Dreaming of Spring: Upcycled Gardening

There are daffodils everywhere along the trail I walk with the pup. I saw them this morning, ready to bloom, looking confused but happy in the sunshine. No one has told them that it’s February 3rd. The weather has been weird, and they think it’s spring. It does feel like spring, the sky blue and the weather balmy. I think I’m going to wait on the garden plans, though. In the meantime…I’m enjoying looking at sustainable gardening posts on other blogs. Here’s a round up of my favorites:

1. Gutter gardening seems sort of perfect for my townhouse lifestyle – I have a tiny back deck and am always looking for container gardening tips and ideas so that my little garden can grow up and not out. The site even has a helpful how-to, and a list of plants and vegetables that will grow well in this!

2. The cinder block garden from Apartment Therapy; another upcycled project. Who knew cinder blocks could look so cool?! I think it would be a heavy and unpleasant task finding this many cinder blocks and bringing them home, but then I think about how amazing they would look on our front enclosure, with shade plants in them.

The Modern DIY Succulent Garden, from Apartment Therapy

Bonus: here’s another one with a puppy! I’m tempted to show it to Arlo so that he, too, can daydream about a cinder block garden, and how adorable he would look napping in front of it:

Annette’s Modern DIY Garden, also from Apartment Therapy

3. Help your neighborhood birds build glorious nests. I think this idea is my favorite, because it’s so simple, and because she went to the trouble of double checking this idea with the Cornell Ornithology Department and the Audubon Society to make sure it was safe for the birds. Talk about going the extra mile! So this is the idea I’ll leave you with – what are you looking forward to about the springtime?

Birds Nest Yarn Hanger How-To from http://www.fiberfarm.com

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Urban composting (on the cheap!)

Starting my own compost heap has been on my minification to-do list for a long time! After all, composting helps keep food waste out of landfills and out of the water table, preventing everything from excess greenhouse gas production to dead zones in water bodies (created when the bacteria which feed on food waste multiply because we put food down our garbage disposals). Compost is also good for the garden, providing a sustainable, organic alternative to commercial fertilizers.

It took us a while to get started because we live in a townhouse with no yard, which meant we couldn’t do trench composting, the system with which I was most comfortable and familiar. We needed a system that didn’t smell, didn’t take up much space, and wouldn’t attract too many critters. And since we’re still on a graduate student budget, we needed it to be free. Enter the 75 gallon trash bin. (Note: this experiment continued for several years. I highly recommend going with a smaller barrel. Half this size at MOST. It’s more manageable, easier to turn, and you can reach the bottom of it to scoop or stir the compost much more easily!)

The trash bin fits neatly in the outdoor, fenced in storage area in front of our townhouse. Having now tested it out for over a month, I feel comfortable saying that anyone in an urban setting with a deck or outdoor enclosure, or rooftop access, could use the same system. My husband drilled holes in the bottom, sides and lid of the 75 gallon bin to allow for air flow. Every now and then we give it a good shake to aid the composting process. Every day I dump a bowl full of our eggshells, coffee grounds and produce trimmings into the bin. Since we’re vegetarian, we’re able to compost almost all of our food waste (composting meat is a more complicated process, better explained by someone who has actually tried it).

We’re still not a zero-waste kitchen, because we purchase some products that come in non-recyclable, non-compostable packaging, but at least we’re on our way! I’ve also started growing herbs, vegetables and a few fruits on our back deck in large containers – so far I’ve only harvested the basil, but I’m looking forward to a summer of fresh and ultra-local peppers, tomatoes and swiss chard! With very limited square footage but ample sunlight, I think we’ll be able to grow at least a few full meals’ worth of produce. Homesteading it ain’t, but it still feels good.

We’re using a bin we already owned (we used it as a trashcan – we gave it a really good scrubbing before converting it to a compost bin), but I think that when it fills up, we’ll get a second one – that way we can give the full container some time to break down and turn into compost in time for next spring’s container garden!

Here’s the step by step on how to set up your own trash can compost bin:

  • Drill holes in sides, bottom and top of bin. We drilled relatively small holes, close together. If you’re drilling larger holes, you’ll want to screen them in to keep your compost in and small furry critters out. (use a really sturdy bin, y’all. And again, I recommend going much smaller with your own compost bin. This thing was a beast!)
  • Place the bin on a milk crate, bricks, or whatever’s handy, to elevate it and promote air flow (like this):

  • Line bottom of bin with sticks and dirt, several inches deep.
  • Begin adding food waste. After each layer of food waste (“greens”), add a layer of “brown” material (I use leaves and toilet paper and paper towel rolls – coffee grounds also count as “browns”, which is helpful, because we generate quite a few of those in our household!)

  • Make sure the compost heap stays moist, and give it a regular shake/stir  to aid the process. You can use a long-handled shovel for the stirring. Aeration is important – without it, your compost will never decompose! We just (carefully) roll the trashcan on its side, making sure the lid stays on:

A short list of helpful composting “don’ts”:

  1. Don’t compost banana peels close to your house. Just don’t. We wound up with tiny fruit flies EVERYWHERE when I tossed a banana peel into our compost heap. Little did I know that the suckers would come from miles around, attracted by the smell of rotting banana, and that they would die all over my kitchen, for days on end. Lesson learned.
  2.  Don’t compost meat, fats such as butter, other dairy, or items cooked with these. You’ll wind up with rancid compost.
  3. This should be obvious, but don’t toss anything into your compost heap that isn’t going to break down. You can compost brown paper, for example, but that seemingly paper bag you bought your coffee beans in? Check it for a plastic lining – that’s not going to decompose! Tea bags are also sneaky – mine come with a little metal staple affixing the tag to the string – I have to remove the staple before I can compost the rest!

Our compost appears to be breaking down nicely, about 5 weeks in to the experiment.

Just as importantly, it doesn’t smell, doesn’t take up much space, and hasn’t been much trouble to maintain. I don’t know why we waited so long after moving into our townhouse (2 years!) to start our own compost heap, but I’m so glad we started! Happy composting, everybody.

Book Review: Made From Scratch

I just finished another book I very much enjoyed. I only put it down once, when I was overcome by the urge to try the butter bread recipe in the baking chapter – reading it inspired in me the overwhelming need to bake right then. I finished the book yesterday and am now trying out another recipe – the three egg quiche, which is smelling delicious! Both recipes are, like the title of the book, made from scratch!

The book is Jenna Woginrich’s Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life, from Storey Press. Over the course of the story, Woginrich moves to a rental “homestead” in Idaho and learns to tend her own flock of chickens, plants a garden and grows her own food, teaches herself the fiddle, and aquires a hive of bees. She also learns to bake from scratch, sew and knit and make her own yarn, raise angora rabbits, and build community in the form of neighbors, and fellow “homesteaders” and musicians.

There are points where the story feels like playing house, pretending to be a pioneer in the cold West. The part where she teaches her huskies to pull a sled and a cart is the gleeful realization of a childhood dream, rather than an entirely pragmatic life skill, and Woginrich isn’t pretending otherwise; she openly acknowledges her childhood iditarod fantasies. But I can relate. I very much want my own chickens, not because I think it will save me money or make me a bonafide farmer but because I have always wanted chickens. If I ever get any they’ll be nothing more than vaguely useful pets (more useful by far than my cats, who have caught exactly one mouse in five years…my husband has long claimed that one died of cold in our cabin and the cats just pretended to have killed it after the fact). And in my urban-chicken-fantasy, we will build our own coop, and raise rare birds, and bake wonderful quiches every night…and the chickens will look like this:

(Blue Laced Red Wyandottes. Photo courtesy of Murray McMurray Hatchery

I’m also partial to these little chickens: Mille Fleur Bantams. I find them simultaneously silly and adorable, but the hens are supposed to be great mothers, as Woginrich points out when she chooses bantams for her first flock:

(photo courtesy of My Pet Chicken)

Throughout Made from Scratch, Woginrich’s tone is sometimes folksy, often hilarious, always engaging. I intend to try out more of her recipes and have the strong impulse to start some seeds in peat pots (she teaches the art of the homemade, recycled greenhouse in the appendix section). The chickens will have to wait, and I don’t think I’ll be teaching our dog to pull a cart anytime soon. His only accessory for the time being will remain the lampshade collar he’s wearing to keep him from irritating a hip injury. Woginrich isn’t espousing anything I haven’t already embraced. She advocates buying your stuff used and your food local, making your own entertainment instead of sitting in front of a screen, and participating in your community. It’s nice to know that there are others around the country doing some of the same stuff I’m interested in, like baking their own bread, and often for very different reasons. For Woginrich it seems to be more of a back-to-the-farm ideology than a sustainability interest that drives her initial interest in homesteading. But she makes the skills accessible. She narrates her failures and heartbreaks as well as her successes. Her chapter on chickens had me laughing, loudly, in the doctor’s office. People were staring. I didn’t care. The chapter was that funny.

It was an honest, funny, relatable read, and I enjoyed it…enough that I’m subscribing to her blog. She’s in New York instead of Idaho these days, and she’s expanded her homestead to include more rabbits, sheep, goats and ducks. You can find her at Cold Antler Farm. Enjoy! I know I did!