Category Archives: Leaves

Building Raised Beds

This year, we added raised beds to our vegetable garden. This is not an activity that can be done in a day (particularly when you have kids), nor is it cheap. I’m sure some people find creative ways to make easy/cheap raised beds, but they would need to have a rare mix of resourcefulness and energy. However, despite the labor and costs required, we managed to put together some beds which will hopefully last a good number of years.

Why Raised Beds?

Last year, we had our vegetable garden right in the ground. It worked, but there were some frustrations which we thought raised beds could overcome.

The benefits of raised bed gardens are that:

Finished Raised Beds(1) The area is more set apart so people remember not to trample the garden and compact the soil. It can be difficult to remember where the edges of the garden beds were. I put some string between the garden beds and aisles, within the 14×16-feet fenced garden area, but the string didn’t last long. It was difficult to bring my kids over the rabbit fence because they didn’t remember where not to step. I don’t blame them, the weeds didn’t know where they belonged either.

(2) Good gardening soil can be added on top of existing poor soil providing a nice deep growing medium. I had been trying to improve the soil by working in manure and leaves, but since I didn’t know the history of our yard or what the soil composition was, adding good soil on top would make the garden deeper and more nutrient-rich.

(3) Square foot gardening can be implemented so that plants are grown close together and block out sun from weeds. Last year, I assigned plants homes in the garden almost randomly. It was hard to know how close together to plant them or to keep track of which locations seeds had been planted in. But when you look at a raised bed garden foot-by-foot, it makes it easier to plan ahead what to plant where, to maximize how many vegetables are grown in the space, and to fill in areas of soil where weeds would hope to grow.

Materials

The first thing we did for our raised bed project was to gather the materials we would need. We watched for a sale, and then went to buy the most expensive part: the cedar boards (cedar is a good wood as it is slow to rot). We wanted to enclose two garden beds, each 4×16-feet, with a brace in the center. Although I wanted the beds to be as deep as possible, we settled on 8-inches to keep the cost down. We decided that we needed to rent a truck to bring the wood home, since our car wasn’t long enough to transport 16-foot boards. We also needed deck screws to put the boards together and a new drill bit.

Cost of Raised Beds:
===================================
Cedar Board 2x8x16′ (4 @ $38.87 each, less 11% rebate, with tax): $145.99
Cedar Board 2x8x8′ (2 @ $19.44 each, each cut in half, less 11% rebate, with tax, ): $36.51
Cedar Board 2x2x8′ (1 @ $4.44, cut in half, less 11% rebate, with tax): $5.21
Rental Pickup (to deliver the boards home): $23.68
Deck Screws (Triple Coated 3.5″ #9, 55-count): $7.08
Countersink Drill Bit (#10, 1/8″ pilot, less 11% rebate, with tax): $4.19
===================================
Total: $222.66

The other component of the materials was to fill the beds. The Square Foot Gardening book by Mel Bartholomew recommends to fill a raised bed with 1/3 compost (5 different kinds), 1/3 agricultural-grade vermiculite, and 1/3 peat moss. We didn’t do that exactly, but we got it filled.

We had Terry Benjamin deliver Purple Cow Compost (3 yards) and Mulch. We used 1 yard of the compost for the raised beds and the rest was for another project.

Terry Benjamin delivered Purple Cow Compost. We used about 1 yard for the raised beds (remaining materials were for another project).

Cost of Growing Medium:
===================================
Layer of Leaves: free
Layer of Homemade Compost: free
Purple Cow Classic Organic Compost (~1 cubic yard, with tax): $68.58
Compost Delivery Fee (with tax): $31.65
Vermiculite (1.5 cubic feet, 2 @ $13.99 at Menard’s, less 11% rebate, with tax): $26.27
Vermiculite (4 cubic feet from The Bruce Company, with tax): $34.80
Peat Moss (2.2 cubic feet compressed, 4 @ $7.49, less 11% rebate, with tax): $28.13
===================================
Total: $189.43

Adding in the cost of the rabbit fence, it becomes clear that a garden is not cheap. However, if you consider that it costs about the same as 1-2 months of grocery shopping and will produce healthy food for years, it doesn’t sound unreasonable. When my kids ask for a snack and I’m able to pick fresh vegetables from our backyard to give them, you might even say that’s priceless.

Assembling the Beds

If you’ve done a lot of woodwork, you probably could figure out how to put the frame together. However, if you’re new to DIY wood work projects like we are, here’s an explanation of how we made it work for us.

The raised beds after being screwed together and placed within the rabbit fenced area.

The raised beds after being screwed together and placed within the rabbit fenced area.

To put the beds together, we made a template on a piece of paper with holes so that we could mark each piece of wood without a ruler (an 8-inch board is more like 7 3/8-inches wide, so measuring holes over and over isn’t fun). My husband inserted 3 screws at each corner, except for two corners where there were knots: there we skipped doing a hole in the middle. We put the 2×2 brace at the halfway point of the frame using one screw on each side. The countersink drill bit allowed us to insert the screws to be flush with the wood. Assembly was done in our garage on a tarp, so that we knew we had a clean level surface.

On March 30, we assembled the first raised bed. On April 5, we assembled the second raised bed. We then carried and placed the beds within the rabbit fence (it was a tight fit). We measured to make sure they were spaced evenly with the aisles.

Leveling the Beds

Just when you think that the raised beds are finished, you realize that your garden is by no means level. You never know that you have a hill in your backyard until you set the raised beds down and find that they look crooked. I wanted the beds to appear orderly and prevent water from running downhill, so the beds would need to be level.

There are two options I observed for leveling a raised bed. You can either lower one of the sides by removing soil, or raise the other side by adding some kind of support (soil, brick, rock, piece of wood). If you lower the frame, there will be less empty space inside (since the existing soil will rise). If you raise the frame, there will be more space inside to fill. We did a little of both, constantly pulling out a level to check our progress and standing back to see how it looked as a whole. We spent a couple weeks tweaking how level the beds were in relation to each other and the slope of the land.

Filling the Beds

Next, we needed to fill the garden beds. This was no small task either. After we purchased the materials, they had to be hauled to the garden beds. Our rabbit fence around the garden does not have a gate, since at 30-inches we can step over it easily enough. But when we need to add about 85 cubic feet (3.15 cubic yards) of materials, then you start to wish you could just push a wheelbarrow right up to the beds.

Spring planting is underway in our new raised beds.

Spring planting is underway in our new raised beds.

The bed had been a mix of top soil, manure, compost, and leaves from last year. Over the winter, many leaves were added on top for insulation. Some of these new leaves were moved to the aisles and some were mixed into the soil. We also mixed in some mostly finished compost from our compost bin. Next, we added the peat moss (16.4 cubic yards when uncompressed) and agricultural vermiculite (7 cubic yards). Finally, we filled the rest of the bed’s volume with Purple Cow Classic Organic Compost (about 1 cubic yard). We were pleased with the compost. Last year we had purchased some compost from the Bruce Company, and comparing the two, the Purple Cow compost has a finer consistency (no large chunks except wood chips). Both compost orders had some garbage in them (plastic bits, banana stickers). The finer consistency of Purple Cow would prove helpful for planting time.

Spring is Here!

And so, we managed to finish the garden beds in time to start early spring planting. Despite the costs and labor involved, I know it will all be worth it when we are picking fresh vegetables. Time will tell if we decide to add more raised beds in the future. We’ll see how the garden does this year.

Building a Wire Leaf Bin and Compost Screen

I enjoy working on projects around the yard. It’s educational to make something yourself and see the effectiveness of your project firsthand. In many cases, it’s also cheaper than purchasing a product from a catalog. This spring we took on two projects related to composting: a wire leaf bin and a compost screen.

Wire Leaf Bin

I wanted to construct a cheap wire leaf bin that could serve a few purposes: to keep the pile of leaves from blowing away, to make leaf mold, and/or to make leaves accessible for adding to our compost pile.

Wire Leaf BinTo create the wire leaf bin, I purchased 2-feet 3/4-inch vinyl-coated poultry netting (1 package of 25 feet for $13.89 at Menard’s). After opening the package, I formed a circle with the wire, about 30 inches in diameter. To connect the two sides, I overlapped the wire and used green floral wire to weave the two sides together. Then I used a wire cutters to cut off the excess wire.

At first, the bin was held down by the weight of the bottom layer of sticks and the leaves. We’re considering securing the wire leaf bin to the ground by pounding a stake (3-feet steel fence post) into the ground and attaching it with green floral wire. But for now, that doesn’t seem necessary.

Compost Screen

A compost screen is used to separate the fine, finished compost from any large material which may not have finished decomposing. I wanted to construct a screen that could be laid over our wheelbarrow and also be easily stored in our garage. This compost screen is lightweight and small enough to accomplish those tasks.

Compost ScreenTo make the compost screen, I purchased:
* four 1x2x4″ standard pine boards (for a total of $2.36 from Menard’s)
* one package of galvinized wire mesh with 1/4″ holes (about $6.50 for 5 feet from Menard’s)

The four pine boards were cut in half at the store for free, which provided eight 2-foot sections.

To begin, we laid out four of the 2-foot boards to form a square (connected with woodworking butt joints). We screwed the boards together at the corners to form a frame, and then repeated this step with the other four boards to form a second square frame.

Close-up of the compost screen construction.

Close-up of the compost screen construction.

Next, safety glasses and gloves were worn as the wire mesh was laid over one of the square frames. Four small nails were inserted at the frame’s corners to hold the mesh down. A wire cutter was used to cut off any excess wire mesh, with care that the sharp ends of the mesh were within the middle of the boards (so that no sharp ends will stick out beyond the frame).

Finally, the second frame was placed on top of the mesh to provide additional support and cover the sharp ends of the mesh. This frame was added so that the boards were joined in the reverse direction as the other frame. To secure the frames together, we used eight screws (two on each side).

Feedback

If you have ideas on how these projects could be improved upon, please make a note in the comments to help others who might take on these projects.

Updates from the Compost Corner (July 4, 2013)

Composting is an adventure. From all around our home and yard, materials become present at various times throughout the year: kitchen scraps are created, yard projects come up, cover crops are chopped back, and autumn leaves fall. It’s easy to throw materials into a bin, but it’s a challenge to manage a limited number of bins and a variety of materials.

Our two plastic compost bins and the compost screen we recently made.

Our two plastic compost bins and the compost screen we recently made.

Last fall, we were using two black plastic compost bins: one contained our ongoing compost pile and the other was filled with autumn leaves. That was all we needed at the time.

At the beginning of the spring when everything thawed out, the compost bin was about half full. I was happy to see that the pile looked and smelled wonderful, with much of the old kitchen scraps unrecognizable. There were a few orange peels, peanut shells, and other distinguishable items from last year, but mostly, it looked like earth (I let out a sigh of relief that there were no foul odors from too many greens or nests of mice inside.)

I wanted to turn the pile, but it was too heavy to adequately mix within the bin. I realized it would be easier to turn it into our other bin.

Wire Leaf BinThe second compost bin was about 3/4 full with leaves. I had been planning to let the leaves turn into leaf mold, but it was looking like I would need them to add browns to the compost pile throughout the summer. In order to free up the plastic compost bin, I constructed a simple wire leaf bin next to the plastic compost bins. I moved the leaves over to the wire bin and then turned the compost pile into the second plastic bin.

Over the course of the last two months, we’ve continued to add kitchen scraps, yard waste, and some leaves. It’s starting to look like the compost bin will be full in a month. In the event that the compost is ready by the fall, we made a compost screen to sift out any large materials that haven’t decomposed yet. With another bin to turn the compost into, it seemed we would be able to keep the pile heated up for the remainder of the summer.

However, a project came up where we ended up removing a large amount of sod. Without a good place to lay the sod, we threw it into the second compost bin as a place to store it (our neighbors probably wouldn’t have appreciated a sod mountain in plain sight). This took away our second bin which leaves us unable to turn our compost pile into the other bin.

What can be done with a relatively large amount of sod? Reading online, it sounds like it takes a long time (2-3 years) to decompose. I don’t want the sod to occupy our second bin for that long. Lasagna gardening could be able to incorporate it if I added raised beds to our vegetable garden, but I don’t have a timeline for that future project. We’re now thinking that we might be able to layer the sod under new soil when we regrade next to our house. It would help raise the ground level and hopefully decompose on its own time. And if some of the sod grass is still alive and starts growing again, it’s not a problem in this case.

Another question in my mind is where to add our kitchen scraps and yard waste when our current compost pile is full. I want to keep the current pile together so it heats up well and I like having another empty bin to turn the compost into. With only two bins, that doesn’t give us a place to start a new pile. I can see why a three-bin system is a recommended way to go, but if I had a third bin, would I just find a need for a fourth one?

One idea for temporary composting outside of our two-bin system might be vermicompost. I’ve been interested in having a worm bin, but have been worried that it could attract bugs to our basement. Recently, I heard about Rob Frost’s outside worm bin and this has gotten me thinking about vermicompost again. Would it be possible for us to do this outside? Surely, I should start inside first to get to know the process better on a small scale.

And so, the adventure in composting continues. What a joy to be able to learn firsthand how to efficiently manage our organic wastes and to work at creating our own black gold! Our compost corner may look a bit shabby in our polished neighborhood, but to me, it is a very rich place.

Preparing our Vegetable Garden Soil

We moved into our current house in July 2012, chose a vegetable garden site, and put up a rabbit fence in August. In September, we were thinking about how we could prepare the soil so that it would be deep and loose by the following spring.

Flipping over the compacted sod was hard work. Our son loved trying to help though.

Flipping over the compacted sod was hard work. Our son loved trying to help though.

First, my husband used a spade to remove the grass by flipping the sod onto its back over the 14’x16’ garden area (two 4’x16’ beds and three 2 foot wide aisles on the long sides). The ground was compacted in those areas, so this was hard work (thank you to my husband! I was more suited to working on the rabbit fence). We chopped at the sod to try to break it up, but it looked like it would need something more to loosen up. I didn’t like the idea of a rototiller as it would kill earthworms and microorganisms, mix up soil layers, and cost money to rent. Double digging would have been tough with the soil so hard. And we weren’t ready to invest in raised garden beds and new soil since we wanted to evaluate the garden spot further to see if it would be successful. Yet, the existing soil needed some love that fall to become healthier.

Spreading manure and top soil on the garden beds.

Spreading manure and top soil on the garden beds.

I started thinking about how I could encourage earthworms to make their home in our vegetable garden. A partnership with the local invertebrates seemed like a good deal: they could aerate and enrich the soil and I could add organic matter for them to munch on and keep my feet off the garden beds. Our compost wasn’t ready yet, so I went to Menard’s to find a peace offering to give them. I wasn’t able to find compost there (which would have been ideal), but I did find bags of manure and top soil that were quite cheap. I thought that would provide a soft medium for the worms to crawl around in, so I filled the trunk of our car with about 20 large bags. Spreading the manure and top soil over the two 4’x16’ garden beds didn’t go very far, but it was a good start.

Buckwheat (far bed) and oats and peas (close bed) being chopped into the soil six weeks after the seeds were sown.

Buckwheat (far bed) and oats and peas (close bed) being chopped into the soil six weeks after the seeds were sown.

Next, I decided that the earthworms might enjoy some cover crops, which would also keep the number of weeds down, fix some nitrogen, and help break up the soil. I planted seeds for buckwheat in the south bed and oats and peas in the north bed and then set up a sprinkler to water the area each morning. September 1st was a bit late in the season for planting, but I hoped I would get something before the frosts came. Two weeks after sowing, the cover crops were several inches tall. I was pleased to see this because the garden site only gets about 5 hours of sun each day. They continued to grow, and by mid-October, it seemed time to incorporate them into the soil for worm food. I was disappointed to find that the plants’ roots were tiny. I believe this was due to the fact that the ground was so hard and I watered frequently in September.

My peace offering to the worms still didn’t feel complete. Once the cover crops were done, I added autumn leaves on top of the garden beds. They packed down a bit from rainfall, but I mixed some of them into the topsoil (the kids were impatient so I didn’t do this very well) and left some leaves on top. I believed that the leaves would add warmth to the soil and encourage worm activity, decomposition, and moisture over the rest of fall and into next spring. We had some leftover straw in the garage, so I added that on top of the leaves as well. Like the manure and top soil, a large bag didn’t go very far over the 128 square feet of garden area. Did the worms like my peace offering?

Our vegetable garden disappeared for 4 months during a snowy Wisconsin winter.

Our vegetable garden disappeared for 4 months during a snowy Wisconsin winter.

We received a lot of snow over the winter and the vegetable garden and rabbit fence disappeared for 4 months. It’s now April and the last of the snow has melted. I raked the leaves back from over the garden beds onto the aisles so the sun could worm the soil. I hope the leaves in the aisles don’t retain too much moisture and encourage slugs and snails. I noticed that there are still chunks of sod which we weren’t able to break up, so I worry that the soil hasn’t gotten any looser. But there is hope: I tried pushing a bird feeder crook into the yard around the house and couldn’t get it to budge into the hard ground. However, when I pushed it into my garden bed, it slid in effortlessly.

As the ground warms up further, I will continue to evaluate and look for ways to improve the soil in these vegetable garden beds. I will try some vegetable crops this spring and also add more cover crops. If the vegetables are successful, I will be more willing to invest in raised beds, better soil (such as Mel’s Mix from the “All New Square Foot Gardening” book), and the removal of a large blue spruce tree that shades the garden in the afternoon. Our vegetable garden has only begun, but so far, I am enjoying the process of making the soil healthier and looking forward to seeing what we’ll be able to grow.

Beginning to Compost

When I lived in apartments and a condo, compost wasn’t something I ever thought about. However, once I started reading organic gardening books, I became really interested in the idea of reusing our kitchen and yard wastes and creating my own black gold. My condo’s patio garden had existed due to the bags of soil that I purchased at the garden center, but it felt wrong buying soil when I was living above soil, trying to grow vegetables in an economical manner, and throwing kitchen wastes in the garbage.

Our first compost bin at the new house.

Our first compost bin at the new house.

After we moved into our first house in July of 2012, one of the first things I had to do was set up some compost bins. In order to start simple and get it going fast, we bought a cheap rectangular black plastic bin from Menard’s. We put it behind our garage where we knew we could visit it frequently.

In order to get the decomposition going and introduce some microorganisms, I initially added a small amount of purchased compost, top soil, manure, and straw. Then we began adding kitchen scraps. We kept a small container on our kitchen counter and threw in unwanted parts of fruits and vegetables, hard-boiled egg shells, and peanut shells. Fruit flies taking up residence in our kitchen soon explained to us that we really did need to empty our compost container frequently. We didn’t have much yard waste to add that first summer, except for wormy apples and occasional small sticks.

I watered and turned the compost bin occasionally and sadly watched it shrink. There wasn’t much to add and it seemed like all the work wasn’t going to generate much black gold after all. I started wondering if the compost generated from a city yard can go far enough to support that yard without having to purchase external compost? Most of our yard is covered in grass and that use of space seemed to be quite wasteful and needy. If that land were covered in trees, shrubs, and opportunistic annuals, there would be lots of materials that could decompose into the soil. Animals could also thrive in that space, hiding among the foliage and fallen leaves, further adding manure. But with a lawn, what opportunity was there for natural additions of soil amendments?

Our compost bin is about 30 inches square. I’ve read that a compost pile needs to be a certain size to heat up enough, so it remains to be seen how hot our compost will get. Once our bin is closer to full, perhaps we will purchase a thermometer and investigate. At the rate that we are adding to the pile, I’m assuming it will take about a year to fill up one bin. Since it could take longer after that for the compost to be ready, I purchased a second bin so we could put our kitchen and yard wastes there while the other bin is cooking.

Initially, we had the compost bins a couple feet away from the garage. However, as autumn started, we noticed what appeared to be burrowing holes in our compost pile. We also saw that there were chew marks along the top by the cover. We were concerned that we were attracting small mammals to our house so we decided to move the compost bins to the far corner of our yard. It would be a longer hike to empty our kitchen wastes (especially in the winter), but we didn’t want to have mice in our basement or raccoons in our attic over the winter. There had been a family of raccoons living in the wall of our condo a few years ago, and that was not an experience we wanted to relive.

Some questions have come into my mind since I started building the compost pile:
• Will the pile heat up enough to kill any weed seeds?
• Should bruised or wormy fruits be added?
• Will we have problems with all the fruit and vegetable seeds being added?
• Are the inedible parts of fruit and vegetable suitable for composting if the products are not organic, or do they contain harmful pesticides not healthy to be composted?
• How can raw egg shells be cleaned, so they can be added to the pile?
• How do we get rid of fruit flies in the compost bin?
• Will worms be able to get into the bin (there is a plastic bottom with some small holes in it)?

Our bins moved to the corner of our yard: compost on the left, leaves on the right.

Our bins moved to the corner of our yard: compost on the left, leaves on the right.

During our first autumn composting, we added a small amount of leaves to the compost bin. Since we weren’t using the second bin yet, we filled it full of leaves in hopes that we could create some leaf mold over the next year or two.

I was considering trying vermicomposting (worms) or bokashi over the wintertime, but that didn’t materialize. With worms, I was worried about attracting bugs in our basement or neglecting the bins and finding worms escaping. With bokashi, I wasn’t comfortable becoming dependent on purchasing the starter (I want my compost to be cost-free). So, we have continued to add kitchen scraps to the first compost bin over the winter. It seems to be going well. We haven’t noticed any problems with small mammals and we haven’t seen any fruit flies throughout the winter. The majority of materials we are adding are of the green type, so hopefully the bin will receive enough browns to be well balanced in the end. In the future, I would still like to try vermicomposting or bokashi as an experiment to see how it works for us.

In my first nine months of composting, I’m enjoying this process very much. Composting helps me feel connected to nature: the soil, the natural cycle of life and decay, and my future vegetable gardening. The soil in our backyards is more than just dirt. It’s a living, life-giving environment that I am helping to nourish. When I read about composting, I enjoy contemplating the balance of greens and browns. When I grab a fork to turn the pile, I become a farmer taking care of my land. When I throw scraps in the containers by our kitchen sink, I think about the nutrients that will go into our yard and the potential of what was once waste.

I can’t wait for spring to arrive so I can find some dead brush around the yard and build the pile up higher.