Thursday, March 31, 2011

More about compost

Some of you (if there is anyone actually reading this that is) may be confused when I said 3 parts brown to 1 part green.  In most charts talking about carbon to nitrogen ratios the talk about a C:N ratio of 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.  But you have to remember a few things.  First everything has some carbon and nitrogen in it.  Also, brown stuff, such as dried leaves are fluffier and drier than green things, such as kitchen scraps or well rotted manure.  Since the leaves I have left over from last autumn are not very well shredded and still have a lot of air in them that it takes about 3 handfuls to 1 handful of greens (kitchen scraps, tea leaves and coffee grounds) to keep the balance of carbon to nitrogen.  My experience is that in the fall and early spring there is too much of the brown available and I have to find other sources of nitrogen, such as manure (again not the fresh stuff). This spring I am going to try using alfalfa meal, a bio-activator that is high in nitrogen and has bacteria in it already and gets the compost heated up.  I will report back on what I think of using it.  Last year I used manure bought in a bag to get things cooking.  I think the alfalfa meal should be a bit more cost effective and since only a small amount is needed it is easier to use.  While reading up on using it in composting I found that horse manure is not a good source because horses' digestion does not kill weed and hay seeds, unlike ruminants such as cows, goats, llamas. Apparently chicken and rabbit manure will also work. 

Of course in the summer with grass clippings I have a surfeit of greens, then I use straw for the place of browns.  Although the straw would compost better if it was shredded.  I'll have to look into another source of browns, maybe peanuts shells?  I'll have to check out Five Guys for the peanuts shells!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Just say no to mulch volcanoes.

It is that time of the year.  It is spring, when daffodils, crocus, cherry blossoms and mulch volcanoes sprout up everywhere.  Yes, the insidious mulch piled up high around the helpless tree.  Trees do not like to have mulch touching their bark.  The mulch is dead wood which is decaying so when it touches the tree it starts to decay the tree's bark.  It would be like something decaying always touching your skin. Eew.  Don't do it, don't let others do it, even if they are calling themselves "landscapers".  Don't let it happen.  Keep the mulch at least 2 inches away from the tree. Also, keep mulch to between 2-4 inches thick.  Too thin it doesn't keep down weeds and too thick water doesn't penetrate.  Also, when mulch is too thick it promotes the growth of a charming fungus called "dog vomit" fungus.  It is named this because it looks just like, you guessed it, dog vomit. Not a pleasant look in the garden.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

More About Compost

Compost is very simple to make.  As I mentioned before, you need "green" (nitrogen) and "brown" (carbon) in a 1:3 ratio, some water and at least an amount that equals 3 square feet in volume.  If there is too much brown, the compost won't heat up and composting will not happen.  If there is too much green it will start to turn sour, or  if too wet it will smell like rotten eggs.  So too much brown add green, too much green add brown.  Make sure it drains well so it will not be too wet, which can lead to the above rotten egg smell.  An easy way to make sure drainage is good is to put sticks and branches in the bottom or make sure the composter has good drainage and is elevated slightly on bricks.  If you have a pile of almost completed compost cover it if there is heavy rains so the nutrients don't wash away.  If nothing is happening and you have a good mix of brown to green perhaps the volume has gone down to low.  Piles of compost are constantly shrinking due to the composting process, so material needs to be added frequently to keep it at the minimum volume. When starting a new batch of compost add a handful or two of finished compost as a starter, plus a few clumps of grass with soil on the roots will also help add soil organisms.  You can buy commercial compost starters but I think they are probably not any better than some compost and a few globs of soil.  Some people swear buy a can of beer poured on the pile (use the cheap stuff!).

Good sources for green material are:

kitchen scraps (NOT meat, bones, dairy or grease these attract RATS)*
coffee grounds and tea leaves
grass clippings
pulled up weeds (unless they have gone to seeds, then throw away in the garbage)
alfalfa meal, available at garden centers (this is good for when there are no grass clippings available)
composted manure (horse, cow, chicken)

Good Sources for Brown material:

shredded fallen leaves (shredding helps them decompose faster)
straw (not hay)
newspaper (shredded)

A word about manure (a.k.a. poop).  Only use well rotted manure (not fresh) from herbivores- cows, horses, alpacas, goats, chickens etc.  Do not use dog or cat waste because it attracts rats and needs to be composted at a very high temperature to kill diseases. (I am assuming that I don't have to tell you not to use human waste, eew)

If you follow the above rules and ratios and turn or mix the compost frequently you can have compost in a month.  A pile will take about a year or year and a half.  It is well worth the effort because compost will enrich your soil, make great potting soil and save you a ton of money.

* You can add eggshells, banana peels and citrus peels but they do take a long time to rot. Cut or shred any thing you add into smaller pieces to speed up the decomposition process. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Falls Church News-Press Article

My first article in the Falls Church News-Press will be published tomorrow, March 24, 2011.  Here is a link,  look in the e-issue on page 23, at, I will be writing once a month for now.


What is compost?  The end product should be brown with bits of visible sticks or bits of leaves, looks like soil and has a soil-like smell.  Compost is a fertilizer, soil conditioner, and mulch all in one.  There are several methods of composting.  It could be something as simple as a pile left to rot for a couple of years, or something as complex as an electric composter in a kitchen that heats up organic material and turns it into compost in days.  But the concept is the same.  Organic material is added in a 3 to 1 ratio: three parts carbon (brown dried up stuff) to one part nitrogen (yes to, veggie peels, apple cores,eggshells, tea leaves, coffee grounds;  no to meat, dairy, or fish).  Just to confuse the issue sometimes "brown" things aren't brown, such as newspaper and "green" things aren't green such as coffee grounds.  However, you will get the gist.  Add water if it is dry (it should be slightly damp), or add more brown if it starts to get slimy and stinky, or make the pile bigger if it isn't heating up.  The organisms in the compost will heat up the center of the pile while they do their thing, so the correct balance of brown and green, water and volume of the pile, creates the perfect atmosphere for the micro-organisms and fungi to "cook" the organic material without an offensive odor.  The more often the pile is turned, the quicker the process happens.  That is why you will get compost with a pile, but it will take at least a year maybe two.  Last year I started with a slow pile and a "fast" composter.  My fast composter worked fairly well.  It was homemade out of a garbage can on wheels.  I drilled several holes in the bottom and around the sides at the bottom sides, middle and top near the lid.  No holes in the lid.  I tried to turn it by rolling it on the ground on its side every week but that didn't work that well since the handle for pulling got in the way of rolling and the lid always fell off.  I then resorted to dumping it out and then mixing it up in a tarp and dumping it back in the can.  This was too difficult and time consuming for me, so I then resorted to sticking my arm down to the bottom taking out the composted stuff and mixing the rest with my hand.  This sort of worked and I had some nice compost in about  3 months.  I did nothing over the winter while the temperatures were too low and this spring I had a garbage can full of lovely compost and a pile of almost all composted stuff in the back corner of the yard.  I treated myself to a compost tumbler (pricey) and I hope to be able to make compost in a month!  Next post I will talk about how to fine tune composting and again reiterate composts great attributes.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Happy St. Patrick's Day, the planting O'the Green

St. Patrick's day is traditionally the day to plant garden peas: shelling peas and the snow pea and snap pea varieties.  It is also a good day to cut back ornamental grasses such as liriope (lilyturf).  Good Friday is said to be the best day to plant potatoes.  Holidays are good reminders of when to plant what, as are the phases of the moon.  I am going to try planting by moon phases this year, I will talk about that in my next post. 

Strawberry plants have arrived! Yikes!

They are here!  The strawberry plants I ordered to arrive after I have their planter all ready.  Guess what, it's not ready yet!  So I will sign off and go to Home Depot for the fixings to make my own potting soil.  Plus some other stuff I will need soon.  I used to make potting soil from 1 part top soil, 1 part peat moss, and 1 part perlite.  But since I have learned that peat moss is not a renewable resource I will be using my own compost instead of pm. 

PS. My crocus are blooming so it really is spring!  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New Garden Planning Software

I just saw that Territorial Seed Company, has new garden planning software that looks very interesting.  It seems to cover everything and costs $25 per year.  I am still happy with my graph paper and pencils at this point, but I could see if you had a large area to plan , such as a totally new landscape, this might be worth your while.  I like graph paper because I can take it outside in the rain!  Perhaps this winter when I have less to do in the garden I will give it a try.  

Monday, March 14, 2011

More Daylight, more gardening!

It is fun to still be able to see the sun at 6pm. now that the clocks are pushed forward an hour.  Of course that means we have another hour to spend in the garden.  In the next few weeks the seed sowing and planting revs up, so start turning soil and otherwise prepare your beds for the seeds and plants that will be planted.  There is nothing worse then merrily skipping down the garden path (ok I don't really do that) and finding that you have to turn your soil to expose the cold underparts  to the warm sun or that the soil needs some compost dug in.  Always keep preparation in the plans!  I just realized I was focusing on all sorts of stuff except the fact that one of my beds needs a wooden frame to keep the compost and leaves and composted horse manure from spilling out of the bed.  Other things are coming along fast and furious.  The roses in the rose bed on the side of the house still need pruning (a bit late but not too late).  I haven't sown the larkspur seeds I wanted for in front of the white gate.  The compost pile needs turning, and ...well let's just say there is always a lot to do. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rain, rain go away.

It has been raining all day and flood warnings are on for the area.  This is a perfect example of too much of a good thing.  Even though this means a full rain barrel everything else is waterlogged.  The only things that could be seriously affected by too much rain (at this point) are plants in pots with poor drainage or anything planted in a poorly draining spot.  Some bulbs might get mushy, and some seeds or seedlings might drown,  but I haven't planted anything yet except a few scallion and spinach seeds that are under a plastic cold frame.  Hopefully that will keep them dry. 

In this are, that is Falls Church-Arlington, the last frost dates are between April 20 and 30. Things that need to be harvested before summer heat should be planted now.  That means you can start planting cabbage, beets, greens, carrots and radishes to name a few.  Traditionally garden peas are planted on St. Patrick's day, and that has worked for me.  Potatoes can also be planted now, but I would wait for the ground to dry before I planted them because they are prone to many kinds of fungus.  This year I plan to plant potatoes in bags but I am waiting until a bit later so that I can get the fresh seed potatoes from a local garden center that should arrive at the end of March.

As for ornamentals, it is best to not mess around with with any plants while it is raining because our hands and tools spread fungus.  One exception is on a drizzly day sowing seeds can work since then you don't have to water them.  And there is something in rain water that makes plants grow better than tap water. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Last blast of winter?

Yesterday the weather was delightful.  Today the temperature has dropped (28F this morning at 9am) but sunny.  Winter just can't give up yet!  But spring always comes, so we should not be too sad about keeping our warm gloves and down coats out for a while longer.  I think my bulbs are coming up!  I have a confession to make.  I am never 100 sure anything I plant grows until I actually see something.  Bulbs are particularly hard to tell if they will work because you plant them months ahead of time and by the time they grow I have usually forgotten exactly where everything is.

Back to the here and now.  If you have not done so yet, prune back the roses and clean up perennials, you can remove any dead stalks or flower heads but try not to cut off anything that looks like new growth.  And have faith, spring is coming!