Category Archives: Compost and Mulch

First Frost of the Season

Finally, some seasonally appropriate weather! Early this morning, the brassicas were frosted white. I went out to remove the various traps (still baited and unsprung) from the mysteriously no longer rat-proof chicken run. I could hear the girls murmuring in their nest box, but they weren’t eager to come out into the icy chill.

If you garden in California, you can find average first and last frost dates for your area in this freeze/frost occurrence data from the National Climatic Data Center. For other states, go straight to NCDC’s home page and navigate to data for your area.

Brassicas covered in frost.

Frosty brassicas at dawn (tucked in under a cozy layer of leaf mulch).

Overall Gardener Takes to Twitter

Overall Gardener on Twitter??! Ack. I love to garden, and I love to write, but technology and social media are not really my strong suits. So it was with trepidation a year ago that I signed up for a Twitter account for the Overall Gardener blog. I believe I posted one tweet right away, before letting the account sit idly for over a year. What’s Twitter good for, anyway? I’m still not quite sure.

Clearly, I’m not doing a great job of selling you on my brilliant gardening tweets, but if you are brave of heart and not easily bored, stop by. I even figured out how to include a nifty button on the right-hand side of the blog which you can click in order to “follow” my tweets. And better yet, drop me a line and point me in the right direction. Until then, I will be roughing it alone with the handle, @OverallGardener. Yikes, I never thought it would come to this.

Low Maintenance Gardening

You call that five foot tall pile of newly pulled weeds low maintenance???

We are done. We’re done with backbreaking labor and DIY projects that drag on for months (I won’t name names here, but it knows I’m talking about it). We’re done with spider mites in the greenhouse, and rats in the garage, and half blind city-squirrels that take a few bites out of each persimmon, apple, loquat, and fig. We’re done pulling Bermuda grass and digging ivy. And we’re done having piles of bee equipment in the kitchen and mountains of cardboard stockpiled against the back of the house.

Most of all, we’re done with our own minds and our tendencies toward stress and anxiety.

We’ve decided we need a garden slave (or at least a housemate who pays their rent in gardening services). The only sticking point is that Kelly is unwilling to live with them. As a compromise, we will endeavor to practice low maintenance gardening, something we have always strived toward, but virtually never achieved.

Low maintenance gardening, a five-step plan

1.  We will spend our gardening energy this summer tidying and catching up, rather than rooting around for more hair-brained projects to embark on.

2.  We will plant out only the starts we have in the greenhouse and will leave several beds mulched and fallow.

3.  We will thoroughly mulch the summer garden with leaves to cut down on watering.

4.  We will finish installing drip irrigation to further cut down on water use and time spent watering.

5.  We will spend time enjoying the garden and relaxing in it. (Bring on the iced tea and garden hammocks!)

My precious ‘Sweet Meat’ squash in its new home beside the chicken coop. (Notice the dutifully placed leaf mulch for lower maintenance plant care through the summer!)

Gardening has become a bit of a chore and a stressor. While I can’t imagine postponing time in the garden for when I am 70 or 80 and finally get to retire, something has to give.

There are baby cucumbers languishing in the greenhouse. There are beehives bursting at the joints, in need of honey supers and frames, and there is Kelly and me, utterly exhausted and miserable. Low maintenance gardening, here we come.

What Not to Compost

The latest five-gallon bucket of compost trash.

Compost has four ingredients: oxygen, water, carbon, and nitrogen. Unfortunately for us, the previous occupants of our house had other ideas.

The chicken coop is built and our last remaining task is making it safe for the chickens. For the past week we have put aside time each day to dig through the top six inches of soil in the chicken run and remove trash.

We have been absolutely shocked by the amount and variety of trash buried in the soil. Each shovelful yields broken glass, nails, wire, plastic mesh, and a myriad of more unusual items. At this point, you may be asking yourself where on earth we live and why our garden is a veritable trash heap. Here’s the story.

Our house was a board and care home for people with mental illness for 35 years before we moved in. The caregiver was an avid gardener who loved to compost. We aren’t sure whether her residents used the compost piles as their trash bins, or if the caregiver herself mistakenly thought that plastic, glass, and metal were appropriate ingredients for compost. Either way, we find a strange and eclectic assortment of trash just about everywhere we sink a shovel in the garden.

But nowhere has been as bad as the orchard turned chicken coop where most of the original compost piles were situated. It’s sad and overwhelming, and it makes us very concerned for the chickens’ welfare. Incidentally, we are also both in dire need of chiropractic adjustments after hours spent kneeling in the dirt squinting at shards of glass and tinsel.

A partial list of the not-to-be-composted items unearthed thus far (alphabetized for your reading pleasure):

  • Band-Aids
  • Buttons
  • CDs
  • Ceramic pieces
  • Charcoal
  • Cigarettes
  • Coat hangers
  • Fake ivy
  • Glass
  • Legos
  • Nails, staples, stakes, screws, and other hardware
  • Pantyhose
  • Pill bottles
  • Plant tags
  • Plastic bags
  • Plastic soda bottles
  • Plastic netting
  • Shaving razor handles
  • Tin can lids
  • Tinsel
  • Plastic and metal bits of unidentifiable origins
  • A wrench

Needless to say, we’re bummed. It’s a good reminder that trash doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t turn into rich soil, and whether or not we have to look at it every day, it’s still sitting around somewhere. We only hope we’ve removed enough of it that our chickens won’t kill themselves eating a shard of glass or a nail. After we finish excavating, we will compact the soil as much as possible and then add layers of leaves and straw in hopes that they won’t dig too deeply into the dirt.

Mulch Madness

Kelly spreads newspaper under the loquat.

We started collecting leaves a year ago in the fall. We made great heaps of them in what we fondly call the orchard––a square little plot sandwiched between the garage and back fence where we always imagine our next garden project will live.

We had grand schemes for the leaves, but our eyes were bigger than our rakes.

I wanted to make compost piles, and did, much to Kelly’s chagrin. She came home from work one day to discover that I’d used up nearly a quarter of our store.

Kelly dreamed of sheet mulching. Done right, the layers of compost, cardboard, and leaves do a great job of building organic matter in the soil and improving water penetration and retention.

Sheet mulch can also help snuff out annual weeds, a big added benefit in our garden, where we are perpetually behind in our efforts to keep growing space open for the plants we’re actually trying to grow.

Kelly’s plan went like this: we’d start by mulching the weedy garden paths with layers of cardboard and woodchips supplied by our arborist friend. Then we’d work our way around to the front of the house, a no-man’s land of Bermuda grass, ivy, and straggly roses. Finally, we’d circle back along the driveway, filling in compost, cardboard, and leaves under the apple, lemon and persimmon trees. In the end, we ran out of time before we used up our leaves, or woodchips.

This year, however, we were at it again. We got an earlier start, enlisted the help of rake-happy neighbors, and befriended a mow-and-blow team one day that gladly dumped a truckload of leaves (mixed with assorted trash) against the front of the house.

You can’t go far in the garden anymore without tripping over a pile of leaves, and thus the mulch preparation began. You should know two things before I go any further. The first is that we have very little time to work in the garden. We both work more or less full time and we’re chronically overcommitted homebodies.

The second thing you should know is that we don’t want to work harder than we have to. We derive immense satisfaction from surveying our handiwork at the end of the day, but we’re often less than enthusiastic about actually starting big projects.

That said, we dug out the Bermuda grass and ivy (ha!) in the front yard and removed several stubbornly rooted oak saplings, along with all but the most pleasing straggly rose.

In a feat of unparalleled daring (for me), I climbed 25 feet up in an as yet unidentified weed tree and performed some merciless branch removal to bring more light into the front yard.

As lazy, cheapskate gardeners lacking adequate resources, we decided to forgo the layer of compost. (We’ll be sure to let you know how this works out.) We went straight to spreading the cardboard instead. We quickly used up our supply of boxes, and resorted to a mat of overlapping newspaper under the loquat. We topped the whole thing off with a generous layer of leaves. Now all we need is the rain.

The completed mulching.

Next fall, when the weeds have (hopefully) been subdued, the leaves and cardboard have broken down into the soil, and the worms have discovered what an awesome place our front yard is to raise a family, we’ll have to come to a joint decision on what to plant.

My short-list includes Jerusalem artichokes, blueberries, a raised bed of greens, and space for active compost piles. Kelly is hoping for a home for the ornamentals she loves. To be fair, though, the blueberries were her idea, and she’s even on board with the bed of greens as long as I’m willing to forgo a sunchoke forest and tuck my compost bins around the side of the house.