Friday, October 30, 2009

Great Gourds! In Praise of Pumpkins

As you select and prepare to carve a pumpkin this Halloween, you should pause to reflect on the vast impact this humble gourd has had on our cultural history.

Pumpkins generally trace their origins to Central America, and collections of seed have been found in Mexico dating back several thousand years. Today, pumpkins are grown on every continent except Antarctica, and have found their way into our legends and traditions, kitchens, kitschy competitions, and media.

In literature, we should remember poor Ichabod Crane, knocked for a loss by a pumpkin lobbed by the headless horseman of Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” or even Cinderella’s enchanted carriage. Then, of course, there is the now classic book and television special “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” or the more edgy Pumpkin King, in Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas,” to say nothing of the early 90’s band, Smashing Pumpkins.

Culinary uses range from traditional pumpkin pie filling and pumpkin butter, to protein-rich seeds, which can be roasted and salted. The meat of the pumpkin can also be boiled or fried, diced or pureed, and has found its way as a filling for sweet Italian ravioli, soups, and numerous vegetarian dishes. Some microbreweries even produce a seasonal pumpkin ale.

Lately, florists have gotten into the act and use pumpkins as containers to fill with autumn-themed flowers as centerpieces or gift baskets.

If these notions have you seeing orange, then keep in mind that pumpkins come in a host of colors, from the red “Rouge D’Etant” to varieties in gold, buff, greenish-blue, and blue. New cultivars named “Casper” or “Baby-Boo” offer white pumpkins, which might be particularly ghoulish when carved.

Another important variety includes the giant pumpkins, perfect for competitions. Gourd gardeners are now approaching the 1,500 pound barrier on individual specimens. The 1,000 pound mark was broken in 1996 with the variety “Atlantic Giant,” and within the past several years a 1,458 pound specimen made its way into the Guinness Book of Records. There are also articles about a man who grew more than 2,700 pounds of pumpkin on a single vine.

Another somewhat less-dignified competition includes the popular “pumpkin flings” held each year, such as the “World Championship Punkin Chunkin” in Delaware. Approximately 30,000 people gather to watch medieval style catapults, 100 foot-long cannons, and four-story tall slingshots shoot ten-pound pumpkins up to 4,000 feet through the air.

However, pumpkins no doubt have their greatest appeal when artfully carved and illuminated as Jack-o’-Lanterns for Halloween. And while this tradition is relatively new, especially in the New World, its origins extend back thousands of years into the misty past.

We begin with Celts celebrating the “Feast of Samhain” on November 1. The feast takes its name from the Gaelic Samhraidhreadh, meaning summer’s end, and is a celebration of the final harvest, which featured bonfires, food, dancing, and costumes. It is also an important mystical time, the start of a new year, when the transition between seasons opens a doorway into the realm of spirits.

Samhain is also identified as a godlike individual, sometimes defined as a “lord of the dead.” This mythic figure is depicted carrying a lantern or spectral fire, with which he guides lost and roaming spirits to the supernatural realm. His appearance is also associated with Will-o’-the-Wisp, or Welsh “Corpse Candles,” ghostly flames which move over bogs and through cemeteries.

The Feast of Samhain began its “conversion” to Halloween in 844, when Pope Gregory transferred the Christian feast for “All Saints” or “All Hallows” (meaning “holy”) from May 13 to November 1, to coincide with the Celtic “pagan” festival.

As centuries passed and traditions fused, the figure of Samhain guiding spirits with a spectral light was seemingly recast by Irish storytellers as a Christianized Jack-o’-Lantern. Incidentally, “jack” is no more than a term for any common man, and therefore Jack-o’-Lantern simply means “man with a lantern.”

The tragic legend of Jack holds that he was an inveterate prankster whose cunning ran afoul of the devil himself. Upon his death Jack finds that he is barred from heaven for never having performed an unselfish act, and similarly banned from hell. Doomed to a twilight existence between worlds, Jack carves a turnip and creates a lantern to guide his way, lighting it with an infernal ember coaxed from the devil.

The tradition of carving lanterns out of turnips and lighting them with embers or oil continued for centuries among Irish households. Moreover, like the medieval practice of carving gargoyles on cathedrals to scare off malevolent forces, the Irish carved ghastly visages into their turnips to ward off those evil spirits who roamed the countryside.

In time, of course, Irish immigrants brought their turnip carving to the new world, where they happily discovered a much larger gourd suitable for carving. And yet, one has to wonder what the ancient Celts and their Druid priests might have made of “punkin chunkin.” We will have to ask them when they show up again on the next Samhain.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Turning Office Spaces into Greener Places

The modern office is generally a product of strict efficiency and economic design. Lines are straight, wall-coverings are bland, windows are sealed shut, lights fluorescent, and cubicles ubiquitous. And this is where many of us spend the better part of our lives. Perhaps it’s time to consider personalizing – and naturalizing – these uninviting spaces. And the best place to start might be with a favorite houseplant brought from home.

It’s amazing what a welcome addition a plant can be in the workplace. It’s just a simple little living thing, and yet, perched amid the photocopied reports, Post-it notes, and tangled telephone cord, it has the power to transform even the most cluttered of desktops into something uniquely you -- and special.

Even if you have only one African violet by your elbow, it might be enough to distract you from your spreadsheet for a few moments to examine whether a new batch of flowering buds is forming. Perhaps an office mate will wander over to ask you how often you feed your plant, or where you got it. In a sterile environment, that humble plant is an oasis of life. Your spreadsheet can wait.

And if one plant can work such wonders, what about an office-full of them? Truly, plants can enhance the modern office in ways that most people can barely imagine.

Aesthetically, plants can add color and texture to almost any space, however plain. Taller plants or groupings of larger plants can become living architecture to help direct foot traffic, soften harsh corners, create privacy in seating areas, or add verticality in an unending sea of cubicles. Hanging or elevated planters can create a sense of movement when filled with hanging grape ivy or trailing philodendron vines.

Using similar plants throughout a larger space can also provide a unifying or cohesive element, tying and blending together a disparate array of desks, copying machines, doorways, cabinets, and partitions. The final impression is calming and ordered, rather than chaotic.

Plants can function as eye-catching focal points, or discretely mute or camouflage unattractive features. Above all, they add a sense of vitality to an interior landscape of metal and machines.
They can also play a substantial role in promoting physical and psychological health. Clinical studies in Britain and Northern Europe have shown that plants in the workplace reduced stress levels and fatigue by more than 30 percent, along with the symptoms associated with colds and flu, such as coughing and sore throats.

These green allies can also promote good health by cleaning a host of potentially dangerous pollutants from indoor air. Those veneer-and-laminate bookcases, formica-clad desks, carpets, painted walls, and computers, printers, and fax machines are off-gassing a variety of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. All-in-all, it’s a nasty stew of bad air, generally trapped – along with you – in a closed loop ventilation system.

Fortunately, there’s Mother-in-law’s tongue. I don’t mean my mother-in-law, Melva, who’s also very helpful and health-conscious, but the plant, also known as snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata). This popular and sturdy plant grows elegantly tall, and sometimes flowers, even in low-light, and it is an absolute whiz at snatching pollutants from the air.

But Sansevieria are not alone in this ability. NASA studies in the late 1970s identified a large number of common indoor plants capable of filtering VOCs from the air. They ranged from aloe vera, which needs bright light, but is easy to divide and share with office mates – and serves as a nifty balm for paper-cut fingers, to magenta-striped dracaena, peace lily, and golden pothos, perhaps the toughest indoor plant around.

Simply put, most of the plants best suited to indoor conditions can help clean indoor air. Moreover, ongoing studies show that plants clean the air not only through the stomata or microscopic pores on the leaf surface, much like the filters in home furnaces and HVAC systems, but also through the action of bacteria in the potting soil, which normally make nutrients available for the plant’s root system.

In controlled environments, the soil microorganisms were capable of removing and absorbing up to 20 percent of the air contaminants. Together with the plants themselves, these invisible colonies represent an indoor living system functioning much like the trees, grasses, and algae found outdoors.

But the real value of introducing plants probably goes deeper than stress-busting, filtration, and d├ęcor. In a world that keeps us indoors far-too-long, bringing a bit of the outdoors inside keeps us connected with a larger living world. And beyond the momentary distraction of looking at a blooming bromeliad, the plants also require watering, feeding, and care. They require a time apart from the routine of databases and spam-deletion – a time to actually nurture another living thing. Surely that’s a simple enough bit of occupational therapy.

And then there’s the issue of community – human, not plant. In a world of passwords and name badges, your salmon-budded kalanchoe is a bridge to fellow workers. Perhaps you might divide up one of your succulents for them, or share the decades-old history of your mother’s braided willow-leaf ficus, now thriving by your window. They in turn might bring in a rooted cutting for you, or ask to share a window ledge for their Christmas cactus. That’s how friendships – and communities -- start.

Your office plant can stretch forth your personality, invite a much-needed compliment, and allow you to share and connect with others. It shows, quite humbly, as Shakespeare noted, that “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Greening & Cleaning Your Indoor Air

The overall quality of indoor air in our homes and offices has been declining steadily during the past three decades. Concerns regarding energy conservation during the 1970s led to superior insulation materials, tight-fitting windows and doors, and other construction features which have effectively bottled up our living and work spaces. Unfortunately, while keeping out cold drafts, those design elements have also sealed in a host of potentially harmful air pollutants, leading to "sick building syndrome" and other health issues.

Some of the offending pollutants include biological contaminants, such as black mold, and gases like carbon monoxide and radon. However, "off-gassing" is another modern phenomenon that is contributing significantly to indoor air pollution. Off-gassing is the release of various organic compounds by some particularly common sources all around us, ranging from furniture and floor coverings to paper products, printed materials, paint, and simple plastic grocery bags.

The off-gassed chemicals are basically used as adhesives and binding agents, solvents, coatings, fire-retardants, insulators, and so forth. Among the most common is formaldehyde, which is found everywhere from particle board and pressed wood products, to carpet backing and floor tiles, paper towels, and even permanent-press clothing. There is also benzene, which is found in paints, dyes, inks, and plastic, and trichloroethylene, also used in paints, lacquers, and adhesives. There are scores more, but the obvious fact is that we live in a largely synthetic, manufactured world, and now those synthetics are starting to affect us adversely.

As a delicious touch of irony, the solution to our synthetic problems might actually be all-too-natural. Specifically, the answer might be as simple and elegant as the common indoor plant. After all, we have turned to indoor plants to bring a splash of color and vitality to sterile office environments, and to brighten windows and corners in our homes. Like the fern-filled parlors of our Victorian ancestors, perhaps we, too, still feel a certain kinship with nature which prompts us to bring a little bit of the outdoors inside.

Regardless of our motivation for having indoor plants, that humble pothos on a window sill or corn plant stretching up to the ceiling of our office is working overtime to absorb and otherwise neutralize many of the harmful chemical compounds being off-gassed at our expense.

The majority of the research examining plants as natural air cleaners comes from Dr. Bill Wolverton and fellow scientists at NASA's Stennis Space Center in the early 1990s. NASA has been concerned about the long-term environmental health consequences of off-gassing from the hundreds of chemical compounds found on shuttles and space stations. A two-year study was conducted which involved plexiglass chambers containing a variety of plants into which different pollutants were introduced and measured.

Amazingly, plants like aloe, philodendron, snake plant (Sanseveria), and golden pothos removed up to 90 percent of the formaldehyde injected into the chamber. Dracaena, peace lily (Spathiphyllum), English ivy, and Gerbera daisy helped remove up to 80 percent of the benzene in their closed system. And many of these same plants also reduced TCE levels by nearly 50 percent. In fact, numerous plants were effective at removing a broad range of the most dangerous compounds and other pollutants, including carbon monoxide.

Moreover, while the many thousands of stomata or "pores" on each plant leaf handled much of the filtration process, further research revealed that even roots and bacteria in the plant's soil helped absorb some of the toxic substances. It is also believed that over time, plants and soil microorganisms may in fact adapt themselves to absorb even more and different contaminants, turning to them as a source of nutrient, much like nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

Those of us still trapped on Earth can easily take advantage of these exciting findings by simply adding one medium-sized indoor plant per 100 square feet, especially using the plants listed below. According to NASA researchers, just 15 plants can help clean the air of the average 1,800 square foot home.

In reality, of course, adding a few potted palms to your home or office will never provide completely healthy indoor air. Greener, cleaner air requires that consumers and building managers select more natural products for their home and office, whether in furnishings, floor coverings, wall paints, or even everyday cleaning compounds. But, then again, it never hurts to add a few more ficus trees to your lobby or put a couple cheery chrysanthemums in your kitchen window.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Plants for Cleaning Indoor Air:

Aloe Vera
Areca Palm
Australian Sword Fern
Bamboo Palm
Boston Fern
Chinese Evergreen
Christmas Cactus
Chrysanthemum (Pot Mum)
Corn Plant
Dracaena Marginata
Dracaena ‘Janet Craig’
Dwarf Date Palm
English Ivy
Gerbera Daisy
Golden Pothos
Peace Lily
Prayer Plant
Reed Palm
Rubber Plant
Snake Plant
Spider Plant

More Information

How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 Houseplants to Purify Your Home or Office, B. C. Wolverton, Penguin, 1997.

Your Naturally Healthy Home, Alan Berman, Rodale, 2001.

“Air Cleaning House Plants”

“Chemicals and the Best Indoor Plants to Clean the Air”

“Top Ten Houseplants for Cleaner Air”

“NASA Study: Plants Clean the Air”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Turning Over a New Leaf

Glorious Autumn! Keat's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. It is also (alas) the season of the rake. It seems that you spend the better part of your precious weekends just raking up leaves. And just when you have gotten them under control, along comes a brisk gust of wind, a sprinkling of rain, and your lawn is covered all over again. Groan! Time to drag out the rake once more.

Here is a solution to simplify your fall and improve the long-term health and vigor of your lawn, trees, and garden beds:

Mulch ado about leaves.
There are a large number of expensive, awkward, and sometimes useful products being hawked to suck up your leaves and turn them into mulch. There are blower-vacs which blow leaves into a pile which you can then suck up and shred. There are chipper-shredders with elephant trunks that also allow you to suck up and shred leaves, although you have to rake them into piles first. And lawn jockeys with disposable incomes can check out the over $1,200 self-propelled machines which act like gas-powered vacuum cleaners on your lawn (watch out for small pets).

Mower for less.
These contraptions may not be the solution for you. However, if you are like most homeowners, you may not have realized that your lawn mower is already a deluxe leaf mulcher in its own right. And perhaps the easiest way to deal with leaves is to mow them right back into the lawn itself. Forget back-breaking raking and bagging!

Please note that mower-mulching works best when leaves are relatively dry and are no more than one inch deep. Deeper "drifts" might need to be partially raked first -- or plan to run back and forth over the leaves several times. And do not worry if your model is not a dedicated mulching mower, any type of mower will do.

Start your do-it-yourself "mulchinator" by setting the mower to a normal three-inch height. Remove bagging attachments and block off the discharge chute on a rear-discharge machine. Then run your mower over the lawn while walking slowly, giving the mower blades plenty of time to shred up the leaves.

If your mower has a side discharge chute, you will probably want to start on the outside perimeter of your lawn and start mowing inward. This will keep the leaf-bits on the lawn, and even allow you to mow over them a few more times. Of course, some folks like to "blow" shredded leaves into ground cover areas, under foundation plantings, or into wooded areas, adding to the organic content of soils there, which is another option.

If your first pass over the lawn has left a significant quantity of whole leaves, go back over the leaves while mowing at a right angle to the first cut, perhaps walking even more slowly. Leaves take more work than grass, especially if they are somewhat damp.

Stay out of the gutter!
It is important not to blow whole or shredded leaves into streets, storm drains, or nearby streams. Those innocent-looking particles can create problems for sensitive aquatic life by suffocating plants, fish eggs, and insect larvae, clouding the water, tying up oxygen, and altering the stream's pH (increasing toxic acidity). And that is also why you should never rake leaves into the street or gutter: leaf leachate always ends up in your neighborhood stream.

Too many leaves?
The swirling mass of leaves may seem daunting at first, but the final particle size will be one-tenth of the original leaf. This will make it easily digestible by worms and bacteria. Skeptics often voice a concern that shredding leaves into turf areas will overwhelm and kill their lawn. Not at all! In fact, research at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania found that earthworms will actually drag a one-inch deep layer of organic matter into their burrows in just a few months, loosening and enriching your soil, and feeding the roots of your lawn for free.

Numerically, while you may imagine that all of those leaves will add up to far too much organic matter for your lawn, the fact is that 30 tall paper bags full of leaves, once shredded, will break down within a season to about one cubic yard of leaf mold or compost. Applied to your lawn as a topdressing, you would only be able to cover about 48 square feet (a six foot by eight foot patch). In fact, to topdress a lawn properly, most savvy gardeners have to import tons of commercial compost above and beyond the compost they make at home! Fear not: you will never have too many leaves or too much organic matter!

Your lawn needs leaves.
For decades, homeowners have bagged their grass clippings and leaves and sent them off to a landfill. And lawn chemical salespeople successfully and profitably sold the idea that healthy lawns needed bimonthly fertilizer and pesticide applications. Times have fortunately changed. The fact is that lawns and gardens can be maintained organically, for the most part, and without toxic inputs, just by recycling the natural materials already in place. When you bag up your clippings and leaves, you are short-circuiting the natural recycling process.

Think of the cycle this way: tree roots absorb water, minerals, and a host of nutrients from the soil. These materials are used to add girth to the tree trunk and boughs, set forth new branches, grow more roots, and grow leaves, flowers, and fruits or seeds. In a natural setting, such as a forest or woodlot, leaves, small twigs, blossoms, and fruits drop to the ground and slowly decompose, returning all of the original organic building blocks to the soil for future use.

What happens when you bag up leaves? How is that organic matter going to get back to the soil for the tree to use in coming years? You may think that by fertilizing your lawn you are returning everything the tree needs. Wrong! Of the more than one dozen major and minor nutrients that plants need to grow, how many are in your bag of fertilizer? And what about the organic matter that creates humus, the very soul of soil itself?

Bagging leaves and grass is equivalent to strip mining. The minerals, nutrients, and organic matter are continually stripped away year after year. Eventually, without those vital materials, your trees, your garden, and your lawn will start to suffer. It is time to undo this damage by getting that organic matter back into the soil. And you can easily start just by mowing your leaves into your lawn.

It's in the bagger!
There are other options and uses for some of your shredded leaves. For example, if your mower does have a bagging attachment, you might want to take the shredded material and start using it to mulch some of your trees and shrubs. This is also true for gardeners with some of the fancier shredding equipment. Apply up to four inches deep, and your mulch layer will also act as a blanket to prevent frost upheaval in planting beds, which is especially damaging to bulbs, tuberous flowers, and some half-hardy perennials. You will also be feeding and protecting your plants and preventing weed growth for almost a full year.

A compost pile or bin is another excellent half-way point for shredded leaves. Those smaller leaf particles break down in less than half the time of whole leaves, and you can fit a prodigious quantity of shredded leaves into your bin. Also, if you find that you are cutting some grass while shredding leaves, you are probably creating the perfect blend of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials to ensure a hot, fast-working compost pile.

Recommended chores.
Mulching leaves into lawns is just the first step toward a naturally healthy lawn and environment. You should also consider aerating your lawn by either renting a core-aerating machine (about $70) or hiring a lawn care firm ($75 and up depending on overall lawn size). Aerating breathes life into compacted soils and helps organic matter filter deeper into subsoils and root zones. You should also test your soil with a kit from your county or municipality's local Cooperative Extension Service (costs are about ten dollars) to determine proper nutrient application rates. Your soil test will also indicate the type and quantity of lime your lawn needs; local soils are naturally acidic. And don't forget: fall is the only beneficial time to consider feeding your lawn -- only use a slow-release or organic nutrient source to feed the soil and your lawn's roots all winter long.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Easy Composting

Composting is a simple, natural process. There is no need to purchase special activators or fertilizers to make the materials in your compost pile or bin break down. Compost just happens! Here are some basic strategies for making compost "happen" for you:

Slow and Easy Composting
  1. Build your compost pile anytime of year.
  2. Create a simple, freestanding pile no more than 5 feet high (preferably 3 feet long on each side), or build or buy an inexpensive bin to keep your pile tidy.
  3. Locate on level, well-drained ground in either sun or shade -- stay away from wooden fences and buildings, and avoid placing on your neighbor's property line. Don't set up over shallow tree roots.
  4. Build a six inch base of branches, twigs or brush for drainage and aeration (old wooden pallets work extremely well).
  5. Use leaves by themselves -- or mix in grass and other "green" garden trimmings for quicker compost. When adding new materials to an existing pile, be sure to mix them in thoroughly -- especially green materials like grass. Don't create layers.
  6. Don't build your pile with grass alone -- mix in dry leaves, straw or wood chips to avoid odors.
  7. Moisten materials as you add them and leave a concave depression at the top of the pile to capture rainwater.
  8. Keep materials moist throughout the year -- but not wet. It is often best not to cover your pile to let water in. A dry pile will not compost.
  9. Never add meat, bones, fat, oils, dairy products or processed foods to avoid odors and pests. Never add diseased plants, weeds with seeds, or cat or dog wastes.
  10. Try to turn, fluff, or aerate on occasion -- whether every week, every month or just once or twice a year.
  11. Wait a while (6-12 months) and get ready to use your compost as a top-dressing for your lawn, a mulch for trees and shrubs, or a side-dressing for annuals, herbs, and vegetables.
  12. Compost is ready to use when it is dark brown-black, crumbly, and sweet-smelling. Enjoy!

Vintage Composting (Even Easier Composting)

  1. Use two bins: one bin for each alternate year (e.g. 2009, 2010).
  2. Add compostable materials only to one bin in the first year (2009).
  3. In the following year, leave the first bin alone and only add materials to the second bin. As the yard trimmings in the first bin decompose, the amount of materials in the bin will appear to shrink. Resist the temptation to "top off" the 2009 bin.
  4. With the next year (2011), harvest compost from 2009 bin and start filling with 2010 materials. Do not top off 2009 bin.
  5. Keep alternating, year after year, going from one bin to another with each year. Never add fresh materials to last year's bin.
  6. Materials in a vintage bin system will compost for at least 12-24 months; enough time to produce excellent mulch with almost no maintenance.
  7. To ensure high quality compost, use some of the basic steps (watering, turning) from the Slow and Easy method.

Active Composting (Fast, "Hot" Compost)

  1. Use a two- or three-bin system.
  2. Try to obtain a mixture of two parts (by volume) high nitrogen materials like grass and fresh-pulled weeds and one-part high-carbon materials like dried leaves and woodchips.
  3. Try to shred leaves (use lawnmower or mechanical shredder) and, especially, woody materials. Keep particle sizes small.
  4. Mix materials thoroughly together.
  5. Follow basic instructions for Slow and Easy method.
  6. Keep moisture level at 50% (consistency of a wrung-out sponge).
  7. Turn or "aerate" pile by moving materials from bin to bin (back and forth for 2-bin system, serially for 3-bin system) every 2-4 weeks.
  8. Compost should be ready in 6-12 weeks.


The best advice for handling problems with your compost pile is to treat that problem immediately. Key concerns are:

  • Odors. Usually caused by soggy, anaerobic conditions. Turn the pile thoroughly and add dry leaves or hay, if necessary. Set the pile on top of a wooden pallet or base of branches and twigs.
  • Pests. For rodent problems, remove and discontinue the addition of any food scraps. Turn pile more frequently; maintain moisture. For pets and scavengers, be sure to always bury food scraps under 1' of leaves and other compostables; place another pallet on top of pile to serve as a "lid." For insects like ants, flies, and bees, keep pile moist and turn more frequently.
  • Sluggish Pile. If your materials are not decomposing, check moisture content (it's the number one reason piles don't work); don't cover bin with plastic. Turn your pile to aerate it, increasing the oxygen content. Add nitrogen sources like grass clippings, weeds, agricultural manures, or urea.
Using Compost

You don't need large flower beds or a vegetable garden to use compost. Here are the most common applications:

  • Mulch. Apply compost up to 3" deep around trees and shrubs and in planting areas to suppress weed growth, provide a long-term supply of nutrients, conserve moisture, prevent soil erosion and compaction, and moderate soil temperature changes. Especially effective in fall and spring.
  • Topdressing. Spread compost 1/8"-1/4" deep on top of existing lawns with a spreader or rake. Finished compost should be sifted or "screened" to remove clumps and twigs. Build a simple, inexpensive sifter using hardware cloth and a frame of two-by-four lumber.
  • Sidedressing. A 1"-2" layer of compost can be spread around vegetables (especially tomatoes, peppers, eggplant), shrubs and flowers during active growing season to replace nutrients and protect root systems.
  • Soil Amendment. Mix 2"-3" of compost into the top 6"-8" of heavy clay or sandy soil with a mechanical tiller, garden spade, or shovel. Compost will improve drainage and moisture retention, prevent compaction, supply nutrients and make existing nutrients more available to plants.
  • Potting Mediums. Sifted compost (1/3 part) can be mixed with potting soil and vermiculite or perlite to create a superior potting medium.
NB: Composting that's going to be mixed into soil or potting mediums should be fully decomposed. Let compost age or "cure" for one month after removal from your bin.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, October 19, 2009

Showering With Your Schefflera

Indoor gardening can introduce a wide array of benefits into your home and office, from decoration and fragrance, to fresh-cut culinary herbs. Unfortunately, indoor plants can also introduce annoying pests and other unforeseen problems, especially if some of those plants were brought indoors to overwinter.

There is nothing more disheartening for the indoor gardener than to see a swarm of whiteflies hovering around a prized plant, or to see the tell-tale webbing of minuscule spider mites on curled, yellow foliage.

The first step to ensuring plant health, especially with plants you have brought in from the cold, is sanitation. Take each pot and check it thoroughly for hiding varmints. If the entire rootmass can be slipped out of the pot intact -- soil, roots, and all -- remove it and look for stowaway insects, like grubs, slugs, or ants. Use a soft brush and hot water and clean the outside and bottom of the pot. This helps remove any eggs or egg cases, as well as mold.

Using sharp scissors or pruning shears, remove any dead or dying vegetation, cut off fading flowers. Make sure that nothing is laying atop the soil surface, like old leaves, twigs, or other organic matter. These materials can harbor insect pests and eggs.

Next, in your sink or shower, depending on the size of the plant, spray down all the foliage, especially the underside of leaves, to rinse off any potential insects. You may want to repeat this step every month. Remember that rain not only waters plants, but also cleans off dust and other pollutants. To compensate, you can provide a nice, warm shower.

In fact, mimicking Mother Nature is the real key to maintaining healthy indoor plants. While nature provides outdoor plants with rain and breezes, humidity, light, and beneficial insects to help keep pests in check, that job is all yours indoors.

Another safe practice is to quarantine any new plant arrivals from your regular indoor plant population for a couple of weeks. Think of it as a horticultural Ellis Island.

Matching indoor plants with an appropriate location requires some research. Each plant has specific exposure needs. For example, diffused-light plants can become scorched in a sunny window, while sun-lovers will languish, and may perish, in a dark corner. Do not try to force a plant into the wrong space. You will find that as the plant’s health declines, the likelihood of a pest problem will increase dramatically.

With very few exceptions, most plant problems emerge from overfeeding and overwatering. During the winter months, plants should almost never be fertilized, and watering should be kept to a minimum. In addition, overwintering plants also typically prefer cooler temperatures. Check with a plant guide for specific instructions. Lanky plants sitting around with soggy potting soil are prime candidates for pest infestations, especially pesky fungus gnats and varied strains of mildew, all of which prefer damp soil conditions.

Dry, unmoving air is also a problem, especially for some larger foliage plants. If many of your plants are grouped together in a single room, you may find that a slowly revolving ceiling fan can help create enough of a “breeze” to keep pests at bay. Also, consider using a tray filled with damp gravel or pebbles under plants to raise the humidity to a healthy semi-tropical level. It is important, though, to rinse and clean those pebble-filled trays periodically, and generally never let any plant sit in a saucer filled with water. That situation is bad for the plant, good for pests, and can even lead to some unpleasant odors and airborne molds.

Despite your best efforts at sanitation, care and feeding, you may still encounter some pests. This does not make you a bad indoor gardener. However, you will have to take Mother Nature’s place and become a predator yourself, unless you really want to release several hundred ladybugs in your living room.

Fortunately, most pest problems can be managed safely and easily – and without toxic pesticides. The shower or rinsing method should certainly be a first line of attack, where feasible. The majority of insect pests hate water. Other approaches involve dipping or “soap baths,” which is akin to a whirlpool bath for smaller plants. For larger plants, spraying is the most effective approach, especially using some simple household products.

Dipping can take place in a bucket or a sink. Mix several teaspoons of mild dishwashing liquid with a gallon of warm water. Hold the rootball of the plant in the pot and dip all of the foliage and stems into the solution. Feel free to swirl the plant around, and dunk up and down. The agitation will help dislodge pests. Any remaining pests will find the soap covering their bodies hard to live with – and breathe through.

This same formula can be used in a spray bottle for larger plants. In both cases, you may want to repeat the process every week or so until there is no sign of infestation.

A more potent version of this soap spray calls for one teaspoon of soap mixed with a quart of warm water and several tablespoons of rubbing alcohol. The alcohol joins with the fatty acids of the soap to help penetrate the insect’s cuticle, ultimately dehydrating the bug. Never use alcohol by itself, as it can harm foliage, and on more tender plants, use a very dilute mix and test it on several leaves before spraying the entire plant. You can also use this mixture on a paper towel to wipe off leaves.

Powdery mildew, which frequently attaches itself to miniature roses and rosemary, can similarly be treated using a spray of warm water, several tablespoons of baking soda, and several tablespoons of dishwashing liquid, which serves as a wetting agent. Again, this treatment will need to be repeated periodically.

Other sprays and dips for special pests and applications can be created using garlic and onion, if you want to raid your pantry, mineral oil, and even safe, commercially-manufactured insecticidal soaps. You will find recipes for these formulations in most indoor plant guides and publications dedicated to organic gardening and integrated pest management.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Turning Autumn Leaves Into Healthy Lawns

Autumn is perhaps the most mellow and reflective season of the year. Shorter days encourage reading in the evening while crisp air and colorful vistas invite weekend hikes and trips to the countryside. Regrettably, too many people waste their precious weekends raking leaves into piles or shatter the quiet peace of sunny afternoons with leaf blowers. There is a better solution.

Rather than trying to rid your lawn of fallen leaves, you should actually consider leaving them where they are. It is nature’s way to recycle, after all. Certainly no one is raking up and bagging the leaves which fall in wooded parks and forests. Given a bit of time, all of the leaves are transformed by worms, bacteria and other organisms into rich humus, which will continue to feed trees, shrubs, and other plants year after year for millennia.

Your yard is simply an extension of the same natural process. Trees around your property draw nutrients and minerals from the soil, converting those elements into new leaves and branches. By raking up those leaves, you essentially short-circuit the natural cycle by which nutrients are returned to the soil. After a number of years, the soil will lose its fertility. In fact, carting off leaves and grass clippings is akin to strip mining, ultimately affecting the health of everything you are trying to grow.

Spreading costly fertilizers on your lawn may restore some nutrients, but not all of the vital minerals and organic matter needed for healthy, vigorous plants. Leaves, on the other hand, contain all of the nutrients and micronutrients your lawn needs. The trick is getting those leaves back into the soil without smothering your lawn in the process.

Enter the lawnmower. For the past ten years, almost all new lawnmowers sold have been mulching mowers. After decades of bagging clippings, a majority of homeowners have learned that it is best to “grasscycle” their lawn clippings when they mow. Clippings left in place quickly decompose and provide nutrients to keep the lawn healthy.

Your lawnmower can now do double-duty as a leaf-mulcher. Mower blades can easily shred whole leaves into small pieces, approximately one-tenth their original size. Your once-daunting bounty of leaves will disappear into a thin layer of tiny particles easily digested by worms and bacteria. In fact, a healthy earthworm population is capable of dragging a one-inch layer of organic matter down into their underground burrows in just a few months. Unseen by human eyes, they are diligently loosening and enriching your soil, and feeding the roots of your lawn for free. Perhaps you should think of your mower as a food processor for worms!

Begin your regimen of leaf-mulching by setting the mower to a normal three-inch height. Remove bagging attachments and block off the chute on a rear-discharge machine. Run your mower over the lawn while walking slowly, giving the mower blades plenty of time to shred up the leaves. Please note that mower-mulching works best when leaves are relatively dry and are no more than one inch deep. Do not wait until every last leaf has fallen before getting started.

If your mower has a side discharge chute, you will probably want to begin on the outside perimeter of your lawn, blowing your chopped leaves onto unmowed areas, and continue mowing inward. This will keep the leaf particles on the lawn, and even allow you to mow over them a few more times. Some savvy gardeners like to direct the discharge of shredded leaves into ground cover areas or under foundation plantings where organic matter is also welcome.

If your first pass over the lawn has left a significant quantity of whole leaves, go back over the leaves while mowing at a right angle to the first cut, perhaps walking even more slowly. Leaves take more work than grass, especially if they are somewhat damp.

There are other options and uses for some of your shredded leaves. For example, if your mower does have a bagging attachment, you might want to apply the shredded material as a mulch two to four inches thick under your trees and shrubs. Do not pile the mulch directly against tree trunks.

Shredded leaves can also be applied to other planting beds, such as perennial borders and herb gardens. Avoid applying mulch until after the first hard freeze. A two to three inch mulch layer will help maintain a uniform soil temperature all winter and protect tender root systems. The mulch blanket will also prevent frost upheaval caused by frequent thawing and refreezing, which is especially damaging to bulbs, tuberous flowers, and some half-hardy perennials.

Naturally, the leaf mulch will also feed your plants by recycling nutrients, conserve soil moisture during dry spells, and prevent the emergence of weeds.

You can also add your shredded leaves to a compost pile or bin. The smaller leaf particles decompose in about 75 percent of the time required by whole leaves, and you can further add a astonishing volume of shredded leaves into the bin, which is useful for properties with numerous mature trees. In addition, if you find that you are cutting some grass while running over the leaves, you are probably creating the perfect blend of materials to ensure an effective, fast-working compost pile. Your shredding efforts may even reward you with nutrient-rich compost ready for use in the Spring.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Home Composting Basics

The key to successful composting is getting started simply and properly, avoiding unwanted surprises, and learning how to slowly adjust your composting technique to achieve a rich, beautiful product to serve the needs of your garden -- and your lifestyle.

Location: Before starting, determine an appropriate location for the compost pile. Vegetable gardeners should set up piles or bins in the vegetable garden itself, thereby allowing any nutrients leaching out of the pile to enrich the garden's soil and feed surrounding plants.

All gardeners should select a level, easily accessible site, preferably near a water source and at least one foot away from any wooden structures (fungi do not discriminate between twigs, branches, and fences). Bins or piles should not be built directly against a tree trunk or in a tree well, which might harbor bark-gnawing mice or inhibit respiration. To ensure domestic tranquility, avoid placing a pile directly on a property line or next to a neighbor's patio or window. A pile can be built in either sun or shade with equal success, although gardeners in hot, dry climates often favor a shaded location to prevent the pile from drying out during summer months.

To bin or not to bin: Using a bin is often an aesthetic choice, although bins can play a practical role in effective composting. Freestanding piles can work extremely well in most situations, although smaller piles are inefficient at conserving moisture and heat, which can be important elements in the compost ecosystem; moreover, mounded piles tend to shed water like a thatched roof.

Bins of almost any description can help organize materials, keeping a garden area tidy, and will also allow more control over the composting process. By simply concentrating materials together in a smaller volume, bins encourage a higher level of biological activity, which facilitates decomposition. Also, the materials lining the inside of the bin serve as a mulch layer, retaining moisture and the useful metabolic heat given off by the bacteria.

Design Considerations: Be sure to tailor your bin or bin system to accommodate the amount of material your property and garden generate. Also, avoid allowing the materials in any pile or bin to exceed five feet in height; besides being awkward to manage, tall piles will severely compact materials, reducing or cutting off the circulation of oxygen and potentially leading to sluggish, anaerobic conditions.

Covering a bin is only advisable for wetter climates, where an excess of precipitation might waterlog a pile or leach away an appreciable amount of valuable nutrients. Most temperate climate bins benefit from being open to the elements, where periodic rainfall can provide most of the moisture needed by a pile, especially if the top of the pile is given a concave or funnel shape to capture rainfall and other moisture. An exception should be made for cold, winter months, when biological activity slows down and where additional moisture is not needed and may only leach away nutrients.

A Good Base: Before adding the first handful of compostable material, it is essential to establish a good base for the pile or bin. A six to ten inch layer of brush is usually sufficient and easily assembled by layering a variety of twigs, branches, corn stalks, and other coarse material on the ground to form a crude mat. These materials can also be broken up to fit inside a compost bin, if necessary. Another option is to use a wooden shipping pallet with half-inch spaces between slats as the base: pallets are plentiful and free, easily keep materials off the ground, provide a smooth, flat working surface for pitchforks and other implements, and most commercial bins will sit right on top.

A compost base provides important drainage for the pile, since materials left directly on the ground can become saturated with water, leading to an anaerobic state. Earth-hugging piles can also become infiltrated by tree roots if left in place too long, making harvesting the compost incredibly difficult -- and potentially dangerous to the root system of the invading tree.

Raising the pile off the ground is also the first, best step toward achieving a self- (or passively-) aerated pile, meaning that less turning and maintenance is required. The base allows an ample supply of oxygen to enter the pile from the bottom, one of the lesser-known secrets of effective composting. Since the microorganisms in the pile generate heat and carbon dioxide as metabolic byproducts, the warm gas will rise and vent from the pile, creating an upward draft which will then draw fresh air into the pile naturally -- but only if the pile is sitting above the ground, with the porous base providing oxygen to this biological furnace.

Compostable Materials: Homes and gardens across the country produce a wide variety of organic materials in very different proportions, with yard trimmings -- leaves, grass, weeds, brush, and prunings -- representing the major share of compostables, although kitchen scraps and agricultural manures can also play a significant role. And while almost anything organic will decompose, it does not mean that everything should simply be tossed into a compost bin and forgotten.

Leaves: Leaves are generally the easiest materials to manage and are frequently the carbon-rich backbone of most piles in temperate areas. All leaves can be composted, from Abelia to Zelkova, and all the ash, maples, and oaks in-between; there is no reason to be concerned about acidity or relative carbon-to-nitrogen values.

Leaves can be composted whole, or shredded and gathered up with a lawn mower and bagging attachment, or chopped up with a dedicated power shredder. As is the case with all compostable materials, reducing particle size will accelerate the decomposition process. Leaves added to a pile or bin should be moistened as they are added. Place a few armfuls into the bin and use a hose with spray attachment to thoroughly moisten them; repeat the process, adding water at each step.

Leaves can be composted all by themselves, producing a high humus leaf mold in about one year, if the pile is turned several times per season. Or the process can be hastened by incorporating other nitrogen-rich materials, like grass clippings and weeds, into the mix, producing a finer, loam-like compost.

Grass: Grass clippings are the second most widely composted yard material, full of nitrogen, and capable of speeding up the decomposition of carbonaceous materials such as leaves, straw, or chipped brush. Most savvy gardeners realize that healthy lawns thrive when clippings are grasscycled, or left on the lawn after mowing. However, on some occasions, it is beneficial to remove clippings and add them to the compost pile.

For effective composting, grass should never be composted by itself. In fact, most odor complaints regarding compost piles result from piles made up of clippings alone. Grass is over 90 percent water and the thin blades rapidly clump together and form anaerobic masses giving off a strong ammonia odor. Always thoroughly mix grass into other dry or higher-carbon materials. Do not allow the grass to form layers, and do not simply dump loads of grass onto an existing pile. Grass must always be worked into a pile.

Weeds: Even the best gardeners have to pull weeds, but it is the wise composting gardener that turns weeds into a success story. Weeds are like grass, succulent and full of nitrogen, and should be cheerfully mixed into the pile, with the important exception of invasive weeds, weeds with vigorous rhizomes, or weeds which have already set seed, all of which should be kept away from the pile.

Woody materials: Hedge trimmings, small twigs and branches, stalks, wood mulch (both old and new), pine cones, large seed pods, and other woody matter and brush are extremely high in carbon and will take longer to decompose than leaves. Decomposition can be aided by chipping the materials, or by at least cutting them up with lopping shears or hand pruners. A good rule of thumb is never to add anything longer than six inches in length or thicker than half an inch. Larger materials will simply haunt the compost pile for years to come and make turning the pile more difficult.

Other trimmings: Ornamental grasses, decorative vines, dead-headed flowers, annuals, perennial prunings, and most of the other herbaceous material in the garden can and should be added to the pile, again being careful to chop up materials as much as possible. Pine needles can be also be added, although they are somewhat slow to break down and are always ready to be used immediately as a mulch wherever acid-loving plants are concerned.

Agricultural Manures: Animal manures are wonderful sources of nitrogen and other nutrients, especially for gardeners without access to grass clippings. Poultry manure is a concentrated source of nitrogen, although the odor is rather difficult to work around. Cow manure is one of the most valuable additions to the compost pile and the garden, while horse manure is readily available, even in most urban areas. Exercise caution when using agricultural manures, however, especially with stable "sweepings," since those materials often harbor a high percentage of viable weed seeds. Strive to attain a hot pile to destroy remaining seeds.

Food Scraps: Spoiled vegetables and fruits and kitchen scraps provide a rich, free source of nitrogen. Coffee grounds are as high in nitrogen as grass clippings, and can even be brought home by the bucket from gourmet coffee shops. Tea leaves and tea bags, coffee filters, corn husks and cobs, fruit rinds, vegetable trimmings, egg shells, and a miscellany of peels and scrapings -- anything other than meat or dairy-related materials or shortenings -- are prime candidates for addition, although they must be added properly.

Any food item, including spoiled fruits taken directly from the garden, should always be buried at least one foot into an existing pile. Depositing scraps on top of the pile, even an enclosed bin, is a guaranteed method for attracting fruit flies, gnats, maggots, and larger "winged" and "tailed" pests. In urban areas or communities with rodent problems, a completely enclosed unit, such as a lidded metal trash can with small holes, is recommended, as are indoor worm boxes.

Household materials: Compostable materials from around the house are usually carbon-rich, including black and white newspaper sections, corrugated and uncoated cardboard, dried flowers, wood or fireplace ash (never charcoal or coal ash), and untreated sawdust. Cardboard and newspaper should be ripped-up into strips and moistened, preferably by soaking in a bucket of water.

Materials to Avoid: Good hygiene is as important for the compost pile as it is for the garden. It is always best to avoid adding any diseased plant materials since viruses and other pathogens, including nematodes and related pests, are not always destroyed in the composting process. Observe the adage, "when in doubt, throw it out." Also, despite industry assurances, it is advisable to avoid adding pesticide-treated plants, including grass clippings, especially if the finished compost is to be used in a vegetable garden; a similar warning should be noted for pressure-treated wood scraps and sawdust. Do not add irritating plant materials such as poison sumac and poison ivy, although nettles will break down completely. Avoid adding any food materials that have been mixed with shortenings, spreads, meats, or dairy products. Add grain-derived foods with caution. Never add bones, fat, or meat itself. And never add the fecal waste of dogs, cats, or other carnivorous pets to avoid disease pathogens both while in handling and using the compost.

Also, while not dangerous, some items might best be left out of the pile, including the waxy leaves of magnolias and hollies, which break down very slowly, pine cones, and sweet gum "balls," among other stubborn materials, although chipping will speed them on their way.

The Right Stuff: The types of materials added to a well-made pile, and their management, will determine the quality of the final compost product. Leaves alone, properly moistened and turned, fluffed, or aerated several times per season will result in a satisfactory and workable leaf mold -- but not finished compost. For best results, a compost pile must be, as the word implies, a composite of different materials.

Most composting literature revolves around the legendary and ideal carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio of 30:1, borrowing from the fact that all organic matter contains a certain percentage of both carbon and nitrogen. In effect, the varied strains of bacteria primarily responsible for decomposition have an ideal "diet" of 30:1, wherein the carbohydrates of carbon are balanced by a suitable proportion of protein or nitrogen. Most deciduous leaves have a C:N range of 50-70:1, while grass clippings, manures, and food scraps have a range of 15-20:1; woody materials often range as high as 500:1. Too much nitrogen in a pile results in the formation of ammonia gas; too much carbon and the pile will sulk for years. Mix the ingredients together, and a balance is achieved, resulting in a C:N more ideal for the bacteria, and in a faster, harder working compost pile.

Getting to the ideal mix of materials is generally a process of experimentation: mixing different types of material when they become seasonably available. In autumn and winter, leaves should be gathered and prepared in the bin; in spring and summer, grass and other green plant matter should be collected and mixed into the pile. As the materials are blended, the temperature of the pile will rise, signifying a dramatic increase in biological activity.

During peak mixing season, it will be necessary to turn or aerate the pile every time new materials are added and, for a hot pile, approximately once every two weeks. Turning with less frequency will also result in a good compost product, but will necessarily take longer.

Investment: It is beneficial to the composting process to invest time and energy in initially building the bin or pile, ensuring that added materials are moist, selecting the proper diversity of materials for a compost "stew," and periodically checking and correcting the moisture content. Beyond establishing a healthy pile, a composter can spend as much or as little time in maintenance as is desired. Frequent turning and shredding of materials will boost the process, but a slower approach can also yield an elixir for the garden.

Many composters actually prefer to exert themselves less and let time and nature -- and earthworms -- do most of the work. This more passive approach is well served by using two compost bins or systems, one for each alternating year. Fill a bin this year, harvest from it in two years, and so on, back and forth, with a fraction of the turning, mixing, and management. The final compost from this "vintage" approach may be lighter in nutrient content, but still valuable as an organic soil conditioner.

Troubleshooting: Sometimes things go wrong -- even with composting. Fortunately, every problem has a fairly direct solution, with most of the problems stemming from lack of moisture, too much moisture, a nitrogen imbalance, or poorly managed food scraps.

Troubleshooting (Problem - Cause: Solution)
  • Bad Odor - Uncovered or improperly used food scraps : Remove and discard any improper materials (meats, dairy, etc.); bury materials under one foot or more of inert materials.
  • Bad Odor - Anaerobic pile: Turn materials, mixing in dry leaves, straw, or wood chips. Check base of pile for proper drainage.
  • Bad Odor - Too much grass: Mix grass with other dry or high-carbon materials or remove some grass, spread out to dry, and mix back into pile.
  • Insect Pests - Too dry, not mixed properly: Make sure food materials are properly buried, and turn outer layer of materials into core of pile. Hot piles will destroy or deter most insects, such as grubs and other larvae (maggots). Moisten pile if necessary; moist piles deter bees and wasps. Use caution when taking wood chips and woody material from potential termite and carpenter ant sources such as rotted wood piles or municipal mulch piles.
  • Insect Pests - Not necessarily pests: Not all insects in a compost pile are "pests," the compost ecosystem includes a host of useful invertebrates, including isopods, millipedes, centipedes, worms, ants, among others.
  • Animal Pests - Improper food handling: Most animals are deterred by burying food under other materials; for persistent problems, especially with rodents, stop adding food, use an enclosed bin, or change bin design to restrict access. A secure lid will discourage most possums, raccoons, and birds.
  • Pile not breaking down - Insufficient nitrogen: Add grass, manure, kitchen scraps or other natural nitrogen source.
  • Pile not breaking down - Pile is too dry: Add water while turning until moist, not wet; should feel like a sponge throughout.
  • Pile not breaking down - Poor aeration: Start turning and mixing materials more often; check integrity of base, replace if broken down.
  • Pile heats up, then stops - Poor aeration: Hot piles need lots of fresh oxygen: turn materials as pile starts to cool down. It might be necessary to add an additional nitrogen source periodically.
  • Pile is slightly warm at middle - Pile is too small: Piles require a certain critical mass (approximately 18-20 cubic feet) to work efficiently. Add more materials if possible, or use a smaller bin to concentrate the pile's volume.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser