9 Months – 11 Buckets of Dirt

Joe has pulled the front blocks off to reveal the magic that took place over winter. Photo: Julia Wasson

There are many things in life that require patience: the growth of an embryo into a full-term baby, the long slog through a school year, the development of seedlings into luscious tomatoes … and the turning of garbage into rich, healthy soil.

In July of 2009, Joe built a compost bin in our backyard. It was a relatively simple structure that cost less than $100 (it could have been nearly free, if I hadn’t Freecycled the “extra” cinder blocks we thought we wouldn’t need again). We started dumping our food and garden waste — along with contributions from close neighbors — and didn’t give it too much thought.

When the pile grew to the top of the bin, we kept throwing in food. Mysteriously, all summer and into the fall, the pile never grew higher than the lid. We never stopped adding food and leaves and such — even paper towels and toilet paper rolls. We were careful, though, not to add newsprint or any paper with ink on it. Ours is an organic garden.

It wasn’t until winter set in solidly that we had to add more cinder blocks. That’s when the mass froze, and the pile stopped sinking down. (Thank you, Freecycle, for providing more blocks for the extra height.)

Spring finally rolled around, and, as our thoughts turned to gardening, Joe decided to dig out the pile.

Four distinct layers are present in the compost pile. Photo: Julia Wasson

Wow! When he took off the front stack of blocks, we were thrilled. To us, it was as momentous an occasion as getting that first harvest from a summer garden. (Well, even more momentous to us, though it may sound silly to you.)

What we saw was amazing. The very top layer was recent plant debris we had cleaned from our yard, such as the dried stems from plants that had died with the first frost last fall. This was totally intact and recognizable.

Next was a thick layer of rotting, but largely intact, garbage: food scraps, eggshells, bits of branches — all recognizable as what they’d been when we deposited them.

The third layer was an oozing mass of rotting gunk. It was impossible to distinguish one sloppy mess from another. A watery goo dripped over the edge of the pile, along the side where the block wall had been.

But the wonder of all wonders was the bottom layer — DIRT! There was no mistaking this thick, rich, black soil as garbage. It was fully transformed — magically, it appeared to me — as healthy soil ready for our garden.

The dark soil from the compost looks much richer than the existing garden soil. Photo: Julia Wasson

Less than an hour from start to finish, Joe had shoveled most of 11 buckets of thick, rich dirt onto the ground we’re preparing for our trellis garden. He had enough left over to cover a portion of a flowerbed, too. You can see the difference in the photos: The tired, gray dirt contrasts starkly against the yummy (for worms, plants, and seeds) dark soil that’s ready for our garden.

The next step was to stir the remaining compost and put it back in the bin. Half the bin is now full of this old compost, but already, it’s sinking.

Our DIY efforts from last year took 9 months, from an empty bin to 11 buckets of dirt. We may have to add another bin, now that this one has made so much progress. Or, perhaps we’ll just dig it up in the fall and see how far it’s come.

This may end up a twice-yearly “chore,” in some respects. But I hope we never lose the magic we experienced this spring, as we viewed the transformation from food to garbage to healthy soil.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Organic Gardening in Your Own Backyard

Organic Gardening in Your Own Backyard

We're looking forward to a harvest as lush as this one. Photo: © Robert Milek_Fotolia.com

Spring in Iowa feels like stepping out of the Ice Age into some of the most appreciated warm weather on the planet. After enduring 20 snow and ice storms from November to March (and more still possible all the way to early May), a person’s patience begins to thin. Mine does, anyway. But a few days of warmer weather, say in the 50s and 60s, changes my whole outlook.

About mid January, I stop thinking of winter as “pretty” or “picturesque.” I remember the salt, backaches, missed appointments, missed school days, cars that won’t start, jumper cables, ice-covered windows, car accidents, tow trucks, frozen body parts, wind chill, slips and falls, black ice, power outages, cold feet, heavy blankets, long johns, and itchy wool sweaters. Winter, you’ve overstayed your welcome.

I am ready for spring. I am ready for the rain to wash all those chilly memories away. I am ready for the plants in my garden to return. I am ready to see green buds pushing up through the dead leaves. I long for the feel of dirt under my fingernails. If you live in a cool climate, I’ll bet you’re ready, too.

This year, Julia and I are motivated to do more than plant flowers. We’ve decided to add vegetables to our backyard garden, small as it is. I have a design in mind that will let us grow a number of vining veggies and still give us access to their harvest without having to crawl on our hands and knees. (Watch for more details in a later post.)

So, how about you? Are you thinking of planting vegetables this year? You don’t need a large area, even a few pots or planters will get you started on a delicious harvest for your family. You do need a lot of sunshine, though. And here’s one other thing to consider: If you want your garden to be organic, you have to start with the soil.

Organic from the Ground Up

One of the joys of gardening is watching bees at work. Photo: © Vencel Vilagos_Fotolia.com

If you’ve been putting chemical weed killers or artificial fertilizers on your lawn (and we hope you haven’t), you can’t just dig up a patch of grass and call it good. Those chemicals are still in your soil, and soon will be in your vegetables, then inside you and your loved ones. Instead, build a simple raised bed, or convert old washtubs, barrels or other used items into container gardens. Be certain that the containers never held anything toxic, or you’ll defeat the purpose of using them high above a chem-treated lawn.

If you’re just starting out, and you’re unsure of the chemical history of your soil, or you’re opting for container gardens, consider buying organic soil from a trusted supplier. Packaged potting soil from a garden center may well be better than the soil in a chemically treated lawn. But if you’re looking for soil you’d trust to grow food for yourself and your family, check the label for the word “organic.”

And don’t forget to start your own compost bin. Leftover food scraps mixed with yard waste will create all the fertile soil you will need in time. We have already written about the value of the red worm and the advantages of vermiculture. But be warned, red wrigglers cannot survive outside in an open-air compost heap. You will need a covered wooden box or bucket to house them.

Why Plant a Garden?

Starting with small plants speeds the time to harvest. Photo: © Diana Lundin_Fotolia.com

With the extra effort it takes to plant, sow, and tend a garden, why do it? I can think of several good reasons. Maybe you have others to add.

  • You know the grower. You’ll have no worries about how wholesome the food is.
  • It’s the epitome of “shop locally.” When you shop in your own garden, you save fuel. Here in Iowa, most of our fruits and vegetables are trucked 1,500 miles before reaching our tables. How far are yours transported? (Can you say, “carbon footprint”?)
  • No mowing! You don’t have to mow the area where you plant your garden. This isn’t a “no-labor” proposition, though, as you’ll get your share of exercise planting and tending your plot.
  • You get to experiment with agriculture on a limited scale. Learn which plants grow well together. Find out firsthand whether the natural pest control suggestions keep aphids in control.
  • If you’ve got kids, it’s a great opportunity for them to learn about the cycle of life and of reaping what you sow.
  • You get to relax a little. Gardening lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. It’s good for you in so many ways.
  • You can see Nature at work. Bees and butterflies are becoming a scarcity today. If they stop by your garden for a visit, you’ll get to watch life replicating itself on a tiny and important scale. You won’t get that experience going to the grocery store.
  • You’ll save money. Sure, you have an initial investment in seeds, a few tools, and water, but the payoff in healthy vegetables (and your health) far outweighs the modest amount you have to invest.

Tips for Beginners

I asked Fred Meyer, founder of Backyard Abundance, an Iowa City group that encourages gardening “in your own backyard,” what a novice should consider when starting a garden. These were his suggestions:

  • Pick an area with a lot of sun.
  • Choose plants that are easy to grow: beets, beans, squash and tomatoes. You can buy starters from greenhouses or at the farmers markets. (In general, bigger seeds mean easier-to-grow plants.)
  • Don’t over till the soil. The best nutrients are at the top.
  • Fertilize with compost, not chemicals. Start your own compost.
  • Control weeds and moisture with mulch, yard clippings, and newspapers.
  • Don’t over water. Water is too precious. Capture your rain water.
  • If you have questions, contact a Master Gardener. Or read the many relevant publications available online.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about my tiny backyard garden. If you see me on the street, check my fingernails to see how my garden is doing.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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A group of kids gathers around a bucket at the invitation of volunteer Bob Packard. “Yuck!” says one 10-year-old, looking at the squirming mass Packard has scooped up in his hand.

At the Children's Vegetable Garden. Photo: Texas AgriLife

Students at the Children's Vegetable Garden. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

“No way!” says another kid. “Worms are cool!”

Inside Packard’s bucket are dozens of red wigglers, earthworms that make gardening easier by processing vegetable matter into compost. Packard, a retired salesman and amateur vermiculturist, was recruited  to teach these inner-city San Antonians about the benefits of using worm compost to grow vegetables. The kids are participants in the Bexar County Children’s Vegetable Garden Program. Each has a personal garden plot to sow, tend, and harvest.

“At first, the kids’ attitude was either ‘Yuck!’ or ‘Wow!’” Packard says. “Most went from ‘Yuck’ to ‘Wow’ by the end of the session.”

In addition to finding out that worms are pretty amazing creatures, the kids in the program learn about organic farming and get some firsthand experience with the benefits of hard work. We talked with program director, Hector J. Hernández, Youth Gardens Coordinator for Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Bexar County, to find out more.

A volunteer talks with the students. Photo: Texas AgriLife, Bexar County

A Master Gardener volunteer talks with the students. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

HERNÁNDEZ: This is one of the oldest children’s gardens in the nation. It was started in 1983 by Brigadier General Dave Thomas, who was a member of the San Antonio Men’s Garden Club. The men were all ex-military. They brought kids in and showed them how to garden.

Students who want to participate have to apply. There are only about 55 beds, so space is limited, and it gets filled every season. We have two planting seasons every year, and it takes about 17 weeks for one whole season. We meet every Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m.

A family works together on a student's garden plot. Photo: Texas AgriLife

A family works together on a student's garden plot. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

BPGL: Where is the garden located?

HERNÁNDEZ: We have approximately half an acre at the back of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, which is part of the City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department. The beds are about 3 1/2 feet wide by 12 feet long. One bed is assigned to each gardener; if two kids from the same family participate, they each get their own bed to plant.

BPGL: Are parents involved?

HERNÁNDEZ: Parents are welcome to attend, but the children do the work. Spending quality time together is a big draw.

BPGL: How do the kids decide what plants to put into their plots? Do they get help from adults?

Tending the seedlings requires care. Photo: Texas AgriLife

Tending the seedlings requires care. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

HERNÁNDEZ: We have two growing seasons, with two separate groups of kids. We have a list of plants that we help the kids with in the fall and another in the spring. For example, in the fall, we plant cole crops, like cabbages and broccoli. In the spring, we plant squash and beans. We plant tomatoes in both the fall and spring. We also have a section that is a bonus plot, where they can plant whatever they want with our guidance.

David Rodriguez, our county extension agent for horticulture, gives the children a schematic of what’s going to be planted where. Then we work with them to plant each item. One Saturday, we could be planting broccoli and cauliflower transplants and sowing carrot seeds. Another Saturday, we might transplant tomato plants. Other than the bonus plot, all the plots look the same.

Gina Rodriguez directs the Bexar County Master Gardeners and other volunteers in the agenda for the day; she’s a great help. The educational activities and curriculum are drawn from the Junior Master Gardener program.

BPGL: Are you teaching the kids about organic farming?

HERNÁNDEZ: At this point, the garden plots are not certified organic, but we are organic. And we teach sustainable farming methods. We use organic products to control pests and to fertilize the plants. We also teach students how to do companion planting. They plant marigolds to learn about using natural plants as pest control.

The children get guidance from volunteers. Photo: Texas AgriLife

The children get guidance from volunteer Master Gardeners. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

When Bob Packard gave a presentation on vermiculture, the kids were very excited about the worms, and made their own community worm bin. Those worms would die if we put them into the soil here in San Antonio, so we keep them in the bin. They feed on the vegetable waste we give them. Then we spread the compost every three or four weeks, depending on how finely ground the food matter is when we put them in. It’s a quick turnover.

Reaping the benefits of hard work. Photo: Texas AgriLife

Reaping the benefits of hard work. Photo: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County

BPGL: It sounds like there’s a bit of expense, buying seedlings for the students to plant. How do you fund the program?

HERNÁNDEZ: There’s a small participation fee, but much of the program is funded by the Bexar County Master Gardeners through fundraisers. They finance the program when it comes to seeds and fertilizer. They do a lot of educational outreach, such as water conservation and educating the public on gardening. They also do fundraisers like poinsettia sales and other plant sales. We get a lot of donations and support from San Antonio’s green industry. They also help train volunteers.

BPGL: What happens to the produce the kids raise?

HERNÁNDEZ: They get to harvest whatever they grow and eat whatever they want. What isn’t eaten gets donated.

BPGL: What else do the students learn through the program?

HERNÁNDEZ: They learn how to be good citizens and leaders by giving back to the community. And when the kids cultivate, they see the fruits of their labors. Sometimes their “fruits” aren’t as big as in another student’s plot. That gives them incentive to try harder next year. It also teaches them firsthand about the relationship between work and reward: You really do reap what you sow.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Sustainable Living Profile: Jessica Klein

Sustainable Living Profile: Jessica Klein

When Jessica Klein gets hungry for organic produce, she doesn’t have very far to go. “I have my own little sustainable garden,” she says. That’s a bit of an understatement, as Klein raises a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs on a bit less than acre of land. She lives with her husband on the southern exposure of Tiger Mountain, near Issaquah, Washington.

An abundant harvest from Klein's greenhouse. Photo: Jessica Klein

An abundant harvest. Photo: Jessica Klein

Klein has what she calls “quite a green thumb.” But from what we can see in the photos she sent us, she has ten green fingers and probably a few green toes. The photos alone are enough to start us yearning for fresh, juicy, red tomatoes, crisp green cucumbers, and crunchy orange — and red — carrots. By the time the interview is finished, we’re both ready to get out seed catalogs and start planning for the spring.

We interviewed Klein by phone from her home. We wanted to learn more about how she manages to get such lush growth and robust produce in a place where, she says, “It rains about a gazillion days a year.”

BPGL: Tell us about getting started with the greenhouse.

Klein: When I decided to get a greenhouse, first I did some research to determine what kind to buy. Then I watched the sun pattern in our backyard to figure out just where it should go. We have a lot of 150-foot trees on the property, so there’s not much sun. Location was critical.

I chose a brand called the Sunshine GardenHouse. The model is the Mt. Rainier series, which means it’s a local product — made and manufactured on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. (In fact, they drove it up and delivered it to my door.) It’s made of redwood, with polycarbonate walls and automatic solar vents.

BPGL: What did you have to do to get the property ready and then set up the greenhouse?

Preparing the greenhouse foundation. Photo: Jessica Klein

Preparing the greenhouse foundation. Photo: Jessica Klein

Klein: Our backyard was full of brambles, so we had to clear a space for the foundation. After we dug down about 4 or 5 inches, we laid a foundation of cinder blocks around the perimeter and put gravel around the outside. On the inside, we spread a permeable weed cloth to control the weeds, and unrolled chicken wire on top of that to keep the vermin from digging in from the bottom. We placed a flexible drainage pipe around the inside perimeter with an exit hole out one side.

Next, we covered the wire and most of the pipe with a layer of gravel up to the top of the cinder blocks and more around the outside of the greenhouse. That was our base.

On top of that, we built the framework and covered it with the polycarbonate walls that came with the kit. The greenhouse itself is 8 feet by 12 feet. We put it up in two days, but I think we could have done it in one. It probably took us longer than it might take someone in an area where it doesn’t rain so much. We spent a lot of time having to deal with the inevitable water runoff.

BPGL: Did you run any electrical or water lines to the greenhouse?

Klein puts on the last piece of roof. Photo: Brett Klein

Klein prepares to put up the last piece of roof. Photo: Brett Klein

Klein: No. We decided not to put electricity in, because it’s a long way from the house. And in addition to costing a lot, we just didn’t want to have a long electrical line running through the property. Besides, the solar vents work automatically to let out excess heat. We didn’t need to put water in, because of all the rain. When the plants get dry (which hardly ever happens), I just pull a garden hose over and give them a soak.

BPGL: Considering the cost of the building against the cost of the food you’ve grown, what do think the return is on your investment, your ROI?

Klein: Well, we didn’t purchase the cheapest model of greenhouse, or the most expensive one, either. I think we spent about $3,000 on the kit, then maybe another $200 for the raised beds inside. We used some recycled planter disks outside the shed — they look like big saucers. Then we bought trays, buckets, tools, and hoses. We spent about $125 on the worm bin.

And I joined the Seed Savers Exchange. I bought organic and heirloom varieties of seeds from the Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa. They have varieties you can’t get most places. They grow their own and replenish the seed stock. So that was $35 for the annual fee, plus the cost of seeds.

The total cost of everything probably came to about $3,500.

What have I gotten in return? I’ve saved probably 4 or 5 bags of garbage from going to the landfill. So, from that I saved maybe $10.00 in landfill costs. I fed all of our food waste to the worms. They gave me about $10-$15 worth of the richest fertilizer in the world, worm tea. And I probably got about $10.00 worth of rich soil from the compost. So, how much is that? About $30 or $35.

BPGL: What did you save in produce by growing it yourself?

Klein: Let’s see. In our area, tomatoes in stores have to be flown in, so they cost about $3.99 a pound. I can’t tell you how many pounds I grew! And I can grow them four, five, six months of the year.

Emerging seedlings. Photo: Jessica Klein

Emerging seedlings. Photo: Jessica Klein

When we moved here five years ago, we started planning for the future, by planting fruit trees and such. We’ve been sowing the seeds (no pun intended) to get more production as time goes by. In my whole garden, I have three types of lettuce, zucchini, green beans, kale, peppers, eggplant, carrots, Brussels sprouts, jalapeños, cabbages, edible borage flowers, and all of my herbs, basil, oregano, parsley and more.

We also have fruit trees — an Italian plum tree, a three-graft cherry tree, an apricot tree, a peach tree, a five-graft Asian pear tree. And then we have grapevines, and wild blackberries and huckleberries, too.

I only buy organic produce, so the cost of that is even higher than in a regular grocery store. Without my garden, I probably spend about $15 or $20 a week for produce at the grocery store. But I certainly wouldn’t have consumed $3,500 [the cost of setting up the greenhouse] in vegetables. This year, I probably saved $400. That doesn’t seem like much, but this is just my first year.

BPGL: Do you see other benefits to growing your own produce?

Klein: Yes. The most important thing here is not the money. You have to remember that all of this food was grown organically. That means I know there are no poisons in them, no fertilizers or herbicides. There’s huge psychological ROI in knowing where our food came from, who handled the produce, how the plants were cared for. And I didn’t have to drive to the store to buy any of this.

I get a ton of exercise working in my yard. I get to plant seeds and watch them grow. I get to pick a ripe, red tomato from the vine and eat it. How much is that worth?

Maturing crops. Photo: Jessica Klein

Maturing crops. Photo: Jessica Klein

I do this for my family. I get to give my dad bags full of fresh tomatoes, which he loves. My mom loves the zucchini. And my sister loves the green beans. There is no price tag on that.

I don’t consider myself an earth-shattering change-maker. I just try to do my part. I support the locavore movement, which means eating food grown in a certain radius near your home. The point is to get to know your local farmer. Farmers’ markets are huge out here in the Northwest.

BPGL: Isn’t raising your own produce a lot of work?

Klein: Getting it all started was a lot of work. And at planting time, yes, it’s hard work. After that, it only takes about an hour a day. And during the long winter, when I’m stuck inside, I’ll be thinking about what I’m going to plant, just waiting to get outside and put in those long days again.

Tomato vines growing in Klein's greenhouse. Photo: Jessica Klein

Tomato vines growing in the greenhouse. Photo: Jesssica Klein

It’s such a labor of love, pure joy.

BPGL: Tell us about your worms. How did you get into that part of the gardening?

Klein: I read a couple of books. Amy Stewart’s From the Ground Up, which tells about how she grew her first garden when she knew nothing at all about gardening; and The Earth Moved, which is about vermiculture.

At the time, I thought, This sounds like something I could spend a lot of money and time doing, and I know I’m the type to jump into a project and then let it slide. But then I thought, What the heck? I want to do it. So, 15 minutes after I finished The Earth Moved, I was on the phone buying a worm bin.

The worm bin sat in the entry to my home for the winter. We fed them all our food trash and it didn’t smell at all. It was so easy to maintain, I couldn’t believe it. Then when summer came, I got the message from my husband, and I moved it out to the deck. A neighbor helped me take the bin apart. We scooped out the compost, drained out the worm tea.

Our worms are red wigglers. They’re quick movers, those little guys. They really do compost everything right down to black gold. There’s not much discernable that’s left when they’re done. I found one avocado peeling, but when I touched it, it disintegrated.

Reaping the reward. Photo: Jessica Klein

Reaping the reward. Photo: Jessica Klein

I’m so glad I did this. I’ve always been into recycling, and this kind of recycling is easy enough. Well, maybe I think it’s easy and for others it’s hard, but it’s what I can do.

BPGL: What about eggshells? Can you feed the worms eggshells?

Klein: They love eggshells. They compost them down to nothing. In fact eggshells are good for their tummies. And coffee grounds, too.  They’re just crazy little munchers! It really is very easy to take care of them.

BPGL: Do you ever find that you run out of food for the worms?

Klein: No, right now, I find that my worms keep up with my food and my food keeps up with my worms. They just turn all my food scraps and garden scraps into beautiful compost. It’s great! If we ever run out, we have loads of leaves and yard waste we could feed them; but, so far, we haven’t had to do that.

Klein's saucer garden. Photo: Jessica Klein

Mini gardens in recycled planting disks. Photo: Jessica Klein

BPGL: With organic gardening, where you don’t use any herbicides or pesticides, what are your biggest problems?

Klein: My nemesis is the slugs. The greenhouse tends to take care of the plants inside [because the slugs can’t get in], and they can’t crawl up into my round planters, but they’re everywhere else. I tried to put out dishes of beer. I heard that would work, but my dog drank them all. [She laughs.] So, I can’t do that anymore. And, I planted marigolds to attract the ladybugs to eat the aphids.

BPGL: Any other pests?

Klein: Oh, yeah, the deer. The dogs keep them way most of the time. And I had a bear walk through my yard last spring. Then there are all of the possum, raccoons, and coyotes. We also have occasional bobcats, and puma.

And, of course, with so much rain, we have mold. In fact, besides slugs, my biggest issues are with the climate. There’s not enough sun and too much water.

BPGL: What’s next for you?

Klein: It’s my hope that as I learn more, I’ll be able to teach other people.

BPGL: What advice would you give people about starting their own organic garden at home?

Klein: Start small, say with an herb garden on your deck. Or grow even just one vegetable to begin with. Just do what you can do. The hardest part is to make the decision to do something. Once you take the first step, everything else is reward.

Joe Hennager and Julia Wasson


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