Happy #Earth Day – Pay Dirt – #Composting

Happy Earth Day 2015!

Celebrating Earth Day is a little bit like giving canned goods to the homeless at the holidays as if that’s the only time the food is needed. Same with Earth Day. We get all warm and fuzzy inside thinking about doing things to help the environment, but then May comes along, and we forget that the Earth still struggles under the weight of human weight and consumption, just as the homeless need food as much, if not more, once January 1 rolls around.

Here’s something to do year round to help you, the environment, and maybe even those who have less than you do. Food banks welcome fresh produce and making compost surely helps you grow your own.

I’ve been composting kitchen waste ever since I had a small rooftop garden in my efficiency apartment in Ann Arbor in 1979. Since then, I’ve composted on a 20-acre homestead, in an urban backyard, and behind the shed in my current home in Pennsylvania. It’s a simple process and begins with finding a container with a sealable lid to keep in the kitchen for the food scraps.

Not all of your waste from the kitchen makes good compostable material. Avoid the use of meat scraps, fish byproducts, cheese, bones, fats, oils or grease because they all attract wild animals and take a very long time to break down. Egg shells, coffee grounds and vegetable matter make the best material to start the process of minting your very own black gold.

Once the container is filled, take it to the compost bin and put it inside and cover with either brown or green organic material. Making the rich topsoil requires a balancing act between green materials and brown materials placed on top of the kitchen scraps. Think of the green things as those still close to the live stage: grass clippings, food scraps and manures. The browns have been dead for a while and consist of dry leaves and woody materials and even shredded paper. We use the ashes from our fireplace. Layering these elements, with the browns taking up the most space, leads to the decomposition of the materials. Air and water are essential in assisting in this process, but usually there is enough liquid in my compost container and in the air to not worry about wetting the materials. If you notice the material in the bin looks dry, go ahead and water it.

There are products you can purchase, from shredders to rotating drums to three-stage bins. You can spend from $50 upwards to several hundreds of dollars. If you live in the extreme north, you may need to invest in the more sophisticated type of equipment to ensure the success of your compost bin. But I’ve composted in Michigan, Florida, and now Pennsylvania and managed to do it successfully without expending lots of money.

When I lived in an urban setting in Florida, I did the simplest thing. But it could easily have been expanded. I bought a plastic garbage can for under $10 and cut off the bottom. I drilled holes all over the lid and sides to allow air flow. A nail and hammer would have accomplished the same thing. I dug a hole about three-inches deep in the soil the diameter of the can and placed the bottom into the ground, filling around the sides to make it secure. I covered the bottom with the dirt I had just removed, making sure it was nice and loose. Then I placed my kitchen scraps on top. I covered those with leaves from my yard and put the lid back on the garbage can. Every time I put new material from the kitchen into the bin, I stirred the whole thing with a shovel.

Here in Pennsylvania, we bought a simple compost bin from Lowes for under $50. It has panels on all four sides that slide off for easy removal of the dirt from the bottom.

I fill my flower pots full of this healthy rich soil where grateful petunias and pansies thrive in the dirt that started in my kitchen. Our vegetables and herbs will receive a healthy dose of the soil when it’s time, and then we start the process all over again.

Earthworms are the essential ingredient for turning the scraps into rich dark soil. If I see a worm in the yard, I’ll pick it up and carry it to the bin, but mostly the earthworms find it all by themselves. If you don’t see any in your pile, buy a small container of earthworms from the local bait shop and let them loose. They eat the organic matter, and quite graciously poop behind nice dirt. Maybe that’s what I love most about composting. It’s a way to be a part of the cycle of nature without disturbing or destroying it.

When I began pulling together information for my book, From Seed to Table, my copy editor read the part on composted and was amazed that she could very easily start a small pile in her urban backyard. Just be sure to cover all the food scraps and keep a secure lid on the heap or you’ll have wildlife other than earthworms wanting to eat your scraps.

Do you compost? What’s been your experience? Any tips or suggestions to add?

Click here for paperback Click here for KindleClick here for paperback
Click here for Kindle

And in honor of Earth Day and in remembrance of all we lost during Deepwater Horizon, I’m offering an eBook sale (either $.99 cents or free on Smashwords) on my novel Trails in the Sand. This contemporary fiction chronicles BP’s oil spill in 2010 as environmental reporter Caroline Carlisle races to save her family from the destructive forces of their past.

3-D1web

Click below to be taken to the purchase site of your choice.

Amazon Kindle

B&N Nook

Apple iBook

Kobo

Smashwords (use coupon code FR84H)

Paperback (Sorry, I don’t set the price on this version!)

Winter Gardening Blues and Greens

???????????????????????????????Usually by this time of year, hubby happily starts a multitude of seedlings and places them under grow lights in anticipation of planting time. It’s different this year. He’s planted a few seedlings–onions, greens–but nothing like in years past because this year our house and, of course, our garden are for sale. We don’t know if we’ll be here in the spring. We certainly hope we’re not here in the summer.

He couldn’t help himself though. When I asked him why he started the onion seedlings, he said he wanted to plant them, so the new owners would be able to enjoy them in the summer.  I’ve joked that we should sell him with the house. Not that I want to leave my sweetie behind, but he could maintain the garden and share half of the produce with the new owners. After all, after five seasons of living here, he has the soil just where he wants it. Besides, it would make finding our new smaller digs easier. Try finding flat and sunny plots of land in western Pennsylvania. It’s not an easy task. In fact, it’s one reason we bought this house much too large for two people. But we have a wonderful side yard–flat and sunny.

The seed catalogs arrive daily now, and I’m proud that he’s showing restraint. The magazines arrive, but so far no subsequent delivery of seed packets. Unless, he’s shipping to his work address.

I added a few recipes to my guide on gardening, From Seed to Tableand gave the book a face lift for spring. Here’s one of my favorites for a cold winter night.

Drunken Butternut Squash Bisque

1 butternut squash, roasted – cut into several pieces (seeded). Dribble olive oil and maple syrup over the top. Roast in 350 oven until done. Roasting times vary by squash, but it usually takes from 45 minutes to an hour.

1 TBSP olive oil

1 TBSP butter

1 onion, chopped

¾ cup celery, chopped

½ tsp ginger (if you have freshly grated, it’s always better)

Cubed pieces of cooked butternut squash

½ cup Bourbon

2 TBSP maple syrup

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 ½ tsp vanilla

Salt and pepper to taste

Ground nutmeg to taste

½ cup heavy cream (optional – I rarely use it and the bisque is still wonderful!)

Heat oil and butter in large pot. Add onion, ginger, and celery and cook until onions and celery are soft. Add the rest of the ingredients (except the cream) and cook together for 15 minutes, until flavors are well blended.

In a food processor or blender, puree until smooth. Return to heat and stir in cream, if using. Heat thoroughly, but do not bring to boil. Serve hot.

Yummy.

Click on cover for Amazon page

Click on cover for Amazon page

 

Baby, It’s Cold Outside, But Summer Produce is Hot!

It’s that time of year when it’s difficult to imagine the green of a lush garden as we look at the winter vistas outside the window. The seed catalogs arriving daily give us hope that the frozen tundra of our landscape in a few short months will turn into loose dirt ready for planting.

At our house, the onions are becoming seedlings under grow lights. Some of the onion seeds my husband ordered are on back order so we searched out local sources of seeds yesterday. Neither of the stores we checked that usually have packets of seeds near the check out had them. With the temperatures dipping to ten below degrees, maybe they’re finding it difficult to imagine anyone growing anything.

Even though we’re not venturing very far from home these days, we’re enjoying the products from the past year’s garden.

Peas, corn, spinach, or zucchini, frozen during the summer, grace our plates almost every night.  We also are eating winter squash frequently. We have butternut and a new variety my husband planted last summer. It’s called Heirloom Queensland Blue Squash.

Butternut and Heirloom Queensland squash

Butternut and Heirloom Queensland squash

It does have a bluish tinge to it, and it look as if the Jolly Green Giant stepped on it. But it is a sweet and lovely squash growing to 10 pounds or more. I boiled cut up pieces of one the other day and it made ten cups of pureed squash.

I used it to make a “pumpkin” pie, which means I used a pumpkin pie recipe substituting two cups of pureed Queensland Blue instead of pumpkin. My husband and I thought it tasted better than pumpkin, but then anything that reeks of freshness in these days of arctic frigidness ranks very high on our taste-bud list.

I hope you’re staying warm. I just checked the outdoor temperature, and it’s already down to one degree at 4 p.m. They predict wind chills to be thirty below. How is that even possible?

Back to dreaming of the summer to come – here’s a photo to help us remember that somewhere sometime in the not too distant future, we will once again thaw out and see green everywhere.

Let me know about your garden dreams and realities. Perhaps the weather isn’t as frightful where you live.cropped-dsc01306.jpg

 

From Seed to Table is now available in paperback.

#Gifts that Last for a Year

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It’s the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and my husband has been eerily quiet down in the den. I’m taking the moments of quiet to lie on the living room couch in front of the lighted tree reading a novel set in Key West. Snow flurries float by the window, but I’m transported to the tropics through the power of words. When I guiltily look at the clock I realize that two hours have passed since there’s been a peep from the den—not a creature was stirring.

I stealthily slide toward the stairs leading down to the den to see if I could spy my husband wrapping presents.

I see the back of his head as he sits on the couch. Newspapers are strewn across the coffee table top with no hopes of visitors arriving soon. I grow more excited with each passing minute of his industrious labor. As I snoop, something different appeared to my wondering eyes. Instead of wrapping my presents as I’d suspected, I note the bucket of soil and trays of onion seedlings waiting to be placed under grow lights. My illusions of big or small presents are shot when I realize the activity taking place in the den.

As I continue to stare, I see him arranging the grow lights in emptied-out cupboards readying them for space to grow.Onion seedlings

After my spy session,  I stir the pot of stew simmering on the stove. I smile as I realize my husband was preparing Christmas presents for us. The soup starter mix we’d frozen in the summer contained some of the onions he’d started la year ago. The ones he begins today, will sustain us next year. Now that’s a gift that lasts.

Here an excerpt from From Seed to Table on growing onions:

S2T-6The seed catalogs appear in the mailbox daily beginning in December. Before Christmas, we ordered seeds for onions, and to minimize shipping costs we also ordered other seeds such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, radishes (both red and the long white variety), lettuce, Swiss chard, parsley, basil, and flowers. After consultation with Llewellyn’s 2013 Moon Sign Book, my husband had determined the best time to start the onion seeds was in the waning days of 2012.

That meant he started sprouting onion seeds while we were in Florida over Christmas 2012. He buys the cheapest and thinnest single-ply paper towels and places a layer of seeds on one sheet. Then he piles sheet upon sheet until the top of the plastic sealable container is full. He dampens the towels with water and keeps the container in a warm place. He treated his seed sprouting container as if it was a pet, carrying it inside wherever we visited and adding water as necessary to keep the towels damp.

This year he sprouted seven varieties of onions—long-day types—of yellow, white, and red, and short-day type of yellow. He places one variety at a time on the sheets. Then he bundles the seed packages together with a rubber band in the same order as he placed them on the paper towel layer. This way he can keep track of which type is which when he plants. When the onions are ready to harvest, it’s easy to distinguish the red and white onions. The others may require a taste test.

By the time we arrived back in Pennsylvania on the last day of 2012, the seeds had sprouted in their paper towel womb. The thin paper towel helps those tiny little sprouts from sticking to the layers.

During the first week of January, he put the seedlings into four-pack containers filled with regular potting soil with a very small quantity of organic and rock fertilizers. He uses a five-gallon bucket for potting soil (two-thirds filled), throws in a handful of the fertilizers, and blends this into a mixture. Once the packs are filled with dirt, he pokes holes in each section with a pencil. Then he “pokes” the onion seedlings into the soil.

Now the seedlings are growing happily under grow lights in cupboards in our family room. Unfortunately, we don’t have a heated greenhouse, but we’ve found a way to manage. Some people use heating pads, but we’ve done all right with four-foot florescent grow lights.

 

From Seed to Table is now available in a paperback edition for only $5.39 on Amazon.

 

Garden Gone Wild

June 8, 2013

June 8, 2013

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

We may have started the garden late this year, but somehow the cold April mixed with a few hot days and then spurts of rain in May created a monster garden in June. A friend visited in the last days of May, and we’d sit on the balcony overlooking the garden and could swear we saw the peas grow right before us.

peas are a poppin'

peas are a poppin’

Raspberries are growing and flowering, too. Even the late-term raspberry plants have flowers on them. Soon I’ll be hunting down jam and jelly recipes.

raspberry in the making

raspberry in the making

And the best news of all – I spied these tomatoes growing in peace under the broad green leaves of the plant.

sneak peek at coming attractions

sneak peek at coming attractions

We didn’t do anything differently, but somehow the weather – as unpredictable as it’s been this year – did some type of miracle work in the garden.

Here’s an excerpt from From Seed to Table with my husband’s secret for preparing the soil.

Soil Preparation

We don’t test our soil. Robert knows instinctively what the dirt needs when he begins working in the garden, and it’s a function of the moisture in the ground. When the soil dries out, it’s time to start working the beds for the plants ready to go into the garden. He starts planting from mid-March most years.

We’ve been gardening in the same spot for four seasons, so the soil is well conditioned. Robert might not use the rotor tiller this year. It’s not good to break up the soil too much, so now that the soil is in good condition, he hopes he can use a shovel and pickaxe to turn over and break up the soil.

Before he turns the soil, he’ll use a well-rounded organic fertilizer mix of nitrogen, potassium (also known as potash), and phosphorus. It’s important to amend the soil with these organics because it’s essential to the growth of plants and is usually not in sufficient quantities in most soils. As he’s making the beds, he sprinkles the organic fertilizers, dolomitic limestone, green sand, and pulverized phosphate rock. The mix of these organic and inorganic additions forms a dusty layer on top of the bed. He blends it all in with a pick approximately eight inches deep.

Usually every other year, he applies mushroom manure and sand. He gauges this application by how “friable” the soil is. He can tell it’s friable and ready for the root growth of plants, if he clumps it in his palm and the soil falls apart. That means the soil is loose enough without applying the manure or sand. Also, be careful about putting the mushroom manure on seedlings such as peas. Our peas didn’t grow through this top dressing so well last year, and Robert believes manure may not have composted enough, so it burned the seedlings. If the manure is worked into the soil deep enough, this would not have been a problem.cover - lst draftFrom Seed to Table is available on Amazon Kindle for $2.99. On June 13 and 14, you can download the book for FREE.

From Seed to Table

cover - lst draftBy Patricia Zick @PCZick

From Seed to Table  – A Personal Guide to Growing, Harvesting, Cooking, and Preserving Food is now available on Kindle through Amazon. I’m still trying to decide if I’ll do a hard copy of the book – I use lots of photos with the information. Here’s an excerpt on preparing the soil.

Soil Preparation

We don’t test our soil. Robert knows instinctively what the dirt needs when he begins working in the garden, and it’s a function of the moisture in the ground. When the soil dries out, it’s time to start working the beds for the plants ready to go into the garden. He starts planting from mid-March most years.

We’ve been gardening in the same spot for four seasons, so the soil is well conditioned. Robert might not use the rotor tiller this year. It’s not good to break up the soil too much, so now that the soil is in good condition, he hopes he can use a shovel and pickaxe to turn over and break up the soil.

Before he turns the soil, he’ll use a well-rounded organic fertilizer mix of nitrogen, potassium (also known as potash), and phosphorus. It’s important to amend the soil with these organics because it’s essential to the growth of plants and is usually not in sufficient quantities in most soils. As he’s making the beds, he sprinkles the organic fertilizers, dolomitic limestone, green sand, and pulverized phosphate rock. The mix of these organic and inorganic additions forms a dusty layer on top of the bed. He blends it all in with a pick approximately eight inches deep.

Usually every other year, he applies mushroom manure and sand. He gauges this application by how “friable” the soil is. He can tell it’s friable and ready for the root growth of plants, if he clumps it in his palm and the soil falls apart. That means the soil is loose enough without applying the manure or sand. Also, be careful about putting the mushroom manure on seedlings such as peas. Our peas didn’t grow through this top dressing so well last year, and Robert believes manure may not have composted enough, so it burned the seedlings. If the manure is worked into the soil deep enough, this would not have been a problem.

Note: Our peas are healthy and happy this year. It seems they grow a few inches each time I go out to watch their progress up the chicken wire.

peas and spinach 2013

peas and spinach 2013

Garden Plans and Soil Prep

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

S2T-6

Most folks are planning and readying the soil for planting. We’ve had things in the ground here in southwestern Pennsylvania for several weeks now. But last night, a frost was predicted so we covered some of the plants. They’re predicting the same for tonight so the sheets will remain in place.

I’m busy readying From Seed to Table for publication. Here’s an excerpt:

Garden Planning

Two words define our garden planning: We don’t. Our garden plans us. It’s not necessarily a haphazard affair, but it isn’t something we draw out on paper before the spring gardening season begins. Robert goes to the garden and begins preparing the soil wherever it seems most likely to put plants. He changes the location for some plants every year. For instance, tomatoes and most plants do better if they aren’t grown in the same dirt every year. It’s late winter as I write this section of the book. He’s placed clear plastic over one raised bed before the rain makes it too wet to work. He plants the first of the onions in this area as soon as the soil is dry enough and the freezes stop. His chosen spot for onions this year is the spot where peppers grew last year. The peppers didn’t produce much during 2012, so here’s hoping the peppers benefit from the change in location. The onions grew in abundance in 2012, and as of April 2013, we’re still eating the onions stored in the basement. I’m hoping the change in location will yield the same results for onions this year.

If you’re a planner and plotter, then the books with a chapter on garden planning will benefit you.

Soil Preparation

We don’t test our soil. Robert knows instinctively what the dirt needs when he begins working in the garden, and it’s a function of the moisture in the ground. When the soil dries out, it’s time to start working the beds for the plants ready to go into the garden. He starts planting from mid-March on in most years.???????????????????????????????

We’ve been gardening in the same spot for four seasons, so the soil is well conditioned. Robert might not use the rotor tiller this year. It’s not good to break up the soil too much, so now that the soil is in good condition, he hopes he can use a shovel and pickaxe to turn over and break up the soil. Before he turns the soil, he’ll use a well-rounded organic fertilizer mix of nitrogen, potassium (also known as potash), and phosphorus. It’s important to amend the soil with these organics because it’s essential to the growth of plants and is usually not in sufficient quantities in most soils. As he’s making the beds, he sprinkles the organic fertilizers, dolomitic limestone, green sand, and pulverized phosphate rock. The mix of these organic and inorganic additions forms a dusty layer on top of the bed. He blends it all in with a pick approximately eight inches deep.

Usually every other year, he applies mushroom manure and sand. He gauges this application by how “friable” the soil is. He can tell it’s friable and ready for the root growth of plants, if he clumps it in his palm and the soil falls apart. That means the soil is loose enough without applying the manure or sand. Also, be careful about putting the mushroom manure on seedlings such as peas. Our peas didn’t grow through this top dressing so well last year, and Robert believes it may not have been composted enough, so it burned the seedlings. If the manure is worked into the soil deep enough, this would not have been a problem.

peas reach for the sky

peas reach for the sky