Monday, January 28, 2013

Indoor composting update

It's a day shy of three weeks with the indoor compost bucket and I'm pretty thrilled with how things are going.We've had unusually warm weather for most of this time which means, perversely, that the compost bucket hasn't stayed as warm as it might have because we haven't needed to run the wood stove much. (When we've got that thing fired up to heat the house, it's probably 85-90 degrees right next to it, but as we've gotten used to cooler weather, we don't bother with it if the house is in the low 60s, as our solar hot air collector will take care of the next 10 degrees on its own.)
Despite that lack of external heat, the compost was warm to the touch this morning when I turned it with my little scoop.
On the plus side, no flies, other bugs or leaks have come out of the compost. Whatever decomp activity is going on in there, it appears to be all microbial. Which is fine with me. Out of sight and all that.
I don't smell a thing from it if the lid is on and when I open it to peek or stir it up a bit, I get a lovely, rich, loamy smell out of it that I adore in my outdoor-scent-starved winter state. It has turned a nice shade of dark brown and now I'm waiting for the lemon halves and apple segments that my daughter tossed into it without chopping smaller to break down more before I call it close to finished. I was careful not to throw potentially stinky produce into it. It has largely greens, banana peels, citrus, apple and coffee grounds in it. (Most of the rest of our scraps end up frozen for soup stock anyway -- the onions, kale stems and carrot bits.)
On the down side, adding sawdust to it on a 3-to-1 ratio meant that the bucket was full inside of a week, and the pile of frozen compost outside is growing again. I think I might need 4-6 of these buckets (filling one a week) to manage all our kitchen waste. While there is technically room for them around the woodstove, it would look weird. Okay, weirder. Plus any visiting fire marshals would not be happy.
I do think I will pick up and start a second bucket however, as I read recently in an interior design book that pairs of objects visually balance a space. I think one white plastic bucket on either side of the wood stove will be tres charmant, n'est pas?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Compost Roasting by a Woodstove Fire

And, with any luck, no nasty smells nipping at my nose.

I've set up my indoor compost bin, modifying the online directions I found based on information gleaned from this great page on 13 common composting myths.

A few pics, and my modifications:

The bucket I found at Ace Hardware, and the project supervisor.

The aeration holes. Based on the word of a random stranger on the internet who said size didn't matter, I went with a quarter-inch drill bit, to reduce the possibility of solids escaping.

Same size drainage holes in the bottom. I purchased a clear plastic pot saucer for the bucket to sit on, to catch any drainage. which I would dilute and add to my potted plants.

First, a few inches of potting soil from my recently vacated carrot bucket.

I chopped up the larger pieces of kitchen scraps. We'll see how long this dedication to composting lasts.

I then added a few  inches of kitchen scraps.

Next a layer of sawdust. If I had a paper shredder, I would use shredded paper instead as the brown, per the above myth link. A different random stranger on the internet tell me that the ideal ration of brown to green is 25 to one (and I know Lauren Dittman has given me very precise information but my brain did not retain it -- sorry Lauren!) Random stranger number two indicated that a 3 to 1 ratio would suffice, at least with coffee grounds, so I'll aim for that and will be adding more sawdust as soon as I post this.

Finally, I decided to mix it all up instead of keeping it in layers, again based on the advice from the Composting Myths website. It makes sense that well distributed greens and browns would compost faster and better than inches-thick layers. I tried lidding and shaking the pail, which I think would have worked brilliantly with shredded paper. Not so with the sawdust, which leaked out of my tiny holes a bit, so I instead used the fireplace shovel to mix things up. I'm planning on picking up a dedicated scoop from a feed or hardware store.

And lastly, the finished project, warming by the fire. I shall report back as I see results or smell problems.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Moar buckets!

I always have a little trouble backing off of the consumerist high that Christmas brings. Most of the year I am fine to be thrifty, make do and acquire things second-hand, but the influx of holiday cash and gift cards from lovely, generous family gets me in a spendy mood that takes a while to shake, come January.

The other night, we had neighbors over to play a gateway Eurogame called Bohnanza (think brain-stretching board games for grownups) and the husband started to wax rhapsodic about an electric composter he's been researching and wanting to buy for a couple of years. The NatureMill stirs and heats your kitchen waste, turning it into beautiful compost inside of three weeks.

With buckets of icy kitchen scraps littering the back porch and a frozen-solid compost pile roughly the size of the Matterhorn in the yard, it wasn't hard to convince
myself that I *needed* a viable winter composting device.
And when Jason assured me that it cost under a hundred bucks, I was totally sold on it. Sadly, as soon as they left I hopped on teh interwebs and found that the Naturemill in fact costs upwards of $275.

But I was so hooked on the idea of producing buckets of fresh compost this winter which would give my seed-starting efforts a fabulous boost that I spent a couple of days brainstorming ways to afford it. After establishing an Amazon seller account and listing a stack of Dungeons and Dragons modules I picked up at a rummage sale a couple of years ago with an eye to their possible resale value, I got my first $30 sale and began researching the Naturemill in earnest.

It turns out it gets an alarming number of negative reviews for durability and customer service, and I came to the sad conclusion that I couldn't justify spending even a fraction of its cost on one.

So back to the drawing board, aka Google. I soon found some cool sites on composting in winter, both outdoors and in. It is too late for me to set up a functional outside composting pile, but I did make a mental note to clean out my compost pile next fall, so that there would be plenty of room for adding winter scraps.

Then I found a couple of sites like this which detail how to create your own, hopefully low-odor, leak-free compost bin indoors. For less than my $30 bucks, I figured I could pick up a small, cute metal garbage can with lid, drill some holes in the bottom, slip a catchpan underneath it and line the bottom with a few inches of potting soil. In place of shredded newspaper, I could use some of the pine sawdust I picked up from a sawmill last summer to cover and act as the high-carbon input for each batch of kitchen scraps I added. Situated next to the wood stove with a cute little shovel to turn it, my little bin should get similar results as the NatureMill, I speculated hopefully.

I am off in search of the bucket today, and I shall report back in a few weeks how the experiment is going.

Friday, January 4, 2013

I haz a bucket!

An update on a project that I never wrote about, because I have been a bad blogger. Well, a busy blogger. But it is the dead of winter, and I've got visions of future crops dancing in my head, so I'm planning next year's garden and evaluating last year's experiments.
One tiny experiment I just concluded -- harvesting carrots from a two-gallon bucket drilled with holes for drainage and filled with home-mixed potting soil (45 percent aged compost, 45 percent peat moss, 10 percent vermiculite, plus some organic fertilizer.) I have trouble getting carrot seeds to germinate here once summer hits, because of the heat and extreme dryness. This summer was record-breakingly hot and dry, but once we returned from an amazing trip to Ireland and London last July,

I experimented with starting carrots in a bucket in the shade. I didn't keep track of this bucket as closely as I could have and it spent more time in the semi-shade than it probably needed to through the heat of August, but I got great germination out of the seeds and when the first few frosts hit, I tucked the bucket in my new mini-greenhouse on the south side of our house:

The white bucket in question is barely visible on the lower right of the photo, under the wire shelving. The carrots continued to grow until sometime in November, when the bucket essentially became cold storage. This is an unheated greenhouse, warmed only by escaping heat from a house window, and when it got down to zero outside (not sure now low the greenhouse got, low 20s at least, maybe colder) in December, the greens died back. So today, I harvested the carrots (using hot water to free the last few that had frozen into the potting soil) and found that they all grew straight and unforked, though not as large as I had hoped. I got a pound of carrots from the bucket and probably could have gotten closer to two pounds if I'd started the carrots sooner or had them in full-sun sooner. I was happy enough with the results to grow more carrots in buckets, especially given the heavy clay soil we have here. I think I'll start some larger containers with carrots in late winter in the greenhouse and mid spring outdoors.

If you look closely at the greenhouse photo, you'll see some red bell peppers in homemade self-watering containers up against the house. I absolutely love growing peppers in containers in this climate. I can bring them inside and continue to harvest them through early December. I cooked with my last fresh, homegrown pepper on Christmas day, which was deeply satisfying. The peppers are a rather fragile plant, especially when loaded with fruits, so I may start them in the greenhouse and keep them there all summer, rather than dragging them in before the first frost.

I have grand plans to grow cucumbers and melons vertically in the greenhouse as well this year. Meanwhile, I'm sorting through my seed stash, culling and organizing, and placing my Fedco order, as I sit by the woodstove on a chilly January day.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A few cool gardening ideas....

found recently on the interwebs:

Stones painted to look like strawberries to fool bird and squirrel thieves (step-by-step instructions in the link). These would work best, I would imagine, if you placed them in your beds in early spring, so that hungry thieves tried to peck/nibble them repeatedly before the real McCoys started ripening up.

Return to Album

 A garden tower with a built in composting tube down the center of the barrel (I *love* the idea of  stuffing scrap greens and kitchen waste down the tube and having it compost and leach its goodies out into the surrounding potting soil over time.) The project is still in development through kickstarter, but it gives me some interesting ideas for a self-watering/self-feeding planting container.
Garden Towers Hilltop Greenhouse

And lastly, I thought this was a useful article on growing potatoes in containers, as it had advice I hadn't seen before about coiling a soaker hose up through the container as you bury the potatoes under, to ensure even watering. I think my previous disappointments with container potatoes may have had to do with not keeping the plant watered at crucial tuber set times.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sustainable Potting Soil Mix Alternative

The latest issue of Mother Earth News has  an article on container gardening that has advice for making your own potting soil mix out of thoroughly rotted/composted sawdust and/or chipped bark:

"If rotted until black, either material makes a wonderful growing medium with excellent structure. Two parts rotted sawdust or chipped bark to 1 part compost usually makes a good container mix. If you're committed to growing container veggies, set aside a spot for these materials to decay so you can start making your own potting soil in the future."

There's a sawmill near us that's offering free sawdust and they'll even skip load it into our trailer.

I'm going to give this a try, as I am growing more and more in large containers, for a variety of reasons:
--The south side of my yard is narrow and gravel-lined. Peppers, tomatoes and other heat lovers really like growing in self-watering or other large containers there.
-- I can reduce the amount of solanaceae that I have to rotate through my beds if I grow my peppers only in containers (that leaves me tomatoes and potatoes to juggle in my raised bed rotations) and they do great in them.
-- I can tuck those extra artichokes or potatoes into the random sunnier patches of the yard when I am out of bed space.

I like that the sawdust is renewable and not particularly carcinogenic (vermiculite may have asbestos in it). I'm picking up extra containers as I find them at thrift stores, going for the Rubbermaids only, as the less pliable plastics become brittle and break in a year or so's time.

One easy way to grow in containers, at least the smaller leaf and root crops, is in milk crates lined with weed barrier (I"m using old bedsheets, for lack of a better material).

I try to grow in containers that are at least 5 gallons, both for root space and to minimize the chances of them drying out in less than a day.

And if you want to put more work into it, there's always these great self-watering containers to make: