Monday, March 30, 2009

Bird, Watching

I am finally making some progress! I now have two ‘lasagna’ beds finished and planted. In addition to the layers of newspaper, peat moss, compost, organic matter (mostly weeds) and topsoil that went onto my new beds, I sprinkled on bone meal, blood meal, kelp meal and soil activator (with microbes that are supposed to help bring the soil to life). These were raked into the top layer. I may add ironite if new growth isn’t as green as it should be. All the amendments had suggestions for rate of application – so many pounds per so many square feet. I can never figure that out – so I sprinkle and hope for the best.

Yesterday being a good day for planting ‘above ground annuals,’* I planted amaranth, cucumber, two varieties of squash, eggplant, nasturtiums, swiss chard and okra. I also planted a variety of herbs, some of which are perennial . . . so I cheated just a bit. Just recently, I read in Mother Earth News that swiss chard does not like full sun and, of course, the bed for it was in the full sun, so I inter-planted the chard with okra in hopes that the taller plants will shade the shorter ones. I had soaked the chard seeds overnight and ended up with more than I needed, so I tossed the extras under a shady tree. Maybe I’ll get something, maybe I won’t. I also realized, after-the-fact, that I had violated the rules of companion planting by putting cucumbers and herbs in the same bed. Well, I don’t have many options at present, so we’ll see how it goes. There should be room in one of the straw bales for another cucumber, so I can compare results. Sort of. I don’t know that comparing a plant in a straw bale to a plant in a lasagna bed is exactly scientific, but it’s an experiment all the same.

When it came to labeling, I had read that one could use plastic knives as labels. I didn’t have any plastic knives, but I did have plastic spoons. So I wrote on the spoon handles with a permanent marking pen and stuck them in the ground in front of the seeds. The labels will likely be illegible by the end of the season, but by then, I shouldn’t need them anymore anyway.

Now I need to keep it all watered until the seeds sprout. Rain is forecast for tomorrow and the next day, so Mother Nature may help me out. Once the plants are up, I intend to snake a soaker hose through the garden and put it on a timer – that will not only save me a lot of work but will keep the garden watered when I go to visit my kids in a month or so. The beds are not all contiguous, so this should get interesting! I will also need to mulch. I’m not sure what to use. In my flower beds, I use pine bark nuggets, but those are awfully coarse for a vegetable garden. Cypress mulch is an environmental no-no, straw is not readily available, compost tends to crust over, and we don’t have a lawn to provide clippings. I think I may use weeds – young, seedless weeds.

In our yard, we have three categories of weeds. There are weeds I like. I call those ‘wildflowers.’ There are weeds we can eat. I call those ‘salad.’ And there are weeds that I don’t like or are growing where they shouldn’t. I call those ‘weeds.’ The neighbors don’t seem to understand my classification system, but they tolerate my eccentricities anyway! I have an abundance of all three categories of weeds, so finding mulch shouldn’t be too onerous.

So why did I title this post "Bird, Watching"? Because today when I watered the garden, there was a bird, watching. 'Charlie,' as we call our blue herons, waited until I had finished and went in for a closer look. I don't think he's seen a lasagna garden before!



it out!!

*according to my moon calendar

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Online Education

I love, love, love the internet! I learn 100 new things every time I log on, and that’s in just the first ten minutes! Okay, slight exaggeration, but I do learn tons . . . better and cheaper than a college education!

One of the things I learned about is straw bale gardening. Straw bale gardening is not suitable for root crops, but for just about anything else – including tomatoes and peppers, which are what I’m planting in mine this year. You start with wheat straw bales tied with synthetic twine, if you can find them. Place the bales with the ties horizontal to the ground in whatever spot you plan to use them (can even be on a balcony, driveway, or other hard surface), and keep them watered for 7-10 days to prime them for planting. During the saturation stage, the wheat supposedly heats up and then cools off. Once they are cool, they are ready to plant. Rough up the top three inches of straw and work in compost, soil -- whatever you plan to plant in. Then plant and water as usual.

I’m using this method for several reasons – one is that I can plant under an existing pergola, giving my tomatoes and peppers dappled sun. I’ve found that full sun can be too intense in this area. The second reason is that tomatoes should not be planted in the same place each year – otherwise diseases build up in the soil. If you have a small garden, as I do, it’s not easy to find new places to put the tomatoes. And lastly, I just want to try it and see how it works. Last year, I tried planting my one tomato upside-down in one of those baggie things, and that was a disaster. Our strong winds whipped the plant around and broke off major branches. Then the winds turned really salty as Gustav and Ike passed through the Gulf. What was left of the tomato plant turned brown and crispy. This year’s crop will be in a more protected spot, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

So the first step is to find straw bales. I was looking in garden centers. Not the place to look. At least around here, you have to look in feed stores or saddleries. I figured I needed four bales and hoped they would fit in the back of my Toyota Highlander. They did, but just barely. I had put a blanket down to protect the interior of the car, but I still had a lot of cleaning to do after I pulled the bales out. The little things they never tell you! I put my bales in place and it has been raining ever since. We have a couple of clear days in the forecast and then more rain, so keeping them wet could not be easier! In the meantime, my tomatoes and peppers have arrived and I have them acclimating on the screened porch.

With all the rain, I’ve been spending more time on the internet learning more wonderful things. Yesterday, I learned about chia seeds. It seems that chia seeds have more omega three’s than flax seeds, don’t have to be ground the way flax does, and are easier to store. Plus they are packed with protein, calcium, anti-oxidants and other wonderful stuff. They supposedly have a pleasant, nutty flavor and can be added to almost anything. If put in water, they turn into gel – which makes me wonder if they could be used to for a Jell-O substitute or added to stewed fruit to make jelly. They can be sprouted and eaten that way, or grown and harvested as young greens (remember chia pets?) I’m not sure how easy they are to grow to maturity – but why not try and find out? I found several sources for the seeds on the internet, but shipping and handling was mucho expensivo, so I’m going to look in our local health food store first.

More tidbits from yesterday’s surfing: Rocket and collard flowers are supposedly delicious! If you live in a warm area like mine, the season for greens like arugula (also known as rocket), lettuce, spinach, cilantro and other cool weather greens is decidedly short. Everything wants to bolt – wherein the leaves turn tough and bitter and flower stalks shoot toward the sky. Of course, the plant doesn’t know it’s supposed to stay a tender, young baby, it just wants to get on with reproduction. But now I know I can eat the flowers if not the leaves, at least of the rocket plants. And cilantro, once it goes to seed, is known as coriander – another second use for a versatile plant. But I am also going to try growing cilantro and arugula indoors this summer, another experiment. Will they last longer in an air-conditioned house? (We keep our thermostat at 80 so it’s not exactly cool . . . but cooler than out-of-doors).

And lastly, I ran across an amazing video yesterday -- A Farm for the Future. This is a long one, fifty-some minutes, but well worth the time it takes to watch. Rather sobbering, really.

Well, another rainy day on my little island. Wonder what I'll learn today?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Another Ooops!

I’ve been too busy to do much blogging, but I have managed to get my one-half a bed planted. I now have my herbs transplanted from their winter flower boxes, some radishes coming up from seed, summer squash and basil popping through the soil. Then I read that pressure treated wood should not be used for raised beds. And what borders my garden?? Pressure treated wood. Oh dear, here I go again . . .

Well, before I started ripping things out, I decided to do a little research. It turns out that pressure treated wood, while not the best choice, may not be totally horrible after all. It also turns out that plants not directly next to the wood are not likely to be contaminated and that any that are contaminated will probably croak on their own. So I’m leaving things the way they are and hoping I don’t poison anyone. I figure my veggies, even with a toxic border, are probably healthier than anything in the grocery store. Life. Always interesting!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Queen of Underestimation

I have got to be the queen of underestimation!! I started out today with high hopes and major plans. According to my nifty calendar, Gardening by the Moon 2009, today is propitious (don’t you love that word?) for planting for root growth, especially flowers and herbs, and for dividing perennials.* So I made my list: divide and share daylilies, divide banana, plant herbs and flowers. I had my herb bed all planned out – a corner by the back stairs with afternoon sun, protection from winds, close and easy to water. I had my method all planned out -- the no-till lasagna method of layering wet newspaper, peat, organic matter, etc. First I removed the sea oats and baby palms to replant elsewhere and then I was ready to prepare the bed.

My mother has used the lasagna method before and she warned me to make sure the newspaper was wet all the way through, so I put water in a plastic box and threw in some of the newspapers my neighbor has been saving for me. I quickly determined that it wasn’t a good idea to soak the papers too long or they would start falling apart. But overall the project went well -- until I ran out of newspapers about half way through. As it became evident I wasn’t going to have enough newspaper, I started using the slick inserts and old catalogs, but even they didn’t stretch nearly far enough. Oh well, I would do half the bed today and half another time.

Next came a layer of sphagnum peat moss. I drove over to Walmart and bought a 2.2cuft bale thinking it would be enough. Well, it covered the newspaper, but barely. That bale of peat cost me $8.56 and it only covered half the bed!! Next came a layer of free weeds, then a layer of topsoil. I dumped three bags of topsoil onto the bed and found it didn’t cover even half of my half. Back to Walmart! Four more bags of topsoil later, I finally finished that layer. Next came a layer of compost from my tumbling compost maker. Some of it has been in that thing for four years waiting for me to actually use it! The composter is now three-quarters empty. The other half of the bed is going to get short-changed!! Finally, I put down four bags of composted cow manure. It does look beautiful!

By now I was drenched in sweat and dead tired. All that planting I had planned would have to wait for the next propitious day. . .

So far, this dirt has cost me $8.56 for peat moss, $8.40 for top soil, and $5.08 for composted cow manure. I still have the other half of the bed to go and organic fertilizers to add. Expensive dirt!!! If I knew for sure this dirt was going to be here year after year, it would make more sense, but who knows when the next hurricane will wash it all into our canal? Okay, let’s call this ‘tuition’ money – better than calling it foolish!

So, not only did I underestimate the amount of money, newspaper, peat moss, soil and compost that I would need, I also underestimated the amount of time and sweat it would take. After lugging 40 pound bags around all day, I’m tired. But it’s a good tired. Now for a glass of wine . . .

*I’ve never planted by the moon before – don’t know if there’s anything to it or not. But I’m for anything that might remotely give my garden a fighting chance, so what-the-hey!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Time Marches On

I have been so busy of late that I haven’t had much time for homesteading activities. That will need to change in the near future or my whole experiment in more sustainable living will be a wipe-out! Ah, life, it does catch up with the procrastinator!

I did want to post a short update on the worm bin. My worms are quite happy and still odor-free. I have been freezing their food in a little baggie, then thawing and adding it to the bin. They seem to like it much better than the raw, whole stuff I was giving them originally. I still have more food scraps than my worms can eat, but I recently read about another method of enriching planting beds that could make use of my partially decomposed compost from the tumbling bin. It’s called lasagna gardening. More on it later.