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Dear Friend and Gardener

World Water Day – March 22, 2017

Lake near Minneapolis

Lake near Minneapolis

On this World Water Day I want to share some of my water photos. This group of gardeners has been visiting Minneapolis area gardens on a hot summer day. It was bliss to sit in the shade and enjoy the lake breeze and serenity.

Beautiful Minneapolis fountain

Beautiful Minneapolis fountain

We can’t all have a lake in our garden, but we can arrange to have fountains like this patio fountain in Minneapolis.

Another Minneapolis area  water fountain

Another Minneapolis area water fountain

This might have been my favorite Minneapolis water fountain – located at the end of a very formal vegetable garden and set on a slightly raised rocky platform

Northfield constructed pond and waterfall

Northfield constructed pond and waterfall

This waterfall was carefully ‘tuned’ with each step of the fall placed at a particular height to make a certain burbling sound.

A Greenfield water fountain

A Greenfield water fountain

A Greenfield gardener knew just what to do with this old millstone – she made it a fountain.

Water in a Japanese garden

Water in a Japanese garden

An important element in the serenity of a Japanese garden is the water.

Japanese Garden in Buffalo

Japanese Garden in Buffalo

All of these pretty photos are of recreational or ornamental water in gardens, and yet the water we most value is the water that comes out of our kitchen taps. We are fortunate in the U.S. to have good clean drinking water, but even here we know there have been contaminated water supplies or pipes. We must be vigilant. How will you mark World Water Day?

World Water Day poster

World Water Day poster

Today is World Water Day which teaches us that 1.5 billion people around the world do not have clean uncontaminated water to drink.

World Water Day, on 22 March every year, is about taking action on water issues. In 2017, the theme is wastewater and the campaign, ‘Why waste water?’, is about reducing and reusing wastewater. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 6.3 requires us by 2030 to “improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.” Progress towards target 6.3 will also help achieve the SDGs on health and well-being (SDG 3), safe water and sanitation (SDG 6), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), life below water (SDG 14), and life on land among others.

TOP LINE MESSAGES • Globally, over 80% of the wastewater generated by society flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused.

1.8 billion people use a source of drinking water contaminated with faeces2 , putting them at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. Unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene cause around 842,000 deaths each year.

663 million people still lack improved drinking water sources.

By 2050, close to 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, compared to 50% today

Currently, most cities in developing countries do not have adequate infrastructure and resources to address wastewater management in an efficient and sustainable way

The opportunities from exploiting wastewater as a resource are enormous. Safely managed wastewater is an affordable and sustainable source of water, energy, nutrients and other recoverable materials.

The costs of wastewater management are greatly outweighed by the benefits to human health, economic development and environmental sustainability – providing new business opportunities and creating more ‘green’ jobs.

WASTEWATER AND THE WATER CYCLE

Water has to be carefully managed during every part of the water cycle: from fresh water abstraction, pre-treatment, distribution, use, collection and post-treatment, to the use of treated wastewater and its ultimate return to the environment, ready to be abstracted to start the cycle again.

Due to population growth, accelerated urbanisation and economic development, the quantity of wastewater generated and its overall pollution load are increasing globally. However, wastewater management is being seriously neglected, and wastewater is grossly undervalued as a potentially affordable and sustainable source of water, energy, nutrients and other recoverable materials. It therefore needs to be seen as a resource, rather than a burden to be disposed of. There are many treatment processes and operational systems that will allow us to use wastewater to meet the growing water demand in growing cities, support sustainable agriculture, and enhance energy production and industrial development.

For further reading logon to World Water Day and go to the Make Waves button on the home page.

Late Bloomer by Jan Coppola Bills

Late Bloomer by Jan Bills

Late Bloomer by Jan Coppola Bills

Several years ago a friend asked me to give her advice about her garden which she said was out of control and too much work. When I visited I could see an immediate problem; her paths were too narrow. Wider paths would make it possible to walk through the garden side by side with a friend, and even provide better working space when it was time to weed or divide the collection of lovely perennials that comprised her garden.

She could see the wisdom in my suggestion; however when I asked if she had considered shrubs, she threw up her hands in horror and cried, “I’m too young for shrubs!”

Shrubs have been my response to the desire for a low maintenance garden, one that would be different from my gardens in Heath, but would still give me beauty and pleasure.

When Jan Coppola Bills sat down to write her book Late Bloomer: How to Garden with Comfort, Ease and Simplicity in the Second Half of Life (St. Lynn’s Press $18.95) she knew there were more and more gardeners who were in my position – loving gardening but without quite the stamina they had.

Happily for me and other readers of this book with its useful and beautiful illustrations Bills has more that one answer to creating a low maintenance garden.

Late Bloomer is divided into short illustrated chapters that begin with Simplicity and Sustainability and goes on to Garden Styling. Orderly Chaos, and Veggies, Fruit and Herbs and more. All the information and suggestions are useful to gardeners at any stage of their gardening career, but particularly valuable when a gardener sees the need to reduce the heavy labor required in their garden.

Bills has a chapter devoted to different ways to handle weeds. She includes a section on what I call lasagna gardening which calls for lots of cardboard. One version of this begins with digging up the sod, flipping the  sods, grass to grass, then laying on the cardboard and topping it with soil for planting and mulch. She also lays lots of cardboard right on the lawn where a new bed is needed and then covers the cardboard with a few inches of mulch. Then she says wait! Wait for the cardboard to decompose for a few months before you begin planting.

South Border lasagna bed June 2015

South Border lasagna bed June 2015

When we moved to Greenfield and discovered how heavy and wet our clay soil was I could not wait. I needed to plant right away. I began my own version of cardboard gardening. I worked in one section of a proposed bed at a time. I collected all the cardboard I could (thank you, Manny’s) and ordered yards and yards of compost and mulch from Martin’s Compost Farm. First we skinned off as much grass as possible with a weed wacker and watered that section. I then planted the shrubs I had bought, hydrangeas, lilacs, roses and viburnams. I dug big planting holes, and used a good measure of compost when planting. I gave all the newly planted shrubs a good watering and then laid out one or two layers of cardboard around the shrubs, filling that section of the bed. The cardboard also got a good watering before it was covered with several inches of soil and mulch and which were watered again.

I feel all that watering is essential because it helps the decomposition process get started, as well as providing moisture for the newly planted shrubs. Once the beds were created I planted perennials and groundcovers between the shrubs in the soil and mulch.

South border lasagna bed June 2016

South Border lasagna bed June 2016 – new shrubs thriving

Those first plantings were put in in June 2015 and I am happy to say that the shrubs and perennials have done splendidly even though we did have such a dry summer and fall. I give a large measure of credit to the rich compost-soil mixture and compost- mulch mixture I got from Martin’s Farm.

With all her advice, Bills does not forget the issues that are important to all gardeners, the desire to support our pollinators and butterflies who have been threatened by the use of many insecticides and herbicides and the benefits of using of using native plants in the garden. Native plants, trees, shrubs and flowers, provide the specific food that pollinators need to survive and propagate.

As we have created our new Greenfield garden we had two main goals, to choose plants that were tolerant of wet soil (right plant in the right spot) and that were native cultivars supporting some of the 300 plus species of native bees, butterflies and many other pollinators. One of the useful lists Bills provides is a list of plants that will support pollinators one way or another. Dill does not provide nectar or pollen for butterflies, but it does supply food for the swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. Once I realized the importance of supporting all stages of the butterflies I was happy to plant extra dill and parsley to share.

Bills’ final encouraging words are to resist the desire for perfection.  “I believe when you take unrealistic expectations out of gardening, new possibilities emerge.”

At my house my husband and I are apt to finish the project of the day with a sigh and the statement that what we have accomplished is “perfect enough.” We often remind each other that the weavers of beautiful Persian rugs always put a deliberate error in the design. According to Islam only Allah can make something perfect, and to make something perfect is an offense to Allah.

There is not much chance my garden will be perfect, but I will care for it, love it, and share it. That’s enough perfection for me.

Between the  Rows   November 26, 2016

Bugs and Butterflies in My Garden

Coneflower

Coneflower with bee

“Chances are, you have never thought of your garden — indeed, of all of the space on your property — as a wildlife preserve that represents the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the U.S.” Douglas Tallamy.

Most of us welcome birds and butterflies to our gardens, but don’t spend much time thinking about bugs, except for pesky mosquitoes and Japanese beetles. Yet, even bugs, and there are hundreds of species of bug in our local landscape, are essential to our local ecosystem.

When we lived on 60 acres in Heath I didn’t worry about having a healthy ecosystem. After all, we had those 60 acres that included wild fields and woodlands to feed the birds and butterflies. My intent in any planting was just to bring some of the best pollinator plants close to the house so that I could enjoy watching pollinators at work.

Our move to Greenfield meant we had an opportunity to create our own wildlife preserve on our small lot. We also had to consider how to handle a large wet area. I was thrilled with the idea of making a garden that would welcome and support the butterflies and bees – and the bugs. My husband was happy that this kind of garden eliminated most of the lawn.

The new lot was mostly grass, but this was not fine turf and I was happy to see the lawn was filled with clover and violets which provide lots of early pollen for bees. It was a happy day for me when I realized what some consider lawn weeds are really important nectar plants.

Some of the pollinator plants that I brought with me from Heath include: spring blooming foam flower and irises; summer blooming coneflower, Russian sage, bee balm and yarrow; and fall blooming asters.

Yarrow and coneflowers make my hellstrip a pollinators diner.

Yarrow and coneflowers make my hellstrip a pollinators diner.

Then I turned once again to my favorite expert on sustaining wildlife, Douglas Tallamy, Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. He is the author of the brilliant and inspiring book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. He also has a website, www.bringingnaturehome.net with lots of information and lists of plants that will help you bring nature to your home garden.

Everyone loves butterflies, but I never thought of them as pollinators. They are not like honeybees who have the equipment to pack pollen into ‘baskets’ on their knees, but even with their smooth and spindly butterfly legs they do pollinate plants. Butterflies will welcome nectar plants but they really count on host plants, those plants where they can lay their eggs, confident that the hatching caterpillars will be able to eat that plant.

Host plants for butterfly caterpillars can be quite specific. We all know that monarch butterfly caterpillars need milkweed. Other plants for other butterflies include spice bush or Lindera benzoin, clover, snapdragons, sunflowers, sweet fennel, parsley, dill, carrots, as well as sycamore, river birch, chokecherry, oak, poplar, locust and willow trees. Of course, there are many other host plants for the many species of butterfly.

In our new garden we planted river birch, chokecherry and spicebush as butterfly host plants. We also planted orange milkweed, Asclepius tuberosa, a smaller showier milkweed than the kind found in the wild. Since host plants are so specific for butterflies there is no way I can support many species, but I am doing what I can.

We are not purists, but we have concentrated on using native plants. Native plants and native bugs evolved at the same time over centuries. Native bugs know exactly the kind of greenery they need to thrive. And the native plants know they can spare some foliage to support the bugs without harming themselves. I do not get upset when I find insect damage on my viburnams. I know they can spare a few leaves.

That does not mean I don’t go around with my soapy water to collect and drown the Japanese beetles that are starting to appear. Japanese beetles are non-native bugs, but they seem to enjoy roses and raspberries and my yellow twig dogwood.  Nature is not neat.

Strictly speaking, spiders are not bugs. But they eat bugs. I may not be very aware of their presence because many spiders are tiny, but big or small, all spiders are welcome in my garden.

We have planted the eye catching native buttonbush with its bottlebrush-type flowers, and summersweet, Clethra alnifolia, with its fragrant white panicles of  summer bloom. Both welcome bees and butterflies to sip their nectar, and neither minds wet sites. With those large shrubs I achieve two goals.

We have planted other excellent perennial pollinator plants that like or tolerate wet sites. Sanguisorba canadensis, American burnet, has tall 4-5 foot flowering spikes of flowers beginning in midsummer, as does culver’s root or Veronicastrum virginicum. Possibly more common is Joe Pye Weed, with its pink-ish flower heads.

We have not completed our planting plan, but are well on our way to supporting butterflies, bees and other bugs. We are well on our way to creating a garden that is lovely and a joy. We are also learning many lessons along the way, another joy.

Between the Rows   July 18, 2016

Here’s What Permaculture Looks Like

Bioshelter

Nancee Bershof’s Bioshelter in the center of her permaculture garden

Bill Mollison, considered the Father of Permaculture, said it is “. . . the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

Nancee Bershof became interested in permaculture after her husband’s death, and her departure from medicine. She was looking for new interests and permaculture fascinated her. She took a course that led her down a new road, supplying food, and non-material needs like community and friendship.

Nancy Bershof

Nancee Bershof

She moved to a new house and property eight years ago, setting about creating a permaculture landscape. Using  Mollison’s description she has created gardens that do provide food, energy, shelter and some non-tangible benefits as well. Of course, starting any new garden does not happen in one year

The house sits fairly close to the road, so most of the acre of her property lies in back of the house where Bershof began my tour by showing me around the personal ornamental garden with its shady covered deck, and a sunny patio ringed by more shade. This garden had changed radically two days earlier when a large limb of an old and very tall willow came down during the night. While Bershof told me that she planned to leave this arching limb as a work of art, it was clear that it changed the garden. Where there had been shade there was now bright sun.

We then walked through the gate into what was a very different sunny garden that gave me my first real understanding of that a permaculture garden looks like. Bershof said  that she did not create this alone. Dave Jacke, author of EdibleForestGardens, created a site plan. “That plan got me started, but not everything happened as planned.” That sounded right to me. I have never known a plan that was carried out in every detail.

She also said “Esthetics are important to me. What looks good, feels good. I wanted it to be lovely.”

The view from the gate was not that of manicured borders, but it was lovely. There was a multiplicity of garden beds, but also a greenhouse in the center of the space. Bershof began by walking me through the gardens, but made me wait for a tour of the Bioshelter.

An important element of permaculture is the planting of perennial crops. It is easy to name off raspberries, blueberries, peaches and other fruit bearing shrubs and trees, as well as many herbs that we grow in our gardens. It is not so easy to come up with perennial vegetables. And yet they exist.

Perennial sea kale

Perennial sea kale

Bershof pointed out the sea kale, perennial arugula, skirrit, ground spinach and Turkish rocket. We nibbled as we went along and there was nothing weird tasting that would deter most people from eating them.

Tom Sullivan whose business is Pollinators Welcome helped Bershof lay out quadrants of pollinator beds that would attract bees and other pollinators to the garden. These beds teach two lessons. Pollinator beds need to have masses of any particular pollinator plant to make them easier for pollinators to find, and they need different varieties of plants to provide food all season long. Many of these plants, like bee balm, are also native to our area.

Companion planting of asparagus, basil and tomatoes

Companion planting of asparagus, basil and tomatoes

We walked past a perennial asparagus bed that was interplanted with annual tomatoes and basil. Bershof explained that this was a good companion planting, much like the Three Sisters garden she grows composed of corn, beans and squash. Unfortunately, she was battling the moles who were eating her corn roots, killing them and leaving the bean vines no way of climbing.

From this garden I could see a large planting of Jerusalem artichokes, and fruit trees including peaches, persimmons and paw paws. We were also at the chicken yard where eight hens are currently penned although they are free range when garden crops are not at risk.

The chicken house is a part of the Bioshelter, which is much more than a greenhouse. Keith Salzburg of Regenerative Design designed the building which includes the large greenhouse. Right now raised beds hold cucumbers and a tall fig tree. Covered bins dug into the ground contain worm farms that handle kitchen scraps. There are also the beginnings of a hydroponic project.

The long interior wall of the greenhouse is lined with black barrels filled with water that heats up when the sun is shining and then moderates temperatures when outside temperatures fall.

The other side of that wall is the tool shed where many well kept tools are hung. The third and final section of the bioshelter is the hen house.

There is separate space for feed. The rest of the space has egg boxes, a ramp to the outdoors and an automatic chicken door that opens at 6 am and closes at 9 pm after the chickens have tucked themselves in for the night. Bershof was especially pleased with this particular labor saver.

The bioshelter is a part of Bershof’s goal to use less water, less energy and have a smaller carbon footprint.

As we concluded my tour Bershof showed me what she calls the community garden, where friends have their own plots. “Right from the start, one of my goals was to share this site. I didn’t want to garden alone, but to have space where we could work together.” I think that counts as the important non-material need for sharing and friendship.

Between the Rows    July 11, 2016

W is for Waldsteinia on the A to Z Challenge

 

Waldsteinia fragarioides

Waldsteinia fragarioides or barren strawberry

W is for Waldsteinia fragarioides, otherwise known as barren strawberry. Indeed, the leaves resemble strawberry leaves and there is some similarity of the small golden spring blossoms to strawberry blossoms, but this is a native groundcover and produces no edible fruits.

In Heath I had Waldsteinia fragarioides growing in the shade where it ultimately covered a sizeable swath of soil. It is obviously hardy (it thrives in Heath) and the deer pass it by. It is a trouble free plant and I’d chose it over pachysandra any day!

W is also for Waiting. It is the gardener’s lot to always be waiting: waiting for the sun to shine; waiting for  the rain to fall; waiting for the shrubs and trees to leaf out; waiting for it to  be warm so we can be plant; waiting  for the harvest; waiting for the season to end so we can rest.

We’re in the final stretch (but I did miss R) so click here to see who else is participating in the A to Z Challenge this April.

J is for Joe Pye Weed, Eutrochium purpureum

Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Weed

J is for Joe Pye Weed, Eutrochium purpureum. Joe Pye Weed is one of the plants I have chosen for my new garden because it  tolerates wet clay sites so well that it can be used as part of a rain garden. But that is not the only reason.

Many people considered Joe Pye Weed as nothing more than a road side weed. However, nowadays we realize that this native plant with its showy tall flower inflorescences in shades of purple is an important nectar plant for butterflies. This spring I planted a Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) because it is an important plant for the spicebush swallowtail.  Spicebush swallowtails will also enjoy Joe Pye Weed, as will other swallowtail butterfly varieties

Joe Pye will form a large clump and it cannot do this fast enough to suit me.

I am participating in the A to Z Challenge. We are on to the  second full week of posting every single day. Visit some of the other Challenge blogs.

I is for Irises in the A to Z Challenge

I is for Irises.  I fell in love with Siberian irises. A white one and a blue one were growing at our house in Heath when we  bought it. They had not had any care for a couple of years and yet they bloomed looking like clouds in the sky – effortless.

Siberian irises

Siberian irises in the field

Siberian irises are not particular about soil or watering so I never realized how much they liked wet sites. One year I noticed a big clump of deep blue Siberian irises growing in a wet swale in the field next to the house. I have no idea how they got there. Maybe I threw an extra division out there one year when I had more divisions than I knew what to do with?

Siberian irises are beardless irises. I never thought this was a whole class of irises, but in Beardless Irises – A Plant for Every Garden Situation by Kevin C. Vaughn (Schiffer $29.99) I learned that Japanese irises (which also like a damp spot or lots of watering) are in  the beardless family, along with Louisiana irises, Pacific Coast Native Irises and Spuria irises. I had never heard of Spuria irises but these irises need a wet spot so badly that Vaughn suggests that one way to handle them is to bury a kiddie paddling pool slightly underground, fill it with soil and then plant the Spurias there after heavily watering the area, keeping it wet.

The array of color and bi-color in the beardless iris category is staggering. The illustrations in Vaugh’s book are gorgeous and may lead to a springtime splurge on more irises. I wrote about my Heath irises earlier this year here.

 

Root Cellars and Root Vegetables

Root vegetables

Root vegetables at Green Fields Coop

Our Thanksgiving table will include  root vegetables like Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, beets, parsnips and carrots.

Even the Pilgrims might have had some of these vegetables at the first Thanksgiving. Root vegetables were an important part of the food supply in Europe before canning and freezing were available. Root vegetables were harvested in the fall and stored for winter use without preserving them in some way, like pickling or drying.

When I was a child living on a Vermont farm I remember the bins filled with sand and carrots in the basement. There was also a root cellar dug into a hill beyond the house for potatoes. Added to my aunt’s canning, producing scores of jars of vegetables and fruit, she and my uncle managed to provide their family with a good measure of their family’s diet.

I even kept some carrots and beets in the basement of our Heath house in our early days there. However, a root cellar required more management skills and time than I possessed.  Last year the Heath Agricultural Society held a well attended Cellars and Cave tour, giving visitors from across the valley a look at what is entailed in operating a root cellar. Some cellars were used for vegetables, some for cheese, and some for homemade hard cider.

The cellars varied in complexity from what was essentially a large insulated closet in the garage for storing apples, onions and potatoes, to a more elaborate walled off corner of a basement that included a window and a flexible duct that made it possible to adjust airflow and temperature. Setting up a site with fairly consistent or adjustable chill and humidity is essential for a root cellar.

Those who are planning to try and keep vegetables and fruit like apples through even a part of the winter must begin by choosing vegetable varieties and apples that are most amenable to storage. For example, the McIntosh apple harvest is usually over in October, but the apples will only keep well through December. Other apples like the old New England Baldwin apple and newer varieties like Fuji will keep through the winter. Many of the old winter keepers are now more available than they were in the recent past.    The same is true for vegetables. Kennebec and Katahdin are among the list of good potatoes for storage, as Danvers and Scarlet Keeper are good storage carrots. Most catalogs will tell you which particular varieties will store well into the winter.

Root Cellaring: The Simple No-Processing Way to Store Fruits and Vegetables by Mike and Nancy Buble is a comprehensive book for those who are interested in storing some of their winter harvest. They give information about choosing specific crops, storage requirements, and the many ways of building a root cellar. My copy dates back to 1979, not long before we set up our first bins. Root Cellaring is still available and still a functional tool.

Most of us are happy to have a summer garden, enjoying freshly picked lettuce and tomatoes, as well as green beans, summer squash and peas of many varieties. Others of us will enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of setting up a root cellar, and eating our own root crops or other keepers like cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

I spoke to Dave Jackson at the 100 acre Enterprise Farm in Whately about how he keeps root crops. He says he uses a large walk in cooler. During the good weather the cooler keeps his summer vegetables fresh before they are packed up into CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares. In the winter he uses the cooler for vegetable storage, getting as much value as possible out of the farm’s infrastructure. When I was the Buckland Librarian I bought apples from the Scott Orchard, saw their enormous cooling room and got my first understanding of the way orchardists handle their harvest. Vegetable farmers have the same need.

Jackson agreed that local consumers are looking for more local food over a longer season. He said local farmers have found a variety of ways of keeping root crops available, from the basic old-fashioned root cellar to cooling rooms and solar power. All cold storage options need to keep a consistent cold temperature, usually between 36 to 45 degrees, depending on the crop.

Jackson also gave me a tip, in case I ever take up root cellaring again. He said apples should never be stored with carrots. I knew that apples produce ethylene gas that might cause other fruits to ripen more quickly, but I did not know that the ethylene gas might change the flavor of other fruits – or vegetables. I guess that is why our refrigerator produce drawers are marked to keep fruits and vegetables separate.

Greenfield’s farmer’s market used to be in business from May through October. Happily for us, local farmers have worked to meet our desire for more local food over a longer season. I attended the first Wintermarket in February of 2008. At this year’s second winter farmer’s market  I bought squash, parsnips, beets and carrots  and look forward to the next markets in December, January, February and March!

I see the growth of farmer’s markets, CSA farms, and roadside stands giving us a growing and stronger local food security. That is something to be thankful for.

Between the Rows   November 28, 2015

Time to Compost – Harvest the Biomass on the Ground

Front yard leaves - biomass

Front yard leaves – biomass

As far as I am concerned the leaves that fall in the fall tra-la are as welcome as the flowers that bloom in the spring. When I lived high on a windy hill in Heath all the leaves blew away. I helped a neighbor rake leaves, and took them away to my compost pile. I loved picking up a few bags of leaves that people left in front of their houses when I came into Greenfield to shop. I needed leaves for my compost pile. Now that I live in Greenfield I no longer have to go begging for autumn leaves.

If you have never set up a compost pile there are books like Let it Rot by Stu Campbell devoted to composting; many garden books give information about composting; and locally we have the Franklin County Waste Management District to give us directions about composting online at franklincountywastedistrict.org/composting.html.

After reading all the instructions my advice is not to worry about details too much and just begin. Compost is all about rotting organic material. Fast or slow the result is the same. So, just begin.

Don’t worry about ratios. Some directions seem to imagine us building a compost pile after we have been collecting enough green material like fresh grass clippings or spent annuals or other clippings, and sufficient brown materials like manure or dead leaves before we start our compost pile. Meat and bones are always forbidden. A compost pile should measure at least four feet high and wide. Sufficient size is necessary to build up heat in the rotting pile that will help break materials down and kill harmful pathogens and weed seeds. Explicit instructions like that have been known to stop me in my tracks.

Leaves - Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Leaves – Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Fall is a great time to start a compost pile because dried leaves, spent annuals and all the trimmings from cutback perennials make a good start for a compost pile. Alternate layers if you have green and brown materials, but don’t worry about it. Be sure to water the pile. A moist pile, not a drenched pile, will break down more quickly.

Compost directions always say to turn the pile periodically and that is certainly good advice, if not always easy to carry out. Some gardeners have the space and the forethought to build a three bin compost pile made out of cinder blocks or chicken wire or wooden slats. They begin the pile in space number one and when the space is full they turn the pile into space number two.  When number one is again full, fork number two into number three, and number one into number two. Then start filling number one. By the time number one is full again the composting materials in space number three should be ready to spread or dig into the soil. Continue in this manner forever.

I have seen an inexpensive compost aerator tool that you plunge into the pile. The tool has a long handle with little paddles at the bottom. When you pull the aerator out of the pile the paddles loosen and stir up the compost, letting in some air.

I have admired many compost piles, but mine have never been lovely or organized to look at. However they have made completed compost that helped me improve my Heath soil for over 30 years. Now I am beginning to improve my very poor, very heavy Greenfield soil.

I started with compost that I bought and we are lucky that we have Martin’s Farm right in Greenfield that composts on a major scale and sells compost, mulch, compo-mulch, and loam. Nearby is Bear Path Farm in Whately, also selling good compost. I needed to get my new garden off to a good start; compost and mulch were the way to do that.

Now that it is fall I am starting my own composting efforts in earnest. This summer I bought an Earth Machine compost bin at the Greenfield Transfer Station. I began by putting in weeds and kitchen scraps. Now I’m adding leaves that provide some real bulk. We also had some scrap fence wire and used it to build a special leaf compost container. It is about five feet tall and 4 feet in diameter. It is full of leaves, but they are already breaking down and we can keep adding leaves.

Cold compost pile

Cold Compost pile

Many years ago when Larry Lightner of Northfield was still alive and gardening he taught me about what he called cold composting with leaves. He made wire rings about three to four feet high and as large in diameter as he wished. He filled and refilled these rings with leaves over the course of the fall. In the spring the pile would have  shrunk substantially. He added more leaves if he had them. Then he would make an indentation in the leaves, fill it with a quart or so of good soil and plant vegetable or flower starts. It is important to keep plants in a cold compost bed well watered.

Lightner’s cold compost beds were essentially raised beds. They provided plenty of nutrition for his chosen plants. He could even plant and stake tomatoes on the outside of the wire ring. Their roots found plenty of sustenance from the nutrients going into the soil as the leaves broke down. The raised beds also kept neighborhood dogs and cats out of his garden beds.

I have another friend who told me she has an electric leaf shredder. Shredding leaves will certainly help leaves break down more quickly. She wants to use those shredded leaves as winter mulch on her garden beds. In the spring she told me they have pretty much turned into soil. Not much is left of the leaves at all.

There are many ways to make and use compost. It is a never fail project. It is a rewarding project. It is a project that benefits the garden, and keeps material out of the landfill or incinerator. Compost!

Another good link http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dep/recycle/cmppstr.pdf

Between the Rows   November 14, 2015

Thank you all for bearing with me while we hammered out the technical difficulties that kept the commonweeder off line for a few days.

The Dirt on Soil

 

compost

Compost for my new garden

Many of us take soil for granted. I just spoke to my daughter who said she broke sod for a tiny new vegetable garden. After taking away the sod she said she filled that space with good dirt. When I asked what good dirt was she said bags of organic dirt from Home Depot. We’re still talking dirt, even though she talked about good and bad dirt, soil.

I may get dirty while working in my garden, but I love my soil. The forester who made our forest management plan told us we were lucky because our area has good soil. And he had the soil map to prove it. And over the years I have improved the good soil.

Around 2000 we moved the vegetable garden and made it much smaller, 10×10 feet, because I was having so much trouble with my hip – all replaced in 2003. In that new space I started with my good soil and added my own compost to each planting bed.

Now you must have guessed I wouldn’t be happy with a 10×10 garden for long. We added another 10×10 space for a raspberry patch, and added more compost, plus some rock phosphate for phosphorous and greensand  for potassium, two of the three major nutrients needed for healthy plant growth. Nitrogen is the third nutrient in the NPK ratio you see when you buy fertilizer.

I also sprinkle lime from time to time to keep the soil from being too acid. I was not very scientific about any of these amounts, just sprinkling it on the soil when the mood came on me. You can imagine how happy I was when I sent my soil to the University of Massachusetts five years ago and found out that the vegetable garden had good soil with nine percent organic matter.

Any soil is made up of inorganic material like sand and silt, then organic matter. Think of the forest floor where leaves fall on the ground and rot, birds and animals die and they rot into the soil. There is water in the soil, and even, almost forgotten, air.  A good and productive soil is about 50% air.  But we are not done. The soil is also alive with fungi and bacteria that break down all that organic material and turn it into humus. The food web decrees that these fungi and bacteria will be eaten by tiny creatures like nematodes and springtails. In turn they will be eaten by beetles and ants and earthworms. All of them are adding to the richness of the soil, with their dead bodies, and their poop. They are also aerating the soil and making it possible for the water to penetrate.

How do we get good soil? We try to follow Mother Nature’s routine, by eliminating poisonous pesticides that will kill all those living creatures in the soil, and

adding more organic material, otherwise known as compost. We feed the soil, just like Mother Nature instead of later trying to feed our plants with chemical fertilizers.

I was talking to a friend who told me that she went to a permaculture workshop where one motto was “Let the carbon stay where it falls.” That means when you cut back plants in the fall you can leave the debris in the garden.  It is not neat and pretty, but you are following the natural routine. The debris will rot and enrich the soil. You and the debris are feeding the soil.

I am not a purist of any system, but I spent an afternoon pruning deadwood out of my roses and let some of the smaller twigs fall invisibly into the center of the rose bush to rot over time. I confess I did take many larger branches off to a brush pile to rot at a more leisurely pace.

I have made a fair amount of compost over the years. Some I make in a plastic bin I got from some organization. So long ago, I don’t remember who, possibly the Franklin County Waste Management? Compost adds nutrients and the organic matter improves the structure of the soil.

I also make compost piles contained within wire fencing or, in my circular black plastic potato bin with holes in the sides for the potato plants to reach through to the sun if they are so inclined.  I turned that potato bin into a compost bin. I can turn my compost pile by heaving it from one bin to the other.

I also have a plain old compost pile that I don’t turn regularly or fuss with. Eventually that pile turns into compost. I am never in a hurry.

I put all my kitchen peelings into my compost, autumn leaves, weeds, chicken manure when I have it, and debris from the garden in the fall when I am getting ready for winter. From now on I may leave some of that autumnal carbon where it falls.

I am getting ready to start a new garden in Greenfield. The first thing I will do is send a soil sample to UMass so they can tell me what my soil particularly needs.  I don’t know whether it is bad dirt or good soil, but I will find out. Currently I only know it grows a lot of grass, and I have a lot of space to fill with new plants.

I don’t have the necessary amounts of homemade compost for this new garden, so I have ordered a truck load, a major gift from my husband. I will use this compost when planting all the new trees and shrubs I am thinking of, as well as for top dressing on existing plantings.

We are fortunate to have two compost farms nearby, Martin’s Farm in Greenfield and Bear Path Farm in Whately. By feeding the soil with compost I’ll improve the structure and fertility of my soil. If it isn’t good soil to begin, it will be soon.

What next? I have to decide what to plant in this new garden. Do you think there will be roses? Keep watching.

Between the Rows   May 30, 2015