Thursday, January 28, 2010

Compost Made Easy

When I teach home gardening classes there are always people who complain they cannot make compost. I always ask, “If a tree falls in the forest, does it rot?”
“Of course,” they answer.

So why do people have problems with composting? They read too many books and articles by people who try to make a simple natural process complex.

 First off let’s define terms:
  1. Compost is a finished, rotted organic matter
  2. Composting is the process of organic decomposition speeded by humans.
  3. Carbon rich matter ( CRM) is dry plant materials
  4. Nitrogen rich matter NRM) is green plant materials and manure from plant eating animals
  5. Hot compost reaches tempuratures of 140F and higher
  6. Cold compost does not get very hot 100F is maximum
  7. Vermiculture the science of using worms to make worm castings to enrich the soil.
To make compost all you need to do is mix Nitrogen rich matter with Carbon rich matter and add some water. Simple. Yes?

 Well, not really. Too much NRM and the compost can stink. Too little and the process moves slowly. Just the same the other way ‘round; too much CRM slows down; too little CRM and you get bad odors. Too much water and the pile stagnates. Too little water and it just sits dry. Our Fire Chief issues warnings every summer to keep the compost pile watered. It cuts down on backyard fires. (Spontaneous combustion from the heat generated by the NRM in contact with the CRM.)

 So how on earth do you know how much to use? Don’t you have to layer, then turn, then turn, then turn? When do I know if my compost is too wet or dry? Isn’t a composter with a lid the best? I heard you should spread the compost materials over the entire garden in fall and have compost ready in the spring? Oh, how about after spreading the compost covering it with black plastic to sterilize all the seeds? But, don’t I have to have ‘hot’ compost for the flower bed, ‘cold’ compost for the vegetable garden, and feed worms in a tub with my kitchen scraps? Don’t I have to buy a compost ‘starter’ for my compost to work? How about buying this herb combination that is said to correct all composting problems?

 I learned about composting from Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine in the early ‘70’s. I read the ones at Grandpa Bill’s and Grandma Jo’s house. The articles were written by the Rodale family members, a handful of horticulturists and a great number of subscribers learning by trial and error.

 It was reading the magazines that led me to building my first compost pile out on Uncle Johnny's dairy farm in 1971. We were helping out on the farm since Grandpa Bill had a heart attack and Cousin Jimmy broke his leg. Being two people down, help was needed to get some chores done.
The edges of the feed room were filled with moldering hay and feed. I took it upon myself to wheel out the unusable feed to the garden area. I would add buckets of manure from cleaning the 'manure trough' in the milking area. Grandpa Bill was a bit irritated about my endeavors. Seems piles of old hay and straw had been dumped in the garden before and those were very difficult to till in, come planting time.
 I explained that OGaFM said the pile should be great organic fertilizer in by planting time in four months. The difference from before was that this pile had manure which would aid in breaking down the hay. Grandpa Bill harrumphed.
One day in August, Grandma Jo showed Scott and me the ‘bump’ in the garden. Where I had built my compost pile the plants were larger and greener than the rest of the garden. I saw that composting really does work! And it was so easy.

That first compost pile was about 3 parts CRM and 1 part NRM. It didn’t all break down, since the hay and straw were full size. But the composting action had softened up the stems so when Grandpa Bill went over with the tractor he had no problem plowing under the remains of the compost pile.

 We moved into what I dubbed ‘The Volkswagen Garage.’ We later found out the building was part of the old Lewis family homestead. It was built by Grandpa Jeff as part of his Eagle Scout Award. He built it as a wood shed 15 ft wide and 25 ft deep. Later, when his grandmother wanted to give the farm house to Jeff’s dad, they remodeled it into a very small one bedroom house for her. We lived there about 18 months; right across the street from Uncle Bill’s and Aunt Ellen’s first landlady. I promise I won’t tell tales out of school!
Anyway, there was limited planting area around the house. And no room for a compost pile. Every day I put the kitchen compostables (parings, pits, cores, coffee grounds, tea bags) in a paper bag and buried it in the flower beds. I noticed on my second round of composting this way, my earliest bags were pretty much gone in about six months. An upside from this method, we had potatoes in the flower beds. No problem, we enjoyed the potato plants and robbed fresh potatoes that summer.

 Have I made my point? Composting is easy. Everything rots. My favorite book on composting is, Let it Rot!: The Gardener's Guide to Composting (Third Edition) (Storey's Down-to-Earth Guides)  by Stu Campbell. He has a down to earth view on how easy it is to make this garden staple. He is funny and informative. The book is not too long; but carries the information you need to compost.

Compost rots because of the critters that live in the soil. Worms, ants, beetles and other insects. Microbes (bacteria, microscopic insects, fungi) work to make the organic matter small enough to be useful to plant roots. The conditions have to be just right for the compost to rot. Like I said earlier, not too much of any one thing. If your pile is suffering from too much Nitrogen, add some Carbon in the form of dead leaves or straw. Too much Carbon, morning urine can really jump start the decomposition. (Yes, you heard me right. An older couple were worried about having too many leaves in their compost. I laughingly made the suggestion. Next time we spoke, the husband confessed to have tried it. It worked! Just make sure you are screened from the neighbor's view. I take no responsibility for your actions.)

I think layering came about as a way to ensure your compost pile had the right compliment of ingredients. If you want to layer, fine. I just chuck plant material into the compost pile. When it gets about two feet high, I turn it over and mix it up. Okay that is what I did before I became unable to work in the garden. Now I just throw things into a pile and let it rot. It takes six months to a year to become usable compost.

‘Hot’ ‘Cold’ Vermiculture
For ‘Hot’ compost you must shred or chop all of you components very small, and water until damp. Then put in a pile that gets turned at least once a week. The pile will heat up enough to kill most seeds and diseases. The heat is the action of the microbes eating away. I used to do this. It makes great compost but is a lot of physical work.
Cold compost doesn’t heat up very much. You can either shred/chop or not. (By making the material small you speed up the process, otherwise it may take a year to compost completely.) Everything still rots, but there might be living seeds that come with the finished compost. I had scads of seedling tomatoes in my flower beds from using cold compost. I just pulled them up and composted them.
Vermiculture in a tub is your choice. I have found worms in my compost. LOTS of worms. I compost both my garden and kitchen waste together. Worms love coffee grounds! It is not necessary to have a worm tub if you compost in your garden.

You don’t really need compost starters and herbal activators. When you are building you compost pile, add a shovel full of regular garden soil every foot or so. That should contain the composting critters to get you started. Or use some old compost.  Just add enough water to dampen the pile as you build it.  No need to flood anything.

If you have a problem with wet compost, turn it over leaving it fluffy to dry out. Or spread it out in the sun for a day or two. I have used umbrellas to shelter my compost bins. They keep out excess moisture.
If your compost is too dry, turn it into a new pile adding water to each level. If you try to just water from the top; think how a thatched roof works. I have used umbrellas to contain moisture in the pile.

When I used to turn the compost, I found a white, ashy material all over the grass clippings. This is a fungus that is breaking down the material. It’s good.
I’ve never found a rat or mouse or flies or other vermin in my working compost. That’s because I never, ever add fats, grease, bones, or meat to my compost.  Nor do I use disease carrying human, cat or dog feces.  EVER!
I have found worm masses the size of a basket ball. I was so happy; worms are a soil’s best friend. Oh, there was the baby corn snake curled up in the warmest part of a working compost pile once. I just moved it over with the rest of the material.

How does compost help your garden?
  • It makes clay soils less ‘heavy.’ Clays can be so dense water will not penetrate them. Plant roots cannot find room to grow. Using compost helps to loosen up the soil.  The organic matter in compost helps to open up the pores of the soil; giving roots a place to grow. You must continue to add organic matter to clay as it decays or eventually the soil will compact again.
  • It helps sandy soils to retain more water. The organic matter fills in the pores of sandy soil making it more absorbent. Water does not drain off so fast; giving plants a steady source of water.
  • As it decomposes even more, compost becomes fertilizer for the garden. Plants take up nutrients through their roots. Compost supplies those nutrients needed for plant growth.

And the best part of composting: You are recycling back into Mother Earth.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Flowers Year Round

I never knew there were so many winter flowering plants until I took 'Identifying Woody Plant Material' at OSU.  That class was two hours of walking around Corvallis learning to i.d. plants in all seasons.  Walking after a professor speed walking like his butt was on fire!  Yes, I was in better shape back then.  I think over the three terms, we learned around 600 plants! 
All of this talk of school is because, over the past 14 years, I have tried to have something blooming year round.  It is possible, here in the Willamette Valley, due to our mild winters.  There are some very hardy flowering plants that will also bloom in the northern tier states.  It just takes some research. 
One of the best websites to research plant material is the Oregon State University Plant Materials page.   Wish Pat Breen had finished that website when I took the class.  I love Michael Dirr's Manual of Woody Plants for trees and shrubs.  It is full of information on the plant growth habits, growing zone, diseases and pests.  Of course the Sunset Garden Guide for your area of the country, is a wonderful resource for choosing both woody plants and perennials.

Today, when I took the garbage out, I smelled the wonderul fragrance of Sarcococca confusa ,Sweet Box.  This winter flowering shrub has tiny, inconsequential flowers.  Boy, do they pack a huge fragrance!  Let the weather warm up just a little and they will blow your socks off!  During a final exam, the professor opened the windows.  Everyone's head went up.  "What is that?" asked a student.  All the Turfies (guys who were in my same classes, but were going to be golf course greens managers) answered in unison, "Sarcacocca."  I figure more than one of them planted this shrub on the course!
The Sweet Box is a nice graceful shrub to about five feet.  There is another species, S. hookeriana var. humilis, that is a low growing ground cover.  It was combined with Stewartia psuedocamellia outside the Science Building at Chemeketa Community College (CCC),  The Stewartia, at 25 feet, with it's multi-trunks, and gray bark makes a good planting with the Sweet Box.  The Stewartia has spring, summer (blooms), and fall interest; while the Sweet Box is the winter plant of note.
I also have violets blooming, Viola sp..  I will always remember a friend I made in Intro to Botany at CCC, whenever I smell violets.  We traded plants.  When we move this summer, I will be taking a pot of her violets with me.
Another plant, Helleborus niger, I got from a co-worker in the 1990 Census.  She called it the 'ugly plant.'  Called the 'Christmas Rose' or 'Lenten Rose', mine blooms white in the winter, turns purple in the spring, and white again in the fall.  There are many hybrids and varieties of this popular garden plant.

Of course, what winter garden wouldn't be complete with out a camellia?  Camellia japonica comes in red to pink to whte.  Mine is pink with random white stripes.  It is just gorgeous!  I am trying to get a start from it to take with me.  I have two other camellias, a red and a pink.  They are common camellias that someone once refered to as 'Measles Plants.'  Each to their own.

If you would like some winter vegetables you might like to try a winter cauliflower or a winter broccoli.  Start them in July/August to transplant in September/October.  Protect them from the north and east winds, otherwise these are tough plants.  We ususally had our first harvest during February.  They will continue to produce for a long time.  Just one plant of each, and our neighbors would pretend they weren't home whenever they saw us with a basket or bag. ; )

Well, those are my winter flowering plants.  There are many other plants out there for you to choose from.  Puruse the web, books, catalogs, and ask about for plants that may work in you yard.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Il pluet

If this is January in the Pacific Northwest, it is raining. And the forecast is for more. This is great for the aquifer and for water storage lakes and dams.  Wonderful for the ducks and beavers.  We people just grab an umbrella and a Gore-tex jacket and go about our daily business.
I say the Pacific Northwest, but really it is just the area west of the Cascade Mountains.  East of the Cascades is High Desert Country.  The Cascades block much of the rain, leaving Central and Eastern Oregon dry with more sunny days.
Here in the Willamette Valley we have a 'mediteranean climate'.  Little to no rain May through October and it pours November through April.  (Nov to Apr is the best time for wind-surfing in La Ventana, BCS, Mexico)
The climate here is mild (USDA zone 8, Sunset climate zone 6) with few really hot days over 100 degrees and fewer days below freezing.  While it rains and/or is really cloudy, it rarely snows on the valley floor.  Here in the local, western mid-valley school district; we can have less than six inches on the ground at our house but school will be canceled.  That's because we live up against the foothills of the Coast Range, where it really snows.  Example, there is a hill at the southern end of our street about 1/4 mile away.  One of my daughters friends lived on that hill.  She called to ask Selene to go sledding with her.  I was concerned, we had less than six inches here.  Her mom laughed, "Just put that little Bronco in 4 wheel drive and get up here!"  They had three feet of snow!   So 1/4 mile away and 600 ft in elevation made a big difference!

Monday, January 18, 2010

If This Is January, It Must Be Catalog Time

It seems there are seed catalogs showing up at least twice a week.  Just subscribe or order from one and the next year you will be inundated with many!  This is NOT a complaint, I am in Wish Book Heaven right now.

It all started the day after Christmas.  Three catalogs.  I now have a box half full.  I have read everyone of them.  I know what I want to order again and what new I want to try.  Problem is, we are moving this summer.  We don't know where, Scott is applying for new jobs all over the country.  Even if he stays where his is, we will be moving to Marion County, across the Willamette River.  A shorter commute and a chance to shake things up!
So, no garden this year.  We have left gardens behind, before,  But we are now too old to put in all that prep work and not harvest.  I will try to start some pots of veg and fruits to take with us. 

Back to catalog fun!
My favorite catalogs are local ones:  Forest Farm, my step-mom Dorthy found this when looking for a fibrous begonia.  She passed the catalog on to me and I was hooked.  They used to have a paperback book size catalog (no pictures) but now have a magazine size catalog (still no pictures.)  Their website if very colorful and has fabulous pictures of their products.  I have been buying from Territorial Seeds since their inception.  They have great products and the prices are just right.  Again, the website is colorful and contains lots of information.
I think my first catalogs were Gurney's Seed, Henry Fields, and Burpee.  All of which I found at Grandpa Bill and Grandma Jo's house along with Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine.  (Okay they took most eveery Rodale Press publication way back in the early 1970's!)  Gone are the extra spcecial  seeds or plants at a deep discount.  And they don't always offer a free plant or packet of seeds with your order.  But, they have a wide variety and have been around since forever.
New, to me, catalogs this year: Raintree Nursery where you can find mini-dwarf, dwarf, semi-dwarf and full size trees.  I am salivating just thinking of a mini-dwarf Gravenstein Apple growing in a pot on the deck!  We lost our fruit trees to fire-blight about 10 years ago.  Since that fungus is in the ground, no more fruit trees here. 
Abundant Life Seeds, with a 'Moon and Stars' watermelon on the cover, has organic seed and is a sustainable agriculture advocate.  They have some great old seed types. 

Now, you've got your seed catalog, how do you choose which varieities to grow in you garden? 
  • ask other gardeners in the area what they plant
  • take note of what is grown for the county fair
  • contact your local Extension office or visit their website for Extension Bulletins on home gardening*
  • talk with local farmers at the Farmers Market
  • read each varietal description carefully and make your choice from that
How ever you chose your plants have fun in seeing out the information and growing your own garden of delightful colors, shapes, fragrances, and flavors!

*Cooperative Extension Offices are wonderful ecducation resources for everyone.  Check it out.  I know my Extension sponsors Master Gardener Classes and they do a great job educating those Master Gardener on where to find all sorts of gardening information.  Yes, before getting my degree, I was a Master Gardener.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Windowsill Garden

One of my favorite gardens is right on my kitchen windowsill.  It's the only windowsill in the house the cats don't sleep in.  During the winter I fill the windowsill with starts, herbs, and other little happy things.  It is a great place for plants needing daily care and brightens the kitchen.

I have grown all kinds of WG's over the years.  One of my favorites is the simplest and my first.  Carrot top garden.  I think every school kid has cut the tops from some carrots, put them in a lid full of water and watched as the leaves grow.  Even as an adult, I love these little islands.  A couple of years ago I added parsnip, turnip, and rutabaga tops.  Lots of foliage graced the plastic tub.  I added a little fertilizer to the water, when I changed the water once a week.  The islands really took off!  Just some joyous greenery!

This fall, while grocery shopping, I found a ginger root with a green tip.  Usually you find these in the spring.  The green tip is the beginning of the leaf stalk.  I put the rhizome (ginger root is really a rhizome, like an iris) in an old cat food bowl, added water, and set on the windowsill.  A leaf stalk began growing.  I watched the green stalk getting taller and taller.  Then we had a week of arctic weather and the windowsill got too cold.  The leaf stalk died.  Sob, hiccup.  I have kept watering the ginger, and now I notice there are even more tips beginning to sprout!  I will pot up the ginger and grow it as an indoor plant.  If you live in zone 10 or higher you can grow ginger as an outdoor plant.  Ginger likes to be moist and warm.  Light requirement is medium.  After the plant is a year old, you can begin harvesting ginger root for your cooking needs.

I also have starts of herbs on the windowsill.  I bought some fresh 'poultry herbs' at the market.  In an effort to keep them fresh, I put them in tiny, little vases on the windowsill.  Well, the rosemary and thyme have grown roots!  I will pot them up and grown little plants.  (Scott killed my rosemary plant when he put in the new fence.  Yes, he meant to.  You see we have a little disagreement on rosemary as an herb.  I love it, he doesn't.  Not that killing the plant was mean spirited, it was in the way and had outgrown its boundaries.  I didn't really mind but one should have rosemary at the garden gate.  Rosemary for rememberence.)
I am waiting to see if the basil will sprout on the sill as well.  Of course, it is so easy to buy seed for fresh herbs and grow your own.  Or you can buy small plants if you don't want to wait for the seed to sprout.

My favorite plant, Schlumbergera species, is a Christmas Cactus start given to me by Grandma Jo.  It was given to her in the 1920's by a neighbor.  At her daughter's wedding in 1947, the original plant graced the alter in full bloom.  This plant blooms for Christmas and Easter.  I forgot the plant I had been growing since the early 1970's was on the front porch when we had that spell of arctic weather.  Yup, it died.  (Christmas cactus blooms either after 12 hour light/dark cycles or after being exposed to very cool weather.  Hence, I put the plant outdoors until we have our first good frost.  I forgot to bring it in this year.)   But I had saved some starts on the sill.  The plant lives on. 
I also have a start from a snake plant, Sanserveria sp., I gave Selene and Nate when grandson Lennon was born.  Snake plants are very hard to kill.  You can forget them forever.  Just don't over water them.  They love to be dry with occasional watering.  That's why I gave them the plant.  Perfect for new parents who are too busy to water a plant.

Past windowsill plants have been:  Sweet potato vine, wrapped around the kitchen four times.  Avacado seed, I had a 3 ft tall tree when a cat used the pot as a litter pan.  Redwood tree bought in July, I kept it in the window until the following February (the best time to plant trees and shrubs), the dog ate it two years after it was planted in the yard.  Leaf lettuce.  Green onions, after cutting off the roots I planted them in some potting mix and they grew new tops.  The list goes on.

Some hints for the best Windowsill Garden: 
  • Use only potting mix for planting.  Garden soil is NOT suitable for container gardening.  It has fungi, bacteria, bugs, etc that will attack your houseplants.  Garden soil compacts without worms and other critters to burrow through it and make new pores.
  • Fertilize with an organic fertilizer for houseplants.  I use 1/2 the recommended amount when I water once a week. 
  • Check for pests.  These can sneak in on new plant material or through an open window or door.  When you find a pest, kill it!  Or remove the plant to the garbage.  I mean the garbage can, outdoors, away from your other plants.
  • Rinse the plants under running water once a month.  This freshens the plant and helps to remove dust and grime.
  • Add a shelf about 1/2 the way up the window.  It will give you more space.  To install, just attach cleats to the side of the window frame and span with a length of wood.  Just make sure you don't interfer with the opening and closing of the window.
  • If your window doesn't get enough light, put mirrors under and between the plants to reflect light.
  • Have fun with your Windowsill Garden!  Be a kid again!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Trust Me, I'm a Horticulturist

How I got to where I am.

Back in '94, my husband Scott had decided to change his coursework at Chemeketa Community College (CCC) yet again. He started off in '88 taking classes in welding, communication, whatever he could pick up towards his training as a millwright (someone who keeps the plant machinery functioning.) After crushing his heels and ankles in an industrial accident, he changed tack to mathematics. When he took all the math offered at CCC, he started writing classes, he was going to become an author. And that is when I got a little upset. We had a deal that when he was finished with school, it would be my turn. He had now been taking classes for over six years and was not ready to transfer to a university. (He had taken 2.5 years at Linfield College before we were married.)
I announced I was going back to school. I knew I wanted to work with plants, as I had been an avid gardener since I was a child. I loved growing flowers, working in the soil, harvesting fruits and veggies, cooking same. As a teen I worked for a local farmer summers.
So I enrolled at CCC taking classes in Botany, Math, and whatever else was needed to transfer to a university. I honestly was interested in Landscape Architecture but the 90 min (one way) commute to Eugene, University of Oregon was just too much with a teen still at home. I investigated Landscape Maintenance at Benton Community College but I didn't want to be working outdoors in the weather all the time. So, I decided on the Horticulture program at Oregon State University. They had a Landscape Architect/Engineer teaching design, a world-renowned turf expert, and they would not only accept my CCC transfer classes but many of my 25 year old classes from University of Oregon.
I graduated in '98 with a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture: Turf and Landscape Management. And my first job was teaching Turf Maintenance at CCC! Full circle.

I have experience in gardening in the mid-Willamette Valley, Oregon. (That's where most of the grass seed in the world is grown.) I have been an organic food gardener for nearly 40 years. I do know how to use petro-chemicals as well, but am very allergic to many of them. Oh, I am allergic to pollen as well, yeah I know.

That's enough for an introduction. Hope you enjoy this blog.

By the way, Scott transfered to Western Oregon University and graduated with a BS in Interdisciplinary Studies: Mathematics and English.