Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sharing Your Holidays With Wildlife

However you prepare to decorate for the upcoming holiday season, you might want to expand your spirit of giving to include your feathered and furred neighbors. You will find that creating colorful, edible outdoor ornaments is a fun, imaginative, and rewarding activity that will bring your family closer together, and may launch a wonderful new tradition.

An increasingly popular trend is to get double-duty out of one’s decorations. For example, make garlands for your indoor Christmas tree using dried fruits and berries and later decorate an outdoor tree with that same garland. You may then move a cut Christmas tree with such garlands outdoors after the holidays (after removing lights and other ornaments), leaving it near a window where the whole family can watch the birds and other critters enjoy the feast.

Some of the more popular garlands are made from cranberries, slices of dried apricots, oranges, apples, and pears, raw peanuts, and popcorn. Use carpet thread, heavy twine, or even waxed dental floss and a strong needle, such as those used for needlepoint or tapestry work, and either string a garland of cranberries or popcorn by itself, or create a multicolored treat by alternating a mixture of berries and dried fruits. Popcorn garlands should be salt and shortening-free. However, as the popcorn often splits in the process, you may prefer to use in-the-shell peanuts instead. Never use clear fishing line, which is difficult for wildlife to see and which might ensnare an unwitting visitor.

The same principle can be applied to wreathes, swags, and garlands for railings and doorways. Begin by using grapevines or fresh-cut evergreens, like pine and cedar, wired together to form a swag or wreath., into which you can interweave sprays of white proso millet and elderberry, dried seedhead clusters from sumac, sorghum, purple coneflower, and Rudbeckia, as well as a cornucopia of dried fruits, rose hips, berries, and nuts. You can also purchase prefabricated straw wreaths or evergreen wreaths and garland to achieve the same effect with a bit less effort.

Doubling the fun with indoor/outdoor decorations has caught on so well that a number of upscale retailers like Smith & Hawken and Gardener’s Supply Company now offer their own festive versions of homemade swags, wreathes, bouquets, and centerpieces, including bouquet refills to keep birds coming back.

Of course, if you find the idea of festooning your formal parlor with popcorn somewhat unappetizing, you can always designate an outdoor Yuletide Tree for your nature-friendly efforts. You can certainly use any of the above notions and augment them with additional treats, perhaps fresh fruit garlands of grapes, pieces of orange and apple, blueberries, golden raisins, and so forth, or simply turn to the pinecone, the most popular and foolproof wildlife ornament of all.

Start by collecting large pine cones, such as those from loblolly or longleaf pines, and deftly cover them with peanut butter – the crunchier the better. Let kids use their little fingers to reach into all the tight spots. Roll the pine cones in a commercial mix of bird seed, or blend your own using black oil sunflower seeds and millet. Use red twine or yarn to hang the ornaments from the bare branches of deciduous trees like dogwoods, or secure to any of the pines and spruces around your yard. Be sure to place the cones in trees you can easily watch.

Your pinecone treats can be jazzed up by mixing peanut butter with suet or substituting suet altogether. You can also add raisins, cranberries, and minced pieces of unsalted nuts and dried fruits to your seed mix to make the ornaments more colorful and more appealing for birds.
Additional ornaments can be made from slices of stale bread by using cookie cutters to cut out fanciful holiday shapes like gingerbread men, stars, evergreen trees, Christmas stockings, and even Santa himself! Let the bread harden overnight, coat with peanut butter or suet, and adorn with your seed mixture. Bagels, sliced in half, and similarly spread with peanut butter and seeds, may be hung outdoors on your Hanukkah tree.

Naturally, if you plan to spend the better part of a month tracking down hard-to-find Hanna Montana paraphernalia, you might not want to invest time in homespun arts-and-crafts. Fear not! You will quickly find wildlife and gardening-oriented merchants offering a constellation of red and green star-shaped suet feeders, suet and seed encrusted holiday bells, stars, and Christmas tree shapes. There are commercial peanut bags, which lack the panache of the traditional red stocking that St. Nick favors, and egg cartons filled with a dozen assorted songbird “eggs,” as well as pricey edible bird “cottages.”

Lastly, if the ground has not frozen over, you can always give one of the best gifts of all to nature by planting a native tree or shrub to provide nuts or berries to a wide variety of local wildlife for many years to come. Then you may hang a peanut butter pinecone on it after you’re done.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Roots (and Tubers) of the Thanksgiving Tradition

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, a holiday full of swirling memories and preparations, like so many colorful autumn leaves. It’s a celebration of family and food and delightful traditions. And it can be a reminder that our traditions are actually anything but traditional.

I was rather young when I first learned that my family’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner was not the universal norm. We dined on turkey and stuffing, potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. Normal enough. However, elsewhere in the colonies, specifically Brooklyn, our Italian neighbors celebrated with their traditional Thanksgiving lasagna and antipasto platter.

Later, my wife and in-laws introduced me to the traditional Baltimore side dish of sauerkraut. Curiously, the denizens of Charm City have somehow failed to draw the logical connection between sauerkraut and hot dogs at ball games, but that’s another story.

For the most part, we imagine Thanksgiving as a timeless tableau, a generous feast first celebrated by grateful Pilgrims and kind-spirited Native Americans at the Plymouth Colony in 1641. And we generally envision an assortment of foods similar to our “traditional” Thursday spread, sauerkraut notwithstanding.

Alas, we are savoring more of myth than reality. The first Thanksgiving observance actually took place in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1578, almost 50 years before Plymouth. And when the Separatists of Plymouth finally did celebrate their “First Thanksgiving,” it was more likely held near the end of July a couple years later.

Don’t worry, however, there was undoubtedly a harvest celebration in 1621, and we can always trace our tradition to that event. But don’t expect any mashed potatoes or cranberry sauce.
Written accounts from the period indicate that such feasts included venison, mussels, cod, and herring. What, no turkey? It is possible that wild turkey (the game bird, not the bourbon) was served, although duck, goose and crane were more likely.

Bad news concerning sweet potatoes: Christopher Columbus may have brought the colorful tuber back to Europe in the late 15th century, but in 1621 no one in New England was enjoying baked sweet potatoes drizzled with maple syrup. Likewise for potatoes, the world’s favorite root crop. Boiled, baked, or mashed, the noble spud would not appear on New World tables for another 100 years or more. Fortunately, Native Americans had introduced the settlers to pumpkins and to numerous varieties of squash.

And while cranberry sauce may not have been available, as sugar was not to be had, the Native Americans would have had cranberries on hand. In fact, they often mixed the berries into their traditional travel food, pemmican, sort of a cross between beef jerky and granola bars. Moreover, it has been suggested that Indians may have taught the colonists to tame the tartness of the berry by boiling it along with maple syrup, which may have been the inspiration for cranberry sauce itself.

The colorful cranberry has almost as important a role in American agriculture as it does on the dinner table. Cranberry, along with the Concord grape and the blueberry, is one of the few native fruits commercially grown.

The plant’s name is traced to Crane-berry in the early 17th century, either because cranes were noted gobbling their way through the cranberry bogs, or, more colorfully, because the vine’s discrete pink flowers in spring resemble the head and bill of a Sandhill crane, or the scarlet lores (patch) above the crane’s eye.

Today, while cranberries are grown throughout North America, nearly half the total harvest originates in the bogs of Massachusetts. It seems to be a tradition that lives on.

And while the lowly potato is a relative newcomer to our traditional feast, its journey to our table was as difficult and tenuous as airport, train, and highway traffic the night before Thanksgiving.

Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) were brought back to the “Old Country” some 50 years after Columbus made landfall. Like the tomato, it is another South and Central American member of the Solanacaea or deadly “Nightshade” family. And, like the tomato, potatoes were considered to contain aphrodisiac properties, on the one hand, or cause leprosy -- which was also associated with unbridled carnal activity. There are varied accounts of potatoes returning to the new world in the Virginia colonies as early as the 1630s, or to New England via Irish immigrants in the early 18th century.

More recently, in developed countries, 99 percent of all root crop production is in potatoes. And why not? They are famously high in fiber, carbohydrates, and protein, as well as vitamins B and C, and essential minerals such as magnesium, zinc, iron, and copper.

For the most part, they are relatively easy to grow, with hundreds of cultivars available, perfect for raised beds or even containers and tubs. For the adventurous gardener, russet or white potatoes might be all well and good, but what about the dazzling array of heirloom varieties, ranging from ‘Yellow Finn’ and ‘German Yellow,’ to red-skinned ‘Pontiac’ and ‘Red Norland,’ or even ‘All Blue’ and ‘Purple Peruvian?’ After all, what could be more traditional than old-fashioned heirloom varieties?

Sweet potatoes introduce another tradition: the annual confusion between sweet potatoes and yams. For the record, the so-called “true yams” (Dioscorea spp.) are actually of West African or Asian origin, and they are dry, white, and quite starchy – unlike the sweeter, delectable flesh of sweet potatoes with their deep yellow or reddish-orange tubers.

Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatus) is related to bindweed or morning glory, as its fast-growing vines will attest, and originated in Central or South America, possibly Brazil, Peru, or Equador.

There are generally two types of sweet potato, a dry-fleshed variety with white flesh, best grown in colder climates (and far too yam-like for comfort), and the moist-flesh or southern variety with which we’re happily familiar. Interestingly, the majority of sweet potatoes are grown in China, while it’s the second most important crop in Japan, where it is used to produce starch, wine, and alcohol. At home, nearly 30 percent of the sweet potatoes grown in the U.S. are cultivated in North Carolina, which also goes a long way to explain the South’s fondness for sweet potato, rather than pumpkin, pie.

Sweet potatoes can be rather versatile in the home garden. They can be cultivated normally, like potatoes, or even used as either an attractive ground cover, or interspersed in hanging baskets with trailing flowers. No promises, but the vines also infrequently produce pink flowers. In addition, by way of warning, I once surprised myself to find about two pounds of tubers growing in a hanging basket one fall season. I had only planted the vines to provide a light green contrast to other, darker foliage, little expecting a side dish.

You can start your sweet potato plantation by simply buying “slips” from local nurseries and garden centers, or through catalogs, for more unusual cultivars. About 25 slips will suffice for a family of four. You can also propagate your own from tubers which you or a neighbor have successfully overwintered from the garden. Don’t try to use store-bought tubers, as they are frequently treated with a compound precisely to prevent sprouting. Set your sweet potato in a glass of water, with one-third submerged. When the young sprouts are about six inches long pull them off (don’t cut them) and set them in water or moist sand until a dense mat of roots are formed. You can transplant them outdoors a few weeks after the last threat of frost. And, by the way, sprouting sweet potatoes is great fun for younger children. Many a school windowsill is covered with vines every spring.

For home composting devotees, note that sweet potatoes can be easily grown in a modest-sized bin filled with shredded leaves from the previous autumn. Be sure to keep the leaf mold moist for the first several weeks while roots are developing. By the following fall, your leaves will have mostly decomposed into a wonderful mulch, and your tubers will have grown freely and exuberantly in their fluffy medium.

Overall, sweet potato vines can grow up to four feet or more, although there are several cultivars with compact growth habits and shorter vines, which are ideally suited for barrels or patio containers, including ‘Bunch Porto Rico’ and ‘Vardaman.’

Other popular standard varieties include ‘Allgold’, ‘Heart-o-gold,’ ‘Nancy Hall,’ ‘Centennial,’ high-yielding ‘Beauregard,’ ‘Jewel,’ ‘Yellow Jersey,’ and ‘Southern Delight.’

And while sweet potatoes are an important part of our Thanksgiving tradition, they are gaining even more status as an important source of nutrition, with fiber, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium, antioxidants, and beta carotene. In fact, one sweet potato provides half the recommended daily allowance of beta carotene. It’s everything you need for a happy – and healthy – holiday. Just watch out for those tiny marshmallows!

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Branches, Berries & Blooms for Winter

You can beat the blahs of a winter landscape by remembering the three B’s of off-season gardening: blooms, branches, and berries. Admittedly, there are only a handful of introduced plants, and even fewer native species, which bloom and provide colorful relief during the gray days of mid-winter, with the striking and noteworthy exception of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), alternately called common, fall- or winter-blooming witch hazel.

Our native variety is a relatively slow-growing small tree or upright shrub which begins its horticultural display in autumn with yellow fall foliage which soon turns to orange and golden-brown, and proudly heralds the beginning of its late-season blooming period. After the leaves have fallen, clusters of small, soft-scented yellow flowers appear along the branches from October through December. Each spidery clump consists of four twisted, fringe-like petals not quite one-inch long. Interestingly, the lemon-yellow ribbons tend to fully unfurl on warm sunny days, when we are lucky enough to get them, and, like most of us, curl up into a more compact mass when the weather turns cold and threatening.

More than a dozen non-native witch hazel cultivars have been gaining in popularity among winter gardeners, with dramatic new flower colors ranging from ruby-red and copper, to burgundy and bright orange-yellow, and featuring significantly later blooming periods, even into February, and a stronger fragrance. These low-maintenance hybrids are typically crosses of Chinese and Japanese witch hazels, and include favorites like ‘Jelena,’ which combines brilliant fall foliage in November with an encore of coppery red blooms as late as February and March, and ‘Arnold Promise,’ a brilliant yellow late-blooming cultivar developed by the Arnold Arboretum.

For more year-round color, garden designers have long cherished the subtle and sometimes spectacular twigs and trunks of our native dogwood species. Leading the list is red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea formerly stolonifera), also aptly called red-twig dogwood. This fast-growing specimen is a cousin to the white flowering dogwood with which we are more familiar, and quickly forms attractive thickets ideal for screening or habitat plantings.

Although its white flowers and berries are popular among songbirds like vireos, finch, and pine warblers, they are somewhat dull in appearance, a deficit more than offset by its brilliant red twigs and reddish-green bark. After a snowfall, nothing stands out in a winter garden more than the vivid red stems which seem to shoot up from a pure field of snow. In addition, goldfinches have been known to favor this species for a nesting site; their bright feathers flitting among the branches will ornament both shrub and garden alike.

Another attractive option is the yellow-twig dogwood (‘Silver and Gold’), a cultivar of red osier, renowned for its green and white variegated foliage, good autumn color, and, above all, bright golden bark.

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) takes its name from the grayish hairs along younger branches and flower buds, and features reddish-purple twigs and darker mahogany-brown bark. Silky dogwood also presents lovely flat creamy-white clusters of flowers in the spring, followed by bluish clusters of fruit in late summer, often lasting through fall and possibly winter.

The final and perhaps most important components for a winter garden are berries. Berry-bearing small trees and shrubs add a surprising splash of color and seem to stand out equally well against either snow-covered garden beds or leaden winter skies. Of equal importance, berries support scores of migrating and over-wintering birds, some of which, like cardinals, woodpeckers and bluebirds, add their own element of lively color to a landscape.

Topping most lists is winterberry or “possum haw” (Ilex verticillata), a deciduous native holly with upright, spreading stems reaching up to ten feet in height. Clusters of white flowers appear in April through May, producing bright reddish-orange to deep red berries which last through the winter, avian appetites notwithstanding. Keep in mind that winterberry is dioecious, having male and female flowers on respective plants, and requiring at least one male shrub for every three to four female specimens.

Native viburnum species, such as Arrowwood or American cranberry (V. trilobum), provide attractive clusters of white flowers in spring, brilliant fall foliage, and berries ranging from bright red to bluish-black in fall through winter. The species also provide an important source of fruit to more than fifty species of songbirds in our area.

Both red and purple chokeberries (Aronia species) take their name from colorful fruits which offer brilliant red and scarlet foliage in autumn, followed by bright red or blackish-purple fruits throughout the winter. For best effect, it is generally recommended that chokeberries be planted in clusters for a natural, sprawling effect.

Sumacs are best known alongside roadways, but smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) makes for attractive massed plantings or “colonies” in home landscapes, like the chokeberries. Autumn foliar displays, similar to chokeberries, are replaced in winter by greenish-crimson fruit which can last into spring and are keen favorites of bluebirds, catbirds, robins, and mockingbirds.

These, of course, are only a sampling of the (mostly) native species which can be used to adorn a winter garden. There are also evergreens with variegated foliage, ornamental grasses featuring golden orange stems and graceful tufts of seedheads, and so much more. For an expanded tour of the subject turn to Rosemary Verey’s now-classic The Garden in Winter.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, November 11, 2011

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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Composting with Pallets

Wooden shipping pallets are easily recycled into large, heavy-duty compost bins. Pallets are available for free from many area businesses, assemble in minutes, and with them you can produce rich humus, mulch and compost year after year. Here's how:

A Simple Pallet Bin

Obtain five pallets with narrow spaces between slats (1/2" - 1") and of uniform size. Many pallets measure 40" by 48" and will form a 48 cubic foot capacity bin. Pick up pallets from loading docks, freight companies, hardware stores, product wholesalers, nurseries and garden centers. Each year, American businesses send more than 300 million pallets to landfills and incinerators -- there are always plenty around for free. Good places to check are print shops, tire wholesalers, even central post office facilities who handle bulk mail.

To begin, place one pallet (slat-side up) on level ground. This pallet is the bottom of your bin and will allow for good drainage and aeration by keeping yard trimmings above the ground. Properly drained and aerated compost decomposes quickly and without odors.

Arrange the remaining pallets upright around each side of the base to form a box, short (40") sides up. Use spare wire, coathangers, or nylon rope to fasten the pallets together. Join pallets at each corner, lashing both the top and bottom. You can gain access to your compost pile by unfastening one side of a pallet and swinging it out like a hinged door.

Multi-Bin Units

Large properties and institutions like schools and churches may require a larger compost bin system to accommodate their materials. And gardeners looking for quick compost may prefer a multi-bin system to make turning materials easier.

First, construct a single bin as described above. Then expand your compost system by setting another pallet to the right of the base of your existing bin, and adjoining it. Form another box with three additional pallets to form the door and sides of the new bin. The two bins will share one side. Additional "bins" can be added-on using just four pallets at a time.

Two-bin systems allow easy turning of materials by transferring decomposing trimmings from one side to the other. Three-bin systems are favored by aggressive composters, with one bin used for newer materials, which are "turned" or transferred into the second bin after several weeks (or months), and later into the final "curing" bin for several weeks or months, prior to use. Churches and schools frequently construct three, four, or more bin systems to handle materials.

Lifespan and Maintenance

Pallet bin sides generally last from four to six years, depending on the level of active use. Bases last one to two years and need to be replaced. Just drop another fresh pallet over the old base after removing any compost still in the bin -- keep the new base as level as possible. The decomposing pallet will eventually turn to compost. Check corner lashing periodically and replace every several years, or as needed.

Piles and Pallets and Bins

Some composters prefer to use a free standing pile or "heap." Even this simple method of composting can be enhanced by using pallets to improve drainage and aeration. Use a pallet as the base of your compost "heap," rather than the layer of twigs or brush that are traditionally recommended. This smooth, even base will permit materials to be turned much more easily.

To create a pallet base, use a pallet with narrow 1/2" spaces between slats. If a pallet with narrow spaces is not available, try stapling or tacking a layer of hardware cloth to the top of the pallet to keep material from falling through the spaces. Two adjacent pallets on the ground create a handy work area for easy turning.

Homeowners who already have one of many commercially available compost bins can also improve good drainage and aeration. Simply set your open-base bin atop a wooden pallet. A layer of brush is now no longer required, thereby expanding you prefabricated unit's capacity.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, November 04, 2011

Autumn & the Garden Year Begins

The days are growing shorter and colder, and your mailbox is already full of winter catalogs. You might think your garden chores are finished for the season. Think again. The garden year actually begins with the misty, mellow days of autumn.

Spring only seems like the perfect time to resume work on your landscape. After all, garden centers are overflowing seductively with flowering plants, community groups plan Arbor Day celebrations and all around, you can hear lawnmowers chomping on fast-growing grass.

However, planting trees and shrubs in the spring gives the plants very little time to overcome transplant shock and develop essential root systems before summer's scorching heat and dry conditions.

Fall is the ideal and appropriate time to plant and transplant trees, shrubs and many perennials. In fact, it is important to get both broad-leaved and needle-leaved evergreens in the ground no later than mid-autumn. Species like holly, spruce, juniper, pine, fir and hemlock do not enter a dormant phase. Instead, they continue to transpire actively through their leaves during winter, which requires fully functioning root systems capable of taking water from the soil.

Planting as soon as possible allows roots to reestablish vital root hairs or fibers, which will begin supplying water. This is especially important for any plant with a root system that may have been damaged while being dug up for transplanting. Moreover, fall planting gives transplants two full growing seasons to become settled in before the dog days of summer. Water thoroughly after planting – and keep watering every week, if dry conditions ensue.

Planting and transplanting deciduous trees and shrubs — like maples, dogwoods, lilacs, hydrangea and viburnum — is best done after their leaves have fallen, signaling dormancy. Without the burden of supplying water and nutrients to leaves and branches, the tree can focus on growing new roots and preparing for blooming and leafing out in spring.

Fall is also the season for planting almost all hardy spring-flowering bulbs, such as tulips, scilla, crocuses, hyacinths and narcissus, which includes daffodils and jonquils. Some gardeners prefer digging individual holes for each bulb, especially with more formal species like tulips. Prepare a hole two-and-one-half times deeper than the bulb’s diameter. Before setting the bulb in place, toss in a handful of bonemeal or a dose of a “complete fertilizer,” then fill in the hole.

A better approach for other bulbs might be to treat them like perennials. Prepare a well-drained planting area or bed by removing any weeds and debris and topping the area with four to six inches of compost. Incorporate the compost into the existing soil with a shovel, spade or rototiller, working the amendment down into the top 10 or 12 inches of existing earth. Then insert the bulbs into the fluffy, organically-rich planting medium, preferably in groups or clumps — far more attractive than formal rows Many gardeners use this type of preparation to “naturalize” bulbs like crocus and daffodils, thereby creating a flow of bright, nodding blooms between trees on a lawn, or down a hillside. Such plantings, also called “drifts,” are often seen along parkways and in natural garden areas.

Rescue, renovate or rethink your lawn during the fall as well. If you have not worked on it in autumn, anything you do in spring will be too little and too late. Start by investing in a simple $5-10 soil test through your local cooperative extension service office. The test will provide complete and sound directions for applying lime and fertilizer. Remember that autumn is the best and sometimes the only time to feed most turfgrasses.

Like trees and shrubs, grass plants continue to develop roots throughout winter. Feeding the roots and aiding their development now will ensure a healthier, more drought-tolerant lawn come spring and summer.

Lawns could also do with a breath of fresh air about now. Consider contracting with a landscaper to core aerate the lawn, or rent an aerator and do it yourself. The process, which normally costs less than $100 regardless of who does the work, will remove plugs from the soil and allow air to infiltrate deeper into the ground and stimulate grass roots. The small holes will improve drainage and help nutrients and organic matter — such as grass clippings and leaves — work their way into the soil horizon.

You also can add valuable organic matter to your lawn by mulching or grinding up leaves with a mower. Otherwise, rake up fallen leaves and other debris and add them to the compost pile to prevent the spread of fungal diseases during the wet winter months.

If your lawn has been a disappointment, cut it down to size. Autumn is the perfect time to create new planting beds. Either remove sod with a shovel or leave it in place and smother it with cardboard and newspaper. Apply six, eight or more inches of mulch over the top of the bed and walk away. Worms and microorganisms will gobble up grass, roots and mulch while you sip hot cocoa indoors, leaving you with a brand-new planting area to play with in spring. Instead of complaining about your lawn, spend winter thumbing through colorful garden and seed catalogs.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser