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Saturday, October 26, 2013


Benefits of compost

Recycling – keeping plant materials out of the landfills – keeps landfills from filling up too fast, and keeps the sun's energy out of the landfill
Builds soil structure and fertility

Composting Piles and Methodologies

No pile – dig it into the soil (trench composting)
Plastic bins -
Wire bins
Wooden bins
No bins

Collect every waste you can for composting from your own house first
newsprint, tea bags, coffee grounds, veggie and fruit trimmings, food that died in the fridge
no dog or cat waste, bones and unused meat are poor choices,

Check with neighbors for their free waste i.e. coffee grounds, leaves,
find local waste that's free – wood chips, sawdust, Starbucks coffee grounds, scrounge your neighborhood for waste streams that could prove useful – another's trash could be your treasure


Commercial products that contain microbes to inoculate your compost pile. Most research shows limited use as the number of microbes multiply to full capacity in short order, but they would do that (more slowly) without the inoculation. No matter the claims made by the sales force for such products, most independent research indicate any positive long term effect from such products.

After too little water, the most common failure in compost piles is a lack of nitrogen – too little materials with not enough nitrogen to facilitate heating up or quick decomposition; all the detritivores need nitrogen to build their protoplasm and do to their work. Additional inputs of nitrogen will correct a slow pile, assuming that lack of water is not the problem.


Alfalfa – one of my favorites, sold as livestock feed in feed stores. One bale sells for under $20. It has some nitrogen and absorbs, and holds onto moisture making it an excellent addition to a compost pile. Alfalfa serves as a good compost stimulant and activator. Alfalfa sold as animal feed in dehydrated pellets or a meal works just as well too.

Apple pomace – any pomace – leftovers from crushing fruits for their juice. Will attract yellow jackets and other wasps so cover them with leaves or soil or straw or hay.

Banana residue – makes a compost pile go whoopee – seems well supplied with nitrogen and guarantee lots of bacterial activity

Beet waste – if you should move near a sugar beet processing plant – many books will recommend beet waste – be careful, though, now that GMO sugar beets have begun to be used.

Bonemeal – high in phosphorus if you find yourself within striking distance of a slaughterhouse. Ditto for blood meal.

Citrus wastes – from your table is sometimes denigrated as a compost pile component, but it is good in nutrients and breaks down quickly. If you are near a factory producing orange and other citrus products – sometimes available from some feed stores – the more peel the more nitrogen the final product will contain.

Cocoa Bean Shells – for those that live near a chocolate factory – they are rich in nitrogen and benefit the soil no matter how they are used. They do not break down quickly so I have used them as pathway mulch. I have heard they are poisonous to dogs although I used them whilst living with two dogs and neither dog showed the slightest interest in them. They smell great, although you might find yourself gorging on chocolate as a result.

Coffee wastes – earthworms love them and they break down nicely. Slightly acidic they make a good mulch around any acid loving plant (skipping the compost pile altogether). Mix them with other OM as they hold moisture well. If allowed to sour, they will attract fruit flies.

Cottonseed meal – commercially available as fertilizer – used to be a great source of nitrogen but most of it is now GMO, as well being sprayed with insecticides of all kinds and I would skip it these days unless you can find a source of organic cottonseed meal.. It is one of the most dependable long term organic sources for nitrogen, a rare thing in organic gardening.

Garbage – will be one of your most consistent and reliable components in your compost pile. Do not use meat craps, fat or bones in your pile for they take too long to fully break down and are very attractive to scavenging animals. When put into your compost pile, always mix with absorbent material like dead leaves, straw or hay and cover them completely with dirt or other substantive materials to prevent smells and discourage flies.

Grape wastes – from wineries, producing waste products in the way of skin residue, seeds and stalks by the ton in pressing season. Not a lot of nutrition but the bulk of organic plant matter may be useful to achieve a rapid hot compost

Grass clippings – most of us have these or can easily obtain them from neighbors who have them. Exceedingly rich in nitrogen, and will heat up on their own if put into a pile, but, because of their shape and high moisture content can pack down, rotting and turn slimy and smelly on you. Add grass clippings in small layers and mix with leaves, garbage and or other materials. Dried grass clippings will have lost most of their nitrogen, treat like hay or straw. If the source lawn is being treated with herbicides, use with care – although the composting process, if done properly will remove most of those residues.

Hair – if you can get an amount of it is probably the most concentrated source of nitrogen you can get for free. Six to seven pounds of hair can contain as much nitrogen as 100 to 200 pounds of manure. Hair will decompose rapidly and may pack down and shed water – mix with other materials to prevent that. Available for free from barbershops or hair salons.

Hay – you can buy a bale from a feed store – may contain weed seeds unless it was cut early – how would you know? If you can find spoiled hay from a farmer it will be free or at low cost.

Leaves – very compostable and available for free to most of us. Leaves, because of the extensive roots of trees that forage deep into the subsoil for nutrients, are a superior component in your compost. Pound for pound, leaves provide twice the mineral content of manure. They are low in nitrogen and may pack down taking a long time to break down, but mixed with a good source of nitrogen and kept aerated, they are a fabulous resource.

Manure – used with discretion can be an important part of a compost pile. If you have chickens or rabbits (or any farm animal) I suggest you use it in your compost pile; but I do not encourage importing fresh animal manures if you do not know the animal. Many of our farm animals today get unregulated dosages of medications and that will be expressed through their feces and urine, furthermore, most animals today are not pastured and their manure will have high concentrations of urine in the manure – urine is high in salts. If you do have a source of manure, use it in the compost pile, get a hot pile and let it break down thoroughly before incorporating these items into your soil. If it smells like animal poop, it is still too fresh.

Paper – you can use paper of many kinds even those with colored ink and slick pages. The secret, and the problem, for using paper waste is they need to be shredded or chopped into fine bits for successful incorporation into the pile. I have used paper from an office shredder, but it was difficult to wet and until wetted was as airborne faster than corn pollen. Wetted newsprint is excellent. Use like straw.

Pine needles – in the south it's called pine straw, but they break down super slowly. They are highly acidic and that means they should not be used intemperately. They have been found somewhat effective at controlling Fusarium wilts.

Rice hulls – a great source of potash and break down readily in your compost pile. They are an excellent soil conditioner, are loved in the compost heap and are a desirable mulch. Many soil conditioners contain large amounts of rice hulls for the 'fluffy.'

Sawdust – available from lumber yards or furniture refinishers. It is valuable as a source of a cabon and helps allow good air penetration into the compost pile. It is slow to break down – the robbing of nitrogen that is often a source of concern for gardeners, most research (my own anecdotal experience included) shows that is not a credible problem.

Seaweed – free and available on the beach, but, some folks worry about the radioactive level since the recent nuclear power plant problems in Japan. It has a similar nutrient level as manure, but should be composted while fresh. While I have worried about salt content, I see no mention of it in most composting literature. Seaweed contains a multitude of micronutrients essential to human and plant health. Mix with other materials and it will decompose quickly. Kelp meal, purchased, can be used as an activator in compost.

Soil – not an essential component in a working compost pile, it can prove helpful. Soil can be used as an inoculator to imbue your pile with microbial activity setting your new pile on its way. Most gardeners, though, add a small amounts of finished compost to a new pile as an activator.

Straw – adds few nutrients but does add organic material and helps aerate a compost pile. It adds carbon to the pile and is a sort of plant food. If using a lot of straw, add commensurate amounts of nitrogen. Straw that has begun to break down is a wonderful addition to any compost pile.

Tea grounds – has a high content of nitrogen (about 4.15%) and breaks down easily.

Weeds – non-perennial weeds can be be placed in the compost pile as long as they are not seeding. Some weeds, like mallow, have an incredible tap root and bring materials from the subsoil up which is in the plant leaves and stems making their contribution to the compost pile much more desirable. However, some weeds, like Bermuda grass, which also has a tremendous root system (Bermuda roots are known to go as far as 27 feet deep!) will only grow in your compost pile – don't risk it.

Wood ashes – a valuable source off potash. Use cautiously for they have a strong alkalizing effect and might also increase soil salinity.

Wood chips – useful in the garden and compost pile. They do break down slowly, but even as they break down they increase the moisture holding capacity and aerate the soil. If your soil has enough nitrogen to begin with, decomposing wood chips should not adversely affect your soil's nitrogen availability.

Feeding your worms:

Worms LOVE

Worms HATE
Breads & Grains
Coffee grounds & filter
Tea bags
Dairy Products


Probable Cause
Worms are dying or trying to escape
Too wet
Too dry
Bedding is used up
Add more bedding
Moisten bedding
Harvest your bin
Bin stinks!
Not enough air
Too much food
Too wet
Drill more ventilation holes
Do not feed for 1-2 weeks
Add more bedding
Fruit Flies
Exposed food
Bury food in bedding

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Using The Soil Triangle

Using The Soil Triangle 

Follow these steps to determine the name of your soil texture:

  1. Place the edge of a ruler at the point along the base of the triangle that represents the percent of sand in your sample. Position the ruler on or parallel to the lines which slant toward the base of the triangle.
  2. Place the edge of a second ruler at the point along the right side of the triangle that represents the percent of silt in your sample. Position the ruler on or parallel to the lines which slant toward the base of the triangle.
  3. Place the point of a pencil or water soluble marker at the point where the two rulers meet. Place the top edge of one of the rulers on the mark, and hold the ruler parallel to the horizontal lines. The number on the left should be the percent of clay in the sample.
  4. The descriptive name of the soil sample is written in the shaded area where the mark is located. If the mark should fall directly on a line between two descriptions, record both names.

Feel the texture of a moist soil sample. Sand will feel "gritty", while silt will feel like powder or flour. Clay will feel "sticky" and hard to squeeze, and will probably stick to your hand. Looking at the textural triangle, try to estimate how much sand, silt, or clay is in the sample. Find the name of the texture that this soil corresponds to.

Practice Exercises:

Use the following numbers to determine the soil texture name using the textural triangle. When a number is missing, fill in the blanks (note: the sum of % sand, silt and clay should always add up to 100%):

sandy loam












Soil Lecture Notes

We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot. Leonardo da Vinci

Some of you will have questions about your own situation – and that’s how it should be. Many of these questions will be excellent for demonstrating a concept or principle to the class, however, some of you live in simply impossible conditions that conform to no known laws of man and what you need is not an answer in a class room setting but a consultation with someone first hand with your situation as the sole focus – or perhaps a miracle, I don’t know – in those cases, I will defer your question and ask you approach me out of the classroom setting in order to answer you completely. Let’s be fair to your fellow students, this is their time too.

In teaching soils through the years, I have found that we will move in and out of three different scientific discipline: physics, chemistry and biology. We can only talk about one subject at a time, because that is how we learn, but I want to stress to you from the very beginning that these are interconnected in a very intricate dance. Whatever you do to one will affect the other two as sure as cutting up beets will give you red fingers. Remember that and you will go a long way towards mastering the soils you garden with.

Air and water share spaces in the soil. After a rain, an event that has happened here once in a while, as much as 100% of the soil pore space may be filled with water; this same pore space may be 100% filled with air in the event of an extended drought – in which case, all the plants in that soil would be dead. So this percentage allotted to water and air is always in flux.

Approximately half of the volume of soil is pore space and can be taken up with water or air depending on the current weather conditions.

Except for a precious small number of you, most of you will garden in soils that have 5% organic matter. Maybe less. These figures represent an ‘average’ soil. There are variations from place to place, but this representation is close enough for an average number through out.

Soil Formation

Soil forms over thousands of years and is an ongoing process. Soils in California are relatively young soils and haven’t, for the most part, developed any great depth.

The following factors inform the process:
  1. Climate – including temperature and rainfall
  2. Organisms – from the itty bitty (microscopic) to the biggies (macroscopic)
  3. Topography – (the book calls relief) – land surface
  4. Parent material – the original rock
  5. Time – the factor that weathers us all.


Soil forms from the parent material. Climate participates in this process in many guises:
A mild climate forms soil more slowly than a non-forgiving climate


Organisms from lichen growing on a rock to a tree that sends its root hairs down into crevices of the rock and fissure it.


Soil forms more easily on a level surface. Look at the sheer face of a cliff and you’ll see the extreme proof of what I’m saying.

Parent Material

Granite becomes soil less rapidly than sandstone.


Because time ages everything.

Soil Composition

Sand/Silt/Clay – the physical sizes
Sand – from 2mm to 5 hundredths of a mm
Silt – from 5 hundredths of a mm to 2 thousandths of a mm
Clay – smaller than 2 thousandths of a mm

Characteristics of Soil Components

Water holding
Medium +
Drainage rate
Slow/Very slow
Soil organic matter
Medium +
Decomposition of organic matter
Speed of warming
Storage of nutrients
Resistance to pH change

Notes on Clay Soil

Clay particles, though tiny, have a much larger surface area – see the chart on page 32. How does this happen?
  1. More small particles can fit into the same area.
  2. The shape of clay particles.
This could be illustrated by coffee beans, ground and whole – if I could think of a container to show this. I.e. a test tube.

Soil Texture

Is determined through the proportion of these differing components found in a given soil.

Ref. Chart on 33
An ideal soil is a mix of all these different components. While it is possible to have a soil that is composed of one or the other component, the likelihood is that it will be a combination of all three. The proportion of one to the next determines how you call your soil.

Do the texture triangle procedure

Organic Matter

The end process of compost is: humus

Humus is a complex organic substance resulting from the breakdown of plant material in a process called humification. This process can occur naturally in soil, or in the production of compost. Humus is extremely important to the fertility of soils in both a physical and chemical sense (see below). Physically it helps the soil retain moisture and encourages the formation of good soil structure. Chemically, it has many active molecules that can bind to plant nutrients, making them more available. It is difficult to define humus in precise terms because it is a highly complex substance, the full nature of which is still not fully understood. Physically humus can be differentiated from organic matter in that the latter is rough looking material, with coarse plant remains still visible, while once fully humified it become more uniform in appearance (a dark, spongy, jelly-like substance) and unstructured in structure; which is to say, it has no determinate shape, structure or character, it is not square, round or triangular.

Plant remains (including those that have passed through an animal and are excreted as manure) contain organic compounds: sugars, starches, proteins, carbohydrates and organic acids. The process of organic matter decay in the soil begins with the decomposition of sugars and starches from carbohydrates which break down easily as detritivores initially invade the dead plant, whilst the remaining cellulose breaks down more slowly. Proteins decompose into amino acids at a rate depending on Carbon: Nitrogen ratios. The humus that is the end product of this process is a mixture of compounds and complex life chemicals of plant, animal or microbial origin which has many functions and benefits in the soil as outlined below;

The process that converts raw organic matter to the relatively stable substance that is humus feeds the soil population of micro-organisms and other creatures which helps in maintaining high and healthy levels of soil life.

Effective and stable humus are further sources of nutrients to microbes, the former providing a readily available supply whilst the latter acts as a more long term storage reservoir.

Humification of dead plant material causes complex organic compounds to break down into simpler forms which are then made available to growing plants for uptake through their root systems.

Humus can hold the equivalent of 80-90% of its weight in moisture, thus increases the soil's capacity to withstand drought conditions.

The biochemical structure of humus enables it to moderate- or buffer- excessive acid or alkaline soil conditions.

During the humification process microbes secrete sticky gums- these contribute to the structure of the soil by holding particles together, allowing greater aeration of the soil. Toxic substances such as heavy metals, as well as excess nutrients, can be bound to the complex organic molecules of humus and prevented from entering the wider ecosystem.
The dark color of humus (usually black or dark brown) helps to warm up cold soils in the spring.

Humus which is also capable of further decomposition is referred to as effective or active humus. It is principally derived from sugars, starches and proteins and consists of simple organic acids. It is an excellent source of plant nutrients, but of little value regarding long term soil structure and tilth. Stable humus consisting of humic acids on the other hand, are so highly insoluble (or tightly bound to clay particles that they cannot be penetrated by microbes) that they are greatly resistant to further decomposition. They add few readily available nutrients to the soil, but play an essential part in providing it's physical structure. Some very stable humus complexes have survived for thousands of years.

Humus should not be thought of as 'dead'- rather it is the 'raw matter' of life- the transition stage between one life form and another. It is a part of a constant process of change and organic cycling, thus must be constantly replenished- for when we are removing prunings and crops for the kitchen we are depriving nature's cycle of potential humus. This is why we need to substitute compost and other sources of organic matter to maintain the fertility of our productive land.

Organic matter placed on the soil is called: mulch.

Organic matter dug into the soil is called amendment.

Some of either can be called humus, but not all.

Organic matter in the soil mitigates any negatives of that soil:

Too much clay is opened up by adding OM.

Too much sand is cohered by adding OM.

Micro and macro organisms live on OM.

There are several different schools of thought on how to get OM in to and used by the soil: from double digging, to using a tiller to sheet composting.

Soil Water

Nutrients enter a plant via soil solution.

Water coheres to itself (describe the miniscus).

Roots take up water one molecule at a time. Water molecules cohere throughout the plant – form the water column. That water molecule pulled into the plant root will pull along one behind it and one behind it.

Discuss water pulled across a moist soil and watering away from the plant’s base. Water not making across differing soil types.

    Each shovel of soil holds more living things than all the human beings ever born.


Nutrients Available (via atmosphere or water)


Primary Nutrients


Secondary Nutrients




Symptoms of deficiency of N vs. Fe

PH chart on p. 54 and the differences of pH on nutrient uptake…


NPK – a ‘complete’ fertilizer and what do the numbers mean..

Nitrogen; Phosphorous; Potassium

The difference between fertilizers and amendment.

Discuss lead uptake in soils…


Hillel, D. J. 1992, Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil, Reprint Edition, Berkeley, CA; University of California Press

Logsdon, Gene, 1975; The Gardener’s Guide to Better Soil, Emmaus, PN; Rodale Press

Gershuny, Grace, 1986; The Soul of Soil; A Guide to Ecological Soil Management, 2nd Edition, St. Johnsbury, VT; Gaia Services

Kohnke, Helmut, 1995; Soil Science Simplified, 4th Edition, Prospect Heights, IL Waveland Press

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Cool and Warm Season Varietal Suggestions

Suggestions for The Cool Season:

Artichokes (a perennial)
Burpee’s Golden, Chioggia, Detroit Dark Red, Detroit White,
Nutribud, Waltham. Calabrese, DeCicco 
Brussel Sprouts
Long Island (sometimes "Improved" is added) 
Cabbage (including Oriental cabbage-like greens)
Point One, Early Jersey Wakefield, Copenhagen Market,
Dragon, St. Valery, Paris Market, Scarlet Nantes,
Cauliflower – there are purple ones too!
Early Snowball
Argentata, Five Color Silverbeet,
Fava Beans
Windsor; Aprovecho (sometimes appended with “Select”)
Florence Fennel (bulbing)
Romy, Zefa Fino.
Garlic (this is a long season crop, plant in Fall harvest next Summer)
Dinosaur (also called 'Lacinata'), Redbor,
Carina, King Richard
more varieties than you can shake a stick at – or grow a mix!
Onions (also a long season growing; find “short-day” varieties like Italian Torpedo)
Other leafy salad things
Tall Telephone Pole, Dwarf Gray Sugar,
All-Blue, Caribe, Yukon Gold,
French Breakfast, Fluo, Easter Egg, Purple Plum, Watermelon
Bloomsdales’ Long Standing, America
DeMilan, Purple Top White Globe

Include all perennial herbs and perennial flowers. In addition, try some fun annuals like calendulas, larkspur, poppies (bread, California or Iceland types), sweet peas, and venidium. Make room for cilantro! Lots of cilantro!!

Suggestions for The Warm Season:

Lettuce Leaf, Genovese,
Beans - drying
Black Turtle, Calypso, Cherokee Trail of Tears, Hidatsa, Hutterite, Cannelini,
Beans – lima
Beans- snap
Roc d’Or, Romano, Royal Burgundy, Kentucky Wonder, Blue Lake
Sweet Corn
Golden Bantam, Country Gentleman,
Mideast Prolific, Japanese, Armenian,
Asian Bride, Rosa Bianca, Dusky
Charantais, Jenny Lind,
Peppers (Sweet)
Ancho, Corno di Toro, Healthy, Marconi,
Peppers (Hot)
Aji Crystal, Fish (mildly hot), Early Jalapeno,
Cornfield, Lumina,
Squash (Summer)
Black Beauty, Yellow Crookneck
Squash (Winter)
Acorn, Marina de Chioggia, Potimarron, Queensland Blue, Kaboucha,
Brandywine, San Marzano, Stupice, Sweet 100’s, Rutgers and thousands others!
Green Husk, Purple di Milpa,

Plant from seed or buy transplants at a nursery of fun warm-season annual flowers like marigolds, cleome (watch the stickers!), cosmos, sunflowers and zinnias. These warm season flowers make cheerful bouquets. You can also grow everlasting flowers like statice and gomphrena. The widest selection of flowers and vegetables is available to those who start their own from seed, especially if one orders from the internet.   

What To Do and When To Do It: October

NB:  We spoke of saving the seeds of the squashes we ate today.  Once I got home, and put my attention on it, I realized saving the seeds would probably be worthless - make sure I explain this to you at the next class.... 

In all the books from back east and England, you'll find fall as a season of 'going to rest,' 'putting the garden to bed' and other allusions to 'sleep' and restoration. It is not true for in the Mediterranean Climate! We are in our other Spring and this Spring is really closer to the Spring that other parts of the world experience. 

 This is our shot at carrots, peas, and other cool season plants. We either have all our space filled with plants, or we've just got a part planted and big plans (dreams) for the rest. So the Winter garden is in full swing. Later this month, if I have grown any green manure cover crops I will cut them down, leaving the plant material in place and cover with a thick layer of mulch. I would like to allow this to “mellow” (meaning I want this material to begin breaking down into nutrients the plants can use) for about 2 weeks or more before placing the next crop in.

I tried to plant one chard plant because I only need one to provide me with enough chard for all my needs, but there are so many colors to choose from, I feel a need to grow at least three: yellow, red and the orange really knocks socks off. These plants provide continuous chard over a long season, sometimes even 'over-summering,' obviating the need for succession planting. Almost everything else though, benefits by being sowed at intervals throughout the season, a process called 'succession sowing' or 'succession planting.'

A person plants a garden to get to eat the very freshest of food – you don't pick your veggies and put them in the fridge to 'age' before you eat them – well, at least, that isn't the intent. So, to the degree possible, only plant enough of what can be eaten in a reasonable amount of time. As a single person, I have found that a twelve inch row for most things is the perfect size to grow enough to supply fresh carrots, beets, parsnips, cutting lettuces, for any given time. A typical planting schedule for me might look like this (the words in parenthesis name the varieties I like):

Week 1 – carrots (St. Valery)
Week 7 - lettuce (Yugoslavian Red)
Week 2 – beets (Golden)
Week 8 – carrots (Scarlet Nantes)
Week 3 – parsnips (Hollow Crown)
Week 9 – beets (Red Ball)
Week 4 – carrots (Dragon)
Week 10 – spinach (America)
Week 5 – beets (Chioggia)
Week 11 – turnips (Purple Globe)
Week 6 – turnips (DeMilano)
Week 12 – beets (Albino)

Quickly you see that, though I do eat parsnips and turnips, I don't eat nearly as many of them as I do carrots or beets. Your situation might be different in that you could care less at all about ANY parsnips, but spinach is near and dear to your heart so you would have spinach in the rotation much more than I do.

Another way to do the same thing, for a larger family, is to plant three different things per week – carrots, beets and spinach in week one; turnips, lettuce and parsnips in week two; carrots, beets and parsnips in week three. Or spinach planted in one row every week all cool season long. Tailor the program to your needs! You might also find that you need longer rows – I wouldn't imagine that an 18” row would suffice for a family of four! Play around with the scheduling and the row length and the mix of plants you grow until you find what your family needs. At which point, of course,their needs will change, but you'll have a lot more data with which to figure out the new schedule.

In our smaller gardens there is no room for the proverbial 50' row of carrots which means succession planting of a given vegetable is one of the staple strategies for your daily grub. Another good point about putting in many smaller plantings of crops is the ability to harvest these vegetables at a smaller size, which is just the ticket for a garden in containers. Don’t get suckered into the “bigger is better” routine. A huge cauliflower might serve as a great subject in a “look what I grew” photo contest, but the cauliflower you pick at half the size will be the one your tastebuds will reverently remember.

A mark of the very good gardener is one who has his/her succession sowing down to such a science that allows them to place fresh vegetables on the table without lag time or a concentration of over-abundance that fluctuate to nothing to eat for a few weeks in between. Learning how to do this well has been the work of a lifetime for many and is still a moving target. But at least I know what I’m shooting for... and now you do too.

Direct sowing of seeds gets far too much mystical billing. It’s easy. The hard part, in our busy world, is staying disciplined enough to keep them moist. Remember, the seed wants desperately to grow, that is its “job.” If you provide enough water for the seed to break the seed coat, you will soon see a little pair of leaves above the soil. These are called cotyledons and, if there are two of them, you have what is commonly referred to as a 'dicot' (“di” meaning two), horticultural shortcut word for dicotyledon. There is only one other kind of flowering plant we would be concerned with in a vegetable garden and that has only a single seed leaf and is called a 'monocot' (one-leaf). Monocots, meaning 'monocotyledon,' are all the grasses, which includes grains like corn, wheat, rice and barley. And a lot of your weeds!

Take note of all the little cotyledons of the plants you grow and soon you will be able to tell them from the weeds. This is somewhat important. If you can rid yourself of weeds before they get really big, you have a much easier job of it; if you rid yourself of all the wrong plants because you mistook the lettuce for dandelions, you'll be a very disappointed and frustrated gardener! I have done this, I am not too proud to say. Learn them quickly to forestall the sadness of hoeing up your own plants.

Composting is one of the more essential parts of gardening. Gardening is a life cycle and composting is that part of the cycle that returns nutrients and fertility to the soil. In our culture, we don't like the smell or the thought of decomposition, yet a knowing gardener loves the smell of rich compost; that ever so slightly 'sweet' smell, incidentally, is from actinomycetes, a fungus that is in the same group of organisms as penicillin.

Somehow, fall always reminds me of composting probably because I grew up in those colder climes where fall signals the oncoming winter and so marked the end of the growing season. And that leads to thoughts of composting. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

You can get absolutely nuts trying to build a scientific compost pile, but let me offer that I don't do all that. Decomposition happens. Simply leave some veggies in your fridge too long and tell me they did not begin to decompose. And you didn't have even think about carbon to nitrogen rations (c:n). You do want to understand the process – especially if you don't have the space to leave something sit for 9 months, which is what I tend to do – to get usable compost in less time than it takes to grow a decent cabbage.

Remember you have 'browns' and 'greens,' names that are somewhat misleading. 'Browns' refers to carbon material which is mostly, or usually, brown. This is dried leaves or woody pieces. 'Greens' are those materials full of nitrogen – usually represented by grass clippings, but all of your table scraps are nitrogen sources too and they too are classed as 'greens' regardless of their color. While we can specify the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio, achieving it is always a meandering attempt to meet a moving and approximate target. Believe me, you'll never have composting materials in the right amounts to achieve an ideal c:n ratio, which is considered to be 25-30 parts per brown to 1 part of green. So, add all the green you have and scrounge around to dig up enough brown to make it work. You can add newsprint or cardboard to the pile to bring up the carbon level ('brown') if you have those around, Mix well and water – keep moist. Make a pile that is at least three feet high by three feet long by three feet wide; this is the minimum size to create a working compost pile. Keep moist. Turn the parts that are inside outside and the parts that are outside inside. Keep moist. Not soggy, but moist. In about 9 weeks of warm weather, you'll be able to use fresh compost. Sift out the big honking pieces and return them to the pile (they will help get the next pile off to a better start) and build it again.

Honestly? I usually dig a trench about one foot across and two feet deep and as long as it needs to be to handle what I have to compost. I pick a part of the garden I won't use for a few months and add the compostable materials, covering with soil as I go. I add to the trench each day I have more to compost. Eventually I'll simply plant right into that soil, starting in the oldest part of the compost ditch. No big deal and it works without a lot of reading. Or thinking. I did this when I had a small garden and kept working compost into the soil in this pattern. On the Plus side, it's not a rodent attractor and it's no muss, no fuss. It's perfect for a single or two person household that doesn't produce a lot of compost. It would also work as an overflow method for folks using worm bins as their # 1 composting method.

You can find the composting technique that thrills you. The important point is that none of these rich materials, food or garden waste, ends up in a land fill. All of the plant wastes from the kitchen and table are the best components for a rich garden and they are free! The benefits of composting for your garden and keeping valuable material out of the landfill are a double whammy of 'why this is important!' You don’t need to worry about doing it perfectly... everything rots eventually.

If you are building a compost pile, you don't need to buy a black plastic container or any other kind of device. The black plastic composters were probably designed back east and made black to absorb more heat; we don't need it here, having plenty of heat (usually) to go around. A simple thee feet by three feet by three feet pile will do. One thing to be careful about is to keep your kitchen scraps covered with some 'carbon' kind of material or you may attract rodents. Just the simple precaution of burying food scraps under a decent layer of dried leaves will help prevent a mouse problem.

A smelly compost pile has too much water. Hold off watering for a few days, work in some dry carbon material without more wet and soon it'll be OK.

Rodale's book on composting is listed in the notes section. Get it, it's a great resource.

For apartment dwellers, condo owners and others with no easy access to land, vermicomposting is the answer you are looking for! And you didn't even know you had the question! It's easy, the result can be used on plants in pots and your garbage need never grace the entrance of a landfill ever again!
You will need
  • 10 gallon bin or 20 gallon bin
  • 1 lb or so of worms (you can start with fewer, the population will expand to account for what you feed them)
  • Cardboard or newsprint
  • Kitchen waste
Most home stores sell two storage bins that work very well for vermicomposting.  The smaller bin is a 10 gallon container by Rubbermaid called Roughneck Storage Bin #2214-08. It’s dimensions are 9” x  21” x 15” , comes with a lid and is available in various colors.  This size works well for a family of two. 

A worm bin can be made of wood, but plastic seems to work better longer because it won't rot. Your bin must be tightly covered – worms cannot live in light and you don't want them to escape! Punch or drill holes around the top third of the vertical walls to allow air to circulate – punching them with a nail is best because any larger of a hole will be an escape hatch for the explorers in your worm population. You should do the same thing with the lid. Oxygen in the bin will allow the breakdown of materials to proceed aerobically, which means it won't stink and your worms won't suffocate.

Wet a sheet of cardboard or a section of newsprint – soak thoroughly and wring out to where it is as moist of a well wrung sponge. Worms will use this as bedding, and eventually you'll need to replace it
as time goes by.

Red wigglers will reprocess kitchen waste such as: vegetables, fruits, eggshells, teabags, paper coffee filters, shredded paper towels, and coffee grounds. They particularly like pumpkin, watermelon and cantaloupe. Avoid citrus fruits because they are too acidic for them. If you pamper your worms by cutting food scraps into small pieces, the worms can finish them off that much faster. I am not, however in the business of making life wonderful for a bunch of worms – I throw my stuff in whole and they take care of it sooner or later. Burying the food scraps into the bedding will help you avoid fruit flies and adding meat or fish to the bin is not advised for many reasons.

Feed the worms your scraps as you have them available -ideally, no less than twice a wee – however, I have gone on vacation for a week and fed my worms nothing in that time and did not come back to a hell hole of a worm bin. Don't stay up nights worrying about them. These worms prefer a pH of something close to 7 and the temperature needs to be between 50 and 84 F. Don't let the bin dry out – keep it moist like the compost pile.

Harvesting the vermicompost can be done several ways, but the way that is easiest and therefore my choice is called 'side-harvesting.' Feed the worms on only one side of the bin for a few weeks which will cause the worms to migrate to that side. You can then begin to harvest the worm compost from that unoccupied side of the bin where you will eventually, once you've finished harvesting (over a few weeks), begin to add fresh bedding on that side causing them to migrate to the new bedding and allowing you to harvest from the second side.

You can make a it lot more complicated than this, but you have better things to worry about, yes?

In planting seeds, please note that root crops are never planted in containers to be transplanted later. There is a really good reason for this: they do NOT transplant well. Onions, and onion family members are the exception. Carrots and parsnips abhor being transplanted and beets and turnips suffer so much shock it is not worth the trouble.

While I often start lettuce in six packs in a sheltered location, it can sown in the soil directly as well. I like to do both, when a plant will let me do both because they each have advantages and drawbacks. Plants that are transplanted will suffer some shock in the transplant and that will slow them down a bit. However, plants grown directly in the garden are often subjected to harsher conditions that can overwhelm a small plant; a hard rain, pests that consume the whole plant while it's small. If you can, start plants both ways to maximize your chance a good harvest. Fava beans, garbanzo beans, lentils and peas can also be grown either in containers or directly sown.

Slower growing small plants, though, really do benefit from growing in a sheltered location. In this group, I put broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. These are also plants that one should set in the ground lower than they were in the original container, so transplanting them makes great sense.

This is a busy month – and the more you do early, the happier you will be! As the month rolls along, sunset gets earlier towards an unreasonable hour and you'll regret the missing outdoor light.

Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers
More of the cabbage family!
Fava beans
Cabbage family members from early September
Fava beans
Fava beans



Other green leafy vegetables


Refer to the text for exact dates.

Winter Squash With Pecans And Bleu Cheese

• 4-1/2 pounds winter squash
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
• 1 cup pecans
• 1 cups crumbled Roquefort or other bleu cheese

Heat the oven to 425°F. Halve the squash, leaving the skin on, and scoop out the seeds, then cut into 1-inch cubes; you don't need to be precise, just keep the pieces uniformly bite sized or so.

Throw into the oven or, in warm Southern California weather, on a grill until tender.

Toss the hot squash into a bowl and scatter the pecans throughout, crumbling the cheese over all and toss together.

This can be a wonderful side or you can get more involved and create a main course dish from it.

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