Compost Resurrection

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100 Years of Farming  

100 Years of Farming

I spent part of Easter Sunday in the garden, pretty much like I do every day. I cleared the sod that we piled willy-nilly around the compost bins when the kids took the turf up for the Dirt to Dinner bed in the front garden. Once I made my way to the compost bin that’s done cooking, I dug underneath to see what the compost was like. The dog helped. Remind me not to get a digging breed next time. ;-)

The first thing that greeted me under there was a worm. Looked ready to me.

I got a large cement mixing tub and balanced the family heirloom across it to sift the compost. My husband’s family were Italian immigrants who farmed in Santa Cruz for several generations. This frame has come down to us from the family farm and I’m honored to use it. My mother-in-law briefly toyed with the idea of setting it out with the trash last Clean-Up Week, but even though the squirrels have done their worst, it survives as part of the Dirt to Dinner project here with us.

Tomato Variety

Tomato Variety

I sifted the compost through the frame, relocating the worms and adding whatever didn’t make it through the frame to the compost bin that we are currently building up. Then I took my tubfull of “black gold” over to the tomato bed. One of my recent don’t-know-how-I’d-survive-without-her phone calls to my mother-in-law went something like this, “Can I grow six varieties of tomatoes in the same bed?”

“They won’t mind but you can’t save the seed.”

“Why not?”

“They might not breed true into what you expect them to be next time.”

Just like kids, in other words. 

I carefully surrounded my six tomaotes with compost made from the scraps from the food we’ve already eaten, chewed by worms and other unseen helpers, sifted through more than a hundred years of family farming. It felt like a perfect moment in keeping with the resurrection theme of the day.

The best place to seek God is in a garden.  You can dig for him there. 
~George Bernard Shaw

Raised Bed Trials

30" Potato and Tomato Raised Bed

24" Potato and Tomato Raised Bed

We are testing a wide variety of raised beds in the Dirt to Dinner garden. Just this week I added two new No Dig beds with tall trellising for cantaloupe and spaghetti squash. They are made of “found” lumber (it was Clean-Up Week in our neighborhood, so the finding part was easy) that 50 years ago was a backyard fence. I figure anything potentially unhealthy has surely leached out of it in all this time. Right?

The first bed we added to the front garden we took up the turf and dug the soil underneath, so it’s somewhere between 18″ and 24″ of new ammended soil mixed with the existing clay and topped with an inch of turkey farm compost. This bed holds potatoes and tomatoes, so I’m sure we’ll learn a lot about the quality of both the drainage and the new soil from the way the plants develop. It’s also in a windy corner, which the bush beans we tucked in there while the potatoes and tomatoes are getting started don’t seem too happy about. This also means the bed dries out more quickly than I would like and needs a thick mulching as soon as the plants are better established.

5" No Dig Squash Bed

5" No Dig Squash Bed

The shallowest of the raised beds is a No Dig 5″ deep bed with as close to Mel’s Mix as I could make with the materials at hand. And I do mean, No Dig with this one. It’s made out of found redwood timbers tacked together and laid straight onto the lawn. I am very curious to see how this bed does through the summer. I planted my spaghetti squash in this one, so I really hope it does well.

The idea is that the grass will die underneath the soil, turn into a natural compost and eventually become one with the dirt in the planting box. I imagine adding a lot of compost to this one through the Summer to keep the moisture content up. But will the grass grow up through 5″ of soil?

2'x2' of 6" and 12" Square Foot Sections

2'x2' of 6" and 12" Square Foot Sections

We also have a variety of Square Foot style beds in the Dirt to Dinner garden. My favorite ones, surprisingly, are the bi-levels. I thought I would want everything as deep as possible to hold all the soil and plants I could imagine, but I like the way this one looks in the garden and so far the occupants seem happy with their digs.

By far the largest raised bed in the Dirt to Dinner garden is the kids’ growing area which is over 18″ deep. The kids removed the turf and turned the soil underneath before the bed was constructed. At 112 square feet framed in traditional English willow hurdles, it is unique and also seems to be holding up well. willow-planter-almost-done1I have no doubt that the bed will provide ideal growing conditions and can’t wait to see what the kids do with it.

The original raised beds in this growing space are large plank board planters that stand 3′ high and are 4′ wide. They are great for keeping the dogs out and not having to bend over very far, and they are sturdy enough that you can even stand on the edge to adjust your cages or add to the trellis systems. But they are so deep that the soil compacts in them by a foot down and they are very ungainly to try to turn the soil in them because of their size. It’s tough to get a shovel into them and you end up breaking your back digging them out by hand every year or two to lighten the soil.

Square Foot by Square Foot

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Square Foot Tomatoes and Chard

Square Foot Tomatoes and Chard

The Dirt to Dinner garden is starting to really take shape and I’m loving the time I am able to spend out there. One of the fun things we are doing this year is practicing some French Intensive gardening, or “Square Foot” gardening, as it’s often called. I have several beds divided up more or less in this way. Today I put in a two-level 2′ x 2′ bed with my drying tomatoes in the deeper sections and Swiss Chard in the two lower sections that will probably get shaded by the tomato plants, even when I cage them. I hope the Chard doesn’t mind too much. It should have lots of time to establish itself before then–if the crows don’t eat it!

Another bed is divided into three sections with a test bed of beans that I started ahead indoors, beans I started in place a month later, and beets. I lined the edges of this bed with carrots also, so it will be crowded as things mature and I will need to keep it fed. The bush beans won’t mind all being together and the beet tops hopefully won’t shade the carrots too much. We’ll have to see how this one works out.

Square Foot Beans and Beets

Square Foot Beans and Beets

I’m also trying a 3′ x 3′ with two tomato plants, again, and sections of spinach and chard. So that will make a nice comparison bed to the 2′ x 2′. I wish I had grown this type of tomato before. They are a determinate heirloom variety called Principe Borghese but I can’t get any concensus on how tall they like to grow or how bushy they will be. I’ll let you know how they turn out!