Category Archives: Compost

I’m Back!

Yes, our soil always looks like this

Yes, our soil always looks like this

It’s about time for a new planting season to begin in Florida. For your pleasure I have included this lovely picture of typical, highly fertile, black Pinellas County soil. And if you believe that one…

 

The weather this summer has been very strange: hot – cold – hot – cold. Of course, when I say cold, I mean 78°. And the rain… For a while I thought I was living in India during monsoon season. Now it’s settled down to only raining a couple of times a week.

 

Cardboard, palm fronds...any mulch will do!

Cardboard, palm fronds…any mulch will do!

This afternoon I began preparing the garden for planting. Step one: rake off the branches, logs, and mulch that were rotting all summer. Step two: weeding. The worst were the purple sweet potatoes; they’d spread very aggressively beyond their allotted bounds.

 

 

 

The biggest tuber is about 12" long.

The biggest tuber is about 12″ long.

After I pulled up a couple of pounds of tubers I decided to just run the lawnmower over them. I don’t eat very many carbs but I might as well cook these up. Tomorrow.

One of the compost piles has been aging all summer; I broke it open and dumped eight wheelbarrows full (50 ft.³) onto the garden area. After spreading it out, I sat back to admire the view. Imagine—what if the soil really looked like that?

 

 

Wheelbarrow load one--of eight (about 2000 lbs.)

Wheelbarrow load one–of eight (about 2000 lbs.)

More work to do tomorrow.

Two in One Day

01ReadyImagine, two posts on the same day! This one, instead of being delayed like most of my others, is actually about today. Mostly.

This was a good morning to stay inside doing housekeeping – it’s cold out there. After lunch it warmed up quite nicely – low 60s. As long as I was working, and in the sun, and wearing a sweatshirt and a hat, it was quite comfortable. Did I mention I was also wearing long-johns? No, I’m not kidding. It doesn’t bother me to work outside under the summer sun when it’s 95° and 100% humidity. Cold is another story.

Just to get caught up to date, last Monday I cut my first head of broccoli. It wasn’t very big, about 6 02Fillounces. Yes, I ate it before I took a picture.

Today I worked on the compost heap, adding lots of kitchen and garden waste that had been building up. I decided to “seed” all three of my compost bins with worms. These aren’t garden worms, but compost worms (a.k.a. red worms). I’ve been neglecting raising them in a plastic bin in the sunroom. I’m curious to see how they take to living in the wild. They probably won’t start breeding with 03Plantthe weather this cold but one never knows. Tomorrow it’s supposed to reach 70.

I went to Home Depot to check out vegetable plants – they looked pretty good. I picked up nine each of Packman broccoli and Bonnie hybrid cabbage (a new variety for me). Each nine-pack cost $3.89. That’s only 43 cents per plant.

Before transplanting them I washed the 6 inch pots with hot soapy 04Back Fillwater. That’s just a precaution in case the previous potting soil had any nasty fungus or microbes. Note: as a general rule it isn’t best to reuse potting soil. Toss it in the compost heap to take care of any nasties that might have taken up residence.

Once the pots had air-dried I laid them out on a card table in the sunroom.

The first step in transplanting is to water the plants enough so their root balls will stay together.

I filled each pot about 05Donehalfway with the soil I prepared last weekend.

After placing the seedlings in the pots, I back-filled with more soil.

The Brassica family does not like loose soil very much. I firmly pressed down the potting soil around the root balls.

Finally I gave each pot 2 cups of dechlorinated water. The potting soil was pretty dry.

I’ll keep the plants inside tonight but tomorrow they go out in the cold, cruel world.

Compost and Santa

ManureI’ve never believed in Santa Claus. Not even when I was little. But on December 26th I started to wonder. I’d been busy all day Tuesday and gone all day Wednesday (Christmas). When I went outside on Thursday morning to check the garden I discovered – two buckets of dried chicken manure! It looks like Santa came to my house after all. Of course, I knew 

Eggplant fruit

Santa’s real name. Thanks for the manure, Clay and Maggie!

About 10 days ago I picked my first Bell pepper – about 4 ounces. I would’ve posted a picture of it but I ate it before remembering my camera. Yesterday I picked my first eggplant fruits – 2 1/2 pounds. I had 4 ounces for lunch today, raw, as a salad. It was very good. Of course, I’m still picking and eating jalapeños.

Bin 4

The buckets of chicken manure inspired me to get compost pile number four started. As you can see I’ve switched to four mil black plastic. A 10′ x 25′ sheet, big enough for four compost bins, cost $15. At $3.75 per use, this is 135% more expensive than the two mil clear plastic. But the clear plastic didn’t hold up. The sunlight caused it to disintegrate.

I think I’m going to try doing shorter posts more often. We’ll see how that goes.

Welcome to December, 2013

Welcome to December, 2013

Here we are, December already. My favorite holiday of the year, Thanksgiving, is already past. More than 20 of us gathered at Wayne and Bridget’s house for a wonderful time of food and fellowship. Bridget talked me into making brioche. I didn’t have a proper mixer but Becky invited me to drop by and use hers. I made brioche by hand once – never again. Last week I finally broke down and bought one for myself. Becky found it online for me for $192 including shipping and tax. Such a deal!

Of course I’m using this festive season to try out my new fireplace (it came with the house). Yep, nothing like a fireplace to make a house feel cozy on an 82°F day! Bing weather predicts that the daytime high temperature will drop below 80° on Thursday. But 75° still isn’t cool enough for a fire. Maybe January…

Eight InchLast weekend I picked up four more cabbage plants and four more broccoli. Since I was too busy to dig up more garden I transplanted them into 8 inch pots. They are doing nicely. I also had to mow my yard again. With the occasional rain and warm weather is still hasn’t stopped growing. Maybe January…

All day yesterday I spent goofing off.

Starting early this morning I spent seven hours writing a one-page post for my other site. One of the best parts about blogging is that it forces me to confront my ideas. I thought I knew what I was talking about until I started writing – the process showed me how little thought I had put into my opinion.

That didn’t leave a whole lot of time for gardening – and doing laundry – and writing this post. So I skipped grocery shopping. It’s been three weeks but, between Thanksgiving and dinner invitations, I have plenty of food to last another week. To quote Hawkeye Pierce, “never let it be said that I didn’t do the least I could do.”

Bin OneGardening work has been mostly maintenance – watering, making compost tea, and adding stuff to the compost bin. Last weekend I decided that bin #3 was full – time to start another. Bin #1 never did rot thoroughly so I’ve been using compost from bin 2 for the tea.

Today I started shoveling out the leaf mold – I’ll use it during the winter as a mulch and to bury kitchen wastes, etc. Once the lawn finally stops growing I’ll no longer have grass clippings to use for this purpose.

Rotten tomatoI had forgotten that I put an old shower curtain on the ground before starting this compost bin. This was not one of my brightest ideas. The bottom layer of leaves turned into fiberboard rather than compost. Most of the leaves I put in this pile were never shredded so they matted pretty badly. I found only one tiny earthworm in the pile. So sad.

good tomatoesCheck out the lovely green tomato going into the compost – here it is December and the bugs are still getting more produce than I am. I’ve never had much success with tomatoes planted in the fall. I think I’ll slip some plastic under the other green tomatoes to try to keep the bugs away. I haven’t done anything whatsoever regarding insect control.

The eggplants have been flowering for a while but only recently have started to set fruit. I have one bell pepper nearly ready to pick and several smaller ones coming along. I did manage to harvest a handful of small jalapenos – 1.1 ounces of them. Most of my plants are rather small – the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants haven’t taken off the way I would’ve expected. I suspect this is largely due to my neglect during their first month or so in the ground. Note to self: in the future pay closer attention to the care of new seedlings!

JalapenosHey, at least I should get some broccoli and cabbage. I’ve never had a serious failure with those crops, and they’re looking good. Next year I’ll try to start planting them earlier and see how that works.

 

Pretty Flower

Pretty FlowerLook at the pretty flower. It’ll be even prettier in a couple of days when it turns into an Okra pod!

This feels like a cool August to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve moved so far north (five whole miles). As I type this it’s 11:00 AM and the temperature has only just reached 80° F (27 C). And it has been cloudy all morning.

BreakI’m aware that I haven’t posted for two weeks but I have the world’s best excuse—laziness! I guess it’s time to update what’s been going on in the garden – which isn’t much. I’ve been doing routine maintenance, of course: lawn mowing and a little weeding.

After I’d finished my post two weeks ago (that would make it Sunday, the 11th) I broke open compost pile number one – which is almost 100% Oak leaves. The pile temperature had dropped to ambient so I knew it wasn’t rotting very fast. As you can see from the pictures it isn’t thoroughly rotted – more of a leaf mold than a true compost. But I figured it would make good mulch for the Moldveggies.

Before mulching I added some worm castings to the garden. This should prevent nitrogen starvation (that’s where the mulch takes up nitrogen from the soil in order to continue rotting, temporarily depriving the plants of a needed nutrient).

Since the sweet potatoes had pretty much covered their beds I added Shovelcompost by simply dumping it on top of the plants. The leaves bent down and shed the compost; it ended up mostly on the soil. With all the heavy rains we’ve been having I figured that was good enough – the rain would wash it down the rest of the way. It worked.

Last weekend (August 17 and 18) I didn’t work on any projects at all. It was a lazy time of watching a couple of movies on Amazon prime and thinking about this and that.

 

Mulch

Later on today I hope to talk about what I did this weekend.

Ciao,

Rick

 

Making a Compost Bin

Bin 2I built bin #3 on May 19th and now it’s June 12th. Must learn to type faster!

As you can see, bin #2 was getting a little full.

Most people probably only need two bins—one filled with aging compost and a second one still being filled. I have three since my first one filled up in only two weekends.

Note: If you can’t see enough detail in a picture, double-click on it. That will take you to a larger version. Don’t forget to hit the “back” button to return!

1-Wire FenceBill of materials

(1) Roll, 4′ x 50′ Welded wire fence. This is galvanized for outdoor use—it should last for several years. The wire is 14 gauge and the wire spacing is 2″ horizontal by 4″ vertical. One roll is enough for four bins and cost me $38.67 (plus 7% tax, divide by 4 = $10.34 per bin). Maybe you can split a roll with a friend or neighbor. Do not buy chicken wire/poultry netting/hex netting (or whatever it’s called where you live). A number of years ago I tried it and it’s way too flimsy. Very frustrating to work with. When I last checked, the chicken wire was actually more expensive than the welded wire fence!

(1) Sheet, 9′ x 12′ x 2 mil plastic drop cloth (in the paint aisle).  This is enough to line two bins—so after you make your first, set 1-Chicken Wireaside the leftovers. My cost was $2.98 plus tax divided by two equals $1.59. I could have purchased a larger roll of thinner plastic but I’m one of those guys who has trouble with Saran wrap. Two mil (0.002”) plastic is thick enough for me to handle and strong enough to take some abuse. Sunshine tends to destroy plastic so I may or may not be able to reuse it.

(2) Stakes. I use cheap wooden surveyor’s stakes but you can use whatever you have lying around – tent stakes, rebar, or sharpened sticks. These may be reused.

(6) Clothes pins. More is better and, once again, they are reusable.

(1) Piece of cardboard, about 4 feet square or round. I put this in the bottom of the bin to keep the water from draining out too fast. Remember, the soil here is sand. A scrap of plastic would probably work even better. I don’t try to cover the entire bottom of the bin since I think (for no logical reason) that some contact with the earth is a good thing.

1-ToolsTools

  • Wire cutters
  • Pliers
  • Scissors or razor knife
  • Measuring tape (12 feet or longer)
  • Bricks, blocks, or logs (at least 2) to keep the fencing from rolling up

1-Layout AHow I Done It

First of all, if you try this at home, remember that you are working with sharp wire. Pay attention to what you’re doing so you don’t hurt yourself. I recommend wearing long sleeves, gloves, and eye protection. Do as I say, not as I do.

I used my pliers to open the little wire rings that hold the roll of fencing together. I save a couple of them and put them back on the roll when I’m done. It keeps things neater.

As I began to unroll the fencing I placed a brick on the loose end. I unrolled about 14 feet and blocked the roll with another brick to make it stay.

With the tape I measured 12 1/2 feet.

1-CuttingLook at the picture if you’re following along. I’m going to be cutting the horizontal wires flush against a vertical wire. When I’m finished, the roll of fencing won’t have any sharp ends sticking out. The sharp ends will be on the 12-1/2 foot piece that I’m cutting off. I hope that’s clear.

My wire cutters/pliers are a cheap combination pair. I cut each of the horizontal wires flush with the same vertical wire. Before I cut the last wire I took a moment to think things through. Both pieces of fence are going to try roll up! Not sure about you, but I certainly don’t want to get snagged. It takes too long to heal at my age. I put one knee against the roll and shifted the brick over to the cut piece before I made the last snip.

1-Bending BIt only took me a minute to put away the leftover roll. This prevented me from tripping over it-—a distinct possibility.

Take a look at the pictures to see how I bent the loose horizontal wires upward using my fingers. You might prefer to use pliers.

I allowed the piece of fencing to roll back in the direction that it wants to go and slipped the newly-formed hooks around the vertical wire at 1-Hookedthe other end. This forms a heart-shaped tube—the wire tends to roll up more than I want it to. It’s always a little tricky to get all the wires hooked (at the same time). Notice that the hooks – the sharp ends – are on the inside. That’s so I won’t snag myself as I work around the bin. I didn’t bend them tight—once they’re in place they stay.

 

1-StakesThe sheet of cardboard goes down first, then the tube of fencing. Bin number three is located next to bin number two. I left enough space so I can slip between them if I need to. Be sure you’re happy with the location; even a partially filled bin is difficult to move!

I used two stakes to anchor the bottom of the bin. this a) pulls the bottom into a round shape and b) 1-Cut Plastickeeps it from falling over when I jostle it. The top of the bin still looks a little heart-shaped but it will straighten out as it fills.

Now for the liner. I spread out my sheet of plastic and folded it in half lengthwise. I used the scissors to cut along the fold leaving two sheets 4-1/2 feet wide by 12 feet long. One 1-Add Plasticof the sheets goes in the shed with the roll of fencing. The other I draped on the inside of the compost bin. I folded a couple of inches over on the top and held it in place with clothes pins. Voila!

Black plastic might work better than clear. I haven’t tried it. Its big disadvantage is that it isn’t available locally in handy, drop-cloth-sized sheets.

 

1-Anchored

It’s time to start filling the bin. The first couple of bags of grass clippings and shredded leaves I poured gently down the inside, forcing the plastic against the wire on the bottom. I leave the stakes in place and (gently) add a couple of buckets of dechlorinated water. I’ve never had a compost bin blow over, even during a tropical storm.

From now on it merely needs to be maintained:

  1. Continue filling it with compostable material
  2. Make sure it stays damp enough so that it will continue to rot

The bacteria and fungi do the rest of the work.

May God bless our endeavors,

Rick

p.s. I figured out (and fixed) the time/date problem. My time zone (in WordPress) was set to New Zealand!

 

Update June 10, 2013

Okra More rain on Sunday evening–none so far today.
Hand watered garden with bucket and scoop.

Okra looks OK–but a couple of the stems look suspiciously thin where they meet the soil.

 

PurpleOne of the Purple slips looks dead. The others are beginning to stand up and look like plants!

Compost piles:
#1: 100°
#2:  110°
#3:  140° (less than half filled)

I’m trying to figure out what world my web host lives in. It’s June 10 where I live but the date (below) says June 11. Weird.

The Okra is Up

Today was a very busy day – lots of maintenance. The good news is…

The okra has germinated and is doing just fine – sort of. I had planted  five groups of three seeds. The germination counts were three, two, two, one, and zero. Eight out of fifteen isn’t too good.

No CardboardNotice that these two okra plants have no cardboard around them. We had a bad windstorm on Tuesday and I guess that one piece of cardboard wasn’t weighted down very well. I don’t know where it went; it isn’t in the yard. It’s interesting that the cardboardless seedlings look better than any of the others. Perhaps I need to rethink that “trapdoor in the cardboard” idea.

About an hour after breakfast I perceived that the neighborhood was awake – one of the neighbors started doing some outside repairs with a hammer. I headed out to get the lawn mowed. Rain was in the forecast and I wanted get finished before it began. Of course it started raining while I was still doing the front yard. It was a gentle rain, though, and didn’t make it through the Oak-leaf canopy over my head.

Soon the rain stopped but I had to wait for the grass in the backyard to dry out again. I stayed busy working on the compost heaps. I’ve neglected, til now, to provide a time-line and updates; this I will now remedy.

I started the first compost pile on the weekend of February 16 – 17. I finished filling it on March 3. The second compost bin began its life the following weekend, March 9. It was filled to overflowing by  Sunday, May 5. Since I was out of town the following weekend I built my new compost heap on Saturday the eighteenth, two weeks ago.

Compost pile number one, which was mostly Oak leaves – thoroughly shredded – didn’t heat up very quickly. The highest temperature I recorded was about 125°. Last weekend it was down to 110 and today I measured it at 108°. I dug into it today and took some nice pictures to show how well, though slowly, it was decaying. Alas, techno-trouble with my SD card resulted in the loss of those pictures.

Compost pile number two had a lot more nitrogen in the mix. I checked the temperature two weeks ago and it was 135°. Last weekend it was down to 120 and today about 115. Unfortunately I have been slack on keeping the compost heaps moist enough so I took some time today to give them a drenching – 15 gallons in the two older bins and ten for the new one. I’ll check the temperatures again this week to see the affect of the added moisture.

Water BareAfter clipping the back yard (all twelve blades of grass) I still had some time before lunch to “repair” the okra problem. Rather than replant seeds in the bare spot I pricked out a seedling from the threesome and planted it in the empty location. I’ll have to thin the extras in any case.

The verb, “to prick”, is one of those lovely Anglo-Saxon words with lots of different meanings. If you look it up in an (online) dictionary you have to go way down the list before you find the definition “to transplant a seedling.”

I first gently watered the vermiculite in each of the spots – including the one with no seedlings. I punched a hole with my finger where I wanted the new plant to go. Then I used a wooden matchstick to gently loosen the vermiculite around the seedling I was going to prick out. Some people like to use a pencil, a toothpick, or a skewer, but since I moved I haven’t been able to find my pencils or my toothpicks or my bamboo skewers.

Tap rootAs you can see from the photo I gently lifted the seedling out of the ground. Notice the nice taproot it is developing. I had to stir down pretty deeply to get it to pull loose easily. This is another case where vermiculite really shines. It’s so loose that it does minimal damage to the roots when you have to transplant the tiny seedlings.

I placed the seedling in its new home and gently firmed the vermiculite around it. All done. I wonder if the okra will be ready to pick next weekend?

Sweet potatoesThe sweet potatoes, by the way, are looking good.

After lunch I had a long and exhausting trip to Home Depot – spending a little more than I had planned. But that’s a story for another post.

I’m going to sit here and enjoy the gentle evening rain.

God bless,

Rick

Compost Basics

Getting Started

Dirt1The first weekend after moving into my new house I started a compost pile. Yes, this came before doing anything else in the yard. Why is compost so important? Well, the “soil” in most of Pinellas County has to be seen to be believed. It is a very fine sand with little organic content—I often refer to it as “talcum powder.” It has minimal natural fertility and drains so quickly that it retains neither moisture nor added fertilizers. The only practical way to improve it is to mix in lots of organic matter. Because of our heat and humidity the organic matter decays very rapidly and must be constantly replenished.

Adding compost to my coastal Florida “soil” improves its structure, fertility, and water retention but it won’t give me the beautiful soil seen in magazines. The only place around here you can find that kind of soil is in container gardens filled with imported soil.

What is compost? 

Compost is simply organic matter, stuff that was once alive, that has partially decayed. Rather than write a detailed description, I direct you to a decent, short article on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compost

Disclaimer

What I’m going to describe below is the way I do things. I am an engineer who designs machinery for a living—not a doctor or pathologist or nutritionist. While I’ve been doing this for years with absolutely no ill effects, everything I write is merely my opinion. You must do your own research and decide if my methods are for you. I take no responsibility for what you do. And I don’t expect you to take any responsibility for me!

My first compost pile (at my new house)

Once my bin was complete I began raking leaves. I have two large oak trees – planted in 1972 – in my front (south) yard. The people from whom I bought my house spent all their time remodeling the inside. They hadn’t done anything with the yard. Needless to say, there were plenty of leaves to rake up.

I raked the leaves onto an old plastic tarp that I had found; this became my poor man’s sledge to drag them into the back yard. I piled them up next to my bin. As the pile got too big I used my bagging lawnmower to shred the leaves and dump them into the bin. I also mowed the back yard, bagging the grass clippings and dumping them in with the shredded leaves. This added some nitrogen to the mix. As I filled the bin I added buckets of water – many buckets – to moisten everything down. By the time I was finished that first weekend my 4 foot tall bin had leaves piled six feet high.

Over the next two weeks I continued raking and mowing, shredding and piling. I estimate that I managed to fit at least 75 cubic feet of shredded leaves into 2 fifty-cubic-foot bin (it quickly heated up and began settling). After I had overfilled it for the third time, I started a new bin.

Unfortunately, the compost was drying out much too fast. I decided to wrap the whole bin in plastic. I had to do that on the outside since it was already full. When I built the new bin I put the plastic on the inside. I’ll show you what I did in my next column.

There are many online resources explaining the different ways to do composting. People seem to like to stress about getting the carbon – nitrogen ratio just right, adding accelerators and starters, turning the compost, or even buying incredibly expensive manufactured bins and compost tumblers. I do none of these things – too expensive and too much like work.

My method is simple – and probably dates back to the early days of agriculture. I simply keep piling stuff up until I decide it’s time to stop. I add water as needed to keep the pile moist. And I wait. In Florida, with its heat and humidity, I generally start using the compost 3 to 6 months after I stop filling the bin. That’s all there is to it.

How it works

Short answer: God designed things to work that way! I’ve been told – actually I’ve read – that scientists have determined that microscopic organisms – bacteria and fungi – eat my yard waste and turn it into compost. These writers claim a that there are many many different types of these little critters at work. Some of them do their best work at cool temperatures. Others can’t even start growing and reproducing until the temperature rises above 140°F! And yet, these bacteria are found almost everywhere. Pretty amazing. All of the bacteria and fungi that are needed to do the composting process are already present. You don’t have to add any starter culture. They just get to work.

Can I save money by making my own compost?

Let me put this is delicately as I can. Many people buy a manufactured composting bin, purchase starter cultures, or spend money on compost accelerators. These folks will have the satisfaction of making their own compost but will spend far more money than the same amount of compost would have cost at a discount garden center.

If you expect to earn minimum wage for your labor, no.

If, like me, you build your own, cheap, composting bins and work in your garden instead of spending money on a gym membership then the answer is a resounding yes.

In future posts I’ll have a lot more to share, but now I must do some painting before the day gets too hot.

Happy gardening,

Rick