Friday, January 28, 2011

First Soil Tests

Sunday night I performed my first soil test on the flower beds in the front yard. I got the kit about three weeks back for under $10, read the instructions and collected soil samples about 2 weeks ago. The samples are from the four flower beds I grow flowers for mom in, from the center of each bed about a trowel spade deep. I took about 1/4 cup of soil, labelled each of them and set them in the sun for a day to dry out. Then they sat in the garage until three night ago :)

So for the kit I used has four different tests- pH, Nitrogen level, Phosphorous level and Potassium level. It came with enough materials for 10 of each type of test, color coded test tubes and a results chart. I read the instructions three times- once when I first bought it, again right before taking the soil samples, and again the night I did the tests. They were printed on fairly heavy gloss paper which was nice because the booklet stayed open to the testing page when I set it on the counter and I didn't have to keep flipping pages to reference the steps.

The soil from each sample had to be crushed into little bits which I did with the back of spoon, and as many pebbles and recognizable plant matter removed as possible. Then came a bunch of measuring- measuring soil into a tube for the pH, measuring water to mix with soil in anothe container to use for the other three tests, etc. Each test also used a little pellet of I don't know what in each tube to cause the color changes related to the type of test. Enough for 10 of each test (the test tubes are reusable). And then came shaking, alot of shaking, to mix the soil/water/pellets.

I like the results chart. It's setup perfectly to stand up against something and place all the test tubes in front for easy comparison. The hardest reading for me was the phosphorus, the medium and high levels were a bit tricky to tell apart to me. Could have just been my eyes, I was doing this at 11pm for some reason...


1 - 7.0pH, Low Nitrogen, Medium Phosphate, Medium Potassium
2 - 6.5pH, Low Nitrogen, Low Phosphate, Medium Potassium
3 - 7.0pH, Low Nitrogen, High Phosphate, Low Potassium
4 - 7.0pH, Low Nitrogen, Medium Phosphate, Medium Potassium

Anyway, good news is pH is pretty neutral across the board. Bad news is everything is low on nitrogen and there are a couple other nutrient deficiencies to try to balance out. I'm wondering if the low N everywhere is from the Gro Mulch I've been layering onto everything, if it's still decomposing itself it might be sucking the N out of the soil.

Hmm.. is my fish emulsion 5-1-1 or do I need some blood meal? I need to dig into my gardening books to see which natural fertilizers I should use. I am tempted to open up that leftover half bottle of miraculous crack that's 12-4-8 on the East flower bed...

Afterthought, maybe I should test my compost when it's done to see how balanced it is....

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Want to Grow a Fruit Tree in California?

I'm so excited I just found this bit of info that I've got to share: Growing Termperate Tree Fruit and Nut Crops in the Home Garden

My dad manages some rental properties and he just asked me if I could grow some nice looking stuff at one of them where there's some baren ground. *!HAPPYDANCE!* Of course by grow stuff he means put some perennial ornamentals in there that will disguise the dirt and will only need pruning once a year.

Naturally I am dreaming of fruit trees and bushes instead :)

But of course they must be something that will grow well in our area with once a week checkups at most. I had no idea what would do best. I want to research the subject a bit before heading to the nursery because I want to know what to ask about, even if they're not carrying it and it needs special ordering. Then I found the above pdf that has categories of different families of tree crops, each category ending in a beautiful table of varieties of each tree and when their typical harvest is in each area of California - or NA if it won't produce there. I seriously wanted to kiss the computer screen when I saw those.

On to research...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cooking Up Some Compost

I'm still pathetic at taking progress photos. Usually I'm halfway through something before the idea of a camera even surfaces... so sorry there's not a full start to finish illustration here.

Anyway, Finally made a compost bin in the beginning of November 2010 (yes, composting the Halloween pumpkins was the final push). I, uh, "comandeered" a lonely unused plastic trash bin in the backyard for the proect. Very simple - just turned it upside down, cut the bottom off with an old bow saw, and put a cover on with one of the those swingy doors. I decided to set the bin upside down so that it's wider at the bottom and will be easier for me to lift off to get at the finished compost. A few days later I drilled some air holes in the sides with a 1/2" spade drill bit. Used stuff we had, cost me nothing but twenty minutes.

before I drilled the holes

I'm surprised how fast a compost bin can fill up, even from what I feel is a modest garden effort. Also surprising how fast the stuff starts compacting itself down as the process begins! Within two week it was filled to the brim from the last fall trimmings. A week later it had sunk down enough to add more trimmings. It sits near the kitchen door so scraps can go right in, and also near the gate to the front yard where the majority of composting material comes from.

Problem number one presented itself to me at that time and the bin was about two months old. Not enough air circulation at the bottom. I had made sure to put some woody zinnia stems at the bottom to help keep air flowing down there when I started adding material to the bin. But with all the green waste piling up in there and all insane rain we had squished it down and the woody stems got soggy and soft.

ew, anaerobic decomposition...not good.

My first day home I was compelled to fix it. Pulled everything out of the bin (interesting to see the progress of decay on the way down) till I got to the mucky stuff at the bottom and lifted the container off. Ew, it was stinky because no air was getting into it. Please note: the upper parts of the bin were fine, smells like earth and cut grass and stuff - that is good decomposition. That is how compost is supposed to be made. The stink at the bottom was my fault for not making sure enough air was circulating. Anyway, dad was starting to prune his roses that morning too so I had him save the branches and canes he pruned off for my bin. I broke them short enough to fit sideways into the bin and layered a bunch of them at the bottom to create airspace. Then I got some of the large leaves that hadn't broken down yet and made a thin layer on top the rose branches, then put everything back into the bin. I mixed all the materials up so the soggy stinky bits would air out quickly and the good bacteria would get back into them. I also drilled more holes near the bottom. About 30 minutes (minus rose pruning time).

ah, dad's roses were good for something besides making me bleed...

It was really interesting when I had emptied the bin out and could see how things were breaking down. The chunks of pumpkin (I'd broken it up into palm-sized pieces when tossing it in) where still chunks of...well they were still chunky. Very brown and gray and soft, but still recognizable. A couple of weeks after starting the bin my favorite Starbucks had given me I kid you not about 10 lbs of used coffee grounds. I put half in and gave the other half to Jean. I'd tried to sprinkle it all around evenly, but it sort of migrated to one spot and tricked me into thinking I had finished compost already. Well, I broke those clumps up and spread them around properly.

a decomposing medley of goodies :)

On to problemo number two - the compost suddenly stopped processing itself. I was getting used to filling the bin to the brim, then seeing the level drop over the week until there was a good space at the top to add more prunings the next weekend. After dealing with the soggy bottom the materials stopped compacting themselves for a couple weeks. Ah - moisture! Soon after the holidays the crazy rainy weather went away and we got our dry conditions back. Water wasn't getting in from the air holes in the sides or from the dirt under it, and I'd added more air holes, and I hadn't been watering the compost.  Ooooops. A couple of days of light sprays from the hose and a cup of water with the evening's kitchen scraps got things moving again. Five minutes for each spray down with the hose (gotta dig out the water gun head) and a minute to give it a glass of water.

Problem number three - unfortunately the convenient swingy door isn't working out. Because the bin is upside down the small end is at the top and the cover doesn't fit snuggly on it. SO when pushing the door open the whole cover sometimes slips and falls off. Also it makes access to the fresh stuff on top a snap for fruit flies and omg I'm sick of looking at mating fruit flies! Here see -

haha, made you look :9

So I took the fancy cover off and put the typical round metal lid you saw in the background in the first pic. The fly population immediately plummeted. There's still a few but less every day. I hope in summer when the sun rises so high the compost bin is in sun most of the day that it'll be too hot for the little bugger to even think of sneaking in. Two minutes to change the lid.

All seems hunky-dory now :)

So. Starting a compost bin -EASY!
Maintaining a compost bin - Easy! Yes, even after the blunders I made I still find it easy. All you have to do is make sure moisture and air are in balance and it takes care of itself. You'r gonna be pruning your plants, cutting grass and raking leaves anyway. Just as easy to put them in a compost bin as the green waste bin. If it gets out of balance you'll notice quickly enough and solutions to the problem are also simple. The longest time I spent fixing a problem was the 30 minutes to empty it, put down branches and refill it when if was too wet. That's not bad.

I supposed outside of an urban setting it might be more troublesome with some critters looking for food, but then you'd already be used to them eating your garden anyway.

It's been about three months now, I'm still waiting on my first batch of compost but it's winter so of course it's taking awhile to get going. What I want to do now it get a simple holding area made of wood stakes and wire mesh set up next to the compost bin. I'll put the compost out of the bin into there for 2-3 weeks to "age" before using it in the garden. Surfing the internet I found that in the last phase of breaking down the compost drops in temperature and can look like it's done. But if you put it into the garden during that time it drains out the nitrogen in the surrounding soil to fuel it's last few weeks of decomposition. Keeping it in a holding place while it does that should save my plants from burning or nutrient loss. I expect the holding area will take about a half hour to put together once I have the materials together.

I'm really glad I started this bin.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Online Calendar

 So as I mention earlier I have some ideas on keeping my self more on-track with all my gardening work. One of them is keeping a bulletin board with a calendar and other often needed reference info near my back door. It's a strategical location - I mostly go in and out for gardening there, and it is also near the bathroom I use for indoor sowing, and my computer.

Speaking of computer, I'm pretty much the last person in LA to be getting home internet :9 That's why my posts are usually in the day from work, or at random odd late hours from a friend's house. But internet should be installed in my home this or next month which will make posting much easier to keep up with.

It will also make it very easy to use Google Calendars to keep a record of my endeavors :) Plans, and completed work. For sure I'll be using a physical calendar for the day-to-day notes and to reference without waiting for the computer to load. But every week or two I can update what actually happened in Google without having extra paper to store. I'm hoping that next year I can look back on this year and make better decisions.

So, the new calendar is public and now posted on my blog below the entry and comments :)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

January Bloom Day 2011

Yay, stayed organized enough to have flower pics ready for today! So here's what's lookin' purty in my garden this month:

 bachelor's button Blue Boy

lobelia Crystal Palace

snap peas Cascadia

nasturtium Alaska
I find it interesting that this one has stayed short and not too spready, while it's sister I discovered today had taken hold of her neighbor's tomato cage and stretched to about 4 feet. o.O

as almost alway sweet alyssum Oriental Nights

oops, bok choy White Stem bolted..I shall harvest the seeds

one of my petite marigolds :) only 5" tall

and finally feverfew
I love the leaves of feverfew most of all. The shape, the colors (because the newer and older leaves are different shades), the contrast. I bought this before I really understood what it was, the name was familiar. Then I got home and checked my herbs book. So the flowers are a bit of an extra bonus.

So that's it for today :)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Finally, Some Seed Bombs!

I seriously regret not getting this done back in November before the rains, but oh well. If anyone's curious a seed bomb is a pellet (or other fun shape) usually made of clay, compost and seeds. You can toss them into vacant/abandoned lots and other places that have been left to weeds and hopefully the seeds will germinate and prettify the landscape. Wish I'd known about this technique years ago, there are a few long time vacant commercial lots I'd always wanted to scatter seeds in, but didn't want to hop the fence and couldn't figure out how to toss the seed any distance. Mixing it with compost and clay solves the fence and distance problems.

You can find lots of different recipes on seed bombs at, here and here :)

Last weekend I got together with Jean and we finally made them!

my conspirator, accomplice, partner! Jean and the flats we put the seed bombs in to dry out :)

 and some of our finished seed bombs
 (mine on left, Jean's on right)

As you can see, Jean wore gloves. I did not. Here soil balls came out much smoother than mine did (and she did not suffer so much from little bits of twig/stick in the compost poking her hands). I don't know if that will make a difference in the final product.

 I had printed up several recipes I found on how to make them which we basically ended up not using :9 We broke up clay from the soil in my yard into little bits. Then accidentally added an equal amount of compost from Jean's bin instead of 5:1 clay to compost most recipes were recommending. But it was actually holding together well and easily shaped. So then we said screw it let's do it this way and dumped in the California wildflowers seed large packet (it was probably around 14 grams like the B.I. large packets). Then we just rolled them into little balls. Simple.

We set them in two nursery flats Jean had to dry, I took one back home to my place. I don't think we really need to wait for them to dry out, they were holding together well and should fly over fields with ease. We did a second small batch with cosmo, marigold and.... I forget what other flowers :9 Jean help!

 The green bucket in the pics that looks full of dirt - that's not dirt. That's the 3 gallons of clay I dug up from the front border of my yard. I am glad that is out of the ground and I have space to mix in some nice compost (and maybe my border will grow in properly this year).

It really didn't take much in the way of raw materials. The green bucket with clay was filled to the brim when we started and you can see in the last pic we used very little of it, and add to that equal compost, then seeds. I think we each have about...4 or 5 dozen seed bombs. So simple. Why didn't we figure this out sooner?!

So this weekend I will be riding the neighborhood and going after the huge parking lot/dirt plot of the former Malibu Castle... mwuahahaha

THANKS JEAN!!! :) We must do this again.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Upcoming Plans


So I've returned to the country after a holiday trip, and my evening class is over, and many other distractions are taken care of... Now I think I'm officially back from hiatus :)

Been spending time thinking about how best to keep myself on track in different areas of my life. As far gardening here's my overall plan to get on track:

  • Bulletin Board - calendar, LA monthly planting guides, monthly garden to-do list, booklist, visit wish list.
  • Garden - use the darn bulletin board to keep up to date on projects and garden chores.
  • Learning - try to read a new garden book a month, and visit at least one new garden related place or meet with other gardeners.
  • Budget - I started a new 2011 budget for myself. I want to keep track especially of my garden expenses vs. returns.
  • Blog - use bulletin board info for a monthly overall plan entry and help keep up with entries, also to berate self in sticking to my to-do list.
So here's what I've I'm hoping to accomplish as far as projects for the January:
  1. Make a cool bulletin board - using stuff I have and possible from dollar or thrift shop if I need to.
  2. Make a second composting container (oh that's right, I've finally got one going - more on that later)
  3. Build a pot trellis for John.
  4. Make seed bombs with Jean
  5. Build two LED Grow Boxes
  6. Get my spring Green Babies sowed!
 This weekend's focus will be on numbers 4, 5 & 6. I think 1 through 3 will come next weekend. Hmmm, I think I've started my list off a bit backwards....meh.

Here's a preview of my plot.... uh, plan that is for numba 3:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Just Another Gopher Moment

Go-For, actually. At my office job I end p doing all sorts of tasks and errands. This week that included stopping in at the Building & Safety Department of Rancho Palos Verdes. Now that it's stopped raining and I'm not clenching the wheel of my car in fear of on-coming traffic in 50ft fog visibility... it's quite a nice view. Couldn't help taking some personal time for a short walk on the South Spur Trail.

to the south that's Santa Catalina Island where the buffalo roam in the distance 

a view north from behind city hall buildings, there's the Santa Monica Bay and waaaay over thar is Malibu

looking southwest there's point San Vicente Lighthouse

 believe it or not that's the gorgeous view of Catalina from the lightly used parking lot to the senior center

see all that brownish gray out there?
that's dried out fennel or dill...probly fennel...which is considered invasive along the trails here

On the way back to work I pulled over at scenic view on Hawthorne Blvd for these:

 there's looking southwest towards San Pedro...

All in all, a nice morning break from my work week :)

Mary's Gardening Calendar