This bed in the back of the garden (to the West, underneath the trees)  is a new one. I added it this Spring. I wasn’t happy with what grew in it this season. The reason could be the lack of sunlight, or poor soil. About the sunlight there is not much I can do at the moment, though next Spring I might have some of those trees cut back or, if we can afford it, taken down altogether. But about the soil I can do something right now.

Enter fresh horse manure and straw.

First, weed shallowly and dump a wheelbarrow (6 cu.f.) of horse manure on top. Then, add cardboard. Soak. Then dump another wheelbarrow  of manure. Cover with straw. Soak.

It’s an experiment. The wood shavings that comes with the manure might not be fully composted by the time Spring comes along, in which case that bed will suffer from nitrogen fixation (the composting critters will be using all the available nitrogen to chomp through all that carbon, leaving no nitrogen for the plants). I can be patient with this bed, though.

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Amie loves coming along to the stable to get the manure. She gets to pet the two horses and the pony. As you can see the little horse dolls are now her favorites. She played in the garden while I shoveled. It’s unseasonably warm, almost tropical: very humid, and 75 F. Behind her is one of the winter hoop house beds.

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The manure layer of the hot box registers at 90 F right now. I expect it to go up a bit more before it comes down. When it reaches 75 F I can transplant the spinach and lettuce.

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And last but not least, Daily Bread No. 3.

Behind it you can see the piece of yesterday’s left over. We’re eating almost one of these loaves (they’re small) a day, but I think DH will start a mutiny soon. I do have plans for when we start piling up the loaves. I used up all the refrigerated dough, so it’s time to whip up a new batch. I’m moving on to whole wheat!

Today’s extra challenge was to do something with all that oven heat. Usually I let it escape into the house, but today was hot. So I roasted pumpkin seeds. Yum!

(Wow, three entries in one day!)

I have lights specially fitted to the bed up front, so it can easily be converted to a cold frame. I’ve successfully grown lettuce in it in April. Now I was thinking of growing something there  from November to March, the coldest months.

The hotbed, finally!

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A, the owner of the horse stable, uses our property to get to conservation land where she can ride. In return I can go and get as much manure as I want. The stable is about a quarter mile away, and I do the entire trip in twenty minutes, if I’m not held up chatting with A or the neighbors. Fortunately it’s downhill from my house, so I get there real fast. Unfortunately it’s also (go figure) uphill to my house, and that makes for a great work out.

the manure, the bed, the lights

I sort of, to the best of my abilities,  followed these instructions.

The bed is 3.5 – 7 feet, but I started with a little less than half of it, as I had only the one 6 cu.f. wheelbarrow of manure. The instructions call for a drainage pit with gravel or cinders, but by the time I dug 14″ deep (from the soil line), I hit rock bottom. There I used my fork to open up the stony soil a bit.

Then I added 10″ of horse manure.  It turned out to be exactly the entire wheelbarrow, though I’m sure it’s going to compact quite a bit, that stuff is so fluffy with all the woodshavings, hay and straw in it.  I made it all sopping wet.

(Sorry, DH, I promise I’ll clean it off)

Then I added 4″ of the original soil and put on the lights.


Now I need to monitor the temperature of the manure. At the moment it is 70 F (by comparison, the soil in my   hoop house beds is at 76 F). I expect it will start heating up soon. As soon as it drops back down to 75 degrees, and stays there, I can put in the spinach and lettuce seedlings.

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I’m going to get a lot more of that manure. Perhaps I’ll convert the entire bed to a hot box. But I definitely want to  use it to dress the other beds that I won’t use over the winter, then to tuck them all in with blankets of cardboard and straw. I like the synergistic straw culture that Emilia Hazelip promotes in the video I posted earlier.  Not to touch the soil at all, just to keep adding, adding… I’d like to play around with that in my own setting.

On a cold, gray day Amie and I composed, copied and colored in our yearly let-us-compost-your-pumpkin fliers.

Today, a wonderful day, sunny, blustery, just about nippy, Amie and I took a walk to deliver them. It was lovely to talk with the neighbors and hear their enthusiasm for the project. They usually leave their pumpkins to rot in the woods (everyone around here has a little bit of woods), but now that they know we’ll turn them into veggies, they will come and drop them off at our house when the time comes.

{Update} We composted about 50 lbs of  donated pumpkins that year!

I’ll just come right out and say it: of all the garden work, I love turning and sifting compost most!

Yesterday was Amie’s first extended day at Kindergarten and the weather was glorious to boot. That left me with five (5) whole hours in the garden. I filled milk bottles with rain water as biomass for the hoop house and, while placing them, noticed that the plants were looking a bit glum. Time for the last compost dressing of the season, and then a good soak.

I eyed the 3 compost bins in the back of the garden, where I dump garden waste and coffee grounds from Starbucks. They’re 3 x 3 x 3 each, 2 of them were 3/4 full, 1 was still empty. Opening up the front of the first bin (we built the composter that way), this spilled out:

… a lot of good, finished compost from the center of the pile.

I shoveled most of this soft, small stuff through my mesh, over into the third, empty bin, shoving the leftover bulky stuff into the middle bin.

When bin 1 was empty,  I moved most of the bulky stuff now in bin 2 into bin 1, and sifted the rest of bin 2 into bin 3. The bulky stuff ended up in bin 1. It was an elaborate and no doubt illogical process but I ended up with bin 3 full of finished compost, bin 1 half full of unfinished stuff. As you can see in the first picture, all but the centers of the heaps had become too dry, so I made sure to saturate the new unfinished bin with rain water. After this good turning and soaking I hope it will finish in a week or two, at which point I’ll sift it again.

Bin 3 now held 2 wheel barrow loads of fragrant, fluffy compost. 1 load has already been distributed among the tomato, pepper and eggplants, the herbs, carrots and peas. I put 2 handfuls around the base of each plant, then water it in (with rainwater, of course).

I covered bin 3, so yesterday night’s rain won’t leach the compost too much. One Straw, by the way, has an interesting post on soaking up the leached nutrients with biochar. Following his advice on my own much smaller scale, I put whatever leftovers of charcoal at the bottom of the bin.

Today (weather and soil humidity permitting) I’ll work the other load into the empty beds so they’ll be ready for the Fall and Winter seedlings. Time to get out the hoops, the row cover and the plastic. And the gardening books.

Happy Summer!

On this hot sunny day what did I do but seek out the two hottest areas of my garden.

First, the compost bins. They looked pretty tame, on the surface. Then I stuck in my fork and woosh, the temperature rise was immediately apparent.  I  persisted, turning, consolidating and sifting out the finished stuff. I do the sifting by hand – wearing heavy-duty gardening gloves – pushing and rubbing the stuff through the wire mesh into the garden cart, then scooping up the bigger bits and throwing them into the next bin. I love the sensation of the heat. I realize this is soil in the making, imagine volcanoes, tectonic shifts, geological eras…

And it smells so good, like my mushroom bed, actually, with a fresh, nutty smell. Could it be mycelia? (UPDATE: See two days later.) It’s a distinctly, wholesome fungal smell. There weren’t many worms in it and was dominated instead by the tiny creatures that collectively look like a white powder.

The compost in the Earth Machines (EM) smells very differently. It’s always too wet and a bit anaerobic, especially at the bottom, giving it a sour, rotteny smell. Still, it’s always loaded with earth worms and other large crawlers. It composts much slower. That might be a function not so much of the enclosure but of the raw materials: kitchen scraps, including meat, fish, oil and dairy, versus pure plant material in the garden bins.

In any case, today was the first time I moved the half-finished, smelly stuff from the EM to the open bins in the garden. Let’s see if the rodents start mining it for half-decomposed bones. I will post our home-made compost bin plans and the pictures of its construction soon, because I am quite happy with it, except for one aspect that we can easily change.

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As if I hadn’t sweated enough, I had to jump into the real sauna. I brought the finished compost, still warm, into the hoop house. It was a whopping 94 F  (34 C) in there. I rigged up a fan to circulate the air a bit. The tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and Chinese Lanterns in there (the latter confined to pots) seem to love it. I weeded, top-dressed each plant with three generous handfuls of compost, then watered it in. A couple of hours later, I swear, they all looked even happier.

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I used the rest of the compost on the berry bushes, then watered that in as well. They tend to get neglected a bit and I haven’t seen much growth since transplanting them. I don’t expect berries from them this year. I do from the strawberries up front, though. They have all had a chance to recuperate from being grazed by the bunnies/chipmunks, thanks to the netting I put over them.

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I hope to have more compost in a matter of days if I turn the new piles once a day.  Then the rest of the garden can partake of the black gold as well. Next up as well: trellising the tomatoes that are outside, as well as the beans.

Thank you again, Freecycle!

A while ago I put up a wanted notice in my local Freeycle group for comfrey plants. My first contact fell through, and then I forgot about it, until yesterday, when a local man contacted me. I went by this morning and discovered… heaven!

L and S live in a cul-de-sac that is all lawns. Azaleas and arbor vitae abound, but it’s mostly grass: sloping, cut very short, and sprinkled. Then you get to L and S’s place which… stands out. Their tiny bungalow is hardly noticeable in the dark jungle that is the front yard, darkened by towering pine trees and scraggly, half-bald spruces, all overgrown with vinca. There’s a rusted old car in the driveway, and paint cans. It smells sweet: something is flowering, but you can’t quite see what…

Now follow a side “path” of rotten boards sunk into the mud to enter the backyard and have your mind blown.

It used to be all raised vegetable beds, L tells me, but she could no longer work them, so they decided to let it grow into a raspberry field. And boy, did the raspberries oblige! There is also mint of all kinds gone rampant, and lovage, and wildflowers. Oh, and comfrey. Patches, like islands in a sea of raspberry canes, of two varieties, near to a hundred of them, some as tall as me!

I dug and lifted while chatting with L, hoping she wouldn’t find me greedy, but thinking they might need help clearing the comfrey a bit. Now I know what they mean by invasive, uncontrollable, and “compost crop”. L says by June these plants will be even bigger, leafier, fatter…

After a good half hour I had hardly made a dent, but it was all I could fit into my station wagon. L also gave me some of each of the four kinds of mint she could find, and some lovage.

Such dear and interesting people. They were the first to know what I was talking about when I explained the intended permaculture setup at our place. L and S went all the NOFA meetings since they started and saw J.I. Rodale speak. For decades they grew their own vegetables, organically of course, but now they are happy with their 400 pounds of raspberries each year. Only they and their friends are getting on in age and can no longer do all that picking.

I offered my leftover asparagus plants in return for the comfrey and will go and help L clear a patch for them. And they invited me to come and help pick raspberries, and we’ll split the pickings!

I’ll get a picture of the transplants when it stops raining. I am so glad for the rain: my barrels empty out too fast now that all the beds are in operation, and the transplants do well in the rain.

I like my two Earth Machine composters in that they’re contained and so inaccessible to animals, which makes me unafraid to throw in meat, cheese, bones, etc. They’re also, of course, portable, and not too bad to look at. But for those reasons they’re also a pain to turn, and just the two of them won’t give me the quantity of compost I need. I want to add horse manure, grass clippings, more coffee shop coffee grounds and perhaps even some kitchen scraps from neighbors.

So I am in need of something more extensive and easier to turn. Something like the one at Drumlin Farm. DH helped me make it come true. He made his own design and we put it together, the two of us, over the last couple of days. Here is the almost finished product in situ, off to the side of the veg garden:

It really is huge: 3 boxes 3′ by 3′ by 3′.

It still needs a three-part lid, which we’ll make out of scrap lumber and the old fiberglass roof we ripped off our porch. Time and use will tell if we did well. If it holds up well, I’ll put our plans online.

I’ll still be using my Earth Machines for the kitchen scraps that the wild animals would love to get at, because even with a lid this one is not tight – for one, it has no bottom. So the Earth Machines stay behind the shed, close to the kitchen, and this one will receive their composted and half-composted contents once in a while.

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I also lit my bee smoker for the first time. I gathered a bucket full of dry pine needles, dry rotten wood and old leaves from our garden, stuffed some of that into the smoker, and lit it on fire. It smoked really well for 20 minutes with only a few puffs. Success!

The garden, that is.

DH and I worked on the backyard the entire day: grading it with sifted soil, evening it out, then adding 1 to 2 inches of our composted cow manure. We still have about 1/3 to do, and I’ll try to finish that by my lonesome tomorrow, because DH needs to go into work. Then we sow the grass seed and keep our fingers crossed.

The tomato seedlings are getting too big for my setup in the basement. They still fit under the lamps, but (1) they’re shading each other out and (2) they’re holding up my next big seeding.

Now the reason why we have a (movable) hoop house is to extend the season. The issue is when to move it to its Summer location, where the tomatoes will grow, among other things. In its present, winter location it is no longer in its right place. Witness all the Winter and Spring veggies that are bolting in the 80-90 F heat:

Honestly, these (Mache, Claytonia and Minutina) would have bolted with or without hoop house, and I’m letting them because I want to save the seed. The spinach, kale, and lettuces are all loving it in there. But anyway, what’s the holdup?

At first we thought we would redesign it, but budgetary issues and the fact that the way it is will do fine for Summer, made us postpone Hoop House 3.0 till Fall. Now we need 6 well-coordinated people, at least, to move the thing. Those people haven’t shown up yet…

Well, in any case, what to do with the tomato seedlings? The temperatures in the hoop house during the day are great for them, and the light is diffuse, and a recent study shows that the quality of a tomato depends more on heat than on light. However, NOAA predicted a low of 36F. tonight, and a couple more such nights. So this was the solution – with a nod to One Straw:

This compost bin (inside the hoop house) is going full steam, and I’m hoping it and a row cover will keep my seedlings warm overnight. We’ll see. It’s quite nerve-wrecking!

Last but not least we had a well-deserved dinner of rib eye steak on the grill: its first firing of the year. We eat meat about 4 times a month, and then it’s always a feast. With that we had homegrown kale and a homegrown salad, all from the hoop house. That thing may be in the wrong place, but it’s still doing what it was made to do: extending our season.

This weekend we tackled the backyard. We’re installing a small lawn around the new patio and path. There will also be a border for culinary herbs with a herb spiral at the center, lined up with the stone circle, where the wild lilies are now coming up.

The permacultural ideal is to close all the loops and, for instance, to use only on site materials. We’re succeeding in this with the top soil, as we’re reusing the material that was excavated for the patio and path. That soil was of course seeded with stones, which we first need to sieve out. For this we quickly created a new setup: the sieving table.

We constructed a table for our old soil sieve, which just sits on top of it, high enough so the big wheelbarrow fits underneath it. We just scrape the stones off the sieve with our shovels, into the garden cart. It works great, saves us a lot of time, hassle, and backache.

With regard to the compost, however, we had to have some brought in. I just didn’t make enough of it myself, even with the occasional ten pounds of coffee grounds from the local Starbucks and my neighbors’ pumpkins. Though, really now, I should ramp up my composting operations. But, for now…

I was so disappointed with the stuff we got last year from one of these “landscape depots” – basically semi-composted brush, leaf mulch and wood chips – that it took me quite a while to decide on this year’s product. I chose Great Brook Farm’s composted cow manure. They’re not far from here (Carlisle) so it was good to get it locally, from a family owned business, and from one source – their 130 Holsteins. It is twice as expensive as the landscape depot stuff ($40 vs. $21 per yard) but, I was assured, also four times as effective. And we won’t have to sift out the stones. And it won’t turn to cement on us…

The farmer brought 12 yards yesterday and the moment he opened the back of his truck I knew we had made the right decision. It’s odorless, crumbly and fluffy. We have it all piled up on the side of our driveway, in our “materials depot,” next to a pile of red oak wood chips for our Oyster mushrooms.

We chatted with the farmer about compost and he made a great observation. He said the compost and loam business is a lot like the drugs business: they cut it and cut it and cut it.

This stuff?

Uncut.