Posts Tagged With: Urban Gardening

Homestead Garden Tour – May 1, 2012

I wanted to post an update of how things are growing here at the homestead this spring.  I’m excited about our gardens this year, and we’ve worked pretty hard at getting the yard in shape after last year’s tree removal.  Last weekend, we finished the privacy fence along the driveway.  We are really excited about this, since now we’ll be able to explore planting some fruit trees or berry bushes or something permanent along the fence line (we’re not sure what yet). Now we just have a flagstone patio to install (and a pergola)!

We’ve had a lot of spinach so far this spring from plants that self-seeded last year.  And we’ve enjoyed bits of Swiss chard here and there from plants that we planted last year, overwintered and have just kept right on going.  Perpetual chard!

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I’m very excited that our garlic is growing so well.  I think we planted enough for the coming year, plus enough for seed (I’m hoping anyway).  And our potatoes that we planted have grown so much that we’ve hilled up three times so far.  I’m hoping for a big harvest there as well.

The neighbor has already planted a row of corn, and we put the giant pumpkin seeds in the ground last week (along with a few sunflowers).  This week will be our main summer planting.  We are excited to get all those seedlings in – tomatoes, basil, peppers, chives, rhubarb, strawberries…

How is your garden shaping up so far?

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Categories: Beekeeping, Chickens, Garden, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , | 10 Comments

Remedial Composting

When I did my composting boot camp posts we were under a few feet of snow here in Denver.  I was unable to get outside and get any useful pictures of the compost bin in progress for you.  But over the last two weekends, mother nature has been much more cooperative.  We were able to get out to the bins, and coupled with the spring garden cleaning we did, we had plenty of stuff to add to it.

Both bins were pretty full.  The bin on the right had been covered, and I was hoping that it would be full of finished compost, ready to go.

Instead, it was nearly done.  But there were a lot of sticks and twigs in it from the tree last summer that hadn’t broken down yet.  Rick raked it all out of the bin, while Henry and I collected as many sticks as we could.  The plan is to power compost this stuff so it’ll be ready to go into beds by April or early May.

Here is a close up of that almost ready compost:

It looked pretty good, but there were still a lot of big pieces that I wanted to get broken down before we put it in the garden.

The left side of the bin is where we added our kitchen scraps all winter, fall garden materials and sod this spring that we removed from the edges of our flower and herb beds where it was encroaching.  We didn’t turn the pile over the winter at all, and it had many fabulous layers.

See all that beautiful finished compost at the bottom?  That is what I want!  But there is an awful lot of other stuff on top of it.  So we used the now empty bin on the right side to mix up the stuff on the left side all the way down to the finished stuff, which we will keep separate.

We started moving it over…

Not pictured is a bunch of dried grass and leaves and yard clippings that will get mixed in with the layers.  It’s off to the left of the frame.  We had more stuff than we could immediately fit into the bins without doing this process first.

So we tossed part of that top layer of grass and sod into the empty bin on the right, and part of it got tossed in front of the bin, so we could mix in other layers too.  As we moved layers over, we had H grab big armfuls of dry leaves and dry grass to mix in with the stuff coming from the left bin.

As the right-hand-side pile grew, we put the front boards back in to keep it contained.

We watered the pile with the hose as we went.  Remember, it takes water, air, carbon (browns) and nitrogen (greens) to make a great compost pile.  It was a hot day and the week was supposed to be plenty hot, so I wasn’t worried about making it too wet.

Where the layers were already very wet from the winter snows, we added lots of dry stuff.  If anything was too big, we tried to break it up as well.  The layer from last year’s garden was pretty wet, so it was good to mix in some dry brown material as we went. We were trying to balance it out. 

Also as we got to the middle layers we mixed in some of that first stuff that went over the side of the bin.  The idea it to get it somewhat uniform, so it all rots together, as opposed to the layers we originally had.

You never know what you’ll find in your compost bin.  I found this perfectly grown beet with a weird, crunchy, light-starved top.  It grew somewhere, way down in the pile.

We continued layering and watering and mixing and putting the boards of the compost bin back up until we had reached that finished compost down at the bottom of the left bin.  Then we pulled all that great, finished compost out of the bottom of the bin.

Now we had two piles.  Finished compost on the left, nearly finished compost on the right, and an empty bin.

We could use all that compost on the left, but I really didn’t have a place ready for it yet.  I decided to layer it back in with the nearly done stuff on the right with some of the top soil that we had from the bed edging.

Rick and I grabbed shovels and tossed both piles into the empty bin.

We watered it and then covered it with heavy black plastic. Over the next few weeks, it should cook down to great, useable compost ready to feed this springs’ gardens.

We did all of this work on the 11th.  I’ve checked the left-hand bin pretty regularly. Some days I uncover it and watered it; I’ve mixed it again once with a rake and my hands (so I could feel how wet and warm it was/wasn’t) since then already.  I want to keep it hot and damp, but not too wet.  Like a wrung out sponge or chocolate cake.  We’ve been adding our kitchen scraps and other yard waste to the bin on the right.

That is what composting looks like in action… the down and dirty work of spring cleaning.  ;)

Categories: Compost, Sustainability, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , | 24 Comments

You’ve Got to be Chitting Me

This weekend the weather was amazing.  The sun was out, it was warm, and we all got sunburned.  It was the first really nice weekend of the year.  So nice in fact, that I was completely unmotivated to sit down at the computer inside and write a single line.  I had plenty of blog inspiration though.  I took no less than 76 photos this weekend.

Since the weather is so nice, we’re thinking we’ll be able to open the beehive in a couple of weeks and actually get some cool photos (and possibly harvest some honey), so I decided to put off the beekeeping 101 boot camp until then.  The bees were doing some housekeeping this weekend, and I saw of them coming back to the hive with pollen even, so I know it’ll be good news on the bee front.

We got started on some of the early spring to-dos.  We cleaned out the flower beds and checked on the garlic.  I have some kohlrabi that looks like it has made it over the winter, and we got a jump on removing the grass and from some new beds that we hope to plant this year.  And we hacked out a place for some potatoes since the neighbor is using his garden for other crops this year.

Once we got some of the prep work out of the way, Rick went downstairs and got our seed potatoes out of the cellar.

Apparently a little more light gets down there than we thought.  You might imagine that we were surprised to see the spuds with eight-inch long sprouts sticking their tips out of the top of their box.  From everything we’ve read, you are supposed to chit your potatoes around January, letting them begin to get sprouts, and then plant them out with one-inch long sprouts.

I don’t know if we left the lid open too early or what, but they were a-growin’.  The potatoes, fingerlings, were a little soft, spongy even.  We were feeling a bit panicky, unsure if our chits were ruined or if they had a head start.

We decided to go ahead and plant them.  What is the worst that can happen?  We’ll get a lousy yield?  If we didn’t plant them, we wouldn’t get any.  So in the ground they went.

This year, since our space is pretty limited, we decided to experiment with a tower.  Most of the potatoes are in rows, but we had room for one tower.  I’m excited to compare how they do.  From what I’ve read, fingerlings are good candidates for towers.

I stated by digging a round hole about eight inches deep.  I put some loose soil and finished compost in the bottom, and then spaced my super-chitted spuds in a circle around the hole, sprout side up. I lightly covered them with soil.

I had some half-decomposed leaves lying around, and since potatoes are heavy feeders and the tower is in a newer bed without the best soil ever, I layered in some leaves with the soil.

I alternated layers of soil and leaves until the sprouts were completely covered.  Then I put an old cage over the top.  Notice, there is still a pile of soil there on the left and some leaves on the right of the tower, so I can continue to hill-up as the sprouts poke through.

I’m very excited to see how this comes out.  I was completely surprised at the chits having such long sprouts, and so I’m looking forward to how they do.  And I’m excited to see how the potatoes in the tower do compared to those in the rows that we planted at the same time.

Have you planted potatoes in a tower?  What about our super long sprouts on the spuds; ever had something like that?  Do tell!

Categories: Garden | Tags: , , | 25 Comments

Need Help Getting Started?

Last spring, a friend approached me for help in starting her first garden.  She had moved to a new house and wanted to grow some veggies with her kids.  And she wanted some guidance on how and what to plant.  I had a lot of fun planning the layout of her space and helping her with the planting (mostly pointing and such – I was pretty pregnant last spring).  Then she insisted on paying me for the work.  I felt a little awkward taking money for something I didn’t feel that I was an expert on, from a friend that I would have helped anyway.  But she really encouraged me to think about doing a little garden planning for people as a business.

I let that idea rattle around for a while.  And then another friend suggested I do the same thing.  And then a month ago another friend suggested it to me.  So I started thinking that maybe I should listen to these voices, cheering me on to do something that I enjoy.  I do have a lot of people ask me for help with their gardens.  So without further ado, for locals only, I offer my services as a vegetable garden consultant.

My garden planning and consultation package includes:

  • Initial in-yard consultation
  • Garden layout with scale drawing and crop suggestions
  • Support through your first growing season
  • Follow up consultation after the growing season is over

For the full details, check out my new Homesteader Helper page.

I have been gardening since 2004 and learning mostly through trial and error.  I am happy to share my experience with you, in the hopes that you will fall in love with your garden the way I have fallen for mine.  I hope too, that I can offer some guidance so that you won’t have to make all the mistakes we made at the beginning.

If you are in Colorado and intimidated by starting your first garden or need some help with just getting going, please consider hiring me to help!

Categories: Garden, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Composting Basics Part II: Hot, Cool, and Greens vs. Browns

If you read yesterday’s urban homestead boot camp post, Composting Basics Part I, you remember that I said I love compost.  Besides what it can do for you (you know turning “trash” into garden treasure, restoring and maintaining soil health, balance soil pH and neutralize chemicals, etc.), I love the way it does it.  I know it’s probably a little weird to love decomposition, but I do.

Yesterday, I told you that there are a lot of choices when it comes to bins, piles, and systems.  Worm bins and Bokashis are pretty specialized and self-contained systems.  I really don’t have much experience with either.   But I have used both a  pile and a bin.

A pile is best for “cool” composting.  It’s great if you aren’t in a rush for your finished compost, and if you don’t want to think much about it.  It doesn’t take a lot to build one.  And a pile probably won’t generate much heat, hence being “cool.”  Plan a year to two years for harvesting.  With this method, you basically just throw your kitchen scraps, yard waste and what-have-you into a big pile, and let it do its thing.  You can help it along by turning/stirring/forking it a couple of times a year, and by chopping up the browns you put into it.  Some people use a chipper or run over their browns with their lawn mowers before adding them to their piles.

You can cool compost in a bin too.  A bin will speed things up for you a bit more.  You will get more heat with a bin, and more heat means faster decomposition.

Right now, our family is “hot” composting.  A hot compost bin decomposes things very fast.  One pallet bin gave us over 80 gallons of finished compost in about 8 months last year.  For hot compost, you layer in your organic waste, give it a good soaking with the hose, and cover it (we use thick black plastic).  As it rots it generates heat, cooking the organic waste.  The heat actually comes from micro-organisms digesting everything. It can get hot enough to kill weed seeds.

The key here is you don’t want it to get too hot.  You want it to rot quickly and kill the bad stuff, but you don’t want to  kill off the good guys.  So you need to rotate it.  Or maybe aerate it is a good word.  Two bins make this nice as you can flip it from one bin to the other.  Sometimes, during the summer, we open it up, put out the half-finished compost, let the chickens scratch through it for a day or two and then scoop it all back in, water and cover again.  If you have a tumbler, there’s no need to use a pitch fork at all, just spin it.

So exactly what do you put in your compost bin?

“The greens” vs. “the browns.”  General advice is that for cool composting you need a 40/60 mix of the two, with more browns.  For hot composting, the ratio is even greater, closer to a 5 to 1 ratio or more of browns to greens. But what are they?

Greens include:

  • fruits and vegetables, whole, pieces, peelings and scraps 
  • moldy food
  • chicken, rabbit, goat poop and other manure from herbivores
  • alfalfa pellets
  • coffee grounds and used tea leaves
  • green leaves or grass clippings
  • hair
  • weeds (if they have mature seeds, make sure they are hot composted, otherwise not)
  • algae and water from fish tanks
  • urine

Browns include:

  • egg shells
  • dried leaves and grass clippings
  • straw
  • wood chips
  • saw dust
  • dryer lint
  • paper, including shredded paper, newspaper, tissue and paper towels
  • cardboard
  • coffee filters and tea bags
  • cotton fabric or string, wool
  • cotton balls and swabs (the kind with cardboard sticks)
  • any plant with woody stalks or stems, including corn cobs
  • nut shells
  • end of season plants

The greens provide nitrogen and the browns give carbon.  The only things I don’t compost are dog/cat poop, human feces, and bones.  All of them can be composted but they can make your pile smelly and attract animals to your pile.

The problem a lot of people have is that the ratios are talking about weight, not volume.  The browns are generally dry and weigh a lot less than the soggy wet greens, so you need a lot more of them.  I have to admit that I don’t really pay close attention to the exact ratios.  I tend to think of the greens as “wet” and the browns as “dry.”  Sort of like the browns are a sponge and the greens are the stuff I’m using to get the sponge wet with.  It’s totally simplistic, but it works somehow.  Even with the hot composting, I just think “Is there enough?  I better put more.”

There are all sorts of cute counter top containers for compost.  I keep a big stainless steel bowl on my counter to catch all of our kitchen scraps, our greens.  I used to use a porcelain one, but it got ruined, so stick with stainless steel.  When it is full or before bedtime, we take the bowl out to the pile.  I cover the bowl with a plate in the summer if fruit flies are a problem.

Most people don’t have a problem coming up with enough greens.  Browns can be tougher.  It helps to keep a source of browns nearby.  Yard waste is perfect.  We beg leaves off the neighbors in the fall.  In the summer, instead of putting grass clippings in as a green, we [have our neighbor who collects his] spread them around the chicken area.  The hens use them as littler and for a couple of weeks until they are completely dry.  Then we rake them up and toss them in the pile.  Dried leaves, straw, dead plants, wood shavings and shredded paper all work.  Usually, as long as you keep plastic out of it, the bathroom trash is all compost-able.

In addition to your greens and browns, you pile will need air and water.  Keep your pile moist – like a wrung out sponge, or chocolate cake.  We cover ours to keep the moisture in during the summer.  And we turn it and mix it.  It gets quite hot in the middle, so we move the middle to the outside edges and the edges in to the center to cook.  Then we water it some more and cover it back up.  Some people add soil or finished compost to their pile.  If your soil is healthy, it has all kinds of good micro organisms that help with decomposing your pile.  It’s sort of like adding yogurt to hot milk to make more yogurt.

What about the smell?  As long as you aren’t adding milk, meat or carnivore poop to your pile/bin, your compost should not smell foul at all.  If your pile has any odor other than a good soil smell, you probably need to turn it, add browns, or both.  Sometimes our bin gets an ammonia smell.  This usually happens after we’ve added the contents of the chicken coop to the pile and it’s had a chance to get going.  Chicken manure is very rich in nitrogen.  Adding in more browns and mixing it up, getting the inside to the outside and vice-versa, takes care of it.

When your compost is done, it should look like great soil.  No big bits or pieces of anything, light and fluffy, not soggy at all.  The compost shown above still has bits of egg shell and wood shavings (the browns take the longest to decompose) but I would put it in my garden like this anyway.

Happy composting!

Categories: Compost, Sustainability, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Composting Basics Part I

Boot camp is back in session.  And I have a confession to make.  I love compost.  I mean I really, really love it.  I love the whole process of it.  I find it completely fascinating.  Compost is so awesome.  Completely dreamy, in fact. I might be obsessed.

The run down… you should compost.  Here’s why:

Compost builds up your soil.  There is a reason it is called “black gold.”  It provides good organisms, holds water, gives nutrients, improves clay soils, improves sandy soils, kills pollutants, fertilizes.  It is awesome.  Using compost reduces the amount of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and soil modification needed to grow a great garden.

Compost gets rid of your waste.  Basically, most things that can’t be recycled can be composted.  If it was alive or came from something that was alive, you can compost it.  Food waste, paper, yard waste, hair, wood, natural-fiber cloth, cardboard, even meat (but you’ll want to do it right).  We’ll call all these things “organic waste” for the purpose of this post.  The only things that can’t really be composted are  plastics, disposable diapers, and other synthetic materials.  Although bones can be composted, they will take a longer time than most gardeners want to put in, or are more likely to get stolen from your pile by some critter.

Seriously, what is cooler than something that turns all of a household’s non-recyclable waste into something that isn’t waste at all?  Something that gives back, that makes the gardens better?  Can you see why I’m infatuated?

How does it work?  Well, here’s the quick and dirty version (tomorrow, I promise a bit more detail):

Compost turns trash into treasure by rotting.  Yep.  Rot.  Experts talk about the greens and the browns, but the bottom line is that a compost bin uses water, heat and air to decompose all those vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, egg shells, grass clippings, leaves, straw, chicken poop, etc.  What you need is a place to put it and a way to turn it to get air into it.

Large bins are great if you have a family, a large garden or a large amount of organic waste to compost.  We don’t have the biggest yard, but we have two pallet bins in the chicken area that we use for composting.  You can make your own, or buy a variety of bins that range in size from pretty moderate to very large. Some even turn themselves.

*Note: Amazon links connect to Northwest Edible’s affiliate links – Help a garden blogger out! 

Or, skip a bin all together and just have a designated pile.

You’ll want to place your compost bin(s)/pile somewhere that gets some sun during the day and where you can get water to it.  A great place is in your garden so that you won’t have to go far with your finished compost.  Close to the kitchen is nice too, so it’s easy to fill, but you really don’t want it right up next to your house.  Trust me.  Our first bin was next to the house and we had a mouse invasion in the fall.  Now our bins are out in the chicken area.  Which is not close to the garden or the kitchen, but it is convenient for cleaning out the coop.  (Yep, broke all the rules I just mentioned.  That’s the way we roll).  It should also be free-standing; not up against a wall or a fence.

If you have a very small area, say only a patio or balcony, you might want to consider vermicomposting.  That is composting with worms.  They are a specific kind of worm, red wigglers, and they can live in a small box (or a big one) and they can eat through your kitchen waste pretty darn quickly.  Their bins can be really small and stacked, and I’ve even seen some that are topped with planters (double duty!).  They don’t need to be turned and they don’t need much “brown” material, but you do need to maintain them (you want the worms to stay alive).  Plus then you have little wiggly pets.  There are many different towers that you can buy or you can DIY with a plastic storage bin or wood.  Check YouTube for a bunch of tutorials.

Worms make excellent compost tea, which is a superb fertilizer that, once diluted, you can pour into your garden beds to help your plants.  Think of it as natural Miracle-Gro.  You can have a worm bin indoors as well.

If the only place you have to compost is under your sink, or if you think you need a way to compost meat or dairy, you might want to consider a Bokashi.  I don’t have any hands on experience with one (we toss any extra dairy or meat scarps to the chickens… except chicken, of course), but they are pretty ingenious.  They are small and air tight, so there is no smell and they use probiotics (the good micro organisms) to decompose what you put in there.  They don’t hold a ton, but they are efficient and get you compost tea quickly.

Tomorrow, I’m going to cover what to put in your compost (you know, “greens” and “browns” and all that), plus the difference between cool and hot composting.

Since I do all of our composting outside, I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on vermicompost and the Bokashi methods.  Tell me, tell me!

Categories: Compost, Sustainability, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

What we are planting in 2012

A few of you were curious about what we are planting this year in the garden.  SO, here is the plan for 2012…

In the four main garden beds we are planting seeds of both grey and yellow zucchini, Mexican Sour Gherkins and Long Anglais cucumbers, pole beans (purple ones), Australian brown onions, golden beets, red Russian kale, and arugula.  I’m hoping the kolhrabi that we have been trying to overwinter are still going strong, so we can possibly get seeds from them this year.  We will buy started tomato plants as well; not sure what varieties until we see what they have at our garden center.

The boys will have some Cosmic Purple carrots in their hugelkultur as well as some cherry tomato plants and possibly a bean or pumpkin teepee for fun (stay tuned).

We have a couple of other planting areas around the yard, and in those areas we are going to put some lettuces, some lemon yellow Habanero peppers, and lots and lots of spinach.   Plus I’ve planned a couple of giant variety sunflowers to screen out some neighbors and later feed to the chickens.

In the neighbor’s yard, we’ll do potatoes again, and his corn.  Plus he’s made room for watermelons and the giant pumpkin.  We can’t wait!

Any locals have tips on herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro…)?  I’ve had mixed success with them, but want to add more, inter-spaced in the flower beds out front.

What are you planting this year?  Also, did I miss anything in last week’s veggie garden basics that you were hoping for?

Categories: Food, Garden, Hugelkultur | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Boot Camp Bonus: When to Harvest

This week’s boot camp focus was on vegetable gardens.  It turned out to be a bigger subject than I could cover in just one post.  Coincidentally, Erica at Northwest Edible also made a timely post covering some great tips on How to Plan Your Harvest Based on What You Eat.  Make sure to check it out.  I won’t repeat anything she posted here and I’m really grateful she put it up.

For me, one of the things that was hard to learn when we first started gardening was knowing when to harvest.  Some vegetables are easy to tell when they are ready to be picked; tomatoes turn red (or yellow or purple or what-have-you), but some things are a little harder to tell.  You can certainly count days, as implied on your seed packet: 60 days; 75 days; 53 days, two hours and thirteen minutes… where did I put those torn, empty paper envelopes again?  Right.

Here’s what I’ve learned for some of the trickier crops.

  1. Test green beans and peas early and often by picking one and eating it.  If it’s plump, sweet and good, they’re ready, if they are hard – too late.  When they are ready, pick them every day.
  2. Corn is ready when the silks turn brown and are dry.  If you want to check the kernels before picking, slice along the husk with your thumbnail about an inch instead of pulling it back.  Peek in and if it’s not ready yet, just close it back up.
  3. Watermelon is ready when the curly tendril nearest the melon shrivels up.
  4. Winter squashes (butternut, acorn, pumpkins, etc.) are ready when the vines fall to the ground.
  5. Pull your onions when the tops fall over.

What indicators do you use to know when your crops are ready?

Categories: Food, Garden, Top 5, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

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