What's in my compost?


I know I'm not the first person to write about composting here on the RCR blog, but I figure you just can't talk enough about turning your kitchen scraps into that lovely black gold. I've composted in one form or another for a long, long time now. The first compost I knew of was not in a bin or a black plastic Darth Vader container, it was just a heap, known imaginatively as the "compost pile." That was in the 1980s. Composting was pretty low-tech back then. Take your scraps, throw them in the pile, and let nature do the rest. It's the simplest thing, and it works just fine, if you have enough space in your yard to not mind a giant heap of rotting vegetable matter. Downtown, we have to be a little more sophisticated, just because we don't want our neighbours to freak out, or our composts to attract little mousy and ratty friends who might see our basement window as a nice portal to warmth and winter toastiness. Now, I say this as the owner of one of the ugliest compost bins in the neighbourhood. It was here when we moved in, and we haven't done anything about it. At the back of the yard, beyond all the still-blooming calendulas and the tasty-looking kale and cabbage and beets that are still hanging on in the November chill, there is a pine-framed, rectangular bin which is slowly composting itself into dirt. It has no cover, it's completely open to pillaging by rodents, and it's a massive eyesore. Worst of all, when the snow comes, my back yard fills up like a bowl with the white stuff, and the compost is only accessible through my neighbour's parking space, which is around the corner, meaning I have to lug bags and bins of compost up one street and down another to get rid of them. It's a little bit silly.

Indoors, I have a very productive worm bin, but one bin of worms can't keep up with the food waste of a family of five. The worm bin, too, is the very image of simplicity. One big plastic container, no drainage, just a few holes in the lid for air. The worms have never tried to escape, thank goodness. I keep it from getting too wet by adding in new bedding frequently (shredded newspaper, cardboard, egg cartons), and on the one occasion that I had a fruit fly infestation (admittedly, an epic one), I solved the problem by adding a few inches of soil to the bin, to smother any fruit flies and mask the food smells that would attract them. It did the trick, and the worms are happy, if indeed worms feel happiness, which I like to think they do.

All this has been going along very well indeed, and I am rewarded with beautiful compost, both the outdoor and indoor sorts, several times a year. But there's still room for improvement. If all goes well, next year will be the year we build a more efficient compost bin for the back yard, one that doesn't look like a garbage pit (and that doesn't advertise to passers-by just what we ate this week). I'm also hoping to add a third composting unit, some kind of wheeled bin I can park near the back door and stow my compost in through the winter, rather than having to hike through the streets with smelly potato peels and carrot tops.

Also, I need to figure out a system for all those tough bits of compost that don't seem to ever break down: I'm forever fishing peach and avocado pits, and avocado skins, and other slow-to-rot things from my garden beds and chucking them back in the bin, only to have to pick them out again next year. I would just stick them in the trash, but then wouldn't they just end up as part of the toxic landfill sludge? Should I smash them with a hammer? Soak them in a bucket for a year? Bury them in a pit? Burn them? Anybody?

I have started adding a few non-food items to my compost units. Like I said before, I use newsprint, cardboard, and egg cartons for bedding in my worm bin, but I sometimes add those things to my outdoor compost, too. I also add all the lint from my dryer to the outdoor compost. I know this is a contentious one, because there are all kinds of chemicals in laundry that probably shouldn't be going into the soil. But I don't use laundry detergents with dyes or fragrances, and I don't use fabric softener (and if you do, you might want to read this, because that stuff can be pretty scary). Almost all our clothes are made from natural fibres, and most of them are so worn out that they have virtually no dyes coming out of them any more. I'm sure there is some kind of residue, but I don't worry about it. The lint adds carbon to the mix, and otherwise it, too, would be headed for the landfill.

Outdoors, I limit my compost to raw, non-grain foodstuffs (so as to not attract too much wildlife), but indoors the worms get some cooked veggies, and occasionally some cooked rice or plain cooked pasta. I hate throwing that stuff in the garbage, and it doesn't seem to upset the balance in the worm bin at all. My mother, who has a very long back yard and whose compost bin is way at the back, regularly throws bread and grains in there, and doesn't mind that there are always crows circling her property. So if you don't mind crows (and possibly rats), you're free to do the same.

If I had one wish for my compost, it would be for regular additions of what garden writer Alys Fowler calls "UPP," or "urban pet poo." Of course, she just means the herbivorous pets - bunnies, gerbils, hamsters, those guys. I know there are people who compost cat and dog waste, but it's a whole different process, and way beyond my scope of knowledge. Vegetarian rodent waste, combined with the wood chips that surround it, makes great compost. If I didn't have the world's most viciously territorial cat, I would get a guinea pig or something just for its sheer compost-making powers (and, okay, for cuteness). But, alas, it is not to be. If you know you live in my neighbourhood, and you have some UPP to share, please don't hesitate to wing it over my neighbour's driveway into the gaping garbage pit! Seriously. I would love that.

For more information on backyard and vermicomposting in NL visit MMSB's website.

For resources to get kids involved in composting and waste reduction, check out the Root Cellars Rock Children & Youth page.

And keep an eye on the blog in the coming months for the launch of the new Root Cellars Rock Food Skills Workshops kit, which will include everything you need to know to host a beginner composting workshop in your community!

The good, the bad, and the ridiculous


Well, friends, I had planned to offer you a delightful round-up of what worked and what didn't in my little downtown garden this year, but unfortunately the cable for my computer has vanished, and the extra cable I keep on hand for such emergencies has had both of its ends filled with play-dough. (Hey, guess what! I found the cord! We have photos!) I have an angry, teething toddler trying to get into my lap, so you'll have to settle for a photo-less post in list form. Okay? Okay! Most amazing discovery: the rat tail radish. Holy crow. Rat tail radishes are heirloom radishes that were bred to produce tasty pods instead of the roots we're used to. They're delicious! Zippy, like a regular radish, but kind of greenish at the same time. They're really good with a dip or just on their own. Super crunchy and juicy. Apparently they're good pickled, but I haven't tried that yet. As they grow they get kind of jungly and lanky, so they're not the best if you're into ornamental edible landscaping, but they're well worth the mess.

Biggest bust: beans and peas. Between the slugs and the damp spring, hardly any of the four kinds of beans I planted came up. Also, two kinds of peas were lost to sogginess and slugs. It was very sad. The troopers that survived were the Schweizer Riesen snow peas and the Blue Jaysnap beans, and they're both still truckin', even in the cold. I should note, though, that neither one of those has had a particularly impressive yield, but I'm going to attribute that to the weather, not to the seeds themselves. They did the best they could.

Most impressive harvest: garlic. I planted my garlic late last year, well into November. By that time, nobody local had any seed garlic left to sell, so I had to order some from away, at considerable expense. When my package came, I was kind of sad to realize that for all that money, I had gotten a mere two heads of garlic. I sighed and carried on. Then, that same week, what should I spy at Dominion but packages of organic hardneck garlic from Furmanek Farm in Arthur, Ontario. There were three bulbs in a little net pack for, what, maybe six bucks? I took them home, planted them lovingly, and they outperformed the ordered seed garlic by far. All the garlic I planted did well, but the grocery stuff was incredible. Just goes to show that sometimes it's better to ignore conventional advice and just try something crazy.

Most ridiculous out of season action: squash. All of my squash, winter and summer, sulked through the whole season. Now I have two baby zucchini and a load of baby pumpkins, just in time for the frost to kill them. Oh, the tragedy! I'll eat the baby zucchini, but I'm afraid there's nothing I can do for the pumpkins, except keep my fingers crossed for a ridiculously warm November.

Wackiest season-extending scheme: tomato dome. Like pretty much everyone else, I have a load of green tomatoes that will probably never ripen on the vine. Some are far enough along that I can ripen them indoors, but others are nowhere close. They're in two adjacent 4" x 4" beds, with a trellis along the inner edge of each bed. My scheme is to encase the whole thing in vapor barrier (cheaper and easier to find than greenhouse plastic, and just as durable - I know someone who's had an amazing greenhouse made from the stuff for the last three years) and hope for the best. I'm also going to remove all the last of the blossoming flowers and pinch out the growing tips of the plants so that all the energy will be sent into the fruit that has already formed. Wish me luck!

There are some things I haven't been able to harvest yet. My Jerusalem artichokes and my ground cherries are still growing, and my parsnips will want a frost before they can be dug up. I have kale, lamb's lettuce, and red mustard started that should take me into winter, and I'll be starting some more winter crops over the next couple weeks. I hope I can find my camera cable soon so I can show you pictures of them.  Photos to come soon!

Downtown Dirt end-of-July update


Hello, friends! I had wanted to do a lovely pictorial of all the things growing happily in my garden today, but unfortunately almost everything in the back yard is completely covered in specks of black poo from the millions of tiny worms rolled up in the leaves of my neighbours' enormously large maple tree, the branches of which now reach almost 2/3 of the way across my back yard. It's to the north of my garden, so it doesn't block all the light (although if it weren't there, I could grow super sunny crops like corn and peppers without any trouble, I'm pretty sure), but it does shower everyone and everything with worm poo for weeks of the summer, then with seeds which seem to have a 115% germination rate, and which I spend the entire warm season trying to remove. Ah, but it is a lovely tree, I suppose. A lovely, wormy, shady, seedy tree. (The neighbours, though, really are lovely, and since they're renters I do not hold the pooping monster tree against them. We're all victims here!)

So yes, all my backyard plants are covered in worm poo and not looking all that pretty. They're doing reasonably well, though. My Jerusalem artichokes, which were nearly devoured by slugs, are now about two and a half feet high and have formed a thick stand behind one of my raised beds and against the neighbours' fence (directly in the line of fire of the most worm poo). When I ordered them, I knew where I wanted to put them, but I wasn't sure exactly how to execute it. I didn't want to put them straight in the ground, because they're in the sunflower family, and sunflowers suck lead out of the soil - great if you're growing ornamental sunflowers and then binning them, but not so great if you're growing them for their tasty tubers. Time was running short and I hadn't come up with a good plan, so I just flung a bag of soil on its side, cut the now-top of the plastic off, and planted them in there. They're definitely too close for comfort, and probably won't produce all that well due to cramped space, but seeing as how there's no proof that anyone but me even likes Jerusalem artichokes, I think that's alright.

Across the yard, away from the worm poo (but straight into the bindweed), my fig is putting out tons of new growth.

My fig lives in an old enamel stock pot with holes in the bottom. This year, I gave it new soil and fed it with tomato feed, which is apparently something figs like (according to someone on the web somewhere - I can't for the life of me remember). I had overwintered it indoors last year, but I think this year I'll tuck it in a protected corner of my patio and let it experience the winter. I think I've interrupted its natural cycle of dormancy by keeping it too warm, and now the poor thing is confused. If I ever want to eat a fig from my own tree, I'd best try to un-confuse it.

Right now, the most advanced crops are my tomatoes, which are all beginning to flower, and my Onaway potatoes, which are looking fantastic (and taking up half my front yard).

Their leaves are so lush and gorgeous! Since Onaways are "earlies," I can start feeling around for baby potatoes as soon as the flowers do their thing. I'm super excited, especially after last year's great potato failure. These guys don't make great storage potatoes, from what I hear, but I have Pink Fir Apple spuds growing out back for that. They went in the ground much later, so they're nowhere near as advanced, but I think they'll do alright.

Out of the crops I didn't expect to do all that well, my Aunt Molly's ground cherry seems to be coming along quite marvelously. I have one in a pot in my front yard that is going great guns, and another two in a raised bed in the back yard that are quickly catching up. I put in three more plants at my mother's house, but they're not quite so happy, for reasons we have yet to determine. I'm super excited about these. I used to eat ground cherries until I couldn't take it any more when I lived in Montreal, but they're pretty scarce around here. They really are very tasty.

So that's the good news. Sadly, it's not all looking that good. My cucumbers never came up at all. I sowed them outdoors under glass because I ran out of space under the grow lights in my basement, but nothing happened. My Gnadenfeld melon plants were eaten by slugs, and I think my Blacktail Mountain watermelon might suffer the same fate. I have plenty of seeds left of each to try again next year, but still, it's pretty disappointing. My French beans never came up at all, and I had wanted to train them up a nice, attractive teepee, with sweet peas growing up among them. Well, at least the sweet peas are growing, so the teepee won't look totally stupid.

Oh, and my brassicas at my mother's place are full of cabbage worms. We broke out the BT and are hoping for the best. Now, if only the landlords next door would come spray that tree...

Gardener, know thine enemy!


Often, when I'm reading books and blogs by gardeners, I find myself happy with my lot as a downtown St. John's veggie grower. Sure, I can't plant out my peppers until the end of June, but, heck, at least I don't have raccoons to deal with! Or locusts, or squirrels, or opossums, or deer, or tomato hornworms, or gophers, or so many of the pests that make backyard horticulture maddening for so many people. If I were outside of town, or even a little closer to the city limits, I might have rabbits, and of course you never know when a moose is going to flatten your garden, but, overall, the pest count here is relatively low. I do, however, have two formidable enemies. One is a purring, furry, yarn-chasing, mouse-hunting domestic mammal. The other is a slimy, greyish-brownish-yellowish, squishy, vile invertebrate. Neither one is welcome in my vegetable beds.

My neighbourhood is full of cats. Which is great, because it's also full of mice. Old House Syndrome, I call it. And I'm a cat person, for sure. But there is a certain cat in my family who sees any bit of bare ground and thinks to herself, "Oh, how luxurious! Someone's built a soft, warm, earthy box for me to do my business in! How kind!" This cat even managed to - ahem - relieve herself in a half-full 14-inch plastic flowerpot last year. That's a feat of balance, and I kind of have to admire her dedication. But I don't want to have my garden scratched to bits, nor do I want cat poop anywhere near anything I'm planning to eat, especially when there are little children digging around.

Last year I tried dusting the ground with cayenne pepper, which cats apparently hate, and it certainly seemed to work, but it had to be reapplied every time it rained, which was pretty much every day. Plus, someone told me some horror story about cats injuring themselves by getting cayenne in their eyes. Now, this kind of screams "urban (/rural) legend" to me - cats have pretty sensitive noses, and probably wouldn't go near anything that smelled like cayenne - but I'm freaked out enough to give the pepper a pass this year. So far, here is my strategy:

  • No bare ground! This means planting densely and intercropping vegetables with flowers and herbs wherever I can.
  • Where there is bare ground, for example, where I've just put in seeds or seedlings, I've placed fallen sticks and branches over top of them, making sure than none of the sticks actually leans on the seedlings. It ain't pretty, but it ain't much fun to try and pee in, either (um, I imagine...).

  • I'm also considering planting white clover as a living mulch under some of my vegetables. I tried this last summer, and it seemed to work well.
  • I have heard that mulching with pine cones also helps, because they're pokey and cats don't like to step on them. I'll try that if I happen to come across a cache of pine cones.
  • Another thing I'm trying is the herb rue, which is supposed to be an effective cat repellent. It's a gorgeous, silvery, woody, tender evergreen, with yellow flowers that attract butterflies. Unfortunately, it can also cause a severe skin rash in many people, especially children. So my plan is to grow the rue in small pots which I can place in my garden beds, then move out of the way (with gloved hands) when the children are playing.
  • One last thing: I might plant some catnip at the end of my yard, away from the vegetables. In theory, this should encourage the cats to congregate away from my beds and pots. In practice, though, I might just end up with every cat in the neighbourhood wandering in and out of my yard, hopped up on 'nip and looking for a decent place to pee. Must give this one some more thought.

As for the slugs, well, I'll bet you're bouncing up and down in your chair saying, "Beer traps! Have you tried beer traps? Try beer traps!" Let me tell you: there isn't enough beer on George Street to take out these guys. I had beer traps everywhere last year, and for every ten drowned slugs each morning there were fifty live ones, eating my beans and brassicas. I submit to you my bok choy:

Totally skeletonized. So here are a few things I plan to do to keep on top of the slugs this year:

  • Vigilance is the best pesticide! Dawn and dusk, you will find me in strolling my grounds (such as they are), smashing the heck out of every slug I see, without even a hint of regret. I find it helps if I sing Wilco's "War on War," only I change the words to "It's a war on slugs, it's a war on slugs, it's a war on slugs..." Hey, whatever gets you through, right?
  • I'm keeping all my tender greens - lettuces, salad mixes, and so on - out of the slugs' path by growing them in pots on my steps and in window boxes.
  • One thing the slugs went crazy for last year was squash blossoms. This year I'm training my squash up trellises rather than letting them scramble on the ground, putting a little extra distance between them and the slugs.
  • I'm going to try mulching around the bases of plants with used coffee grounds this year. Apparently the caffeine dries the slugs out and they won't go over it. Last year I tried finely ground eggshells, and diatomaceous earth, but these had to be reapplied after every rain, and since it rained all summer, it was kind of pointless. Coffee, though, is supposed to work even in the rain. We'll see about that.
  • Last year I tried the copper-mesh-electric-slug-zap method of slug control, but it didn't work at all! This may be because I used the cheapskate's version of copper mesh: dollar-store copper dish scrubbies. Or it could be because I had the mesh stretched out too thinly, so the slugs just coasted over it, suffering through the pain, knowing that delicious seedlings were on the other side. I'm going to try this again this year in some form, but I haven't decided quite what yet.
  • I'm putting little water-bottle rings around all my seedlings. I just cut plastic water bottles into 2-inch rings, then I make a zig-zag pattern across the top, fold the points out, and it's like instant barbed-wire for slugs. I don't usually buy bottled water myself, but I don't mind pilfering old bottles from other people's recycling (dance schools and gyms are magnificent sources of water bottles).

If I had a little more time to give to the nurturing of small animals, I would have a trio of hens, and perhaps a quiet, dignified female Muskovy duck to keep the slug population in check. My feathered friends would take care of all the slugs, snails, and other nasties that want to eat my lunch, and the Muskovy would scare the daylights out of any cat that even considered squatting in my planters.

Until then, though, I'll keep on with my trial-and-error pest control methods.

What pests do you have in your garden? And what do you do to keep them out?