Friday, May 29, 2009

My New Toy

If you know me at all, you are aware of my coffee obsession, evidenced by the hefty stash of fair trade whole beans on my counter and the coffee plants growing throughout my house. Now I have a new coffee-related toy, and I couldn't be prouder: it's a lovely coffee grinder I got from an antique store in downtown Waukesha last weekend.

A few years ago I relied on my large combination coffee/espresso machine to make a latte for myself every day. But as I became interested in relying less on fossil fuels in my everyday existence, I started boiling water with a very heavy duty, 1950s tea kettle and using a French press to brew my daily caffeine fix. In the summer I can use my wood-burning stove outside to boil the water, but until recently I could not go completely off the grid with my coffee because I still used an electric coffee grinder to prep my beans for the press.

I stumbled upon hand coffee grinders while looking online to see if such a thing as hand paper shredders existed (they do -- I bought one, which I use to create bedding for my vermicomposter). That's when I saw my first hand coffee grinder and it occurred to me that I could probably find one at an antique store. Sure enough, there are plenty of them, in many styles and a variety of prices. Mine was about $40, which, to me, is worth it, not just because it enables me to grind my own coffee off the grid, but because it is a beautiful work of American craftsmanship. Compared to my late 1990s coffee grinder, which looks like a dull kitchen robot, this grinder is so pretty I just can't take my eyes off of it. Don't you agree?

The down side is that it now takes me about five minutes of uncomfortable grinding to make my daily cup. Also, instead of getting a good course grind suitable for a French press, this little mill grinds the coffee so fine it tastes more like espresso or Turkish coffee when brewed. Which actually isn't a big problem, because I like my coffee in the thick-as-mud range.

Now if I could just find a hand-crank TV set...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Compost Gnats and Escaped Worms

Last week I wrote candidly about the somewhat embarrassing fungus gnat invasion in my worm bin. As you may recall, my husband Steve and I moved the infested bin outdoors as a temporary solution until I could figure out what my next step was going to be, whether waging biological warfare (by adding beneficial nematodes to my bin to kill the gnat larvae) or something else.

I opted for "something else," because "something else" is free, and much less scary than playing with creepy living organisms that may or may not solve my problem. So the other day I got out a few five gallon buckets and my wheelbarrow (and yes, it's "wheelbarrow" and not "wheelbarrel", as I learned today to my chagrin). I lined these vessels up on a concrete slab in my backyard, opened the compost bin, and started sorting the contents of the bin. This tedious, messy and somewhat back-breaking process involved adding about two shovelfuls at a time to a wooden sifter Steve crafted for me out of wood and 1/8" hardware cloth, then shaking the sifter over the wheelbarrow to separate the finished compost and worm castings from the unfinished compost. While some of the worms did fall through the holes in the screening, it wasn't terribly difficult to pick them out. I put the unfinished compost in one of the five gallon buckets, and then a second when the first filled up.

Truthfully, this is the first time I have harvested my compost in the entire year of its existence and I realized while doing so the task was long overdue. While I have harvested small scoops of compost/castings here and there to make compost tea, I have never gone through the bin and removed vast amounts of compost. This experience taught me three things:

  • To avoid problems like fungus gnat and fruit fly infestations, bins should be processed more often than annually -- maybe once a season would make more sense for an active bin, as it takes about three months for worms to process food waste.

  • Just as it is very useful to have a two-sided compost bin in my backyard, it will also be useful to have two side-by-side vermicompost bins instead of one. So from now on I think I'm going to alternate between two bins to keep both of them active and prevent them from becoming overloaded and prone to pests. Also, under the right conditions, worms breed like crazy, so after one year I have more than enough worms to move them into new bins and share with others.

  • Vermicompost is amazing! The stuff I sifted was gorgeous -- well, gorgeous to an organic gardener, anyway. It's rich, dark and crumbly. I wish I had done this worm-bin-sifting earlier, because the compost I harvested will be extremely useful in my gardens. Although some of the things I've seen over the last few days aren't really for the faint of heart, it still seems worth it in the end when I think of all that rich stuff I'll be able to feed my vegetables.

  • I sifted through about 2/3 of my very full bin and obtained one five-gallon bucket full of finished vermicompost when I discovered that the compost in the bottom of the bin was too wet to sift easily -- it was smelly, compacted and borderline anaerobic. So I aerated the remaining compost by scraping it off the the screening and pebbles that cover the bottom of the bin. Then I covered it with some of the unfinished compost and worms and added lots of *dry* shredded newspaper to the bin. I tend to not moisten the newspaper if the bin contents are already too moist, which is a common problem with plastic containers. I am hoping the dry newspaper will absorb the excess moisture.

    Finally, I moved my processed bin to the basement, where I am going to let it sit for a while. In the meantime, I took the remaining unfinished compost and more worms and added it all to a brand-new bin. I covered the compost with shredded newspaper and set the new bin beside the original bin.

    Regarding the gnats, I haven't seen any since I went through this process, although I did notice that the two flats of spinach I've been growing on my kitchen counter were also infested with fungus gnats. I experimented with pouring a homemade cleaning solution of water, vinegar and peppermint castile soap on the soil, as I've heard that diluted castile soap can kill plant bugs. I should have just made a new solution, but I already had this old solution in a spray bottle, so I thought I'd experiment with it rather than make a new solution without vinegar. The solution I poured on one of the flats did seem to kill (quiet?) the gnats, but also proved to hurt the spinach plants, as this morning they looked kind of withered. Not sure what got to them -- the vinegar or the soap, or both. I am probably going to dump that flat in the compost bin out back. I put the other flat outside, where I'll probably leave it now that it's warm enough. That's where a majority of my growing is taking place anyway, so I might as well focus on the outdoors and save indoor gardening for the fall.

    One more candid confession: I have observed that two nights in a row some of the worms I placed temporarily in a five-gallon bucket with the lid loose for ventilation escaped. The awful task of scraping half-dried worms from my concrete basement floor is almost worse than finding a bin infested with gnats. Apparently these little red wigglers are SERIOUS night creepers and, in the dark, they will crawl to the top of the bin and all over the inside if it's shut. If a lid is open, they will crawl out of the bin and as far as they can get before drying up. If you have a worm bin in a place that is very dark at night, keep it shut, or make sure any screening you keep on top is too tight for the worms to crawl through (the 1/8" holes in the screen I put over the bin the second night apparently made for an easy worm exodus). After scraping about 20 dead worms from the floor, I think I've learned my lesson. Thank God they didn't escape onto carpet! Blech.

    So now that I've said all that, anyone still want me to make them a worm composter? ;)

    Saturday, May 23, 2009

    Insect Invasion

    I have been trying to absorb everything I can about vermicomposting over the last few weeks and even created my own bin design to make for friends and possibly sell as a part of my business idea, "Gardens, Not Garbage." Things had been going well all spring with my one-year-old vermicomposter and I was feeling pretty confident about my composting abilities until I hit a bump in the road the other day.

    The problem is flies. Last year, a month or so after I first started my bin, I found I had what I thought was a fruit fly infestation. So I moved my bin from the kitchen to a shady spot in my backyard, stopped filling it with kitchen scraps for a few weeks, stuffed the bin with dead leaves and let it rest outdoors, where I kept it there all summer and for most of the winter. I thought, foolishly, that my worms could survive the cold if they were buried inside my big bin and the bin were covered with snow, which it was for most of the winter. However, in the late winter I realized I had frozen my worms to death. Ooops! Not ready to give up, however, I bought new worms from Growing Power, brought my bin inside and I was back in business. That was probably in March or so.

    Anyway, it wasn't until this last week in mid-May that I discovered a halo of flies around my bin. I assumed they were fruit flies, so I did some reading online and tried one trick I found at Chow Tips: I filled a few containers with a mixture of apple cider vinegar, warm water, and a squirt or two of dish soap. I put a mason jar and a large bowl full of the stuff on top of my bin the other night and the next morning both containers had a great number of dead flies floating in the liquid.

    Unfortunately, the bin was still surrounded by a halo of flies, and yesterday they were so bad, my husband pointed out, that if you looked closely at the window next to the bin there were tiny flies all over it. Nasty.

    I did more reading and figured out that these aren't actually fruit flies. Fruit flies may be a problem, too, and maybe that trick with the vinegar did work for them. But it actually seemed to do nothing for the fungus gnats that may be the real culprit in this situation.

    Apparently flies are a common problem among us "worm workers" (borrowing a phrase from Mary Appelhof, whose book "Worms Eat My Garbage" I am reading right now). I came across this blog in which the blogger explains an identical situation. He ended up purchasing nematodes online to put inside his bins, which he said seemed to abate the fungus gnat population.

    I think many of my houseplants are also infested with the same kind of gnat, because for a while now whenever I water my plants I'll see tiny critters fly up and then go back down to the soil. I am not sure if these are a danger to the plant, or to my compost, but they sure are creepy!

    I have always been very careful to bury the food scraps I place in my worm bin under copious amounts of shredded newspaper when I add waste every week or so. However, my husband and one of my children had recently taken to adding some kitchen scraps unbeknownst to me until I discovered a banana peel sitting right on top of the bedding. I read in Worms Eat My Garbage that fruit flies like to lay their eggs on their food sources (moldy fruit) so their offspring have something to eat when they hatch, but that fruit flies are not burrowers, so unless food is exposed in the bin they are not likely to go for it. Also, their eggs are often on the fruit we buy from the store, so it would make sense that a misplaced banana peel could cause an infestation.

    The fungus flies are more of a mystery to me, and from what I have read, they are harder to manage. I'm not sure what has caused this fungus gnat infestation. It could be that they somehow found their way into my houseplants and then into my worm bin, or vice versa. I'm not sure if the banana peels are what caused this problem, or if it's something else, but either way I'm eager to find a solution. I'd hate for a few hundred highly irritating but mostly harmless gnats to spoil my vermicomposting operation. For now, at my husband's insistence, I have moved the bin outside until I can figure out how to remedy this problem.

    To be continued...

    Thursday, May 21, 2009


    This morning I went to my parents' home in Illinois for round two of our garden project. Today I planted seeds utilizing the aforementioned "three sisters technique." I got started by raking the soil in the two square beds, mounding it in the middle and then flattening the top; I did the same for the rectangular bed, except that I made two mounds, instead of one. On each mound, I made several indentations for seeds, starting with one in the center, then six around that, then six more in an outer ring. In the inner rings I planted a mix of sweet corn and pole bean seeds in the square beds (with about three corn seeds in the center and then three pole bean seeds around the corn seeds). I only planted sweet corn seeds in the rectangular bed. Then in the outer rings I planted something different on each mound: pumpkin, watermelon, zucchini, and a combo of honeydew and cantaloupe.

    I covered the seeds with peat moss, then watered them to keep them in place (it was very windy at my parents' house today). Then my dad and I laid weed barrier fabric down in the aisles between each bed. We held the fabric down with bricks until my dad has time to mulch the top.

    This evening, Steve finished putting the grids on two of my raised beds, I cleaned up some yard messes, did a little weeding and, once the grids were all in place, planted several seedlings and all the potato pieces I had cut a couple days before and let dry. I now have about 60 percent of my raised beds planted.

    I also planted two tiny chamomile seedlings in a container for my deck. I plan to take my oregano and lemon balm and put them in containers, too. I think from now on I'm going to grow all my herbs in containers on my deck, since so many herbs seem to spread so readily, and since they will be easier to bring indoors in the winter if I want to keep growing them inside.

    In the next round of planting, which I hope to do before memorial day, I'll most likely be planting seeds -- okra and carrots definitely, and maybe watermelon and peas. I'll probably also plant the sunflower and marigold sprouts I have now in my indoor greenhouse.

    Oh, and I caved today and bought a real "topsy turvy" tomato planter when I was picking up two bags of milorganite (to fertilize my pathetic-looking lawn) at Puhl's True Value. It was about $13. I think I'm going to plant one of the Wisconsin 55 tomato seedlings I got from the West Allis Farmers Market in the thing. Should be interesting to compare how my homemade upside down tomato planter compares to the real deal.

    One more thing I splurged on today: 10 goldfish for our pond, as well as two bullfrog tadpoles with hind legs just beginning to sprout. Bought them from Aquaterra on North Avenue. While I was there I was tempted by an adorable, dandelion-eating Russian Tortoise. Kinda pricy, but sounds like a gentle, fun family pet. I'm thinking about it, but then again I'm so busy with my dozens of very hungry caterpillars that I'm not sure I need another pet right now.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009

    Getting There

    Today was another full gardening day. My feet are dirty and sore and I'm sure I'll wake up tomorrow feeling like I'd run a marathon the night before.

    This morning, I went to the city recycling center to pick up a few five gallon buckets full of free compost. As I was slowly shoveling compost into my buckets and removing the many bits of plastic and whoknowswhatelse from each shovelful, I noticed one of the gentlemen nearby using a clever contraption. His vehicle was towing a cart, and on top of the cart he had built a large screen. He would shovel the compost onto the screen and every so often would tip the screen up to dump all those bits of plastic, rocks and other junk onto the ground near the compost pile. Smart!

    It's amazing what ends up being composted by the people of Wauwatosa. Today I found part of string of Christmas lights in one shovelful and a small plastic snake in another.

    Anyway, my compost-shoveling comrade gave me an idea for my vermicomposter: to build a small screen (maybe 18" by 18") to filter finished worm castings and compost from the worms and partially decomposed kitchen scraps in my vermicomposter.

    Later in the day I walked over to Puhl's True Value with my 4-year-old and bought some aluminum screening with 1/8" holes so I could implement this idea, as well as complete some vermicomposters I'm building for friends to try out as part of the composting business I'm in the process of starting (it's called "Gardens, Not Garbage." I'm sure I'll write a separate post about it eventually). Anyway, we came home and my in-laws had arrived for a visit from Illinois, so I had to wait on tinkering with my screen idea so we could make a trip over to West Allis to check out their Tuesday farmers market. My mother-in-law and I ended up purchasing several vegetable plants: broccoli, bell pepper, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and a cool herb called "orangemint," which smells phenomenal. We came home, had dinner, and then I got to work in the backyard, trying to knock a few more chores off my endless list.

    Incidentally, as we were driving down National to the "Stallis" market I noticed several raised beds in progress somewhere between 85th and 65th Streets. No idea what this is all about, but I like it!

    So here's a summary of today's gardening:

  • I had two more dwarf fruit trees delivered Gurneys: a fig to replace my dead fig and a banana. I planted them both and put them in my southern window. I will move a majority of my houseplants and indoor fruit trees to the yard after Memorial Day.

  • The compost bin is almost done, but Steve only built me two compartments, instead of three, so beside the bin I added another composter with garden stakes and chicken wire. This area will be exclusively for leaf waste that I can dry so I have carbon-rich materials to add to the main compost bin compartments on top of moist, nitrogen rich (stinky) kitchen waste.

  • I took two red mulberries I had purchased in bare root form last year and overwintered in 1 gallon pots and planted them into very large containers on my deck. These are experimental trees -- I hope to keep these large trees small and see if they will happily bear fruit in containers.

  • I have one official square foot garden built and almost completely planted. This garden, like my other raised beds, is actually 5 x 5 instead of 4 x 4, so it is almost too big to qualify as a SFG; however, I did divide it into one square foot sections, and I did add a vertical gardening component at the back -- these are the quintessential parts of the true SFG. Tonight I constructed the vertical garden component with metal conduit pipes, elbow joints, rebar supports, nylon mesh and plenty of twist ties. Now it's ready to support the tomatoes and watermelon I have growing in the back row of my first SFG. 19 of 20 of the square feet are planted with various things. I was able to fit so much in this bed that it almost makes me wonder if I'll be able to use all the space I have in my tiny yard. (Somehow, though, I doubt this will be a problem!)

  • I am a bit late in doing this, but I had bought two bags of potatoes a while back and finally got around to prepping them for planting. I didn't realize that you have to cut the potatoes into pieces, each with one "eye." My eyes were already starting to sprout inside the bag, and they were kind of soft and old, but we'll see how well they do. I also did not know until I read the instructions that came with the potatoes that they not only need to be cut into pieces but they need to be dried for a few days before they are planted. Right now I have many pieces of two kinds of potatoes drying on paper towels in my kitchen. Hopefully this will work!

  • My nightly watering ritual has begun -- I've been using so much water from my two rain barrels that they are almost empty. Hope it rains soon!

  • Happily, I discovered while watering that my red and yellow onions are growing. Yippee!

  • Sadly, I decided to add some of the compost I shoveled earlier today to the two hanging baskets I had converted into upside-down tomato planters. In the process, the weight of the additional soil caused one of the baskets' chains to snap, which broke the poor tomato plant. Now I only have one upside-down tomato. :(

  • On another sad note, I don't think I ever mentioned what happened with that Morel Mushroom. Someone had suggested we put a glass jar over it to protect it from predators and allow it to grow more before we enjoyed it buttered up and sauteed. Well that was a big mistake. The intense afternoon sun burned the poor shroom through the glass and the thing was dead before we could enjoy it. Live and learn!

  • I *still* need to post pictures and promise I will do so soon.

    Friday, May 15, 2009

    Sore Fingers

    After several weeks of on and off work, I finally finished removing the "ditch lilies" (orange daylilies) from the side of my house on Friday. They were lovely, and I enjoyed them, but they are monstrously hardy, spread like the worst kinds of weeds and aren't edible (as far as I know). Rather than waste the sunniest spot on my yard with something that is more or less a weed, I decided to remove them. The process was, in a word, awful.

    But now I'm done, thank God. Once all the plants were removed, I graded the whole area by mixing the existing dirt with compost and peat moss and raking it away from the house so the rain water would drain toward the lawn and away from the foundation. I planted chives, garlic, shallots and red and yellow onions in a long stretch of the bed but left parts unplanted for now. Then I laid down a thick layer of hardwood mulch over the whole area.

    I also removed some wayward peppermint. Last year I planted two tiny baby peppermint plants in August (purchased from the West Allis Farmers Market) and they have since become a veritable crop of mint. I saved a small clump of it to plant in a pot, thinking at least this way I can manage it's growth a little better, then composted the rest.

    I took some of these pulled plants to the composter, but those that had gone to flower or seed and those that had really heavy duty, long lasting root bulbs (i.e. the daylilies) I threw into paper bags for the city to compost with our yard waste removal program.

    One important lesson I learned from all this plant removal is how critical it is to go deep when removing weeds. Pulling -- even pulling carefully to remove the roots of a plant -- often only gets a small part of the root at best. I discovered it is better to get the roots by shovel and then shake off all the extra dirt and worms before discarding or composting.

    On Friday I also decided to plant some of the squares in my One True Square Foot Garden. I left about six squares empty, but planted beefsteak tomatoes, a watermelon plant, cilantro, cabbage, pepperoncini, jalapenos, and bush beans. I'll probably plant the rest of my seedlings and start seeds next week.

    I should note that I like the grid on this raised bed that I think we are going to add similar grids to the three other raised beds.

    On Friday night I slept over at my parents' in northern Illinois, then got to work on Saturday morning with my dad -- we transformed a dormant garden on his two acre lot into three (slightly) raised beds outlined with bricks.

    For this space, I'm going to get a little experimental. I have a bit more room to work with than I do in my own yard, so I'm going to grow a variation of the "three sisters" combination of corn, beans and squash. We'll see. Incidentally, I came across this really helpful website that outlines various plant combinations.

    When I came home Saturday afternoon, I jumped into yet another yard project -- removing more wayward plants (I think they're Lobelia) that had spread beyond the bed in which they were once planted years ago by a previous homeowner. Many of them were under a barberry bush, which meant getting my hands mauled by barberry thorns. I must have been pricked about 50 times. I have at least ten tiny splinters in my hands from those cursed thorns. It was so bad that now I can barely move the middle finger on my right hand, where I was pricked on one of the joints. OWWWW!!!!

    Overall last night was mixed. My fingers were in pain and I lost my cell phone after having a delicious meal at hotch-a-do. We ended up driving from Tosa back to the east side and then to Tosa again and I still don't have my phone. Still, despite these things I'm thrilled that we got so much accomplished in the last few days. Plus, Steve is almost finished with my new compost bin, which I've been anxiously awaiting for weeks now.

    As soon as my fingers are back in working order, I'm going to post some pictures.

    Wednesday, May 13, 2009

    Got Worms?

    Lots of folks have been asking me lately about composting and vermicomposting. As a result, I've been experimenting with building simple vermicomposters and I've decided I'm willing to make them for others for a small fee. If you would like an 18-gallon converted plastic tote Vermicomposter (AKA "worm bin") for your home, I am now taking orders. $20 without the red wigglers, $35 with. If you decide you want to buy the worms yourself, you can get them at many bait shops or from Growing Power in MKE for $25 per five gallon bucket.

    I use my worm castings as fertilizer (straight or in the form of "compost tea") for houseplants, outdoor container plants and small vegetable gardens (i.e. square foot garden beds). The stuff is amazing; I'm fairly convinced the reason my houseplants and vegetable seedlings are so green and healthy is because I'm feeding them with compost tea made from worm castings on a weekly basis. The great thing about having a worm composter in your kitchen or basement is that it's easily accessible and can be used year round.

    The other advantage of having a worm bin is the reduction in garbage you toss each week. When you add coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable and fruit scraps and shredded newspaper to your bin, your garbage can is lighter each week, thus reducing your carbon footprint.

    If you want to place an order for a vermicomposter, e-mail me directly at heatherzydek(at)gmail(dot)com. Your bin can be ready within 3 to 5 days of your order. I will provide some written instructions and will be available by e-mail to answer any questions you have about your bin.

    Two Days of Major Garden Work

    Monday and Tuesday of this week I spent a majority of the daylight hours working on my yard, prepping gardens for planting later this week or early next. I did so much work I could barely move when I woke up yesterday and today. Here's a list of the things I've done so far.

    In the morning I went to the non-local big box hardware store to buy enough supplies to make one official Square Foot Garden grid and vertical growing component. I came home to find 8 cubic yards of mulch on my driveway. My 4-year-old and I ate lunch, then I set to work in the backyard. It took me all afternoon to pull weeds from the four raised beds in my backyard. I also made two upside down tomato planters out of hanging baskets, planted cherry tomato seedlings in them, and hung them on the gazebo just beyond the sliding glass doors in my kitchen.

    Of course, it's always difficult to get much of anything done with a restless little one nearby. She managed to dig a few of her own holes in the backyard where the grass is supposed to be, played with (spilled) rain barrel water and climbed on the mulch pile a bit. I did my best to get stuff done, but lost my cool on more than a few occasions. When I get in "work mode" it's so hard for me to be patient with anyone who gets in my way. Something to work on.

    I took a break around 3 p.m. to pick up the kids from school and Steve from work and then make and eat dinner.

    After dinner I was very thankful to have Steve's help for a bit: he installed a grid on one of my raised beds, dividing it into 20 square feet of spaces for growing vegetables. In the meantime, I worked on transplanting some bleeding hearts and ferns to make room for the 12 foot long, three compartment composter I'll be putting near my four raised beds. Steve and I also poured big bags of peat moss and vermiculite on the raised beds.

    Finally, Steve removed the picket fence walls from my old composter so I could use the compost and prepare for my new-and-improved composter, to be installed next week (I hope) by Steve and my father-in-law Stanley.


    I woke up, took the kids to school, made some coffee with my French press and returned to the compost pile, which I spent about two hours dividing into four groups: unfinished compost (leaves, twigs, tree bark, potatoes/eggs, etc.), large twigs and tree branches that were mistakenly added to the composter, bits of plastic and metal that were also mistakenly added to the compost (including two frightening plastic animals -- a bat and a crayfish -- that I thought were real for a second), and the good, usable compost, which I added by the wheelbarrelful to my four raised beds. Although it was a tedious process, it was informative -- I learned what NOT to put in compost bins.

    I picked up my preschooler at 11:15 a.m. and snuck in a quick trip to the grocery store. We ate lunch and then I put on my garden gloves again and got back to work, this time on a spontaneous project: I carted some lannon stones from my backyard to built two small, slightly raised beds in the front yard, along the sidewalk and front walkway. The purpose of these beds is mostly decorative, but I was thinking of adding some of the excess daylilies from the side of my house and planting one dwarf hazelnut in the center of each of the beds. Putting the stones in place was labor intensive but went quickly; the hard part was figuring out what to do with all the grass I'd soon be covering up with mulch. I started shoveling out the grass, but having done this many times before I wasn't too enthusastic about wasting time with this project when I had onions to plant. So I ended up improvising and came up with something neat. Instead of removing all the grass, I cut the grass out around the edges of each bed; that created a lower surface. I then took the grass pieces, flipped them dirt-side-up and used them to build up the center of each bed so that the tree planted in the middle would be raised. Then I planted four clumps of daylilies in each bed around the raised center, laid newspaper over the remaining grass and covered the newspaper with hardwood mulch. (FYI, this newspaper technique is great for removing unwanted grass in garden beds. I highly recommend it.)

    Finally, I filled the new holes in the raised center of each bed with compost in preparation for the hazelnut planting. Incidentally, the two hazelnut trees I had ordered from Gurneys a while back seem to be dead. In fact, I don't believe they were alive at all -- I thought they were dormant and would start sprouting leaves once planted, but they don't seem active at all. So I e-mailed Gurneys and asked for replacements and was promptly sent an order confirmation for two new trees, as well as a new fig to replace the first fig I bought that dropped all its leaves just after I planted it. I'm impressed with their customer service.

    I still need to finish the daylily removal project, but I'm now about 7/10 done and ended up planting the completed portion with transplanted chives from the backyard and a great many red and yellow onion sets, shallots and garlic. I may also plant some basil, cilantro, sunflower and merigolds in this bed. I'm thinking about starting these things indoors and transplanting them in a couple weeks. We'll see.

    Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that I planted a second cell in my "salad table" with seeds, now that the first round of mesclun lettuce is growing nicely. This time I planted "Grand Rapids Tipburn Resistant" lettuce seeds.

    I still have a lot more to do (i.e. planting four raised beds with vegetable seeds and plants and spreading nearly 8 cubic yards of mulch!) but I've made a lot of progress, so for now, anyway, I'm content!

    One last note: looks like Luna #4 did indeed mate with one of the male moths -- the eggs I collected in a separate take-out container marked #4 hatched today! Now I've got several dozen growing caterpillars. I'll probably raise as many as I can, maybe let some go on a nearby white birch tree, save some to rear indoors, and give some away. Any takers?

    Tuesday, May 12, 2009

    A Farmer's Vacation

    Saturday night we returned from a very unsustainable but nonetheless enjoyable vacation in Orlando, Florida. My database administrator husband was going to a conference at Orlando Conference Center, so the kids and I decided to go along for the ride. Perhaps in another sustainer's confessional post I'll share all of the sustainability sins I committed on this trip, which included allowing my kids to sample and throw away mounds of food at the complimentary breakfast bar, using far too many disposables, splurging on the hotel room A/C and watching a lot of cable on the huge TV in our room. Oh, and spending gobs of money at Disney World. The experience definitely made me wonder what travel will look like in a sustainable world. I seriously doubt the Oil Driven Tourism of the modern era will be possible as oil becomes more and more limited. That's a bit sad for those of us who grew up enjoying this kind of travel, but on the other hand, the possibilities of a less plastic travel experience are exciting.

    I did have fun collecting seeds from various tropicals in the hopes that I could experiment with growing some of them indoors, starting with the dried black seeds of a potted schefflera in front of my hotel. If I knew more about grafting, I would have perhaps attempted to clip some tropicals here and there to grow my own trees back home. I got the idea from a friend who said his wife's Swedish grandparents clip branches off of trees when they travel and then graft them onto their own trees when they return home. They are growing oranges from California in Sweden as a result of their secret snipping. I'm so jealous.

    I admit I was very uncomfortable leaving my plants unattended for over a week. Before I left I watered my vegetable sprouts heavily, mostly by filling up the flat bottoms with excess water and then closing the usually-open greenhouse door (although I didn't zip it for fear that the plants would overheat). My plants have really been babied -- they're used to being misted, turned to toward light and otherwise pampered every few hours, so I was worried they'd be dried up by the time I had returned. On the other hand I was hoping that the lack of pampering would be good for starting the hardening off process.

    Now that I'm back in Wisconsin my life is as exciting and hectic as ever. Here's a short list of some of the things that have happened in the last week and a half:

  • My luna moth eggs from Moth #3 hatched a few days ago! They are tiny little guys but they are doubling in size just about every day. I've been feeding them white birch leaves harvested from my in-laws' tree. I've tried to feed them some other types of tree leaves, but they seem to go for the white birch only. They are still living in a plastic take-out container until they are big enough to put in an aquarium. Will post pictures soon. I find it interesting that there are two kinds of caterpillars -- some are more black than green and some more green than black. I have no idea why.

  • Despite the fear that my houseplants would wither in my absence, they seemed to do well without being misted or watered for almost 8 days. I am officially hardening off my vegetable seedlings from the east-facing greenhouse in my kitchen in a shadier spot in my backyard. It's exciting, but a little sad -- my house is nearly empty of plants as I get ready to move them outdoors, and I miss them being in my kitchen! I am keeping a few things indoors, i.e. the flats of spinach I have growing on my kitchen counters.

  • I've got several projects going at once in my yard -- one of them involved taking two of the cherry tomato seedlings planted in February (they're tall -- maybe 18 inches to two feet!) and planting them in hanging baskets upside down. I'll have to explain that idea at a later date, but let's just say I invented my own version of the "topsy turvy tomato planter" and I'm optimistic that it's going to work out well. I might even try my technique with other plants, maybe strawberries or spinach.

  • Yesterday while weeding one of my square foot gardens I found a single morel mushroom growing amid the weeds. Steve took several pictures (I hope to post them soon) and then we put a large mason jar over the mushroom to let it grow a bit more before we decide whether we're going to saute it in butter and enjoy or figure out if it's worth learning the complicated process of propagating this delicacy.

  • I got some fun mother's day goodies, including three books on composting (The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, Worms Eat My Garbage and Let It Rot! The Gardener's Guide to Composting), a really nifty, super cheap hand-crank paper shredder I hope to use to shred newspaper for composting and a wooden mortar and pestle for making hummus and other similar foods by hand. I may write reviews of these things once my gardens are planted, the mulch is spread, and I have more time on my hands.

  • Now I have tons of catching up to do. My hardwood mulch from Mavroff the Mulch Man in Waukesha was delivered on Monday. 8 cubic yards! That is one big mulch mountain on my driveway. Between that and my unfinished daylily removal project, unplanted gardens and the rain moving in tonight, I really need to get my act together. Back to the gardens!

    Monday, May 4, 2009

    Experimenting with Green Carpet Cleaning and Dish Washing

    A couple weeks ago I was on a house cleaning spree and decided that the time had come to wash our filthy cream-colored carpets. We rent a Rug Doctor steam cleaner from the grocery store once or twice a year to get all the dirt and grime out of our carpets.

    In the past, we always unquestioningly purchased several bottles of Rug Doctor carpet cleaning solution to use with the steam cleaner. But this time around, I got to wondering if there are alternatives to using this expensive, unnatural cleaning solution. Of course, I went straight to Google and started looking. I found several websites that recommended the use of a combination of liquid Castile Soap (i.e. Dr. Bronner's), vinegar and boiling water, among other things.

    So after work on Monday night, I swung by Pic 'n' Save and rented the carpet cleaner, this time without buying the accompanying cleaning chemicals. My husband raised an eyebrow, but I convinced him to give my homemade solution a try. I took a plastic pitcher and filled it with a 50/50 mix of water and white vinegar, then added a few squirts of the almond-hemp Dr. Bronner's liquid castile soap I had bought a year ago and hardly used. The soap coagulated a little when it came in contact with the vinegar and cold water, but when we poured boiling water from our tea kettle over it and mixed it vigorously with a wooden spoon, it combined again. We used that solution, along with very hot water, in the steam cleaner.

    The results? Beautifully clean carpets! My husband's skepticism faded when he tried cleaning a swatch with some leftover Rug Doctor solution and found that it was no cleaner than the carpet cleaned with my homemade solution. I also noticed, after the carpet dried, that it was extra soft. All in all, I'd say the experiment was a success.

    I was so excited about this experience that I did more googling and discovered that a similar solution of vinegar, water and castile soap can be used in one's dishwasher. This was great news because I have been disappointed with the results of the eco-friendly dishwashing detergent I've used, which, with our puttery old dishwasher, leaves a grainy white residue on all of our dishes (especially inside our cups and mugs -- yuck!). So today I filled a repurposed 1-litre soda bottle with a mixture of vinegar, water, 3 Tb of peppermint castile soap (the more economical version sold by Trader Joe's) and 2 Tb of lemon juice. I poured it in the detergent dispenser and started a normal load.

    As soon as the load finished I opened it up to air dry and was mortified to find a streaky, cream colored mess on most of the dishes. I actually washed the same load again, this time without any soap, and the residue remained! I guess this is the reality of experimentation. You win some, you lose some. Thankfully, when you do lose, you learn. So it's not a total loss.

    I pondered this dish washing disaster for a few days. So I splurged and bought a bottle of Seventh Generation's liquid dishwasher soap, which did a nice job cleaning the dishes. However, it's expensive, and again, not very efficient when used with my dishwasher.

    I've read mixed things about whether it's more eco-friendly to hand-wash or use a (high efficiency) dishwasher, so for the last year I've flip-flopped back and forth between the two options (well, sort of -- I don't have a high efficiency dishwasher).

    Truthfully, with the way I wash dishes it's probably more efficient for me to hand wash them rather than use the dishwasher. I don't like dried food residue on my "clean" dishes, so before I put them in the dishwasher, I rinse them so thoroughly that they're practically clean before I load them in the machine. This is almost as time-consuming as hand-washing; however, when I hand-wash, the "clean" side of my sink is small enough that I have to wash, towel dry and put away and then wash, towel dry and put away more just to do one meal's worth of dishes. This is very slow-going with one person, and I can't always ask another person to tag team with me when I wash dishes.

    This made me realize that I basically use the dishwasher as a drying rack -- I rinse, load, run, and then air dry, keeping the dishwasher open and letting the dishes sit until they are mostly dry. So I had an idea: why not hand-wash the dishes and the put them on the dishwasher racks to dry? Leave the dishwasher open until the dishes are dry, and then put them away? Then, when I hand-wash, I don't have to keep stopping when the clean side of the sink is full to towel dry and put away to make room for more dishes.

    I tried this technique and it worked great! Now my dishes are clean, I'm not using electricity to run the dishwasher, I'm saving time on hand-washing, and not feeling guilty about having a dishwasher that I don't use. I'm not sure if this is a permanent solution, but for now it's working well for us.