Category Archives: in the garden

Foto Friday: glorious garden!

At last! The moment we’ve all been waiting for…

Just look at these beauties! We’ve been eagerly watching the eggplant and zucchini all week, measuring their progress day by day, and trying to be ever so patient — but tonight, finally, it was time for the First Official Garden Dinner of Summer. Slice, olive oil and salt, grill, fresh basil, delicious.

The garden is a glorious jungle — the tomatoes are as tall as I am! My evening ritual is to wander the rows barefoot, still-warm soil under my toes, pulling weeds and doing a giddy jig every few yards as I find a giant green tomato, or a tiny cucumber. (My regular performances of the Gleeful Zucchini Dance sure did the trick, as you’ve already seen! I’m telling you, those plants just love the attention.)

I’m especially excited about this heirloom German Cherry tomato I grew from seed. I never seem to start my seedlings early enough, but this year, with the help of a borrowed heating mat, success!

Brenda knows every inch of the garden, and we make our evening rounds together. Then it’s time to have a set and enjoy the perfectly cool evening…

Happy gardening, and Happy Summer!


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Victory Gardens: Everything old is new again…

Have you noticed lately how many “new” gardening trends lately are really reflecting ideas that have been around for generations? Local food, home gardening, keeping chickens, foraging — our ancestors found these things to be second nature, but so many of these age-old skills were laid aside somewhere along the way in the steady march toward Progress and Modernization. If dinner can arrive neatly packaged in a box and be ready in minutes, who needs to cook? When the grocery store shelves are stocked with anything and everything we could possibly want to eat, why go to all the time and bother of growing our food from a handful of seeds?

I’ve been seeing more and more wonderful vintage posters and ephemera resurfacing from the heyday of “Victory Gardens” — the home plots that cropped up across Europe and America during the two World Wars to sustain families as food and resources were diverted toward the war efforts. Both supplies and the land to produce them were limited and precious, and so — in a remarkable effort toward encouraging what we would now call “sustainability” — governments began encouraging people to grow their own, and educating them in how to do it.

But it’s not just backyard plots that are an old idea turned new. Chicken-keeping, school gardens, canning — all these became patriotic pursuits in wartime. And now, once again, we’re rediscovering the value of producing and preserving our own food. The reasons may have changed, but the satisfaction and joy of harvesting your bounty never go out of date. And as we see our economic and food systems become increasingly unstable, it starts looking live a very good, and necessary, idea indeed.

Some of the posters issued to encourage home production are extraordinarily lovely — a tremendous variety of artists, from Harper’s Magazine illustrator Edward Penfield to French schoolchildren, contributed designs to the cause. I think they are just as inspiring today as ever — perhaps even more so because of the history and heritage they represent. Here is a sampling of those that I’ve collected… enjoy!

French WWI poster, 1916: “Let us look after the farmyard: I am a honest hen of war. I eat little and produce much.”

USDA ad, circa 1917: “Don’t sell the laying hen — all spring she will be turning insects, weeds, garbage, and waste into eggs for the Nation… it’s both patriotic and profitable”! Thankfully backyard birds across the country aren’t producing eggs to “win the war” today, but it may be just as important now to learn to produce our own food and be a little more self-sufficient. And as “urban farmers” discover the delights of fresh eggs and free fertilizer, the humble chicken reinstates herself as a part of the homestead, one backyard at a time!

A WWI-era poster by Edward Penfield for the United States School Garden Army. Its motto — “A garden for every child, every child in a garden” — sounds just as relevant today, as school and community gardens pop up across the nation. When the First Lady enlists a troupe of elementary school students to install a kitchen garden — the first since Eleanore Roosevelt’s Victory Garden — in the White House lawn, you know we’re headed in the right direction!

From this page about the United States School Garden Army: “At the advent of World War I, the Bureau of Education within the Department of the Interior, with funding from the War Department, created the United States School Garden Army (USSGA) to boost the concept as well as morale. This was the one of the first attempts by the BOE to establish a curriculum nationally.  It was also an attempt to help in the war effort by having the schools help grow food. To support this program a series of documents were written and distributed.  Among these were at least 15 USSGA Manuals and Guides, and 17 School Home-Garden Circulars. The target audience was urban and suburban boys and girls, ages 9 through 15, and their teachers. The subjects covered growing vegetables from seed, growing flowers, building hotbeds and coldframes, organic matter and soil health, regional guides and others.”

“ALONG THE EAST RIVER FRONT: Supervised by competent instructors the school children of New York City produced some excellent results in the gardens which they planted in various sections of the city. The very orderly one here shown, with a large number of children industriously engaged, is in Thomas Jefferson Park, 114th Street and East River.” I can’t decide which part of this image is the most extraordinary — children planting an eye-popping school garden in 1918? On a vacant lot in New York City? On the East River??? Wow.

This photograph is from the book The War Garden Victorious: Its War Time Need and Its Economic Value In Peace, published in 1919, documenting the US food gardening program during WWI. You can read it online here — be sure to check out the School Garden Army section. A quote from Woodrow Wilson really sums up the importance given to that program: “Every boy and girl who really sees what the home garden may mean will, I am sure, enter into the purpose with high spirits…. The movement to establish gardens, therefore, and to have the children work in them is just as real and patriotic an effort as the building of ships or the firing of cannon.”

And if the comparisons to ships and cannon fire weren’t enough motivation for the kids, here’s this 1943 edition of World’s Finest Comics, showing everyone’s favourite superheroes getting down to business! Though I worry that Robin is courting a nasty sunburn… it does look like he’s already in the early phases of heatstroke. Maybe gardening without pants wasn’t such a super idea after all?

War Gardens appeared across both Europe and America as supplies were redirected toward the war effort. The British Ministry of Agriculture issued these monthly “Allotment and Garden Guides” in 1945 to give the populace practical advice on growing their own food. (According to this one, before the Romans started meddling in things, August was known in England as “Weodmonath” — Weed Month. Sounds good to me!)

“Every month we shall try to do three things : first, we shall remind you of the things that ought to have been done, but may not have been possible because of the weather or for some other reason; secondly, we shall deal with gardening operations for the month; thirdly, we shall look ahead a month or two and remind you of what you need to do in readiness.” The guides are all available online here; click on over to enjoy their charmingly down-to-earth advice!

Canning? Yep, we’ve been doing that for a while too! I think I’ll skip the peas, myself… but those frilly rickrack-trimmed aprons? Oh, yes please.

“Let us cultivate our kitchen garden”: A French poster from 1917, by Louisette Jaeger, part of a series designed by school children in support of the war effort.

Who doesn’t love vegetables with faces? And isn’t that an enviable sun hat? Really, though — part of what makes the history of wartime gardening so fascinating to me is the massive accompanying efforts to educate the non-farming public on how to “grow their own.” From England to France to the USA, pamphlets flew forth on planting crops, raising chickens, even replacing sugar with fruit. And, once again, we are seeing people in cities and the countryside alike pick up their hoes, roll up their sleeves, and get back to the dirt! We don’t need a war to sow the “Fruits of Peace”…

WWI poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1918, for the National War Garden Commission.

Let’s sow the seeds of tradition and independence in our own backyards!
Happy Fourth!


Filed under chickens, history, in the garden, summer

Compost Happens!

My goodness, I can’t believe I missed writing something for International Compost Awareness Week! (Yes, it most certainly is a real thing!)

When I took the UC Master Gardener training last year, we spent quite a lot of time on compost for the “Master Composter” element of certification. (After the first day, I couldn’t wait to get home and start turning my rather neglected compost heap — it was seriously that inspiring.)

As Master Composters, we’re honour-bound to talk up the joys of decomposition and organic nutrients at every available opportunity… and so, of course, it was only a matter of time for me to do so here! (Oh, and don’t miss our Homestead Radio Hour interview with Kevin “The Worm Whisperer” Marini, UC Extension expert, at the end of this post… talk about inspiring! His contagious enthusiasm will have you marching out to the yard, pitchfork in hand.)

If you don’t already have a compost pile, by all means, let’s do something about that right away! It really is very simple: all you need is a bit of outdoor space. If that isn’t an option, you can even compost indoors with a worm bin (see below). No excuses, right? Compost piles and bins take many forms, from the very basic heap to elaborately-engineered multiple bins and rotating tumblers; don’t be intimidated by all the fancy and expensive equipment proffered by garden catalogues and home-improvement stores. Start with something simple — if you outgrow it, or you find that composting is really your “thing,” you can always upgrade later.

Glamour shot of my beloved compost pile:

So, let’s begin at the beginning…

What do you need to make compost?

There are four key ingredients:
Organic matter – we need a balance of Carbon and Nitrogen to make really great nutrient-rich compost
Air / Oxygen – necessary for decomposition. If the pile goes anaerobic — without air — you’ll end up with a slimy, stinky mess. Good aeration makes for a happy, odor-free compost pile.
Water / Moisture – for much of the year, adding kitchen scraps and yard waste regularly will contribute enough moisture to your pile. In summer, however, you may need to water it occasionally. If you dig around and the pile looks dry or dusty, add water slowly so that it can soak in.
Micro- and macro-organisms – you can buy all kinds of magical compost-starting elixirs, but there is no need — these friendly critters will move in on their own! Earthworms, fungi, bacteria, and other decomposers are key to a healthy compost pile.

If all these factors are present then compost will “happen” all by itself, but for the best (and neatest) results, you will need a compost bin or designated “pile” area with adequate ventilation and, ideally, a size of 27 to 125 cubic feet (3x3x3 feet to 5x5x5 feet). You will need to gather green (nitrogenous) and brown (carbonaceous) organic material, mix them in your bin or pile, and moisten the mixture if necessary. Mix and turn the pile each week, checking for moisture and adding water if it is too dry.

A couple of tried-and-true designs for backyard composting:

Movable compost pen

Advantages: simple and inexpensive to make; requires few tools and materials; can be moved easily to a different location or disassembled when the compost is finished to allow for easy spreading in the garden; you can build it to whatever size you like.
Disadvantages: Not as sturdy as permanent bins; in order to turn the compost you will need to “dump” the bin and then refill it; if you are cutting wire fencing to height, it’s a good idea to cover or file down the pointy ends of the wires, especially if children or pets will be playing around the bin.

We use these moveable “pens” out in the orchard to compost leaves and larger volumes of garden/yard waste. They’re perfect if you have a large quantity of material at once (think raking the lawn in autumn) and aren’t in a hurry to make compost. Turning your pile speeds up the decomposition process, but this is a good lazy, low-maintenance way to get the job done, and the fence ring keeps everything nice and neat (no windstorms/dogs/chickens spreading your leaf pile all over the yard!) If you set up the pen where you want the compost to eventually end up — i.e. in your vegetable garden — you can simply remove the ring and spread the finished compost when it’s done.

Multi-bin system

Advantages: Allows for fast composting, easy turning, and you can keep adding new, fresh material to the first bin without contaminating the “cooking” or finished compost in the other bin(s). Sturdy and high-capacity. Easy to add a lid to if pests or nosy neighbours are a problem.
Disadvantages: more complicated and expensive to build than simpler bins; more tools and materials needed for construction; takes up more yard space.

We have a two-bin composting system that we adapted from a salvaged bin of uncertain provenance. (It used to have an astro-turf “roof” on top — go figure.) Multi-bin systems can be built out of pallets, scrap lumber, shipping crates, etc, or purchased ready-made. Our two-bin setup works nicely; fresh material goes in the left-side bin. When that fills up, I transfer it to the right-side bin to finish composting, and we start filling up the left bin again. Both sides get turned regularly. Really serious composters often use three-bin systems, in which the “rough” compost goes into a middle bin before moving on to the final “finished” bin. The triple-bin would be more necessary if you’re processing a large volume of material, or if you want to store your finished compost for a while.

Some Common Composting Questions

 “I tried composting, but my pile always smelled bad and attracted flies.”
Flies can actually be beneficial to the composting process, but you can help keep them from becoming a nuisance by turning your compost pile more frequently to make sure that all parts of the pile “cook” evenly. This will reduce the larvae population, as well as keep odor problems at bay. Food scraps are attractive to flies, especially fatty foods or meat scraps, which should not be put in the pile. Plant-based food scraps, eggshells, etc, should be buried or covered with straw or leaves to deter flies; this will also reduce odors. To keep pests and odors to a minimum, make sure your compost pile is in the recommended size range (from 3x3x3 for a bin to 5x5x5 feet for a heap) so that it generates enough heat to compost quickly and efficiently.

“Why should I compost when I can send my green waste away to be composted elsewhere?”
Why pay to have your green waste taken away, and then spend more money on fertilizer, soil, and amendments for your garden, when you can make your own for free? Composting lets you recycle your kitchen scraps and yard waste into a valuable soil amendment and conditioner that you can then use in your own garden, yard, or potted plants. And unlike purchased soil additives and fertilizers, you know exactly what went into your compost — no toxic gunk or weird chemicals to worry about. From an ecological point of view, composting your own green waste instead of having it hauled away conserves fossil fuels, energy, and money; instead of huge trucks and tractors, all you need is a simple backyard bin, a shovel or pitchfork, and a bit of your time. It’s easy, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly, and nothing beats the satisfaction of turning your scraps and yard waste into something you can use in your own backyard!

“What’s the difference between mulch and compost?
Mulch is applied as a top dressing around plants to conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds, keep the soil temperature cooler in hot weather, and reduce soil erosion and compaction. Mulch usually consists of non-composted, undecayed material — wood chips, bark, grass clippings and leaves can be used, although compost may be used as a top dressing as well.

Compost is organic matter that has been decayed and decomposed with the help of bacteria, fungi, and other micro-organisms, as well as macro-organisms such as worms, nematodes, and insects. It generally contains a variety of basic nutrients and is used as a soil conditioner to improve soil quality. When mixed into soil, compost improves soil structure, holds nutrients in the soil and makes them more readily available to plants, improves drainage and aeration, and encourages beneficial organism populations.

“What about worm composting? Aren’t worms kind of gross?”
Worm composting is ideal for when a small-scale indoor (yes, indoor!) composting system is needed, i.e. for apartment dwellers or those with small yards or limited mobility. It can also be a fun way to observe the composting process up close! You don’t need a high volume of organic material to stock a worm bin, it is tidy and odorless, and worm castings are a fantastic high-quality soil amendment.

For the worm-squeamish folks… first of all, to allay a common fear, worms don’t have teeth. They’re totally harmless, and not slimy at all. Really, though —  you don’t need to handle the worms; they are generally content to stay hidden in their shredded-paper bedding. They are easy to take care of, too: the worms are not at all “stinky” or “yucky,” and you can feed them on your schedule — once a day to once a week.

Eisenia foetida, the worm-composting worm, is different from your backyard-variety earthworm: they’re leaf-litter-dwellers, so they need a layer of shredded newspaper or the like to live in. They also need a dark bin with good aeration and just enough moisture. Store-bought worm bins can be pricey, but you can easily make your own from a plastic storage bin; check out instructions here. Just make sure that the bin is large enough, not too deep, and — most importantly — that it is opaque plastic, not clear. Worms will be much happier in a dark environment.

For more information on composting, be sure to visit the excellent Placer County Master Gardeners Composting Information page. You’ll find plenty of links to various bin plans, methods, and some fascinating info on all the critters living in your compost!

The Homestead Radio Hour

Composting with Kevin Marini, September 2011
With hosts Phyllis and Julia Boorinakis-Harper

Have more leaves in your backyard than you know what to do with? Maybe you’ve tried making a compost pile, but found it too stinky or too slow? Then you’ve come to the right place! On this episode of the HRH: UC Extension expert Kevin Marini, “The Worm Whisperer,” discusses the hows and whys of traditional composting, vermicomposting, and more. Get the dirt on putting your kitchen scraps and yard waste to work, making your own homegrown, nutrient-rich soil amendments. From choosing a composting method to building a bin and maintaining your pile, Kevin explains how to make composting an integral part of your homestead (and maybe even your life!)

Click the “play” arrow below to listen, or visit the KVMR Podcasts page here.

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In the garden: Fava beans

Have you been to the farmer’s market lately? Cherries, raspberries, lettuce, the earliest peaches… it’s a feast for the senses! And among all those springtime delights, you may spot these giant, bulbous green pods:

What are they? Favas! Or Koukiá, as we call them in Greek. A remarkable-yet-remarkably-underappreciated bean. They are very easy to grow, they’re one of the first springtime vegetables, and they’re delicious — and yet, it does take some searching to find fava beans. I’ve seen them a few times in the grocery store (usually in very small quantity), but by and large, if you want to get your hands on some of these tasty legumes, you’ll have to grow them yourself or go to the farmer’s market. Life is hard, huh?

And as much as I love, love, love the farmer’s market — our local markets are fantastic — I’m all for the backyard plot on this one! Not only are favas simple to grow, they also have lovely sweetpea-scented flowers and, being a legume, they’re great for the soil. You can even grow them (or their cousin, bell bean) as a cover crop; just be sure to cut and compost or till them in before they start to bloom for the highest nutrient level.

See, they’re just such happy-looking plants! We plant the seeds in the fall, usually November or thereabouts, when the rains begin but it isn’t yet too chilly out. They grow all winter long, getting taller and taller — by harvest time, the topmost leaves (which, incidentally, are edible and tasty when young) are brushing my shoulders. We plant them in a block and fence the plot on all sides with chicken wire, about two feet high; it keeps hungry critters like rabbits away from the young sprouts, and when the plants get taller, it provides just enough support to keep them from falling over. Which they absolutely will, if you let them.

They’re also abundant producers. Our fava patch this year was about 6 by 8 feet, and we ended up with a tremendous harvest — I’m guessing 20 to 25 gallons of beans in the shell. Of course, there is one catch with fava beans: they’re mostly shell! The beans themselves are wrapped in a tough, spongy-textured pod, and it can take quite a lot of time to shell them if you don’t have help… so, like many things of this nature, it’s really best as a communal activity! Round up a few friends and make some lemonade — you’ll find it’s quite pleasant work that way.

Here they are, ready to shell. That’s just a small fraction of the crop! (And, yes, that bucket does say “for FOOD” on it, to distinguish it form the many other buckets for dirt, fertilizer, etc around here.) There are a handful of tricks for getting the beans out of the pod; I usually snap off one end, “unzip” the little strings along the sides, and then pop the shell open along its length. Everyone has their own technique:

Once you have the bean out of the pod, flick off that little “cap” on the end:

Annnnd, the final bean-to-shell ratio. Take heart — those empty pods will do wonders for your compost pile!

Now, I’ll let you in on a secret. Most fava-bean recipes will tell you to take the shelled beans, dip them in boiling water, and then shell them again, removing the peel that surrounds each individual bean. By the time you do this, you’ll be wondering why you even started in the first place — a bushel of beans will result in a handful! But the Greeks know that this is silly: why, after you’ve gone to all the work of growing those beans, should you throw most of your harvest away? Stew them up with some lamb and tomato, or blanch and freeze them ’til Summer to add to eggplant, zucchini, okra, and tomato with some dill — as long as you pick the beans while they’re tender, there is no reason you have to peel and toss that inner shell. You might want to for certain dishes, but it’s by no means a necessity! (An interesting bit of koukiá history here.)

Ragout of fresh favas with artichokes from Bob Roan and Teri Ueki, with our own dried tomatoes and spanakorizo (rice with spinach, Greek-style) …. mmm-mmm!

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