Archive for July, 2008

Growing Your Own

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

“Grow Your Own” is a fascinating article by Allison Arieff in the New York Times (July 28th, 2008). We seem to have caught the wave ahead of time when we changed our garden plots from purely ornamental to growing organic produce.


Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

Just think of all the waste that is generated in a household on any given day. A large part of this waste can be turned into humus, a nutrient rich addition to your garden. By composting not only do you wind up with fabulously rich soil with an improved texture, you also make a contribution to our environment. During the composting phase organic material decays and produces organic fertilizer. And that is good stuff for your plants!

What materials can you recycle?

Garden or kitchen refuse, such as grass clippings, branches, flowers, plant cuttings, weeds (it is best to avoid weeds that have gone to seed or are pervasive), fruit, vegetables, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags; small amounts of paper products can also be composted (e.g. paper towels, black and white newsprint, cardboard if broken into small pieces, paper products should be thoroughly soaked before you add them to your compost), hair or nail clippings, and I am sure you can come up with many more items.

Materials you want to avoid:

anything treated with pesticides or chemical fertilizers, deceased plant materials, dog or cat feces, dairy products, meat, bones, oil, fats, vinegar, household cleaners, and  of course any toxic materials.

Now to the How-To:

if you have the space in your garden you can build a nice compost heap. Any shady, well drained spot will do, but since you will add to the compost heap on a regular basis you may consider the location for ease of access. While a remote corner of your garden may seem an ideal place, you might not be so eager to trudge out there on a rainy day or in mid winter.

Place the materials on the pile in loose layers, the layers allow the air to circulate and thus stimulate the process of decay. Start with a base layer of woodsy material, then try to alternate a layer of kitchen refuse or green garden clippings with the woodsy stuff. A chipper does an excellent job of breaking down the tougher cuttings or branches. Sprinkle some water on each layer (rain water is ideal for this), and continue until your mulch pile is about 1 meter (3 feet or so) high. Sprinkle some humus or garden soil over each layer. You may also want to spread a little compost starter (commercially available in most garden centers) on each layer as you build your compost heap to start things going.  Make the final layer out of grass clippings, this acts as insulation to keep the generated heat in and cold air out. You might want to gently poke into the pile with a pitch fork once in a while to make sure air can circulate, some people also turn the entire pile periodically. I tend to build up the compost heap and other than sprinkling it with water in very hot weather to ensure it doesn’t dry out I leave it to do its magic by its own.

No room in the garden for a compost heap? If you have a black trash bag and a sunny spot you are in business. Simply place the composting materials in the bag, add some soil, tie the bag and place it in the sun. You should have good humus in a short time because the black bag retains heat well.

Then spread the humus around your plants to give them that extra boost.

Organic fertilizers

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Once in a while even the sturdiest of plants in the garden appreciate a little boost. Liquid fertilizers are a lot of fun to make, they are just about free, fruit and vegetable trimmings are recycled, and I find the results amazing.

Stinging Nettle brew

My very favorite fertilizer is a brew made with stinging nettles. It is really easy to prepare, all you need is

  • a plastic or wooden container (because metal has a tendency to react during the fermentation process),
  • a bunch of nettles, try to harvest them before they have gone to seed,
  • rain water if available, or tap water drawn the day before,
  • plastic gloves to remove the ouch factor when you touch the nettles

cut the nettles into pieces, fill the bucket with water but make sure to leave some room on top because the liquid will foam as it starts to ferment. Place the container in a sunny location, then all you have to do is wait until the color of the brew is a nice dark brown and you notice its ‘fragrance’ as you walk by. Stir the mix a couple of times during the day to let air circulate.  I use a long wooden stick for that because you really don’t want to get the mix on your hands (see comment above  about its ‘fragrance’). The time it takes until your fertilizer is ready to use depends on the temperature, but a good guideline is a dark color of the liquid and no more foam. I find that when the days are warm and sunny the mix can be used in about 1 week.

Before applying this nourishing soup to your plants you will want to dilute it until the color is no darker than weak tea.  It is better to work with a weaker solution and repeat the application after a few days than to harm your plants. I never pour any of this on the leaves so as not to burn them but apply it to the soil around the plants. Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash all groove on this fertilizer, but some plants (garlic, onions, beans and peas for instance) are not happy with the nettle fertilizer. For those you can prepare a fertilizer from a mix of herbs.

A word of caution: pumpkins seem to respond overly enthusiastic to the nettle fertilizer. My 3 plants are threatening to take over not only the vegetable garden but have already sent out their feelers underneath the fence and are now headed into the street.

Liquid herbal manure

can be prepared in a similar fashion, but instead of nettles use whatever herbs are available. Lately I have also experimented with a mix of raw fruit and vegetable trimmings. Works just as well, right now I have a bucket filled with onion and garlic peels,  trimmings from leeks, carrots, lettuce, parsely, red beet skins etc. It is quite aromatic already, the bigger pieces have dissolved, and it should be ready to dilute and use in a day or so.

My Herb Garden

Friday, July 25th, 2008

What better time than the late days of fall and warm days of early winter, before the heavy frosts set in, to prepare the soil for the coming growing season. Sounds easy, sounds like fun, all that fresh air, you get some exercise in the process and hopefully healthful vegetables in the coming spring and summer. I was ready to rock and roll, I was quite confident, probably humming some little tune, as I got my tools from the shed, and set out to get things ready for the seeds that were already taking up a fair amount of space on our kitchen window (I am speaking of seeds in packets here, nothing sprouting yet). Things moved along smoothly for a few minutes until the spade hit something unyielding about halfway in.  Similar results a little further over. Stones, big stones, most of them more like rocks, lay waiting just below the layer of earth that I tried to turn. I’ll spare you the details, but it is amazing how quickly your muscles build up . I also learned that you have to move the stones further away from the area you are working in, otherwise you trip over them. Duh! At some point in the near future we are planning to build a wall, nothing all that high, but now there is this rather impressive pile of stones stacked nearby. Waste not want not, or something like it.

Since the work I had planned turned out to be more labor and time intensive than originally anticipated, when spring came I had only a fraction of my garden ready to plant. I needed a reward for my labors though, something that would show quick results, some plants that could be harvested soon. What could be better than herbs!

I had about a yard’s width of prepared good soil next to the path, and I could not wait to get something going. A friend had given me some cuttings of her rosemary the previous fall, miraculously they had all taken, so they were the first to take up residence. Next came thyme, parsley, oregano and marjoram, and of course chives. I added mint, a fabulous addition to a cups of tea or a glass of water, then cilantro, and it seemed I could not pass a display of plants without something getting added to the herb garden. The plants are now amazingly happy and healthy, with an occasional application of nettle tea as organic fertilizer the amount of herbs we can use in our kitchen does not make a dent in what is growing.

I have seen pictures of well designed gardens, where all the plants are neatly lined up in rows, with enough space between that allows easy access. My garden does not fit that mold. In my garden the plants mingle quite happily, the pink blossoms of oregano are intertwined with the tiny violet-blue flowers of ‘hyssopus officionalis’ (Hyssop, an herb native to the southern parts of Europe and Asia, an excellent addition to salads). Yellow marigolds peek out between them, bellflowers and summer asters, they all coexist beautifully.  It makes me smile just looking at them.

Hello Friends!

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

I really couldn’t tell you what possessed me to start growing our own vegetables. After all, for years we have been quite happy buying whatever food we needed at local supermarkets where the selection can make your mouth water and the seasons never end. Cherries for dessert on Christmas day, asparagus in February, oranges in June, is everybody happy? Yes! Yes! Yes!

It had occurred to me that I might be turning the clock back a number of years to a time when my mother and grandmother had taken turns tending to the rows of lettuce, onions, carrots, potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes, and I am sure there must have been more that I cannot remember anymore, that occupied most of the space that is now given over to grass.

But let me start at the beginning …

If you have ever had any work done in or around your house this might sound familiar and you have my full and heartfelt sympathy. I had the first niggling feeling that we might be in for more than we bargained for the day a bulldozer sat in the middle of what used to be our living room and started belching smoke and moving earth back and forth. Next came the bathroom, then the kitchen. You have not been in touch with nature until you have had to take your shower outdoors, rain or shine, no matter what the temperature. In our defense I have to say that we did have the foresight to plan this for the summer months. In retrospect I have to say that I feel very lucky that our marriage survived it all ;)

It could have been as simple as the empty plot behind the house, where the tires of numerous machines had left deep gouges before departing not a day too soon, sending out accusing vibes every time I passed it by, not a blade of grass in sight, just a big empty, ugly plot of earth. In early spring, as the first sparse green blades started to poke out of the barely thawed uneven soil I had to come to a decision. Either plant grass (another area to mow? nope!), plant a big flower bed (a lot of effort where I already had more than enough blooming plants tucked into various corners of the garden), or maybe, for the heck of it, turn that area into something useful. Like a vegetable patch. Hm! Maybe! YES!