{ Archive for the ‘maintenance and techniques’ Category }

Worms, worms, everywhere

So here’s my story.

Mid-summer, my brother-in-law Jared sent me a rather cryptic message to “watch the mailbox”. What with postal strikes and summer adventures, it was soon mostly forgotten.

At the beginning of August, my friend Teri also sent me a message, inquiring whether I had ever tried worm composting, and would I like to take some equipment off her hands?

I’m a big believer in composting, and have two healthy piles going in my yard, though I’d never gotten into vermicomposting — having little red wiggler worms help the work along — but I told Teri I’d take some stuff off her hands, if only to help her in her downsizing. I could try it out and always pass it on to someone else if I wasn’t into it, right? If nothing else, it was blog fodder…

The next day she showed up on my doorstep with two Worm Factories, one full, one empty, a big bin of coconut fiber (for bedding), and a binder of information on vermiculture and vermicomposting.

Original Worm Factory - 4 Tray

This is the one Teri gave me; click for the latest model.

“You put your food scraps in the top bin, here,” she said lifting the lid and exposing a melange of vegetable bits, newspaper, and itty-bitty red worms. “The worms migrate up and eat it. Then you harvest the bottom bin of compost and rotate it to the top. That’s basically it!” She seemed a little too excited to ditch this stuff and run. Hmmm… what was I getting into?

I was eager to try something new, not so eager at the thought of worms in the kitchen, Teri’s recommended location for the bin. And I knew Chris would not be into that at all. The timing also sucked: we were leaving on our three week camping trip in three days. Apparently they could eat half a pound of scraps a day: could I load them up before I left? Would they survive? Where would they survive? I debated ditching all the worms into my regular bin and re-purposing all that gorgeous coconut fiber elsewhere in the garden (it’s amazing stuff for soil additive, mulch, growing medium…), but felt I owed it to Teri to at least give it a go. Plus, those worms go for 50 to 75 bucks a pound.

So I cleaned up a little corner of the garage where the temperature should remain fairly even through the summer (winter will be a different story) and got the full bin all set up, thinking I’d tackle the empty one on my return.

That weekend, Jenni and Jared came for a visit, and I showed Jenni my newly acquired castoffs (get it?). Sudden inspiration: Jenni could take the empty Factory, and some of my worms for a starter! Yay! But Jenni got this funny look on her face… remember the cryptic mailbox notice? You guessed it. Jared, in one of his characteristic bouts of generosity, had ordered me a Worm Inn, which was, at that very moment, in the dawdling hands of Canada Post.

WORM INN

The Worm Inn. Hanging contraption not included. I've still got to figure that out.

So, in not so much as a week, I’d gone from zero to three vermicomposting bins. How… interesting.

I filled the bin with as much worm food as I dared, covered it up and left the spigot open so it wouldn’t get to slimy, crossed my fingers, and went on holiday.

We were back two days before I remembered to check on the poor little wigglers– but they were alive. Still some food scraps showing, and not moldy either. Hmmm. Maybe I can do this. The Worm Inn has arrived, and I’ve got Teri’s binder (which turns out to be a full-on manual from the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada). Looks like my kids aren’t the only ones in for learning some new things this fall. I’ll keep you posted.

One of my wigglers working on some beet greens.

In which I plant some healthy ideas and reap some better health

This spring I was having some nasty headaches, which seemed to be developing from my constantly tense shoulders. I was climbing into bed aching and exhausted almost every night, but my life was busy with kids and home and garden and community, and I didn’t take the time to get any help other than having Chris rub my back as I washed supper dishes. I got good and fed up with it one night a couple of weeks ago and called my brother, a chiropractor in Calgary. I told him my symptoms, and he asked me a bunch of questions. He told me his over-the-phone diagnosis boiled down to lousy posture. My back went up immediately – in the figurative sense – but then I realized he was I right. I have pretty horrible posture. I’m a sloucher. He ran through a few stretches I could do, and admonished me to see a massage therapist and a real live face to face chiropractor. I thanked him and went to bed.

The next morning, while digging in the garden planting some very, very, very late potatoes (a girl can dream, right?), I realized I was totally hunching into myself over the shovel, giving what I thought was my all my strength into each step. I stopped, tried to recall what my brother had taught me the night before, and corrected my posture, making a conscience effort to roll my shoulders back and down. I immediately felt a difference. I was actually getting more power with each dig, it took less effort, and was not at all uncomfortable. I realized my gardening habits were likely contributing to my miserable body.

Life hasn’t slowed down any, but I’ve been paying much closer attention to my posture, and I’m already reaping the benefits: no more headaches, fewer body aches, more accomplished in the garden (and the house) because I’m not wasting so much energy. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’m making my inconsistent yoga practice more consistent, too. I haven’t fit in a visit to the chiropractor or for a massage, but the minute I find one willing to do house calls at 7 a.m. or 10:30 p.m., I’ll book ‘em.

Here’s a few resources to help you in your efforts to stay healthy.
-Maintaining your core muscles will help your whole body, and protect it from injury. Contracting your abdomen before lifting, bending, etc. will protect your lower back.

-Cultivate healthy gardening habits. Remember, your body is a tool as well. It needs care and proper use.

-A wall angel is the first exercise my brother recommended for my tense shoulders and neck. A great stretch to train your shoulders to a healthier position. Focus on bringing your shoulder blades down and together.
-Yoga Journal has lots of great resources, including a list of positions to target different parts of the body, even to target chronic issues.

-If you’re new to yoga, here’s five great simple stretches for gardeners. (the descriptions are to the right of the pictures.)

-Prevention is always better than treating an injury.

Things to do while it’s raining

Day 1

-Grumble about wishing I had more planted before the weather changed.

-Resolve to be productive anyway.

-Enjoy the smell of spring rain.

-Tidy up the shed.

-Read gardening magazine/books.

Day 2

-Grumble a bit; then think positive.

-Edge a flower bed, careful not to step in the bed.

-Clean some tools that got missed in the fall.

-Measure the rainfall.

-Watch birds.

-Read more.

Day 3

-Sigh.

-Do top-to-bottom organize of shed.

-Repair and prepare hoses (meant to get that done ages ago, three points for me!).

-Watch grass grow in front of my eyes.

-Inventory seeds that could have… I mean, will be planted.

Day 4

-Go to greenhouse for sympathy and support.
-Update garden scrapbook.

-Count worms.
-Tidy up houseplants.

Day 5

-Watch dandelions go to seed.

-Lose boot in mud after attempting to “check on things”.

-Consider collecting stamps with flowers, trees, and vegetables on them.

-Retire to couch with scrapbook and magazines.

-Give up and actually get something done inside the house.

At least I am well prepared with my new boots!

How to tell if a tree is dead

Those little plant tags on new shrubs and nursery trees tell you all kinds of things: where to plant, how much to water, even sometimes a primer on hole preparation. But they never say much about what to do if Mother Nature pulls a fast one on you. Same for the magazines (no offence, CG staff): idyllic shots of root balls, mulch, and watering cans, but little mention of how to know if your green thumb has turned black.

I’ve been the death of at least one tree and several tomato seedlings. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that this winter has done under one or two of the plants I’ve put in over the last two years, including my mountain ash that I apparently can’t stop talking about. So I got a quick refresher from my sister Jenni, an arborist, on how to assess the level of life or death in my springtime saplings. (For more mature trees, it really is worth it to bring in an arborist. Really.)

First things first: every plant is different. Peeling bark could be a warning sign on some plants, but for ninebarks it’s totally normal—actually, a feature.

Have a close look at the object of your concern. If it’s deciduous, are there buds on the branches? Are they soft and full? Your tree is probably still sleeping. Be patient. If they are shriveled and dry, check all the branches. Are they all like that, or just a few? It’s not unusual for some branches to die off from stress or exposure over the winter, but the rest of the tree can bounce back. If the plant has already leafed out but got zapped by a cold snap, or if the buds all spell doom, try snapping off the tip of one of the twigs. Does it crack easily, or is it bendy? Bendy means there’s still life in it.

If you’re really worried, and not in the mood to wait and see, here’s something you can try. Scratch into the bark of your tree just a couple of millimeters and hopefully you’ll see a soft, moist, green layer of tissue. That’s your cambium, the life-giving part of the tree, where all the other cells are produced. If you’ve got healthy looking cambium, there’s hope. Remember though, not every tree will have a really obvious green cambium. And even a little scratch is still a wound, adding stress to an already stressed tree. Consider yourself warned, but it’s an option.

Here's my mountain ash, showing a bright green cambium. Try a twig or branch before the trunk.

Junipers may look awfully grey, but if you can see some green in the leaves and they are still relatively pliable, they are likely okay.

It’s normal for conifers to lose some needles, so don’t be too alarmed if you see some bronzy ones dropping to the ground. The ones to watch are the needles at the tips of the branches. If those are dropping, you may have a Code Blue. Evergreens continue to transpire (lose water) over the winter, so even with melting snow they could be feeling pretty dry by now. Some judicious drinks of water may rescue them.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce. I'm worried about this guy. Gave him a nice big drink today.

Now, with all that said, I’m a big believer in giving any plant a full season to show itself. Give the poor guys a chance before you rip them out of the ground. I had an Amur maple I was sure was toast (the deer certainly thought it was food), but it came back from the root and (with some love) is now a healthy four-foot tree. There’s a bittersweet vine I never got around to pulling out last year, and in September I noticed leaves on it.

Never give up. Prune back dead bits so the plant can focus its energy on the healthy parts, bring on the water, and – like a good gardener – cross your fingers and hope.

From seed to sprout to… cold frame?

Despite my seed buying frenzy of February late, I’m not really a seed starter. Most years I just pop a few squash seeds in pots a few weeks early and direct seed the rest of my veggies. Any other flowers, shrubs or trees I want I’ve either had given to me or I’ve bought from the nursery. I’ve had a few ambitious years where I’ve started the odd thing, but that’s hardly normal.

This year I’m bound and determined to really apply some things I’ve learned about seeds. Last week I realized it was almost the full moon, so I got it together and planted:

- tomatoes: ‘Roma V.F.’ and ‘Beefsteak’ for sauce and eating, ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Earlianna’ for the kids to snack on in the yard. I’m not very experienced with tomatoes in general, so this is a grand experiment.

- peppers: I found ‘Little Blue‘ because a neighbor grew some last year and they looked so fetching in their pots. Also a ‘California Wonder’ for your basic green pepper.

- broccoli: I’ve never grown broccoli from seed (other than for eating as sprouts) but I came home with a packet on my shopping spree, so here goes another experiment. ‘Green Sprouting’ is what this is; I expect I’ll still buy a few ‘Green Goliath’ or ‘Packman’ plants because I know I like them.

Broccoli babies

Izah labeled this "Tiny Tim" with a strip of styrofoam cut from an egg carton.

They’re all up except the peppers; not a peep from them yet.

I plan to start a few plants of different varieties every couple of weeks, so that, for instance, one batch gets scorched or drowned, I’ll have back up.

The flaw in this plan, of course, is my distinct lack of counter space. I would hate to annoy my wonderful dishwashing husband by eating up all his workspace with flats of baby greens, so the other part of my plan is to build the cold frame I’ve been thinking about building for the last three years. (See the to-do lists piling up? It must be spring!)

I hereby promise to tell you all about my cold frame adventures next week. Maybe that will mean it actually gets done.

So is it spring or isn’t it?

I woke up at 3 am this morning to a baby fussing. I rolled over, and thought, “Just a few more hours, little girl, it’s not time yet. If you wake up now, we’ll both be miserable for the rest of the day.”

She settled down on her own, and slept until 7:30, but I found myself repeating similiar words as I looked out my window at breakfast.

“Just a few more weeks, little tree, it’s not time yet. If you wake up now we’ll both be miserable, and you’ll end up dead.” The object of my mother-naturely concern: the European mountain ash I planted in my front garden last year.

The poor dear is so confused. Between the chinooks warming everything up and blowing away his nice chilly blanket of snow, he’s convinced it’s spring. We had a warm spell a few weeks back, and I had to bring snow from the drifts around the yard over to his base. I covered his toes while mumbling (yes, out loud), “Go back to sleep, you silly thing. It’s February.” No matter what the ground-hog may guarantee, I’m an Alberta girl. I’ve seen one too many April snowstorms. Around here, you don’t plant anything tender before the May long weekend any more than you’d give chewing gum to an infant. I’m not that worried about the big old poplars; they’ve seen more winters than I have and will hardly wilt at a late frost. A young tree budding in early March is doomed.

Or is it? Driving around on the highways today, the Canada geese are everywhere and the gophers are running around getting themselves run over. There was frost on the windshield this morning, but my tulips (and the shepherd’s purse) are showing growth. Maybe it is spring, and I’m being overprotective. Maybe I need to let my baby tree out on its own — sink or swim — just like a toddler learning to walk is going to get a few bruises. But I can’t help wanting to coddle him just a little this first year. I know spring and its fickle nature can have too many casualties.

On the top of my priority list for this year: start a shelterbelt to protect my little mountain ash and all his friends (as well as eliminating the snow drifts across the driveway. Hopefully.)

Shortcuts are my friends

I came across a book a while back called “How to Cheat at Gardening.” I said, yes please, and immediately checked it out of the library. It was full of little tips and tidbits; mostly strategies we are mostly familiar with: mulching, weeding early and often, companion planting. Sadly, no magic bullet, but I’m always up for learning a few new tricks.

Like the one a got from my friend Lynn this week. This is going to sound crazy, but trust me, it works. I just tried it.

Take your carrots you are loath to scrub, top them, and toss them in the washing machine. Yup, you read that right. I used the spin cycle, so just a moderate amount of agitation, and took them out, sparkling orange, when it stopped. There was a teeny bit of grit right at the bottom, that was it. Lynn says she fishes them out of the water, before it drains, to avoid even that. She also says she does beets this way. I am not that brave.

Another cheat I posted on the forums a couple of years ago is still tried and true in my neighborhood: when it’s time to clean up your leaves from the lawn, grab your snow shovel instead of a rake. You can push the bulk of the debris right where you want it (compost pile, in my case, or for mulch) and be done with it. Much faster and less exhausting than the traditional method. If you want things pristine before the snow flies, you can go over the basically-bare lawn with your rake in no time.

I’ll bet every person reading this has a little cheat… I mean, shortcut to share. Come on, give.

Water plants, winter style

It’s bedtime. Autumn has pretty much wrapped up; there’s just a few odd jobs to putter at if your gloves can keep out the frosty air. Many gardeners now turn their minds to houseplants or windowsill herb gardens to get their green thumb fix until the seed catalogues start arriving. I’m usually one of them, but houseplants seem kind of ho-hum right now. My hoya and peace lily have both stopped blooming and my norfolk island pine is wasting away (too much watery love from the small people, I think).

But never fear! Inspiration has ousted the winter doldrums before they could even set in!

I was in Lethbridge today doing some early Christmas shopping (yes, I know) at the pet store. Our (Chris’) big plan this year is to get the kids (Chris) a fish tank. We picked one out and I was assigned to pick it up and get it hid before anybody was the wiser. Well, we picked the right pet store. I wasn’t in there five minutes before I had the ear of Alan, gardener and fish lover. He gets his gardening kicks in the snowy season by growing water plants in his – wait for it – 175 gallon aquarium. He taught me pH, fertilizer, growing medium, and even offered to share with me a cutting off his sagittaria plant (lawn for the underwater set).

I’ll admit, I was lukewarm about the whole fish tank thing. But I’ve warmed up to it with the realization that I can have the “pond” I can’t handle in the backyard, right in my living room. And in the winter, too!

Not to mention a whole new array of flora to investigate. Things are looking up.

And if you’re wondering how we plan to get this thing set up and keep it a surprise… well, so am I.

Last tasks of the season

On my to-do list for the last few weeks has been an entry reading, “dig beets” followed by an entry reading, “make pickles.” Whenever I see this list, I mentally add the carrots and the onions still in the ground. These are the last things I need to do to put the garden to bed (unless you count my pipe dream of getting around to dividing my tiger lilies). But, as I run around taking the girls to dance and choir, getting everybody to the dentist, doing my part on our local public library board, cleaning the house, chasing the barely-walking baby, and all the other louder demands on my time, the trio of vegetables keep getting shuffled to the next day’s list.

Today I finally got rid of both entries and replaced it with “mulch beets and carrots”. I’ve overwintered carrots in the garden before very successfully. You can leave them all winter and they will go to seed the next year (they’re a biennial, related to parsley), or you can dig them up throughout the winter for fresh eating. They need a heavy mulch for this; I’ve used corn stalks and husks as well as leaves, but small straw bales are ideal as they’re easy to get off and replace when you want to harvest your carrots. Be sure to only dig what you want to eat though; they won’t hold.

I’m going to have to get the onions out, I think. We’ve had a couple of hard frosts this week, so I don’t know if they’ll keep for me (I usually let the tops dry and then braid them and hang them in the pantry). Maybe I’ll try them in my new dehydrator.

As for the beets… you don’t want to have any other commitments when you set out to turn the kitchen red. Maybe next week will be a little quieter. Until then, here’s my F.A.V.O.R.I.T.E beet pickle recipe. Maybe you can get some done.

SWEET PICKLED BEETS

2 pounds whole beets (don’t peel, or top, just trim)

water to cover

1 1/2 cups white vinegar

1/2 beet juice (from boiling the beets, strain to remove any silt)

2 cups white sugar

1/2 tsp salt

1 Tbsp mixed pickling spices (that’s actually what the label calls them), tied in a cotton bag (or cheesecloth)

Cook the beets until tender, then let cool until they can be handled. Slip the skins off and cut up into chunks, placing the chunks into hot, sterilized jars to within 1 inch of the top.

Place the vinegar, sugar, beet juice and salt in a sauce pan. Add spice bag and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and pour over the beets; seal jars. (Here’s tips on processing; at my altitude 10 minutes is good for pints.)

Makes about 4 pints.

Good Grass, Bad Grass

After spending a good deal of the season trying to get rid of grass, I’m planting… grass.

We tore up a bunch of lilacs as part of a big garden overhaul last fall so there’s all kinds of lumpy bits and bare patches in the lawn. Not that it wasn’t pretty lumpy already; I live in fear of one of us spraining an ankle whilst strolling innocently out to the shed, never mind the kids running around. I’ve heard people blame this lumpiness on night crawlers, those big, fat, earthworm look-alikes. I’ve heard people blame it on horses and deer, which I’m apt to believe. I’ve heard people blame it on too much foot traffic in the wet spring. Whatever the reason, I have a very lumpy lawn. If you can even call it a lawn. It’s really what you call “farm grass”– a mix of clover, dandelions, crab, quack, and bluegrass. Everybody around here has it; it’s just one of the facts of life for a rural community. However, I cringe every spring when my lawn turns golden with little yellow mopheads. It wouldn’t bother me that much except I’m upwind from most of town and any negligence on our part will be felt by a lot of neighbors and farmers. And making your grass stronger and healthier is one of the better (and decidedly non-chemical) ways to choke out lawn weeds. So between the lumps, the relocated lilacs, and the dandelions, (and a few bags of free grass seed) I’ve been planning all year to do a little resurfacing and over seeding this fall.

Springtime on the east part of our property, formerly pasture for a couple of lump-making horses, now home to a nice crop of dandelions.

I fully intended it. They say it’s the best time. But a couple of weeks ago, right about when we started getting frost, I heard the BEST best time is several weeks before frost. Maybe the rest of you still have a chance…

So I’m focusing on another grass. I’m going to plant rye. As in, fall rye. My vegetable plot is returning to its clay origins lately and is in need of a good dose of vitamins, and fall rye is supposed to make a great “green manure” and help choke out weeds too. I’ve never tried it before, but what you do is clear the soil of vegetation and sow (“In September”, according to the package… that gives me… tomorrow, right?) the rye shallowly. It grows. Then in spring, you till (or hoe) it under with a little bonemeal, and you have a nicely rejuvinated soil. Rye is an annual grass, so it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) come back to haunt you… Considering my history with grass, I’m taking a major risk. Here goes nothing.

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