Saturday, November 14, 2015

MOAR raised beds

On the lookout for partial-shade crops
There's a beach on the north side of my house.  Not a peaceful Hawaiian beach relaying the dulcet sounds of an ocean nearby, but a 15x20 sand pit, surrounded by chain link fence, that at one time was a children's playground.

Fifteen years ago, we dumped about 20 tons of sand there to provide a great place for the kids to dig and bury and frolic.  For the last 10 years or so it's served as a huge litter box for the cats the infest that barn on the top left.

So now it's a beach made of sand and cat crap, which means it grows weeds and not starfish. The lovely and gracious Rogue had started to grow sunflowers there, with mixed results. I tried some strawberries, which attempt failed miserably, at least if producing fruit is the goal.  This area as it exists today is worthless for kids and gardening both. Plus the pipe from the well runs just beneath the surface, making wholesale soil replacement problematic. What to do?

It seems that if we're going to plant anything here, we're going to need some raised beds.

I mentioned before that I prefer to make my raised beds from cinder blocks because I like the opportunities for companion planting. And I like the permanent nature of the blocks combined with the temporary nature of the beds.  And I hate that wood rot means that the clock is ticking on your wooden beds, even as they attract every slug in a 10 mile radius to feast on your seedlings.  But once the deck was finished I found that I had enough lumber sitting around to build the 4 2x2 beds in the front of this pic, as well as the 3x3 on the left. That left a big hole in the middle, so I broke down today and bought enough pressure treated 2x12 to build three 4'x8' beds.  So I guess I'm in the wooden raised bed business*.

I don't know how long they'll last, though the fact that they sit atop fast-draining sand may give them a few more years than they would enjoy in the back yard. But for the meantime, I have a brand new place to dump shredded paper: in the boxes. And I have a place to dump cardboard: in the walking areas. And I have a place to dump the hundreds of gallons of wood chips produced by my birthday present: atop the cardboard.

So by spring, the former cat crapping grounds should be transformed into 150 weed-free square feet of walking trail surrounding 150 cubic feet of raised beds.  The fact that it lies on the north side of the house limits what I can plant there. But whatever the area produces will be better than nothing, which is better than a sharp stick in the eye or a bunch of sandy cat crap, all things considered.

* What is in the beds already is a cardboard or shredded paper base to prevent weed growth, topped by a foot or so of compost, topped by leaves.  I have garlic planted in one bed, the rest lie dormant for the winter.  As I gather enough cardboard to cover the areas between beds, I lay it atop the sand and cover it with wood chips. It makes a very pleasurable walking experience. We shall see how well it controls weeds.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

It's your one way ticket to midnight

For the ears, not the garden...
When a comment becomes a post.  JN asks:
[Do you compost] paper with ink on it?

Long answer:
Before I started, I looked long and hard at that, because I had read that inks weren't safe, newspaper was bleached, all that fun stuff. But while everyone was saying it, very few people actually linked to a source. It was just one of those things that everyone knew. Or at least said.

Having worked in a print shop, I was suspicious of the claim that modern inks are dripping with heavy metals just waiting to kill you. The vast majority of inks today are made from soy, and the 'glossy' paper is generally covered with kaolin clay, not plastic. Kaolin is inert and will break down easily if your paper is shredded.

BPA in the ground has a half life measured in hours: An important result of the degradation study was that, independent of the soil type, 14C-BPA was rapidly dissipated and not detectable in soil extracts following 3 days of incubation. So shredding that Walmart receipt is probably ok.

As one of the few articles that actually uses sources noted about PCBs: Since all carbon sources take up PCB 11 from the air, and it is present everywhere, that really leaves us with no uncontaminated source of carbon-rich material. Like cadmium, PCBs can be found in inks in small traces, but because it's in the air, it's found in small traces in everything, including your garden plants, which take it up through the air much more easily than they do through the roots*.

Is there risk that something bad for you is going to get into your shred through inks?  Absolutely. 

But as there's no way to completely avoid pollutants, it's really a matter of risk management. I look at it this way: if you don't worry about your kid chewing on a magazine page, there's no need to worry that he'll be harmed when that same page is shredded, rotted, run through a worm or roly poly**, mixed in with a ton of other things, then used by a plant that then goes into his mouth.

If you don't mind that the melted cheese from your pizza touches the box, why would you mind if the box ends up in the garden?

I strip out plastic windows, plastic tape, obvious metal inks (magnetic and fluorescent), but otherwise I don't worry about it too much.

UPDATE: On a completely related subject -- and going the other way -- is the prospect of what David the Good calls killer hay. There are herbicides used in agriculture that even once they pass through plants, then animals, then compost, will still kill your garden.

That stuff is probably in your super-meat pizza: in the sausage, the cheese, the tomato-based sauce, and the dough. You might just be safer eating the box.

* So if you want to keep PCBs out of your garden, bury the newspaper paper instead of burning it.
** Which bugs remove heavy metals, like cadmium, from the soil.

Fall Garden

Mr. Charisma pulling up the radishes
You might notice that white glob on the far left beneath the original cuke ladder. That's shredded paper that I used as a mulch on a few of the raised beds.  It worked great.

As I mentioned before, I shred paper and thin cardboard* and then let it soak overnight in a bucket. In addition to adding it to the compost pile, I also tried using it as a  mulch directly around some of the bigger plants, like tomatoes.

It worked very well. The wet paper matted together and stayed matted even after it dried, so I didn't have paper blowing all over the yard.  But it let the rain through while keeping weeds from going the other direction. When I pulled it up, the bed beneath was crawling with the kinds of bugs you want in your soil.

Once I cleaned out the beds, I threw most of the half-rotted paper on the compost pile, while some I left on the beds to see what it will do over the winter and what it will look like in the spring.

Because Science.

*The thicker cardboard I'm using directly on the ground around/between these beds, as well as in a new, partially-shaded area on the north side of the house that's becoming a garden.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Compost Cage

As I've discussed elsewhere, composting is the process of speed-rotting organic material to make the perfect garden nourishment. And while you can follow formulas and build lidded wooden bins and fuss and fret over your compost, the truth is that it's very hard to screw up. Still, even with a regular-old rotpile, you'll probably need to turn it on occasion if you have lots of grass clippings.*  The compost cage eliminates even that little bit of work.

My compost cage is made of:
One 20' x 6' section of chicken fencing 
One fence post

Drive the fence post in the ground, zip tie one end of the fence to the post, then attach the other end of the fence to the first end by wrapping the loose end wires around it**.  What you end up with is a round, vertical 'cage' about 6' tall and 4' across.

I set mine up last spring and put exactly two ingredients into it, grass clippings and shredded paper. Both can be problematic, because when wet they tend to pack, making an oxygen-proof mat that can force a slower, anaerobic rot in your pile.  But the tall, slender cage keeps the whole inside oxygenated without mixing. 

The clippings I just raked up from around the cage after mowing and tossed them in. It takes surprisingly little to fill 6' of cage.  It does settle pretty quickly, so there's room for more every time you mow.

The shredded paper took a little preparation.  I shred everything I can: newspapers, junk mail other than the little plastic envelope windows, Taco Bell boxes.  Once I get a 5-gallon bucket-full, I fill it up with water and let the mix soak overnight. The water gets soaked up by the paper, which helps break down the fibers. It also helps the pile stay moist.  I don't add any other water to the pile.

All through the summer, the cage looked like a greenish-brown pillar at the back of the yard. It was even taken over for a month or so by red-flowered trumpet vines. But worms and rolly-pollys were working the whole time.  When I removed the cage this morning and knocked it over I got about 20 cubic feet of compost, enough to fill one brand new 4'x4' bed and to cover the 4'x10' bed I'll be planting with garlic this week. What you see in the picture is all that had not rotted, plus a new bucket of paper.

The compost cage is a slow-rot, also known as "cold composting." It's not going to steam in winter.  It's not going to drop noticeably over the course of a few days. But if you have lots of materials and lots of time to wait for them it's the easiest way to get wheelbarrow loads of good compost with almost no work at all.

* Composting works best when you have a mix of "browns" (like leaves) for carbon and "greens" (like grass clippings) for nitrogen. One problem you might face is that it's hard to have both at the same time.
** You could use zipties here, but I don't because I want it easy to disassemble.