Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Gardening and Sustainability Year in Review

As I prepare for the start of a new year, I've taken a few moments to reflect on some of my accomplishments and failures in home and garden, and on what I plan to do in 2011.

Five Accomplishments

Helping a neighbor compost. My partially-sighted neighbor frequently walks by my house. She knows I'm into composting, and one day as she passed by she mentioned an interest in composting. She asked me if she could bring over kitchen scraps to dump in my bins. I agreed. Every few days throughout the summer she walked over her little cool whip containers full of coffee grounds and corn cobs. It was a fine arrangement that, alas, won't continue, mostly because her daughter moved home from New York and will help her compost from now on.

Sharing our car. Our sustainability-minded neighbor Mike Arney wanted to sell his family's second car. He bikes almost everywhere so he doesn't have need for a car on a daily basis. However, he wanted assurance that, should his wife need their only car, he would have access to a car if necessary. So Mike drew up a little contract stipulating terms of our "car sharing program" and we all signed. Mike has a key to our Toyota Sienna. He pays us a small amount of money every time he uses the car to cover gas, insurance, wear, and tear.

Insulating our home. After last year's debacle getting our home inspected by Keith Williams and then never hearing back from him after repeated requests for info, we finally had our home inspected again. This time the inspection was conducted by Tim Guillama of Beyond Energy, LLC. Mike Arney graciously paid for the inspection. We learned, among other things, about channels leading heated air from our basement up and out of our uninsulated attic. After Guillama's inspection we paid a local company to air seal and insulate our attic and basement. As the workers were installing insulation we noticed a marked difference in the warmth of our house. This is very exciting for us -- we're hoping our house will not only be more comfortable but will finally be more energy efficient.

Planting hazelnuts. The bare root hazelnuts I ordered last year from Gurneys turned out to be duds, and when I requested new ones they told me they had none left and simply refunded my money. So this fall at the Village Green Street Fair I ordered two hazelnut shrubs from the Victory Garden Initiative. This in addition to my red and black raspberries, blueberries, red currants, white and red grapes, apples, cherries, strawberries, and arctic kiwis. In a few years I hope my yard is an edible Eden.

Signing up to become a master gardener. As stated in my last post, I've been meaning to do this for some time now. Classes start on January 13. I cannot wait to begin.

Five Failures

Trying to grow veggies next to a black walnut. I finally concluded this last summer that the reason three quarters of my square foot gardens struggle to produce anything is because they are situated within close proximity of a black walnut tree. Black walnut toxicity is a known cause of failure of many plants, due to the tree's secretion of the chemical juglone. Juglone is potent and toxic to many plants and may be the reason I've had so much trouble growing anything nearby other than hostas. (My compost bin is next to the black walnut…now I'm wondering if I should move it so that juglone doesn't get into my compost as well. Ugh.) I can't bear the thought of removing the tree – it is perhaps the most beautiful thing in my yard. I also had hopes of someday attempting to harvest the nuts.

Killing ants with pesticides. One of my square foot gardens was infested with ants. I decided out of desperation to place some ant motels made for gardens in the bed. I hate using chemicals of any kind and regret this. I also hate killing creatures recklessly. However, I wasn't sure what other options I had. I considered a few natural methods (e.g. feeding them cornmeal) but read online that most of them don't really work. I also placed a praying mantis egg pod in the garden but nothing seemed to come of it.

Throwing away old fiberglass insulation. We pulled a great deal of old insulation out of our basement. It was doing more harm than good according to Tim Guillama. Trouble was getting rid of the stuff. We might have given it to Restore, but much of it was positively filthy, due to the mouse problem we've had for years. So Steve bagged it and sent it to the landfill.

Watching my apple tree die. I do not know what the cause was, but my adolescent Cortland apple tree exhibited signs of stress in late July, when the leaves started curling. Then in August the leaves browned completely. I don't know if the tree was sick and went dormant or died. I'm going to see what happens this spring but I'm not getting my hopes up.

Not preserving the harvest. I am ashamed to admit that I have let intimidation of canning get the best of me. I have not yet tried canning seriously. I have many of the tools – a boiling water canner, tongs, and a number of used mason jars. But I'm afraid of botulism. I have a bit of germ phobia. I'm afraid that if I can I'll do something wrong and everyone will get food poisoning when they eat my canned goods.

Five Things I'll Try in 2011

Planting a rain garden. After last year's July flood Steve and I started talking about installing a rain garden. The trouble is figuring out where to put it so it's most effective, as well as getting permission from the city. I hope we will make time to participate in Tosa's http://www.wauwatosa.net/index.aspx?NID=774 rain garden program in 2011.

Learning how to properly fertilize. I want to get more serious about organic fertilizing methods. I am optimistic that doing so will increase my harvest. To date all I've simply spread compost in May when I plant seeds and seedlings. I want to see if I can try to fertilize throughout the season, as well as learn about soil maintenance.

Moving my veggie gardens. I want to eliminate the three square foot beds next to my black walnut and replace them with fruit-bearing shrubs compatible with black walnut. Then I will grow my gardens on the very sunny patch of land right next to my driveway where I've successfully grown pumpkins in the past.

Selling seedlings. For a while now I've been thinking about buying a farm. While that plan is a long way off, I want to work toward making my dream a reality by slowly saving up. One way I might do this is by starting annuals, perennials and herbs in March and then selling them, garage-sale-style, in May.

Taking a step closer to beekeeping. I desperately want to try beekeeping but still don't know how I will make it work. It's not really legal here in Tosa, other than at the county grounds, where I believe you need to participate in the http://urbanapicultureinstitute.org/ Urban Apiculture Institute in order to keep bees there. Though I may not actually keep bees for a few more years, I want to spend some time reading about bees and observing the actions of beekeepers.

Blessings to you and yours in 2011. Happy gardening!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Update and Winter Composting (part two)

Happy Winter Solstice!

I apologize for my lengthy break from blogging. I admit I've found it difficult in the past to sustain my blogs for any great length of time. Generally life gets in the way, and in this case, it most certainly did: I started graduate school in September. In late 2009 my employer told me I would have to earn an M. A. in English in order to maintain my position as an English teacher at a local college. Thankfully, my husband works for Marquette, which means I can go to school virtually for free. So I applied to Marquette's M.A. in English program and was accepted last spring. Needless to say, taking two graduate courses this fall, along with teaching English 101 at two colleges (Marquette and Bryant & Stratton) kept me very, very busy. I managed to survive the semester, but the pace of my life was so fast and furious that, for the sake of my sanity, I decided to slow things down a bit. So next semester I'll only teach at one school and take one graduate course. That leaves me time to focus on my friends and family and the coming gardening season.

Having a bit more time on my hands will also allow me to train to become a Master Gardener. This is something I've wanted to do for years and I'm positively thrilled that I'll finally be able to take the Master Gardener class at Boerner Botanical Gardens this January. I'm also hoping to have more time to update my blog. Though I have given up on blogs before, I don't want to let go of the Blue Bungalow. It's very helpful for me to articulate my gardening, composting, and sustainability discoveries, and I hope you'll share your discoveries with me. I may not write much, but I aim to at least put up some pictures now and then. And if I have time, I will try to post updates about my experiences as a Master Gardener trainee.

Today, in the interest of sparking conversation, I want to pose a question: how do you compost over the winter? As I wrote last year, in the past I have found myself wrestling with how to compost effectively during the cold months. My worm bins tend to get overloaded in the winter, and in order to access my backyard bin I have to trek across an ungodly amount of snow-covered dog droppings strewn across the back lawn. Heading back there a couple times a week to dump a tiny kitchen scrap bucket into a frozen compost bin isn't all that appealing.

This year I am trying something new, and so far it seems to be working out well: I'm using a five-gallon plastic bucket as a temporary compost bin. The bucket is right outside my kitchen door; every day I fill it with kitchen scraps. It's been slowly filling up over the last two weeks. When it's full I'll make the trek to the backyard bin. My hope is that I won't have to do this nearly as often as before because the five gallon container is much bigger than the little ice cream bucket I used in the past.

Perhaps as the winter wears on I may muster the courage to try using five gallon buckets as *indoor* compost bins. I would keep them in the basement, filling as needed with scraps balanced with carbon-rich material and compost. I'd probably dump the bins in the outdoor compost bin in the spring, or, if I have finished compost, put them directly into my gardens. I've yet to try this because the idea of having rotting food in the house (without worms to break everything down) unnerves me a little. What if my garbage-eating golden retriever discovers this unsavory feast? Or the buckets attract vermin? Or my guests learn of this potentially embarrassing habit and brand me a garbage hoarder? What if I load up the buckets and then forget about them, or don't balance them properly and wind up with a disgusting or even dangerous mess?

I know what you're probably thinking: excuses, excuses. Come January, I'm going to have to get serious about winter composting. After all, not only do I want to dispose of compostable material responsibly and cut down on the waste we send to the landfill, but I also need as much compost as I can get this spring.

Anyone had any luck with indoor composting in five gallon buckets? Do tell.