concerned that there were some “escapees” from the new worm composting box in the basement, I decided to look beyond the internet and my first worm supplier (the old bait shop in W. Asheville)  for some professional vermicomposting advice.

I called James Magee at Blue Ridge Redworms here in Asheville, and set up an appointment to meet with him yesterday and buy some more worms, as what I had didn’t seem like enough.  I also thought I was lacking some important worm-raising information.

Turns out James Magee not only has a successful worm farm, he also happens to be a helpful and friendly person who knows more about worms and composting than I’d imagined was possible.  While he doesn’t give tours of his site anymore (protecting business secrets) he did spend almost 45 minutes telling me and the boys all about redworms.

Much to the boys’ delight, the first thing James pointed out to us was tiny worm eggs in the box of worms we were buying.  He showed us the darker colored eggs and said they were about to hatch.   Several worms will hatch from each egg.

I brought the worm composting bins we already had going so he could give me some advice on our set-up.   He took one look at it and told me the worms I got at the bait store were, well, bait worms — a kind of the earthworm I’d read about that likes to dig deep in the dirt and isn’t the optimal subspecies of worm for vermicomposting.

 

Red worm on left, bait worm on right

James’s second suggestion was that the newspaper bedding wasn’t the best living medium for worms. He said that the bleach used in the paper-making process, along with the inks, could adversely affect the worms. The ideal environment for them is a nice mix of leaves, grass and compost (so my previous instincts were right — worms and dirt do go together, right?!)

James also said I should make the drainage holes in the bottom of the bins larger — instead of a quarter-inch, closer to a half-inch.

Looks like redworms like cornhusks

I told him about my escapees, and he suggested leaving a low-watt lightbulb on to keep them from emerging.  The light tricks them into thinking it’s daytime so they’re less likely to come out.

As far as feeding them, they need a half-inch to an inch layer of food (vegetable and fruit kitchen scraps) every 7 days or so.  They don’t like citrus or anything really acidic.  He told me I could experiment with different kinds of foods to see what they like:  put the food in a corner of the box and see if they crawl to it.  I asked him about banana peels, and he said “Oh they LOVE banana peels.”

Also, if the worms all move out around the perimeter of the box, or if the box smells at all, then there’s something in there that doesn’t suit their appetites.

Another thing I mentioned to him was the “worm tea” collecting in the bottom bin.  He told me that is “worm leachate”, not the same.  Here’s more details on worm tea vs. leachate.

According to James, the end product of the whole worm composting process — the worm castings — makes gardens grow strong and abundant.

I imagine with the small system I have that it will not handle all our food waste, nor will I have large amounts of worm castings (may have to buy some castings for my raised beds from farmer Magee — he sells that too).  But it is a fascinating process, and we’re curious to learn more.

 

 

Vermiculture, wormery (box of worms in the basement)

Worm farmers, please take no offense as I’m a total newbie when it comes to raising worms —  I’m still laughing about finding the word “wormery” while googling for ideas about building a worm compost bin.   Nursery, brewery, apiary, pharmacy — but wormery?

Well, reading more into it, it’s quite an interesting concept, so I’m laughing less and getting more intrigued by these lowly worms (Lowly Worm, by the way, was my favorite Richard Scarry character as a child; now my boys love it when he turns up in stories too.  Such a friendly fella).

I’ve been wondering how to expedite the composting process of kitchen waste. Magic answer:  worms (according to my recent googling).  They can do alot of composting in not too much time.  There’s even commercial vermiculture/composting to handle restaurant food waste.

Now from what I’ve learned, you can’t just dig up regular ol’ earthworms out of the backyard and put them to work as composting worms. Sounds to me like earthworms are kind of wild, solitary creatures who like to do their own thing in the open dirt.

Red wigglers, however, have more colonial tendencies and can turn most vegetable and fruit scraps (and coffee grounds among other non-edibles) into some of the best dirt on earth:  worm castings.  They don’t seem to mind being boxed in as long as the conditions are right and the food is good.

I had a feeling this would be an easy project to get my kids involved in as they are absolutely obsessed with worm-hunting in our yard.  When they found out we were making a “worm house,” I had their undivided attention (there’s not much of it to be divided anyway, but they were quite curious about the process).

I followed these directions on how to construct a worm bin.  Yesterday I went to a hunting and fishing store in West Asheville with my 4-year old and bought out their last 4 containers of red wigglers.   Then I got 3 ten-gallon plastic storage tubs to stack one on top of the other.  We drilled holes in them according to the directions.  This lets the worms have some air, and also lets the castings fall down into middle bin for easier collection.

So it’s three bins stacked one on top of the other.  The top one is where the worms live and work on breaking down the food waste, the middle one collects the worm castings that fall through the holes, then the bottom one collects any excess moisture, AKA “worm tea”, which is another very nutrient-rich compost to put on the garden.

Soon after the drilling, our friends came over to play and help out with the wormery construction.  The next step was to tear up newspapers into strips and get it wet to make an environment for our worms. (Soggy newspaper doesn’t sound like it would be exactly the ideal home, but I’m trusting the websites I’ve read, and going against my instinct to house them in dirt.)

Well, we did get to put a least a little dirt in there, as the worms need some grist to help them digest their food (no teeth):  

 

 

 

 

Then the kids turned the worms out into their new home:

 

And then we stacked the bins together, put a piece of wet cardboard over the top (apparently worms love to eat cardboard too, but I also think this is to maintain an ideal moisture level in the bin):

Now we have to wait a couple of days to let them acclimate to their new place, then we can start adding small amounts of kitchen scraps and let them go to work.

 

 

 

Toddler gardeners

I’ve found a redeeming quality to the repulsive-looking, destructive garden pests that live in the soil of my raised beds.  Instead of seeing them as existing only to destroy my plants, I now realize that they can hold the attention of even the most distractible toddler.  Even my younger boy has fantastic bug-hunting skills that can be put to use in our garden.

We found dozens of these while digging in the beds, preparing to plant seeds last week:

I think they are some kind of beetle larvae, and I’ve been told they eat the roots of plants, so I don’t feel too badly that I let my boys make a corral for them and play with them till they expired in the sunlight (these grubs don’t last too long above ground).  I saw a mockingbird having an absolute feast on them later after we’d gone back inside.

My older boy had taken great delight in helping me pick them out of the newly-turned soil, and it definitely made it less of a chore for me as we were working together.

These grubs – and most other garden pests – don’t bother me as badly as slugs, maybe because I’ve never seen them destroy a bunch of seedlings the way a couple of slugs can in one spring night.  My boys love to slug hunt….we also hunt by turning over rocks and asking “Any buggy home?”

They love it — we find slugs, roly-polys, crickets, ants and the occasional big hairy spider.  (One afternoon last month, they were supremely entertained when I went to pick up a cricket for them, but instead, when I opened up my hand for them to see, there was a large spider. I screamed and tossed it somewhere, then started thrashing about thinking I’d flung it up in my hair — ewww, shiver — I’m glad at least they thought it was funny).

I do feel kind of badly about squishing the slugs in front of the boys, and they’re not quite old enough to understand WHY exactly they’re bad for the garden, so usually I toss the slugs out in the road while the guys aren’t looking and let the heat of the asphalt and/or passing cars do the job for me.

Another great addition to our garden this spring is the low treehouse my husband and brother built right next to the raised beds.  It’s in an old magnolia tree, and it’s not too high up, so they can get up and down fairly easily without us worrying about them tumbling out.

I also enlisted my older boy in planting some seeds indoors with me this afternoon.  I tried using the little peat pellets, as they looked like something inviting for a 4-year old.  Add water and watch them grow instantly!

Watering peat pellets

How perfect….sure enough, he loved watering them and watching me plant seeds (the tomato, pepper, and especially the epazote seeds were too small for his fingers to handle — the beet and radish seeds are more his size, and later in the season he’ll be able to plant bigger seeds like squash, beans, and sunflowers).

Tiny epazote seeds


 

Mid March, Blue Ridge

Friday morning, just 3 days ago, it was snowing and really windy.  There wasn’t much accumulation but there were a few cars driving around with an inch or so piled up on the windshield wipers.  And the wind….whew!  It made all the bee equipment drying on the back porch go skittering and tumbling.

For the garden, it meant battening down the plastic on my new hoophouse (top right in photo). Three of the beds are already covered with clear vinyl over the pvc hoop frames, and that vinyl is secured to the hoops with zip ties.

One problem with the zip ties is that if I want to undo them I have to cut them.  In a sense, they’re permanent.  It’s worked fine for winter when I didn’t really need to do any uncovering, but now that I’ve got this new covered bed with recently-planted seeds, I need something more temporary with spring coming on.

Here’s where the internet comes in handy when gardening.  I googled “clips for pvc hoops raised beds”. Sure enough, I found a great idea from Dropstone Farm (way out in Washington State).  Jumbo binder clips!  Then I found some by digging through the junk drawer and a pile of my husband’s office stuff, and got him to bring a few more home.

After such a blustery cold day, we were skeptical that Saturday would be up in the 60s as forecasted, but sure enough, it was a most glorious day, and I was able to easily take the binder clips off and let the new seedlings get some rays.

I also got my first sunburn of the season sitting on the front porch planting seeds in trays:

Sow True Seed, off to a sunny start today

I found my favorite tomatoes in the whole world — Amish Paste — in the Sow True Seed rack at the North Asheville Ace Hardware.  I got those started, along with some Mortgage Lifters, and some cherry tomatoes.  I got jalapenos and a couple sweet pepper varieties going and an heirloom Asian eggplant variety (I got into making baba ganouj last summer….)

A note on seed starting: with my kids being so little, I’d skipped the seed starting part of gardening the past few years in an effort to make it simpler because my time was limited.

During that time, I had also forgotten that potting soil mix has a *very* annoying water-repellent quality. And, obviously, wet soil is important for seed starting….

Since I’d thrown out all my old plastic cells in a basement purge, I needed some containers and opted to buy trays that were pre-filled with potting mix.  Ugh.  The water floated on top and it was impossible to stir it around, so I ended up dumping the soil out and mixing it by hand in a bowl, then putting it back in the trays, then planting the seeds.

I’ve not ever tried those peat pellets — I’m curious as to whether they work, might try them on the next round of seed starting.

The rest of this sunny warm weekend included a pasta dinner. James made the sauce from our spinach, some of last summer’s frozen peppers, and stewed tomatoes (we’re down to the last couple quarts in the freezer).  Yummmmm….

I also picked some chives and cilantro to mix in with a tuna salad for lunch yesterday:

 

And to ward off weeds growing up around the raised beds, I went to the recycling drop-off center and picked up a bunch of cardboard boxes, laid them out flat and covered them with straw.  That worked so well last summer — it not only kept the weeds down but helped keep the paths from getting mud bogged.

At the recycling place, I kind of felt like I was reverting to post-college dumpster-diving days (I was a minor-leaguer, only got magazines from the recycling bins). I was feeling conspicuous, felt like I was a little too old and not hipster enough to be doing that anymore.

I’m also a little self-conscious about getting stuff out of the recycling as my mom likes to find and “save” stuff (on a large scale — she found and got somebody to fish a stove out of a dumpster once — long story).

 

Sadie and Buster thought I’d put the straw out especially for them.  They found new napping spots within minutes of my scattering the straw over the cardboard.  The boys were also drawn to it, scooting the straw around with their tonka tractors.

And of course, cardboard boxes are the best toys…they ended up putting one long one over the rock steps in the backyard and turning it into a slide.

 

Honey harvest

One thing about taking pictures for my blog is that my camera phone gets a little dirty.  I’m writing about gardening and composting, so when I take photos to put in a post, my hands have usually been in the dirt or I’ve been wrangling a muddy toddler.

Yesterday I took my first venture into the world of beekeeping: I harvested 10 racks of honey from my brother’s hive in his yard. Now that was a challenge — trying to take pictures while working with honey. Not to mention that was my first time doing this, and by myself too. My 4 year old was keenly interested, but mainly in eating the honey. (Fortunately for my beginner-beekeeping self, there were no live bees involved — it was just a box of racks full of honey.)

Consequently, my phone got pretty sticky as I was trying to capture some images of the whole process. And the honey can be found in various places in our house, from the front porch to my 4 year old’s forehead.

My brother showed me the basics of how to get the honey from the rack, then left me to figure it out by myself.   So, from here on, remember that I’m no expert, and that there might have been easier (and more correct) ways to do what I did:

First, I used an electric hot knife to remove (“de-cap”) the wax covering the honeycomb cells:

The left side of the rack shows the cells that still have the wax caps.  The right side is where I just made a swath through with the hot knife and honey is exposed.  (You can also see where the honey kind of “cooked” on the blade and turned brown.   I don’t know if it was supposed to do this, like maybe I should have been wiping the honey from the blade while working —  it didn’t affect the outcome but it will be a pain to clean I’m sure.)

**Note — the above tool is a hot. knife.  My thumb will attest to that.  A burn/cut combo. Ow.  It was a scary enough tool that even my boys wouldn’t get near it, and they’re usually attracted to anything electric, sharp, and/or poisonous.

Spinning honey on front porch

Two uncapped racks went into the extractor at a time.  I turned the handle and it spun the racks (they were in a cage-like contraption inside).  It took about 10-15 minutes of spinning per set to get the honey out.

Something I’ve learned about gardening in the front yard is that it’s much more social than back-yard gardening:

When I had the extractor on the front porch, my neighbor’s landscaper, Shylock, came over to check it out. Shylock is from Zimbabwe, and he told me how he and his brothers get honey from hives in the woods there.  Getting honey from a wild hive is a whole ‘nother ball of wax (couldn’t resist)….I like the idea of bee boxes and protective bee suits myself, but it was truly fascinating to hear him tell about it.

When they were all done, I brought the extractor inside to sit on the radiator.  The warmth of the radiator made the honey less viscous so it flowed better when it was time to strain it.

It also made our house smell deliciously of honey.

 

 

Our resident Pooh bear was right by my side once the honey started flowing:  He eats a peanut butter and honey sandwich *every* day for lunch.  He’d love to be able to live on honey alone.

After all the honey went through the strainer and into the 5-gallon bucket, then it was time to put it into jars.

 

Yummm

My brother’s amazing sense of timing brought him back to the house right when I was starting this part — or as he described it, “the fun part”.  Knowing that I have a touch of adult ADD and am a little klutzy (both amplified when toddlers are around) he kindly reminded me that it was *really* important to keep an eye on the honey filling the jar — not fun when it overflows.

I am proud to say that I had no spills — amazing for me!  Here’s the beginnings of what we got: 

Its flavor is just perfect…it is flowery and light.  I have been eating straight spoonfuls of it and can’t stop.

I used random left-over jars so there were 3 different sizes, but we ended up with 10 pints, 3 half-pints, and 4 4-oz. jars.  If my math is correct that’s over a gallon of honey….

And one very happy resident Pooh bear.

 

Appalachian Spring

It’s here!

And it’s so tempting to think that the snows and hard freezes are over till next winter.  There’s no reason not to be excited though, it’s just the reality of springtime in the Blue Ridge.  I’ve been especially happy seeing all the new things popping up around the yard, in the raised beds, and around town.

I planted my first asparagus plants last year.   I planted about 20 crowns and they produced great-big, feathery plants by the end of summer.  They’re not in my raised beds but instead in a bed right next to our front porch, sharing space with herbs.   Here’s what started breaking through last week:

Mary Washington asparagus

When they first start to emerge just above the soil line, they are really white.  My older son was worried the first time I pointed one out to him:  he was sure it was one of the white grubs that keep turning up in his shovelfuls of dirt when he’s playing in the garden.  (Funny, he loves slugs but is repulsed by the grubs).

Here are some of my Sow True seeds that I planted a week ago in one of the raised beds –woo-hoo!

Asian Greens

The cabbages are just about done, so I picked two heads……

and they were the starring ingredient in this stir-fry tonight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was nice to get them out of the garden — there’s all kinds of space that opened up for some new seeds and plants.   A note about growing cabbages (and collards, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts):  they take up alot of room in raised beds, even when you plant them fairly close together.  The ones above each had a “footprint” about 2 feet around.  I like cabbage but there are other plants I like better that take up less room.  Will have to think about that when I plant my fall garden…..

Here’s a spectacular tree that my boys and I saw on our late-afternoon walk today.

 

Trading greens for gold

……*black* gold, that is.  Our compost piles have needed manure.  My dad still marvels at the heat produced by the compost pile in our backyard when I was a child. He says it’s the horse manure he used to mix in there.

He’d put a couple cardboard boxes in the back of mom’s station wagon, drive to the horse stables near our house, and shovel them full of horse poop.  I only went with him once because I saw a girl there from my school riding her gorgeous Arabian around the ring;  I was riding along in the 1978 Chrysler station wagon picking up horse manure.

I can do stuff like that now with my boys because they’re toddlers and their parental embarrassment gene hasn’t switched on yet.

I felt like I was repeating family history today.  Toddlers in tow,  I drove to my friend Anne’s house a few blocks away in our Honda Odyssey (can’t bring myself to say “van”) and picked up a couple big bags of chicken manure:

As thanks,  I gave her a bag of greens and spinach I’d picked this morning.

 

Anne has four Rhode Island Reds in her Asheville yard, a block or so from the university.  The hens have a cool pyramid-shaped coop built by her son-in-law (who also happens to be my MyGyver-esque, engineer next-door neighbor.)

 

Coop

Anne raised these girls from chicks.  They are so healthy and happy, averaging an egg a day each: 

Here’s my younger boy feeding the hens some grapes.

Thanks for the eggs, Anne!!

I can tell Anne loves these hens, and also loves teaching kids about them (her grandkids love them too!)

Anne is currently re-doing her chicken “run” so they can get out and roam and scratch safely. Even with that, a small flock like hers doesn’t require a whole lot of yard room, and they do just fine living among us in the city limits.  There’s a fair amount of Asheville city chickens around– check out Asheville City Chickens on Facebook: or http://www.urbanchickens.net/

Oh, and the chicken manure is now in my compost tumbler….thanks Anne!

 

 

DIY raised beds

  • DIY = Do It Yourself
  • DIWH = Do It With Help

The latter better described what I started yesterday.  Actually, it should be:

  • DIWLOHFB = Do It With Lots of Help From Brother

(OK, I better stop, I am an “initial-talk”, or “I.T.” addict and can easily get carried away.)

This time last year, I was in such a sleep-deprived fog from a year of colicky-baby nights (and no-napping days) that I didn’t even consider trying to build my raised beds.  So I ordered some cedar raised bed kits online from Natural Yards and was thrilled to be able to put all four beds together in less than a half hour— seriously.

Now that my almost-two year old has recently liked sleeping (hallelujah), my brain is working better,  and the stretches of time when I can get things accomplished are starting to, well, stretch out.  So I’ve decided to expand the garden with a few more raised beds.  And instead of ordering kits again,  I attempted a DIY/DIWLOHFB project to build the beds on my own.

After enlisting my brother’s help, we got all the supplies, started building, and I by default was the helper/gofer.  I didn’t mind a bit — as a mom to toddlers, it’s nice to have somebody else be in charge sometimes!  Using the exact design of my existing from-kit beds, we got one bed done (measured, cut, assembled) before the first thunderstorm of the year came roaring along mid-afternoon.

The ends of the pieces of lumber fit together after they've been cut. We cut and stacked another layer on top of these (making the beds 12" deep), then drilled holes all the way through the overlapping ends and secured them with metal dowels.

My brother was in meetings this afternoon.  I was dang determined to get the other bed done, so I plugged in the Sawzall, got the speedsquare and went to work, measuring and cutting the cedar boards.  (I’m talking like I know what I’m doing, when actually I’m talking like somebody who knows *just* enough, but not quite enough.  Just wait.)

Well, I was really DIY this afternoon, all the while entertaining my older boy and the neighbor girl with fun games —  like pretending the scrap blocks from the lumber I was cutting were “rocket fuel” and “magic invisibility bars” to use in their treehouse adventures.  I was feeling pretty cool and quite capable (hubris; pride before the fall).  Should have known it was just toooo easy.

Curses.

Just as I was on the final cut, by brother drove up.  Oh, was I proud that I’d done all that by myself — in under 3 hours!  We went to put the pieces together, and — oh **$&%#.   Cavewoman Carpentry, at its finest.

Mama tried, Mama tried.

Fortunately, my brother was able to fix it all (he basically cut off the end notches I’d cut and started all over again).

Uncle Craig saves the day

Lesson:  Raised beds with cedar lumber are awesome. They look good, the cedar is safe for you and your plants, and it’s durable.  However, if you’re going to DIY and you’re like me (limited carpentry skills), get some help from someone who knows, or plan very well.  (I’m not a planner when it comes to gardening, hence my blog sub-title, “…by-the-seat-of-my-pants.”  Smarty-pants brother reminded me “Measure twice, cut once.).

Price-wise, it was about half the cost of the kit beds I’d ordered online.  So definitely an advantage there if you’re competent enough to do the carpentry part.

Note:  You can make raised beds from just about anything and there are all kinds of ideas on how to do it on this about.com page on organic gardening.

 
 
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