Another Day in the Garden

1.jpgI am enjoying a first cup of coffee this morning and planning the day’s gardening activities. The peas are making a remarkable recovery after their encounter with hungry deer, but not quite ready to pick. Our drought continues so Grandpa watered them the other day.

I should do something with the beets before the deer find them. I hid the beets between the asparagus and Swiss Chard this year. Oddly, the deer don’t seem to like Swiss chard, but will devour beets, which are the same species (beta vulgaris), right down to the soil level.

My potted peppers which have been producing well in the greenhouse have been attacked by some species of aphid and need to move outdoors where the lady bugs can attack the aphids. They are such cute little bugs 4but have such murderous intent.

2

3There are raspberries, red currents and beans to pick, everything to water. The birds have eaten most of the currants off the tops of the bushes but haven’t found the lower ones which are hanging like bright red little bunches of grapes. I am not sure if I am glad or sad.

Maybe I need a second cup of coffee.

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Habitat for Composting Worms

I have had a few questions about the container I am using for vermicomposting. There are a number of “worm bins/inns/hotels” on the market and the thing that most of them have in common is that they are all expensive.  The thing I have been using for a summer habitat for my red wigglers is a set of Rubbermaid totes that Grandpa and I modified for this purpose.  Since we built them they have served exceptionally well.  Here is a repost of how we built them.

We made a summer habitat for the red wigglers out of Rubbermaid Roughneck totes. I don’t like to advertise for any particular product and I am sure one could find another tote that would work as well and might be cheaper, but these are good because they come in a variety of sizes (S, M, L) that all stack together. The lids are even interchangeable. The lid has a nice sized rectangle in the middle that one can cut out and cover with screen for ventilation. They are very durable even in cold weather and can be cut and drilled without cracking. To make the worm habitat I used four totes: two large, one medium and one small.

totes

We made a hole on the end near the bottom of one of the largest size totes and installed a drain port and hose. This box, or drain tank, collects the worm pee/liquid fertilizer. The worms will drown if their box doesn’t drain. I laid a couple foot long pieces of 1 inch diameter PVC pipe in the bottom as spacers. (Sorry, I am old. I can’t do carpentry in metric measure, but measurements don’t have to be exact anyway.)

tub with holesThen we used a second large size tote and drilled a bunch of ¼ inch holes in the bottom so liquid could drain out of it. This is the first layer where the worms hang out to start with each spring. I set it inside the drain tank.

 

screened lidWe cut the centre rectangle out of one of the lids and taped window screen on it with duct tape. This provides lots of aeration for the worms.

I start the worms out in spring in the largest tote with the drain holes and give them some moistened bedding (dry leaves, straw, dry grass clippings or shredded newspapers) and feed them all the kitchen scraps and garden waste I can find. When their box gets too full, I just put another box (with half-inch holes drilled in the bottom) on top of the one that is full, using the medium tote and then the smallest and moving the screened lid up to each successive layer. As their food supply moves upward so do the wigglers. By the time they have made it up into the top box they have usually abandoned the bottom one which is now full of great vermicompost. I can lift the medium and small totes off and harvest the compost from the bottom. I suppose one could use only large sized boxes, but they get pretty heavy and hard to lift when it is time to take the compost out. A stack of three would be a daunting task. It usually takes my wigglers until fall to fill all three boxes.

worm jarFor the winter, one must move the red wigglers indoors since they are not winter hardy like our native earthworms. I have tried several ways of doing this and the best I have found so far is to put them into a large plastic jar with half-inch holes drilled all over it, and bury the jar up to the lid in an even larger flowerpot with a big drainage saucer. I put a bit of window screen inside the lid of the jar which is also drilled with holes for aeration. I can feed the worms by unscrewing the lid and putting in some kitchen scraps. There doesn’t seem to be any excess moisture buildup but if there was it would drain into the flowerpot’s saucer. The screen inside the lid keeps any fruit flies at bay and sometimes I even grow a few houseplants or salad greens in the soil around the jar.

Worm Pee Fertilizer

worm peeThat’s really a misnomer. Worms don’t actually urinate. More properly called “leachate”; it is the liquid that drains out of the composting worms’ box as the red wigglers breakdown the kitchen and garden scraps I feed them.

It’s now about that time when most of the veggies are coming into production and working their hardest for flowers, fruit and increased size. The demands on the plant require that their roots gather extra nutrients. Watering helps, rainfall is better, but sometimes they also need a little boost of available nutrients. One way I like to help them out is with a small dose of fertilizer. The soil in my garden is rich and fertile, but I have found that a little boost at this time of year seems to help. The way I like to provide that is by giving my plants a good watering with diluted worm leachate.

Many resources will suggest that leachate must be filtered and aeriated in order for it to be used as fertilizer, but my plants seem happy enough with it just being watered down. I mix it about 1:10 with water and pour it onto the soil at the base of the plant. Some growers will use diluted leachate as a foliar spray, but I wouldn’t recommend that for vegetable crops – it is rotten food after all. Although plants love it, it’s not what you would want to eat!

Joe Lamp’l is the Host and Executive Producer of the award winning PBS television series Growing A Greener World. A while ago he had a lab do an analysis of the fertilizer value of worm leachate. the chart below gives the results. As you can see, it’s pretty good fertilizer.

worm leachate analysis

Read about Joe’s experience using leachate here.

The Greens are Ready!

chardPlanted in late May, the leafy greens are all ready to start using. They got of to a poor start in the spring drought. I direct seeded about a 30-foot row of Fordhook Giant chard in late May. Initially only about ten plants emerged but after we finally got some rain in mid-June the row filled in. Amazing what some rain will do. Now that we have had a more reasonable amount of precipitation the younger seedlings are almost indistinguishable from their older siblings.

chard washedSteamed and served with a splash of vinegar and a dab of butter this dishpan full will be a highlight of tonight’s supper menu.

beet greensBeet greens sautéed in Italian salad dressing is another favorite this time of year.

 

lettuce in the gardenSalad greens are the easiest to grow. I have Romaine and a couple kinds of leaf lettuce in my garden, including a few volunteers that showed up where last year’s lettuce row was planted – better late than never!

pop bottle lettuceNo garden space? No problem. Just an old pop bottle and a handful of soil will grow a small salad. It’s better if picked before starting to bolt. It’s never going to achieve the same growth as lettuce grown in an outdoor soil garden but is still very edible and fresh tasting. AND one can grow any it time of year. Lettuce loves a full sun outdoor location, but a sunny window is probably enough light once the daylight is lasting at least 8 hours (zone 1b y’know).

Almost any veggie’s baby leaves are great salad additions: beets are the best, but any of the brassicas and even baby carrot leaves are tasty. Not the nightshades tho’  – we grow them for their fruits and tubers but the leaves are poisonous!

Stupid Birds!

swallowsThere are a pair of barn swallows trying to build their nest made of little balls of mud over the back door of our house. They don’t seem to remember why they are called “barn swallows”. They first day they tried it I caught them early and wiped away the still wet mud on the lintel. Undeterred they got to work early the next morning and tried again. But Grandpa and I were up for an early start on a trip to the city and wiped away their construction once again. Ours was an overnight trip so by the time we got home the next evening the swallows had a nest they could actually sit in and a mess of droppings on the back step ready for us to walk into. This called for drastic action by Grandpa and the water hose with a high-pressure nozzle.

They might not be too smart, but they are persistent. There are a multitude of sheltered spots on outbuildings in our yard where they would be most welcome to nest. We even encourage them to share our homestead and appreciate their insect hunting as they rear their young on hoards of mosquitoes and other insects that are problematic in the garden. This pair that are intent on building in the one place we do not want a nest, are the exception. Grandpa has tried scare tactics and repellent images (artificial cats and owls) but if we are unable to discourage them, the next step may have to be a game of badminton with a real birdie.

waxwing and strawberriesWhile insectivores are most welcome here, we also have a number of bird species that are pretty to look at but can be destructive in the garden, so we are always on the lookout for ways to encourage them to look elsewhere for their meals. We do enjoy the birds, even those who want to share some of the produce and really; how much can a bird actually eat? Well, quite a lot if there are enough of them. A couple years I sat in the greenhouse and watched the Cedar Waxwings devour my strawberry crop – the berries were on sale at the co-op that week anyway and it was fun to watch them!

strawberry rocksThe next day I painted some small rocks to look like ripe strawberries and set them out among the plants. The birds only had to try a couple bites of granite before they decided to leave the strawberry patch alone and look for more palatable dining spots. Larry the Laidback Gardener has a similar idea to protect tomatoes by decorating the plants with red Christmas balls!

The birds also enjoy my current bushes. I could cover them with netting, but I rarely do. The birds get the berries on the top of the bushes, but the impenetrable branches of the currents seem to protect the lower berries – and those are the ones I can reach from my garden seat, anyway. Currents are very productive! The 30 foot choke cherries are another matter. I must be attentive to the ripening of the berries or the blackbirds will strip them before I get my pail filled! They seem to know exactly the day I want to pick and get out there the day before. I have found a way to foil them though, by picking my share when the berries are just slightly under ripe. Left unwashed in the pail, the berries ripen on their own in a day or two. Happy gardening!

Companion Planting ???

As a grandmother gardener, I should be the last one to question ancient and accepted wisdom; but when it comes to companion planting, I am looking for some sound science. Considering companion planting, I’m inclined to agree with the quote attributed to Will Rogers, “The problem … isn’t so much what people don’t know; the problem is what people think they know that just ain’t so.”

The concept of companion planting is that some plant species like to grow near plants of some other species and hate to grow near still others. The guru of the movement is an old book by Louise Riotte, Carrots love Tomatoes. The first problem is that newbie gardeners seem to be taking it as gospel truth. The bigger problem is that there is very little real science behind the book’s assertions. Other than being a life-long gardener (and what old lady in her generation wasn’t), I could find no evidence of Riotte’s horticultural credentials.

potato and squash gardenSome of the assertions of the companion planting theory are just plain ridiculous. For example it is opined that potatoes will grow well near pumpkin but should not be planted near squash. That is highly unlikely since pumpkin and squash are the same species, different cultivars of Cucurbita pepo.

Of course, there are some plants that can produce biochemical substances that inhibit the growth of other species. This is well known, and more importantly, scientifically proven. It is process called allopathy. I have benefited from this in my own garden where I find that my self seeding tomatillos require very little weeding. As well, some plants can harbour disease organisms that affect certain neighboring plants or plants gowning in subsequent seasons in the same soil. This is one of the reasons why crop rotation benefits gardens and farms. And certainly, some plant species have growth habits that facilitate improved growth in their neighbors or subsequent plantings, e.g. legumes ability to fix nitrogen inn the soil.  These are some instances of sound science employed in planting and gardening activities.

marigoldsA couple of companion planting tips that I have observed in my own garden and that may or may not be proved out in a controlled study are 1) I have found less predation by cabbage loopers where brassicas are planted very close to nightshades (tomato, potato, pepper, tomatillo). I suspect that the toxic foliage of the nightshades discourages the moths and butterflies from laying their eggs near them. 2) Marigolds: despite being touted as insect repellants, I have found they do nothing to reduce insect damage in susceptible crops. They are quite pretty in the garden, though.

Women Farmers

aMoore2When we think about farmers, here in Saskatchewan, we tend to think of a younger man operating a tractor or a combine over thousands of acres. In fact many of their wives, sisters, and daughters are just as involved in the farming operation as the men. (Photo credit to Yvette Moore, illustrator of The Prairie Alphabet; probably one of the best children’s books ever written for adults. Permission requested.)

Much of the world’s food supply is grown by women, working small plots of land. They are growing food to supply their families’ nutrition and income needs. Unfortunately in many places their efforts are impacted negatively because they have no access to the education and resources that would help them improve the productivity of their farming operations. In spite of that, they are doing something to improve their food security.

Parents and teachers in schools in developing countries are setting up vegetable gardens and teaching children to grow food. Sometimes they have some help with these initiatives from international aid agencies. Read about this one in Cambodia.

cambodia school garden

Improving food security may be why we are also gardening more. According to Hutchinson News (2016) “It’s estimated that during the past decade several million new household gardens have been planned, planted, and tended by first-time gardening families in the U.S.

Though this may be a new experience for many, in some ways it’s a repeat of an earlier effort made 75 years ago, when a financial depression and a world war brought many Americans ‘back to the land’ in the form of backyard plots called Victory Gardens.

In 1943 more than 20 million gardens were planted to provide fresh fruits and vegetables on the home front. During World War II much of the commercially produced food was used to feed the troops. In the face of shortages and rationing, Americans turned lawns and flower beds into garden plots. City dwellers were able to get into the act by planting container gardens on rooftops and fire escapes. Community gardens were developed in vacant lots or on land in public spaces. Some of the biggest public gardens were located in New York’s Central Park, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and across the pond in Hyde Park in London. Actually, the Brits were the first to start growing their own food in 1940. As the war escalated, the movement spread throughout Canada and the U.S., as ordinary citizens did their part to support the war effort.”

I’d be willing to bet that most of those “ordinary citizens” in Britain, Canada and the USA were women.