Monday, July 31, 2017

Building Compost Bins

 Last week, July 24th, I set out on a project of building a sturdy compost bin to replace the composting system that I inherited. While the compost was indeed composting, the structure was rather rickety, with spindly wooden posts holding up a plastic netting that was secured to the posts with twist ties that you might find on a bag of bread. It was not exactly built to last, but it definitely did its job for however long it was there. Below, you'll see the old "bin" in its final moments of glory.

Compost bins need love too!
In order to prepare for the construction project, I picked up 5 sturdy pallets (made in Canada) from a local business, and picked up some joints and screws from home depot. All the materials fell into place nicely, I brought the tools I would need for the project from my house, and when I arrived at the Learning Garden, I was ready to build!

Bringing the pallets into the garden with the help of my trusty Subaru
The materials

The materials I needed were somewhat contained, though some things did get added part way through the process. I needed 5 pallets, 12 ninety degree corner joints, a box of screws, the right drill bit to match the screws, a few pieces of scrap wood to sink screws into, a saw to cut them to size, and a little bit of patience for the whole process.

The first corner complete, a few more to go.
Things got off to a good start, with the first two pallets coming together quite easily, but even with the quick progress I knew that things might not be as simple as they seemed. I noticed that the screws were poking through the wood after securing the joints in the corner, and I knew that I needed to fix that.
Sharp metal object hazard!!
Even though the screws were poking into the inside of the pallet, meaning that someone would have to intentionally reach inside the pallet in order to be in danger of getting cut by these screws, I didn't want to take shortcuts. I know that I have cut myself many times on random sharp objects poking out of strange places, and I wanted to limit the chance of that happening to some unknown person in the future.
Splinter hazard, yes, but no pokey metal things in sight!
After working out my little fix for the problem I identified, I figured that things would come together quite quickly, but as so often happens, that was not the case. It was considerably difficult to get the wood blocks back behind the pallets that form the back wall of the bins, and, even though I knew people weren't likely to stick their hands back there to get cut, I figured I'd err on the side of caution. The last thing I want to do is leave sharp things exposed, have someone get hurt, then find out 10 years down the road that SMU had to pay out half a million dollars because someone sued them after they got tetanus while turning the compost pile. It's not likely, but boy is it good to avoid things like that far in advance, whenever possible.

Unexpected surprises found in the compost
As I continued to move the compost around to create space to work in, I kept finding Keurig cups, the disposable coffee pods made for the Keurig machine. I'm not sure if they are actually rated as compostable or biodegradable, but someone in the past thought that they were compostable, and threw them into the pile. Unfortunately, many of the "biodegradable" or "compostable" consumer plastics still have a ways to go before they will actually break down in home compost piles. They are typically rated as compostable only in industrial composting facilities, where compost temperatures routinely stay over 100 degrees, and microbial and bacterial activity is super strong. The coffee inside of the plastic casing was clearly composting though, and there were even a few that had become homes to earthworms and were still moist and rich. I did what I could to empty the coffee out without wasting too much time on the process.

Almost complete!
Another addition that I decided to make at the last minute was adding some metal chicken wire type stuff (I can't think of the technical term) to the back pallets to limit how much compost would be lost through the slats in the pallets. You may be able to see the chicken wire sitting flat against the back pallets, held on with a number of horseshoe nails and a strip of wood at the top and the bottom. The chicken wire was already at the learning garden, and I figured it was a good way to use it. Had I found more lying around, I likely would have done it to all the insides of the bins, but I only had enough for two pallets, and decided the back wall was the most important part to reinforce. Some compost might still escape, but that is inevitable.

Bins completed, compost reloaded, and employee worn out.
All in all, this was a full day project. Between research, getting supplies from various places, revising things on the fly, and trying to take the time necessary to make things strong enough to last, I easily spent upwards of 10 hours on the project. Could it have been done in less time? Definitely. Will I be able to do it in less time the next time around? Hopefully. What I am quite proud of is that this compost bin could last up to 10 years if all goes well. Many times I have made the mistake of taking shortcuts, and, more often than not, I find myself going back to fix the stuff I didn't do right the first time. I still have some learning to do in the realm of construction, but I'd say that this project was a success, and should hold up for some time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Footprints in the Dirt

So, my title this week is a little misleading, but I wanted to do a play on the phrase "footprints in the sand". Whatever the original context of this phrase, I have come to associate it with a metaphor used in Christianity, in which Jesus is walking alongside all of us. This idea, however, is not specific to Christianity, nor is the concept exclusively religious. To me, it represents the idea that no matter how alone we might feel at times, there are other people with us in spirit at all times. Due to my second job, I'm not able to be in the garden as much as I would like to be, and often when I am there I am all by myself, save for a few squirrels who run and hide when I show up. This last Monday, however, I  saw traces of human (and animal) activity that inspired this title: Footprints in the Dirt.

The first footprint I encountered
Upon doing a quick scan of the garden and setting out a list of tasks that I wanted to accomplish during the day, I noticed that someone had chopped the five heads of lettuce that I had salvaged when taking out the rest of the greens. Having already bolted and sent out flowers, most of the greens were hardly usable, so I planted potatoes in their stead, but something told me that I should leave those heads of lettuce that were still good. I'm glad I did, as it appears that someone came through the garden and took the leaves for their dinner. Knowing that someone had a good meal because of that decision makes it all worth it!

The second footprint
After noticing that the lettuce had been taken by someone in the St. Martin's community, I continued to scan the garden, until I came to rest my eyes upon the beets. I had already been worried about how the beets were doing, some had already gone to seed, and none had really sized up the way I was hoping for them too. Altogether, I thought that this beet crop was going to suffer from hot days, not enough direct sunlight, and the kale infringing on their space. While I still have those fears to some extent, I noticed this Monday that someone had also taken a few beet leaves home with them as well, another success in my book! The other possibility I had considered was that there had been some curious deer nibbling, but the the lettuce and the beets were too uniformly and cleanly cut to have been the work of a munching deer.

A set of footprints, and some wings, resting on a leaf. A ladybug! (Apologies for the poor photo quality)

Though it may be hard to see in the photo (the lens on my phone camera was quite dusty, unbeknownst to me at the time), there is a lady bug resting on the leaf closest to the lens. To its right is the start of a bean blossom, happily climbing up the trellis system and getting ready to send out beans. Ladybugs are always a welcome sight in a garden, especially in gardens that don't use pesticides. Though deemed predators, we tend to look at ladybugs as cute little bugs that bring good luck with them. For gardeners, this might not be far from reality since they eat aphids, mites, and a variety of other insects that can damage plants.

The fourth footprint, a little less expected than the first three

The fourth footprint I found in the strawberry patch, and it didn't make me quite as happy as the other footprints. When I first took a glance at the bed, I was so focused on examining the leaves that had been bitten off of plants (likely by deer) that I didn't notice this gift of fecal matter that something left me until my hand was almost on top of it. Jumping back a bit, and trying to hold my breath at the same time, I tried to figure out what sort of living creature had produced something of that size. I was strongly hoping that it wasn't human, but it also isn't deer, and I tend to doubt that a raccoon can produce a log of that size. It was almost six inches long, and too thick to seem human. If there are any experts in fecal material identification, I would be happy to have a second or third opinion on what could have produced this.

Other footprints in the dirt
Though it is likely obvious, my own footprints are all over the Learning Garden by this point. Though I am not there frequently, I try to keep it looking good and put in a lot of work when I do get out there to maximize the efficiency of those trips and give the garden the love that it deserves. It has certainly paid off! This week there were a few patty pan zucchinis and round zucchinis that were ready to be harvested, as well as a big pile of kale, a couple cucumbers, some red scallions, one medium sized beet and a few blueberries with much more food to be ready for harvest by next week. Please stop by and take whatever you want to use! 

If that load of veggies coming home with me wasn't enough gratification for the week, my supervisor informed me that pictures of the garden had popped up in her facebook newsfeed, with praise for the garden to go with them. After all of these reminders, I could see clear as cucumbers that I was not alone in the garden, though I might have been the only one there at that particular moment. My footprints in the dirt were not the only ones.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Berries are in, weeds are cut

It is July 4th today as I write this, and it is hot! As we celebrate Independence Day, plants are celebrating the return of long days and ruthless sunshine. As my life cycles through its work rhythms, it is always interesting to return to a patch of vegetables that I have left for a week and see its progress. 

Sometimes it can feel as if crops explode overnight, but what is more often the case is that the gardener has had so many other things to do, while the plant has but one job, that the plant’s slow and steady growth has gone unnoticed. These surprises are often pleasant, but there can certainly be bad surprises as well. A crop that has been infested by bugs, a crop that hasn’t grown to adequate size, or sometimes even a crop planted accidentally in a bed that was already seeded. At the farm I work for, all of these surprises have already happened this year at least once, and in fact we just harvested a bed of mature bok choy that had baby spinach plants peeking up from underneath them, trying to assert their rightful ownership of the bed. 

Ripe raspberries!

Luckily, in the Learning Garden, most of the surprises have been good this year!The raspberries have made a full appearance, and the canes are laden with fruits! The way that some of the plants are already getting yellow leaves may speak to a number of factors. For one, they are the older canes, and therefore the ones that bore the most fruit. They also may be experiencing some nutrient deficiencies – I saw a neighbor’s raspberry trellis the other day out on the sidewalk, and his plants were six feet tall, luscious green, and laden with berries. This is possible for the learning garden too, but soil amendments will have to be made before next year in order to coax that kind of growth out of the crop.

The blueberries are so close!

The blueberries are tantalizingly close to ripeness as well. Some blueberries have even started to turn purple, and the birds can’t wait any longer! One bush specifically has become a favorite snack for some of the local birds on campus, and I even debated throwing some aesthetically unpleasing netting over the bushes to horde the crop for our human mouths, but ultimately decided to strike a truce with the birds. So much of the food we grow in this country goes to waste, whether it is left in the field, spoils while waiting to be sold, or composted off of someone’s unfinished plate, I figure if the birds can glean a meal or two off of our hard work, at least it isn’t completely wasted!

The birds are already enjoying the blueberries!

Another way that rhythms are present in the upkeep of a farm or garden is in weed control. Ask any farmer what some of their biggest expenses are, and rest assured that weed control is on their top 10. The simple fact of the matter is that weeds are plants, and plants grow. Some do better than others in different soil types and climate conditions, but in a fertile place like the Pacific Northwest, there are a ridiculous number of different weeds, there is plenty of natural irrigation, and during the summer they need to be dealt with consistently. 

The garden before....
Today at my job on the farm, my boss spent most of his day mowing in crops that were past their prime, mowing down weeds on the roads, and redefining the edges of the fields. While this work can seem tedious, and it is regarded by many gardeners as a bane to their existence, effective weed control can help crops get the sunlight, water and nutrients they need and prevent weeds from reproducing. 

...and the garden after!

Additionally, it tailors the space to human needs. On a farm, we need to be able to keep track of different crops, see what is growing, and not have our sight blocked by walls of weeds. If we just let the weeds grow, not only would vegetables not grow properly, we wouldn’t be able to tell what was growing in which row without getting on our hands and knees and parting the curtain of weeds. In the Learning Garden, though it is much smaller than the farm I work for, weed control provides an aesthetic value as well as making it more navigable for passersby. With a weed whacker and a few hours, the space is looking nice, and ready to accommodate any curious individuals that may wander through looking for a berry snack!