A soil mix that both your plants and the undead can enjoy!


Posted by Aimee | Posted in Compost, Raised Beds, Soil | Posted on 01-12-2010

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One of the most important things to do when starting your plants is to make sure that the soil they will be raised in is as good as you can make it. This often means making amendments to the soil or creating a soilless mix for the plants to grow in.

Having a good soil for your plant can often double or triple your harvest and often means the difference between a plant thriving or dying. For my plants I start with the same base every time, then expand to their specific needs. If it is going to be in my garden beds, I mix the soilless mixture in equal parts with my present soil, optimally to a depth of 12 inches.

I cannot claim full credit for my soilless recipe as it got it’s start by reading various garden books and trying different combinations. The one I chose ended up being very close to the one Mel Barthalowmew uses in his “Square Foot Gardening” series.

The key components to this mix are as follows: Coarse grade vermiculite, peat moss, compost, composted chicken manure, MicroLife fertilizer, soil moist, kelp meal, fish meal, and worm castings. These soil amendments combined make an absolutely fantastic soil. If you cannot get all of these ingredients you can still have good soil but each amendment has key benefits that I will go into further detail in our next post.

The recipe itself is pretty easy, I use an old, clean, five gallon bucket as a measure. An old gallon milk jug with the top cut off works pretty well too. Mixing the ingredients on a tarp works well if you have someone to help you mix. Otherwise in a wheelbarrow with a shovel is your next best option. You can enlarge or shrink your batch as you desire just keep the soil amendments in the same proportions. First measure out 1 bucket of each: vermiculite, peat moss, & compost.

The other soil amendments are more expensive and so I usually have less of a supply of them but you cannot have too much of the chicken manure or worm castings so that is what you want the bulk of it to be. Next, fill your bucket half full or more of composted chicken manure, Then add your worm castings to the bucket leaving about 1 gallon of space left (Total composted chicken manure and worm castings of 4 gallons.)add 1 cup of Microlife, 1 cup of soil moist, and then split the remaining room between the ground sea kelp and fish meal. Add this last bucket full to your pile of vermiculite, peat moss, & compost.

Mix the pile together thoroughly and then use as is for potted plants or raised beds or mix in equal parts with your soil. If your soil is very, very sandy, I recommend the addition of more compost (another bucket full). If your soil is mostly clay I suggest the addition of a bucket full of green sand (agricultural sand.)

This base has proved to me to be an excellent choice both indoors and out, my plants have thrived and I only add more compost and Microlife on occasion. You can also tailor this mix to your specific plants likes. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have.

Sweet Potato Quest


Posted by Aimee | Posted in Plantings | Posted on 21-05-2009

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Quest completed! You have attained gardening level 3! Woot! Is what I have to say to all that. I have been quite nervous about making the sweet potato bed. I have never grown sweet potatoes before, especially since back home in Missouri it was a tad cold for growing sweet potatoes, of course over the last decade or so they have come out with newer more cold hardy varieties.

Left half is beauregard and right half is O'henry

Left half is beauregard and right half is O'henry

Also, sweet potatoes are very healthy for you and they like to grow in the heat which makes them ideal for the Houston, Texas area. With sweet potatoes there are no seeds to plant, instead you plant rooted cuttings. These are very easy to make too, all you need to do is get a good looking sweet potato and put it in a flat or shallow pan half filled with damp sand, keep the sand damp, do not let it dry out. Or if need be you can just keep the flat half filled with water, however you may not get as many shoots this way. The important thing is to keep them warm, perhaps on top of the refrigerator. Once the shoots are 2-3 inches tall break them off at their base away from the potato and place them in a vase where the base is in the water and the leaves are above water. In a few days they should start to root.

After your cuttings have rooted it is time to plant them in the garden, the best method is to plant them into a generously deep raised bed, with organic time released fertilizer mixed in. Plant 9-10 inches apart and provide something for the vines to grow up if you can. The vines will root if they get a chance left against the soil. Now that I have started mine and they are planted let’s see how they do. I will be sure to update on them this fall. I am only doing 16 square feet of them. To start with I built a 4ft X 4ft bed of untreated lumber and covered the roughed up sod with newspaper. Then I dumped a 55 gallon drum of homemade compost into the bottom and covered it with peat moss and top soil mixed up and applied MicroLife fertilizer mounding the dirt up in the middle to give the plants even more room to grow. Once established plants are drought hardy, these are plants you do not want to over water. Sweet potatoes will continue to grow until overnight temperatures reach about the fifties. I will be mulching and installing some trellising for the vines tomorrow.

If I find any more pertinent information for other first time growers out there I will update that as well as my personal experience with the plant. I am still nervous even after having researched these fellows extensively just because it is a plant that I have never grown before and unlike most fruiting vegetables you cannot see the products of your labor you just have to sort of trust that they are under there. Just like my beloved Irish potatoes, you just have to trust that the beautiful plant that is growing has equally yummy tubers forming down there under the dirt. So for me getting the bed built and filled and planted was overcoming a huge hurdle of my own doubt. I could almost swear I heard the level up ding playing! =D I think that is a feeling a lot of us are coming up against, for the first time gardening isn’t just a hobby for us, but our families may depend on our productivity for sustenance. The booming of the recession garden is all over in the news as well as talks of victory gardens and for so many of us the pressure is on to make a lot out of very little. Have faith though, we can do it. We may stumble and have much learning to do but we will find our way in the end. I will have more on producing a lot of vegetables (loot) for very little cost soon.

Evil Plant Eating Mobs


Posted by Aimee | Posted in Compost, Experiments, Insects | Posted on 30-04-2009

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The weather here lately in the Houston area has been downright sopping wet. As I am sure many of you heard or saw large areas of Houston were flooded Tuesday, so much so I did not even get into work until 9:30A.M. I was fortunate enough to not have to sit in traffic, rather we waited to go to work until after the roadways had been cleared.

With all this water I was a little worried about my plants. My fancy, high tech shade providing devices (card board boxes) got so soggy they fell over on-top of the plants they were intended to protect and started squashing them. I braved the weather for just long enough to pull the boxes out of my raised garden beds and dart back indoors.

Potatoes Growing Crazy

Potatoes Growing Crazy

I am extremely glad to report that after a good once over this evening I am sure my plants are all doing well. Especially the potatoes! The only thing not intentionally planted is doing the best, though I attribute a lot of this to the fact that they were planted straight into compost and I have applied Micro-Life fertilizer to them and since all the rain and warm weather will not wash the nitrogen out and burn the plants like it can with non-organic fertilizers they are doing fantastic. They are a beautiful deep green and other than having to pick a couple of unidentified caterpillars off of them they are doing amazing, growing faster than any weed I have ever seen even.

About those caterpillars though, I should have taken a picture because the only picture I found that matched how they looked exactly labels it as an army caterpillar but by looking up pictures of army caterpillars I am rather unconvinced that is a correct identification. The caterpillar was velvety smooth looking and was black with two vivid, thin yellow stripes on its upper sides, almost so high they would be on its back. I may go out with a flashlight and see if I can find any more of these. Then I will get a picture put up and maybe one of you other Houston area gardeners can identify him for me.

I most certainly cannot have them eating those beautiful potato plants or my tomato plants either. I had read that potatoes were rather hard to grow in this area just like asparagus and peaches. I was worried enough about how well they would grow I almost just turned them under, now I am exceedingly glad I let them stay. Who knows if I will get any potatoes or not but the plants themselves look absolutely gorgeous! Here’s hoping there won’t be any more flooding!

Raised Garden Bed, No Borders


Posted by Aimee | Posted in Guides, Raised Beds | Posted on 22-04-2009

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Previously, I mentioned how appropriate I felt raised garden beds are for the Houston area. What I did not talk about was how easy it is to make a raised bed even without framing materials. The edges may not look as neat but the cost is very low. You will only need a couple of things before you can get started. First you will need a lot of newspaper. If you do not have easy access to this, you can ask your neighbors for theirs when they are done with it or get the grocery circulars when they go out of date, or even just save the grocery circulars for a couple of months. Also you will need bags of peat moss, compost, garden soil, fertilizer is preferred and seeds or transplants to go into your ready garden.

The soil mixture does not have to be an exact 1-1-1 ratio, you can mix it up a bit just remember that it is very important to have a lot of organic matter in the soil. The organic matter in the materials I suggested comes from the peat moss and compost. If you have compost from your home this is even better. You can space this project out over a couple of days or even weeks if you want to, just make sure that if you have exposed loose soil you keep it moistened to help it not fly away.

The first thing you will want to do is take a hose or piece of yarn and mark off where you would like your garden bed to lay. You can make it any shape you want, so long as you can reach to all the spots in the middle. It is a good idea to take a look at your shape from many angles and think if for any reason the shape or location needs altered. Is the garden bed going to be in a high traffic area? Is there room for the mower to get around it easily? Is there convenient access to water? Will the vegetables or flowers get enough sun? Any thing else the garden might be in the way of?

The nice thing about this method is that there is nothing you need to do to prepare the soil. The whole raised garden bed is going to go right on top of the newspaper, which will be covering the current grass or soil to act as a weed barrier. Once you are sure that the garden bed is exactly where you want it lay out newspaper within the borders, cut the papers to fit neatly and make sure the whole area is at least ten sheets thick. Then, wet the newspaper lightly to keep it from taking flight. Now you can remove your border marker. Then the soil materials go on in layers on top of the newspaper, each layer about two inches or so thick, the order is not overly important just add in some organic slow release fertilizer with each level. Make sure to use the recommended fertilization rates, just divide it by the set of layers you plan to have, so half as much for two sets of layers or one third as much for three sets of layers. I do suggest having the top layer be top soil. After a while though it will all get mixed together so this part doesn’t really matter it is mostly because the garden soil will look best on top. You do want to slant inward slightly from the base to the top. That way your bed will not spill over the borders you have set.

Mist the soil carefully at first and then plant your seeds and/or transplants. All you need to do is scoop out a little soil where the transplants or seeds are going and then back fill. Then water the bed more thoroughly. Congratulations you now have one very nice, very easy, low cost raised garden bed. If later on you want to dress the beds up a bit, you could just get some cheap landscaping stones and surround it.

Composting, a Simple First Step


Posted by Aimee | Posted in Compost | Posted on 16-04-2009

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A lot of the vegetables I want to grow are heavy feeders, potatoes for example. So even with tax season looming ahead of me I started composting. It is a fantastic, easy first step towards getting a garden going, and does not require any real sort of time investment. Otherwise, all those kitchen scraps and shrub clippings go to waste. Often into a landfill where they do little more than attract unwanted bugs.

Recent Compost

Recent Compost

There are a lot of ways to handle composting and as long as you do it right it will not smell. Ants can be attracted to compost, so you may want to keep an eye on that. As long as the ants do not bother you, they are beneficial to the compost by aerating it. If you happen to have an unused corner of your yard you can turn it into a compost pile, or you can use bins or containers of your own making and there is a plethora of bins available at places like home depot or online. A couple examples include Tumbleweed Composter, Mantis Twin Composting Bin or Earthmaker Aerobic Composter – 120 Gallon.

To start out with, think about how quickly you want your compost ready and how much effort you are willing to put into it. If you just take your kitchen scraps and yard cuttings and toss them in a pile they will over time break down. Keeping it covered lightly with soil will help to keep insect numbers down somewhat and to prevent foul odors. This method is the slowest and least efficient method and also requires almost no work. The micro-organisms will eventually break down the material and you will get compost. This type of compost will consistently be at the bottom of the pile.

To speed things up a bit add a bit of air and keep your compost pile moist (not soaked). Adding air is as easy as turning the compost regularly, a lot of retail bins make that as easy as turning a handle. In our case we put the trash can lid on and roll the bin around the yard. It also helps to keep greens and browns about equal. Browns are things like sawdust, hay, leaves, wood chips or branches. Greens are lawn clippings, fruits and vegetables.

You can also help the process by not trying to compost meat, dairy or fat. These ingredients in small dosages are ok, but can attract dogs, cats or even raccoons. If you are looking to make a small first step towards starting a garden, composting is your best option. It requires no money to start and it can create the richest soil available for your fruits, vegetables, flower and plants. Many plants would thrive without the need for any fertilizer at all if grown in pure compost. So far I have been thrilled with what compost we have created, I have even taken dead roses and flowers home from ladies at the office and tossed them into the compost. Compost is the present that just keeps on giving, as you add compost to your soil it will improve the soil structure overall and provide your plants with nutrients. Compostable materials are estimated to be approximately 30% of household wastes. Also commercially available compost may not be of a high quality. Often saw dust or wood chips are used as filler, these can actually tie up nutrients plants need if in large enough quantities.

A basic list of what is not compostable is:

  • Meat, dairy and fatty wastes
  • Diseased plants or problem weeds
  • Human or pet wastes
  • Anything that may contain chemicals or has been chemically treated

When I get more time I will compile a complete guide to composting.

An excellent source of more information is: http://www.vegweb.com/composting