Okay. This is my first ever attempt at blogging, but I’m very happy (and I’m sure my kids will be ecstatic) to find an outlet for my obsessions. My first obsession started around November when I started putting the garden to rest and stumbled across the idea of composting. I’ve been gardening since I was a little girl, and the idea of making my own compost never occurred to me. Ever.
Last spring (2007) when the weather first warmed up I got all excited about getting the garden started. I had some bags of compost from the summer of 2006 that I got for half price at Jewel’s end of year sale (and, boy, did I stock up). Anyway, I diligently planted every bulb and a lot of the seedlings I had in a compost/soil mix and sat the pots out in the yard. Of course, this being Chicago and all, it got cold again. Between the cold snaps and the squirrels digging my dahlia bulbs up, I had a bunch of pots with no plants.
The weather finally warmed up and I dumped all the soil from the pots in the middle of the garden and ended up planting marigolds and zinnias in that general area. I’d never planted marigolds before (these were grown from seeds too). The marigolds grew close to seven feet tall. My son’s 6.3 and they were taller than he was. The zinnias were taller than that. I had both plants in other spots in the yard, and none of them grew that tall.
Thus my obsession with compost was started.
I spent hours and hours reading literature about composting, about needing browns and greens. I have a little, bitty standard Chicago sized lot and little access to leaves and grass clippings. So, what to do for browns? Well, my neighbors were nice enough to supply me with my first source of browns, although they didn’t know they were doing it because I “appropriated” their nice bag of chopped leaves before the garbage man could. It was a little embarrassing, but I dragged the huge, heavy bag from next to their garbage cans across the alley into my garage and quickly closed the door. It was a little embarrassing the second time I did it, but I needed those browns, had do have those browns for my compost “fix.”
I put some of the leaves in black plastic bags, wet them down, closed the bags and sat them in a corner to make leaf mold and then I started my first batch of compost. I had been saving my kitchen scraps so I had some greens. I even started cooking more veggies so I could have more greens for the compost. I mixed my two parts browns (by weight, of course) to my one part greens and started my first batch of compost in a storage bin in the garage. The first batch only got hot once, but I dutifully turned it every day, made sure it stayed wrung-out-sponge moist and got usable compost. I started another batch around Thanksgiving (lots of greens for my stockpiled browns) and another around Christmas.
Now it’s cold outside. I’m down to my last little bag of leaves. I have a full bag of greens. I know if I use my last precious bag of browns in the cold garage the compost can’t possibly warm up. (Here’s where I know I’ve become obsessed). I bring my storage bin and my leaves into the house and start the last batch of compost.
My kids, of course, think I’ve lost my mind. They just don’t understand. I’m making my contribution to the ecological system. I’m doing my part to keep unnecessary waste out of the landfill. I’m preparing an amendment to feed the soil so that the soil can feed my plants. I’m making “Black Gold.” All they saw was this storage bin with junk in it – poor, unenlightened children.
I opened the bag and dumped it into the bin. There were leaves and some grass and some of the stalks from my neighbor’s cannas in the bag – those beautiful mineature cannas I envied during the summer. Everything was still somewhat moist from the water I originally put on the leaves in the bag. I added my greens. My ratios must have been all right because that evening in this bin that’s approximately 18 inches tall by 15 inches wide by 24 inches long my compost started “cooking.” I had my trusty soil thermometer, which no composter should be without, and it was up to 90. The next day it got up to 120. Yippie! It stayed hot for a solid week with me turning it every day. At the end of two weeks, the temp didn’t rise over 90. It turned out beautiful. I kept picking it up and crumbling it in my hands. It was a wonder to behold. That batch is going to be my extra special treat for my transplants when I get the garden going.
Obsession No. 2 and Obsession No. 3
While searching sites about compost, I ran across the square foot gardening concept. Sounds like a winner to me. I had sort of decided I’d go with flowers this year because I got tired of fighting with the squirrels for my veggies last year. But if I have compost, it seems a sin to waste it on just flowers. Besides, flowers won’t eventually turn into nutritious veggies which will turn into kitchen scraps which will turn into compost which will turn into fertilizer to feed the veggies which will turn into more compost and so on and so on and so on.
I’ve already dumped my compost from my bins onto my future raised bed garden (hoping to entice some worms into the garden) and bought some compost from a tree recycling facility in the area. I ran out to get plastic sheeting to cover the ground to raise the temperature of the soil, like all the sites say you should do. Of course, this being Chicago again, one week later my plastic sheeting was covered with snow. I still see condensation on the plastic covering the compost, so it is at least a little warmer than the air temperature.
I plan on doing three 6X4 foot raised beds. I’ll have just about 75 planting squares. So, of course, I’ll need just about 75 plants to go in the squares. The desire to get a jump on the season gives birth to Obsession No. 3. Starting plants from seeds.
I ran out to the Lowes hardware and bought three more fluorescent fixtures to go with the one I had from last year. I converted one of my shelving units to a seed starting station. I’ve started Beefsteak tomatoes. I have a green pepper and some tomato volunteers from last year which kept growing in the compost that I made and used for starting the seeds. I’ve started iceberg lettuce, which really isn’t doing well, but I don’t have the heart to toss them. I have pansies which are growing beautifully. I started my cannas in McDonald’s sweet tea cups (the plastic ones they started with, not the styrofoam). They’re now on the window sills instead of on top of the refrigerator. I’ve got some Shasta Daisies which are doing terrible, but I don’t have the heart to toss them either. And bell peppers. I just love bell peppers. I have one volunteer from the compost, and it’s doing great. I sure hope that they won’t be too old or too large when I can finally transplant them into the garden.
I even had two obsessions collide, the compost and the seed starting. I’ve always read that you should start your seeds in a “sterile” mix. I got to thinking. When you start your seeds outside in the garden the mix isn’t sterile. It’s dirt. It’s compost. It’s peat. Okay. Peat could be considered nutritionally sterile.
Anyway, I started just about all of my seeds in the first batch of compost that I made with some potting soil and some peat. Everything germinated just fine, including volunteer bell peppers and tomatoes that I have to pull out of my intended seedlings. The tomatoes are probably from the grape tomatoes I had last year, and the bell peppers probably came from the peppers I used to cook with and put the seed head in the compost.
I spend a ton of time making sure the seedlings are at just the right distance from the lights. No easy task because it seems every few days they’ve grown and need to be repositioned. (Dare I say obsession again?).
I contacted my local Starbucks and got some of their coffee grounds. I mixed it with my food scraps and some leaves. I guess not enough leaves/browns, though, because I can’t get it to heat up. (It’s in the basement in the house). I’ve also been reading about what to do with coffee grounds. (Might this be be the beginning of Obsession No. 4?) I read you can use them as a planting medium. I have a question.
I intend to do both sweet potatoes and white potatoes. I’ve read that the sweets produce tubers below ground under the vines and whites produce between the chitted potato and the top of the plant. I’m wondering with coffee grounds being free could they be used as a planting medium for the potatoes? Maybe the whites in a large bag that you fill up gradually as the plant grows and the sweets in a bag that you pre-fill and put the slips in so that the tubers will end up in the bag instead of the ground.
My next project will be to construct my raised bed and get it situated. Then I’ll have an instant garden with my transplants if all goes well. I intend to photographically chronicle the good, the bad and the ugly and use this blog to brag and vent.