{ Author Archive - April Demes }

Lessons on worm composting

While visiting with my friend Elisabeth and her family, we helped make taco salad for supper. I chopped up some peppers, habitually making a little pile of the trimmings for the compost pile. I asked her where she was keeping her compost bucket and she answered, a little guiltily, that she didn’t compost in the winter: too much trouble.

I was surprised, as she and her husband are probably the thriftiest, low-impact kind of people I know, but I understood completely. Who wants to trudge outside through the snow? And really, who can call that frozen pile thawing to sogginess in spring a pleasure?

Coming home, I realized I should have told her about the worm composting I was trying out. Or, was supposed to be trying out but in reality was repeatedly forgetting about and then trying to repair the neglect. And then I remembered that I had promised you, dear reader, an update on my progress! Well, here you are. Here’s what I’ve learned.

I have two worm composters: a Worm Factory and a Worm Inn. My second Worm Factory went to my sister Jenni. In retrospect, I probably could have kept it to keep up with the volume of kitchen waste around here (assuming I could find a place for it). As it is, I am still taking some larger loads outside to my regular bin, especially during harvest and canning. But Jenni finds the Factory to be a good size for her household of 2.

My set up. Worm Inn above, Worm Factory on table, blue bin full of bedding, bucket of finished compost behind.

When I say I need to “repair the neglect,” there really is more guilt in my heart than travesty in the bin. My worms don’t mind being fed once a week, though I try to give them little bits, more often, rather than lots at once.  It definitely makes a difference if you chop up stuff into smaller pieces. This improves breakdown in regular composting, but it’s doubly true for the worms. They say you can feed worms anything as long as there’s no grease, but I’ve found a couple of exceptions in practice and reading: they don’t seem to eat seeds. I’ve had several sprout on me, including cantulope and pumpkin, and my otherwise finished compost is littered with them.  They leave tougher stuff like stems from squash alone, and they don’t like raw potatoes. Go figure. And no matter what you feed them, always bury it with some bedding to discourage flies and mould.

Speaking of, the “ick” factor is much lower than I thought it would be. There is no smell (unless I over feed and under bed), and the worms keep to themselves. I had some fruit fly trouble once, but a trap placed nearby took care of them within two days. My biggest mess factor: bits of shredded paper or coconut fiber always on the floor. It seems impossible for me to get a handful into either bin without scattering a bit.

I did break down and bring both units into my back entry for the winter. Once the temperature started to drop, they just weren’t eating in the garage.

As far as the bins themselves, I think I prefer the Worm Inn for design and ease of use. It’s easy to add material to the top, and harvesting is as simple as opening the bottom and draining it until you see bits of unfinished food or some worms. I also love the space-saving hanging design, and it holds way more than you would imagine. The major drawback for me is how good the airflow is, meaning, I actually have to remember to check the moisture level. Dry worms=dead worms.

This is the big plus for the Worm Factory. Moisture loss is not a problem; however, too much moisture can be. I leave the drainage spigot open with a bucket under it all the time to try to help the airflow, and I definitely use more bedding compared to the Inn to try to absorb the moisture. I have to be sure not to add too much food at once or it goes slimy before the worms get to it. (I should mention the Factory I have is an older model, and the newer ones look like they are designed for better aeration.) Also, the trays are pretty heavy when full of damp material, and the finished compost always seems to still have worms in it, so you have to sift them out or help them migrate by placing the tray in bright light.

Dig around a little and you’ll find many other composter designs, including ones you can make yourself. But the basics are the same: Keep them aerated, keep them damp, keep them bedded and keep them fed. Is it more work than traditional composting? Maybe, but I don’t have to trudge through the snow, and I’ve got fresh compost all winter long. Whatdayathink, Liz?

 

Paying less than a pretty penny for a pretty garden

Looking back over the season, I’ve added up all I’ve spent on plants, tools, and soil, and it’s a lot more than I expected. I’m not giving you an exact number, because some of you will think it’s a drop in the bucket compared to yours, and the thrifty among you, well, I don’t want to risk any heart attacks.

The point is, it’s a lot for me. For us, our household. What’s a great buy for one person is frivilous for another, and one gardener’s money-saving measure is a time-wasting annoyance for his neighbor. Everyone has different priorities. But I want to be a little smarter about my garden budget in the coming year. Charmian Christie has some good ideas, and here’s a few of mine:

1. Never underestimate the power of a sale. Watch your stores for discounts throughout the season. Buy your mulch, stable fertilizers, etc. in the fall, when many stores would rather sell them off than ship them back to storage. Assuming you have somewhere to store it.

2. Many trees, shrubs, and perennials are happy to be planted in the fall, when many greenhouses and big box stores sell them off for as much as 50-80% off. Just watch out for stress and disease before you buy.

3. My favorite greenhouse has a customer appreciation day the first Thursday of every month. If I can time my visits for these days, I get 15% off.

4. Plan a plant and seed exchange in the spring or fall (or both!). Free plants! The selection might not be what you’d find in retail, but you might be surprised. Bonus: meet fellow gardeners you may not have crossed paths with yet. Or, if you’ve got some hutzpah, put on a sale.

5. This is something new I’m trying this year. Every time I get a little windfall of cash, I’m putting it into a seperate savings account (free from my bank). Fifty bucks here, five bucks there, but by spring, I’ll have a few hundred set aside for the new hoses I need, taking the pressure off our April/May household budget. Wage earners could do the same, transfering a set amount each pay cheque. We do it for retirement and insurance, why not this?

6. Compost.

7. Reuse… all kinds of things. Egg cartons for starting seeds, milk jugs for drip irrigation, mason jars for cloches. Save your money for the tools and gear you really need or love.

8. Think outside the box on hiring help. A neighborhood work party, moving from house to house and spending an hour on each one, can get a lot of spring or fall cleanup done in one Saturday. Is there a landscape designer you know who you could barter services with?

That’s about all I’ve got… how do you keep your gardening passion from draining your pockets?

In with the new, with some help from the “Old”

I was waiting in line at the grocery store the other day, trying to avoid learning anything about Kim Kardashian, when I spotted it: the new edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac: that little magazine everyone’s heard of, and lots of people refer to, but few, including me, had never actually read.

Well, no time like the present.

Who couldn’t use a few time-honored tips for the garden? I know I’m not the only one already thinking about next year…

$5.99 later, I flipped through household tips, moon phases, an article on hydroponics and one on a hockey hero… so much more than the weather forecast and planting calendars I was expecting. Granted, I’m still learning to interpret the charts, and I’m not convinced I’ll actually put into practice all the tidbits available to me in the Almanac, but I can tell you this: the full moon is on the 10th this month, will rise at 4:22 p.m. Ottawa time (local time available), and is known as the beaver moon because it was the time to set beaver traps, before the water froze. I can also tell you that this edition of the Almanac is the two hundred and twentieth, contains several macaroni and cheese recipes, and taught me the word halfalogue: half a cell phone conversation, heard involuntarily. I now have it on Facebook, and I’m sure my paper copy will be dog-eared by next fall.

“Useful, with a pleasant degree of humor,” the Almanac proves to be, to me. And for those who might think all this miscellanea silly, I quote William Van Horne, from the title page: “Nothing is too small to know, and nothing is too big to attempt.”

Rethinking how we do food

Here’s a news article that caught my attention this weekend: a Dutch architectural firm has plans to construct a supermarket in Rotterdam where everything is grown on site, from avocados to fish. An interesting take on the concept of urban farming, it’s intended to be totally sustainable, and save all kinds of resources (including money) because of the virtual elimination of packaging and transport, as well as providing public green space.

Ambitious? Oh yeah. Will it actually happen? We’ll see.

But beyond the possibility and plausibility, what I love about the idea (and I don’t love everything) is that it’s another attempt to think outside the box and recreate our food system. We’ve hit 7 billion humans on the planet now, and it’s going to take some creativity to feed them all. Big scale projects like the Rotterdam supermarket, high-rise greenhouses in our downtowns, and stashing heirloom seeds in Scandinavian caves are likely going to be key to making a real difference, but it gets me thinking about all the things each of us can do to make our personal load on the system as light as possible.

People do try to grow everything we are accustomed to eating on their own land, though few of us have the space, time, resources, or motivation to pull it off. Nor is it always terribly efficient. But, in your own yard, is there a vegetable or two you love that could cozy up with your prize perennials? Do you really need all that lawn? Or even like taking care of it? Why are our public parks full of ornamental trees and annual flowers? Why aren’t there apple trees and annual vegetables in the mix? Would it be more maintenance? Could the food be harvested by food banks and soup kitchens?

Okay, I know, I’m a new-age hippie who wants to save the world. Maybe I’m crazy. But how about just letting some of these ideas settle in the back of your brain for the winter? Think about it as you daydream about planting for next year. Keep it in mind when your community is looking for projects. Maybe you’ve got a little save-the-world streak too.

Why does harvest time coincide with the onset of flu season?

I had a very productive weekend getting the last of the veggies out of the ground. I intended a busy week of canning, freezing, and drying, but only got as far as the canning: pickled the beets Monday and crashed on the couch with the worst flu I remember ever having. I’m coming out of the haze today, only hoping the carrots and turnips are still happy, covered, in the garage. To think I was going to leave the carrots in the garden over the winter, harvesting as needed. That would have been the better choice, had my crystal ball been working.

If some of you are wondering what to do with the end-of-season veggies at your house, I came across the USDA National Center for Home Food Preservation website, which gives specific guidelines for canning, freezing, drying, fermenting, curing… almost any type of food.

If you are more a book type, the old hippie-written Keeping the Harvest is still my go-to reference. During the growing season it rarely leaves my kitchen counter.

Goodbye, trees

Having been planted way back in the 1930′s, our poplar trees are starting to reach senior-citizen status. Some of them were planted right under where the power lines would end up running years later and, in consequence, as the trees have matured, they have needed trimming to keep them clear of the lines. While I shudder every couple of years at the drastic haircut, I’ve put up with it in the name of safety.

But last year they went too far. I came home to find one of the three less-than-ideally-placed poplars with its leader whacked and all of them with more than half the overall growth removed. (Not to mention one branch that had already died off still attached. Come on, it would have killed ya to take that while you were at it?) All three trees were already suffering from the regular attacks, but this was a death sentence.

You can see here the chair shaped chop that was the usual approach.

I called and complained. I was assured the crew were professionals and knew what they were doing. My eye. I assured the woman at Customer Service that what was left of my trees would be coming down, either on their tab, or later, on their precious line.

Sure enough, this spring all three trees were struggling, sending out stressed, weak growth. We had a strong wind storm and that dead piece they left up threatened to come down on the power line coming into the house. I called again. This time I got their attention and they sent out someone to check the situation.

This guy seemed to know a lot more than whoever actually did the cutting last time. He also informed me that the power company would prefer to remove the trees at their expense than trim them every few years. This was news to me. I’d rather put them out of their misery than watch them suffer. “Put me on the list,” I said.

And this week they showed up!

Going...

...going...

Gone! Just needs stump grinding...

It is sad in a way, but nice to be rid of that particular headache. I also have a nice big pile of wood chips to use for mulch. My kitchen is way sunnier in the afternoon than it used to be. And I have whole new design possibilities opening up…

How to repent and overhaul a flower bed

So, some of you may remember the horrid mess I encountered in one of my perennial beds this spring, thanks to my total neglect.

 

I continued my pattern of neglect right through the summer, but this week I decided the time had come to face up to my sins and fix things up. (Actually, I decided this last week, but it rained.)

If you, as I, have a nasty secret in your backyard, here are a few steps you can take to turn your life around.

1. Admit that you are powerless over quackgrass, that it really has become unmanageable.

2. Come to believe that a power greater than a trowel, fork, spade, or tiller is needed. Consider the merits of Roundup.

3. Start digging.

4. Put aside shame and ask for help.

5. Consider the layered newspaper thing. Smack yourself, remembering it is not a match for this particular problem.

6. Keep digging. Remind yourself that you really do need to divide the bulbs and the perennials anyway.

7. Lift all valuable plants. Marvel at the ability of grass roots to penetrate straight through an iris rhizome.

8. Stop for lunch.

9. Dig.

10. Consider Roundup.

11. Vacillate between replanting now, or stashing all the keeper plants in another part of the yard until the grass is really, really, really gone, either by Roundup or newspaper.

12. Remember that grass is never gone; stash plants/bulbs/etcetera in garage and put off decision for tomorrow.

Jack Frost comes to town

School is back in, the trees are changing color, and bugs are (attempting) to move inside: fall is unavoidably here. Some of you may still be weeks away from killing frost, but we’ve already had a couple of light ones here in Alberta.

Last winter I geeked out and did a bunch of reading on frost, thinking some theory might help my practical application this year. I had visions of early planting, and harvesting veggies and displaying flowers well into October. Not much of my vision materialized, as I still live in the real world, and I definitely haven’t reached the caliber of Niki Jabbour, but it’s cool to understand more about how weather works. And spreading sheets over the pumpkins with a flashlight after dark last week was totally worth buying them another couple of weeks’ growth.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned this year that may help you predict, and hopefully outwit, Jack Frost, and buy yourselves a little more time in the garden.

First off, find a weather website you like or buy one of those weather stations from the hardware store. The Weather Network actually has a Lawn and Garden forecast, including frost predictions and watering advice. A little info goes a long way.

Next, be prepared for frost. Have some old sheets or lengths of burlap ready to cover plants, as well as something to weigh them down against the wind. Small straw bales, a cold frame, or cloches will also do the insulating job. Have a spot in mind in the shed or garage to move containers of annuals to when you get a frost warning. Do a little research if you’re not sure which of your plants need frost protection. Bronze, hairy, or compact plants, as well as those closely spaced, will be naturally more protected, but don’t count on most annual flowers, squash, tomatoes, peppers, or corn to stand up to frost without being covered overnight. Carrots, beets, and most members of the cabbage family, as well as many other vegetables, don’t mind frost.

If you want to actually predict a frost, the first thing to do is look up. Clear, calm skies are a sign frost make strike, especially if afternoon temperatures start falling fast. Frost is less likely to occur under a cloudy sky, or when there is fog, as the day’s heat is trapped closer to the earth. This is part of why covering plants protects them–it traps some of the heat from the earth close to your plants.

Then assess the wind. If it’s strong, especially if it’s coming from the northwest, cover things up. Movements of large, cold air masses often bring on killing frost. But very still nights allow the coldest air to settle to the ground, also risking the temperature for your plants to hit zero. A light breeze will keep temperatures higher, unless that wind itself is below freezing.

Higher humidity decreases the risk of frost. This has to do with all the high school chemistry you’ve blocked out regarding warmer air being able to hold more water molecules. (See the next bit on dew point.) I’ve known people to water in annuals to protect them when a light frost threatens, though I’ve never tried it myself. The science backs them up: when the air is dry, evaporation sucks warmth out of the soil, making for chilly plants. By attempting to increase the moisture available, these gardeners “insulate” plants from the cooling effect of evaporation. Same goes for the old standby of covering things–it keeps the moisture close to your plants.

So here’s the real nitty-gritty of how frost actually appears–feel free to skip this paragraph if you’re not into scientific explanations. Basically, the dew point is the temperature at which the moisture vapor in the air will condense back into liquid, based on the given factors, most importantly, humidity. If the air temperature drops to the dew point above freezing, you get wet summer grass and diamond-scattered spiderwebs. If the dew point is below zero, and the temperature drops to it, the water vapor is changed directly into solid form–ice–and you see lovely feathery crystals on the edges of everything. Now, if the dew point is below zero, and the air temperature drops below zero but doesn’t reach the dew point, you won’t technically have frost, but tender plants will be damaged by the freezing temperatures. The other thing that can happen is the water vapor condenses at a dew point above zero, leaving dew, but the temperature continues to fall below zero, forming a coat of ice. So if you know the dew point and the overnight low, you can predict a frost.

If you’re really of a mind to change your relationship with frost, you may want think right down to the bones of your garden, your location and its physical features. Ever noticed that your neighbor can get white tipped lawn when you don’t? Higher altitude increases frost risk because the air is thinner and the average air temperature is lower. But low areas in the garden can be more susceptible to freezing because cold air is heavier than warm and tends to sink. Gentle slopes that expose the garden to the sun are more protected, open spaces plagued by wind are not. Houses, fences, and water bodies can be heat sinks and/or wind breaks that protect from cold air. Allowing places in the garden where wind can move, and hence, cold air escape, will also be protective. And that old saw about starting with the soil if you want better plants? It’s true in this case too: Fertile soil holds more moisture and passes it into the air more efficiently compared with sandy or deficient soil. And we know that humidity is good.

There. Don’t you feel smarter?

 

 

 

It’s getting to be bulb planting time…

I’m not generally the type to pay a lot of attention to advertising, but I do have an admiration for a clever tagline or whimsical campaign. So when I first saw a Dig.Drop.Done magazine spot, it peaked my curiosity. A brightly colored home, with a vaugely Leave-it-to-Beaver mom at center, precariously icing a zillion-layer cake? And it’s for flower bulbs? I love bulbs. What is this?

I went and had a look at the website. It was started by a group of bulb companies to “promote the joy of bulb gardening and ensure its future in North America.” Much of it is aimed at the beginning gardener as opposed to the seasoned vetran, but some of the pop-up tips from the three “ladies” — mascots of bulb planting — were helpful to me though I’ve been planting bulbs for a good ten years.

Check out their “bulb-pedia” for planting and species info on a very respectable range of flowers; and the ladies’ videos if you’re up for a groan or two…

Cabbage, and that sense of accomplishment

With the first of the frost warnings bearing down on me, I’m in the mood for some warm comfort food. Especially if it’s made with — ahem — the first cabbage I have ever grown! Ta da! Not that cabbages are tricky, I’ve just never grown them before, and I must say, they are very satisfying and quite beautiful. I came into the house holding my lovely green prize (with only one slug hole apparent) and presented it to Chris, gushing, “Look what I made!” He was suitably impressed.

Here's a lovely red one that should be ready soon.

But then I actually turned it into supper the next day. There’s something really fulfilling about that. If you’ve never grown food, please try it. (You can sign up for the Seed to Supper newsletter, too.)

So the supper I turned my wonderful Brassica into was cabbage rolls. I’m not classically trained in the art, but I love them, especially if it involves as little work as this recipe does. I’d be sorely tempted to eat the whole pan myself if it weren’t for the… consequences…

LAZY MAN’S CABBAGE ROLLS

Serves 6

1 pound (500 g) ground beef
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) chopped onions
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cans (10 oz./284 mL each) tomato soup
2 cups (500 mL) water
1 cup (250 mL) long grain rice
1 teaspoon (5 mL) chicken or beef bouillon mix
1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) freshly ground pepper
1/8 teaspoon (0.5 mL) cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon (0.5 mL) nutmeg
1/2 green cabbage, chopped (or 6 cups (1.5 L)coleslaw mix)
sour cream for serving

Brown beef, onions, and garlic over medium heat about 7 to 10 minutes, stirring to break up meat. (Use oil if needed.) Drain off any excess fat.

Stir in next 8 ingredients (tomato sauce through nutmeg). Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes.

Sprinkle half of cabbage over bottom of a greased 9 x 13 inch baking dish.

Spoon half of beef mixture over top and spread evenly. Sprinkle with remaining cabbage.

Spread remaining beef mixture over top. Bake, covered, at 350 F (170 C) for 1 1/2 hours or until bubbly and heated through.

Serve with sour cream. Really. I don’t care if you’re on a diet, it’s required.

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