Sunday, October 3, 2010

Hops, the sequel

Here's the 2010 harvest. Yeah, that's the whole thing, About a quarter ounce. OK, not quite enough to compete with Anheuser-Busch. But for me, a huge victory.

After trying to grow hops without success for years - I've finally hit a formula that works. And now that I'm geared up for next year's Hop Merchant invasion* ... I have no doubt the 2011 harvest will be buckets more.

I picked them maybe a week late - they were starting to get a bit brown on the edges. But the fragrance was wonderful. They're cascades if memory serves. (Hard to remember what I planted and hard to tell what survived the winter.)

A week after harvest they went into the brew kettle - helping flavor a batch of English stout we whipped up. At this quantity their presence is largely ceremonial, but it felt good to throw home-grown organic hops into the mix.

*Assuming some other creepy crawly doesn't get in under the radar.

Friday, September 3, 2010

There be hops here

I guess three's the charm.

Planted hops at the old place. Not enough sun, no hops. Planted them here, last year. No hops - the first year is all root growth. This year: hops! Yay!

Growing them organically can be a challenge, though. We had an active Japanese beetle year. I kept them at bay with garlic juice and fels-naptha soap solution. But something kept eating the hops even after the beetles split (they only last a few weeks in mid summer).

Closer examination revealed a small, fuzzy caterpillar. The aptly named Hop Merchant, also known as the Eastern Comma. Nice butterflies, but not welcome on my hop vines. So I switched the protocol to BT, the biological caterpillar killer. That did the trick, though it was late in the season when I realized my problem was bigger than garlic and soap.

Next year I'll be ready. That's what I am figuring out with this whole organic experiment. You read, you do homework and then you put your knowledge into practice. As in the rest of life on Earth, experience is the best teacher.

Why grow hops you might ask. I like 'em. They are really beautiful although not the most colorful of flowers. I brew my own beer but I won't have enough this year to actually use them in a batch. Next year, maybe. I think these are Cascades - but that's a guess. They seem to be the hardiest of the bunch. Planted three or four varieties - these survived the blizzards.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Goodbye 2,4-D. Hello, diversity

Completely amazed at how different our lawn is after only a few months without broad-spectrum herbicides like 2,4-D – what Americans spread by the thousands of ton as "Weed & Feed."

The obvious is what I expected: the clover are recovering nicely. Not only the white that I sowed in fall, but some wild red, rabbit's foot and hop clover – legumes that perform many important tasks: they are greening up areas of the lawn where grass is less successful; they mow well; and they will be pumping nitrogen into the soil all season, extracting it right from the air.

A newcomer this year: Star of Bethlehem. A type of wild hyacinth, they're not native to these parts but have established themselves as an escaped ornamental. Poisonous to livestock and no favorite of farmers, we're happy to see them since we don't have any domestic animals grazing out there.

There's a fair amount of Wood Sorrel, which accents the lawn with pretty yellow flowers.

Speaking of which, of course there's a downside to giving up 2,4-D: dandelions. But we've had precious few compared to the neighbors' chemical lawns, which were completely overrun this year. The occasional bull thistle, chickweed, creeping charlie and fleabane have to be yanked by hand. But all in all I am very optimistic – I think the sudden surge in diversity is a good sign that the health of the lawn is improving and coming off the drugs won't be nearly as traumatic as what I envisioned last fall.

No free lunch

Roundup-resistant weeds are changing the game for agribusiness and its attempt to monopolize the world's food crops. Can't think of a better example of how technology will eventually fail – in a big way.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Not too bad

If it weren't me talking, I'd say that's a pretty nice looking lawn.

Let's hope it looks as good in the middle of August.

Friday, April 16, 2010

My worm tea is a chick magnet

You can't make this stuff up.

A bit of background. I am fortunate to live in a neighborhood of very attractive moms, The Mrs. included. In fact, I recently I suggested to her that we petition the town to change our street's name to "MILF Island."

And the other day I finally carved out some time to dig into the worm bin and see if I had enough compost to make a batch of tea. I did, as it turned out. The worms had completely vacated level one, as promised, and had moved on to new food supplies on the higher levels. They'd left me a good 10 lbs. or more of incredibly rich castings, seeded with a few uneaten eggshells. (They don't eat them, I learned, unless you grind them up first.)

So once I'd finished cleaning and rearranging the worm farm, I had my compost ready for a batch of tea. I was well prepared. I had a mesh bag from the homebrew supply store, an air pump and aerator from the aquarium supply store, a clean, new garbage can picked up with hardware store reward points and a nifty brass spray head that had recently arrived by mail. (Really well-made product and it shipped free.) Most folks mix up a few gallons of tea at a time but I knew I'd need more than that. Big lawn.

Although some recent research has debunked the conventional organic wisdom, most in the community agree that compost tea remains an important component of the organic lawn protocol. The whole lawn needs sprayed once a month during the growing season. It both fertilizes the grass the treats the soil, encouraging the growth of beneficial organisms that keep the soil healthy and boost natural disease resistance.

A few days later my big-pot-o-worm-tea was ready to spray. It was too windy but I learned too late that you have to plan your tea brewing carefully: the tea is good for only 24 hours or so, then the bacteria and other stuff growing in there starts to die off. So it was now or never, wind or no.

I assembled my tea bucket and sprayer and started on the first of my sixty gazillion square feet. That's when my next door neighbor's big Cadillac Escalade pulled up. She hopped out and made a bee line for me.

"Is that the worm tea?!"


"Omigod - that is so cool! I've been reading all about it! How does it work?!"

I could scarcely believe how excited she was. Way more than I. So I showed her the whole works, the spray head, the tea, the bucket - a salvaged kitty litter bin. She was beside herself.

"Hey," I said, brushing my hair off my forehead. Real cool and suave, like. "I'm gonna have extra worm tea. I made too much. You want what's left?"

She was like an eleven-year-old on Christmas morning. "But I don't have one of those spray thingies!"

I smiled and looked her right in the eye. "No prob, sweet pea. You can borrow mine."

Am I the King of the 'Burbs, or what?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A shout-out to Mike McGrath

Mike rocks. Period.

If you don't know him, you need to remedy that. Hear him weekends on your local NPR radio station. He's a complete goofball – a perennial pun purveyor and a real Philly guy. Mike doesn't tell you how to grow tomatoes. He tells you how to grow tah-may-tahs.

The best thing about Mike is that he's one smart cookie – and he's passionate about keeping chemicals out of America's yards and gardens.

If you can't get his radio show in your town, check out his amazing online archive. A veritable encyclopedia of gardening success.

Thanks, Mike!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Attack of the zombie dandelions

I like dandelions. I really do. They're miracles engines of life on earth. They're cute. They feed my neighbor's honeybees. They're nostalgic for me: I grew up picking and eating them with my Italian grandmother.

And they're tough little buggers that grow anywhere. They don't even need dirt. Take a dandelion seed, add rocks and a half a drop of water and in five minutes, you've got nifty yellow flowers.

I've dubbed 2010 the Year of the Dandelion. I guess all that snow and rain guaranteed every last seed would germinate this year. Never saw a year like it.

But I am a realist. I know I can't let them grow in my yard. Suburban etiquette and all. So I spend an hour a day (or more) yanking the buggers out by the roots. I fill a bucket with 10 or 20 pounds of them and dump them into the compost pile – the perfect blend of green and brown a compost pile loves.

One more reason I respect them – the photo at the top of this post. They knew they were in trouble, having been uprooted from their comfy lawn mooring. So they immediately went to seed in the compost bin. One last desperate act of procreation.

If a plant ever had indomitable spirit, it's the dandelion.

Well, I was wrong

Earlier I posted "Who needs a soil test when you have sheep sorrel?" I had just spread 16 million yards of leaf compost (at least that's how my arms felt) and the sheep sorrel was popping up everywhere.

Tukey's voice in my head: "read your weeds." Sheep sorrel is acid-loving, an indication your pH is low. It dovetailed with my preconceived notions about my soil, reinforcing the tale I'd heard from friend after friend after neighbor for years: in south Jersey, he soil's so acidic, you can't overlime.

We were all wrong. Tukey's voice again: "get the soil test."

Went down to my county Extension Service and picked up my $20 dirt bag. Seriously, it's a little canvas bag you stuff with soil and send off to Rutgers University for testing. And you don't even need a box - the Post Office sends it as is. Pretty cool.

About two weeks later, the test results arrived. And these words jumped out at me:
pH: 7.45 Very slightly alkaline, indicative of overliming.
Yikes! Here I was liming spring and fall – heeding the conventional wisdom – and I actually pushed the pH high.

The problem: high pH limits the availability of key minerals, including copper, manganese and boron. The good news – the report recommends "Amendment with organic matter is the best long-term solution ..." Bingo. That would be ... compost tea. The problem will take care of itself with time. And there's a bright side. I can skip the fall liming which will satisfy my lazy side.

Lesson: get the soil test. It might surprise you.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Awesome tools - Rittenhouse

These guys have some pretty cool toys for organic turf farmers, including propane heat and torch devices for weed control, no-bend weed diggers, salt injectors and more.

Check it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Uneeda Worm Bin

Thanks to my friend Ruth for asking about my worm farm. It made me realize I had never posted a report for would-be worm wranglers.

Your task is to create a warm and fuzzy place for a colony of red wigglers to live somewhere in your abode. Unless you live in a place that never freezes, you're best bet is to find an out-of-the-way space indoors for your colony. Ours live in the spare room.

You can name them if you want. But you're going to need a lot of names. And I have to admit I sure as hell can't tell them apart.

They make pretty good pets. They don't bark, they don't bite and they don't generate massive veterinarian bills. Not too cuddly, I'll admit. And they poop a lot. But that's the whole point of having them around.

Because worm poop makes the best compost. Period. And if it's compost you're after, worms turn kitchen scraps into rich, black soil faster than by any other method.

Red wigglers are a species of earthworm that are really good at processing organic material into compost (read, pooping.) they are cousins to the worms that live in your yard but not the same. And boy, do they eat. They eat shredded junk mail, egg cartons, tea bags and coffee filters, dead flowers - you name it. Anything that is or used to be a plant is pretty much fair game. They don't want meat or fat and will ignore bits of plastic that sneak in with the shredded junk mail. They'll eat eggshells but I've learned that you have to grind them practically into a powder first, so I've stopped putting them in the worm bin and instead they go to the regular compost pile.

You don't need a ton of money to get started. All you need is paper, some natural potting soil or peat moss and worms in a big Rubbermaid storage bin, a big bucket, an old bathtub, whatever. But I heartily recommend spending $100 or so on a bin system designed specifically for worms. With that, you'll have less work and less worm handling, as you use the worms' natural tendency to find food to move them from point A to B. With the storage bin farm, at some point you are going to have to dig into it and figure out a way to separate the worms from the compost, which can be a bit of chore and not so great if you'd rather avoid close encounters of the worm kind.

The other nice thing about the upward-migrating bin is a built in spigot allowing you to draw off "worm tea" to use as plant food.

First stop: Paul Coleman at His Can-o-Worms is an excellent upward-migrating type, however I found a different style for less here. Very similar to the Can-o-Worms but around $20 less. It also comes with a really good book. But Paul had the best price on worms when I was shopping for them.

Once I set up the bin, which took all of 45 minutes, I added the wormies and hoped for the best, assuming they would all meet their immediate doom at the hand of their clumsy master. I had little to worry about. As long as you keep them moist and relatively warm, they are happy little squirmies. Worms live an admirably simple life. All they want is food, water, dark and a place to poop.

At first I was worried they were not eating at all - but what's actually happening is the food has to rot in the bin first - it's the fuzzy slimy stuff they actually eat. Plus they don't really get cooking until they've reproduced a few generations and the population grows to match the food supply.

Odors have been no problem - the bins are designed to deal with that. Fruit flies are a PIA in the fall but there are ways to manage them. Keep one bin filled with only dry shredded paper as your top bin at all times. The flies have trouble getting through that and out into the world. The rest can be dealt with with the wand of a canister vacuum cleaner or a homemade fruit fly trap. It's not a year-round problem, only a few weeks in fall.

After a few months and when you've built a worm population in two or three sections, the worms will crawl up to the new food supply and the bottom bin will become almost worm free. When that happens, you get the payoff: pounds of the best compost you'll ever use. It's a 30-minute chore of dumping it out, relocating any stray worms back to the main bin and hosing it off to start fresh the next time you need a clean bin. At that point I also clean the worm tea drainage pan with a plastic putty knife - you add all that wet compost to the one you just dumped and then hose off the drainage pan. If you do it in a garden or flower bed, what you rinse off gets used as fertilizer there. It's enough of a mess to do it outside - kind of like re-potting plants. No big deal.

The only caveat is that they are not speed-demon eating machines. They can't process all our daily kitchen scraps. For that I think we'd need more than one worm bin going. So instead I just feed them what they need and toss the rest in our passive compost pile out in the yard.

Need more? The web has lots of guides and details - here's a good one.

And for more on worm tea for lawn feeding, Tukey's got the goods.

Now, get squirming.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Holy crap! Forsythia in bloom?!

So I am doing my weekly run to the bank. Minding my own business, standing in line – I look up to see a vase of blooming forsythia. (Insert blood-curdling scream.) Now I'm unable to focus on my banking chores, thanks to the voice shrieking in my head:


OMG! I missed the corn gluten deadline. I'm doomed. Another summer of crabgrass armies, marching across my lawn. Another autumn of crabgrass nightmares. I SUCK!

All this paranoia because you're supposed to spread the corn gluten when the forsythia are blooming. Now I am in full panic. The crabgrass is already flashing before my eyes, persistence of memory from last fall.

A bit of schedule-shuffling and phone calling later, I speed down to the feed store to grab my corn gluten, relieved they had it in stock. A few million dollars later – damn, that stuff's expensive – the corn gluten is in on its way to my garage along with several metric tons of lime.

Ready for battle.

For kicks, I stopped to check the status of the flowers on my neighbor's massive forsythia.

Not a single bloom! What the ... ? A mad dash around town later, checking as many forsythias I could find revealed the same condition. No blooms, anywhere.

False alarm. I don't know where the bank's forsythia came from. It was a Monday so I am guessing an employee spent the weekend down south and brought them home? Who knows?

No harm, no foul. The garage is stocked. Now I am _really_ ready for them.

Could it be?

Just a few weeks ago, our known universe was under two feet of snow. Today, this sad, dirty little pile of white stuff is all that's left. That means yard work is imminent.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Don't be fooled

Yes, it's a February thaw. Yes, the two feet of snow in the yard is down to just an inch or two. Yes, there's green where the snow line is retreating. Yes, there's even a flock of robins hopping around the green patches.

And yes, the weather service says the East Coast might get another eight to 12 inches Thursday.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Snow is organic, right?

Hope the clover seeds are cozy under all that white stuff.