Sustainable Living with a Garden: All Posts

In my own opinion, an essential and deeply satisfying strategy for sustainable gardening is putting the plants to use at every stage of their life-cycle. Saving seed from open-pollinated varieties enables me to grow a variety I like year after year - and even select for traits that fit my own garden - without necessitating a big yearly seed order. (Choosing to make a wintertime seed order because it's a Hell of a lot of fun is another matter.) Composting kitchen vegetable scraps enables me to capitalize on those nutrients, which will be made available through decay, that I worked so hard to put in there, in the first place - and ultimately provides me with a balanced, natural soil supplement. Also don't underestimate the seedlings you thin out from the seed flat: they might just make a mean little side salad. "Getting Fresh" blog posts cover these and other ways to enjoy making your garden more sustainable, reuse stuff in garden DIY projects, and taking advantage of natural or readily available sources of what your plants need.

Stacked-Bucket Worm Composting

Monday, April 15th, 2013

One of the 5,071 reasons I like my daughter’s preschool is because they have a successful worm farm, one of those black plastic towers specifically designed for the task, which you can open to reveal hale bunches of “Red Wriggler” composting worms (Eisenia fetida), generations of them actively turning snack waste into plant food, and an ecology lesson. On a recent morning, one of my daughter’s classmates “got to” rake in some fresh leftovers; my daughter’s reaction: “Why does Henry get to do all the special things?!” If that’s not an example of positive peer competition at its best, I don’t know what is.

Not long thereafter, I took home a container of these worms to start my own worm composting outfit, something I have been wanting to do for a while now. The main obstacle until now has been finding the right kind of space for a worm bin, one that’s out-of-the-way but still temperature controlled — Eisenia fetida do well in the range of 50-80 degrees Fahrenheit, without sudden fluctuations. Once I came to terms with the fact that the worms would have to live indoors, the issue became finding or building a bin small enough to fit under the kitchen sink — a space I generously estimate to be 3.5 cubic feet. While I’m fairly sure they sell sleek, pre-made units that compact, and good on ‘em, it’s not in my household budget right now. Balking at the idea of fashioning an unwieldy trunk out of Tupperware or scrap wood, I finally found instructions for a really simple bin fashioned out of five-gallon buckets. The plan calls for three buckets and the drilling of holes, followed by the securing of newspaper scraps and composting worms. Cut the cost to nil by cadging food-grade buckets from a bakery or brewery. This often happens with my gardening plans, that I wait to see plans through to completion — years, in this case — until the final component just falls into my lap. I’m resolutely tight-fisted, and my plans have to kind of “materialize,” as one friend put it; I like to echo the maxim that “luck comes to those who are prepared,” which makes me sound studious.

After drilling 50+ holes in these buckets, I stacked them up, tore up some newspaper, sprayed it until it was moist, and freed the worms into it. Using “The Composting Cookbook” to troubleshoot (I don’t remember how I came by this book — by Karen Overgaard and Tony Novembre, 2002 — but it has been very helpful for each type of composting I do), I have learned the following:

  • Composting worms don’t have teeth, they have gizzards, so they need to consume garden soil in addition to food scraps. I added a trowel-full to start, but feel free to add more — can’t hurt.
  • And, to be precise — because I can because I looked it up in that book — the worms aren’t actually eating the food scraps, they’re eating the bacteria that eat the food scraps. Isn’t that interesting?! Maybe it will put some of you more at-ease about vermicomposting indoors. In contrast to the closed container I use to hold kitchen scraps destined for the compost heap, which smells rife, the only aroma from this stacked-bucket unit is good soil smell, which I really like. In fact, I have purchased eau de toilette that doesn’t smell as good. (For real. It was called “Cut Grass” or something like that, and I would buy it again!)
  • Don’t give them too many citrus scraps, or things that’ll make the habitat too acidic (like coffee grounds, I assume), because you’ll get mold — I learned this by doing. If that happens, just scoop it out, together with the affected scraps and bedding, and that should be the end of it.
  • Make sure it stays moist! That means damp enough to darken the newsprint, but not wringing wet. This has not been a problem, here.
  • The holes in the top might be a liability; I have since read that this can permit flies in too easily. No problems with that yet, and I am hoping that because the bin is contained underneath the sink, this will not be a disgusting problem. However, if I were to do it all over again, I would hedge my bets by not drilling any holes through the lid, and drilling more holes along the sides of the buckets — near the top –instead.
  • A pound of worms can process a half-pound of scrap/day, but not until it really gets going, with worms thriving and producing offspring. Give them time. I have been putting in just a handful every other day to get things started.

I will keep you posted on how I actually harvest worm castings from the stacked-bucket unit. It will take some weeks or months. Ultimately, I’m hoping to divert pounds of waste from the landfill, for better compost and a sleeker household budget (we pay by-the-pound to dispose of stuff, and we bring it to the landfill, which is 10 miles away, ourselves). The prospect of fertilizing my houseplants and starting seedlings with something I have nurtured into metamorphosis instead of purchased makes me happy. That sounds smug, but I think the worms deserve to be gloated over a little.

Seed Bottles and Marigolds

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Another Northern winter, and I’m still growing food. With actual dirt/compost. Mainly indoors. With the entirely well-meaning but nevertheless spastic help of a toddler. It usually turns out to be the absolute picture of (1) dirty and (2) hopeless. Yet, despite the mess that I despise cleaning up, and the myriad frustrations of coaxing green from tiny, salvaged containers, I am compelled, again and again, to farm my few precious square inches.

The quintuple-barreled goal that keeps me going: a practical, inexpensive indoor garden that I enjoy tending, harvesting, and looking at. So many virtues, so little time.

My latest endeavor involves quart jars, kraft paper, twine, and the aforementioned homemade dirt. During their construction, Freya called them “seed bottles,” and the name has stuck. I like to think they say “Martha Stewart” and “recycling bin” in the same breath. They’re now hanging (I assume, since I haven’t heard them crashing down) in one of our window bays, planted with Mâche and arugula, and soaking up the noonday reflections off the deeply bedded snow. It’s January in New Hampshire, and the condo farm persists. Grow.

Another one of our projects has been collecting seeds from last season’s marigolds. The plants are Tangerine Gem Signet marigolds — bushy, low-growing beauties with bright orange blossoms that tasted like citrus peel. At the end of the season I yanked up two dozen or so and shoved them into a paper bag, where they stayed until I was ready to concentrate on them yesterday. As I mangled the dried blooms, mining the tiny, black-and-tan seeds that look for all the world like porcupine quills, they released their last scent of orange peel. Anything worth doing is worth doing well — that’s how my fiancé lives, anyway, and constantly inspires me — and so it was that I could learn to pick out the promising blossoms from the duds full of unripened seeds. So often while I’m deeply engaged in these throwback gardening tasks, I come up for a breath and wonder what the hell it’s all good for. And, almost always, the only, the most comforting answer is: it’s profoundly good for me.

Greenhouse Life: It’s Not the Ritz, But…

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

…room, board, and charming lighting will be provided. The air is chill this evening, snow has been sighted, and it was time to treat those seed flats to a little something extra. It’s not much, but a strategically placed string of Christmas lights and a plain cotton sheet is all I have to inspire them, at this point. (Works in college, right?)

I suspect that the real challenge the seedlings will face, however, is not so much cold as wildly fluctuating temperatures. The greenhouse easily warms to 70 degrees F in its four-plus hours of direct sunlight, but rapidly cools to near outside temps as soon as dusk hits — a 35 degree difference, on average. Here’s hoping the radishes, mache, and other greens will rise to meet the challenge.

The moisture level, on the other hand, seems more consistent. This evening marked the first time in days that I’ve had to treat the as-yet-barren seed flat to some warm water. And then it was off to bed with ‘em. Early to bed and early to rise always go hand-in-hand, don’t they? Sprout, litte effers, sprout.

Chocolate Earth! Make Your Own Potting Soil

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

If you like making cake, then you’ll love making your own dirt! Take that old colander where it never imagined it would go — into the compost heap — and whip up a batch of dark, superfine, crumbly potting soil — or what I like to call “chocolate earth.” My latest video shows you the simple ingredients and repurposed kitchen tools for making your own potting soil and seed starting mix.

Make Compost Tea With Less Mess

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

Try this DIY method if you, like me, would like to make organic fertilizer on a small scale without the stink. Since suggesting that thrifty small-space gardeners hang on to empty detergent containers for just this purpose, I have tested the idea with good results: rich tea, smell-free, on the balcony, happy family — and even happier vegetables.

You’ll need:

  • a detergent container with a pour spout,
  • an old pair of pantyhose or some other semi-porous sack,
  • a good handful of compost (such as worm castings),
  • water,

…and gloves. First, don those gloves and shut yourself in the bathroom, utility room, or wherever you have access to a tap and permission to make a foul mess for a brief period. Shovel that handful of compost into the foot of the pantyhose and tie it off. Squeeze the whole shebang into the container’s (non-spout) opening.  Keep a hold of the pantyhose — you’ll want to tie them onto the container’s handle so you can more easily refill and reuse this contraption as you wish. Finally, fill the container with water, cap it off, and set it outdoors (or out of the way) to brew. Shake it/kick it every couple days, and within a week or two, you’ll have a dark, nutritious concoction for your plants. Pour some from the spout and water it down until it doesn’t smell (that’s my rule of thumb) to ensure that it doesn’t burn your plants.

Easy as that, and better for everybody. Dull as it might sound, a fair percentage of condo container gardening goes into keeping the mess to a minimum; in my case, this means maintaining some amount of order and cleanliness so that my toddler doesn’t get into something particularly nasty and so that none of us feel crowded in close quarters. This was daunting at first, but now it’s become routine — and, besides, we’re all about progress, not perfection!