Copyright © Sheryl Williams - Yardfanatic 2016. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Soil: Build It or Buy It

I am continually bowled over by how expensive soil is here in Texas. I’m from the Northwest and didn’t realize how much the wood mill and yard debris industries contribute to making cheap sources of compost. I’d have to get three more jobs to afford to buy enough topsoil to even get started on my gardening projects. But considering that I work full time as it is and barely have enough time to play in the dirt, clearly an alternative must be found.

The answer lies in the garbage: compost it.
Finished compost ready to go to work in the vegetable beds.

The average household creates an incredible amount of waste and most of it can be utilized to build your own soil. Once you start gardening you will also generate more yard debris. All you need is a composting container or bin and a good pitchfork and you can turn this stuff into black gold.

Compost bins can just be piles in a corner, wire enclosures, wood pallets attached together, a barrel, a stack of cinder blocks, or a bin. My favorite is a three-bin system that I first saw in Kent, Washington. The city was touting composting as a way to reduce waste and had the bin in their demonstration garden. It’s plans come with a lid to help keep rain off and critters out – something we didn’t add when we built the bin while living in Oregon and later here in Texas. Here is a link to the plans that University of Arkansas publishes.
Husband Ed Kimball filled with pride over new bin
We keep a large, lidded, Rubbermaid container near the sink to hold all our vegetable food waste until filled and taken outside. The only animal products we include are eggshells. Meat and bones are fed to the dog or placed in the garbage. If you have a fire pit you can burn these, but be careful about the smell - burned bone can be unpleasant. The resulting ashes can be tossed into the compost. You can also use shredded paper. Just try to avoid glossy magazines and cellophane. Newspaper can be used also. Some people are uncomfortable using paper because of toxins that may be in the ink (most newspaper is printed with nontoxic soy ink - but check first.) I use the compost made from paper on ornamental plantings and not my vegetable beds just to be sure something didn't sneak in.

Once you get your compost pile built, it does take a little maintenance. Make sure that it doesn’t dry out by soaking it with the hose on occasion. You’ll also need to turn it in order to keep the oxygen flowing to the microbes breaking it down. I turn mine about once a week. You’ll see a lot of advice on how to layer your debris to make sure oxygen flows through the pile. If you plan on turning the pile, you can chuck the advice and just throw plant material in. 

It’s amazing how fast your pile will break down. I can get finished compost anywhere between two weeks to a month, depending on what’s in there. The process starts on the left in bin #1 and then gets turned into the next bin until it reaches bin #3. Bin #3's contents get turned onto a screen that fits over my wheelbarrow. The finished compost that falls through goes out to the garden, the larger material that stays on top goes back into bin #1 to go through the process again.

It’s a little work, I’ll admit. But it’s a lot cheaper than buying it, that’s for sure. Plus I know exactly what’s in it and am not contributing to an overflowing landfill. A win-win! But be warned, it's very addictive. I've become a leaf and brush thief in the neighborhood to feed my habit. Hey, those paper bags of yard debris fit perfectly in my wheelbarrow. And I can stop at any time.  Really.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Eat Your Lawn

My goal is to have an edible landscape. This means that a majority of plants have some sort of culinary purpose for me or for the beneficial wildlife I am trying to attract.

When you think of food production in terms of a landscape, it really opens your eyes to appreciate all qualities of the plants we grow to consume. You don’t need coleus or begonias when you can have an even more beautiful bed of Bright Lights Swiss Chard. Asparagus fern, why not just plain asparagus? Need something tall in the background? Grow corn. There are several varieties that have burgundy coloring in their leaves, stems, and silk that is just lovely. Forget about morning glories and plant Scarlet Runner Beans instead. They have the sweetest red flowers and the beans are delicious. Another favorite landscape plant of mine is Globe Artichoke. The plants grow into huge specimens with silver foliage. They are very dramatic and can yield a dozen or more tasty appetizers. I also love Fennel. The airy fronds dance in the wind and are a favorite snack for butterfly caterpillars.
I also expand my definition of an edible landscape to include wildlife I want to attract. I need birds in the yard to keep the bugs down, so I grow plants that will attract them. Amaranth (weed them into your salad), Echinacea, Cosmos, Barbados Cherry, Rose varieties that produce hips, Pigeon Berry, Lantana, and Chili Pequin all provide color and treats. Birds like low cover to hide in while they are scoping out the groceries, so I've included Bamboo Muhly and berry producing shrubbery like Agarita and Yaupon.
And what about that grassy lawn? Get rid of it. It is a total waste of water and human resources. Replace the blades with Thyme, Marjoram, Winter Savory, Peppermint or Oregano (or a blend of all of them.) They form a thick, green carpet that you can walk on. Heck, you can even mow them if you want (talk about a head rush though!) They stay low and don’t take nearly as much water to keep green. They also bloom and will attract bees and other pollinators to the garden.  If you want more "real" grass, try a native Texas Sedge (Carex texensis), which is what I put in.

It takes courage to do this however, because your yard will not look like everyone else’s. Peer pressure can be hard to overcome and you can bet you’re efforts will generate plenty of comments. However, I’ve always found that including your neighbors in your plans and sharing the fruits of your labor go a long way to smooth the path. They’ll start to think you are a genius as you sit in your lawn chair amongst the fragrant herb lawn, sipping an ice tea watching them slog it out with the lawn mower. Wave to them and ask them to sit with you for a spell. You might just be able to find a second career as a landscape consultant.