Month

June 2016

Filling Up Those Big Planter Boxes – Why Not Use Compost?

At one point or another, you’ve probably had a very large planter that required a ton of soil to fill. The old standby most folks use are either empty milk jugs or soda bottles… those light and big containers that will take up space at the base of the soil bed. Those worked then, and they still do now. But if you happen to have a compost pile (or bin), then I ask: have you ever considered stealing some partially decomposed material from there?

While most of us use compost piles or bins, there is another way to compost directly in your garden beds. It’s simple: you just dig a trench, bury the food scraps and other compost items, and then top with soil. Most people do this outside of the standard growing season (fall and winter), but you can do it year-round. By relocating some of your compost pile into that big planter, you’re basically using this method. Why it took about 3 years for this to dawn on me I will never know. But as I stood over the giant planter I just built for my new herb garden, I couldn’t figure out how to get my hands on that many milk jugs or soda bottles. My family really doesn’t drink any soda, and we don’t go through milk jugs that fast.

This planter is BIG, and filling it would have taken many, many milk jugs. It’s 6′ wide x 19″ high x 18″ deep. (By the way, I found the directions HERE. You can adjust measurements to whatever size you need for your particular project.) So I just stood there staring at this beast of a planter, and scratching my head.

The New Planter & Maya

Maybe I could use inverted Rubbermaid bins that I have on hand? Nope, too wide. Maybe I could build inverted boxes out of scrap wood…but that’s really not a good use of my wonderful firewood stash. And there was absolutely no way I was going to buy enough soil to fill it from bottom to top. That would cost WAY too much. (And I know you’re all thinking… why did I build it that tall to begin with? Well, it just kinda happened. No good reason. Probably a lack of thinking ahead thoroughly about the soil requirements). Well, I credit my Gold-Laced Wyandotte hen (named Lacey) with pointing me toward the solution.

For whatever reason, she decided to start singing away at about 7pm. Who knows why. She did so while standing right in front of my compost pile, and the idea was hatched (pun intended). I have a ton of filler sitting right there! So over I went with shovel and wheelbarrow… and Lacey sang for me the entire time. What a crack up. It was a great solution. As that compost breaks down, it’ll provide nutrients for the herbs in the container, which works out perfectly. My layering choice ended up like this:

Compost LayerBottom Layer: 1 big bag of raised bed mulch/soil (3-cubit feet). I used THIS.

Layer 2: A very thick layer of partially decomposed compost from my pile out back.

Layer 3: A thin layer of fresh compost ingredients from the bucket on my porch (you can read about my composting system HERE.)

Layer 4: Another 3-cubic foot bag of raised bed mulch/soil mixed with 2 small bags of chicken manure.

Layer 5: Another thin layer of partially decomposed compost.

Top Layer: The last 3-cubit foot bag of raised bed mulch/soil.

Those herbs couldn’t ask for a better and more nutrient-filled home. I’m excited to see them grow nice and big so that I’ll have more material for the herb garlands I make for the brooder, chicken coop, and my kitchen (that post is coming soon). There’s nothing wrong with using the common standbys to fill your planters (empty milk jugs, soda bottles, or packing peanuts) they work very well. I just suggest using compost as a filler whenever possible, even if it is fresh. You’re basically creating a slow-release nutrient system for your plants. As the compost breaks down, your plants will use the completed product without you having to add it after-the-fact… it’s already built in!

Drying Corn Cobs for the Squirrels

When it comes to squirrels, it seems that people firmly claim membership in one of two possible groups.  Either they happily proclaim, “Let’s feed them! They’re so cute!” (and make them PB&J sandwiches as someone in my family does – you know who you are)… or they’re in the group which spots one in the yard and asks, “Where did I put my BB gun?” Well, I’d say that I fall into the first group. Yeah, they can be a pest with my bird feeders, but the outdoors belong to them just as much as they do to the other wildlife. So I deal with their periodic invasions of my chicken and bird feeders, but have successfully limited those instances by providing them with some food of their own.  Costco Wholesale, the local food warehouse here in Oregon, always has giant bags of peanuts for only about $4, so I always have those on-hand. I also like to buy them dried corn cobs, but those can get expensive, especially at the rate squirrels will eat them. So I decided to get a little creative the other day when I found myself with about 25 extra corn cobs leftover from a community BBQ. I figured the squirrels probably wouldn’t mind a little charring from the grill – heck, they might even prefer it. I dried the over a very hot weekend, and now have a great supply of those little yellow nuggets for my furry friends. It’s a pretty simple process that I thought I’d share with those of us who enjoy those little critters.

A Quick Note: As I mentioned, I started this process with store-bought corn that had already been cooked on the grill. If you’d like to start with raw corn, simply shuck, clean, and boil them on the stove as normal. If you’re lucky enough to have corn growing on your property, just cut the stalk and hang upside down somewhere warm and dry. Let them shrivel up right on the stalk (this will take longer, but is a great way to go).

STEP 1: Dry in Oven
Set your oven to about 175 degrees. Place the ears of corn on a flat baking sheet (one with sides so they don’t roll off). Keep them in the oven for about 8-10 hours, rotating them every few hours. It’s very important to bake them at a low temperature because it takes a long slow heat to dry out the inner core of the cob. Don’t be tempted to raise the temperature to speed up the process – you’ll end up with dried kernels but a damp core. They’ll rot during storage if there’s any moisture in them, so be patient and let them bake slowly.

Remember to rotate the cobs during the baking process. Kernels on the bottom won’t dry out properly if they aren’t exposed to the hot oven air.

Dried Cobs

STEP 2: Air Dry Ears
After 8-10 hours (time will vary depending on the original moisture content of the corn), the kernels should appear shriveled and the dob should feel dry. There will still be a little moisture hanging around, so you’ll want to air dry in the sun for another 2-3 days. I just kept them on their baking sheets and set them on the back porch in the sunshine. You can also use drying racks, cookie racks, or whatever else you have handy. The point is to get them outside where it’s warm and let them finish drying out.

STEP 3: Storing the Ears
Store the dried ears in a breathable paper bag or an open container (somewhere critters cannot reach them).  You can also store them in large gallon-size Ziploc bags or other sealed container, so long as you include one of those little moisture absorbing packets that you always find in pre-packaged food or electronics from the store. Dried Cobs 2

My cobs in the photos above will most likely be way darker than yours will be, simply because I BBQ’d them first. If you’re working with corn that has been boiled on the stove and then dried, you will end up with a very uniform yellow cob that looks much like what you would buy in the store. Tell the squirrels I said hi!

Building Inexpensive and Super-Cool Fire Pit Benches

I’d consider myself sort of middle-of-the-road when it comes to construction. I’m somewhat handy, but really can’t handle anything with angles or special cuts. If it involves any math outside of using a standard tape measure, then count me out. Not going to happen. But all that noted, I do like to get creative and build things that I need, rather than always buy them. I’m a big advocate of trying to reuse material instead of buying new off the shelf at the local big box store. Portland, Oregon is a hot spot for house deconstruction and salvage. We have places like The Rebuilding Center that just make me giddy whenever I enter those two big wooden doors. In a nutshell, their staff will head to local buildings and tear them down – very carefully – salvaging all possible material for reuse. Then I get to waltz into their wood warehouse and choose from about anything you can possibly imagine. Ship-lap, massive structure-bearing beams, vintage glass pane windows, or orignal oak flooring from a 1800’s Victorian house. You get the picture. There are two notable benefits to the consumer: 1) You have access to material that has such history, quality, and personality; and 2) the price is pennies on the dollar compared to what you’d pay at a lumber retailer.
So, for a total of $16.88, I walked out with all the wood required to build two fire pit benches (5′ long x 18″ deep x 18″ tall). And I guarantee you, no one in the world has a matching set! These were built with ship-lap and reclaimed wood from a 1928 house on Fremont Street in Portland. You’ll find photos and a materials list below. I chose not to paint mine, simply because I really liked the lived-on and weathered look. But you can do whatever you like – paint, stain, or whitewash! These are very stable, comfortable, and will bring a little character to your deck or fire-pit… or garden… or front porch… or wherever you choose to put them! Have fun building!

List

Bench Frame Finished Bench

Finished Benches in Yard

The Heirloom Seed Movement – Join the Masses!

Seeds are just seeds, right? I hate to break this to you, but the answer is definitely no. Seeds are as different as one can imagine – as different as humans are from one another. I remember my 97 year old grandpa watching a football game with my 15 year old son a few years ago. Those two are family, but are completely different. I would equate Grandpa to an heirloom tomato – specifically the non-GMO and organic Brandywine tomato with a summertime flavor to beat the band. My son, on the other hand, is like a newly-developed hybrid hothouse tomato plant, built to withstand long-haul truck shipments, rather than providing good flavor. Nothing against my wonderful son here… he’s the greatest kid ever. But he’s a teenager, and just doesn’t understand (nor really care about) the value of good quality in garden produce quite yet. Both the Brandywine and the hot house tomatoes are family, but they could not be any more different. Check out the photos below. I don’t know about you, but the tomato on the left looks about 100 times more luscious than the one on the right.

Tomato Comparison

Anyway, back to the seeds. All seeds are either heirloom or hybrid. The difference between the two lies in how recently the variety has been crossed with others, which dictates how reliably the seeds will reproduce if planted the following year. Interesting fact: if you look closely at the seeds in “survivor seed vaults or kits,” they’re almost always heirloom varieties. Why? Because if our food supply suddenly disappeared and folks had to use seeds to grow their own food, only heirloom seeds can be saved and planted year after year. Hybrids are known to be more disease resistant, but you sacrifice the ability to save your seeds and grow the same plant next year (because seeds of a hybrid plant don’t reproduce that same hybrid). So, the baseline difference between hybrid and heirloom is:

HYBRID = Varieties produced new each year through forced cross-pollination between two different varieties of plants.

HEIRLOOM = Varieties grown with open pollination and selected down over many years to plants with desirable qualities.

To be considered a true heirloom, it’s debatable how old a variety must actually be. Some gardeners only recognize varieties that are more than 100 years old, while others accept any that pre-date 1945. It’s really a matter of opinion, but the main point is how they are created. Hybrids are produced new each year through forced cross-pollination between two different varieties of plants. There is no attempt to develop a seed “line” for a hybrid – history and development effort just don’t really matter. Hybrids are developed for purpose – to handle shipping containers damage-free, to have longer storage times, or to be more disease-resistant. Not much attention is paid to flavor, fragrance, or texture. In contrast, heirloom varieties were developed over many years and many generations, with the goals of amazing flavor and resilience at the forefront. This was accomplished through the old-fashioned method of growing plants from seeds with desirable qualities, keeping the seedlings that retain those desired qualities and tossing those that don’t. Gradually over the years, the seed line was refined so that more and more of the seeds produced plants with the desired characteristics. Finally, those undesirable qualities were completely bred out of the strain.

If you want those incredible-tasting tomatoes, peas, and cucumbers that your grandparents had – go with the heirlooms. Not only are you keeping alive generations worth of work done by gardeners before you, but you are growing a tomato with character, both in appearance and in taste. I figure, if we’re going to all of the effort to build and maintain our gardens, the produce coming out of it should be worth every single bite we take. I want that summertime flavor explosion on my tongue, so heirlooms are for me. The last two years I’ve grown Pineapple tomatoes, a wonderful heirloom variety. They taste like tomatoes, but have the slightest hint of pineapple flavor. And they are beautiful!

Heirloom Pineapple Tomato

Another often-overlooked advantage to heirloom varieties is a gradual and steadily ripening crop. One of the main reasons commercial growers love the uniformity of hybrids is because they all ripen at the same time. Those crops can be harvested and shipped in one fell swoop. In backyard gardens though, heirlooms provide you with a longer season – fruits and veggies will take their time, and ripen when they feel like it… one handful at a time.

And honestly, a lot of it is about keeping the past alive. The only reason we have hybrids with little flavor and thick, durable skins is because they are built to withstand shipping cross-country. I don’t want our original – our heirloom – varieties becoming extinct. So many years and so much effort has gone into making them what they are, and I appreciate (and taste) that effort each time I sink my teeth into an heirloom tomato fresh off my backyard vine…. or each time I can pickle with heirloom cucumbers grown underneath my big garden arch. In many cases, these heirloom vegetables have been centuries all around the world, and have great stories about how they made it over to the USA. What a great feeling – to be connected to gardeners from different parts of the world through tiny little heirloom seeds.

So join me – and join all the other backyard commandos who are incorporating wonderful heirloom plants into our gardens. Below is a list of what I planted in my garden this year. As you can see, not everything is an heirloom variety (shown in green), but I try to work in as many as possible.

    • Beets: Detroit Red, Early Wonder Tall, and Green Top Bunching
    • Carrots: Chantenay, Parisian, Kuroda, Scarlet Nantes
    • Cucumbers: National Pickling, Homemade Pickles, Parisian Gherkin, Tendergreen
    • Lettuce: Flame, Bibb Blend
    • Leeks: American Flag, Varna
    • Onions: Cippolini Yellow, Evergreen Bunching, Italian Torpedo Onion
    • Shallots: Zebrune Heirloom
    • Peas: Sugar Daddy, Pea Progress #9, Green Arrow, Oregon Sugar Pod
    • Peppers: Sweet Nardello, Sweet Marconi Red
    • Tomatoes: Valencia, Isis Candy, Crimson Carmello, Prudens Purple, Mortgage Lifter, Manitoba, Black Krim, Orange Strawberry, Brandywine
    • Fennel: Florence
    • Garlic Chives
    • Potatoes: German Butterball, Rose Finn Apple, Amarosa
    • Berries: Honeyberry (2 varieties), Blueberry (4 varieties), Raspberries (2 varieties), and Mulberry (1 variety)

Plant, grow, and enjoy the same varieties that your great, great grandparents did. Plant some heirlooms!