Dirty Jobs, Good Results

I’ve never been averse to a bit of dirt. After all, gardening involves:

  • Digging in the soil.
  • Hauling extra dirt from the garden center.
  • Sweeping the spilled dirt off the patio after transplanting or planting something new.

Still, there are a few jobs that I have to be in the right frame of mind for, like fussing with the compost pile. But, once I get going, the other jobs easily follow.

Path leading to the compost corner
Flattened compost behind the hydrangea

The first of these jobs involved mucking around in what I call the surplus compost pile. We live on a small lot, which limits the space available for a three-pile compost system. Over the years, I’ve dabbled with a few ready-made composters and eventually happened upon a pyramid composter.

It works well, but I have more yard waste at certain times of the year than others. So I started a second, smaller pile in the corner next to the pyramid beneath the orange tree. We share our oranges with neighboring squirrels, tree rats, and probably opossums, so they also add half-eaten oranges and rinds to the pile.

I sorted the pile, removed and bagged the rotting oranges, and pulled assorted twigs, which take longer to decompose. As a result, the stack is now flatter, making it easier to access the fence for additional work. Seeing all those earthworms working beneath the soil did my heart good. It’s been too dry for too long.

A fragrant, slippery mess

My next dirty job involved cleaning the bird bath. I generally clean and disinfect it with white vinegar and a big brush, but my friend Donna suggested hydrogen peroxide to help reduce algae. So I researched and confirmed that it’s safe for birds and plants. A little goes a long way, and wow, what a difference.

I believe that’s a Chestnut-backed Chickadee

The final dirty job for the week involved rust removal from my fairy garden gate. I fell in love with this cast iron piece when I spotted it in a neighborhood shop years ago. This John Wright piece used to be a doorstop. It’s the perfect size for a miniature garden, and the weight deters marauding squirrels who love digging through the planter. I’ve always thought a bit of rust added to its charm, but it started looking more orange than I liked, so I brought it in for a cleanup.

Rusty gate in a white vinegar bath

I soaked the little gate in white vinegar for over 24 hours. I used a piece of steel wool to try and loosen the rust, then switched to a stiff brush.

After several rinses, I switched to lemon and salt, soaking and scrubbing again.

The lemon returned some of the original colors, so while some rust remains, I’m happy with the results.

After the final rinse

I need to do a bit of maintenance in the miniature garden. I’ll share photos when I’m done.

Do you like getting your hands dirty?

A Garden in Rest

We’re quite spoiled living in California this time of year. Temperatures rarely drop below freezing, and we’re frequently treated to several days of unseasonably warm conditions. 

Curb garden perennials going to seed

While much of the country is dealing with weather known as the polar vortex with insanely cold and hazardous conditions, I’m wearing a t-shirt as I go about my day. I wish I could send all my mid-west and eastern seaboard friends a bit of warmth and sunshine. Come June, I’ll be looking on enviously at your summer rains.

Nigella and sweet peas populate the curb garden

I’ve been popping into the garden at the end of the day, pulling young weeds before they get a foothold. It’s a joy to observe the daily treasures nature has to offer.

Nigella bud just before opening
Nigella in all its beauty

When fall arrives in late October, my garden cleanup includes pruning, grooming and dead-heading perennial plants and shrubs. Last fall, I consciously let things go. This wasn’t born of laziness. In fact, it took some resolve to let things be. My propensity for organization and a tidy garden are nothing new, however my awareness of the benefits of a garden to all the visitors comes with a sense of responsibility.

Rose hips in the curb garden

Emerging growth on a miniature rose

Letting perennials go to seed means there are seeds available for birds passing through. Allowing a bit of leaf drop to cover the garden floor provides cover for some beneficial insects, while at the same time providing a natural mulch. Mulch keeps the soil warm and moist, while reducing weed growth and protecting roots from uneven temperatures. Leaves breakdown quickly, feeding the worms and improving the overall health of the soil.

Excess leaves, swept from the sidewalk and deck, made it into our compost bin. After working my way through three different compost systems over the past decade, I finally found one that I like.

Tessa likes to sit on the composter at dusk

New habits take time. I’m itching to get out there so I can prune some of the dead growth. I’ve had a little chat with my inner gardener, and together we’ve decided this is best. After all, the first day of Spring in the northern hemisphere is only 49 days away.

I can hardly wait.

It’s What’s for Dinner if You’re a Worm

Boy that title has a lot of apostrophes. I hope I got them right. I’m guilty of overusing’ them when’ they’re’ not really necessary.

Okay, that was a little distraction before I present you with this first picture: it’s what’s for dinner in the worm bin.

kitchen scraps for the worms

Kitchen Scraps for the Worms

worm bin

Salad for the Red Wigglers

I had a worm bin going for a few years, courtesy of my friend Liz. It was an informal set up: an old bucket, some straw and kitchen compost. It worked well until  an unwitting painter tossed it aside when they repainted our house. Once I realized, it was too late. The worms were gone. Hopefully they slipped out in the dead of night once they realized the garden had more to offer.

worm bin red wigglers

Red Wigglers

Within a few weeks something wonderful happened. A neighbor asked if I wanted a worm bin known as a Wriggly Wranch™. His brother in-law set one up, but then lost interest in maintaining it. I enthusiastically agreed. He assembled it for me under our orange tree. He gave me half of his worms to get started.

wriggly wranch worm bin

Wriggly Wranch Worm Bin

I read the manual cover to cover and frankly was a bit intimidated. Had I been doing it wrong all this time? They make it sound as though the worms are quite temperamental.

Feed them just enough, but not too much

Keep them cool and moist

If it’s hot, add ice cubes

If it’s cold, bring them into a sheltered area

…and so on.

worm bin with paper

The ‘ranch’ is now closer to the house so I can keep an eye on things

The worms did fine before the fancy home, and I heard no complaints about the food. I’ve chosen to relax, feed them once a week, and trust that they’ll do just fine. I’m practicing for when my son leaves for college. Baby steps, folks, baby steps.

Tonight the worms are eating organic tofu and cantaloupe. That’s what my son had as well. So far, so good.

I Say Potato

harvesting potatoes

Harvesting potatoes

Every family has their cultural staple. We grew up eating potatoes.  My mom baked them, added them to her delicious stew and on the occasional Friday we had what the Brits and Canadians refer to as chips, aka French fries.  Potatoes were  tasty and filling and in my modest culinary repertoire, a fine addition to any meal

Potatoes remain a favorite, even though they’ve fallen from favor as a starch. Brown rice is tasty and so is couscous, but potatoes are my go-to comfort food. I love them.

Still, I didn’t set out to grow them.  For me, part of the fun of gardening is watching things grow. I love the wild trail of a pumpkin, the abundant tomatoes, and a myriad of flowers. Potatoes become potatoes under ground.

I tossed a few sorry-looking potatoes into the compost bin and nature took over. Who knew? Apparently they are pretty easy to grow. The industrious Fran at  The Road to Serendipity  advised me to leave them in place till they flowered.  The plants passed the flowering stage and started producing fruit, which, incidentally, is toxic.

I harvested the lot of them on Sunday and gave the harvest to my sister for her soup. She makes a big batch each week, then takes it for lunch. She’s a good cook with a small appetite so this will last her a week.

red potatoes

Small but plentiful

You can buy ‘new potatoes’ at the market, so hopefully the tiny potatoes I sent home are equally tender and tasty.  Unlike tomatoes, you can’t take a big bite and know right away if they’re good.

red potato harvest

Sharon’s Harvest

Do you have a favorite starch? Is it one you grew up with or something you discovered along the way?

What I say is that if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.
—A. A. Milne, English writer (1882–1956)

A Compost We Will Grow

Pumpkin Seedlling with seed attached

What the well dressed pumpkin seedlings are wearing this season.

I popped the lid off the green compost bin and oh, what a surprise.

Along side the rotting leaves and decaying kitchen scraps, there is a lot of growing going on. The first thing I noticed: the pumpkins! They’re enjoying the warmth and shelter inside the bin. I’m surprised though that they’ve found enough light. Will you look at them growing so tall and straight?

Lanky blades of grass are also taking root, along with sprouts of a to-be-determined nature.  I’m using an old Rubbermaid bin for additional composting, since I quickly filled my tumbling composter.  It’s hard to get leverage with the shovel, however, so I’m not turning it as often as I should. Now I don’t have the heart.

Pumpkin Sprout

Happy Sprout

Mushrooms in compost

Finding Nemo?

Sprouting mushrooms are right at home, the more predictable compost heap resident. The silver cap would look great in the fairy garden, but I’m resisting temptation. Its questionable origin makes it an unsafe bet for a tiny garden with small visitors. It’s cute though…if you’re into grey flowers.

Mushrooms in compost

Grey Blooms: Tim Burton Inspiration

Tumbling Composter: Waiting for UPS


Forest City Tumbling Composter

Forest City Tumbling Composter

It’s all coming together.  The Tumbling Composter I ordered online will arrive this week. My counter-top food scrap bin is almost full. There’s a bucket in the garage collecting spent flowers and the leaves on the Chinese Pistache are starting to turn!  I’ll have all the ingredients for my first batch of compost.

I looked at several varieties before settling on this model. My criterion was simple:  It had to be portable, affordable and resistant to rodents.  It’s constructed from recycled materials, also a plus, and the compact size is perfect for my small vegetable garden.

Why Compost?

  • Composting reduces the amount of waste you send to the landfill
  • Composting turns your waste into a useful product—and it does so without requiring additional resources.
  • Using compost in your garden reduces the need for water and fertilizers and helps eliminate the need for pesticides.
  • Composting provides you with a valuable experiential lesson in the cycles of nature and the folly of our throwaway culture that is likely to lead to other waste-saving measures as time goes by.   (Source: Sheryl Eisenberg, Natural Resources Defense  Council NRDC)

Additional Resources


Sure-Close: A Gift From Howard

Sure-Close Food Scrap Collection Container

Sure-Close Food Scrap Collection Container

My friend and neighbor Howard stopped by last week carrying a small bucket in his hand.  I was momentarily confused when he said he had something for me, and wondered what was inside.  The “small bucket” turned out to be the coolest of inventions: a food scrap collection container, called a Sure-Close, to be used along with an outdoor composting bin!

I’ve been talking about composting for years, and took an amateurish stab at it once, but this charming gift was the impetus I needed to get going.

The Sure-Close food scrap collection container features:

  • A vented lid to allow moisture to evaporate and feet on the bottom allow for airflow.
  • A lid that stays open for easy filling, but stays closed if you accidentally drop it.  They had me in mind when they added that feature.
  • A lid that completely removes for ease of cleaning. I don’t know about you, but if something is difficult to keep clean, I’ll simply avoid using it. I like this feature.
  • Several handles or grips.  Many containers look nice but are difficult to use.  The Sure-Close has three different grips, so it’s easy to lift, move and empty into your outdoor composting bin.

Why compost? From the Sure-Close website:

Most of the organic waste we produce comes from our kitchens as food scraps. A kitchen container that makes it easy for people to collect, store and transport their food scraps to the green bin goes a long way toward encouraging participation.

For Ottawa’s Green Bin program, the city wanted a kitchen container with ventilation in order to allow moisture to evaporate from organic waste. Without the moisture, contents are less likely to smell. Enter the Sure-Close kitchen container. Developed by two Ottawa-based companies, designers DW Product Development, and manufacturer Ottawa Mould Craft, this little beige beauty brings high-tech design and engineering to your counter top.

No more excuses.  This will be gardeningnirvana’s year of the compost.  I’m so excited.

Composting Recipes:

I jotted the following notes into a notebook two years ago so I would be ready to move from “accidental composter” to the real deal.

In half-inch thick layers:

  • Combine 3 parts “brown” organic material to one part “green”
  • 3 parts brown includes dried leaves, small twigs, etc.
  • 1 part green includes grass, cut flowers, coffee grounds, egg shells, tea bags and fruit or vegetable peels
  • Mix into a bin approximately 3′ x 3′ x 3′
  • Add a small amount of moisture as needed and turn once a week.

Serves several plants.

Or, you can go with my friend Bob’s version:

  •  Take it all, throw it in a pile, come back in a year.