Composting Day!

Loyal Yard Dude Alex shovels compost with the assistance of The Noble Bayard

Loyal Yard Dude Alex shovels compost with the assistance of The Noble Bayard

The heart of every organic English Cottage Garden is compost, and lots of it!  You are looking at three cubic yards of specially blended compost which is equal to 45 bags. It isn’t going to be enough.

I add at least 4 inches of compost to my beds every year.  My gardens would do better if I added twice that much.  Southern Ohio soil is mostly clay, and it needs a lot of work by earthworms and microorganisms to make it friable. The only way to achieve that is to add organic material.

I make my own compost, but it’s not nearly enough to cover my beds. This year I was lucky to find a supplier who will blend compost to my specifications and deliver it for a reasonable fee. I’m using 1/3 aged manure, 1/3 leaf mold and 1/3 mushroom compost.

I’m also lucky to have the assistance of Loyal Yard Dude Alex Lang. For a reasonable fee, he will shovel compost for hours and doesn’t complain except when it comes to composting the border running down my back yard aka Mount Everest. He also doesn’t mind the bees, which is very important!

I help too, and am writing this post during our lunch break.  Time to go shovel some more poop!

Loyal Yard Dude Alex spreading compost over the hosta bed.

Loyal Yard Dude Alex spreading compost over the hosta bed.

The Noble Bayard makes sure the work is up to spec!

The Noble Bayard makes sure the work is up to spec!

Amendments To The (Soil) Constitution

Did you know that fall is the most important season of the year for improving your soil?

You should be adding three things:  finished compost, raw organic matter, and organic nutrients.

Whether you are using your own homemade compost, or are purchasing compost in bags or by the truckload, stock up early with as much as you can afford. I use up a couple of yards of compost each fall (besides what I make in my own bins).

As you remove dead organic matter from your garden, apply at least a 3″ to 4″ layer of compost. While soil temperatures are still warm, the nutrients and organic matter in the compost will stimulate microbes and other beneficial organisms. Tired, end-of-season soil will be refreshed and renewed when spring comes around

Planting new shrubs, trees or other landscape plants?  Mix a few shovels of compost with the soil that goes back into the planting hole.

Raw Organic Matter

The soil in your vegetable garden will probably be laying fallow over the winter months (unless you’re lucky enough to garden year-round). To boost the amount of organic matter in your soil— beyond what you can get from finished compost— consider incorporating raw organic matter directly into the soil.

There’s just one thing to keep in mind when you’re adding raw organic matter to your soil. The beneficial soil organisms that will help decompose this material, require nitrogen to do their work. This means that if you don’t add some additional nitrogen along with the organic matter, the microbes will start using up the nitrogen in your soil. To avoid this, you can either add some nitrogen-rich manure along with the raw organic matter, or sprinkle on some granular organic fertilizer.

Shredded leaves are my top choice for raw organic matter. Use a leaf shredder if you have one. If not, just mow over the leaves several times with your lawnmower.

Animal manures (but not from dogs or cats) are great for the soil. You can gather it in buckets, plastic trash bags, feed bags, or in the back of a pickup truck. A good thing about adding animal manures in the fall, is that it doesn’t really matter if the manure is fresh or aged. Over the winter months, the caustic ammonia will dissipate, leaving behind valuable nutrients and organic matter.

Organic Soil Amendments

Most organic fertilizers release their nutrients slowly over many months, so applying them in the fall helps ensure they’ll be available to your plants next spring. If you can get your hands on some kelp meal,rock phosphate, or bone meal, do so. Because it’s the end of the season, your local garden center may even have some broken bags they’ll be willing to sell you at a discount. You can mix these organic materials right into your garden (or side dress around plants), along with the shredded leaves, manure and compost. Breaking down organic material requires some nitrogen.

If you suspect that your soil pH may need adjusting, autumn is the time to correct it. It’s best to raise or lower soil pH slowly, over a three- to six-month period. Add lime in the fall to raise the pH level of your soil. Add acidifiers like pine needles, peat moss and elemental sulfur if your soil is too alkaline. Remember that unless you already know that your soil is too acidic or too alkaline, you should always do a soil test to determine the pH level before taking corrective measures.

Better Soil — Better Garden

Improving the soil in your garden makes a huge difference in its ability to retain water, support healthy plant growth, and help your plants fend off diseases, pests and other stresses. Whether you’re new to gardening, or a seasoned pro, building better soil is the single most important thing you can do to improve your gardening success. And fall is the best time to do it!

Things To Do In The Cottage Garden In June

Flaming June

“What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade.”
–  Gertrude JekyllOn Gardening

June 21 is the longest day of the year, and the extra light and warmth encourages the garden to put on an exuberant burst of growth. But this extra light and warmth also means weeds will sprout up from seemingly nowhere. Keep on top of them by weeding regularly.

Herbaceous borders are reaching their early summer peak and the kitchen garden is becoming productive.

Get those warm season vegetables planted! Young starts of tomatoes, peppers, corn, eggplant, cucumber and squash can be planted now that all danger of frost has passed. This should be done without delay, especially if you live in a region where summer is short.

Keep newly planted trees and shrubs consistently moist. This is especially true as we head into the dry summer months. To make this task easier, use water bags around the trunks.

Check your roses for pests and diseases. Blackspot, powdery mildew and aphids usually start appearing in June. As soon as a problem is detected, treat it with an earth friendly spray such as Garden Safe’s Fungicide 3-in-1, which tackles disease, mites and insects. It may be necessary to maintain a regular spraying schedule over the course of the summer.

If your spring blooming perennials are starting to look a little worse for wear, cut them back to encourage new healthy growth. It’s safe to do this until mid-July.

Vining plants often put on lots of new growth in short periods of time. One way to tame the tangle is to use dental floss to tie vines to their supports. The floss is easy to carry around by just sticking it in your pocket, needs no scissors to cut it, and if you use the green, mint-flavored type, it almost disappears next to the vine’s stem.

Sow seeds for biennials such as hollyhock, sweet william, campanula and foxglove for blooms next year.

Cut lavender blooms in early morning before the sun burns off the aromatic oils. After the flowering stops you can lightly prune the plant to keep it in shape.

Plant dahlia tubers, asters and other plants for late summer blooms.

Fill in empty spaces in the herbaceous border with annual bedding plants. Begonias, geraniums and heliotrope are good, bee-friendly choices.

Apply compost to feed your plants!

Helping Your Hydrangeas Bloom

Hydrangeas not blooming? You may be able to help them out by doing the following:

Make Sure They Have Enough Sun

While hydrangeas don’t need full sun, they do need some sunlight. Are your non-bloomers in heavy shade?  That may be the problem.

Stop Pruning

Most hydrangeas don’t like to be cut back severely. They set their buds in the fall, so if you are cutting old wood, you’re cutting away flower buds too.

Lavish Them With Compost

Poor nutrition can cause a lack of blooms.  For the best results, add compost in the fall and again in the spring to encourage maximum summer blooming.

Things To Do In The Cottage Garden In May

Chores and Maintenance:

  • Finish preparation of planting beds
  • Continue to cultivate planting beds and carefully remove young weeds
  • Dig and divide early-blooming perennials after flowering
  • Lift, divide and replant late summer and fall-blooming perennials
  • Set supports for floppy plants, vines and vegetables
  • Mow lawns regularly to keep grass at 2½ inch height
  • Begin watering program as necessary
  • Continue weeding
  • Aerate and moisten compost pile to speed decomposition
  • Mulch azaleas, rhododendrons, and other ericaceous ornamentals with acid mulch
  • Mulch planting beds
  • Deadhead bulbs but allow foliage to remain until yellow to nourish bulbs for next year’s display
  • As night temperatures moderate into the 60’s, move houseplants outdoors (avoid full sun and windy locations)
  • Look for pests and other problems; spotting early can mean fewer chemical controls. Note: slugs and caterpillars can be removed manually
  • Begin application of deer repellents

Planting:

  • Move self-sown annuals and perennials to desired locations
  • Sow seeds of corn, cucumber and melon directly in the garden
  • Harden off tomato, eggplant and pepper transplants before planting out at end of month
  • Complete planting deciduous trees and shrubs, weather and soil conditions permitting
  • Continue to plant and transplant perennials
  • Plant summer annuals after last frost date
  • Plant summer-flowering bulbs such as gladiolas and dahlias after last frost date
  • Plant caladium and tuberous begonias in shady spots
  • Complete reseeding bare lawn areas

Pruning/Composting:

  • Pinch back late summer and fall-blooming perennials
  • Continue to prune all plant material to remove any diseased, dead, weak or crossing branches
  • Prune early spring-flowering shrubs after blooming
  • Wait to prune evergreens, hedges and other shrubs until late spring into early summer
  • Begin deadheading roses
  • Add compost/organic fertilizer to roses
  • Fertilize needle evergreens with  organic acid type fertilizer
  • Compost/fertilize bulbs as they finish blooming
  • Compost/fertilize annuals and container plants

Things To Do In The Cottage Garden In April

“And Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth’s dark breast
rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.”

– Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Sensitive Plant

April is National Garden Month. It is also the “action month” in the cottage garden. This is when things need to be done almost every day, especially if you are starting a new bed.

April can be summed up in five words. Weed. Plant. Divide. Compost. Weed.

But for a more detailed list of things to do, see below.

Plant annuals and perennials

For best performance, get your perennials and bedding plants in early. You won’t need to fill in your beds as much in midsummer.

Divide perennials

Lift large clumps, split with a spade and re-plant. Couldn’t be easier. This is the easiest way to increase your stocks of plants. Newly divided clumps need watering in and you need to give a bit of water if it gets very dry. Lots of nice compost and that’s about it!

Move plants

Anything you decided last year was in the wrong place can be moved now and should get off to a good start before it gets too hot. I try to keep a gardening diary these days so that if during the year I see things I want to change I write it down and then don’t forget the following April.

Rose care

If you didn’t do this last month add an organic fertilizer rich in nitrogen and potassium to your roses. Hoe into the soil at the base.

Prune

Prune buddleia and lavatera, cut these hard back to stop growth from being ‘leggy’.

Cut back all hydrangea stems which flowered last year. Leaving these on until now provides some frost protection during the winter.

Tie In Stems

Take a look at your climbers and see which ones need to be tied in to their supports. Clematis tend to need a helping hand to get going on their supports, honeysuckle as well (my clematis bloomed today!) Wisteria can usually manage on its own.

Sow seeds

You can sow annuals and perennials now.

Good annuals to provide lots of color are: zinnias,marigolds, sunflowers and cosmos (especially the lovely dark pink colours).

Perennials worth trying are: coreopsis, helenium, lupin and verbascum. Verbascums lovely spikes of flowers provide real height and contrast in your garden.

Weeding

Make sure you keep up with weeding as the weeds will be growing strongly now.

The Worm Factory

My new Worm Factory arrived yesterday, along with my order of red wiggler worms  (Eisenia foetida).  One thousand of them!

I used to use a plastic bin with holes drilled in the bottom for my vermicomposting. It was a bit hard to manage and I couldn’t keep it inside because of the leakage.

The worst part was harvesting the compost. I like worms and all, but I don’t want to spend a whole afternoon on my deck trying to separate them from their poop!

The Worm Factory has changed my vermicomposting life!  Not only is it easy to manage, but it does the separating for me.  The picture and videos below explain how.


Whatever method you choose, I heartily recommend that all you gardeners out there give vermicomposting a try.  It is the best fertilizer ever!

Recycling Manuscripts, Part 2 – Worm Composting

Vermicomposting: Composting with Worms

Vermicomposting is the process of using worms and micro-organisms to turn kitchen waste into a black, earthy-smelling, nutrient-rich humus.

Get Started:

You Need 5 Basic Ingredients to Start Vermicomposting:

  1. a container
  2. bedding  (aka shredded manuscript paper)
  3. water
  4. worms
  5. nonfatty kitchen scraps.

Containers:

Worm boxes can be purchased or made out of plastic storage containers.

Plastic storage containers are convenient and come in a variety of sizes. These containers are easily transported and are a nice alternative to heavier wood bins. Depending on the size of the container, drill 8 to 12 holes (1/4 – l/2 inches) in the bottom for aeration and drainage. A plastic bin may need more drainage — if contents get too wet, drill more holes. Raise the bin on bricks or wooden blocks, and place a tray underneath to capture excess liquid which can be used as liquid plant fertilizer.

The bin needs a cover to conserve moisture and provide darkness for the worms. If the bin is indoors, a sheet of dark plastic or burlap sacking placed loosely on top of the bedding is sufficient as a cover. For outdoor bins, a solid lid is preferable, to keep out unwanted scavengers and rain. Like us, worms need air to live, so be sure to have your bin sufficiently ventilated.

I used to have a plastic storage container bin, but this year I broke down and bought a Worm Factory.

Its chief advantage is that it is easier to harvest the compost. See below.

Bedding:

Here is where those old manuscripts come in. It is perfect for worm bedding!  It retains both moisture and air while providing a place for the worms to live.  Shredded corrugated cardboard is also good, but difficult to find.

The amount of bedding depends on the size of the box. A 2-by-2 foot box will need between 4 and 6 pounds of dry bedding, a 2-by-3 foot box will take 9 to 14 pounds. No matter what the size, the bin should be 2/3 filled with “fluffed” prepared bedding (see below). For smaller bins, experiment–if you prepare excess bedding, it can be dried, stored and used another time.

Prepare the Bedding:

Water is needed to moisten the bedding. Place the dry, shredded bedding in a large container and add water until it covers the bedding. Allow the bedding to absorb as much water as possible before putting it in the worm bin. This could take from two to 24 hours, depending on the bedding used.

Before putting the bedding in your bin, squeeze the water out from the bedding as much as possible. The bedding should feel like a well-wrung washcloth. Place the bedding in the bin and fluff.

Your bedding needs to remain moist. If it is drying out, mist the paper with water from a spray bottle and dampen the bedding again.

The Worms:

The worms used in vermicomposting are called redworms (Eisenia foetida), also know as red wigglers, manure worms, red hybrid or tiger worms.

  • You can order them on the internet, e.g. Amazon
  • You may be able to find them in a bait store
  • If you know someone who has an established supply, they may be willing to sell you some of their worms.

What About Nightcrawlers? Do not try to use nightcrawlers or other native worms to stock your worm bin. These worms depend on cooler temperatures and an extensive tunneling system to survive. They will die in your worm bin

Why Redworms? Redworms prefer temperatures between 55 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit and are suited to living in a worm bin. The temperature of the bedding should not be allowed to get below freezing or above 84 degrees.

How Many Worms Do I Need? The amount of worms needed will depend on the amount of kitchen waste generated per day. One pound of redworms will easily take care of each half-pound of garbage. To add worms to the bin, simply scatter them over the top. The skin on the worm reacts to light and they will immediately work their way down into the bedding to get away from the light.

Kitchen Waste:

The kitchen waste fed to worms can come from a variety of sources, including all vegetable and fruit waste (don’t be surprised that some seeds may germinate and potato peels with eyes sprout), pasta leftovers, coffee grounds (with filter) and tea bags. Worms may have a problem with garlic and onion skins. Worms have a gizzard like chickens so fine grit should be added to help the worms digest food. This gritty material includes cornmeal, coffee grounds and/or finely crushed egg shells (dry the shells and then crush). Avoid large amounts of fat, meat scraps or bone. Some sources feel that a small amount of meat and eggs will provide protein to the worms, but be careful you don’t overdo it and know that you may attract rodents.

Adding Kitchen Scraps:

First, and foremost, START SLOWLY. It will take time for bacteria to form and your bin can quickly become very smelly if you add too much food, too fast. In the beginning, add a very small amount of gritty material (see above) and a small amount of vegetable matter. Don’t worry about the worms starving because they will be eating bedding as well. You can gradually increase the amount of food as the bin becomes established.

The easiest method is to spread the scraps in a thin layer on top of the bedding. If the bin is kept in a dark place or covered, the worms will come to the surface to eat. You can also pull back a small amount of bedding in the bin and dump in the scraps. Cover the scraps with an inch of bedding. Start at one corner of the bin and bury garbage in a pattern to fill in all the spaces. By the time you get back to the first burying spot, the worms will have composted most of the waste.

If you notice odors, cut back on the amount of food or try chopping the food up into smaller pieces. Note: citrus does have a strong odor and the peelings seem to last a long time in the bin. Bins seem to be more manageable when there is less fruit and citrus and more of the leafy vegetables.

Harvesting the Compost:

Given the right environment, the worms will go to work to digest the kitchen scraps and bedding faster than any other compost method. The material will pass through the worms’ bodies and become “castings.” In about 3-4 months, the worms will have digested nearly all the garbage and bedding and the bin will be filled with a rich, black natural fertilizer and soil amendment. Compared to ordinary soil, the worm castings contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus and 11 times more potassium. They are rich in humic acids and improve the structure of the soil.

To keep your bin going, you will need to remove the castings from time to time and there are several ways to go about it. One way to do this is to shine a bright light into the bin. The worms are sensitive to light and will move to the lower layers of the bin. Remove the top layer of casting by using your hands or a sieve. Each time you remove some bedding, the worms will be exposed to the light and they will keep migrating down to the bottom of the bin. Pick out any wigglers or worm eggs (small, opaque cocoons) and return them to the bin. Refill the bin with fresh layers of moist bedding and food.

Another method of harvesting composts is to push the black, decomposed material to one side of the bin, and fill the other side with new, moist bedding and kitchen scraps. Then wait several days. The worms will migrate to the freshly filled side of the bin and you can just scoop out the finished compost. Make sure you pick out any wigglers or worm eggs and return them to the bin.

If you purchase a Worm Factory like mine, harvesting is easier because of its multi-tray design. Worms begin eating waste in the lowest tray, and then migrate upward as food sources in that tray are exhausted. By allowing worms to migrate upward, the worms separate themselves from the finished compost that is ready for the garden.

Using the Compost:

For potted plants, add a thin layer to the top of the potting soil. You can also add the compost directly into your soil mix when repotting. In the garden, simply add it to your compost pile or work it into the ground around the base of each plant. The compost is very mild and you won’t have to worry about accidental burning or overfertilizing.