Harnessing heat from the compost heap

I’m supposed to be working, but I  just can’t concentrate so I’m making a blog entry.

I never got around to doing a hoop house.  In fact, my enthusiasm right now is so low that it’s almost not there.  (Family stuff).    I did start some seeds already.  I’m leaning towards the soil blocks because they take up less room.  But before I decided on  doing the soil blocks, I started some mustard seeds in an egg carton.  (The sprouted seeds in the little container are asparagus seeds).

I started the mustard seeds in a little flat, and then I took the time to divide the egg cartons into semi-individual compartments (a little obsessive, I know), and then I thought about the soil blocks.

I started the Rainbow Swiss Chard in the egg cartons too, but later transplanted them into a window planter and after that into individual peat pots that fit nicely into the window planter.

I did make some soil blocks and planted/transplanted some herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary, lavender), lettuce, broccoli, brussles sprouts, tomatoes (brandywine and sweet 100), bell peppers (green and yellow), asparagus and godetia (thanks, Granny).  They’re all growing just fine.

I also planted egg plant, nasturtium, a few snow peas, cauliflower and marigolds into the soil blocks, and I’m waiting for them to germinate.

I didn’t do a hoop house, per se, but last fall I made a compost pile out of leaves and grass and soil from any pots that the plants had finished.  I surrounded the pile with fencing and threw a tarp over it.   In the front part of the bed I planted some swiss chard plants that my mother-in-law gave me and piled the compost ingredients in the back of the bed.   Before I got a chance to pick any of the swiss chard its snowed on them and I threw them out of my mind.

A couple of weeks ago when the weather started warming a little, I went out to check on the compost and noticed it was a little warm.  I mixed some alfalfa pellets into the pile to hopefully get it heating up a little faster.  Just for the fun of it, I took the dead looking swiss chard and planted them on the top of the compost pile.   A few days later I plucked one of the plants out of the ground and saw it was growing new roots.  Joy of  joys, they’re putting on new leaf growth now.

I wish I had taken a picture of the dead looking things I started with.  Anyway, I figured if the compost pile is putting out heat, if I covered the area it would be enough heat for the cool season things.  So, I put out the swiss chard first, and it did fine.  Then I put out the little tray of lettuce (the first planting), the spinach, the second planting of lettuce, the herbs, broccoli, brussles sprouts and the asparagus.  I have no idea how the asparagus is going to do in soil blocks, but it’s an experiment.  (They’re the ferny looking things in the lower right of the first photo).

The temp this morning was 36  (brrrrrr! ), but my plants were basking in a cozy 60 degrees.  Midday it was up to 70.   I fluffed up the compost pile, mixed in a handful of alfalfa pellets, gave it a drink of water and brought out the tray with the warm season stuff.  Instead of running the lights and the heating pad in the house and running up my electric bill, I’m using the free heat from the compost and the free light from Mother Nature. 

I know I’m taking a chance, but if all else fails and the plants die, I’ll just have to buy bell peppers and tomatoes. 

Here’s where the plants are living until I take the time to put them into the ground.

Not very pretty, but it serves the purpose.

Happy Gardening!!!

Here’s what happened with the “hoop house.”

Nineteen days ago I threw some plastic over some more PVC pipes to make another covered wagon  “hoop house.”  100_0061

It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the neighborhood and I had quite a few “is this chick crazy” looks, but you guys understand.  The weather is finally staying pretty warm and last night was the first night that I kept the cover off.  Everything is coming right along.

The strawberries are fruiting.  These are the Free Cycle strawberries I got last year.  (Sorry for the washed out picture, I just didn’t feel like going out and taking another one).100_0200

The borage is growing.100_0202

I’ve read that they get fairly big needing 12-inch spacing.  And since I have five in one square foot I’m sure I’ll end up transplanting some of them.  The leaves, which taste like cucumbers, can be used in a salad, the flowers are a butterfly attractant, and borage tisane (tea) is good for your mood.  I likes that.

The bush beans are growing (no actual beans yet, though).100_0203

The tomatoes are doing fine .100_0204

A couple of them have flowers starting to come on.100_0227

This is the Egyptian Walking Onions.  Pretty soon onion bulblets will start developing on the top. 100_0205

I got them last year from my aunt and forgot to plant them.  They stayed in a plastic bag outside the whole winter, and when I planted the first bed with the “hoop house” (3-15-09) is when they went in the ground.  They can take a licking and keep on ticking. 

Here’s where I planted a yellow squash and a volunteer potato popped up right next to it.  I haven’t decided which one, if either, I’ll pull.


Here are three lemon cucumbers.  I’ll have to start all over with the pickling cukes because I planted them too early in cold soil and they’re just sitting there.100_0211

The peas are on their way.100_0213

All of that is going on in this one bed (minus the peas).  100_0214

My spinach (front row, second from the left) is growing, but slowly.  All the tomatoes have a globe basil planted in the same square (forgot to take a picture).

I was thinking of harvesting all of the garlic chives since they’ve started flowering, but I threw the petals onto a salad and they’re pretty good.  But this is what really changed my mind…


Whatever it was this little fella was looking for in this garlic chive blossom must have been good to him.  He stayed around long enough for me to take four pictures (with a low batter in the camera, so it took a little longer for me to be able to get to the next shot).

The next few things to do will be to…

  • remove the PVC pipes and put in stakes for the tomatoes
  • figure out where I want to put the watermelon and canteloupe
  • figure out where I want to put the pole beans
  • plant more cucumbers
  • find a better location for the raspberry containers
  • separate the blackberry canes
  • figure out where I want to put the asparagus
  • empty out the big black composter to use to grow sweet potatoes
  • fill up some of the extra pots to grow something edible in them

But…before I can do all that, there are a few work-related things I’ve got to get done, so I’ll be MIA for a few days.

That’s it for now.

Happy Gardening!!!

Garden Update

Five weeks is all it took to go from this



To this…


One of the ladies from the Building Urban Gardens class that we took at the Garfield Park Conservatory stopped by to get a few plants.  She pointed out the fact that what I have been calling turnips are actually mustard greens of the slick leaf variety.  My brain said they were turnips, so my eyes said, “Okay.  If that’s what you say.”  It’s a good thing I actually like mustard greens.

So, yesterday was the first harvest of 2009.


6.8 ounces.  Yay!!

The “hoop house” really made a difference.  The whole bed was planted on 3-15.  The same day I planted the bed with the cover, I planted seeds in the spot I reserve for my elephant ear.  100_0097

There’s a world of difference between the two.  (Left to right:  lettuce, spinach, raddish, beets)

The “hoop house” even outproduced some of the lettuce I started in the house in a long window type planter.  Some of the lettuce I kept in the long planter and some I transplanted into paper pots , which didn’t work out so well because they never really grew much in the paper pots.  I later transplanted some of the planter lettuce  into the yard.  They’re in the first four rows.   Most of the lettuce that germinated was the red lettuce, and they’re kind of hard to see against the dark background.  They’re growing, but slowly.


The lettuce didn’t grow well in the paper pots, but they didn’t die either.  On 4-14 I transplanted some of them into this self-watering container that was sitting outside from last year.


They just started putting on a little growth over the last week (during those warm days).

Well, I guess we have the results of one of my garden experiments.   Newly germinated cold tolerant seeds that get snowed on will continue to grow with the help of frost protection.

The results were so nice, I had to do it twice.


And it’s working great.  In this bed is the chives and garlic chives, the Egyptian walking onions, the few surviving garlic plants, and the strawberries from last year.  Once the cover went on, the strawberry leaves got larger almost over night.  I planted about six tomatoes and a globe basil in the tomatoes’ squares because I read that the basil enhances the flavor of the tomatoes.  I planted the borage, one squash, onion bulbs, I seeded a couple of squares with carrots and a couple of squares with turnips…really, turnips, not mustards.   I planted a few of the lemon cukes and a couple squares with bush beans.   A few marigolds went in and a couple of petunias. 

The third bed is planted with broccoli interplanted with lettuce; kale, which hasn’t hardly grown since it got it’s true leaves; collards, which aren’t doing much better; bell peppers; corn; potatoes.  That’s a lot going on into 32 square feet, but we’re supposed to be able to plant “intensively,” aren’t we?

I may have a raspberry or two…


(containerized raspberries al la Free Cycle)

I may have a blueberry or two…


(containerized blueberry I ordered)

This blueberry plant looks pretty good, but the buy one/get one free for just about $10 looked so bad to me that I complained about them.  They sent me two more replacements, but they weren’t much better looking.


The two on the left were the original and the two on the right were the replacements.  Had I known that these plants would have been so small I would have gotten something else.  But they’re mine now.  Hopefully they’ll start growing.

Here’s a shot of the perennial bed.  The bleeding hearts are doing especially well this year.


The seedlings.  They’re holding their own.  I’m truly tired of shuffling them in and out, and it makes even less sense now since I’ve planted every square foot in the raised beds.  Very soon, I’m going to pass a few on to my mother-in-law, my cousin and a couple neighbors.  I still feel compelled to make sure they’re hardened off before I pass them on.  I’d hate for them to die after all the work I put into them.

And last, but not least…



Happy Mother's Day

Hoop House Webinar

Yesterday I attended a webinar on hoop house construction that was presented by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. There were 600 on-line participants with 450 still tuned in at the end of the webinar.  Tammy Hinman and Andy Pressman were the speakers.

The focus of the webinar was extending the growing season for farmers to give them a head start on getting their produce to market, but the principles can be applied to even backyard gardeners. The full webinar will be available in a few days on their website, but I’ll hit the highlights.

  • Hoop houses are used to give you an earlier start on the growing season, a longer harvest, and can even be used to grow through the winter.
  • Yields are typically larger in a hoop house.
  • You can have heat gains of 4 to 12 degrees.
  • Hoop houses are generally not heated.
  • A width to length ratio of 1 to 2 will achieve highest solar gain.’
  • A narrow tunnel tends to lose less heat.
  • Taller tunnels have better ventilation.
  • Two days earlier in the ground equals one day earlier harvest.
  • Beneficial insects aren’t prone to go into the houses, so you should introduce them.
  • Shade cloth can lower temperature.
  • Using a low tunnel within a high tunnel can make a difference equal to two zones south
  • For winter success you should start your crops while the days are still long.

Types of   Hoop Houses

  • Low tunnel: inexpensive, easy to install but labor intensive
  • High tunnel: high enough to stand up in.   Can be semi-permanent, permanent, movable.

There are two basic shapes: quantic (rounded roof, sloped sides) or gothic (high pointed peak).

Construction/Site Selection:

  • Foundation needs to be firm.
  • Soil should be well drained.
  • You should have full sun and protection from winter elements.
  • Orientation is specific to location, but north of 40 degrees latitude should be oriented east to west.
  • Construction begins with ground posts. 
  • Frame can be made from wood, pvc, electric conduit, galvanized steel.
  • Pulins run horizontal and helps stabilize the structure.
  • Baseboard sits on ground and it’s where the plastic is attached.
  • Hip boards run along sides a few feet off ground.
  • End walls are constructed separately.


  • Greenhouse poly film is a better choice.
  • 4ml or 5 ml plastics can be used.
  • Make sure plastic is applied tight enough to not cause flapping.
  • Roll up sides, which allow access, are made using the hip board.

Soil Management:

  • Avoid soil salinazation – (I was sleeping a little on this one. I think it has to do with the condensation causing salt buildup in the soil).
  • Add nutrients (compost at a ratio of 5 gallons for every 40 sq ft).

Cropping Systems:

  • Typical crops are lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, specialty flowers.
  • You can do succession planting.  For example, lettuce and greens then tomatoes and melons followed by strawberries in the fall.
  • Your bed systems can be raised beds, permanent beds or annual beds.
  • Containers such as grow bags and buckets can be used for quick turnaround.

Here are a few more highlights:

  • Plastic can be used for weed management and warming the soil.
  • Drip irrigation can be used and is especially good for longer season crops.
  • For weed management, hand weed or mulch, although hay is not recommended as a mulch.
  • There is usually a lower incidence of disease, and proper air ventilation is important. One form of management is to open structure in winter to allow spores to be killed.
  • Common pests are aphids, mites and white fly. They recommend using biorational controls.

If you have question or want more info, you can visit the site (there are 300 publications available for download) or contact the speakers:


or call their help line @ 1 (800) ASK-NCAT

After the presentation, questions were fielded. Here’s a condensed version of the questions and answers:

Q: In a high elevation with a three-month growing season, should a high tunnel be considered?
A: Yes, because in the west you may have inclement weather, but the sun shines 300 days a year which will help with the solar gain which will help the warm season crops.

Q: Any info on Elliot Coleman’s quick hoops concepts?
Answer: Elliot is a Maine grower and author. He wrote The Winter Harvest. He pioneered the use of low tunnels.  He uses low tunnels in high tunnels.  He also wrote The New Organic Grower, the Four Season Harvest.

A couple web resources: Hightunnels.org,   Hoophouses.comHaygrove and  American Society for Plasticulture.

Q: Any info on kits and design sources?
A: Look locally to avoid high shipping cost. Haygove has an American supplier. Farmtech is a supplier that also has roll-up and roll-down sides. Farmers can also be suppliers.

Q: Can gray or black window screen be used as shade cloth?
A: May work, not familiar with using it. May not provide the needed protection.

Q: Any help with wind issues?
A: Wind is top issue with setting up house. Many plastic coverings are lost due to wind. One option is take it down during windy months.

Q: How to attach plastic in high wind area?
A: Depends on structure. Use heavier plastic, 4-6 mil. Can use grommets. Can use sand bags. Attach to hip and base board for security. Roll-up and roll-down sides help with wind issue.

Q: Anyone use carpet mulch in commercial setting?
A: Haven’t heard of it being used commercially, but be careful with glue in carpet. Can cause soil toxicity issues.

Q: Regarding companion planting, what kind of flowers to plant to attract beneficials?
A: Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Controlsis available as publication at ATTRA. Typical plants that attract beneficials are  umbels such as flowering dill, fennel, yarrow, and nectar type of flowers. Most flowers will  attract beneficials.

Q: Are there issues to be aware of as far as crop rotation?
A: It is important to prevent disease and insect build-up. If you can only have one hoop house on a farm, a movable type is good for crop rotation. For smaller growers, you can rotate within the house to help more with disease but not so much with insects.

Q: Any suggestions for season extension for warm season crops?
A: Not seen situation where crops are direct seeded. It may be possible further south. Often times what’s seen is plants started ahead of time. Hoop house may increase soil temp a little, only 4 to 10 degrees. Plastic mulch will help warm the soil to 60-70 which is what warm season crops like. As season progresses and it gets hotter, shade cloth can be helpful.

Andy has directed seeded in northeast with success with spinach, chard, kale. When the temps were negative 20 outside it was 15 degrees inside. If crops freeze, once they thaw they’re fine. Shade cloth can benefit southern growers.

That, in a nutshell, is the contents of the webinar.  They plan on having two or three more this year.

As I said earlier, even though the presentation was aimed at farmers, the concepts can be scaled down  for use by the backyard gardener.  And remember, about 45 minutes of the presention will be available to be listened to in a few days at ATTRA’s website.

Happy Gardening!!!