Archive for the ‘Gardening Tips’ Category

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!

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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

3 Steps to the Perfect Vegetable Garden (Part Three)

May 26, 2008

Step Three: SQUARE FOOT GARDENING

If starting a garden seems like more work than it’s worth, read on because square foot gardening will change your life. And if it doesn’t change your life, it will make gardening much easier and more fun.

I first learned about Square Foot Gardening from a PBS television series in the 70’s hosted by Mel Bartholomew. I picked up Mel’s Book years ago but only recently put his techniques to practice.

“Square foot gardening will save you at least 80 percent of the space, time, and money normally needed to garden, and at the same time will produce a better and more continuous harvest with less work.”

Mel Bartholomew

Why it works so well:

  1. Garden design is simple…just fill in the squares.
  2. Weeds do not overtake a square foot garden.
  3. Soil is not compacted by foot traffic…plants flourish.
  4. More plants in less space.
  5. Most important: You will actually enjoy and succeed at vegetable gardening.

Those of us who love gardening can’t wait for Spring. We have high hopes of planting a variety of vegetables, perhaps some flowers, and maybe even a few odd-looking vegetables just to see how they turn out (last year it was purple carrots). I’ve always taught my kids that gardening is an adventure. We may be doing battle with some pests, or encounter a few setbacks, but we will be rewarded as well. The square foot gardening method eliminates the drudgery of rototilling and grading each year lets get right into planting.

Lush garen

The three basics steps of square foot gardening are:

  1. Build a box
  2. Fill with planting mix
  3. Make a grid

I covered the box-building in my earlier post. Today I want to touch on the planting mix and dive into the grid and planting techniques. While I have been purchasing bags of “garden soil” buying bulk garden mix, Mel Bartholomew suggests the following mixture:

Mel’s Mix

  • 1/3 blended compost
  • 1/3 peat moss
  • 1/3 coarse vermiculite

I’ll probably give it a try next year in one box and post the results.

Lettuce bed

The magic is in the grid. Start with a 4 foot by 4 foot raised bed. divide the box into 12 inch squares. You must do this to make it work. In the box above, I painted a few old wooden stakes and cut them to size.

Now you just plant according the the specs on the seed packet EXCEPT that you plant in a square foot rather that a row. For example, you can fit 4 lettuce heads per square, 9 bush beans per square, 1 broccoli per square, 2 cucumbers per square, 16 carrots per square, 1 eggplant per square, 1 muskmelon per square, 16 onions per square. Are you getting the picture? You can pack a lot of plants in that small space.

In the garden box above, we planted:

4 watermelons (4 squares against trellis)

Scabiosa (1 square)

Zinnias (2 squares)

Chocolate Flower (1 square)

16 lettuce (2 varieties, 4 squares)

Pansies (1 square)

Aster (1 square)

18 spinach (2 squares)

In this box…

We planted:

6 cucumbers (4 Straight Eight, 2 Japanese Soyu Burpless)

2 vining squash (Trombetti di Albonga)

2 acorn squash (Table King)

8 Thai Basil

4 Italian Basil

4 Purple Basil

4 Savory

32 Carrots (Tondi di Parigi)

32 Carrots (French Baby)

Since larger plants require more than a single square , cut your grid markers into one and two-foot sections so that you can improvise like this.

Back Row: We’ve got sugar snap peas on the fence. I just planted pole beans in there (Scarlet Emperor) to take over when it gets too hot for the peas.

Next Row up: Tomatoes require 2 square feet, so I’ve planted two of them in that 3×2 area.

Next Row: Eggplant (Rosa Bianca & Black Beauty) requires 1 square foot, so we planted one on either side of the bush beans (Tavera).

Next Row: 2 strawberries (everbearing) and 1 zucchini (Clarinette Lebanese). This squash actually requires 3ftx3ft, so I’m pushing it with the 2ftx2ft space. We’ll see how it goes.

Front Row: 3 everbearing strawberries

For more information, planting guides, trellis ideas and more, pick up Mel’s Book. If you have any square foot gardening tips, tricks and success, please share them.

3 Steps to the Perfect Vegetable Garden (Part Two)

May 23, 2008

Step Two: RAISED BEDS

Raised Beds

This one tip can make your garden grow lush, with better seed germination, fewer weeds, and higher vegetable/flower production. Soil prep is also greatly reduced, saving you a ton of prep time and effort each Spring.

Why it works:

  1. You never compact the garden soil by walking on it.
  2. Rototilling is eliminated.
  3. Weeds come out effortlessly.
  4. Vegetable roots spread quickly in the loose garden soil.
  5. Plants grow and fill out rapidly.
  6. Gardening is compartmentalized.

For years I planted our vegetable garden in rows in the existing clay soil. I did amend our soil each year but it became compacted as I walked between the rows to pull weeds, water plants, or harvest. Winter rains further compacted the soil. In the early Spring I’d pull out the rototiller and go to work. I don’t know about you, but in the spring I want to plant, not rototill. I typically avoided the tilling until late in the season. Some years, the Bermuda grass and weeds took over and we never got around to planting a garden at all.

Then I decided to bite the bullet and build a few raised beds and fill them with garden mix. I used old lumber I had collected over the years from past projects or tear-downs. The boxes don’t have to be pretty, just functional. You don’t even need nails. Some of our boxes are made up of a few 4x4s laid on the ground with a couple stakes hammered into the ground to hold them in place.

Raised Bed

Craigslist is a great place to find free lumber and keep it out of the landfill.

I used 2×6 and 4×6 boards for other boxes…whatever I had on hand. I recommend that you fill the bed with at least six inches of good planting mix or garden mix. Most vegetables will root into the top 6″ of soil. The underlying soil will help retain moisture and give aggressive roots a place to go. If your lumber is only 4″ high, dig out 2 inches of existing soil before filling the boxes.

Add planting mix

You can buy planting mix bags at your local nursery or home supply store. If you have a truck, call landscape supply yards and see if they have a “garden mix”. You can save a lot of money if you buy the soil mix in bulk. They will deliver large loads. If you go this route, you may need to add compost to the bulk mix. In my experience, the bulk mixes don’t contain quite enough organic material. The loamy soils are nice but can form a “crust” on top and hinder water penetration. I’ve remedied this by mixing compost into the top layer or adding a product like Soil Moist when planting. Check the soil quality before you buy. The mixture will vary between landscape supply companies. If you want more organic material in the mix, see if they will mix more compost into it for you before they load it into your truck.

Strawberry Patch

You can make boxes in any size but, ideally, you should be able to reach the veggies without stepping inside the box. This keeps everyone from walking on the soil. A good size to start with is four feet by four feet.

TIP: If you have to go with larger boxes (like I did above), add stepping stones or planks to avoid soil compaction. I put three stones in the (far) pumpkin patch above.

In the winter, cover the unused boxes with a 2″ layer of leaves or straw to keep weeds in check. I leave the mulch in place until I am ready to ready to plant each box. If you only get one box planted, no problem. The weeds don’t get out of control in the other beds and they are still waiting for you when you are ready.

Rototilling is not needed. Just add a layer of compost on top of the garden soil in the Spring. Mix it in with your favorite hand tool. A hula hoe works well too.

Garden Tools

Start small and test it out. Build a 3 or 4 foot square and see how it goes. I’d love to hear how this works for you.

3 Steps to the Perfect Vegetable Garden (Part One)

May 21, 2008

Step One: VF-11Plant Food

The bottle reads “Seems like magic! ON ALL YOUR PLANTS”. It’s a pretty non descript label…looks like something out of the 50’s. Nothing fancy. Just black ink on a white bottle. It’s called Eleanor’s VF-11 Plant Food and it blew me away when I first tried it.

VF-11

We use it on everything from tomatoes to zinnias to Japanese Maples. Last season our tomatoes and zinnias were over 5 feet tall, dark green, and very healthy. The Japanese Maple is lush and never looked so good. The roses are strong and suffered no aphid damage. The flowers actually perked up the day after application. I’m not kidding! I can go on and on.

The easiest way to apply it is with a hose-end auto-mix sprayer. We use the Gilmour Hose-End Sprayer #486 . It comes with two nozzles, the “wide spray” pictured here and a “gentle spray” which is great for pots with delicate plants. It requires no mixing. Just pour in the VF-11 and set the dial to “6”, which automatically mixes the VF-11 and water at the proper rate as you spray. All you need to do it wet down the plants, so you can cover a large area in just a few minutes.

Gilmour Sprayer 486

The trick is to make it easy for yourself. Buy the sprayer and keep it next to the VF-11 and in a convenient location (close to the hose). It’s important to make this a habit. Use it once per week on all your plants and write me if you do not see a major improvement.

I can’t say enough about the Gilmour people. I had an old Gilmour sprayer for over 10 years. It had seen better days and was beginning to leak and come apart. I was about to toss it out when I noticed “Lifetime Guarantee” on the label. I found their customer service number online and gave them a call. They asked me a few questions and then said “Your replacement sprayer will be shipped out this week”. No hassles. No charge. Gilmour’s product quality and customer service are both superb.

Get yourself a sprayer and some VF-11 and please let me know how it works for you.

It’s time to Plant the garden

May 20, 2008

Look at that squash! (2007)

Well here we go. I’ve been thinking about blogging for awhile now and the garden seems like the perfect place to start. This is Chris (Dad). I’ll be the primary voice here for awhile. Hopefully, one of the kids will chime in from time to time. Mom isn’t much into gardening, but she bears with the tracked-in dirt and the “compost bucket” under the sink.

We’ve had a lot of fun out there over the years. Our garden has seen its share of success and failure, and we’ve learned from it all.

We’ll share with you what works for us and what doesn’t as we plant our garden this year. We will include reviews on our favorite products (like VF-11, and Ladybug Land), gardening tips (like composting and square foot gardening), and share our struggles & successes. Last year’s challenge was pumpkins that never matured. This year we have what looks like verticillium wilt attacking a patch of pansies.

The bottom line is that it’s an adventure out there. If you haven’t started your garden this year, take a day this weekend and spend it in the garden. If the task seems too daunting, start small…very small. Clear enough space for one tomato plant and a few marigolds. If you don’t like tomatoes, how about bush beans?

THIS WEEKEND:

Buy a container and some good potting soil and start there. I’d suggest a depth of twelve inches or more on the container so that it retains moisture. Short boxes dry out too quickly and the plants will suffer if they dry out. Promise yourself that you’ll plant at least one veggie and one flower this weekend. And if you have kids, get them involved!