Friday, April 23, 2010

Oh, to be a homeowner!

Blogger doesn't seem to be happy, so I'll just tell local folks that the City Austin's got an interesting composter rebate program going--limited participation, conditions, go check it out. Happy composting!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Fails from the Bucket: Planter-Finishing SIP

Yeah, okay, after the bucket. And only a small test, as I was pretty sure this wasn’t a brilliant idea. Sometimes, you have to try anyway. If it had worked, imagine the time I could save!

A little background for you lucky folks with in-ground gardens: an SIP, sub-irrigation planter, is a planter with no bottom drainage by design; instead, it has a water reservoir at the base, with some sort of wicking system to draw water from the reservoir to the planting medium. It encourages strong root growth, conserves water, discourages weeds, and can increase harvests dramatically (though some herbs and hot peppers will not develop full flavor grown in SIPs).

My personal preference is for clay pot irrigation, but SIPs run a close second, particularly the designs that can be tossed together in a few minutes from materials already on hand with no other tools but my trusty cordless drill. Beginning with an empty planter, it’s really no trouble at all, and repays the forethought all season long. Here in Austin, where drought is more the rule than the exception…

So where’s the fail? I tried a standard post-bucket bokashi technique in an SIP. Out of curiosity. Sandwiched a layer of cured bokashi between two thicker layers of soil based potting mix in the newly constructed miniature SIP. Didn’t water the soil in at all, but filled the reservoir completely.

This was not a good idea. The whole point to an SIP is that the wick delivers water to the soil, so there was an excess of moisture in the mix in only a couple of hours. Not mud, just too much moisture for the EM and soil-borne microbes of choice to do their thing, so some of Nature’s more water-tolerant digestors showed up to help out.

Yeah, that’s polite for insects.

This isn’t to say I won’t keep adding bokashi to my planters; I will. It just means that, in the case of SIPs, I’ll either be constructing them without any water at all (using the right wicking system, this should be possible with a moist mix kept covered for the finishing period), or I’ll use composted or otherwise finished bokashi rather than finishing it in situ. Which has always seemed like a more efficient process to me anyway—when putting it directly into a planter, you can only use one third the total volume of your container, but in a trenchless bucket set-up, you can use half, or even a bit more, if your soil (not potting mix) is particularly healthy. You just can’t use very wet soil, or get the soil wet too soon.

Ah, well; it’s a process, gardening.

Happy microbing,


image from Inside Urban Green, where simple instructions for building SIPs can be found.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Living Lettuce, meet Zombie Cress

I can still remember the first time I saw a "living lettuce" for sale at a grocery store. I thought it was the coolest thing there, and wanted my mother to buy it; she thought it was five times the price of any other head of lettuce, and declined. If I wanted to play with salad leaves, she said, I should go talk to my grandmother, who would help me grow some of my own.

Oddly, I don't remember whether I actually did; my mind's eye offers peas and mint and potatoes and a kiwi, but no kid-sized lettuce garden. Ah, well; I've grown a great deal of it over the years. But I'm still a little intrigued by the gimmicky-but-definsible living lettuce in its sturdy clear plastic casing. For many people, this is the only way they'll ever taste a freshly harvested lettuce leaf! One of these days, I really am going to buy one for myself, if only to compare the taste to my own aquaponically grown or more traditional lettuce.

More recently, I've been seeing living basil, another hydroponically grown item sold with its roots and a bit of nutrient fluid; these plants come in plastic bags that always remind me of buying pet fish, and like the living lettuce they have instructions for extending the viability of the crop. I found myself tempted by those, too; particularly if you're only using a leaf at a time, it might even make economic sense. (Assuming you can't grow your own.)

But the irrestistible item turned out to be some hydroponically grown upland cress from my local Sun Harvest. With some crops, you can't always tell if they were hydro or not just by looking, like tomatoes on the vine. But the cress was sold in the same square blocks it was grown in, dense root-pack yet intact. Sadly, the roots hadn't been kept wetted, but they hadn't been on display for long enough to dry, so I decided to buy a square.

Well, two, actually. Ate the first one, had to go back. What? I like cresses!

Cress-block in hand, I hurried home to get the poor roots into some water. My kitchen having suffered a recent outbreak of fruit flies, I wanted something a bit more substantial than a glass of water or a vase, so went with my one and only retail self-watering pot, a cute little two-part container with a glazed exterior pot and unglazed insert, reservoir space between. And for added security, I packed a bit of Spanish moss around the cress stems before setting the whole on a counter within view but out of the way. (Outdoors only long enough to take a picture.)

I've been nibbling the odd leaf now and then, but the bulk of the block's still viable. The leaves that were bruised during transport are long gone, of course, as are the ones injured by the rubber band. Some just never perked up again, too long away from their fluid, I guess. As well, a couple have yellowed as if from nitrogen deficiency--these are not still in their hydroponic set-up, after all, but only in water to keep them from wilting. No matter the appearance of new lobes on the stems, this is really not a living, growing, eating, increasing, plant, just not yet quite dead, and still crisp and yummy.

Folks keep standard post-harvest leaf lettuce alive this way, too. It's not the same as the living lettuce, but again, keeps the leaves usable for longer--a lot longer than just tossing the bag in the fridge. For folks who don't garden or like me can't grow enough leafy produce, don't care to hit the grocer every few days, and/or are more likely to use a leaf if it's right in front of them, this might well be worth the small change in habit it takes: less waste, better value for dollars spent, and all the rest.

For me, I'm thinking it's time to eat the rest of that cress. Or, maybe not quite all of it; I could divert a small section to one of my tiny vermiponics experiments, just to see. A couple of worms, some Spanish moss, a little bokashi juice...

Excuse me, I'm off to go play with my food. -G-