Discovering a hidden haven in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria, Australia

Posts tagged ‘compost’

Garlic and the Clay Man.

It is a little disheartening as a novice gardener to fail at growing something and later read that it is one of the easiest ‘set and forget’ plants to grow. In fact, I won’t tell you how many websites I’ve just visited that start out with a variation along the lines of “Garlic is so simple to grow that anyone can do it.”

Anyone except muggins it seems.

I attempted to grow garlic for the first time last year and it rotted. Quite literally it dissolved away to nothing.

Belatedly I realise that my soil, which my roses and camellias seem to love to bits, is not to the liking of everyone in the garden. Especially not now that the drought is over (for now*) and winter is back with chilly and watery vengeance. Did I mention that I got sunburnt in Edinburgh a few short weeks ago?

In order to prove something that was already staring me in the face (especially after attempting to walk on the wet and greasy stuff in the rain and landing in it) I did a little experiment. Meet Clay:

Just add water!

Yep. My soil can hold water. Which, I acknowledge is not entirely a bad thing, as it did mean that deep-rooted plants like roses were able to survive the drought with little help. And it does, I read, mean that it is a soil that will hold nutrients. Sand, I imagine would be much harder to live with.

Still, at least I found confirmation via Organic Gardener Magazine that garlic is not overly keen on soggy wet feet. I know, you knew that already! Anyway, while improving my soil en-masse is not realistic, I’m going to have to start improving at least some of my soil.

Which means I’m going to have to learn something.

In fairness, I did improve the soil of the vege patch a little last year, but more by accident than design. I added lime and compost (even appropriately spaced apart in time) and well rotted manure.

But I put in compost simply because it was organic and I thought it would feed my young veges. I wasn’t really thinking about soil, so I didn’t really understand the role compost plays in improving soil. I thought the process of producing compost was all about producing something as intensely rich in useable organic matter as possible, so it was a real light bulb moment to read:

“Because of the humified nature of compost and its low concentrations of oxidizable carbon and available nitrogen, compost is relatively resistant to further decomposition, and additions of compost to the soil over time can increase the soil’s organic carbon and humic matter content. I add compost not so much to provide nutrients as to provide stabilized organic matter that will improve the physical properties of the soil.”

From and article by Keith Baldwin titled ‘Improving Clay Soils‘ on the Fine Gardening Magazine website.

Ah-ha! Now I get it! In fact, while I’ve never heard of  this magazine before (probably because it’s not an Australian publication) I found the whole article very useful and even did the ribbon test with a lump of my clay. The test confirmed that my soil is actually clay loam, rather than singularly clay. I’m not sure, but I think that clay loam is slightly more rubbish nutrient wise.

So, back to the garlic.  This time I have dug in some compost and  aged manure to the spot where I have planted my garlic. I also mounded the row the garlic is in to help with drainage.

I had hoped to grab some selected organic varieties from one of my favourite mail order seed catalogues, but I missed my chance when we were away. None of the local shops have any Australian grown garlic in at the moment either so the chance to grab some of that and pop it in the ground didn’t eventuate either.

I’ve heard that garlic imported from overseas (here they come in from China, Argentina and Mexico) can be heavily sprayed with chemicals, so I avoided those, but I must do some research and verify if it is true for myself one day. Anyway, I ended up just grabbing a couple of punnets of vaguely labelled ‘Australian Garlic’  from the nursery, comforting myself that at least they were getting on with the business of growing.

For insurance I have planted some garlic in a very big pot because I’m still not sure that I’ve done enough for those in the ground. It will be interesting to see of both groups survive and if they do, if there us any noticeable difference between them.

* After the 15 odd years before this one, it’s hard to say a drought is definitely over!

Just to show something does grow in my garden...I'm enjoying some emerging Helleborus

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The Compost Ate My Jeans!

Its OK, it was meant to. And I wasn’t wearing them at the time.

You might remember that when I re-started my compost back in early February I was experimenting with composting a few things other than garden waste and kitchen scraps.

Jeans buried in the compost, early February 2010

Vacuum cleaner dust has been successful as it is so fine and contains hair, which is supposed to be a great compost addition. The worst thing that could happen is that a couple of pieces of Lego will emerge in the garden at some stage, but that will give the archeologists something to puzzle over.

The jeans, that were torn and no use to pass on to anyone else went in ‘as is’. I thought it might take a year or so for them to break down and I was ok with that, as I knew it would take us some time to fill the bin. But the compost has been rocketing along and within about two and a half months the jeans have been reduced to this…

Jeans well on their way to decomposing April 30th 2010

The fabric falls apart as soon as it is touched. Soon I’ll just have to fish out the zipper and that will be that.

I had also put in some of my daughter’s threadbare cotton pyjamas. All that was left of them today was the elastic waistband!

My only real problem with the compost is that we’re not producing enough to fill up the bin (and I can’t fill it up entirely with old clothes!) I’ve added some grass clippings, but as ours is the dreaded Couch/Bermuda grass I’m hesitant as everything I’ve read says to avoid putting running weeds in the compost unless you know for sure it’s going to be hot enough to cook.

There will be some autumn leaves to add soon at least. Now that it’s getting cooler the compost  will slow down a little, but I’ll keep adding and turning and thinking of the day I’ll have some lovely rich compost to add to the garden!

Has anyone else had success with – or have ideas for – composting other unusual items?

Other than something that might constitute ‘evidence’ that is 😉

More fun with Compost!

Like most things in my life, I seem to learn some very interesting things about gardening after I’ve given something a go, gotten it completely wrong, then gone back to read the ‘instructions’.

Composting is another one to add to the list.

You will just have to forgive me for my trial and error approach to gardening.  Although I am determined to contribute to a more sustainable future and have a lovely garden to boot, I have been honest and have admitted to being a pretty incompetent gardener right from the start!

Mermaid Rose, to give you some respite from the pictures of compost to come!

Anyway, last weekend I stopped playing with the worms for a moment and turned my attention to our poor neglected and overloaded compost bin. It was so overloaded that I’m too ashamed to show a photo of it!

The compost bin we use is the freestanding open bottomed variety, a bit different to the lovely tumbler type that I secretly desire and that Noelle from Ramblings From a Desert Garden featured in her great post on “The Joy of Composting”.

I had noticed that the bin had pretty much stopped functioning. Somehow the lid had been misplaced (what is it about lids in this household?) and the bin was overflowing. There was nothing for it but to dig around in it and have good look.

You know, if there is a good incentive to think about getting your composting right from the start, it’s having to pull out all the contents of the bin to find out why it isn’t working.

With about a third of the material removed, still nothing but dry stuff!

At the start I was fearful that the worst had happened and the bin had become anaerobic.  It had not, instead it had simply stopped doing anything much at all, as it was too dry and contained too much twiggy material. I had to dig out more than three-quarters of the bin to find anything other than dry grass, twigs and the occasional kitchen scrap.  Thankfully a lot of the twigs were from the peppermint geranium, so at least it smelt pleasant enough.

Finally, in about the bottom fifth of the bin I found some good news. Here I found a few inches of rich composted material alive with worms and lots of other little crawly things that signify that all is well in the compost world. I read recently that worms live in the top few inches of compost material. Effectively the top of my compost was at the bottom of my compost bin.

It might be hard to tell, but this is the good stuff.

It was clear that a fresh start to get things moving along again was needed. I wanted to move the bin anyway, as it was sitting at the far end of my emerging butterfly and bee garden and I wanted the space for planting more insect attracting plants!

Look at the state of my dirt...not a worm to be seen! The compost bin will help fix that.

I am now putting a bit more thought into my composting and, as advised here by Gardening Australia trying to remember the simple rule of one bucket of wet material to one and a half of dry.

I am also trying to remember that 38 degree celsius days will dry out my compost as much as it dries me out, so I should  remember to add some water occasionally!

Here’s an interesting side story – In the most recent edition of the Gardening Australia magazine there was a letter from a reader by the name of Judith Caine complete with an amazing photo. It shows the family compost bin having been taken over by bees. Not just bees visiting the compost, but a bin with a fully formed hive inside. Apparently after a couple of years the family wanted their compost bin back and asked a beekeeper to come and collect the bees. The bees would not be coaxed into one of the beekeeper’s hives, so he ended up taking them away with him compost bin and all!

The Compost Challenge – Can You Help Reduce Greenhouse Gases?

Today I’m going to join Jan at Thanks For Today who has invited us all to join her in promoting Earth Day and sustainable gardening practice.

Jan has asked anyone who would like to join to promote Earth Day on the 22nd of April 2010 by coming up with an appropriate post based, of course, on what we can do as gardeners to help the environment and live sustainably. She is even giving away some very lovely prizes, but I’m joining in just for the fun of it! You can read more about Earth Day on Jan’s wonderful blog.

My compost bin which I ovehauled yesterday...but that's another story!

My aim for Earth Day is to prevent anything from my home or garden that is compostable from entering the waste stream. Of course not just on Earth Day, but every day!

I also want to share what I’ve found out about compost and why it is good for much more than your garden.

If you’ve got composting right, you are actually helping to reduce greenhouse gases.

If you are putting compostable material in the rubbish bin, you are probably helping to create methane gas at the local tip, which is not great news…

Approximately 60% of the rubbish Australians put in the everyday mixed-waste ‘garbage bin’ could be put to better use in the garden as compost and mulch or could be returned to agricultural land to improve soil quality.

Alarmingly, such a huge amount of organically-active material buried ‘anaerobically’ (without air) in landfill causes over 3% of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions annually by producing methane: a gas with 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide! If properly composted instead, this same organic waste could help to abate climate change in yet another way: by sinking or ‘sequestering’ carbon back into the soil.

The above information is from Waste Management Association of Australia’s Compost Week promotion in 2009.

My ducks about to clean up some slugs and convert them to garden food!

Gardening Australia also has some very easy to digest information about composting. The article notes that in 2008 less Australian were composting than 10 years earlier, which I think is probably a trend that is sadly continuing.

Just imagine, in Australia alone 3% of greenhouse gases could be reduced just by composting your garden and vege scraps! We could be putting up to 60 % less waste in the bin. I think those numbers are probably repeated give or take around the world and set us an achievable challenge for Earth Day and every day!

Any little bit of composting helps, but I’ve set myself the challenge of making sure it all goes to compost and beneficial re-use. I’m going to be using three things to help achieve that aim:

  1. The worm farm. The worms will get the pick of the compost crop as they put it to good use producing vermacasts and worm wee for the garden.
  2. The compost bin. Pretty much all the rest of the kitchen scraps and a lot of the garden waste. Coffee grounds, vacuum cleaner dust, anything made of natural fabric too far gone for the op shop, leaves, small prunings, shredded newspaper etc.
  3. The council ‘green bin’. The garden waste that I don’t want to risk surviving the compost bin and re-introducing to the garden goes in here. Blackberries, couch grass that’s gone to seed and ivy will go in along with some small branches too big for the compost. The council has a process for completely ‘cooking’ compost so even the nastiest weeds can’t re-produce, so I’ll leave the real pains to them.

Sounds good doesn’t it?

Well, the worm farm is under way and the green bin is a wonderful service that eventually ends up as commercial mulch, but the compost bin…that needed a bit of ‘tweaking’ and I’ll tell you more about it in the next day or two!

Worm Learnings: When 499 Housemates Isn’t Enough.

Warning: Post contains images of wriggly (and out-of-focus) worms!

My ‘re-conditioned’ worm farm has been up and running for a couple of weeks now. Here are my early discoveries:

1. 499 housemates really aren’t enough (when you’re a compost worm).

Blurry happy worms

Having read several different suggestions of how many worms a worm farm should be started with, I have since found Red Worms informative blog which told me two very  important things. apparently worms eat half their body weight each day and it takes 90 days for worms to double their number.  I realised from this that if I really wanted my compost turned into wonderful worm tea in the foreseeable future, I needed more worms! Another 500 worms have just moved in to the apartment today.

2. Strawberries are favourite.

So far the worms have tried potato peelings, bananas and few strawberries that have gone mushy. They like the bananas, but they looooove strawberries. They are not particularly fond of potato peelings, but I guess I wouldn’t take those over strawberries and bananas either! I am however a little worried that too many strawberries might be a bit acidic, so I won’t go too overboard with them.

3. Don’t overfeed the worms!!!

A little too much food. Hopefully the new worms will deal with that!

OK, so I said in the original post that I stared the worms off with about a cup full of food. Well, that was a little inaccurate. An over-generous hand of what was probably closer to three cups was too much for my newly settling worms who don’t need much in their first week or two. The compost was rotting quicker than they could munch it and this resulted in a need to distribute a little garden lime in the farm to get things sorted.

4. Learn a little patience *sigh*

Now I just have to be patient and wait for my worms to settle and re-produce and, most importantly, start producing some wonderful worm wee for my garden!

More later on how things develop!

Becoming a worm farmer

Part one – setting up the farm & moving the worms in.

The remaining parts of the worm farm. Enough to be going on with I think!

A few years ago we had a worm farm that produced beautiful ‘worm tea’ and vermacasts for the garden. Worm by-products are a fantastic rich fertiliser that doesn’t burn plants. I can’t remember why we stopped using it, but for some reason the worms were set free and the farm was packed away.

While pottering around recently I found the old plastic worm farm and have decided to give it a new lease on life. Sadly parts of it seem to have been ‘re-purposed’ or just plain lost over the years and it’s been left without it’s tap or the lid.  I had a scrounge around and came up with some things I hoped I could use to get it up and running again.

The worm farm needs to be in a fairly shady location. Shelter from frost is important too.

Before I could start moving the worms in I had to do something about the missing tap or the precious worm tea (and maybe the worms!) would leak out of the hole at the bottom. I needed something that could drain the liquid, but could also be sealed up. It had me stumped at first but then I thought the top of a lemonade bottle and it’s lid might just work…

The lemonade bottle top was just a tiny bit too big for the hole in the tub, but a very sharp knife helped widen it just enough. It fits pretty well, but not 100% snug, so I’ll keep an eye on how much leakage there is and put some silicone sealant around the hole if need be.

The old tap was narrower and used to get clogged up a bit so maybe this will flow better, if it lasts!

Once the tap issue was sorted, it was just a matter of setting up the worms new home.  As my daughter is currently keen on being an entomologist when she grows up I was lucky to have a willing helper.

Half a dozen pages of damp newspaper (worms don’t like anything dry!) went in to line the first ‘residential’ tray that was nestled above the drainage tray.

Here is the Box O’ worms! I bought them live from a hardware shop which my daughter found to be a very strange idea indeed. Compost worms are different varieties from standard earthworms which we are also lucky to have in the garden.

I’ve read recommendations that worm farms the size we are using should be started with 500 worms and others that recommend at least 1000 or even 2000. We’ve just got 500 and the hope that in a few weeks they will be happy enough in their new home to make more worms!

Below my daughter is helping spread the worm mixture gently across the tray. They go in complete with the organic matter they were boxed with to help them settle into their new home and have somewhere to hide. Worms like hiding so much we thought our box of worms had no worms at first!

If you look really closely you will see that there is more than one worm!

Every bit of information on worm farms seems to recommend only giving them a little food at first, but they don’t tend to quantify what a ‘little’ is, so we guesstimated about a cup worth of compostables, mainly old potato peelings and banana skins.  The Gardening Australia fact sheet on worm farms recommended banana skins, so hopefully we’ll be hearing contented munching noises soon!

At this stage the worms should not need feeding again for a least a week as they will be busy settling in. Definitely don’t feed worms meat or meat tainted scraps and limit use of onion or citrus in a worm farm.

Last of all we added a blanket for the worms – another layer of damp newspaper. The whole farm can be covered with wet hessian or carpet if it’s getting really hot.

I checked our worms a few hours after setting them up and already they are moving about the new food scraps, so I’m guessing they are hungry! We will be checking on them each day to see how they are going and to make sure that their home does not dry out.

I’m not sure what to do for a more long term solution for the missing lid, but my temporary solution was to out an old sign across the top and weigh it down with the spare worm  farm tray. I’ll scrounge up something more permanent soon.

Pest update

I found out what these pesky little critters were. They are a native ‘true bug’ Scolypopa australis with the common name ‘Passionvine Hopper’ . They love sucking the sap from creepers and other plants (like buddleia) that produce nice juicy new shoots.  Interestingly when I trimmed out the canopy of the buddleia noticed a lot less of these and some contented looking Red Wattle Birds.  You have to  love natural biological controls!

Last but not least, one of my favourite roses…

Double Delight