Cat Litter Compost, Installment #3

troutsitting

No, our cats aren’t privileged or anything.

A gentle reader reminds us that it’s been too long since we updated you all on the cat litter compost.

For background, see Installment One and Installment Two

Long story short, cat litter composting can work (under the care of an experienced composter, mind), especially in conjunction with a worm bin–but I’ve found a method I like better.

On the composting experiment:

In our last episode of Cat Box Madness, I discovered my kitty litter wasn’t breaking down very quickly, so I added nitrogen to the mix. That seemed to work well. All except the first 7 inches or so is really nicely broken down all the way through. I still wouldn’t put it as it is anywhere near food crops, even though it is two years old, just to be safe.

To make it extra safe — and useful — I’ve been letting the worms have at it. I’m using it as part of the mix that forms the worm bedding, so cat poo will become worm poo and the garden will be delighted.

That’s how I plan to dispose of all of it, bit by bit. If I didn’t have the worm bin, I’d call it done and spread it under fruit trees or ornamental plantings.

Lessons Learned:

1) Make sure your pile is accessible and easy to turn. Due to lack of yard space, I put my litter in a 50 gallon drum in a narrow, hard-to-access–and hot!–side yard. This meant I never wanted to tend it, and when I forced myself out there, I was pretty unhappy. There wasn’t even enough room to wield a shovel comfortably.

2) A big pile is a good pile. While I made this work in a 50 gallon drum, the best compost comes from a bin which is about 1 cubic meter/yard in size. Smaller bins just don’t heat up sufficiently, and are invariably pokey and hard to work with. If you want to do this, do it big.

3) Careful with the litter you choose. Not many litters make the grade. You can’t use clay litter, or any litter made with deodorants or coloring or “magic crystals” or tiny unicorns. It must be made of 100% plant based material. I approve of both World’s Best and S’wheat Scoop. Pine pellet litter, like Feline Pine, is much less expensive than the clumping brands, and suitably plant based, but under ordinary circumstances, since its not scoopable, you have to dump the whole tray rather often, which leads to a fast build up of material. If you have room for it, this might be okay.  (I’ll have more to say about pine litter further down, though.)

4) You have to add extra nitrogen to your pile to make it work. Even though it’s plenty stinky, the nitrogen present in cat waste can’t balance the heavy carbon loads of the litter by itself.

(Note: You should be an experienced composter before you try composting cat litter, as I’ve warned before, and so you will of course know what I mean by all this talk of carbon and nitrogen–but for those of you who are incorrigible, or simply curious, nitrogen sources you might add to your pile include urine, natural seed meal fertilizers, dried alfalfa, fresh grass clippings and other plant material, fresh chicken, horse, or cow manure, and vegetable trimmings.)

Other than those caveats, cat litter composting works pretty much like regular composting. Keep the pile moist. Keep an eye on it, fix it as necessary. Let it sit for two years at least before you spread it. And then spread it around non-edible plants, or under fruit trees. The fruit trees won’t uptake anything nasty.

It’s totally do-able and I’d do it again. But I’d rather do it again in a larger yard, where I could have a big, accessible compost bin. So now I’m doing something new.

Continue reading…

Stencils as Garden Art

senecastencil

Seneca has a posse.

I’ve been looking at a lot of garden design books lately. These books always contain a photo illustrating the concept of the focus point, which is inevitably an 18th century marble bust of some ancient deity. Try to source one of those busts from your local big box store or Amazon and you’ll find some really scary stuff.

I can’t afford those 18th century busts, so I decided to try a two dimensional alternative: stencils. Above is my first primitive attempt–Seneca, spray painted on a chunk of concrete and propped up against a palm tree in the parkway.

A blog post over at Green Roof Growers alerted me to the far more impressive stencils of San Francisco street artist Jeremy Novy:

Photo by Dawn Endico

Photo by Dawn Endico.

Green Roof Grower Bruce was inspired by Novy’s work to make his own koi stencils on the sidewalk in front of his house. Now if enough of us adorn these edge spaces (in a neighborly fashion, of course) perhaps we’ll be able to reclaim our streets from the distant bureaucrats who hassle us over our parkway gardens. It’s precisely the kind of intervention on the permacultural “edge” that Mark Lakeman of Portland City Repair talks about.

So let’s make some stencils! Here’s how I do it:

Image processing
First step is to find a suitable image. This tutorial shows you how to use Photoshop to make your stencil.

Materials and tools
I used acetate, but it’s expensive. Bruce used old manilla folders. A cheaper alternative is freezer paper. I cut my stencil using an exacto knife.

Painting
First I spray the surface I’m stenciling with some Krylon Easy-Tack. This temporarily holds the stencil down. The rest is easy-peasy and the stencil can be used many times.

My next stencil will be a three color stencil. Here’s a tutorial on how to do this.

How To Stop Powdery Mildew

powdery mildew

My winter squash has what Mud Baron once described as “jock itch for plants:” powdery mildew. I’ve tried all kinds of notions and potions in the past, but this year I decided to see what the science says about powdery mildew. Our climate where I live in Los Angeles is, unfortunately, ideal for producing this vexing fungus.

IPM
Let’s begin with some condensed advice from UC Davis’ Integrated Pest Management page:

Preventative measures:

  • grow resistant varieties
  • find a sunnier spot for the vegetable garden
  • back off on nitrogen

Non-chemical approaches

  • sprinkle plants with water mid morning–add soap for more effectiveness
  • remove infected leaves promptly and dispose of them

Fungicides:

  • apply horticultural oil, neem oil or jojoba oil if the temperature is under 90° F. Do not apply any of these oils if you have used sulfur.

DIY Options
For home remedies I turned to advice from Washington State University horticulturalist Linda Chalker-Scott.

How about milk, widely touted as a powdery mildew treatment? According to Chalker-Scott the answer is yes it might work, but you may need to apply milk before powdery mildew appears. And the studies were done with whole milk, so the effectiveness of other kinds of milk have not been tested. Milk has not worked for me in the past, probably because I applied it too late.

How about baking soda? Chalker-Scott is skeptical. Baking soda has never worked for me.

Compost tea? I hate to bring it up as the topic is insanely controversial. I discovered a tempest in a compost tea pot when I tried to write a non-partisan magazine article about it. Let’s just say I ended up leaning towards the skeptical side when I looked at the evidence. Let me know if you think I’m wrong on this, especially if you can leave a link to a peer reviewed study.

Conclusions
What has definitely worked for me in the past is seeking out resistant varieties. I wasn’t smart enough to remember this fact so I’m going to try the soapy water approach and step up to something stronger if I have to. Part of my problem might also be too much nitrogen–my infected squash is in our straw bale garden and I had to apply a lot of blood meal to get it going. More sun would also help but that would involve cutting down a very large tree. I’ll update this post later in the season.

Let’s hear from you . . .
What powdery mildew treatment have you tried and how did it work? Leave a comment and join the conversation!

And I put the question out on the Root Simple twitter feed and got a few divergent opinions:

Christopher Kennedy ‏@ckpfunk Bonide’s Copper Fungicide for organic gardening. I spray every 14 days this time of year instead of every other w/ baking soda.

Alec ‏@Alec I’ve tried horsetail tea, sea-crop, baking soda, compost tea, and neem oil on mildew, but none compare to milk.

Alissa Walker ‏@gelatobaby I just sprayed with a baking soda solution seems to have done the trick so far. And removed all damaged leaves.

Alex Mitchell ‏@alexmitchelleg give the plants some air, water the ground not the leaves. Could spray diluted milk with water on leaves – never worked for me

LA Cracks Down On Parkway Vegetable Gardens


Our clueless, incompetent and backwards city government here in Los Angeles apparently has nothing better to do than crack down on parkway vegetable gardens two years after hassling Ron Finley. Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a great column about this ridiculous situation, “L.A. still saying parkway vegetable gardens must go.” And above you can hear Lopez joined by Finley and Councilman Bernard Parks (who sounds like the president of an excuse factory) discuss the situation.

Please Tweet, Facebook, email and otherwise spread the word. My hometown government needs some international ridicule.

Hens in the Orchard for Pest Control

hensinorchard

Photo: hencam.com

Author Terry Golson, who blogs at HenCam.com, sent along a great pest control tip in response to our thrip post–chickens, of course!

Chickens and orchards go together like gin and tonic. The hens take care of pests, clean up rotten fruit, add nitrogen to the soil and the canopy of the orchard protects the hens from hawks and heat. Plus you get eggs and meat. Permaculture in action.

The 1920s era photo you see above comes from one of Terry’s posts, Chickens in Orchards.

How to Deal With Thrips on Stone Fruit

thrip damage on nectarine

Research hint: when you have a pest problem on an edible plant, Google the name of the plant and “UC Davis.” What comes up is UC Davis’ handy Integrated Pest Management info sheets, evidenced based information on all kinds of problems. This is how I figured out that a small insect called the western flower thrip (Frankliniella occidentalis), was noshing on our nectarines.

Thrips damage the fruit when it is small. The scars enlarge as the fruit matures.

How do you manage thrips? UC Davis notes:

Western flower thrips overwinter as adults in weeds, grasses, alfalfa, and other hosts, either in the orchard floor or nearby. In early spring, if overwintering sites are disturbed or dry up, thrips migrate to flowering trees and plants and deposit eggs in the tender portions of the host plant, e.g. shoots, buds, and flower parts.

Thrips are often attracted to weeds blooming on the orchard floor. To prevent driving thrips into the trees, do not disc the cover crop when trees are in bloom. Open, weedy land adjacent to orchards should be disced as early as possible to prevent thrips development and migration of adults into orchards.

It was an exceptionally dry year which may have contributed to our thrip problem.  And perhaps some mulch and weeding around the base of the tree is in order. UC Davis goes on to suggest monitoring methods as well as organic controls if that’s your cup of tea.

The scarred fruit gets rotten on the tree and is unappetizing. We did get some unblemished fruit, but there was enough of a thrip problem to warrant monitoring next year.

Did you have thrip problems this season?

Maintaining a Worm Bin

worm bin 1

This image might represent a new low in aesthetics from the Root Simple Photo Department. And that’s saying something.

I freshened up our big worm bin today and I thought I’d report on what I did because I get a lot of questions about worm bin maintenance.

First, I want to say this is just how I go about it. Other people will have different methods and habits. Worms are forgiving and reasonably adaptable, so you have a whole lot of leeway in keeping a bin. As long as you don’t let the worms dehydrate, drown, bake, or utterly starve, you’re going to be okay.

Our worm bin is pretty big (5 feet long), and made of pine boards.  It bears an unfortunate resemblance to a coffin, but it works wonderfully. I used plastic storage totes for my worm bins before we built this, and while those worked fine, I really like my big bin for two main reasons. The first is the size. It can take whatever I throw at it. It takes all my kitchen scraps, except for the really choice stuff that goes to the chickens. The second selling point is that the wood breathes, and that seems to make the worms happy.

Maintaining the Bin

The Conceptual Divide

I divide my bin into two areas, left and right. There’s no physical barrier between the sides, just a conceptual distinction. Usually one side is working and the other side is resting. This division is easy to make in a long, skinny bin like mine, but can be managed in a smaller bin as well.

Basically, once you’ve got a worm bin going, there will come a time when you’ll need to harvest some of the castings. Those castings are valuable in the garden, and the worms don’t want to live in their own waste. You’ll know its getting close to harvest time when you see pockets of scraps here and there, but mostly the texture of the contents looks like soil or coffee grounds. Or maybe fudge, if it’s more wet and compact. Fudge is a less than ideal environment for worms.

In the picture at the top you’ll see my most recent working side. There’s a lot going on in there still, some big food pockets, wood shavings everywhere, but the texture is becoming too black and dense overall. Compost worms like a little air, a little “wiggle room” and a diversity of habitat. It was past time to change this working side to a resting side.

Resting comes before harvest. This is where dividing the bin in two comes into play. Resting means no more feeding, so that the worms will finish up whatever bits of food are left around. But of course you can’t starve out your worms, so you only rest half of the bin at a time.  To do this, you put your food scraps on one side only. The worms on the resting side will finish up whatever food pockets remain and then migrate over to the active side for the fresh grub.

This doesn’t happen quickly. I’ve never made note of how long migration takes–it will vary, depending on many factors. I just poke around in the resting side whenever I happen to think about it. If I don’t see anything recognizable beyond non-digestibles, like avocado pits, fruit stones and egg shell shards, and I know it’s ready for harvest.

There will also be a few worms left, no matter how long you wait. More on them later. If your bin is outdoors, other insects like sow bugs might be in there too, but are harmless.

This is the process in a nutshell:

When your bin is looking mostly done, ie full of castings, rest one side of it. This means you feed only on the opposite side. When all the recognizable scraps are gone from the resting side, you harvest the castings. Then you can put fresh bedding in the empty space, and start encouraging the worms to move to that side.  Soon, you will be able to rest the opposite side of the bin, and eventually harvest it. And so it goes, back and forth.

Continue reading…

Getting Hardscaping Right

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows' garden in Berkeley.

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows’ garden in Berkeley.

One of the many lessons I learned on the tour I took of Bay Area gardens as part of the Garden Blogger’s Fling is that you’ve got to get the hardscaping right before even thinking about plants. When I asked garden designer Keeyla Meadows about the large stones in her garden she told me that they were craned in above the house. It was clear that at some point in the evolution of her small backyard garden, she bit the bullet and got bold with the hardscaping.

While there will be no craning at our house, the point is a good one. Get the hardscaping done first, do it right and be bold. Putting plants in first and then building things like decks and seating areas is a recipe for disaster. Any construction project, even carefully done, causes a considerable amount of destruction.

Some other lessons I’ve learned from fifteen years worth of hardscaping mistakes at our house:

  • Design the hardscaping before even thinking about plants.
  • Open the wallet and get quality materials for any hardscaping project. It’s more economical to do it right the first time, rather than re-do badly done projects multiple times.
  • Go where contractors get materials not the big box stores. A recent trip to Home Depot reminded me about how ugly most of their stuff is.
  • Get materials delivered. I once dropped a very heavy load of Trex on a steep hill near our home and watched, in horror, as it slid a hundred feet down the road. Thankfully no one got hurt. But it was not fun to reload the car on a 100° day.
  • Consider long term maintenance. Choose materials that are durable and easy to maintain.
  • Every home needs a “hide the s@#t fence.” There needs to be a place to put potting soils, shovels, compost piles etc.

I’m just about to embark on a couple of building projects–extending the back patio deck, building permanent vegetable beds and the aforementioned hide the s@#t fence.

This time I’m going to get it right!

How have your hardscaping endeavors gone? What have you done right and wrong? Have you found hardscaping solutions that didn’t break the bank?

Yes, We Do the Pinterest Thing

trellis

What do I use Pinterest for? To gather design ideas for home and garden. I just built this trellis to grow vegetables vertically. It’s part of a plan I have to deck over an ugly concrete patio. The inspiration for the trellis came in part from an image I pinned off the interwebs:

76f8e502acc00e24c8b8006292c50cbe

Not having a natural design sense, I gather images and synthesize them to come up with plans I can build. Google image search and Pinterest are great inspirational tools.

But I have not made good use of Pinterest’s social features. Towards that end, follow us on Pintrest and we’ll follow back. Let’s exchange ideas!