Composting Leaves

composting leaves
composting leaves
Don’t waste your leaves by dragging them to the curb.

Composting Leaves

Every fall in my New Jersey town, all my neighbors rake their leaves into big piles in front of their houses. These leaf piles are everywhere and it’s even hard to drive sometimes. But at some point before winter is in full swing, the town sends out a big truck with a giant Dr. Seuss looking vacuum hose to suck up all these leaves and take them away. And every fall, I always say, “What a waste!”

For someone who makes compost, leaves are a gift. People can talk all they want about kitchen composting and saving coffee grounds but if you compost at home, leaves make it much easier.

Driving around my town and seeing all the leaf piles, I always thought that I was the only fool who felt this way about leaves but apparently I’m in good company. Check out this TEDx Talk given by Mike McGrath about composting.

Growing Tomatoes – The Tomato Tower

Tomato Tower
Tomato Tower
Tomato Tower In-Progress – After two weeks the tomato plants are already a lot bigger

Whenever I see pictures of Supersweet 100 tomatoes in seed catalogs I’m always jealous. I love growing tomatoes but In the catalog pictures there’s these long chains of tomatoes that are perfectly uniform and red. It’s almost like they were manufactured or something.

The catalog description says, “The scarlet, cherry-sized fruits are produced in long pendulous clusters right up to frost. ” Well count me in, just let me look up that pendulous word and oh it means “hanging down loosely“. Great, consider me still counted in for the Supersweet 100 tomatoes.

Space is at a premium in my raised beds. So last season (2014), I decided to put the cherry tomatoes in a big old metal tub of a planter. I built a big trellis from a few 2×4 that I ripped into 2″ x 1/2” pieces and I was expecting the entire thing to be covered with tomatoes. In the past some of my indeterminate tomato plants have grow over 6 feet tall so I was expecting a giant tower of tomatoes.

Much to my wife’s horror, you can see the tower from my dining room or from around the pool. I told her not to worry that soon it will be filled with pendulous clusters of tomatoes. She didn’t look up pendulous but it didn’t matter because year one of the tower was a bust.

Last year’s growing season wasn’t great, lots of rain, lots of fungus, then crazy hot humid temps. The tomato tower that I planned turned out to be a lot smaller and less productive. A better name might have been the tomato bungalo or the tomato colonial. The vines only grew to about 3 or 4 feet and the metal tub was always dry even when I watered it every day. Those conditions let to a few tiny little tomatoes that I wound up leaving for the chipmunks.

But I learned from the experience and I’m trying it again this year.

I’m trying again because I want to eat tomatoes everyday in August. And also because it was really heartbreaking to hope for something awesome, do the work and get basically nothing from it. It’s like wasting my time in the garden. And once again we can talk about my wife’s horror, if I spend all that time in the garden and we don’t get a crap load of vegetables out of it, then it’s wasted time that could be spend doing something from the HoneyDo list. And I can’t give her any more ammunition in that argument. So I declare 2015 the year of the tomato tower II.

I’ve even thinking about doing some wood burning on the trellis and letting everyone within sight distance of it know that I have officially named it the “Tomato Tower”.

Self watering seemed like the way to avoid the watering issue. This way, the plants could drink all they wanted and if I had to skip a day in the garden, they’d be okay.

The way these self watering planters or seed trays work is that there’s water underneath and there’s a cloth or a compartment that’s in contact with the soil and the water and there’s a wicking action like the soil is drinking up the water.

First I had to plug the holes in the container because what good would a water chamber be if it didn’t hold water. A little bathroom chalk did the trick.

To make the compartment that will hold the water and keep the soil out, I cut 4″ sections of drainage pipe and fit them into the bottom of the tub. I wound up cutting a few extras because I forgot that I needed to leave room for the trellis in there too.

Then I got an old cotton shirt and put it over the pipe pieces. Next came the soil and I had a self watering planter ready to go.

I also cut the bottom of a milk container off and put that in there for easy watering. I just pop the top and fill it up with the hose. I can even put fertilizer in there. Last step is to drill a couple of holes in the sides for drainage. This is In case we get crazy rain that fills the container and turns the soil into a soupy mess. With the drainage holes, this shouldn’t happen.

As long as the top doesn’t dry out (probably because the soil and water lose contact) it will suck up the water from underneath.

And my tomato plants are still pretty small because it’s only May but they’ve been doing pretty well since I planted them.

I’ll definitely post some tomato tower updates in the future, whether the experiment is a success or failure.

Tomato Tower Pool
Yes, you can see the tower from my pool

Update: June 27th

Note that the picture above with the pool in the background is from June 3rd.

The tomato seeds were started indoors in March and transplanted outside on May 16th.

Tomato Tower
June 27th

Dividing Hostas

Dividing Hosta
The roots of hosta aren’t too deep, so they’re easy to transplant and divide.

Dividing Hosta

If you find a shady spot in my yard, chances are, you will see at least one hosta there. And if you don’t, then there will probably be one there soon. Not only are hostas easy to grow, shade loving plants and they’re also great looking plants. The easy to grow part might be an understatement. Sometimes I think that if you tossed a hosta onto the driveway that it would still probably grow pretty well on the pavement.

My favorite part about hosta is that you can split them to make even more hosta. This is what I meant when I said that there will be one there soon. You can’t beat a plant that you only have to buy once but will eventually turn in tons of plants. I’ve been splitting my hosta for years now. I wish I kept track of how many I originally bought and how many I have now but I lost track years ago. Lets just go with “a lot” and leave it at that.

Every spring when the hosta eyes start poking out of the ground I’ll dig up the plant and chop it in half with my garden machete. It it’s a really big one I’ll chop it into more than two pieces. The key is to make sure that you have at least a few eyes on each division. The hosta in the picture grew way too big for it’s spot in between some lilies, so I had to transplant it and divide it. It was so big that I was able to get 4 plants out of 1.

Dividing Hostas
A quick chop with the machete and now there’s two host.

Then when I replant the split hostas, I’ll dig a double sized hole and fill it with compost. Hosta love compost which makes sense because they’re used to growing in forest floors where no one comes by with a leaf blower to clean up. The leaves that fall in the forest just sit there and compost in place.

So pick a shady spot and dig a hole and dump some compost in it and then plant a hosta division there. And in a year or two, you can do it again.

Growing Asparagus

Asparagus Spear
Asparagus Spear
Asparagus Spear

Growing Asparagus

Everyone knows that asparagus is tasty and makes your pee smell funny but did you know that it really isn’t too hard to grow your own? If you’ve never grown asparagus in your vegetable garden, let me give you the highlights.

First off, pick a sunny spot in your garden where you’re going to want to grow the asparagus. Choose wisely because if your plants do well, they’re going to be there for the next 15 years or so. Asparagus is a perennial and if harvested properly will come back for many years.

Plant your crowns in an area that you’ve amended with compost or composted manure and space them at least a foot apart. These plants will grow into a really cool fern like bush so give them some room. You may want to soak the crowns in water for 20 minutes before you plant them.

Asparagus Fern
Asparagus Fern

Now you’re going to need some patience. The first year, when these tiny little mini asparagus come up, you can’t pick them. Let them grow into a big fern looking plant. It’s developing a strong root system at this point and if you pick them, that’ll be the end of your future asparagus. You can occasionally top dress the plants with an inch or two of compost. The second year you really shouldn’t pick anything either. Maybe take a stalk or two just to try them out. But once the third year comes it’s time for harvest.

You’ll be able to pick asparagus for about 4 weeks in the spring. But after that, let them grow into those familiar ferns again. To harvest you just snap the stalks with your fingers or cut them right at ground level.

If you want white asparagus, mound up the soil to cover the aspargus shoots or cover them with a paper bag as they emerge. The lack of sunlight will keep them white.

When you get to the 4th year, you can extend your harvest to about 6-8 weeks.

Don’t pick them yet!

So I guess the most important things to remember about growing asparagus are compost and patience. But trust me, fresh asparagus from the garden is worth the wait. During those first couple of years, if you want funny smelling pee, then you’ll need to buy your asparagus at the farmer’s market.

Espoma Reinvents Lawn Care

Lawn Chemicals

Lawn ChemicalsAs a big believer in organic lawn care it really bothers me how clueless the average homeowner really is about all those chemicals that they’re dousing their yards with. Seriously, most people don’t have a clue. I’ve had this conversation many times with friends and family.

Nice lawn Anthony. What do you use?
I don’t use any chemicals.
Oh I don’t either. But I do the Scotts program twice a year.

It’s just makes me sad. I’m mean isn’t it common sense that anything that prevents you from walking on your lawn until in rains can not be good for you. And then where does it go after it rains too. Sad…

Well I could go off on this topic all day long but what I wanted to share today is the new commercial from Espoma. If you haven’t heard of The Espoma Company they are makers of organic fertilizers that you can actually find in all of the big box stores. I use Espoma’s Holly-tone fertilizer for my blueberries, hydrangeas, rhododendrons and azaleas. Holly-tone is great for acid loving plants.

Now if you remember the old Apple Computer commercial from 1984 you’ll get a kick out of this. They must have some serious geeks in their marketing department.

Like I said before I don’t use any products on my lawn. I just mulch my grass clippings and keep it watered. Occasionally I’ll also top dress any problem areas with compost. Then when cutting it, I’ll keep the mower blade pretty high so that the weeds never get a chance to take over. I don’t mind some clover in the lawn because that attracts lightning bugs. And if you put a nice edge on even a lawn full of weeds, it’ll look great.

I probably won’t use this new lawn stuff from Espoma but at least now I can recommend something to my lawn product loving friends.

Garden Update

bell peppers

Garden Update

Here’s what’s going on in my garden this summer. Despite temperatures in the upper 90ies for what seems like months (I think it’s only been about 2 weeks though) my vegetable garden is looking pretty good.

poblano peppers
Lots of Poblano Peppers means lots of Poblano pesto!

Weeds – First off, I would like to talk about weeds. The past few years, the weeds have gotten the better of my vegetable garden. It’s a never ending battle that I usually keep up with for a while but once the high humidity of summer kicks in, I start to fade. And when I’m not out a few times a week pulling weeds, the weeds take over. When the weeds gain control of the garden, I tend to give up on gardening for the season and focus my attention on other hobbies. It’s sad but true.

Well this year, I put down some landscape fabric over my raised beds and cut small holes for the plants or seeds. It’s actually doing a great job of keeping the weeds manageable. I should have tried this sooner. In the past, I’ve tried putting down lawn clippings or hay or even unfinished compost but the weeds seem to thrive in any of those environments. Sure landscape fabric is probably some sort of plastic or oil based product that is totally not “green” but when I consider the other options, picking weeds for hours in 90 degree heat or giving up on the garden, I’m going to pick the landscape fabric. You’ll never find Roundup or any other chemical weed killer in my yard so I’m okay with this.

asparagus plant
Asparagus plants are odd looking

Asparagus – I put some asparagus crowns in this season and they seem to be doing well. I won’t be able to harvest any asparagus for a year or two but I don’t mind long term gardening. Until the plants are established, you have to let them turn into these big crazy ferns. How do I feel about big crazy ferns? Awesome, sign me up.

Tomatoes – You can’t have a vegetable garden in NJ without tomatoes. I start mine from seed and this year I’m growing San Marzano, Jersey Giant, Omar’s Lebanese & Cherokee Purple. Plus I grabbed a few tomato starts from Lowes but I don’t really remember the varieties. In the old Stake vs. Cage debate, I’m a strong believer in the Stake. What’s good for killing vampires is also good for growing tomatoes. I’m also big on pruning those suckers to keep the plants productive.

Peppers – I really should have planted more peppers but I didn’t. Like the tomatoes, I start my peppers from seeds and I’m growing Emerald Giant Bell Peppers and poblanos. I also started some old Black Knight Pepper seeds that I had for about 5 years. They all germinated but the plants are still tiny. I may not get any peppers out of them unless it’s a really long growing season. I think they might have been ornamental peppers anyway. I must start writing this stuff down.

Cucumbers – For a few weeks now, I’ve been eating garden cucumbers just about everyday. I built a nice cucumber trellis and fenced off the raised bed to keep the rabbits, woodchucks and my mother-in-law from eating everything and so far so good. I forgot exactly what types of cucumber seeds I planted but I’ve been eating a pickling type that look like Kirbys and I think I might have tried Hmong Reds too. No Hmongs yet but they’re flowering so I should get something soon.

Cucumber Trellis
Before and After

Squash – I have some Costata Romanesco zucchini and some Lakota squash. Haven’t tried either one before but they seem to be flowering nicely.

Watermelon – I never grew watermelon before so this may not work out. But I picked the Moon and Stars variety. Even if they never get ripe (like the cantalopes I’ve grown in the past) they will still be cool looking.

Pumpkin – I have two Dills Atlantic Giant Pumpkin plants growing in a single 4×8 raised bed that I loaded with compost and manure. A few years back I grew a 75 pound pumpkin from a Big Max Pumpkin seed so I have high hopes for the Dill’s Atlantic Giant. Last year I let a volunteer pumpkin vine take over a big area of the yard to make a pumpkin patch. I drove my daughter and her friend around in the wheelbarrow and took them “pumpkin picking” in the yard. Pumpkins are always fun.

Beans – Dragon Tongue bush beans and Cherokee Trail of Tears pole beans. Never grew either before but I can’t believe how fast they’re growing. Beans rule.

Potatoes – My potatoes are kicking so much butt that they’re going to get their own post sometime soon.

Fruit – As usual I’m growing blueberries & strawberries and as usual, the chipmunks, birds and my children are eating all of the berries before I get any.

So that’s what’s going on in my garden in 2012. I’d like to get some fall vegetables in soon too. Carrots and beets and maybe some Pak Choy and spinach too. But with temps hovering near 100, it might not happen.