Thursday, May 18, 2017

Composting rules I break, and why I break them

There are lists of what could/should and should not be tossed into a compost pile. I disregard most of them, because they make no biological sense. However, local conditions and ingredients affect my decisions.

What I don't compost, and why:
  • Eggshells
    Our soil has plenty of calcium, and the grackles or ravens rummage through the compost for shells, then carry the shells a short distance and drop them. It's not worth the mess they cause.
  • Cactus pads
    The fleshy part decays quickly, but the spines last forever in the compost. It hurts.
  • Palm fronds
    They are too fibrous to run through a chipper shredder, and the fibers last a long time, making the compost hard to turn or sift. 
    If you want to prune your palm trees, do it in time for Palm Sunday in the spring or Sukkot in the fall.  People will love you for donating fronds to their ceremonies.
What I compost that I'm "not supposed" to:
  • Kitty litter
    We use locally produced pellet fuel - compressed sawdust - as litter. After removing the feces because ewww! the urine-soaked sawdust composts easily.  I'm not worried about pathogens because they are my cats. They live with me, sleep on my bed and wander through my house.
  • Meat and leftovers containing meat or grease
    If you can compost an entire dead elk by piling sawdust over it, a few scraps of stew meat aren't going to make your compost pile die. 
    If I lived where the meat could attract scavengers such as bears or raccoons, I would keep most food scraps out of the compost.
Read more!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Weed Control: Herbicides 101, What Plants They Kill

Herbicides are chemicals used to control unwanted plants. All conventional or "organic" herbicides work by somehow interfering with plant growth. They may block photosynthesis and protein production, dry out the leaves, or destroy or inhibit root formation. Because different plant groups have different biochemical pathways, some herbicides can kill only one group and leave other groups unaffected. Other herbicides will kill a wider range of plants.

This means that you might be able to get rid of some plants and not kill the plants you want to keep.  But it also means you have to take the time to find the right herbicide, read labels and apply the herbicide correctly.
WARNING: If something will kill "weeds", it might also kill "flowers", "lawns", "vegetables", "shrubs", "trees", "animals", and you.
Read the labels before you buy a product or open the container. Follow the instructions. What has been sprayed can't be unsprayed.

READ THE LABELS: Yes, that means YOU!

A typical herbicide label has several pages of cautions and warnings and instructions.  The label will tell you how to safely handle the product, what plants to use the product on, and just as important, what not to use it on. You can read the labels online while you are deciding which product you need.
Label from typical lawn weed killer.
They tell you what NOT to apply it to because it will kill those plants.

There is also a long list of weeds it has been tested against that it will kill
if you apply it according to the package directions.

What are you killing, and for how long do you want it dead?

Classified by results, herbicides can be thought of as soil sterilizers, broad spectrum herbicides, broad-leaf herbicides, grass herbicides, and pre-emergent herbicides.  So your first step is to decide what effects you need, and identify the plants you want to kill. Then you can select which product of that class will work best for you.

Soil Sterilizer
A soil sterilizer prevents seed sprouting and regrowth from roots for a long period, months to years.  It usually kills existing plants as well.  This is the equivalent of "nuke it from orbit" for a gardener, and should be very carefully researched.

This is not the product you want to apply to clear the weeds from where you plan to put a lawn or vegetable garden.

Broad Spectrum Herbicide
Affects almost every plant you spray, but will not prevent seeds from sprouting, or only has a short effect on seed sprouting. These are useful for killing off everything and replanting with the desired species. With care they can be used around established plants without harming them.

Glyphosate is in this class, as is horticultural (20%) vinegar, and that stupid mix of salt, vinegar and dish soap. 

Broad-Leaf Herbicide
Affects most plants with two seed leaves, also known as broad-leaf plants, but does not affect plants with one seed leaf, such as grass and corn. This is what you get in the herbicides to kill weeds in lawns.

TIP: Not all plants with grass-like leaves are immune to this class of herbicide.  Some are not botanically a "grass" and others are just delicate varieties of a grass.

Grass Herbicide

This affect plants with one seed leaf or thin leaves, such as grass and corn, but does not affect plants with two seed leaves. These are useful for killing grass in your shrubbery and rose beds or an orchard.

Pre-Emergent Herbicide
This is often sold as a "weed preventer" because it sounds more appealing than "pre-emergent herbicide".  However it is labelled, it will prevent most seeds from germinating, so don't try to use it to keep weeds from sprouting in the vegetable bed or lawn you just seeded.

TIP:Timing is everything with pre-emergents. Applied too early or if there is too much rain and the herbicide might be washed below the level where the seeds are germinating. Applied too late and the weeds can be too mature to be affected.

On-Line References  Read more!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Using Compost Bins As Raised Beds

My composting method consists of tossing stuff into a wire bin and letting it decompose on its own schedule.  Because of the dry climate, things in a bin can sit there for years without decomposing much, so I ran a drip line onto the top to keep the ingredients moist and ensure compost within my lifetime.

Then we had the brainstorm!  Why not try growing stuff in the bin while it was decomposing? It has water and nutrients aplenty. It should be like a planter or extra-high raised bed.

The Construction:

Here's a new bin, made after yard cleanup, with layers of shredded branches, grass clippings,  and oleander leaves and blossoms.  The green thing is a bean plant that grew up the side between filling the bin and making the planter.
New Compost Bin

We made a depression in the middle of the material, lined it with newspaper and filled it with some garden dirt.
Layer of newspaper and dirt
Then we spiraled the drip line on the dirt and planted vegetables along the perimeter.
Drip line


We had success with summer squash and tomatoes.  It's convenient to have tomatoes at a pickable height.
Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato, running wild


  • As the material decomposed, the plants needed to be adjusted for the lower height if they were draped over the edge.
  • The compost from the tomatoes was infested with tomato seeds from the fruits we didn't see that fell into the bin.
  • Tearing down the heap was a bit more difficult because of the massive root systems the plants developed, but not enough to make me stop using the heaps.
Read more!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

World-wide Naked Gardening Day

Protective Gear for Desert Gardeners 

I knew there was a drawback to desert landscaping. I can't participate in World Naked Gardening Day because it's too dangerous.

Mark Storey, the founder of WNDG writes of "the innocent joy of working with the earth as nature intended".  He may frolic through the English landscape nekkid as a jaybird, but nature in the desert does its best to leave gardeners blistered, dehydrated, punctured, and cooked medium rare.
Spiny things and tender flesh are not a good mix.

I have to protect myself from the plants, the tools I use, and nature. 
Read more!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Watching Grass Grow: What I Should Have Done for Buffalo 2.0

This is another "Oops, should have thought a bit longer" post. I realized too late that there was a slower but less work way to get the front yard growing.

I should have established the grass and wildflowers over 2 or 3 years, not just one spring, to make weed control easier.
  1. Water well, lure out and kill annual weeds by any means possible between November and May.  Flames, herbicides, tilling ... total war on weeds.
  2. Plant the buffalo and grama grass in May, with the jute erosion control mesh.  The seeds would sprout faster in the warmer weather.
  3. Get the grasses established the first summer, weeding and using herbicides as needed. Anything that is not a grass is the enemy at this time.
  4. If the weed pressure is low, plant wildflower seeds that fall and following spring. 
  5. If there are still a bazillion weeds, use a pre-emergent or  broad-leaf herbicide another year before planting wildflowers.
But, I was in a hurry, so I planted the buffalo and wildflower seeds in early spring, and the weeds took advantage of the water. They were well-sprouted before the grass even broke dormancy.

On the bright side, I have acquired excellent experience in hand-weeding large areas and recognizing weed versus wildflower seedlings.
Read more!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Starting Seeds Under Grow Lights

The mortality rate of seeds that I plant directly into the garden is high. I blame it on the arid climate, because it is difficult to keep the soil moist for the time it takes to get the seeds well-sprouted.  The solution is to start seeds inside in soil blocks and plant them out when they have a couple of good leaves and some roots.

LED grow lights are fabulous for this. They are low-power and don't produce much heat so they don't cook the plants.

Don't let articles about basements full of reflectors and lights scare you off. There is a difference between growing plants all the way to flowering and fruiting and just getting seedlings started.  My setup won't get tomatoes from seed to harvest.  It will get them from seeds to seedlings and do it inexpensively.

This was the first "OMG, I need LIGHT, and I need it NOW" setup.  Two inexpensive grow lights are dangling from some steel tubing over my workbench. They have a timer set to provide about 14 hours of high intensity light every day.
Temporary Grow Light Area
You can see the mini greenhouses of salvaged transparent pastry and salad green boxes labelled with painters tape and permanent marker pens. The seedlings are in the boxes, protected from drying out.

The next version will have two more lights and more space, but will not be any fancier.  
WARNING and update: The air inside the plastic boxes CAN reach temperatures too high for successful seed germination.  I did not have problems when the workshop was a chilly 55 degrees, so I assumed that the set-up was working.  Later I started having entire boxes fail to germinate.  I was puzzled, then realized that I was not monitoring the temperature inside the boxes.  It was NINETY-TWO degrees in the box I measured.  That explains it.

I need to figure out how to keep the soil blocks moist and the temperature down.  There will be an update.

Why I don't use a sunny window

Sunny windows are for cats, not seedlings.
Read more!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks: Part 3, After They Sprout

They sprouted!  Now what? 

Unless you want the seedlings to die from lack of space for their roots, you have to do something with them.  You have three choices:
  • Direct planting out to your garden
  • Moving the sprouts to a larger soil block to grow larger
  • Moving the sprouts to a pot, either permanently or to grow larger
Read more!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks Part 2, Making and Planting the Blocks

Collect your trays for the soil blocks.  I use salvaged  clear plastic containers that salad greens or pastries are sold in. I also use small freezer containers to hold a 20-block set of seeds.  If you will be making large quantities of blocks, cafeteria style trays or nursery trays would be convenient if you have some way to retain moisture in the blocks.

You will also need a sturdy trowel, a drywall mudding blade, and a pair of tongs with flat 1-inch tips.
The tools: drywall knife, mason's trowel and salad tongs

Read more!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks Part 1, Making the Mix

Soil blocks - just a cube of compressed dirt - have advantages for gardeners who grow their vegetables and flowers from seed.
40 lettuce seedlings in 3/4" soil blocks
in a scavenged plastic deli tray
There is no plastic except for the reusable, perhaps scavenged, trays for the blocks.  The micro blocks shown here take a very small amount of space compared to other seed starting methods. If a seed fails to sprout, the block can be tossed into the garden or compost bin. When well-sprouted, after a couple of true leaves have developed, the seedlings are ready for planting out or moving into a larger soil block or a pot.
Read more!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Raised Bed: REV 2.0 Bigger and Better

The first raised bed was done in a hurry because it was already October and I needed to get something finished for winter vegetables.  It was about 6x9 feet, occupying the available space between a fence, shed, and compost bins.
Six feet is as deep as it can be without getting in the way of traffic through the side yard. However, six feet is too big to weed in the middle without crawling into the growing area. Four feet wide would have been much better, because a comfortable reach for me is 2 feet.

Geometry to the rescue! The new bed is a fat E-shape, 6x16 feet, with two indented areas to keep the entire growing area in my reach distance. It is, however, no longer "tool-free".
Old (top) and new (lower) bed outline

Read more!