Sunday, September 29, 2013

Compost talk

We have compost on our mind more than we ever have before now that we have more land we want to cultivate and care for. Compost was important at our smaller property too, it is always the foundation of good soil, but here we have so many more opportunities to make it ourselves.

Gidget inspects some of our compost in San Diego. She thinks it needs chicken poop. 
We bought a lot of bagged compost when we were in San Diego. We had a great source for it and it was really not optional at that small location. We did supplement the bagged compost with as much of our own as we could by way of worm bins and our two compost containers.  A happy side effect of composting at whatever extent you can is to keep organic waste from going to a landfill. 

There are more ways to make compost than I can mention but the end result is always a nutritive rich organic material that improves soil. Healthy soil is the key to healthy plants. Composting even for an ornamental home garden will make a significant difference in your results.

We are planning to compost in a number of different ways and have started with new worm bins and a hugelkultur garden bed. These are two very different ways of composting. The hugelbed is an example of composting very large materials and the worm bins are an excellent way to compost smaller material. 
Worm castings for compost tea.

The hugelbed will break down very slowly over years while worm casting can be available on a consistent basis because the worms do their work very quickly. These two forms compliment each other because the tea is used as a foliar spray and watered in to give the plants a healthy boost of micro nutrients that give them superpowers to fight off disease and pests. This will help the plants thrive while the hugelbed releases nutrients more slowly.

With so many very different ways to compost, it feels easy to get overwhelmed but don't be. Compost is one of those things that you really can't go too wrong with as long as you understand a few basics. There are infinite opinions and techniques and most of them are discussed at length through the magic of the interweb. 

If you are planning your first composting endeavor then I would suggest you consider your environment, time available, materials, and needs first. A small worm bin may be a great choice for an apartment dweller with indoor and balcony plants. If you have a small garden and don't have much time then a compost tumbler is a very convenient way to make some dirt. 

You can create compost from some worms, kitchen scraps and cardboard or you can make it with small leaves, grass clippings and manure. That simplifies it a lot but once you have an idea of your space, needs and available materials, the best thing to do is get started. 

We are planning 3-bin composting systems, sheet compost garden beds and we are even going to try composting in a ditch a few feet from a fence line before putting in some blackberries next to the fence. Our composting project to do list has increased dramatically because we have so many more materials available to compost.

We will not be producing enough of our own compost soon enough to address the dire need our property is in. We are going to have a truckload delivered to get us going while we begin to make our own. 

"Chickens and compost go together! Where are my chickens?"

Friday, September 27, 2013

What is Gidget planting now in central Texas

As a garden nerd, I am a part of several garden groups on Facebook and it is so much fun to come together with gardeners from all around the world to get advice, discover new ways of addressing common garden challenges and share in the excitement of beautiful harvests.

This morning someone suggested that I may be able to offer advice about what to plant at this time in central Texas because that is where I live now. I never really feel qualified to give advice because I am always learning new techniques for better ways of doing things. I feel like I'm an infant gardener because I've really only been doing it for a few years. All of my previous experience was in San Diego (zone 10) which is a very different climate than we have here in Elgin (zone 8B).

Gidget says, "It gets really hot in Texas."
It seems like a lot of people get their garden prepared but then they just aren't sure what they should plant. What to plant in the garden when is always a very common question and it's one I am always asking and rechecking.

If you are just starting to garden then one of the first things I would suggest you do is determine which growing zone you're in. This information will help you determine which plants are hardy in your area and it's the best place to start when trying to determine when you should plant certain crops for the best results. The National gardening Association has a great website where you can determine your zone quickly by putting in your zip code. Then you can research planting guides that will basically give you everything you need to know about when to plant the things you want to grow.

The Austin area has some fantastic resources and people who really want to help you succeed. One of the best places I've discovered here for incredible advice and everything you need to get started is The Natural Gardener.

The Texas Agrilife Extension is another great resource and they have a great planting guide for Travis County (our neighbor). It will tell you exactly what you can put in during any 2 week period. Of course, none of this is foolproof. Gardeners are always at the mercy of the weather and other factors but these are some of the places I went to arm myself with the information I needed to start our first garden here in Texas.

Nothing is more frustrating then nurturing plants along only to have them die before you get to harvest anything because you planted it at the wrong time. Farmer D and I really want to grow our own potatoes for the first time but according to the planting guides for this area, we should have had them in by the end of August. In my past gardening life, I may have went ahead and tried them now anyway but I've learned that it's better just to wait until the next good time to plant, which is February in this area. Using space for and working on plants that will probably not be successful isn't the wisest choice. That's okay because there are many things we can plant now.
The beginning of our fall garden
We started on August 29th so we cut it close getting a few things going that it would be too late to start now. Cucumbers and beans are examples of that. We also bought an already established cherry tomato plant and planted summer squash in the last week of August. We put in Chinese cabbage and Swiss chard seeds in the first week of September. Last week, we put in spinach, peas and scallions. Yesterday I put in carrot seeds and I will continue planting things like lettuce later on in the season.

Another thing to consider when deciding what to plant is how much your family will need. Again there are a lot of great resources online to help you determine this but my favorite is a good old fashioned book.
One of my favorite garden books has great advice on how many plants you'll need. 
You'll want to determine how many plants per person you will need so you don't end up with too much of one crop and not enough of another. We do have more summer squash planted than suggested right now but part of that is because I relocated some of the plants when I was thinning them over to our new experimental hugelkultur bed. We have about 9 summer squash plants which is probably 3 more than the 2 of us need. Luckily Farmer D loves dehydrated squash chips so they won't go to waste. Plus I understand neighbors generally love to have huge amounts of zucchini dropped at their door.
Gidget and Ron inspect peas, zucchini, sage cilantro and Chinese cabbage in hugelkultur. 
At this point we only have about 25 shelling pea plants going and we plan to plant more because our trusty book says to plan an average of 25 to 60 plants per person. We want to have plenty to freeze so we are going to plant at least 25 more now and then up to 50 more again in a couple weeks. The planting calender says we have another month in which we can plant them and I hope to have a continual harvest all fall and into the winter. 

Here's a list of safe bets if you're going out to plant seeds today. It's a great idea to plant today because we have rumors of life giving rain on the way for the weekend. Happy planting!
  • Beets 
  • Carrots
  • Chinese Cabbage
  • Collards
  • Garlic
  • Lettuce
  • Mustard
  • Peas
  • Radishes
  • Spinach

Hermione and Willy are ready to get started.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Our refuge or reuse challenge

One of my dearest friends posted a quote from Mother Teresa on Facebook the other day and I haven't been able to shake it. I'm paraphrasing but basically Mother Teresa said the only time she felt angry was when she saw people wasting things. Whoa. I wonder if I can make up for all the times I know I would have totally pissed her off in the past. I am guilty of being wasteful and I'm not happy about that. I have cut our household waste over time but there is still so much more we can do to limit our consumption and add to our production at Gidget's Garden.

I plan to start over again by putting all of the things I now randomly own and our abundant natural resources to use, in some helpful way. Everything is a learning process and we are in the process of learning again.

Even if we are only useful to Gidget's Garden to feed ourselves and a few others, we have reduced our impact because we did not buy so many things. So many things. No new plastic product that was shipped all around the world before arriving conveniently at our door. We invest in our own backyard and our community simply by using what we have. Finding a new purpose for something that you happen to have and can't compost would make Mother Teresa happy. If the only thing that angers her is waste then I don't want to waste because I admire her so much.

At the very least, we could all probably find one pair of pants that would benefit from plants. 

This is one of the primary reasons I was excited about moving from the city to the country. We have so many more natural resources at our disposal and we trust ourselves to work with them to cultivate this piece of earth in a more responsible way. It really charges my batteries when I think of the many opportunities we have to nurture nature here. 

We have 8 acres that we plan to create many types of gardens within. Some of the materials we inherited are not suitable for edibles but they may offer other opportunities to waste not. Some of the things we inherited are a pain in the butt. We're hoping some of you have incredible ideas that we haven't thought of for some of the random things that we now own and many people would haul to the dump. I would love to use all of it in some way. 

Here's an initial look at our surplus. There's more where this came from and we welcome all of your comments here and on Facebook
Okay. Here we go. Cheers.

Farmer D wants to shoot 'em in his range. That could work. I would like to paint them vibrant colors and create a flower bed border. How about you?

Random inheritance

  • We have a lot of hose that is cracked, dried up and no longer hose worthy. Any ideas?
  • There is this big For sale sign. We don't know how old, what kind of paint, how toxic the so called wood is. etc. There is a lot more of the random plywood signage like the TEE TIME sign in back. Do. What. Now? Any suggestions? 
  • I hope to use the chairs as chairs. They may be very brittle though.
  • The pink metal barrel is empty. I want to cut the top off and burn stuff in it but what would you do?
Plastic pallets.
I've never seen these before. There are holes drilled in the pockets so they look like good seed starters to me but I don't know about the material for starting edibles.

An old carpet and bowling pins,

A beautiful sawhorse or easel that I love and will use. Bowling pins, roofing tiles and a decaying rug. 
I am thinking about digging the pins in to create a border around one of the gardens but I could be persuaded to do something else with them. Can I compost an old throw rug? Use it as weed block under a flower garden? Do you have a better idea?

Don't tell Farmer D that there's a wasp nest on the sawhorse/easel. 

Rotten railroad lumber that I am not sure what to do with. 

This is one of my most happy random possessions. A good gate is always useful. 

This looks like decent lumber that is not too far gone.
I am hoping we can use this to help build our hen habitat. What would you do?

This is Ron Weasley. We thought she was a boy until we tried to have her neutered.
Gidget is on strike and refuses to be photographed because she feels like she is not getting enough tuna in exchange for managing her minions. We are not giving her more tuna so we'll appreciate her employee Ron tonight instead. Isn't she beautiful?

Monday, September 23, 2013

When the pears fall, make hard cider

We are making a 5 gallon batch of hard cider from most of the pears we harvested off our two trees.

We could have chosen several other options to preserve and use the pears. You've got your canned pears, pear sauce, pear marmalade, pear crisp, pear bread, pear fruit leather, pear popsicles and I hope you get the idea. We could have gone in any of those directions and we still have more pears so we will see, but we decided to juice them for hard cider.

I made a little of my own home brew last year before we left San Diego because I was inspired by a post I somehow stumbled upon while searching for basic sewing techniques on Google. Go figure, home brewing and sewing seem to go together. Last time we came up with a decent brew that didn't kill anyone so Farmer D got a 5 gallon carboy that we could use instead of the 1 gallon bottles we used the first time.   

Some of you may assume that I went the hard cider route because I'm lazy and want to get drunk. You are partially right, but I have some other reasons for deciding that this was the best way to preserve our first pear harvest in Elgin, TX. Primarily, it is because during this first fall season, we are busy trying to get to know our property, manage it and transform it. I am not experienced yet with canning and did not think taking the time to learn right now was the best use of our time. We will start canning in the near future but not with this batch of pears.

Pears curing in pantry

We are blessed with an incredible property with insane potential but I don't think it has ever seen a compost pile. We are the stewards of more than 100 trees including about 80 pecans, 2 pears, 3 figs, a mulberry, some sort of tiny persimmon and the list goes on. We also have a great garden area that has been drying up in the Texas sun for years.

We're making cider because it's an interesting craft that is as old as fruit itself, we already own the equipment and have a general idea about how to do it. The process yields what will hopefully be a fun fall season elixir and the pulp gives us a great source of organic material to add to the sheet compost garden bed that we are building. There will be a strong focus on composting here for quite some time because building this nutrient starved soil will mean the difference between having a successful small farm or not.

The first time we made cider we used preservative free, store bought apple cider and hardened it up with yeast and an airlock for a a couple weeks and then bottled it. That resulted in murky cider and some exploded bottles because we didn't take it through a second fermentation. The cider that didn't explode had a decent alcohol content and wasn't terrible. I'm shooting for a little higher standard than not terrible this time and no exploding bottles. I'm going to take it through a second fermentation which is much easier with the 5 gallon carboy Farmer D bought. If you are planning to make your own cider, please find some resources other than this post because I am a novice and do not have a final result yet.

I'm still adding my own yeast and this time we bought some champagne yeast rather than the plain active dry yeast we used last time. We could be really brave and try fermenting it with the natural yeasts on the pears but that can have varied results that aren't always successful.

Before you start, you'll want to make sure everything you are using has been sterilized so that you don't add any bad bacteria to your brew that could ruin it. I got some sterilizing powder from Austin Homebrew Supply and sterilized my juicer, utensils, pots, airlock and carboy.

The first step is turning the pears into plain cider. I did this with my Green Star juicer and I probably won't do it that way again. If this cider turns out and we want to do it again, I think I will try to find an old apple press to make the cider with. The juicer took a long time and started over heating after awhile so I had to do it in batches while I let the juicer cool.

This is a tiny bit of the pulp that we will put right into the sheet compost garden bed we are building
I juiced almost 4 gallons. One of the pear varieties is too soft and did not go through the juicer well. I had been at it for hours when I decided to make up the difference with a gallon of store bought, organic apple cider. The carboy needs to be close to full.

I put the juice in my 2 largest pots and kept it covered as I went. Then I had to pasteurize the juice to kill off all of the wild yeast. I brought the temperature up to 165 and maintained it there for 45 minutes. Do not allow the cider to boil.  

Heating the cider to kill the wild yeast
I had 2 pots this size full of juice and after it was heated through at 165 for 45 minutes, I dissolved about 5 cups of sugar into each pot for the yeast to feed on. This seemed like a huge amount of sugar but supposedly I could have added up to 5 cups more if I wanted a sweet cider. I don't, I want it dry. 

Next I covered the cider and cooled it in an ice bath before pouring it into our carboy. I added the gallon of store bought juice and then I swished the bottle around as vigorously as I could for 2 minutes to aerate the cider before adding the yeast.  
Cider in carboy with airlock
After I added the yeast I put the airlock on and wrapped the bottle up in a towel to create a dark environment for my brew to do its work. The airlock keeps bacteria from entering your brew while allowing it to breathe. You need to fill it with a sterile liquid of some sort. The sanitizing solution I bought would have worked but I chose to fill mine with vodka.  
We used Red Star champagne yeast that we got from Austin Brew Supply for $.79
We are keeping this in our dining room because it's the coolest area of the house. Ideally the cider should be between 65 and 70 degrees but our temperature is higher than that. The yeast is active up to 86 degrees and I'm confident that the temperature has remained below that. The warmer the environment, the faster the fermentation process. A slower fermentation makes a better cider.

Within a few hours our airlock was bubbling and everything looks good. It's been 5 days and the bubbles in the airlock are slowing down. Ideally this first fermentation process will take two weeks. I have a feeling ours will be shorter than that. We'll know when the airlock quits bubbling. At that point we will siphon the liquid into a food grade bucket and add the sediment from the bottom of the bottle to the compost. This will help to clarify the cloudy cider. Then we'll add the liquid back into the carboy and go through another fermentation process. 

We will update this post after we do that to show you what we did and give you our review of the pear brew.     

Gidget says, "Everyone knows you just want to get drunk."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Creating a hugelkultur garden bed

It's been a few months since I've posted anything and I wish I could say that it's because we've just been so overwhelmingly busy with gardening, too busy to write about all of the things we've been doing, but I can't say that. What really happened is that central Texas summers are brutal and we were completely wiped out after our move across country. We took a couple months off to recuperate while hibernating inside our air conditioned house and planning for the time when the weather got cool enough to make it possible to do some work. 

Finally though, we got tired of waiting for cooler weather. We want a nice fall garden so we had to get to work. In all of our planning for what to do with our property, we know we need to fortify our sandy soil with as much organic matter as possible. It appears as though compost has never been added anywhere to the property, including the large garden area or around any of the trees. We started our first compost pile but we're going to need a lot more compost piles to meet our needs. 

What we did have readily on hand was an incredible amount of wood piled up in various stages of decay. We chipped what we could for walkways around the raised garden beds but we were left with a bunch of rotted woody matter and some very large pieces that are also in various states of decay. 

I came across a very good website about hugelkultur that said I could help save the world and end hunger with my rotten wood so I decided it would be irresponsible not to give it a try.    

Hugelkultur will keep my plant roots out of reach of the the gophers that the minions can't catch.

Basically hugelkultur is a method for building a garden bed on top of wood logs. Rotten wood is best because as wood rots it releases nitrogen but it locks it up for awhile as new wood begins to decompose. I strongly suggest you read the website I posted above and check out Northwest Edible Life's Half Ass Hugelkultur post before you go out and copy me. I am simply experimenting with materials that we have an abundance of on our property already.

I started with cardboard under a layer of logs that have not decomposed much at all yet. 

Then added a layer of more logs on top of the first. The picture doesn't portray the upper layer of logs are rotting. 

Then we filled in the gaps with more rotten branches.

We got the kitchen compost bin out and filled gaps with rubbery carrots, corn husks and other scraps on hand.

"Really?" Yes, really.

Then we dismantled the compost pile we had started the week before and threw all of that on top. 

Next we covered it with the pecan leaves and small branches that we had just pruned from the trees.

Finally we covered all of that with some of the compost rich soil that we had left over from the raised beds and mulched.
I think it looks like a Volkswagen beetle got swallowed but what it lacks in aesthetic appeal, I am hoping it will make up for in very low water food production - eventually. The bed is probably too carbon heavy right now to produce an incredible crop the first year out but as it breaks down over time, it will get better and better.  One of the greatest benefits to growing this way is that it should need very little water as the wood pieces break down and create an almost sponge. It also stays between 5 and 7 degrees warmer than the rest of the garden which helps extend the season.

After we covered it all with soil, we put in a sage plant, some seeds and then mulched with pine straw because that's what we have on hand. We could get into a whole conversation here about pecan leaves and pine straw and whether those are good choices for the nutrient balance of the soil. They can be too acidic for a lot of plants to thrive in but they were grown here in our alkaline soil so some would argue that they really aren't that acidic after all. I do not know for sure but I'm not going to worry about it. This entire bed was constructed from things we already had on hand (including seeds) so it didn't cost us anything except time and sweat. 

Peas coming up in front, direct seeded zucchini on right and zucchini transplants on left

I've been adding plants from the raised beds as I thin them.

A couple of cucumbers on top of the mound.
We've also put in seeds for chard, spinach, bok choy, and a few others. We'll keep you updated about how it goes and I hope you'll try this gardening technique in your own neck of the woods.

Gidget asks, "Are you serious? That is not a garden, it's an eyesore!"

I guess Gidget prefers the new beautiful garden beds.