Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Compost Report

If I was prone to poetic overstatement, I'd tell you that the compost pile is the beating heart of the organic garden -- the living organ that pumps the very life force into the soil and thus the plants which, when finally spent, return to the pile to begin again the cycle of life.

Wait, maybe that would make it the lungs then. Regardless, I want to talk about compost.

Here's my pile, which got a long-awaited turning last weekend.

It's been an especially hot and dry summer, and I've been especially stingy with the water, so the pile has been very dry since the spring and therefore, not very active. Composting, as I'm sure you know, has 3 basic ingredients:

Browns -- dry leaves, straw, twigs, etc.
Greens -- grass clippings, garden cuttings, kitchen waste, etc.
Water -- enough that everything is damp, but not so much that there's no air in the pile.

Mix them together in some some magic proportion and a menagerie of bacteria, fungii and bugs go crazy eating it and each other until it's all broken down into a pretty fundamental mass of organic material. Put that in your garden and it improves the texture and water-holding ability of your soil. And all that bacteria keeps eating any organic material it can find, breaking it down to the basic molecules that feed your plants.

The magic proportion can take a lot of fussing to find, but fortunately, even if you never manage to come anywhere close, it's all going to end up as compost anyway. It may just take longer and get kind of stinky at times.

Or you might find that 6 months of stocking a 40 cubic-foot pile gets you about $6 worth of compost.

But then it's all about the journey, isn't it?

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Monday, August 4, 2008

Round 2

I'm about to kick it with the Scientific Method, 7th-grade style. So get ready.

1. Question: Is there something about cantaloupe plants that cause them to repel Squash Vine Borer moths? If so, could that trait be used to protect other plants from SVB infestation?

2. Research: Cantaloupe is theoretically one of the preferred victims of the Squash Vine Borer. However, cantaloupe in the garden have remained completely untouched by SVBs this year, even as squash have been completely decimated. It has been observed that while the cantaloupe vines look almost identical to squash vines, they tend to exude a strong sweet odor that squash plants lack.

3. Hypothesis: Cantaloupe vines could be used as either a cover or camouflage to prevent SVB moths from laying eggs on susceptible squash plants.

4. Design experiment: Plant a squash plant between two hills and among the spreading vines of cantaloupe plants. Plant a control squash nearby, but away from the cantaloupe. Watch for signs of SVB egg-laying and larvae infestation in both plants.

5. Conduct experiment: Two identical acorn squash plants were purchased on July  25th at the Natural Gardener. While in the store, investigator's wife embarrassed him by trying to take sneaky photo of investigator and John Dromgoole, causing investigator to retreat to the windchime department.

One squash was planted  midway between two established Ambrosia cantaloupe plants in a hole amended with cottonseed meal and kelp meal.

Where's Waldo?

The other squash plant was planted in a similarly-amended hole 5 feet away in a bed that currently has one basil plant in it.

6. Record data:

7. Draw conclusions:

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

More pie

Sorry, I still haven't found my garden blogging muse. Please accept more pie blogging.

You may recall my peach and blueberry pie, but there was also a cherry pie, which was OK, given that it was made with sweet cherries instead of the coveted sour Montmorency cherries -- we just can't seem to find them around here. 

But being as it is the height of Texas freestone peach season, I'm trying to take full advantage of the ready availability of plump ripe local peaches. Peaches are, after all, the most delicious fruit. This is a fact that cannot be disputed*.

I went with straight peaches this time, mainly because blackberries are so damned expensive. However, I mixed it up a bit with a technique I've had good luck with in the past -- a grated top crust.

When you're done mixing up your crust, treat the bottom crust as normal, but take the dough for the top crust and pack it into a ball or hunk. Leave it in the refrigerator as long as you can so it sets up nice and firm. Then, when you've filled the bottom shell with filling, grate the cold dough just like cheese over the top of the pie.

Then bake it like normal. No worries about vent holes -- the juices will bubble up through it and around the edges. This time, about halfway through I sprinkled it liberally with vanilla sugar.

It came out like this:

I'm a little perturbed that it doesn't brown up better than that -- the lower-lying bits of crust are done, but look awfully pale. Maybe spraying it with butter would help or perhaps I need to fiddle with the temperature a bit more. Anyone have suggestions?

Oh, and in case you were skeptical of claims elsewhere -- lard really is the way to go. I've been doing a 3/4 lard to 1/4 butter lately and it comes out perfect.

* I will accept arguments on behalf of the pineapple and mango, but these will ultimately fail.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

The end of the line

Hey, what do you know, if you spend some time gardening, you get some ideas for your garden blog.

I took advantage of the sub-90 morning temperature to get out and check on the back 40.

Visiting the tomatoes, I was faced with the annual conundrum.

As you may know, once temperatures get consistently above 90 in the daytime and above 70 at night, tomatoes tend to stop blossoming or drop their blossoms before they set fruit. Here in Central Texas and other hot climates, that means that by mid-July, we're pretty much done seeing any tiny new green tomatoes. And this year, with a string of 100-degree days in early, we've been pretty done for a while.

What to do? You can keep watering the scraggly things in hopes that they'll still be healthy enough to start fruiting again when it cools off. You can chop them off at the kneecaps to make them put out new young sprouts and hope those produce fruit later. Or you can plant fresh seedlings, either grown from seed or rooted from suckers taken off the mature plants.

I've tried just about all of these and never had much success, yet I've still had trouble bringing myself to make the obvious choice. Not so this year.

Thanks for the memories and mouth ulcers, Brandywine, Persimmon and Black Krim. The compost pile thanks you for the greenery.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Drying tomatoes

Pick a bunch of tomatoes. Generally, varieties designated as paste, roma, or plum are best since they're drier to begin with and are kind of mealy when eaten fresh. These are also the ones you'd want to use for making sauce. Certainly you can dry any kind, but you'd hate to wake up one morning in September and realize you could have had one more tomato sandwich or Caprese salad, but squandered it on tomato jerky instead.

Slice them up. Smaller tomatoes like these, you can just cut in half. I found that these Principe Borgheses had a flattened shape, and that if you cut them parallel to the flattened sides, the seeds where much easier to remove -- other tomatoes may vary.

Poke your fingers into the halves and squish out most of the seeds and gel, then lay them out on a rack on a baking sheet.

You can sprinkle them with a little bit of kosher salt to help get the juices out and add a little flavor. Actually, you could add all sorts of fanciness at this point, like fresh herbs, or balsamic, but keeping it simple will give you more options when you're ready to use them.

Put them in the oven somewhere between 150 and 225 and let them go for a few hours. The time will depend on your temperature and how dry you want them to be, but you can probably count on 3-4 hours. If you start too late at night and want to go to bed, just turn off the oven and turn it on again in the morning. This is some definite low-impact cooking.

When they're done, you can eat them like candy, add them to sauces for extra sweetness, use them whole or chopped in pasta or pizzas, or grind them up in pesto. We put them in plastic and freeze them, which is an especially awesome idea when you remember them in December. You can also cover them in olive oil and store them in the refrigerator for a while, which preserves them and gives you tomato-infused oil.

And that is all I know about oven-dried tomatoes.

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Friday, May 23, 2008


This is totally garden-related. The whole point of growing tomatoes is so you can eat BLTs.

That particular hunk of pork is half of a piece (that cut is known as pork belly) that also yielded the aforementioned pancetta. it was similarly cured for a week, but then smoked in a friend's homemade smoker. No rolling up.

It's delicious -- a little more like country ham than the bacon you buy in the supermarket. Most of it is now in the freezer, awaiting the confluence of ripe tomatoes and a beach vacation.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Irrigation, that's what I need, some irrigation.

So, back to the gardening.

Last Spring, after having endured a year of wrangling a fussy drip irrigation system only to have my plants shrivel from thirst, I set out to build an ideal irrigation system. My goal was to build something that would keep all the growing medium in my raised beds moist, with a minimum of hose dragging, while allowing me to get in there to till and add new compost every year.

After having a plumber out one time to fix a frozen pipe outside our house, I discovered how totally easy and, dare I say, fun working with PVC plumbing can be. It's like a big Erector set. You should totally try it -- don't be skeered.

To start, I sketched out a plan, then broke it down to what kind of bends and connectors I needed to make it happen. Then I went over to Lowe's and stood in front of the PVC fittings aisle for about 3 hours, looking at my sketch and scratching my head. I came home with some lengths of 3/4 and 1/2 inch pipe and a bunch of connectors.

From there, it was just a matter of gluing it all together. The most complicated part was the connection to the garden hose, which looks like this ...

That's part of the header ...

Which I buried under a few inches of dirt and mulch.

Then for each bed, I built one of these ...

Those are PVC T-joints with threaded stems, which connect to brass flanges, which connect to sections of soaker hose, which I terminated by folding them over and cinching down with hose clamps. Easy!

Anyway, each bed looks like this ...

Now I just attach my hose (with a quick connector, of course) to the header, and I'm watering all three beds. I've got a valve at each bed, so I can cut one or two of them off if I want. And I didn't glue the connections between the buried header and the PVC in each bed, so I can remove them for tilling and topping off the beds each Spring. I'm still experimenting for the best way to keep those tight -- electrical tape or zip-ties have both worked OK. I feel like there's a rubber-band solution out there that will prove to be a winner though.

It's working pretty well -- especially after adding a programmable timer to my hose, so it waters automatically during the summer. One day I'll figure out how to hook PVC into my water supply and run a pipe underground from the house to the garden so I don't have to deal with a hose. Of course, now that I've added a fourth raised bed and dug up a whole new corner of the yard for peppers, squash and more tomatoes, I'm dragging the hose more than ever, but we'll deal with that eventually ...

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Friday, May 16, 2008


You would have thought that running out of ground after planting 19 tomatoes would have been a sign that I should stop planting. Alas, the Internet made an appeal to my garden-nerd sensibilities and offered me a spot for one more tomato.

That spot is an on-the-cheap homemade version of a popular self-watering container that retails for 40 to 50 bucks. It's a planter that extends partially into a water reservoir so that water is constantly being wicked up to where the plant's roots can reach it.

There are plenty of fine tutorials online for this project, so I'll lay out the rudiments here and let you delve deeper elsewhere. Josh Mandel is the apparent originator of this thing -- and holy crap, I just found out, also the designer of Space Quest, a classic of computer adventure games. Also, if you wade into the Gardenweb tomatoes forum you'll find two guys who post under the names "rnewste" and "bingster" who are like a couple of tomato-planter mad scientists and have contributed some great innovations.

(update (6/16/2008) "rnewste" is Ray Newstead and he's teamed up with the TomatoFest folks to make his plans widely available as a public service. They've got a great guide online that will tell you everything you need to know and then some.)


Start with a pair of big plastic containers. The main problem with the commercial version is that it's not really large enough for a big robust indeterminate tomato growing anywhere south of Canada. I bought Rubbermaid 18-gallon bins for $6 each.

You also need a rigid basket-like container of some sort. I used a plant basket, which is meant for planting aquatic plants in a pond, although I've seen people use coffee cans punched full of holes. It has to retain soil, but let water in. And you need a piece of pipe, at least an inch-and-a-half wide and taller than your bin.

That's it for required materials. Everything else is optional.

Start by hacking off the bottom of one of the containers at a height equal to the height of your basket. Flip the bottom piece over and cut out a hole slightly smaller than the mouth of your basket, then attach the mouth of the basket to the hole so that the basket is inside the bin piece. I drilled holes and used zip ties.

Drill a bunch of little holes all over the top of the bin piece and one big hole at one end wide enough to fit your pipe.

In that photo, you can see that I lined my basket with a paint strainer for added soil retention, but it's probably not necessary.

Drop that whole assembly into the bottom of your other bin and you're mostly done. I cut some row cover cloth to seal the crack between the pieces to keep soil from dropping down into the bottom compartment, some people have used styrofoam peanuts for that, but again, it probably isn't necessary. Drill a couple of holes in the side of the outside bin slightly below the height of the other piece -- this is to drain excess water.

Now, put your pipe into the hole and fill the container with soil mix, starting with the basket, and wetting it down as you go. Your soil mix is kind of important. Since all of your watering will be done from the bottom, the mix has to have enough wicking capacity to pull the water up to near the top of the planter. The gold standard for this is apparently Miracle Gro Moisture Control Potting Mix. But if you're going organic, you'll need to be sure to have plenty of absorbent content like peat, vermiculite, or perlite. Sadly, I didn't really write down what I used, but I think it was something like this:

2 parts peat
2 parts commercial compost
1 part peat humus,
1/2 part each vermiculite and perlite
a few handfuls of my cottonseed/kelp/bone meal mix

Fill it up to overflowing, then dig a shallow trench near one side and fill it with a strip of your preferred fertilizer. The idea is that the wet soil will gradually dissolve the fertilizer and keep the plant fed over time. I'm not sure if I buy it, particularly using organic fertilizer, but that's what They say to do.

Cover the whole thing with a layer of plastic (I finally found a use for that red plastic tomato mulch I've had laying around) then put on one of the bin lids, after cutting out holes for your fill pipe and your plant in the lid and the plastic. The covering serves to retain moisture, but also to keep rain from getting in -- you mainly want the plant's water coming from below so that the fertilizer doesn't get washed out.

And there it is. Just keep the reservoir full (I've got a stick stuck to a wine cork to test my water level) and play the waiting game.

So is it worth it? Dunno. The tomato I planted in mine, Mortgage Lifter is doing quite well, so I think my soil mix is getting the water to the plant. It is nice to not have to worry about whether it needs watering or not, and I've only had to fill it once so far, although we haven't had real heat yet. I am also desperately needing to set up some supports for the plant, which has blown over in storms twice now.

I'll let you know how it goes.

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