Worm Casting Experiment 1S

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On December 14th we seeded half a flat of ‘Guntmadingen’ Spinach in Ocean Forest potting soil. Ocean Forest isn’t perfect, but I’ve been happy with it and have used a lot of it this year.  Ocean Forest is a blend of worm castings, bat guano, Pacific Northwest sea-going fish and crab meal, composted forest humus, sandy loam, and sphagnum peat moss. Which brings us to the down-side, peat moss. I’m not sure how I feel about using it since it’s not renewable, most of it is imported long distances and it releases lots of carbon as it dries for harvesting. I need to research that to develop a more informed opinion.

My ideal would be not to need to use inputs like bagged potting soil but instead to make all our own compost and seed-starting mixes on site. It’s good to have a goal, but this one might be farther off than I would like since the garden keeps expanding.

Back at the spinach transplanting…

Roughly six weeks later, on January 22nd, we transplanted the best dozen spinach plants. They were all close in leaf size and root length. Six of the plants went into a container with more Ocean Forest potting soil on 6” centers. The other six went into an identical container in the same location with Ocean Forest potting soil on 6” centers. But, this group was also given additional worm castings by mixing fresh castings straight from the worm bins into the top 4” of soil before the spinach was transplanted.

Worm bin layerWorm castings have been shown to improve the activity of beneficial microbes in soil. I’ve seen some reports that 20% worm castings may be ‘ideal’ for flowers and vegetables, with additional worm castings not providing additional benefits. But since we don’t know what percentage of the Ocean Forest mix is already worm castings, we’re testing to see if adding our homegrown castings has a positive effect on plant growth.

Check back here to see how the trial progresses.

What I’m Doing Differently Since Taking “Edible Gardening”


This year I was lucky enough to be part of “The Edible Garden Series: From Design to Harvest” through Common Ground in Palo Alto taught by Drew Harwell. And there are a lot of things that I’ll be doing differently now that I have completed this class.

First, and perhaps most revealing, I’ll be growing–am already growing–a lot more food in the same garden space that I started with. Not only do I understand inter-cropping and plant rotations better, but plant spacing makes a lot more sense to me and I’ll be using a lot less of it in between my plants, especially my winter crops, than I have in the past. Column H of the Master Charts in “How to Grow More Vegetables” is finally useful to me! Yay!

Seed Flat KitAnd I’ll be starting those plants in flats. I used to start seeds in old yogurt containers, left-over six-packs from the garden center, old plastic cups…pretty much anything that was handy and could be recycled into something that held dirt. But seed flats hold a *lot* more soil than a six-pack, and hold it deeper than a six-pack. It stays moist and at a more even temperature and your seedlings grow up much healthier. I have no idea why this never occurred to me before, but as soon as Drew talked about it in the first week of our class, it all made sense and my seedlings are certainly thankful for it. Now I just need one of those little scoop tools to help with transplanting.

Kangaroo Rat

California Kangaroo Rat

Those new flats will be filled with 50% “bed soil” and 50% compost that I am now making right here at home with confidence and success. I’ve tried a lot of different composting methods over the years.  Some of them ended up smelly, some of them ended up taking forever to break down and one of them had an entire family of kangaroo rats who leaped out of it right at us when we opened the container to turn it!

No more. One of the things that’s different around here is the compost piles are now open. No expensive bins or crazy spinning systems or awkward compost turning tools required. We are building 4′ x 4′ piles with alternating layers of ‘green’ material, ‘brown’ material and bed soil. And we are turning them once, after they have gotten up to or beyond 135 degrees. The first pile has already cooked up to this point and been turned. The second one is piled right over where I hope to dig a new bed in the spring to help prepare and improve the soil while it decomposes over the rainy season.

This is also my first season of cover cropping. I have ‘Medic Mix’ from Territorial Seed Company in three of the raised beds, cereal rye in one, the Common Ground ‘Cover Crop Mix’ in another and a healthy stand of fava beans already going. These are the first crops I have grown specifically “for the soil” and I am feeling good about the process. Cover cropping is another thing from this class that now really makes sense to me. Some of these crops will be chopped under as a green manure before the spring planting happens, and some of them will end up in a compost pile. Either way, I like the idea that there are crops for us to eat and crops to feed the soil that ultimately feeds us.

Asparagus SeedlingsMy garden is now more forward looking in other ways too. Not only do I understand where the prevailing winds come from and where the afternoon sun hits the garden. I have learned a lot about planning the garden as it moves through time. For instance, there are more perennial edibles now in place or in progress. We have started our first Pigeon Peas, experimented with Chayote squash, put in an asparagus patch for plants started at home from seed, added several kinds of berries and learned how to be better to the fruit trees. And this is only a fraction of what Drew covers in the series!

Keep an eye out for the Spring Edible Gardening Series. The class is a great investment of your time and easily pays for itself with the increased yields you’ll rapidly see in your garden.

Working for the Underground

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No More Lawn

Food Not Lawn

What’s that old saying about good farmers growing food and great ones growing soil? Well, we make no claims to greatness here at Dirt to Dinner but we are trying to give the soil the great treatment it deserves. The space that now grows food started out as a lawn. If I had to guess, I would say that any original topsoil that remained from earlier days (the area was converted from farms to housing in the 50’s) was stripped off when the house was redone in 2000. We weren’t here yet, so we don’t really know. But the lawn and the adobe below seemed awful close together when we started digging it up.

In the spring of 2009, we removed large sections of the grass and added raised beds. In some places, we didn’t even remove the grass and the raised beds went right on top. Since then we have stopped watering the parts of the lawn that remained. The raised beds now all have well-tended and organically amended soil in them, but they are like tiny, well-provisioned rafts in a sea of wild, dry, mostly neglected ground.

Chipped Fruit Tree Shreds

Mulch Carpet

Or, I should say, they were, until the generous folks at A-1 Tree Service arrived on Thursday with a very large truckload of chipped and shredded summer-pruned fruit tree trimmings.  This is exactly what we needed to improve all the garden soil and connect the soil in the raised beds to a healthy, vibrant network of soil bacteria, underground critters and earthworms.

The chippings have fruit, green leaves, dry leaves and branches all mixed and shredded together, so they are already a combination of the ‘browns’ and ‘greens’ we need for composting. Spread in a layer about 10 inches thick, they will discourage the growth of grass and weeds, hold moisture in the soil around the beds, help moderate temperatures in the garden, and over time, they will break down into a rich layer of compost further encouraging the connections between all the beds and a healthy soil throughout the garden. In a year or two, when we want to add a new bed to the garden, underneath that compost layer will be rich soil just waiting for us to plant.

Dirt to Dinner is a project to help children and other community members get up close and personal with growing food. It wouldn’t be here without the volunteers and sponsors who make it possible to include so many in this nurturing activity. Thanks again to A-1 Tree Service, Bauer Lumber, Naturalyards, Victory Seeds and all of you who contribute time and energy to this project.

Special thanks to Oscar, from A-1 Tree Service for all his help moving the chippings into the garden!

Huge Pile of Chippings

Man vs. Mulch

Wednesdays – Education You Can Eat

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Where does our food come from? How does it grow?  How does the way we grow food affect us, and the world around us? What is sustainable farming? What can we grow ourselves? How do we cook it? And, especially, how does it taste?

Education You Can Eat is a garden-centered hands-on program about food, nature, life cycles, cooking and nutrition. The program encourages participants to explore full food systems (“seed-to-table”) through both individual and group learning such as compost chemistry, bee gardening, nature journaling, botany experiments and cooking and preserving the harvest. Click here for a tour of the garden.

The program will meet on Wednesdays from 10:00-1:00 in the garden in the Santa Clara/Cupertino area starting April 28th, with a possible field trip to Full Circle Farm or Veggielution by arrangement with the group. (A June 9th Olivera Egg Ranch Tour will also be a wonderful addition to what we will be learning.)

The lead instructor for the program is Mackenzie Price, with assistance from, Joanna, a UCSC intern, and Gardener Juli. Parent participation is welcome and encouraged.

We have five spots available in the Wednesday program for kids working around the 2nd-4th grade level in Science. Please let us know by email if you would like a spot for your child. Send your message to dirt2dinner at gmail dot com.

We look forward to seeing you in the garden!

New Raised Beds


The Dirt to Dinner crew wants to send the folks at Naturalyards a big Thank You! As many of you already know from The Great Raised Bed Debate, if money had been no object, we would have started with lots of their untreated, kiln-dried Port Orford cedar raised beds on day one.

Hexagonal Raised Bed from NaturalyardsBut you’ve gotta let people know you’d like their help before they can help you. As soon as I talked with the kind people at Naturalyards, they promptly donated three of their beautiful, easy-assembly raised beds. Not only that, but we found another gardening fan who happened to be driving from where Naturalyards is in Oregon, right to our doorstep in time for the next Dirt to Dinner session! How’s that for service and support?!

Strawberry Tower Planter from NaturalyardsAt our next meeting the kids will be assembling three different Naturalyards raised bed designs; a rectangle planter, a hexagonal planter and a strawberry tower. We’ve also received several alternative suggestions for assembling the beds. We could make a potato growing bin, or instead of two large towers we could make three smaller planters. And we’ve been toying with a design that would combine the strawberry tower and the hexagonal planter into a single bed.

It will be fun to see what the kids decide on. Some of them relish the construction projects as much as they do the food.