Seedlings and Frosty Mornings

April 14th is our last average frost date for the year and May 1st our last extreme frost date. The weather has been wacky this year and has lead to several problems. I know that many people who farm tree-based commodities are running on panic mode right now. Our weather has been alternating between extremely warm spells (60’s and 70’s day and night) for two weeks and sudden, aggressive frosts, typically accompanied by several inches of snow. Sap season for maple syrup this year started and ended a month early, and we waved goodbye to most of the US peach crop as they bloomed with the heat and died in the frosts. Bees have been having trouble too. A lot of people are noticing the bees getting very active because of the heat, drawing out comb and eating winter stores to do so, and then when a frost hits they can’t reach their food (or don’t have enough left) and die. It’s a rough sort of spring.

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This was the view outside my bay windows last Thursday. The trees had so much snow on them, they were being pulled to the ground. Normally these flowers are well above the windows. Now it’s in the 70’s.

For me, the effects of the weather have also been substantial. My back lawn is essentially a swamp of sorts. The vast majority of northeast Ohio used to be swampland and wetlands before it was colonized by the English, and the effects of that heavy watershed still holds fast to this area. The alternating weather patterns have also been accompanied by alternating precipitation patterns, and when the water hits the ground in this area, it doesn’t leave until it evaporates into the air. There’s nowhere for it to go. This area is where the water is SUPPOSED to drain off to. As a suburb, we’re trying to get it to drain off even further. It’s not easy.

So preparing the expansion for my garden bed has, all around, been going poorly. Not only is there several inches of mud, but on top of that is inches of standing water. I was trenching (double digging) a new area of my lawn for the garden bed expansion, but I’m afraid that all I did was create a small lagoon in my back yard. I really need to rebuild those irrigation ditches this year to help drain water away.

The massive amount of water, sitting on top of the clay slab that I refer to as my lawn, is a large part of the reason why we garden the way we do. We have to amend the soil if we want to grow our staple diet needs. Clay soil floods, roots have trouble penetrating, and nothing seems to grow well in it at all. The water simply pools and sits on top, and we rely on evaporation not waterflow or absorption to lower our water table. So we build raised beds. Do note, the finished raised bed area from last year (lagoon to the fence) has no standing water. It’s still wet, but not flooded. It works.

(Broccoli and lettuce that should be planted outdoors, but it’s been too wet to
work the soil)

Good soil management plays into this a lot. We rely on fresh/arborists woodchips to play a big part in our gardening. The woodchips serve several purposes. First, they help with water management. They will absorb water when it’s wet, release the water when it’s dry, and also create pathways through the soil for water to travel, unlike the clay which simply stops it. Next, they slowly gather and hold in nitrogen, an essential nutrient for growing plants. At first, fresh wood chips are so busy absorbing nitrogen that they will leech it out of the soil, but in later years they shed the nitrogen in a form that is usable by plants in large quantities. To help mitigate the nitrogen loss, we use the wood chips in our chicken yard first, allowing it to mingle with the nigh-nitrogen content of chicken poop and start to break down. The wood chips also add biomass to the soil, not only through their own organic matter, making the soil looser and more fibrous, but also by feeding tons of microbes, insects, fungi and other things that live in the soil and help plants grow. Using the woodchips in the chicken yard also gives us an extra benefit; our chickens do not smell because their poop is neutralized by the carbon in the wood chips. It’s an extremely natural, effective, and usually inexpensive way of managing an integrated agriculture system.

But this year, the service I used to use to get wood chips delivered ($20 delivery plus $1 a yard) changed hands and is no longer offering that service. so I’ve been struggling with other groups instead. I have tried websites like Chipdrop (which was awful), I have been calling local arborist companies, etc. I have heard a lot of promises that I will get wood chips, but no deliveries yet. It’s been VERY difficult and frustrating.

As a result, it’s frankly too wet to work in my lawn to build the rest of the garden bed. Every step means sinking 2″ into the mud, every push on a wheelbarrow sees it creating ruts 6″ deep, and every shovel full of dirt comes with a flood of water. There have been no woodchips to mitigate the problem and make it manageable. So right now, I’m stuck.

I managed to plant nearly all the seedlings I was planning on for the year, and they’re ready to start hardening off. But I have nowhere to put them yet as I have compost to spread and dirt to dig before they can move into soil.

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My seed starting station in my basement, with tons of green plants, some of which can handle the light frosts outside until may, but not the flooding.

So I wait. And wait. And wait. And maybe someday my wood chips will show up. When they do, there will be a massive party at my house, both figuratively and literally as I invite lots of people over to help move some dozen of yards of wood chips and eat one of the meat chickens and some squash that I raised out last year.

But for now, there’s not much I can do. The wet and unstable weather has me unable to traverse my own lawn, and only time will tell if I get my plants in the ground in a reasonable time frame or not.

Meanwhile… Have some pictures of my chickens, being wonderful and enjoying not being penned in (since we have nothing growing).

Everything I see is a seed cup

AKA, my top five DIY/upcycled seed starting options! (Scroll down for a list!)

Last time I reported how I was going to be starting about 300 seeds indoors. That’s a lot of seeds for me, and seed trays can be a bit pricey. So recently everything I’ve been looking at has started to look like a seed starting cup. That novelty glass jar? Maybe I can drill a hole in the bottom and… The tray that holds the custom-painted ornaments I gave Greg this year could just have some holes punched in it and… You know, the top to that board game box is nice, sturdy cardboard just the right depth, and if I planted the seeds in rows… It’s getting out of hand. Everything I look at, whether it’s important, in use, impractical, or not, I can’t stop thinking about cannibalizing it into a seed starting cup! Yikes!

Every year I buy a combination of peat and plastic seed trays in small quantities to add to my collection. I weigh a few things when I buy seed trays. Cost is the first. I don’t wanna be spending a crazy amount of money or I might as well be buying my own veggies, not growing them. Sustainability includes economic sustainability, and I aint in the 1% here! Second is environmental sustainability. Peat trays seem great on the surface… Biodegradable, made from renewable resources… But there’s an environmental cost to everything and a balance must be struck. Peat has to be grown, harvested, and processed into pots. And the equipment required to do that relies on fossil fuels. It’s like how even if you recycle a plastic bottle, it still takes fuel to recycle the bottle so it’s better to have not used it the first time. So peat pots have a footprint from being manufactured. Plastic pots and seedling trays have a higher footprint, but unlike peat pots are reusable. When the ecological impact is divided across several years and the plastic is ultimately recycled, plastic could easily be the better option. Even in a perfectly balanced world, there’s a level of plastic that is sustainable to have in production.

The other thing about peat trays is how they effect livability of plants. Since my soil is lacking in peat, every little bit counts and when I plant my pots I tear the bottoms off but leave the tops in tact. This creates a peat pot ring around the top of the plant stem that helps prevent bugs from attacking them. Plus it adds peat to my soil when I crumble the bottom half into the dirt, right where the plant needs it the most. On the other hand, plants whose roots hit the edge of a peat pot often become stressed and unable to grow further, desperately trying to push through the compressed peat. Don’t believe the lies that the roots will grow right through the pot nd you can plant the whole thing in the ground… They won’t! And it will strangle your plant’s growth. In a plastic pot, those roots simply turn and start growing around the pot in spirals, allowing the roots to uptake more nutrients and water to continue growing (but also creating a tangle of roots). It’s a bit of a trade-off. All around, it just kind of comes out as a wash to me. But I like to give it some serious consideration none the less.

One way or another, buying pots costs money and no matter what I do, a manufactured seedling pot comes with a footprint. So I’d much rather have things that were already made for another purpose and upcycle them into something I can use again! So here’s some great upcycling ideas for seed cups and pots! This is a list about from smallest to largest, because size is very relevant in seed starting pots. If you want to grow your plants for 10 weeks indoors, a larger pot might be better. If you are going to transplant them very quickly, use a smaller pot. I hope it helps give you some ideas!

Toilet paper rolls

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TP and paper towel rolls make for nice, tiny, seed starters. The fact that they are cardboard is nice, you can use them much like peat pots, in that they will wick moisture up through them to keep the plants moist if the bottoms are set in water, without over-watering. I wrote a whole post about how to make and use TP rolls as seed starters way back when I first started homesteading.

Since then I’ve learned a few things about them that are worth noting. One, the ones made from half of a toilet paper roll are smaller than the ones made from 1/4 of a paper towel roll. They might even be too small. Two, they dry out VERY fast, and must be kept in trays with water at the bottom to stay moist. In some places they can develop slime or mold this way, but I haven’t had that happen much. Three; they are VERY small, and as a result, some plants need bigger seed cups or they need to be transplanted at least once before they go outside. So bear those facts in mind as you grow in cardboard tubes. However, once those facts are accounted for they can be quite effective, in abundance, super easy to make, and freeeeeeee!

Tomatoes

TP roll seed starters and peat pots, in a plastic tray so they can sit in water 24/7

Bonus!

Empty wrapping paper rolls! These are exactly like the toilet paper rolls, but bigger. They are cardboard, made the same way, wick water the same way and have all the same benefits and problems. But they’re bigger!

Yogurt Cups

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Yogurt cups (or similarly sized plastic cups) with holes punched in the bottom make good, reusable seed starters. Plastic doesn’t wick water upward like cardboard or peat does and so they need to be watered with more care. But they also don’t necessarily need to sit in a tray filled with water at the bottom either. If you use a good peat-heavy soil with enough holes in the bottom, you can actually bottom water with them too. If you’re worried about your soil mix falling out the bottom from drilling too many holes, just use a small square of paper towel to keep the dirt in but still allow a good transfer of moisture and air.

 

Butter Boxes

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A butter box is just the right size to start seeds in if you trim off the top, or cut it in half. They’re very similar in size to some commercially sold seedling trays. Because they are cardboard, they will wick water like other boxes, but they are covered in a laminate coating, so it will be less effective. This also prohibits mold growth, but can’t be planted into your garden like brown cardboard can. It takes too long to break down.

Similar to this would be pint, half pint and quart dairy (creamer/cream/milk) cartons.

Newspaper Pots

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In 2014 (my god, is that really 3 years ago already???) I tried out these DIY newspaper pots from mother earth news. I hated them. They fell apart constantly. I have since learned about these much more awesome DIY pots that are folded origami-style. Anyone who has ever folded a paper crane will find these to be incredibly simple, but admittedly, they are slightly more difficult than the simple rolled paper ones. However, they hold up SO much better! There are 15 steps in folding this, and it’s no harder than folding a paper airplane. Just give it a try!
DIY folded seed pots!
DIY origami newspaper pots

Make sure your newspaper uses non-toxic ink. Do not use glossed pages or ads, they are often printed by another company and contain different inks/coatings. I get my newspaper from my dad who lives here in Cleveland with me. He gets The Plain Dealer, which uses recycled paper and soy-based ink. Thanks CPD!

These function much like cardboard and peat pots in the way they wick water, but are MUCH more likely to break down rapidly in the soil, and so are much more reasonable to plant in the ground whole if you want a pot you can plant. (Although I still advocate taking the bottoms off.)

Disposable Cups

Red Cups

If you’ve held any big gatherings recently and have all those dirty, old, disposable cups lying around, just give them each a quick rinse in hot water and punch some holes in the bottom. These big cups provide a great place to plant seedlings that might need some extra root space, whether this is due to a long tap root (like corn) or growing a big plant (like mammoth dill), or even leaving extra room on the top for more dirt (like a tomato plant).

 

And that’s it! That’s my top list for DIY and upcycled seed starters! Seed starting can literally happen in any container with drainage at any time, these just happen to be my absolute favorites. Good luck gardening and may your germination rates be high!

Garden Layout (Round 1)

This year I did some serious work planning my garden. Usually I just kinda stick things wherever I feel like they’ll do well, but this year I actually made a full-blown honest to goodness map.

I measured my garden bed yesterday and found out it’s much smaller than I thought. I was spot-on with how deep it is (8′) but I thought it spanned nearly 40′ long. In truth it only hit 28′ when including the emergency addition I put in last year, so I called it 26′. That addition worked out sub-par, producing no eggplants and a handful of robust squashes that it took me several months to discover were buttercup squash… Though through no fault of the garden plot, honestly. They just got crowded out.
(Incidentally, those squashes became my go-to vegetarian holiday dish for Yule this year. I stuff them with a stuffing made out of “wild” mushrooms (usually just a mix of shiitake, button, oyster and portabellas), chopped walnuts, onions and basmati rice, all cooked in vegetable stock, butter and wine, seasoned and topped with parmesan. Conveniently, I could sub out the butter and skip the cheese and make it vegan if I wanted… But I’ve never had a need or reason. Still, it’s nice to know that I could prepare something delicious that meets that criteria if I needed to. I like to be accommodating.)

While Yule tides me through the darkest part of the year, I am always thrilled when my seeds come in. And come in they have! They arrived just this morning, right after I finished making my growing chart!

I had some problems last year with my plants. The biggest problem (besides spacing and varieties grown) was the addition of some pests to my garden. I figured they’d crop up eventually but it still sucks. So now crop rotation, companion planting and integrated pest management come into play.

I referenced these pages on companion planting;

http://www.vegetablegardeninglife.com/companion-planting-charts.html
http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/companion-planting-guide-zmaz81mjzraw
http://www.almanac.com/content/companion-planting-chart-plant-list-10-top-vegetables
http://www.ufseeds.com/Vegetable-Companion-Planting-Chart.html

I try not to use one source only when I do research so I referenced all four.

And then I used these pages for pest prevention;
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pest-repelling_plants
http://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/12-plants-that-repel-unwanted-insects
The wiki list is very good and I generally consider Wiki to be well managed.

And with the additional few feet we want to expand, ultimately, I came up with a yard layout that looks like this;

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I made this in a free open-source art program, similar to photoshop, called GIMP. This shows all the features of the left wall of my lawn, including our trenches for run-off, and the mixed flower bed surrounded by rocks that we’re planning on putting the bees in.

The key is;
Green BB = Beans
pppp = Peas
Pale Green B = broccoli
green LL = lettuce
green SS = spinach
grey H = herbs (various)
yellow D = dill
red RRRR = radish
Yellow C = Corn
Purple P = Purple Beauty bell pepper
Red A = Anahiem
green J = Jalapeno
gold S = acorn squash
pink W = watermelon
red T = tomato (our new tomato variety has smaller plants than last years)
peach O = onion (we’ll be buying onion sets)
dk green/black Z = zucchini
The grid is square feet, and some plants are supposed to grow in the same spots as the corn. Radish is harvested before the corn grows and the squash uses the corn plants as a trellis. Herbs are spread out to help deter bugs on susceptible plants. Dill is separate from herbs because it’s mammoth dill and grows several feet. Clustered letters indicate how many plants we’ll be planting in a specific spot, whereas the big letters show the amount of space those plants are projected to take up. The letters that take up a single space on their own are just that, one plant per square foot.
I would also like to set up 2-4 potato bins for seed potatoes against the fence, between the garden bed and the chicken pen and grow radishes there as well a little later in the year.
Also marked is our shady spot (left) which is shaded by trees in the spring/summer, and unshaded in the winter/early spring, and our ultra-wet spot (bottom) that floods next to the garden bed with 1-3 inches of standing water. East is 1/4 of the way down on the right wall of the bed image.
There’s a few glaringly huge problems with this layout…
1. Crop rotation. It’s hard to do when you only have a few hundred square feet and the same areas of the lawn have the same conditions from year to year. For example, the leftmost garden squares that are shaded. The summer sun scorches us with 90*F+ for a week or two every summer, and that shade is critical to protecting leafy greens, peas and other plants that are easily scorched. Even in spring it can be overwhelming and the ground cracks. On the left, currently it’s marked with “herbs” but last year that’s where we grew kale. Similarly, the leftmost beans are where peas were last year (legumes on legumes). We can’t plant things like peppers or tomatoes in that space because they won’t get enough sun. So plants that have specific requirements for growth like the watermelons, kale, other leafy greens, beans and peas are all in unfortunately similar areas to where they were planted just last year. (And the year before that.) And there’s not much I can do about it.
2. The bottom of the bed is 7′ deep. Now, in theory I can reach in the 3.5′ from each side to weed and harvest… I have long arms and tools. But in reality I suspect that’s too wide for me to manage without stepping on the beds (which as we all know is bad juju). This could be a serious problem, or I could us boards to step on.
3. That’s my working location for the bees… Sunny in the winter, shaded in the summer, protected from rain and wind by trees and a fence line, easy to access but not somewhere I use… But it’s uncomfortably close to the garden beds, and I want to keep the dogs out of it… So I theorized putting a small stick fence around it. It could still be a big problem because bees don’t like things in their flight path. I’m working on that one.
4. Soil erosion at the bottom part of the bed where the standing water is. This has been a consistent problem, yearly, since we moved in. That land needs to be built up with organic materials that can absorb to water and a way for it to drain into the irrigation ditch needs to be considered. Something has to be drastically different soil-wise.
In reality, I might spend much of today retooling this layout. We also may be expanding beyond this point by bringing in manure from local horse farms for free and adding more onto it. But as it stands, this is how I’m growing plants. In addition to this, I have a 4’X4′ bed of everbearing strawberries that overwintered from last year and about a 3’x3′ bed of flowers out front I’ll be trying to plant up a little better this year.
One way or another, in total I will be gardening at least 300 square feet this year, some of which will be vertical (beans and peas on trellises, potatoes in boxes).Not too shabby, but a long way to go still. Hopefully, with a little luck, we’ll be able to expand further than that this year and do a much better job.

Whoops, more garden space!

I was coming back in from weeding, feeding (with compost) and pinching suckers in my garden. Dan was sitting on the old wicker couch that is slowly crumbling outdoors and when I offered him a hand up my eyes settled on a forgotten home depot bag on the bench. A slight breeze came through at that moment, blowing it open a bit. Inside were several heirloom variety seed packets… Eggplants, cucumbers, cantaloupe, winter squash, etc. The cucumber packet was puffed up like a jiffy popper, puffed out in all directions.

Oh no.

They’d been outside for WEEKS.

I tore into the bag, only to find some DOZEN of perfectly sprouted, healthy, green cucumber plants. Every Single Seed had sprouted. The winter squash was also starting to sprout and all the seeds had been wet and warm for daaaays.

Well, there’s no stopping it now. Either they germinate and grow right now, this year, or they don’t grow at all ever. But my garden bed is literally FULL!

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The plants in my garden bed have grown, pretty much doubled in size, since this photo was taken, and this was just about a week ago. There’s literally no space left.

Which means digging a new patch of garden and hoping for the best. We have PLENTY of compost still, so in it went. Dan bought me a bag of sand to help break up the blue glacier bed clay that makes up most of our soil. Tomorrow we go out and finish double digging with that sand and some more compost. Then we mulch and plant every seed we can.

Whoops.

It’s SO late in the season. It makes me so sad, even though it’s only a loss of about $10 in total. I sure hope we get at least SOME delicious food out of this effort.

A small update

My camera’s battery charger is missing and my phone is no longer sending photos to my email. I am quite put-out by this as it means no more good photos taken when I am home on my ownsies. I shall have to rely on Greg’s phone to take nice pictures as mine is not a smart phone. I am also missing my tablet cable which is a bit frustrating.

But my life with gremlins aside, myself and a few others spent Saturday and Sunday moving dirt with a gusto. We double-dug the garden bed, loaded it down with as much compost as we could, stirred in some vermiculite and sand, covered it with cardboard to shade and smother any weed growth from the now-improved soil and piled some wood chips near by for future mulching.

The wood chips came from my parent’s front yard where a pair of massive 50+ foot oak trees sat, fused and entwined at their base. Mom loved that tree and would be turning in her proverbial grave to see that dad had it cut down and the stump ground without a thought on what to do with all of the glorious carbon sealed away in those respectable old trees.

Luckily (through much beration of my father for not even bothering to MENTION to his kids that he was having the tree taken down when he knew I wanted the wood, and through many calls to the tree company) I managed to save some of it. A disappointing fraction of the whole. A few dozen massive logs from the top section of a pair of trees with trunks so large I could not wrap my arms around them and taller than my parents 3-story-house. A slab perhaps large enough to make an end table. And a substantial pile of finely ground wood chips from the huge stumps the trees left behind.

Those wood chips will become part of my garden bed, feeding microbes, worms and plants in turn. Those plants will go on to feed me (or my animals which also go on to feed me). And in some small way I will absorb some of the biological uniqueness of that tree into my own being… Or so some distant romantic part of me would like to believe. The chips will be the carbon to my over-loaded nitrogen heavy compost. They will be a mulch for the top to keep the water in. And a massive amount also went into the chicken pen where it will keep my birds happy and healthy.

What’s especially nice is that they are very fine wood chips, mostly being perhaps similar in size to those you might get if you hit a pencil repeatedly with a hammer. And they’ve been sitting in my driveway, aging, for a few months… Which means that they also are already starting to break down. Indeed, in many ways they look more like dirt than my compost does!

So my garden bed is ready. In a week, the cardboard will come off, the dirt will be raked, the mulch will be spread and the plants will go in the ground. Hooray! It’s a shame that in the meantime, the weather is cold and terrible.

I have been making a mad attempt to harden off my millions of tomatoes. They have been sitting on windowsills outside my few windows that get sun. Tonight it is in the 40’s so I tried to bring at least some of them in. In the process I dropped one of my plastic pots with 5+ seedlings in it off the windowsill and it broke. The tomatoes were damaged and scattered. Some may be salvageable. I replanted them all, so we shall just have to wait and see.

And we cleaned rabbit cages today. Our winter was late and only ended recently. The rabbit bedding builds up a bit in the winter because it often freezes and it’s hard to handle shovels with metal bits when it is 10*F outside. So today all the rabbits got moved into cleaner territories, and we also gave the water bottles a thorough cleaning with soap, hot water and a wee bit of bleach on the insides. One of my NZWs seems to be having some health problems with a back leg. I’m not really sure from what. It could be that she injured it in the cage bars or some other accident. It’s hard to notice because rabbits are often still when they are relaxed, but she hops a bit oddly and has trouble getting off her side. We’ll be keeping a close eye on her but it could mean a cull, which would solidify my desire to move solely into purebred standard Rex in several beautiful colors. I would breed in my remaining NZWs that have shown such robust health for a bit of diversity, and breed them out to be purebred Rex.
The only requirement for purebred animals in the rabbit world is that they meet breed standard for 3 generations. The majority of my rabbits aren’t purebred anyhow since I don’t know their history. To some people, meeting breed standard and breeding true is enough to be considered purebred, which my rabbits do. This method of record keeping actually benefits rabbits on the whole as it means that breeders can easily increase genetic diversity, health and production in different bloodlines. We don’t run into nearly as many pesky health problems from closed herdbooks as other “pure” animals do such as horses and dogs.

It would be a good shift, I think, to move into purebred Rex. I love their furs and NZWs are common enough that I could bring them back easily if I ever wanted them. We shall just have to wait and see.

Garden Madness

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.

Squash1_2016

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.

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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.

Tomatoes1_2016

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.

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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.

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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!

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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!