The Compost Bin Blog

Composting Egg Shells

Today’s blog post is all about my former life as a garden blogger. Way back in 2006, I started the Compost Bin blog. Now this is not to be confused with WatchItRot.com (no link because I don’t own it anymore) which was started several years before that. That was way before blogging was popular so I coded that site by hand in HTML. I had the awesome idea that I was going to put a webcam on my compost bin and people could visit and watch it rot. I never did get around to setting up the webcam but I did move on to the Compost Bin blog. That’s where I started garden blogging with a focus on composting to improve your gardening.

The blog got popular in the 2006 garden blogging world and it was a lot of fun. Here’s one of my first posts from that blog and check out those comments. No spammy links, no people trying to gain backlinks for SEO, just some good compost Q&A.

Continue reading “The Compost Bin Blog”

Tomato Seedling Care

thinning tomato seedlings

I planted 20 tomato seedlings in my basement about 2 months ago. The seedlings germinated under my shop lights and are doing well. Sometime in July I’ll be making delicious tomato sandwiches but today I’d like to talk about a few important things when it comes to tomato seedling care.

cutting tomato seedlings
Sorry little guy but you didn’t make the cut

How to Thin Tomato Seedlings

When I plant tomato seeds, I usually put 3-5 seeds in each container. I like to do this in case there’s a few seeds that don’t sprout. Doing this improves the odds of having more tomato plants to put outside. Just double or triple up the seeds counts in each cup. Sometimes you have older seeds from years ago that saved or never got around to planting. Or if you buy from big box stores, who knows if those seeds where in a 100 degree truck going across a dessert or something. You never know if your seeds will germinate.

Even with my 3-5 seedlings per cup of soil, I still had 3 that didn’t sprout anything. Hey it happens. But still that’s a pretty good percentage.

So once the seedlings sprout and start to grow you’re going to want to murder some of them. Survival of the fittest is my motto for thinning tomato seedlings. Keep the healthiest looking plant, growing well, not too spindly, good leaves and then cut the rest with a scissor. You don’t want to pull out the seedlings because that will disturb the roots of the plant that you are keeping. Just cut the extras with a scissor as close as dirt level as you can get and that will do it. The plant is just a baby and doesn’t have the strength to recover from such a drastic pruning.

Its like the vegetable version of Survivor. The tomato plants that don’t make a name for themselves get voted off the island. And on Tomato Survivor the losers are actually killed. Yikes!



How to Fertilize Tomato Seedlings

Another thing that’s important to tomato seedling care is fertilization. When the tomato seedlings have their first true leaves (that’s the second set of leaves that you’ll see) they should be fed. A small dose of liquid fertilizer can be added to your watering can and that should do it.

How to Harden off tomato seedlings

And the last thing to consider with tomato seedling care is hardening off. If you’re growing your seedlings under florescent lights like I am it really isn’t bright enough for the plant to mature to the flowering stage. In fact it’s kind of not enough light. Now you don’t want to take these tiny little plants and plant them outside on a sunny day only to see them wilt and perish. When it’s warm enough to move them outside, you should do so but ease them into the full sun over a week’s worth of time. But them in a shady spot at first which is going to still give them more sun than under regular shop lights. Then move them to spots that get more sun. You should start with a spot that gets some morning sun and afternoon shade and ease them into it.

So these are tips for tomato seedling care. I’ve been starting tomato seedlings at my current house for 17 years this way. If you follow these instructions you should have some success too.

Starting Tomato Seeds Indoors

tomato seedlings indoors

Did you see the news about the blizzard on the East Coast yesterday?  Here in New Jersey we had our biggest snow storm of the year. About a foot of snow with a nice inch of freezing rain on top to make the whole thing a delightful treat to shovel. And now today, the town road guys just came by with a backhoe and cleaned up my road. That means that they pushed a giant mountain of snow onto my front lawn that probably won’t melt until June but that’s okay because today I’m going to blog about gardening.
starting tomato seeds
You see last week I started my tomato seeds indoors. I like to start tomatoes from seed for the vegetable garden every year in the middle of winter. When you start your tomatoes from seeds there are a lot of advantages.

First advantage is that you don’t to wait until the weather is warm. You can do it about 8 weeks or so before the last frost in your area. This way when it’s nice out you have your little plants ready to go in the ground. You won’t waste as much of the growing season.

Plant selection is definitely much better when you start from seeds. Now if you’re going to buy small tomato plants from a big box store or a nursery, you can only choose from what they have.  If you’re looking to try some heirloom tomato that you heard has amazing flavor then you might be out of luck if the stores only carry the basic tomato varieties. Or if someone comes in a buys most of the healthy plants and they’re not going to get new stock at the store for a week or two you’re also out of luck.



Going through a seed catalog in the middle of winter is always fun. I usually sit with a nice cup of coffee and new pad and a sharp pencil and make the decisions that will determine what my vegetable garden is going to look like this year. Planning the garden is an enjoyable way to spend a winter day. Well it’s an enjoyable time until my wife sees my plans and tells me that “you’re not a farmer, you don’t need all that.”

Another benefit is that seeds are much cheaper than plants. Even if you buy an expensive seed packet for $4.95, you’re still getting about 20 seeds. Now that’s bang for the buck. You can’t get 20 plants for anywhere near that price. And you can get seeds for much cheaper than $4.95. Some are even free if you start saving seeds from last years garden or get involved in seed swaps.

Here’s what you’ll need to start tomato seeds indoors. I got some shop lights from a big box store for about $10 each. They’re 4 feet long and hold two fluorescent bulbs. For the light bulbs you should look for the kind that are marked “daylight”. The ones I got are Daylight 6500K. Now you aren’t going to get any plants to grow to the point where they fruit with a fluorescent bulb but they are fine for starting tomato seeds.

Next I get some plastic or paper cups and fill them with moist seed starting soil. I empty the package of soil into a container and add enough water to make mud balls that aren’t dripping all over the place. Too much water is just going to make a big mess. Gently press the damp soil into the cups and then plant the seeds. You should follow the instructions on the seed packet about planting depth. For most tomatoes it’s usually about 1/4” deep.

The most important thing to remember to get good germination is to keep the seeds moist. I take a piece of plastic wrap and cover the top of each cup to keep the moisture in. You can put a rubber band around the top of the cup to hold the plastic wrap on.

Place the cups under the lights in a warm place and in a few days to a week you should have tiny little tomato plants. Tomato seeds like warmth like from a seed starting mat. I put my seeds in the laundry room which is also where the furnace is. It’s nice and warm in there.

tomato seedlings indoorsOnce you see these little plants poke a hole in the plastic. The sealed cup is great for keeping the moisture in for germination but your seedlings need a little air circulation. A day or two after germination, I’ll take the plastic wrap completely off.

Use a liquid fertilizer when the second set of leaves form on your seedlings. And in about 8 weeks I’ll move these tomato plants outside to the vegetable garden.

And there’s even more snow in the forecast, it’s okay because I’m gardening away here indoors. And I have another shop light or two in my garage and may even start some peppers and eggplant next.

Toro Electric Leaf Blower

Toro electric leaf blower picture

Toro electric leaf blower picture
Toro Electric Leaf Blower
I’ve decided that I’m going to stop waiting for the free time to work on my dream projects and start blogging about what I’m actually doing. And unless there’s snow on the ground, if it’s the weekend then I’m using my Toro Electric Leaf Blower.

And if I had a nickel for every hour that I’ve used the leaf blower, I’d have a lot of nickels. I’m serious, every weekend and sometimes during the week too, I’m using that damn leaf blower. I’d have a lot more blog posts and cool projects done if I didn’t spend all of my time cleaning up my yard. But it’s probably a good thing too because those cool projects I that I want to do usually involve my margarita machine. 

Now let me explain. I’m not cursed with constantly falling leaves like in some sort of eternal NJ autumn. No, but there’s always something to clean up in my suburban yard. Right now at this time of year the yard is covered with pollen and tree litter. So I break out the leaf blower. We have an oriental beech tree that is huge and makes a huge mess. The tree is a good hundred years old, that’s my uneducated guess but it’s too big to give it a hug. probably take 2 or 3 people to get their arms around it. This thing drops ridiculous amounts of these little stringy puff ball things. I can honestly fill a few garbage cans with all the puffs that fall to ground.

In the burbs, you have to keep a neat front yard or you’re labeled as “that neighbor”. And I’m the only fool in my neighborhood who doesn’t have a landscaping crew do a weekly clean up of my yard. Nope, I’m out there for hours and hours with my crew of me and the Toro Electric Leaf Blower. Why don’t I hire someone?  Hey buy one my cookbooks and tell your friends to buy one too and then maybe it’ll be in the budget.

This post is starting to sound like a griping session about how much of my life I’ve wasted on using the leaf blower. But I guess I can also review my leaf blower while I’m at it. It’s a Toro 51619 Ultra Blower/Vac and it’s works great. It’s one of those that comes with a bag and an extra tube so you can convert it to vacuum/mulching mode. I don’t use the vacuum mode all that often but it does work well. Even at age 48, it’s still a lot quicker for me to bend and pick up the piles of leaves than to use a leaf blower vacuum. Check back in with me when I’m 55 and I’ll probably be raving about the vacuum.

Toro electric leaf blower pictureI know the trend is for everything to be cordless but I don’t mind the electric power cord. I have a couple of hundred feet of extension cords in my garage. I’ve never tried one of those gas powered backpack models but I’m sure they probably smell like gas and get hot and they’re a lot louder. So I stick with my electric model. When I picked it out it said on the box that it blew 225 mph which was faster than the gas model. I’m not sure that believing everything that the marketing department is feeding you is a great way to gauge the power of these things but that’s what I did. It definitely has a lot of power. I can move leaves, sticks, stuff that falls out of the trees and sometimes I even use it to dry my car after I wash it. On a black car, water marks are the enemy and my leaf blower takes care of that.

Oh and those cordless rechargeable battery models probably work great in a small yard with a quick clean up. But let me refer you to the top of this article. I’m using this thing all the time. I even clean out my garage with it after I use my table saw.

Update

Looking at Amazon I see they made a few changes since I bought mine which was about 7 years ago. By the way, it is very reliable since I’ve been using it all the time for the past 7 years. It seems like the new version is red. Mine is black. But they’ve upped the ante and now it can blow 250 mph. Wow, that’s great. The metal impeller blade sounds like a good feature too. Probably works better at mulching now.

So take it from me, if you live in the suburbs and need a leaf blower, even if you hate how much you have to use it, go with the Toro Electric Leaf Blower. You won’t be disappointed.

Fruit Gardening

Green Strawberry

Green StrawberrySpring is here but there’s still some time before it’s warm enough for gardening. Because of that, I thought it might be a good time to share some of the ridiculously over ambitious gardening plans that I come up with every year. Today I’m going to talk about my fruit gardening plans.

You see during the winter, the sky is the limit. I always have visions of the best garden ever. Fantastic plans for unique and awesome plants and beds and projects and everything that my busy mind can think of while I’m inside sitting on the sofa in the warmth of my house. But then when spring comes and I run out of time to get everything done, I have to scale my plans way back. There’s only so many hours in the day and unfortunately I have to spend most of them at work. So why I do continue to torture myself by creating awesome plans that will never come to pass? Well because one of these years, it’s all going to come together and I’m going to get everything done and have enough money and free time to make everything a reality instead of just a cool looking sketch in my planning notebook.

And besides, even if I only get one cool thing done each spring and that is my usual pace, then I’m one cool thing closer than I was the year before. And that’s good enough for me.

Now let’s start with fruit in the garden.

blueberries I’ve always been a fan of blueberries. When we moved into this house in 2000, I bought 4 blueberry bushes. They’ve been doing great ever since. There was a year or two with very few berries because I had to move them when we had the pool renovated. But they’ve since recovered in their new spots and are doing well again. Blueberries like acidic soil. I never did any soil tests or anything like that. I just amend the soil with pine needles every fall. I have tons of pine trees that like to rain down needles all over my patio so I try to make good use of them. And I’ll also water once a month with coffee. 1 mug of coffee in my 3 gallon watering can does the trick. And I pour the entire watering can on the 4 plants. That gives them a nice acidic boost. By the way, this mixture also does wonders for my hydrangeas. It keeps them nice and blue. My goal for these blueberry plants is to have enough berries to make a blueberry pie. I never have enough at one time because the birds eat most of the berries. Blueberry pancakes are usually the consolation prize but that pie is my goal.

Now my strawberries are decent too. I bought a few plants a while back and they come back every year. There’s tons of runners that stretch out from the plants and they make new plants. At one point I had a few raised beds full of strawberry plants. Right now I’m in a transition period where I want to move the strawberry bed. So I don’t really have a lot of plants. I’m going to start fixing that this year. Also the chipmunks love to steal my strawberries. So some sort of fencing around the bed is absolutely needed.

strawberry runners

I’d also like to try one of those PVC pipe vertical strawberry deals. I’ve seen them on Pinterest and they look really cool. Think of all the strawberries that could grow in just a few square feet. That would be awesome.

 

Blackberries are awesome too. I used to have a giant 3 foot by 12 foot trellised raised bed with blackberries in it. The kids used to pluck those berries off of those plants faster than the birds. The only problem with those plants was that I picked the kind with thorns. Thrones and young kids picking berries isn’t a good thing. My own kids learned to be careful and avoid the thorns but occasionally they’d take a friend to the blackberry plants and I’d have to rescue an impaled child. My kids friends can scream pretty loud. And the fact that the blackberry runners were spreading all over the yard and spreading these thorns was the reason that I got rid of them. Blackberry plants popped up 10, 20 feet away. Wherever there was good soil, I’d see these thorny shoots popping up. It was a several year battle to get rid of them but eventually I won the war. No more blackberries.

blackberry plantI’d love to plant a thornless variety this year and start over but I would need to put some kind of barrier around the bed so that the runners wouldn’t spread all over yard again. That would mean digging a big hole or at least a big trench around the blackberry bed. And with blackberries, I’d have to build a trellis of some sort to keep them from sprawling all over the ground. We’ll see if I can get to this in 2016.

But the most important thing about my berry plants is that I want to eat most of them. The birds, the chipmunks, the rabbits and whatever else is lurking around my yard always get more berries than I do. And this must stop.  I’ve put bird netting over the top of the blueberry plants but that’s a pain because the plant will usually grow through the netting and then it becomes tough to take on and off. I need to come up with a better solution. Maybe a wood frame around the plants or a PVC pipe cage with bird netting. I need some form of protection.

Then there’s the rhubarb plants. Not really a fruit but my rhubarb plants should be prolific enough this year to make a few rhubarb-aritas. This is my second collection of rhubarb plants. The first were planted in an less than ideal spot and I had to dig them up when I rearranged my raised beds. They unfortunately didn’t recover from being moved. RIP rhubarb. So last year I got a few more plants and they did nicely. Of course i didn’t pick any stalks last year because I wanted to develop some strong roots. This year I’ll cut a few off maybe plant another 2 or 3 plants.

fig treeSome long term goals that I’m never going to get to are the paw paw trees. I’ve always wanted one of those. Also the arctic kiwi would be a great addition to my yard. And I’m Italian and I think there’s a law written somewhere that says I’m required to have a fig tree. I used to have a small fig tree but it never produced any ripe figs. I’d get hard non ripe figs very late in the season and then it’d get cold. Need to find a fig variety more suited to the north east.

So that’s the summary of my fruit garden plans. Hopefully I’ll get most of these plans going this spring. Wish me luck!


Overwintering Musa Basjoo

Musa Basjoo

Overwintering Musa Basjoo (Hardy Banana)

Even though I live in New Jersey, I still like to grow banana plants. Their big green leaves give my pool & patio and nice tropical feel. And who doesn’t want to feel like they are in tropics? Every so often, when my kids are trying to drown me, I look around and see the banana plants and right before I gasp for air, I get a nice tropical feeling.

Tiny Musa Basjoo
The one in the biggest pot is the Musa Basjoo. Basically a stick when I first got it.

 

Back in 2006, when I was really into garden blogging, I would tear through any plant catalog that I could get my hands on, looking for interesting things to grow so that I could blog about them. I just happened to stumble onto Musa Basjoo (Hardy Banana). The catalog said that it was a banana tree that could survive a winter in Zone 7 and it could grow up to 10 feet tall. A ten foot tall banana tree that would survive a New Jersey winter? Why wouldn’t I buy one of them. I’m surprised I didn’t buy two.



Musa Basjoo in a container
Even grown in a container, these things get pretty big.

Now these plants will not grow bananas that you can eat and in fact up here in the Northeast, they will rarely set fruit. But my goal was to have nice big green leafy plants and I was not disappointed.

When Plant Delights sent me the plant, I was actually pretty disappointed because it was this tiny little stick of a plant. Nothing against Plant Delights, they are great but when you have visions of hacking your way through an untamed jungle of banana trees and you receive something the size of a leek, you tend to be disappointed. Well, I adjusted my expectations and I potted up my new hardy banana stick. I used a big 22 inch pot and filled it with mostly compost and a little bit of a bagged manure from Home Depot. I probably should have added some light fluffy potting soil too because a big pot like that is hard to move when it’s filled with compost.

Musa Basjoo
Musa Basjoo in mid summer

So now here we are in 2015 and my musa basjoos are still going strong. Not only did the tiny little stick turn into a 6 foot banana tree but every year since then, the musa basjoo created “pups”. It basically grows more plants from the root ball or the “corm”. All you have to do is cut those pups off of the corm and plant them up. With lots of fresh compost in the pots or in the ground where I eventually started planting them. At one point I had about 19 of them that were all over 5 feet tall. And I had tiny little non-edible bananas once too. That was pretty cool.Yes, Musa Basjoo are hardy to Zone 7 but I live in Zone 6. At first I thought about leaving them in the ground and mulching heavily or setting up a fig tree-like enclosure around them. But I scrapped that idea and just decided to dig them all up and store them in my garage. Better to play it safe. The garage isn’t heated but it rarely goes below 40 degrees.

Bringing in the potted plants in is pretty easy. I just drag those heavy pots into my garage. The banana plants that are in the ground aren’t too much work either. The roots are not very deep or strong so digging them up really isn’t a big chore. A shovel in the ground is usually enough to get them out. Even the 6-8 foot plants come right out.

The best part of overwintering Musa Basjoo is using my garden machete. It makes me feel like a jungle explorer, hacking my way through the local vegetation. Hmm, I think I’m sensing a theme. Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten into computers and reached for that dream job of jungle explorer. I could have worked with Dora and Boots.

I wait until after the first frost and then chop all the leaves off with my garden machete. Then I dig out the stems and wrap them up in burlap or newspapers and store them in a large pot or a garbage can. I even wad up more newspaper and add them to the container for additional insulation. This seems to work fine. Since they produce new plants every year I don’t always bring them all in.

Musa Basjoo Overwintering
Before and After the machete trimming

When spring comes, I just dig new holes and add plenty of compost and we’re ready to go. And I just noticed that you can actually buy Musa Basjoo on Amazon now.