Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Countertop composting - taking it full circle

Did you know that between 20 and 30% of landfills are comprised of food waste? I never imagined what an impact this has on the environment until I found out that food waste breaks down to form methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is contributing to the breakdown of the ozone layer. I mistakenly thought that anything biodegradeable could be thrown out - guilt free!

It's so easy to reduce your impact on landfills by composting your kitchen scraps and some household waste. Compost is a key ingredient in organic gardening, and it's easy to make at home. There are lots of websites and videos on how to build a compost bin, and so many sources for buying them, so I won't go into that. But now is a perfect time to start planning your compost strategy.

I have a short, wide glass jar with a lid that seals the contents (and, ahem, odors) inside that I leave on my kitchen countertop. I usually line the bottom with a layer of shredded newspaper to absorb any liquids. Then I simply throw in any kitchen waste my family produces, like apple cores, watermelon rinds, potato peels, eggshells, coffee grinds, etc. You can also include toilet paper rolls, shredded paper, or coffee filters. Even Seventh Generation compostable dryer sheets can be thrown in with your dryer lint (not all dryer sheets are compostable, so make sure you check!). Just don't include anything cooked, meat, or dairy products. When your container gets full, just dump it into your compost pile!

Lots more information on composting

When I use compost that I've made from the kitchen scraps of food that was previously growing in my garden, I really feel that I have taken things full circle. By taking a little time to compost, you contribute to the solution of a community problem while improving the health of your soil and the quality of your vegetables.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Spring is coming! Getting ready to start seedlings indoors.

Growing your plants from seed is a great way to save money, and to ensure that your plants are grown organically right from the start. I'm growing most of my vegetables from organic seeds this year (I'll have to purchase organic asparagus crowns, strawberry plants and a blueberry bush), and am determined to do it right. In years past I've started seeds without the optimal lighting or location, and have had poor results.

Earlier this year I Freecycled an old washer and dryer, leaving my basement laundry closet available for my seed-starting area. Instead of buying a retail light shelf, I decided to make my own. I'd already had a wire 4-shelf unit, so I simply purchased three shop lights (I already had one installed in the ceiling for the top shelf) and replaced the bulbs with inexpensive grow lights. I tied them to the underside of each shelf, where they can provide light for the seedlings in the shelf below. While looking for used spoons at Goodwill (that's a whole 'nother blog post) I got lucky and spotted a timer for $1.99. Now I would be able to provide the seedlings with the 12-16 hours of light they need without having to remember to turn the lights on and off. I estimate I saved about $350 making this system myself.

I'm using the Burpee eco-friendly growing system. It's made from 100% sustainable natural materials, and is fully recyclable. I plan to re-use them for as many years as I can. The soilless mix that's included is not organic, so I'll use an organic mix instead.

If you need some tips on starting your own seeds, check out these three no-frills videos from Colorado State University:
Seed Starting Video 1
Seed Starting Video 2
Seed Starting Video 3

So, just when should you start your seeds? It all depends on the plant and when you plan to transfer them outside to the garden, which should coincide with the average date of the last frost in your area. In the Chicagoland area, a good rule of thumb is to wait to plant until after Mother's Day, or even a week after to be safe. We know how unpredictable weather in Chicago can be, and you don't want a late frost to kill the little darlings. Look to the back of your seed packets for specific indoor start time frames for each particular plant. A more general guide is available here. For example, if tomatoes should be started about 8 weeks before the last frost date of around May 15, you can go ahead and start them somewhere around March 15. As you can see, it's not an exact science - some say it's a lot of "trowel" and error!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Ornamental Hideout

My little girl loves the inside of her playroom closet. At three and a half, she's figured out that she can play with her dolls and animal toys in there without her one-year-old little brother swiping them. I remember making a little hideout in my bedroom closet as a kid, complete with a pillow and blanket, flashlight, and books. Just like adults, I think kids too have an inate need to seek solace from the often over-stimulating environment or over-scheduled day.

This year, I plan to create a natural hideout for the kids using ornamental grasses. By selecting upright varieties of grasses (those that grow relatively straight up as opposed to a fountain-like shape) you can create a special place for the kids that looks great in any landscape.

Calamagrostis arundinacea

There are many different types of ornamental grasses, but here are a few that have an upright form, are attractive, low maintenance, and grow well in our area in sun to part shade.  

Calamagrostis arundinacea 'Karl Foerster'  Also known as Feather Reed Grass, this plant keeps it's columnar form through winter. The foliage grows to 2-3 feet tall and flower stems to 5 feet in height. The narrow, tight habit creates a 18-inch wide clump.

Panicum vergatum

Panicum vergatum 'Northwind'  The steel blue color of the foliage make this Switchgrass a standout in the garden. The kids will love running their hands along the fine yellow blooms in summer. The blooms can reach 6 feet, and the plant will spread to 2-3 feet wide at maturity.

Molinia caerulea 'Moorhexe'  This Purple Moor Grass is a real showstopper in autumn when it turns yellow, to orange, to red. It prefers a site that is moderately moist, and can reach 4 feet at maturity. 

Molinia caerulea
Remember to choose the right plant for the right spot, considering sun and water requirements. Plant the grasses in a wide circle that can accommodate a child and a few friends. Throw down some mulch to reduce mud after a rain. Lay down a blanket inside the circle for the kids, then take a break in the garden while the kids enjoy their own space. And when the kids aren't there, know that your ornamental grasses are performing a special function by providing natural shelter and food for birds.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The making of a potager - Part 1

I know it’s tough to think about gardening with two feet of snow on the ground (I hope you all have survived Snowmageddon 2011!), but now is actually a great time to plan your vegetable garden.
So, what is a potager anyway? It’s an ornamental vegetable or kitchen garden - but potager sounds much more romantic.  A well-designed potager can provide food, herbs, and cut flowers for the home, and can also be a gorgeous landscape feature that increases the home’s property value.
Bed layout plan
I’ll admit it, I recently had to look up how to pronounce the French word, potager (I studied Spanish in high school!) and you can click here to hear it pronounced by what sounds like a real life French person!
I’m in the process of designing an 800 square foot potager for my backyard. There are some standard elements that define a potager.
1.   Enclosure. Your potager can be enclosed by a fence, shrubs, a wall, or if you’re really ambitious, espaliered fruit trees. I plan to use a white picket fence, and may install some rabbit fencing on the inside to keep the critters out.
2.   Paths. The potager should have paths between the beds. These can be as simple as grass or mulch paths, but I plan to use a hardscape that is maintenance free and won’t get muddy. A friend has a bunch of old bricks she’d like to get rid of, so I’d like to repurpose those as garden paths.
3.   Borders. Inside the fencing, the planting beds look better with borders. If you’re using a hardscaping material like brick or stone pavers, you can build these up to form your raised beds. Wood can also be used, but be sure to select an untreated, weather resistant wood like cedar, and never use old railroad ties (these are soaked with oil and contaminants that can leach into the soil and your vegetables). I like composite plastic/wood lumber, it will last forever and requires no maintenance.
4.   Structure. These are the vertical elements, like fences, gates, arbors, trellises, or trees. These items provide winter interest when the plants have all died back.
5.   Order. Think – geometric shapes and complimentary plantings. A rectangular shape, with greens growing on the edges, and coneflowers rising in the center, for example.
6.   Focal point. A seating area, arbor, fountain, or birdbath in the center of the potager is a nice focal point. I plan to use two or three columnar apple trees, which will take up less space than a traditional tree, and will cast less shade on the rest of the garden.
I’ve designed the layout of the beds, which I’ll have put in sometime in March. The next step is to plan where the veggies will go, and select some annuals and perennials to plant to attract the bees that will pollinate the vegetable blooms. I’ll share this final plan with you in Part 2.

For a roundup of beautiful potager gardens from around the web, click here.

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