Saturday, June 27, 2009

A very, very brief guide to composting

The process of making compost scares off a lot of people, but if you follow a few rules, it's actually fairly easy. There are a number of guides out there to help you learn the basics, but we'll cover the most important points in this blog. (Pick up one of the books recommended below for more information.) Compost is perhaps the most important element of any garden plan. As the British garden writer Monty Don says: "No garden should be without a compost pile. No organic garden can be without one."

First, what is composting?: It's basically controlled rot, even accelerated rot. Most people associate "rot" with things that are poisonous and smelly. That's anaerobic (or oxygen-deprived) rot. Composting is aerobic (or oxygen-rich) rot. Basically, you are trying to create a rotting environment that has lots of access to fresh air (through turning the pile), which will not only make the decomposition happen faster and preserve plant nutrients, it also will not smell. Well-made, finished compost -- which is rich in organic materials -- smells like good, clean dirt.

Where to compost?: Compost can be produced in an open box or open pit, but since we're here in the 'burbs, where people get fussy about the appearance of a yard, we recommend buying a commercial compost bin. Baltimore County sells the Earth Machine composter every spring for around $35 -- a bargain. There are lots of other bins available out there. We recommend one like the Earth Machine that puts the compost in contact with the ground below (rather than keep it off the ground, like the ComposTumbler brand), which will allow underground creatures to invade the compost and help with the decomposition. Also, Earth Machine-type composters can be set directly on beds where you plan to grow, making the ground under them very fertile. Just move the composter around year-by-year. Your composter should be an enclosed container with a cover. Use that cover. Also, buy a compost turner -- a wand with a handle that has two wings on its point that open up when you pull it up through the compost. This tool helps mix and aerate the pile. (Watson's Garden Center, on York Road north of the Beltway, sells sturdy turners for around $25.)

What can be composted?: It's better to answer this question by listing what cannot be composted (at least in home-scale systems): Do not compost bones, meat, oils and fats, dairy, or any kind of synthetic or non-organic material, like plastic bags, chemicals, or aluminum cans. The bones, meat, et al., will smell and attract pests; the synthetics won't break down. You're better off sticking with yard waste. Vegetable trimmings, egg shells, coffee grounds, and other organic wastes from the kitchen are frequently used as compost material, but composting food is against the rules in Baltimore County. (It is allowed in the city, so ponder that little mystery.) If you want to play by the rules, you might want to start a worm-compost bin. You should also avoid composting pernicious and invasive weeds, or their seeds. There's a chance that they will not die or that their seeds will not be sterilized in the heat of the compost pile, and then you'll have a big problem when you add that compost to your garden.

How do you get started?: Compostable material is either a nitrogen-rich "green" or a carbon-rich "brown," and you need a certain mix of the two to get good compost. Grass clippings are a "green." Fallen leaves or shredded paper are "browns." But don't go by color: Manure and coffee grounds are compost "greens," even though they are brown in color. Got it? Here's an easy recipe to get started: Mix even portions of fresh grass clippings and fallen leaves in your composter, then use your compost turner to mix the stuff up. (Don't waste your money on compost activators, by the way.)

What will happen next?: Let it sit for 12 to 18 hours and turn it again. You will find that it has started to get really hot. That's good. Themophilic (or heat-loving) bacteria are the first to go to work in a compost pile. They will quickly heat up the center of the pile to 120 to 150 degrees. They thrive on oxygen, so keep turning that pile every day. If anything smells off (like vinegar or alcohol), turn the pile more often and add more brown leaves. If the pile doesn't heat up, add more green grass. You will find that this mixture breaks down really quickly, to about half of its volume. Just keep adding more stuff; the pile needs mass to maintain its heat and action.

When is it done?: When it stops heating up. Just let it sit, or transfer it to a garden bed, where the worms will go to work on it. But I find that if you keep adding nitrogen-rich stuff, along with some carbon, it's never really done. And remember, it doesn't have to be completely done when you put it on a bed.

For more on the compost process, you might look into these books: The Rodale Book of Composting is a classic that we have recommended in the past. Let It Rot! has been in print for decades, and you can still pick up new or used copies everywhere. Composting: An Easy Household Guide is, true to its title, extremely easy and quick reading, but it gives you most of the basic points and more.

If this confuses you, or if you have questions, write us.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

one more thought...

We couldn't resist this quote from Gaia's Garden, which hits on the very spirit that the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative is trying to promote:

"Where you have fruit, you have friends. For millennia, food has been at the center of community creation and rituals of friendship, and sharing it is one of the most natural ways for neighbors to meet and trust each other."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

introducing permaculture

A great book just hit the shelves at your local bookstore -- one that is valuable for anyone learning to garden. It's called Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Second Edition, by Toby Hemenway.

The idea of permaculture is probably new to most readers of this blog, so here is a brief definition: The word "permaculture" is a contraction of the words "permanent culture" and "permanent agriculture," and it describes a set of principles that create a sustainable, interdependent form of gardening. Through the use of annual and perennial plants and gardening techniques that fix nitrogen, ward off pests, attract pollinators, conserve water, and so on, you are creating a ecological space that (theoretically, at least) is self-sustaining and therefore requires less work.

Gaia's Garden goes into all sorts of information that would be valuable to any gardener, whether you decide to pick up permaculture techniques or not. The book has charts on various nitrogen fixers (in other words, plants that take nitrogen, an essential nutrient, out of the air and put it in the soil), plants for birds, plants for pollinators, and so on. The sorts of gardens that Hemenway advocates would be perfect for spaces like those behind Stanmore or around the Rodgers Forge apartments -- places that could accommodate some lush growth.

Hemenway is also an advocate of neighborly cooperation, particularly in city and suburban gardens, an ethic that we at the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative wholeheartedly endorse. This passage -- about Hemenway's dilemma of having not enough garden space in a suburban or urban area -- struck us, and we offer it to you as food for thought for what's possible in the Forge:

"The great strength of any city -- the reason people go there -- is the social capital: the synergies and opportunities generated by creative people working together. As I've noted, a major weakness, particularly for gardeners, is the paucity of land. Fortunately, if we play it right, the social resources are exactly the force needed to make up for the scarcity of land.

"Here's an example. In moving to Portland, Kiel and I traded our ten rural acres for a 50-by-100-foot lot. My first thought was, 'How am I going to fit all my favorite fruit trees into this tiny space?' The back yard was almost a blank slate: mostly grass, some bark mulch hastily installed by the seller to mask formerly weedy spots, and a dog run. The sole trees were a sapling Japanese maple and a mature European prune plum that straddled the property line. The plums came ripe just after we arrived. One morning I was chatting with my next-door neighbor, a retired electrician and fervent gardener named Johnny, while we harvested plums on our respective sides of the fence. Johnny asked me if I liked figs. My strong affimative resulted in a plastic tub brimming with ripe mission figs wobbling my way from his side of the fence. For the next few weeks, whenever I returned the empty basin to Johnny, it came back moments later loaded with fruit.

"I had also met my neighbor Theressa, who lived across the street, and because I had a surfeit of plums, I carried a bag of them over to her. She smiled ruefully and said, "Sorry, I don't need plums -- I've got a tree of my own." Theressa then told me that I had just missed peach season, when she had been giving fruit away. But in a few weeks, she said, her Granny Smith apples would be ready, so I should load up on those. The neighbor next door to Theressa, a computer guy named Will, overheard us and said if I needed fruit, I should come right over and help him harvest the enormous Bartlett pear tree in his backyard. Will got my bag of plums, and I came home with twice as many pears. My neighbors' yards had become my orchard.

"I realized I didn't need to plant all my favorite fruit trees. I just needed to plant the ones that were missing from the neighborhood...."

We're already working with neighbors to share land to grow gardens. How can we incorporate this idea to create an orchard in Rodgers Forge?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Summer Reading: 'Seedfolks'

"All his life in Vietnam my father had been a farmer. Here our apartment house had no yard. But in that vacant lot he would see me. He would watch my beans break ground and spread, and would notice with pleasure their pods growing plump. He would see my patience and my hard work. I would show him that I could raise plants, as he had. I would show him that I was his daughter.

My class had sprouted lima beans in paper cups the year before. I now placed a bean in each of the holes. I covered them up, pressing the soil down firmly with my fingertips. I opened my thermos and watered them all. And I vowed to myself that those beans would thrive." (from Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman)

My mother recently suggested I read the book Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman, and I am glad I did. Though the book is written for a young audience, ages nine to 12, Seedfolks is an inspiration for gardeners of all ages.

Set in an urban apartment building in Cleveland, Seedfolks tells the story of a fledgeling community garden started by a nine-year-old immigrant girl in a garbage- and rat-infested vacant lot. Over the course of one spring, more and more residents of the apartment building join the little girl in establishing the garden.

Narrated through the voices of 13 different characters -- who have different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and jobs -- Seedfolks shows how a community garden might affect the different residents of a community. A Haitian cab-driver dreams of selling the lettuce he can grow on their plot. A Guatemalan immigrant watches as a vegetable garden revitalizes his elderly father. A pregnant 16-year-old girl learns to raise plants -- and raises her spirits in the process. These are the kinds of stories that Seedfolks uses to illustrate the power of gardening in community.

As I finished Seedfolks, I couldn't help but wonder: How can we create more community gardening opportunities in our neighborhood?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Lettuce grow together

All the rain and cool weather we've had lately is terrible for tomatoes and peppers, which thrive on heat. But it has extended the season for an easy-to-grow garden staple: salad greens. Salad greens like cool, wet weather; they "bolt" -- or go to seed (and in the process become tough and bitter) -- in the arid heat of summer.

A nice thing about lettuce is that you can grow it almost anywhere, anytime. The nutrient demands of these plants are low -- in other words, they don't need really fertile soil, like squash or broccoli. And using them in the kitchen is a no-brainer: Just pick, wash, dress, toss, and eat.

Here's how to grow them: First, pick out a packet of seeds. Burpee sells various packets that contain a variety of complimentary greens. There are tons of types of greens, with names like red deer tongue, black-seeded simpson, and royal oak leaf, buttercrunch, red sails. You can also grow beet greens and arugula (also known as rocket) for your salads.

Some people plant lettuces in tidy rows with proper spacing. This tends to produce nice, evenly formed heads. But I'm lazy. I just scatter seeds in a given area, and I thin as they grow (and I eat the thinnings). My way probably leads to more problems with slugs, which can hide between the packed plants. But I tend to think that thickly planted lettuces will do more to shade the ground they are growing in, keeping it more moist (which is what they like).

Since I plant thickly, I just pull up whole plants, roots and all, to harvest. If you have planted less thickly, you can lop the plant off a few inches off the ground (and it will grow back) or you can peel leaves off the sides.

The plants will bolt when they get too old, too hot, or too dry. You see them shoot up a seed head, almost overnight, and the leaves will be leathery. The leaves will get progressively tougher leading up to this day, so pick them before the bolt happens (unless you want seeds).

Potential problems: Slugs are your main enemy. See our earlier entry on how to deal with them -- handpicking and beer traps are our methods.

Heading into a hot summer: When weather gets hot, you'll have to tear out and plant new lettuce when your old stuff bolts. But you might also consider growing "salad greens" that like hotter weather -- like basil or parsley, for example. Nasturtiums are beautiful flowers -- and they are edible, leaves and flowers both. Mustard also produces highly nutritious greens, but beware urban gardener-farmers: Mustard is also one of the few plants that will absorb lead in the soil. Make sure your soil is clean, and don't grow any food in contaminated soil. (We'll post on that topic sometime in the future.)

If you're really enthusiastic about growing greens, you might consult an excellent new book about the topic: Charles Dowding's Salad Leaves for All Seasons: Organic Growing from Pot to Plot. Dowding, a British gardener, covers just about every green you would want to grow, and various methods for growing them.

If you don't have room to grow greens, you might check out plans for Salad Tables and Salad Boxes from our friends at the University of Maryland's Grow It Eat It campaign. With just a few 2-by-4 planks, some screen and hardware cloth material, and some fasteners, you can make a container that will sit on a deck or patio and grow greens all year long.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Jay didn't ask us, but...

In his latest essay for the Rodgers Forge newsletter, Jay Dunn writes nostalgically about "just a few of the things that are disappearing in our country." It just so happens that four of the 12 disappearing things he lists are either directly or indirectly related to agriculture -- and are just the sorts of things that our organization is trying to address. Here are the four farming-related items that Jay lists:

Blue Crabs in the Chesapeake Bay:
As everyone knows, they are disappearing. Jay notes that it's because of overfishing, invasive species, and pollution -- but many people don't think about the source of that pollution. The bay is choking on nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, two elements abundant in chemical fertilizers. A great deal of the harmful nutrients in the bay are coming from industrial-chicken operations. But a good chunk also comes from urban and suburban lawns. Chemical lawn fertilizer is highly soluble and tends to run off in the first rain, into the streets and gutters, and then out to the bay. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program: "Stormwater from urban and suburban areas contributes a significant amount of pollutants to the Bay. Every time we drive our cars, fertilize our lawns, leave pet waste on the ground or forget to fix car leaks, we contribute to pollution in our local rivers, streams and the Bay. Seventeen percent of phosphorus, 11 percent of nitrogen and 9 percent of sediment loads to the Bay come from stormwater." We encourage people to have less lawn and more garden, and we discourage the use of chemical fertilizers.

Dying Honeybees: In the past few years, people became alarmed when honeybees started dying off. The phenomenon was called Colony Collapse Disorder, and now researchers have come up with some theories about why it's happening: One cause might be stress on bee colonies, which are trucked around the country to be used as pollinators in industrial farming. Another might be the widespread use of pesticides. Both of these factors weaken bees' resistance to various pathogens. We encourage people to grow pollinator plants (starting by letting Dutch white clover grow in lawns) and avoid pesticides. (Kudos to the Rodgers Forge neighbor on Stanmore who keeps a beehive in the alley. Join our group!)

Family Farms: People see that they spend more and more money on food, but that rising dollar value is not getting to the farmer; instead, it largely goes to middlemen, who transport, repackage, and market the food, as you can see in this report. Jay notes that family farms have declined from 5.3 million in 1950 to 2.1 million today. But go back a few more years, and you'll find that the decline is much more drastic: Just prior to World War II, there were almost seven million farms in the United States (and around 130 million people). Today, in a country of 300 million, a mere 1.2 million people claim farming as their principal occupation, and the average age of those farmers is around 55. About 74,000 farms, or 3.5 percent, accounted for more than 60 percent of the market value of agricultural products sold in 2002. This means that food production in our country is concentrated in industrial megaproducers and a dwindling, aging population. We need to rediscover our agricultural roots, and we need to diversify the kinds of landscapes that grow food. This is what the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative is all about. We also encourage supporting local farmers, which leads us to "disappearing thing" number 4....

The Milkman:
Jay says he misses the milk that was delivered to his home when he was a kid. "When Mom would let us have chocolate milk, well, oh boy!" He can still get that good milk, and support good local dairies, if he wants to. The South Mountain Creamery is just one local dairy that still delivers milk -- in old-fashioned glass bottles, no less. (And it even comes in chocolate. Yum!) Trickling Springs Creamery is another local dairy operation, as is Clear Spring Creamery. All of these dairies try to adhere to sustainable farming methods. You can also get South Mountain goods at the weekend farmers' markets, in Waverly and under the JFX; Trickling Springs is available at Atwater's in Belvedere Square. We support local producers like these, because they add resilience to our foodshed.

So, we invite Jay (and you) to join the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative. We seem to be concerned about some of the same things he is.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Composting with Worms

On Friday mornings we put our milk jugs, beer bottles, soda cans, and newspapers out for recycling. This act helps reduce the amount of new raw materials needed to create glass, aluminum, and paper, but it also cuts down the solid waste that we are sending to county landfills. One big source of solid waste that we may not be "recycling" -- but we could -- are our kitchen scraps. Vegetable and fruit scraps are easily recycled through composting.

Composting is the process of decomposing organic matter into humus, the dark, rich material that is essential for healthy soil. Many people are already familiar with compost bins or tumblers that facilitate the decomposition of yard wastes and kitchen scraps. In that method, bacteria and fungi do the decomposing. There is another method of composting, however, that is not as well known but is easy and effective, and that is worm composting.

Worm composting, or vermicomposting, does not rely on bacteria and fungi but rather on worms to consume kitchen scraps. As the worms eat the food scraps, they leave behind their excrement, known as castings, which are highly enriched with nutrients, minerals, and microorganisms. Worm castings are one of nature's most potent fertilizers. They feed both the soil and the plants that thrive in it, and worm castings are not dangerous to plants in any concentration or application.

We mentioned in an earlier post a great composting guide, The Rodale Book of Composting. This fantastic book has a chapter on composting with worms. The classic on the topic, however, is Mary Appelhof's Worms Eat My Garbage. The Baltimore County Library system has many copies, as do area bookstores. Mary Appelhof's website,, is a great resource as well.

My family took the plunge and began worm composting in April of this year. I ordered one pound of Red Wiggler worms, roughly 1000 worms, for $19.95 from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania. The worms arrived safely a few days later in a bag of peat moss, and we began composting immediately.

Worm bins come in a variety of shapes and configurations and can be purchased online easily. However, we chose to make one from plastic bins purchased locally (and inexpensively). We bought three Sterilite brand 28 qt. bins, roughly 5.5 inches high, 16 inches wide, and 22 inches long, costing about $7 each.

Worms need air, darkness, moisture, a few inches of bedding, and food to thrive. To provide air we drilled holes into the sides and bottom of two of the bins, leaving the third bin undrilled. For the drilled bins, small holes of 1/4" ring the bin about midway up the side, while 1/2" holes are spread out around the sides and bottom.

Unfortunately, we didn't realize the true significance of worms' need for darkness until it was a little late. As can be seen in the photo below, the bins we purchased were transparent. We thought the basement would be dark enough for the worms. We were wrong. The worms did not thrive.

We realized that the worms were concentrated in the center of the bin, avoiding food on the edges. After applying a coat of black spray paint to one of the bins and transferring the bedding and worms to it, the worms have moved into every corner of the bin.

Tip: When making your own worm bin be sure to buy opaque containers.

To provide moisture, we shredded newspaper and submerged it in water briefly to achieve a moisture level like that of a wrung-out sponge. This bedding is then placed into the first bin, filling it completely.

Lastly, a small portion of food scraps is placed in one of the corners of the bin. The resources listed above can provide a list of foods worms can eat. Our worms did not like potatoes but loved asparagus, cantaloupe, and coffee grounds.

The worm bin sits inside the one undrilled bin which catches any liquid, bedding, or worms that might fall out of the worm bin. To allow air circulation, a few blocks of wood are placed in the bottom of the undrilled bin to elevate the worms.

We have been feeding our worms every week for eight weeks now. The bottom of the bin is filling with castings and baby worms are visible all over the bin. In the next month or so we will be ready to move the worms from bin 1 to bin 2. When we get to that point, we'll post on it.

If you have any questions about setting up a worm bin, please ask.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

yards to farms in colorado

Kipp Nash "farms" neighbors' yards in this video. The pictures on his site are pretty interesting. Looks like they have several plots under development, along with an institute for post-oil multi-plot gardening in the works.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

the revenge of broccoli rabe

Anyone who has had a garden, or even a CSA subscription, knows the feeling: The vegetables are there -- you've paid for them, or spent valuable time coddling them and growing them -- and you don't know what to do with them.

Such is the case with my broccoli rabe, also known as Cime di Rapa. I had heard such great things about this vegetable -- like broccoli, but leafier and milder -- so I grew a couple rows of it this spring. Now it's bolting and ready to be eaten, and I'm wondering how many ways I can cook it. I'm at a loss. I tried putting some in stir fry -- that was fine, but I wasn't blown away. Broccoli rabe has little heads, so you cook it more like spinach than broccoli -- leaves and all.

Tonight I made a breakthrough: I rediscovered a Mark Bittman recipe from a few months back, in which he cooks rabe with pasta and breadcrumbs. You can get the recipe, along with a video and a short article on the leafy vege, on The New York Times site, but I will summarize briefly how I did it:

  • Slowly fry sliced garlic in a fry pan with olive oil.
  • Pick a big handful of broccoli rabe.
  • Throw it in boiling water till limp, then spoon it out into a colander and cool under running water. (Keep the hot water; you will use it for the pasta.)
  • Put a few slices of bread in the food processor and make into bread crumbs. Fry bread crumbs with garlic, stirring often (even constantly). You may have to add a little oil.
  • Cook pasta in water.
  • Transfer bread crumbs and garlic to a bowl. Set aside.
  • Put rabe and pasta in hot fry pan. Stir up. Then transfer to bowl or plate.
  • Top with crumbs and garlic, along with salt and pepper to taste.

I just finished my bowl and realized I forgot to add the parmesan. There is always more broccoli rabe out there, so I guess I have another shot to get it right.

Monday, June 1, 2009

the organic threat

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Leave it to The Daily Show to tell what's up with the industry objections to Michelle Obama's organic garden. I had just read an interview with Michael Pollan on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! about this very issue. Here's what he said:

Goodman: Michelle Obama’s organic garden, that the pesticide industry had in a memo that they shuddered when they heard her use the word?

Pollan: Yes. You know, I think her garden is actually a significant development. I mean, you can dismiss it as symbolic politics, but in fact symbols are important. And the word “organic” are fighting words in this—is a fighting word in this world. And she did not have to say it was an organic garden; she could have simply said it’s a garden. And that she did was noticed.

And the Crop Life Association, the trade group of the pesticide makers, wrote her a letter, being as cordial as you must be to a First Lady, saying, you know, “You’re really casting aspersions on industrial agriculture, and we really hope you will use our crop protection products.” In other words, “Buy our poisons, whether you need them or not.”

preserving the harvest

The Baltimore Food and Faith Project, a program of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, is sponsoring a workshop on canning later in the summer, on July 16. You might think about signing up for the program now. Here's what's on the agenda:

Join us as we learn two ways of preserving food: Hot Water Bath and Pressure Canning. We’ll discuss both techniques and then get serious and can up a batch of green beans in a modern pressure cooker. We’ll also discover how to share Maryland’s wonderful produce with the smallest among us. Learn how to prepare, store, and transport baby food, and share some stories about how infants respond to this food, and what happens in the long term when they eat baby food prepared at home.

The announcement says that light dinner fare will be provided. RSVP by Thursday, July 2, by calling (410) 502-7577 or e-mailing