Posts Tagged ‘flowers’

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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