Working on a garden can be very strenuous, but I have been finding it to be extremely rewarding this year. I shifted gears with my garden this year and instead of just sticking plants into the ground and hoping they would work I’ve been trying to focus on growing just a handful of things well. But the resulting time spent researching, frantically working, and tenderly caring for plants has been pushing my limits. So much has been going on that this will be a big post… Hopefully to go with my big garden this year!
In previous years I had some success with Red Russian Kale (which is perfectly suited to our cold climate and will even over-winter our heavy snows) and various squash plants. The squash plants like my lack-luster care so much they grow whether or not I bother to plant them and I often have volunteer acorn squashes popping out of my garden. The biggest problems I have had is powdery mildew and blossom end rot. A bit of research says that if I mulch my plants and give them extra calcium that they will grow into happier, healthier plants and rot less. So kale and squash; plant with some ground egg shells and top off with some wood chips. Check. We’re all good. Beyond that I can practically toss them in the ground and ignore them. I have two leggy zucchini seedlings starting to sprawl in their seedling pots and about a dozen direct-sown kale seedlings starting to pop out of some weedy ground outside. I am feeling pretty confident about caring for these buggers.
Next to these lovely zucchini is a watermelon and some corn. I think my corn seed has been rendered sad by age as only two of the dozen seeds I plants germinated. So that will likely be a “stick it in the ground and hope it grows” scenario. I have to pick my battles and learning how to grow corn for two sad plants is not a priority. The watermelon seems to be doing well… But I only planted it because I wanted to see if I could get some fruit and, really, I have lots of garden space available. I did a bit of learning but thus far none of it has stuck. We’ll just have to see on that plant.
Somewhere down the line I had pretty much given up on m pepper plants. But right when I did, two tiny, waxy leaved seedlings popped out of the same cup. They are heirloom bell peppers and in theory maybe I can save a new crop of seeds from these two. The Adam and Eve of my own little local pepper landrace. They have been living under the heat lamp ever since, but haven’t grown much. Fingers crossed I get anything out of them.
The plants I have decided to focus on learning to grow extremely well are tomatoes. And so far so good. I had 30 seedlings as of this morning, meaning not only did my 27 seedling survive transplant shock from tiny seed cups into large pots filled with compost and soil… But actually the soil being looser allowed for three MORE tomato seedlings to come up in those same pots.
These tomatoes are perhaps a few inches above the soil and growing fast. You can see (in the big pot on the lower right, nest to the lowest plant) two of the tiny seedlings that decided to emerge after transplanting. Now that the seedlings are in larger pots, there’s a daily scramble to keep them in the sun. As I mentioned previously, our house has two south facing windows, which are partially shaded. So every morning it’s a small scramble to move them to my east-facing windows to catch the morning sun, to crowd them in my singular south facing window (as seen above) for mid-day, then shift them to the west-facing bay windows with added artificial light for the evening and over night. To utilize my extremely small space, I have been placing plants both inside and outside of the window. This also hardens them off simultaneously. Despite being hardened off and transplanted at the same time, they’ve been surprisingly resilient and I haven’t lost a single one.
I feel like I can learn to care for more than just one plant at a time, so I am also going to be attempting potatoes in feed bags and strawberries this year. For the potatoes I shall be using some very-sprouted Yukon Gold organic potatoes I have in my cupboard right now and some seed potatoes from a friend. But while I was learning how to tackle this project, I discovered a big problem in my gardening.
My compost sucks.
I have a dozen breeder rabbits, a dozen kits and a dozen chickens at any given time. My grass clippings and leaf litter tend to be allowed to rest and decompose right on my lawn to add mulch and biomass to our sad, clay-heavy soil. You would think that all of this messy bedding would make AMAZING compost. But it doesn’t. It comes out yellow-ish, smelly, wet, clumpy and gross. In the videos of potatoes their compost was crumbly and beautiful. And while the earthworms SWARM in my compost, it’s just not broken down like theirs is.
And I think I know why. Compost relies on a carbon/nitrogen ratio to break down. Too much of either can drastically hinder the process. Most compost piles have a lack of nitrogen, and so trouble shooting for compost piles says to add nitrogen in the form of urine, manure, or greens. But these are compost piles that people make to toss vegetable scraps in from their kitchen or weeds, to put on flower beds. Not compost piles made from various forms of animal waste to feed a massive vegetable garden.
So I ran a quick mental calculation. The bulk of my compost is rabbit bedding. My rabbits bed in hay (including some alfalfa) which has a 20:1 C:N ratio. Which is OK for breaking down into compost, but is a bit nitrogen heavy. No problem on it’s own. Another big chunk of my compost is chicken manure plus shredded newspaper which SHOULD be about a 70:1 ratio… But the newspaper often clumps and doesn’t break down. So I often add leaves, straw, or hay as bedding to break it up and help keep my coop clean. Resulting in a ratio of about 60:1. I have some table scraps, which go in and probably have a ratio of about 20:1, based on what ends up in my compost. Plus there is the occasional dead animal, feathers, dog poop, etc. which probably has a C:N of around 8:1. It comes out to about 40:1 and that makes up about 1/4th of my compost pile. Combined with 3/4ths hay, it should be a perfect ratio of around 25:1.
But the other 3/4ths aren’t JUST hay. Perhaps 1/3rd of that bedding is actually rabbit poop which has a C:N ratio of 15:1. And then there’s the urine. An adult rabbit may drink a single 32oz bottle in a day. A mom with kits may drink as much as 100oz a day. All of that comes out as urine, which is nearly pure nitrogen (0.6:1). There’s probably about 3.5 gallons of urine a day hitting that hay, or about 1 cubic foot every other day. Now some of that runs out of the cages into the drain in my garage. But at the end of the day, the urine completely saturates a good chunk of the bedding as well as the manure, and I’d be willing to bet that the C:N ratio of my discarded rabbit bedding averages somewhere around 10:1, and it makes up 3/4ths of my compost. Meaning that I probably have a C:N ratio of about 17:1, which is nowhere near the 25-30:1 ratio for ideal composting.
Additionally, we get a lot of rain and snow, and my compost pile is in the shade. I don’t have a lot of straw going on so air pockets are hard to create in my compost. It compacts together and breaks down very slowly because it becomes urine-soaked poo mush with bits of half-decomposed hay strewn through it. The earthworms RELISH it. There may literally be a hundred worms per square foot in my compost pile. But it’s not breaking down.
So I decided to prep a tiny batch of compost for potatoes special. I took a big tub, and mixed shredded leaves and some sifted aged wood chips into the compost. I made a small pile in the shade and I will let it rest for a few days and then stir it daily for a week or so before I plant my potatoes in it. It’s my hope that this pile will break down swiftly into the black gold that I need.
So the potatoes will be going into bags with this specially-prepped compost. And the strawberries get their own bed that’s undergone a similar treatment. I spent some time this week double-digging the spot in my lawn upon which once sat my animal tractor. It first housed three different rabbits over winter and then two half-grown hens in the spring and was an awful, gross, smelly mess of poop and rotting feed. A bit of compost, some half-rotted straw and a bit of elbow grease turned it into a good place to plant strawberries.
It’s mulched thick with straw over the top while the bed contents break down a bit. I shall probably be moving some of the straw and giving it a good fluff with the pitch fork today or tomorrow to help it along. It’s my hope to get the strawberries living in it, mulched with straw, in about a week.
It is about 4×4 feet, in lots of sunlight and so should be a rather expansive home for these six everbearing strawberry plants I picked up a few days ago. It’s my hope that they will spread and run madly throughout the bed and grow into a thick cover. While each of these plants had grown blossoms and berries on them already, my partner picked them all off while I prepped the bed so that they would put more energy towards leaves and roots. I can’t wait to see some runners taking root!
When I go to amend this year’s garden bed with compost, I shall be doing something similar. I will rake all of our yard litter (the lawn clippings and aged leaves) into my garden bed. I may sift some wood chips and add those as well. I have some vermiculite and sand to help break up the clay that I will be adding. Then I will be mixing in lots of almost-finished compost filled with worms. It’s my hope that the ground will respond rapidly to this mixture and finish breaking down the compost fast. After letting it sit for a few days and occasionally fluffing it with a pitchfork I hope to have well-rotted compost and soil that I can feel confident planting seedlings into.
Which leaves me prepping my garden bed for this work in advance. I will be having several people over on Saturday evening to re-dig the bed and mix in amendments. So yesterday Greg and I went out and built a new border for the garden bed. We actually moved the edge of the bed in by about a foot so that I would be able to reach both sides of the bed. I have long arms, but the 4-5 feet that the bed is wide is too much. So with a few garden stakes and a bit of string we marked a new edge for the bed and built a border. We dug the over-flowing soil into the bed, and dug up the old markers. We flattened the dug spot and lay down a barrier of cardboard (to help keep the border out of the soil and suppress weeds), then placed logs and stones along the line, close to the dirt. We then shoveled a small amount of wood chips over the border to help secure the logs and stones and cover the cardboard, as well as to help the border blend in. Mission complete! Border built!
After I took this photo I watered the border in and trampled it a bit to help compress everything into place. It’s my hope that it will stay put while we work the soil throughout the week and into the weekend when we amend it. I have a few friends already lined up to help me haul, dig and transport gross compost, wood chips and dirt. Hopefully this bed will look like black gold in a week’s time, just in time to get my plants in the ground. Wish me luck!