The Great Sunflower Project – free seeds!

March 4, 2009

Do you have a sunny space where you can plant a few sunflowers?

They are tall but not too wide and can even be planted in large pots on your deck. All they need is full sun and  water.

Lemon Queen Sunflowers

Do you have 30 minutes twice a month look for bees on your sunflowers?

The “project” is all about pollinators…bees. As you may have heard, bee populations worldwide are declining.  This is an effort to track urban bee populations and determine areas where bee numbers are critically low. You can help and get free seeds in the process.

“One of our main goals is figuring out where bees are in trouble.”

Sign up by March 9, 2009

Go to the Great Sunflower Project website and sign up for your free seeds.

Four Easy Steps

  1. Sign up and plant sunflowers.
  2. Describe your garden
  3. Record time it takes 5 bees to visit sunflower (up to 30 min)
  4. Enter data online or mail it in
Bees on last years pumpkin flower

Bees on last year's pumpkin flower

Success with backyard compost – 5 Tips

August 19, 2008


If you haven’t made your own compost, you are missing out on a great project for the whole family. It will save you money, help the environment, and make you feel good when you scoop out that “black gold” and add it to your garden. Contrary to what some folks think, a compost pile should not be smelly. It will generally not attract animals either if you follow these five steps:

STEP ONE – Choose a Container

Composting is easy when you have a convenient place to keep your debris. The type of container you choose will depend on the space you have available and how addicted you get to composting. Be careful, it may take over your life.

Small Spaces. Even a small condo balcony will accommodate a composter. You can purchase small compost bins or make your own.

Backyard. Make a receptacle for composting out of almost anything: chicken wire, wood pallets, fencing, etc. We made ours by stacking concrete blocks and brick.

Plastic tumblers have gotten high praise for cleanliness and ease of use. We recommend planning for two compost piles, if you have the space. Once your main compost pile has decomposed and has begun the cooling down process, you’ll need a place for your fresh kitchen scraps and yard waste.

Kitchen. Keep a compost bucket handy. You won’t want to hike out to the compost pile every time you peel a cucumber, so make it easy on yourself.

STEP TWO – Mix the colors (Green and Brown)

To keep the heat up in your compost pile, you’ll need to add a mixture of green and brown debris. When adding kitchen scraps, dig a little hole in the pile for the scraps and cover them up. This will reduce the chance of animal visitation. The Cornell University composting website recommends a Carbon-to-Nitrogen ratio of 30 to 1. Too much Nitrogen accelerates decomposition but depletes oxygen. This can result in a smelly anaerobic condition. Try different ratios to see what works for you and remember to aerate the pile regularly to infuse it with fresh oxygen. This will keep it smelling as fresh as…well…compost. It’s not a bad idea to throw in a couple shovels of soil from your garden. The microbes in your soil will get right to work.

Greens. Nitrogen is required by the beneficial soil bacteria responsible for most of the decomposition and heat generation in compost. Bacteria are 50% protein. Nitrogen is a critical component of protein. The Greens include: grass clippings, fresh soft prunings, weeds, spent flowers, green leaves, seaweed, old veggies and peelings.

Browns. Carbon is a basic building block and a source of energy to microbes living in your compost pile. About 50% of microbial cells is carbon. The Browns include: dried leaves, newspaper (run it through a paper shredder), cotton clothing, sawdust, dried grass/weeds, straw, hay, paper grocery bags, cardboard, coffee grounds. Starbucks gives the grounds away. They are a great source of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and copper.

Don’t Add: Dog/cat/human feces (herbivore feces are ok), oil (lettuce with salad oil for example), fat, grease, bones, dairy products, and diseased plants. These items don’t break down well, may add disease, and attract animals. Eucalyptus leaves and invasive weeds can be a problem if your compost doesn’t get hot enough. Eucalyptus can inhibit microbial activity and takes a lot longer to break down. We usually rake up the ‘Euc leaves, toss them in the recycle garbage can, and keep them out of our compost bins. Bermuda grass is thick in our area and lives on in a compost pile that is not kept hot.

TIP: A leaf shredder will pulverize the material, increase the surface area, and speed decomposition. Most fit right over a standard garbage can.

STEP THREE – Just add Water

Water is needed by the microorganisms that are working away on your compost pile. The material should be kept damp, not soggy.

  • At 30% moisture, decomposition stops.
  • At 35% – 40% moisture, decomposition is slow.
  • 55% – 60% moisture is the upper limit and is good to start with. The heat generated will dry out the pile as it decomposes.

Too much information? You don’t have the composting bug yet…

STEP FOUR – Mix it up

This is an aerobic process. In other words, it requires oxygen. The pile needs to be turned in order to get the oxygen down into the material. We mix ours every week or so. Frequent turning of material will increase the rate of decomposition. This will also keep the pile from smelling. Sour smells generally indicate too much water and too little oxygen. Turning the compost also allows you to monitor the moisture level.

Mixing Tools:

Aerator – The twisting motion is easier on your back.

Pitchfork – You can move a lot of material quickly.

Spading Fork – Heavier than a pitchfork but works in a pinch.

Flat shovel – Good for removing the finished product.

STEP FIVE – Keep it hot

If you get crazy into composting you may want to monitor the temperature and closely manage the rate of decomposition. Maintain the temperature between 105° -149° Fahrenheit until the material is homogeneous.

Compost Thermometer

Compost Thermometer

Did you know that there are three phases of compost decomposition? Read on if you are starting to get excited about composting.


The Mesophillic phase occurs in the beginning for a few days as the temperature rises to about 104° Fahrenheit.

The Thermophillic phase may last up to a few months, but is generally much shorter for backyard compost piles. Temperatures range from 105° to 149° Fahrenheit. Don’t let the temp rise above 149° as it will kill beneficial microbes and reduce the rate of decomposition.

During the Cooling and Maturation phase, the material will cool and decomposition will cease. This may last up to several months depending on how aggressively you manage the composting process.

Managing your Compost Pile

A compost thermometer is a great tool for gauging the activity, but if you don’t have one, use your nose…

Smells Fresh – Keep doing what you’re doing.

Rotten Eggs – The oxygen has been depleted and that sour smell indicates that you have an anaerobic situation on your hands. Add some dry material and turn everything well.

Ammonia – The Greens outnumber the Browns. Add dry brown material and some soil from your garden, mix well and add water, if needed.

No smell, no heat, no change to the material – If it seems like nothing is happening you probably need to add greens and water. Then check the temperature in a day or so to confirm that you are back on track.

Got Ants? This generally indicates that the pile is too dry and probably too cold. Add water so that the pile is damp. Add greens if you still require more decomposition.

Screening - When your compost is ready, you’ll probably need to screen it to filter out rocks, sticks, corn cobs, etc. We made a simple screen out of hardware cloth and scrap wood. It fits over a garbage can.

So, that’s probably more information than you want to know about compost. If I missed anything, please post a comment. Got a compost tip? Please share it with us!

Kids harvest back yard fruit and deliver to seniors in same neighborhood

July 30, 2008

The group is called PUEBLO (People United for a Better Life in Oakland), and they have come up with a brilliant idea. A two-year old program called Urban Youth Harvest brings together kids, produce, and seniors. Produce that would otherwise go to waste is given to those in need. The kids get paid and the seniors get nutritious food delivered to their door free of charge.

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Partnering with Cyclists for Change, our harvesters will bike to our donors’ back yards and, using fruit pickers, will harvest oranges, apples, plums, lemons, grapefruits, peaches, pears, figs and other locally grown delicious and nutritious fruits. They will then deliver the harvest to nearby low-income senior residences and day facilities where low-income seniors receive a variety of services. They will be provided with diabetic recipes that call for those fruits,as well as the fruit, fresh off the vine or tree! – Urban Youth Harvest

This is how you think outside the raised bed! I love this idea.

What if we could all maximize the output of produce in our gardens and give to organizations like this?

In the case of the Urban Youth Harvest they come to you. They will leave a percentage for the homeowner’s use. Show this site to your kids & neighbors. Talk about this with your gardening friends. Perhaps you or someone in your community would be interested in starting a program like this. I am going to see if there is a need for such a program in our area.

Success growing backyard pumpkins

July 17, 2008

Last year we tried to grow pumpkins and failed miserably. Admittedly, the attempt was half hearted. The planting bed was hard-packed clay in an area that was formerly used for storing pipe. I dug deep holes and filled them with planting mix and compost, but the resulting vines were spindly and produced a small, thin crop.

Our first try at Big Max (Giant), Lumina (White), and Jack-Be-Little (Miniature) produced only a few little pumpkins. I blamed the poor production on the lack of bees, but after the changes we made this year, I can say that the bees were not totally to blame.

On the left is the BEFORE pic of our strawberry box in front of the newly planted pumpkin patch. On the right you can see our flourishing pumpkins (AFTER), now invading the strawberries.

Before

After

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Success! Two white “Lumina” pumpkins on the vine.

Two white pumpkins

After making the changes below, I am happy to say that we have a strong crop of pumpkins this year and daily visits by the local bees. We’ve never been more excited to see bees in the garden.


If you want to grow pumpkins in your backyard, try these 6 steps:

  1. Full sun. We planted our pumpkins in the same spot this year because it gets full sun all day long. It has a southern exposure and is the warmest and sunniest spot in our yard.
  2. Raised bed. This year I built a 4ft x10 ft box and filled it with 6 inches of “garden mix” from the local landscape yard. In large beds, always add a few stepping stones or boards to walk on so that you won’t compact the soil. Pumpkins like to root their vines into the soil as they grow, which provides more nutrients to the plant and, more importantly, the pumpkins! A raised bed creates the perfect environment.
  3. Drip irrigation. Pumpkins like water…lots of it…and at regular intervals. I recently read about a woman who lost her prized Big Max pumpkin when it received a large amount of water all at one time and swelled to the point of cracking. Our drip system is on a timer so the pumpkins get a daily dose of H2O.
  4. Mulch. We added a 2 inch layer of shredded cedar mulch to the raised bed once the plants were about 4 inches tall. This serves two purposes: (1) Moisture is retained in the soil and is less likely to dry out on hot days and (2) the pumpkins have a dry surface on which to grow. If pumpkins come in contact with damp soil for an extended period they can discolor and, in the worse cases, soften and rot.
  5. Flowers and Bees. Pumpkins need bees. Bees like flowers. Attract bees to your pumpkin patch and your flowers are more likely to be pollinated. We planted a row of sunflowers along the back of the box, along with zinnias, marigolds, and rosemary, but the pumpkins grew faster than expected. There are pumpkins on the vine but no sunflowers yet (we’ll plant them earlier next year). Other bee-friendly flowers that we have in the yard include azalea, rhododendron, rose, thyme, red apple, agapanthus, lobelia, lavender, columbine, cosmos, daisy, pansy, primrose, lamb’s ears, sage, poppy, basil, boysenberry, orange. Check out this list of bee-friendly flowers for ideas.
  6. VF-11. We apply VF-11 plant food weekly. This stuff is incredible, and seems like magic. Buy some and use it on all your plants.

Check out these amazing photos that Calvin took of the bees in our pumpkin patch.

Two Bees

Can you say pollination?

Can you say pollination?

And here a few more pumpkin pics…

Jack-Be-Little

Jack-Be-Little

Lumina (white) on the left & Big Max (giant) on the right

Lumina (white) on the left & Big Max (giant) on the right

Trevor just finished an iPhoto class. Here’s his take on the pumpkin patch…

Thank you, Sarah, for the seeds!

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Make your own plant tags – 5 easy steps

July 13, 2008

Here’s a fun and easy project for your vegetable garden and you can recycle at the same time.

Calvin and Trevor show you how…

STEP BY STEP INSTRUCTIONS

What you need:

  • Scissors
  • Aluminum can
  • Wire
  • Wire cutters/pliers
  • Permanent marker

Step One: Cut the can into strips

Step Two: Bend the ends of each strip toward the logo

Step Three: Cut and Bend the wire

Step Four: Bend label onto wire stand

Step Five: Label the tag

Place tag in the garden. They also work well in pots when transplanting or rooting cuttings.

Have fun and please share your garden tips and projects with us.

Four Steps to Perfect Boysenberries

June 3, 2008

Grandma’s Thornless Boysenberries

We picked our first boysenberries today!

I’ve picked my fair share of blackberries and boysenberries but I’ve never grown them before. As a kid we used to pick blackberries by the gallon in a huge vacant lot near our cabin in Monte Rio, California. The plastic buckets hung from strings around our necks so that we could pick with both hands.

The berry patch was massive with tunnels and rows made from old planks that were smashed down over the vines. It was hot and humid. Our hands were purple, itchy, and sticky by the time we finished. We kept wet washcloths in the car for afterward.

At Phipp’s Country Store and Farm near Pescadero, CA, you can pick olallieberries and strawberries then cap it off with a day at the beach.

Our Thornless Boysenberries berries were given to us by Grandma Rita who lives with Grandpa Ed up in Washington. She occasionally brings us goodies. The lillies she gave us are just beginning to bloom.

A couple years ago she brought a hunk of thornless boysenberries from her wonderful garden. It was in a one-gallon can. We didn’t have a place to put it at the time, so I proceeded to abuse the poor plant. I moved the can around the garden and often forgot to water it. That berry plant died and came back to life many times before we finally planted it.

Eventually, we bought a trellis at Costco and set it up in the garden. I split the vine in two and planted one on each side of the trellis.

We don’t have the room to plant the berries in the “proper” manner, namely a one or two-wire trellis row as outlined below. Given this year’s production, I’m not too worried about it. Our thornless boysenberries are watered regularly and get VF-11 plant food weekly during the growing season.

To properly maintain boysenberries, you need to learn two new words: primocane and floracane. Primocanes are the new stems that grow this year. They do not produce berries in year one. The Floracanes are last year’s growth and produce this year’s flowers and berries.

PRUNING IN A NUTSHELL

1. After fruiting in the summer, cut floracanes down to the ground.

2. Tie this year’s primocanes onto trellis and prune to 6-8 ft.

3. Thin semi-upright varieties to 4-8 canes.

4. In early Spring, cut side branches back to 12 inches.

More blackberry tips: Pruning and Training Thornless Blackberries

Baby Hummingbird photos for June 2 & 3

June 3, 2008

The young humming bird was sitting up on the edge of the nest today. I think she’ll be flying soon. Of course, when I try to get close with my camera, she hunkers down into the nest and I miss the perfect shot. Here’s what I did get…

June 2, 2008

June 3, 2008

Baby Hummingbird photos for June 1

June 1, 2008

Daily photos of the hummingbird in our front yard. Looking more like a hummingbird everyday.

hummingbird June 1 #1

Waiting for mom to return to the nest (or telling us to back off).

hummingbird June 1 #2

Baby Hummingbird photos for May 31

May 31, 2008

The kids and I are working on an instructional video. The clip is done but I’ve got a few more photos to take before I post it. In the meantime, enjoy today’s baby hummingbird photos.

We’re starting to see some tail feathers. Notice how the baby tucks herself down into the nest as I get closer.

Pencil added for perspective.

I still haven’t been able to film the baby and mom together. She’s really flighty these days and my camera only takes 30 sec clips at the highest resolution. I’ll keep trying. Happy Saturday.

Baby Hummingbird photos for May 29-30

May 30, 2008

More in the daily hummingbird photo series. I’ve been taking one photo per day since May 15th. It’s actually starting to look like a bird…

May 29th

Baby hummingbird May 29 2008

May 30th

Baby hummingbird May 30 2008


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