Archives for posts with tag: compost piles

I’ve been using an old plastic container, the kind in which plants from the nursery are potted (that’s how we came into possession of it), as a waste bucket.  It is a convenient place to toss weeds, pruned branches, rotted vegetables and other green waste from the garden.  It sits on the ground near the hose bib and next to the watering can and is a much easier target than the ravine beyond the pool fence.

I started this practice a few weeks ago and by today, the bucket was full.  So I walked it over to the refuse pile and flung its contents on top.  What I immediately noticed as the mass of organic matter plopped onto the pile was that the material at the bottom of the bucket, which had been kept moist by rain and warmed by the sun, had already started to decompose.  After less than a month, the green garden waste had become a dark brown, granular mass, well on its way to becoming rich organic soil.

In other words, my waste bucket had turned into a mini compost pile.  If I had let it bask in the sun much longer, I could probably have simply tipped it back into one of the planters to replenish the soil’s organic content.  Presumably, there is a little more to the process—balancing different materials, mixing them together, aerating the pile—but the experience showed me how simple the basic operation is.

Also, how magical the process is, almost like alchemy.  It is very encouraging and will motivate me to find a place where a pile of garden discards can be transformed into a useful soil amendment.

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Over the last few days, we’ve been throwing our rejected seedlings onto a refuse pile.  And all the while, I’ve been lamenting their loss.  If only I had a compost pile, then the loss would not be as great.  The seedlings might not be producing any vegetables but they would be contributing to future soil.

It has made me think, though, that perhaps my approach to the compost pile should be similar to the one we ultimately took with the paving project.  Instead of waiting to construct a carefully designed and detailed compost bin enclosure, why not just clear an area and start piling the stuff up?

It would be good enough (the soil and earthworms aren’t as obsessed with aesthetics as I am) and a quick start to the production of local compost.  Best of all, doing so would not preclude building the compost bin of my dreams sometime in the future.

The tomato and squash seedlings that remain in the seed trays are getting too big (the basil, eggplant and pepper seedlings, on the other hand, are not quite big enough).  I think we will be giving some away so I decided to pot up the best specimens.  Following the same procedure as before (see May 4, 2013), I transplanted as many seedlings as would fit in the drainage trays.

Deciding which seedlings would live and which would not was difficult.  As the proud poppa, they all look beautiful to me!  I tried not to dwell on it, however, and made the decisions quickly.  I gave preference to the two types of cherry tomato (which should be easier for part-time gardeners to grow) and was prejudiced against the Brandywines, both red and yellow (which I understand are the most difficult).  When I was done, the compost pile (well, at the moment it’s a refuse heap) got the addition of some very nice organic matter.

While I was at work, everybody, whether in a seed tray or small pot, joined me outdoors for a first day of hardening off.  Before starting the potting up operation, I moved all of the seedlings to the back porch where they could enjoy some indirect sunlight (the porch is covered by the dining room) and gentle breezes (a stone wall moderates the gusts of wind that can reach the porch).  After finishing the transplanting—which took just over an hour—I returned the seedlings to their cozy indoor nursery.

Tomorrow, they will come out again, and the visits will continue over the next two weeks.  Some time next week, or maybe the week after, the seedlings will spend some time in direct sunlight in preparation for transplanting to the raised beds.  My plan is to get everything in the ground over the Memorial Day weekend.

Easily the hardest part of the potting up operation was deciding how many and which seedlings to pot up.

I’m happy to say that our germination rate was very high and that most of our seedlings are healthy and viable.  But we were not very optimistic back in late March and early April and sowed eight or 12 seeds of each vegetable variety and an entire tray—that’s 72 seeds—of basil.  Consequently, we have many more seedlings than we can fit in the garden.

For the squashes, we sowed eight seeds of each variety and all of them germinated.  We picked the four largest (of each) to pot up and that left us with eight seedlings still in the seed tray.  They seem particularly robust and yet we do not have room for them.  On the other hand, I cannot bear the idea of tossing them out.  After all, we raised them from tiny seeds.

So I made an executive decision…and deferred until later.  Back into the house they went with their transplanted siblings.

We had an even higher factor of safety against germination failure with the cucumbers having planted 12 seeds of each, almost all of which germinated.  We filled an entire drainage tray with transplants, seven of each variety, but it is still more than we can use.  Perhaps we will find family or friends who will take some.

And it still left us with eight seedlings in the seed tray.  There is not really room for them inside the house so this time, we tried to be less sentimental about it.  We walked the tray over to the refuse pile behind the house, said some words of thanks to the seedlings for giving us their best, and, in acknowledgement of the cycle of life (and death), tossed them onto the pile.

I know this is the way of gardening but I did not feel satisfied.

And when we got to the tomatoes, it became clear that we needed another plan (or at least more time to think about it).  We sowed 12 seeds of each variety and only have room in the garden for two.  We potted up three of each (to protect against seedling failure) but when we were done, the tray of seedlings looked almost untouched.  Fifty healthy tomato plants are too many to throw away.

So, we will try to find homes for the seedlings we can’t use.  Failing that (and it is unlikely that we will find homes for all of them), I will practice letting go and toss the unwanted seedlings onto the heap.  Maybe this will motivate me to start that compost pile I’m always talking about.

We took down our Christmas tree today (yesterday was the Twelfth Day of Christmas so it is now safe to do so).  For the last few years, I have been cutting off the branches and using them to fill the window boxes.  It is a convenient way to add seasonal decoration to the house.  It brightens the post-holiday mood and helps smooth the emotional transition to normalcy.

I find that the boughs will last until some time in February which is about the same time that my thoughts are turning to spring and its early manifestations (such as forced forsythia branches; see February 17, 2012).  I would make a reference to last year’s blog post about decorating the window boxes but it would draw attention to the fact that I still haven’t constructed a compost bin.

It is remarkable how quickly we adapted to the presence of the Christmas tree when we put it up four weeks ago and what a hole it leaves now that it is gone.  There is a feeling of loss, of something missing, a void.  But in as short a time, we will adjust to the normal state of the living room.

While browsing through the local paper, Rachel noticed that Glynwood, a nearby farm center, was conducting a tour this afternoon.  Looking for an outdoor diversion on what had started out as a gray and dreary day but which was turning sunnier (if not exactly sunny) as the afternoon wore on, we decided to give them a call to ask whether they had room for two more.  It was short notice (less than a half hour!) but they told us to come on over.

We pass the turnoff for Glynwood every time we drive into Fahnestock State Park for a hike and, more recently, when we make a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.  So we were excited to finally make the turn and see where the road led us.  Their driveway is two miles long, a windy one-lane road that follows a meandering stream through the woods before reaching a large clearing (225 acres, we later learned) where the farm, fields and pastures are located.

When we arrived at the farm office, we were told that today’s tour was the last of the season and that we were the only guests.  Waiting for us was Donald Arrant, recently promoted to Farm Manager (congratulations Donald), who was pulling on his jacket and would lead the tour.  He was dressed in layers—clearly someone accustomed to working outdoors—and well-prepared for the blustery weather.  Fooled by the sun, I had only brought a light sweatshirt.  I would have to keep moving to stay warm.  Fortunately, our tour would be on foot.

Donald gave us a brief history of the farm and it turns out that it is no coincidence that Glynwood Farm, Stonecrop Gardens and Fahnestock State Park are located in close proximity to each other.  The surrounding lands—2,500 acres—were once owned by a conservation-minded family.  Glynwood Farm started as the family’s country house and Stonecrop was the home of one of their daughters.

When the last family member passed away, the bulk of their woodlands were donated to the State of New York to become a part of Fahnestock State Park.  The main family home was transformed into the current Glynwood Center, a working farm that develops policies for and promotes the establishment of farming communities to maintain local and sustainable food systems.  Stonecrop is now a demonstration garden and school of practical horticulture.  Originally united by geography and bound together by family, all three organizations still share the principles of conservation, sustainability, education and public outreach.

Walking downhill from the farm office, we passed Glynwood’s orchards, where flocks of chickens were enjoying the sunshine and a late afternoon snack of grubs and other insects.  Beyond the orchard is the original chicken coop, a long and narrow building that steps down the hillside.  (Although still functional, the coop is poorly ventilated and Donald would like to see it replaced.)  Turkeys share the building with the chickens, who also take turns grazing in the surrounding pastures from mobile coops.

Adjacent to the orchard are the vegetable gardens—Glynwood sells its produce through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program—and two hoop buildings.  The larger hoop structure is still half-full of tomato plants which will be protected from tonight’s expected freeze once the sides are rolled down.  Friday is the CSA’s distribution day and as we strolled past, members were arriving to pick up this week’s allotment.

Continuing our tour, we passed the pond we have often visited from the Fahnestock side, most recently on August 12, 2012 (we had previously thought that we were viewing Stonecrop Gardens on the opposite shore).  South of the pond are the pastures (the majority of the farm’s 225 acres) where Glynwood’s herd of cattle graze.  They were in a distant field this afternoon and because the terrain is hilly, we could not see them.

Our last stop before heading back to the farm office was Glynwood’s newest barn.  It is here that the livestock spend the winter, protected from the elements and kept warm in beds of straw and hay.  During the cold season, the accumulating manure is carefully managed and layered with fresh straw (and other materials, on an experimental basis) to produce nutrient-rich compost by the winter’s end.

After the animals move outdoors, the compost is removed and spread on the pastures and in the gardens.  This process takes the entire summer (the compost reaches a depth of about two feet over the entire barn floor) and its completion is celebrated with a gala Barn Dance in September.

Today, the barn was empty except for several huge bales of hay stacked in one corner and an extremely vocal—and adorable—herd of goats.  Besides providing entertainment, the goats are participating in a study of the efficacy of their grazing for controlling invasive plant species, such as multiflora rose, that threaten to overgrow the farm’s pastures.  It’s a simple concept but complicated in its execution (considerations include movement and feeding of the animals, impact on other plants and livestock, and control of parasites).

We were impressed by the smooth operation of the farm, its holistic and common-sense approach (backed by science) and natural (if not officially organic) farming and gardening practices.  As evidenced by Donald, the staff are very clear about, very consistent in and very committed to what they are doing and how they are doing it.  Their success is apparent in the healthy and happy plants and animals (and humans, too, for that matter).  We left in an upbeat mood, buoyed by the positive feelings around us and happy to have found another reason for loving where we live.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

One of the topics discussed over dinner last night was compost piles.  Our friends maintain one and carefully (and discreetly) collected the table scraps during and after the meal.  We noted that building a compost pile is next on our garden to-do list, right after paving around the planters, a task which we not yet even started (never mind completed).  It has not been the summer for big outdoor projects.

Our friends, who are eco-biologists and know a lot about such things, had some interesting advice:  Make a worm box.  Apparently, all you need to start one is a covered plastic bin, some shredded newspaper and a mail- or internet-order of worms.  Once the box is set up (ventilation holes punched and bedding and worms dumped in), you add your cucumber peels, egg shells and used coffee grounds (most of the usual compostable materials) and let the worms get to work.  I have read that worms are particularly fond of coffee grounds and this seems like a good way to dispose of them.

One of the major advantages to maintaining a worm box—more formally called vermicomposting—is that it can be kept indoors, year round.  The worms will keep themselves warm (with minimal heat) and as long as you feed them food that they like to eat, there should be no odor.  Most important of all, if they are happy in their box, they will not try to escape.  Failing to properly maintain your vermicomposter would be like opening a can of worms (literally) only ten times worse.

Of course, based on that visual image, Rachel vetoed the idea.