A Midsummer Day’s Feast

It is the beginning of August. The sun and the rain have been battling for dominion over our days, settling into a ferocious and unpredictable, yet nourishing and balanced cycle. Harvests are abundant in these conditions.

On a personal note, regular readers may remember that I lost my day job at the start of the COVID shutdown. Recently, on the seventh anniversary of this blog, I officially decided to make that a permanent change. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for years, and now feels like the best time to dive in. I’m working the land full time now, and I’ve never felt better. I find my life harmonizing with the weather patterns. Sunny days are for field work, gardening, sun tea, and hanging laundry. Rainy days are for preserving the harvest, making and mending what is needed, and for studying. I’m studying hard, and I’m learning a lot. Every day is magical, and I’m so grateful for the combination of luck, strategy, and hard work that brought me here. I know what a rare chance this is, and I won’t waste it.

As you might imagine, there’s a large pay gap between a software engineer’s salary and a beginning farmer’s salary, so anything I can produce rather than buy increases my odds of success in this venture. This is especially true of high quality fresh food, which pays me not only in grocery savings, but also in improved wellness. I harvest regularly from my gardens – four raised beds, an herb spiral, and some container plants. But I also supplement my garden’s offerings by foraging wild edible and medicinal plants from my fields and wooded areas.

A trio of foraged plants: lambsquarter, red clover, plantain
A Foraged Bounty: Lambsquarters, Red Clover Blossoms, Plantain Leaves

Right now, lambsquarters, red clover, and plantain are plentiful. Lambsquarters is a wild relative of spinach, and it tastes just as delicious as its famous cousin. Red clover and plantain have many uses for food and health. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use red clover and plantain, both are covered in Rosemary Gladstar’s excellent book “Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide“. My library has a copy, and maybe yours does too! As the farm evolves, my goal is not to remove weeds, but to continuously skew the weed populations towards useful species. I mow and cultivate selectively to discourage poison ivy, cocklebur, and hemlock while encouraging useful weeds to grow and multiply. I’ve even planted some seeds of native weeds I enjoy, in hopes they will take hold and spread through the untamed parts of the land.

Herbs gathered from the garden
Garden Herbs: Tulsi, Lemon Balm, Sage, Garlic Chives, Chives, Sweet Basil
Garden Veggie Harvest
Garden Veggies: Cucumbers, Tomatoes, Sunflowers, Green Beans

Tomatoes, cucumbers, and green beans are thriving in the garden. My sunflowers have had limited success. Most of the sunflower seeds didn’t grow- I suspect the seeds were devoured by hungry wildlings. And who could blame them? Sunflower seeds are delicious. Of the few sunflower plants that germinated, only one is yet in bloom.

Sun Harvest : Sun Tea Brewing
Solar Harvests: Sunshine brews the most beautiful herbal teas! And you can save a tiny bit of electricity by brewing them this way.

Much to my surprise, my greens garden is still producing, even in the summer heat! I expected the collard greens and kale to bolt once the weather warmed, but they are unfazed. The radishes did bolt. Other brassica family members have started to differentiate themselves from the nearly identical forms they all shared as young plants. Kohlrabies are growing bulbs, cabbages are forming heads, and Brussels sprouts are sending up their tall stalks. You may notice there are no pictures of harvests from that garden today, and there’s a reason for that : cabbage loopers. The little green worms have eaten more than their fair share of these plants, and so I paused my harvesting while the plants recover from that damage. BT is an effective organic pesticide for cabbage loopers that I do use when necessary, but I waited a little too long between my applications of it. These plants are very vigorous, and I’m confident the harvests will resume in a couple of weeks.

A Visual Feast : Beautiful Marigold Blossom
An Especially Nice Marigold Blossom
Not Yet A Harvest : Fig Tree Beginning To Flower
Not Yet A Harvest, but a baby fig!

Summer in the Riparian Buffer

One mowed row in the riparian buffer

The Riparian Buffer Native Food Forest project is well underway. It’s an ever-evolving work and while it will never be “finished”, the initial planting phase is on track to be complete this year. With every new year, we gain new knowledge and encounter new obstacles. This year, the dominant obstacle has been mowing. Little growing trees are not as tall as weeds, and they need help to get their quotas of sunlight and fresh air. Most farmers in a similar situation would likely spray herbicides to control weeds around the young trees, but we won’t do that here because we value the diversity of our ecosystem.

If I could start this project over again, I would have been mowing this area regularly this whole time with a regular riding lawn mower. But I had some misconceptions at the start: that I could maintain the area by mowing infrequently with a scythe, that frequent mowing wouldn’t be necessary, and that I’d be able to delegate the bulk of my mowing work to a few happy little sheep by now. I’m a natural researcher, but there isn’t a lot of documentation available on this subject, and none of those hopes panned out. Now I’m facing some pretty serious weeds. Three year old saplings, chest-high invasive grasses… add to that driftwood and large miscellaneous debris that regularly floats into our field on floodwater currents, and you’ve got an expert-level mowing situation. We have a riding mower with a pull-behind brush hog, which is able to handle the rough terrain. We’ve used it a few times to mow large spaces between planted rows, but the handling is not precise enough to be trusted anywhere near the small trees, and the operation is a complicated, multi-day effort involving two people guiding and coordinating the unwieldy beast. The riding mower alone could get fairly close to the saplings, but the deck cannot handle this much overgrowth. I was almost about to purchase an expensive new machine, when I saw my husband using our tiny electric battery-powered push mower to mow down some sturdy mulberry saplings near the rooster coop. I knew immediately that this unassuming little machine was up to the task.

An American Elder sapling, hidden among weeds

And so began the painstaking work of reclaiming the planted rows. Of course, the first job is locating the saplings, so I don’t accidentally mow them over. As you can see in the photo to the right, they’re hard to find. Especially because most of the stakes I used to mark them with last year floated away in one flood or another.

How do I find the trees? This treasure map! Actually, it’s a modern day treasure map, in the form of a google sheet. Every cell represents a 5’x5′ square. Text inside the cell tells me what species might be planted in that square. Highlighted colors denote topography. I’m able to update this sheet in real time from the field on my mobile device.

I use a surveyor’s tape (300′) to mark the row, joining the first tree in the row and the last tree in the row based on my spreadsheet notation. Then, I reapply marking stakes to any trees in the line that lost their stakes to flood currents. After the trees are all marked, I run the mower along the right side, then the left side of the planted row, coming as close to the little trees as possible. I often have to angle the front of the mower upwards, like a munchy mouth, then chomp it down over tall, tough weeds. After mowing along both sides of a planted row, I make a final pass to clear the area between planted trees. It takes 2-3 battery charges and about a day to complete one 300′ row. The maintenance work is much easier though, as long as the weeds stay short. I’m leaving wild strips between the rows, for wildlife habitat. These wild strips host important wildflowers such as milkweed, and give small animals safe places to hide, nest, and rest.

Permaculture Guild Area
This “Permaculture Guild” style planted area was the hardest to mow. The trees aren’t planted in rows, they’re planted in concentric circles. That made them really hard to find, and created a lot of extra mowing work. This area was an experiment that will not be repeated. Yet, I mowed it!
Me standing next to a 3 year old pecan tree
This three year old American Pecan tree is nearly as tall as me! Delicious pecans in T-7 years!
All the hard work is worth it when I find a healthy little tree thriving with new growth like this yearling Swamp White Oak! Edible acorns in T-19 years.
A tiny American Cranberrybush hiding amongst the weeds. Hard to find, but worth it! T-3 years to fruit! This plant is a whole topic unto itself, and I’ll write a lot more about it. For now, suffice it to say, it’s not a cranberry.

Seasonal Eats for Late Spring

I planted my earliest spring crops on May 2 this year. Many crops could have been planted much earlier than that date, if only their new raised beds had been completed earlier. Things being as they are, I harvested my first kale exactly one month later, on June 2, and it was the most delicious kale I’ve eaten since the last time I grew kale.

Russian Red Kale, freshly harvested

I harvest Kale in the “cut and come again” style, cutting off select bottom leaves from each plant and leaving the center stalk with young leaves untouched. This allows the plants to keep growing and producing new leaves for me to eat later, until the summer heat puts an end to it.

Radishes have just started to bulb up, and I’ve harvested a few small roots. Radish greens are abundant though, and since I didn’t space the radish seeds very carefully, I’ve harvested plenty of radish greens as a result of thinning out the plants. Many people don’t know that radish greens are edible, but they’re a nutritious and delicious pot herb (pot herb means that you cook them, opposed to eating them raw in a salad).

Lambsquarter plant

Since my garden is small this year, I’ve been rounding out my harvests with some choice edible weeds. Lambsquarters are abundant right now, and I tried them for the first time a couple weeks ago. They have become a favorite! I’ve made them into a dish similar to creole creamed spinach, and I’ve sauteed them with garlic and other greens. They’re similar to spinach in flavor and nutrition.

Dandelion greens, dandelion flowers, and violet greens are some other wild greens I’ve been adding to my harvests. Until this year, I did not realize how large violet leaves can grow. They’re delicious raw or cooked, and so are violet flowers.

Violet Greens
Violet greens that grew to giant proportions! Human hand shown for scale.

The Potato Box

Bountiful potato crops always eluded me in previous gardens, but I decided to try again this year in a raised bed. I ordered Carola variety seed potatoes from the Seed Savers Exchange and planted them in April. The vines grew fast. Potato vines are supposed to be buried as they grow, so that only a few inches stick out of the soil at a time. They are expected to produce potatoes on all the buried parts. So about two weeks ago, the plants got tall enough to start the burying process (called “hilling”). I was unprepared, surprised they grew so quickly. I was finally able to source materials, so today I built two 8″ high cedar extensions to contain the extra soil, installed them, and filled them with garden soil and compost. Already, they are so tall that I had to bury 16 inches of the plants! Hopefully I am not too late. I can almost taste these potatoes.

The Winner Among The Weeds

When I first moved here five years ago, I was so excited to have a vegetable garden again. I had been pining for it for years, and even though I really didn’t have time for it, I tilled up a large plot of land the very first spring and planted one. I kinda-sorta kept up with it that first year, even though maintaining ten acres of land was proving to be much harder than I first expected, and my time was limited. But over the next few years, other commitments usurped what little free time I once had, and that garden – which I now call “the old garden” – grew wild. The situation has been really hard to clean up, and I don’t recommend doing this yourself. Without help from my chickens, it might take years to reclaim this as a productive vegetable garden. But despite the mess, three of my original perennials survive to this day. Only one, however, is thriving : sunchokes.

Sunchokes (aka sunroots or Jerusalem artichokes) are a delicious and healthy root vegetable that is native to most of the United States and part of Canada. They are a close relative of the sunflower, which is also native here. They are very hard to get rid of once you have planted them, and they spread. But since they’re a particularly delicious and satisfying food crop, and because they’re native here, I’m ok with that. Even without my help, this plant has out-competed most of the weeds and gradually expanded its territory each year. Although I’ve been working to reclaim the rest of the old garden this year, I’m going to leave the part where sunchokes grow alone until fall. It will be worth the wait to enjoy their delicious harvest.

P.S. The other two surviving perennials are garlic and lemon balm. Both were considerably less bountiful than the sunchokes, so I dug those up and relocated them.

Life in the Flood Plain

“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” -Alanis Obomsawin

This is my home, and I love it. Mosquitoes are everywhere, flood waters often interrupt my schedule, and none of the popular crops grow well here. But it’s wonderful. Some of the most exciting, nutritious, delicious food crops are native to this kind of habitat. And if I plant the right things, the flood waters will actually help my crops grow better by providing free fertilizers and no-work irrigation. Some fascinating animals live here too! On many a summer night, I am serenaded to sleep by a world class symphony of frog singers. I’ve met snakes and lizards and herons and eagles and fish and butterflies. It’s a challenging, but very rewarding habitat.

Bucket of litter collected from a wetland

The wetland at Strawberry Moon Farm is awash in the river about four times per year. After each and every flood, the byproducts of modern convenience are left behind in that field. Gallons and gallons of trash float in on the wild currents. If I don’t clean it up, it will float downstream to one of my neighbors during the next storm. It will become someone else’s problem, but no less of one. Large items crash in and crush our small trees: a picnic table, a fire extinguisher, hunting gear, and mounds of agricultural waste. Small items float through and cause harm to our wild friends: plastic wrappers, straws, and bottle caps.

A picnic table in an open field
Plastic Straw Littered In A Wetland

An image of one specific plastic straw became infamous last year. That particular straw was lodged inside the nostril of a sea turtle. Encouragingly, humanity is rallying together to help reduce ocean pollution and protect sea creatures like that turtle.

The straw pictured above was found here, in our wetland, in Midwestern USA. Indiana is not near an ocean, but it is home to more than fifteen species of turtles. Our rivers, streams, and lakes host a myriad of fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Majestic Bald Eagles and stately Blue Herons dive into these fresh waters every day, in attempt to feed themselves and their offspring. The plastic epidemic is not confined to the oceans. Litter is not someone else’s problem.

Styrofoam and a Medicine Bottle Littered In A Wetland

Feeling outraged or depressed or disillusioned will not change our situation, so let’s not waste our energy. There are simple, specific things we can all do to spark positive change in the world. Start with your own community. Take care of your own trash. Pick up litter where you see it (if you can do so safely). Ask your friends to do the same. Pack out your trash when you go camping or hiking rather than leaving it in the woods. If you can avoid consuming single use plastics, do so. If you can’t, try to dispose of those plastics in a responsible way. Recycle what you can recycle and build ecobricks. Secure the lids on your trash cans so your discarded items don’t blow away. And plant trees. Did you know trees are one of the Earth’s natural filters? Not only do they help clean the water and protect the soil, but they also help us catch our mistakes as they float or fly by. They give us a chance to clean those things up before they float farther downstream.

Escaped Plastic Flower Arrangement
I can almost always find a synthetic flower arrangement or two in this drainage ditch near my home, across the street from a cemetery. Well-meaning people often adorn the graves of their loved ones with arrangements like this one, but the wind blows them away into natural areas where they may end up causing significant harm. Please consider honoring your loved ones with biodegradable arrangements instead.

We Earthlings are dealing with a lot right now, and much of it is beyond our control. Taking responsibility for my own consumption and waste is something I can control. Taking responsibility for yours is within your control. It’s a positive step we can take to make the world a better place. Things that once mattered, still matter. And maybe they matter even more now. Let’s care for each other in this way.

Farming the Woodland

When we look at garden catalogues, almost every plant description mentions “Full Sun”.  Almost every common food plant seems to require it, but there are many exciting, delicious, and beneficial crops that prefer shade.  That’s important information, because the mature trees and woodlands that are most often responsible for creating that shade are tremendously valuable.  If we view our trees as a hindrance to our gardening and farming efforts, then we become more likely to remove them, or to avoid planting them in the first place.  When we truly understand the ecosystems trees create, we can enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with them.  Furthermore, many of these shade-loving food crops are native to Midwestern USA.  When we grow native food plants, we nurture not only ourselves but also the beautiful community of wildlife, birds, butterflies, and other insects that depend on those plants.

A Smattering of Deep Shade Crops:

  • Ramps (native)
  • Ostrich Ferns aka Fiddleheads (native)
  • American Ginseng (native high-value medicinal crop)
  • Edible & Medicinal Mushrooms (native and non-native varieties)
  • Nuts or fruits from the large trees creating the deep shade (native and non-native)
  • Maple Syrup (the best syrup trees (sugar maple & red maple) are both native!)

A Sampler of Woodland Edge Crops (part shade):

  • Blackberries (native)
  • Black Raspberries (native)
  • Red Raspberries (not native)
  • Violets (Native violet leaves & flowers are great in salads. Non-native sweet violet flowers are used in perfumes, candies, and flavor syrups.)
  • Red Mulberries (Morus Rubra – native. Not to be confused with the more commonly found invasive white mulberry Morus Alba.)
  • Grapes (several species are native)
  • American Elder (Flowers and berries are used for food and medicine. Native.)
  • Spicebush (Bay Laurel relative. Leaves are used for tea, and berries are used like allspice. Native!)
  • Sassafras (Bay Laurel relative. Leaves are an important ingredient in gumbo (file).)
  • Honeyberry (non-native but non-invasive fruit crop)
  • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana, native)
  • Stinging Nettles (The stinging mechanism deactivates when cooked properly, and then they are a delicious and highly nutritious vegetable. Some nettles are not native, but Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis is native!)

Woodland cultivation poses different advantages and different challenges than full sun gardening. Some special considerations include:

  • Cleaning up downed trees and limbs after storms
  • Maintaining access paths to the planting areas
  • Removing invasive species
  • Removing poison ivy
  • Reducing Mosquitoes

It’s a fascinating topic and we’re just getting started. I look forward to learning more and more about woodland gardening as I gain experience, and sharing that new knowledge with you here. I hope you’ll try a shade crop or two if you have a woodsy spot on your property! And more importantly, I hope you’ll look at trees as garden friends rather than foes.

Blackberry Winters and Thermal Masses : 5 Tips To Protect Your Summer Garden From Spring Frosts

Blackberry Buds

As the warming sunny days of April enchant us into delusions of summer, many gardens are planted before May. In some lucky years, we get away with it. But nearly as often, a late frost comes to claim our tender plants. Midwestern folk tales call this the Blackberry Winter, because it usually comes around the time blackberries flower. That time is now. And that frost is tonight. The forecast predicts a frigid 26 degrees by tomorrow morning. In this article, I will share five tips you can use to help protect your tender plants from frosts- whether the frost be blackberry, or other.

I like to wait until after Mother’s Day weekend to plant my tomatoes and peppers (unless I plan to protect them), because these plants are very tender and blackberry winters have bitten me before. But my potatoes are already growing in the ground, and although they can withstand light frosts, the young vines can be damaged by temperatures below 29 degrees. I also planted a few cucumbers last week against my better judgement, and they’ll need serious protection tonight. In my cool season garden I have onions, kale, collards, kohlrabi, and cabbage. Those plants should be mostly fine, but 26 degrees is right on the borderline of cabbage’s cold hardiness, so I’ll add a light covering to that bed just to be safe. A quick google search should inform you of the frost tolerances of any other plants you might have in your garden.

Tip #1: Water Well. This strategy is important for all types of plants. Wet soil can retain heat better than dry soil, so by ensuring your soil is well watered before a frost, you can add a layer of protection. I suggest watering before adding any sort of frost covering unless your soil is already moist.

Tip #2: If only light protection is needed, use a fabric covering. You can use an old sheet, or you can purchase floating row cover fabric. Floating row cover fabric is sold specifically for farm and garden purposes, and is usually rated to a specific temperature. Fabric coverings can be draped directly over the plants and anchored to the soil with rocks, bricks, or earth staples.

Tip #3: For more frost protection, I use 6 mil clear plastic sheeting, such as might be found at a hardware store in the vapor barrier section. But if you use a plastic covering, it’s important that the plastic is raised above plants instead of resting directly on them. Use hoops, buckets, or anything else you can find to elevate the plastic above the level of your tallest plant. Plastic is also easily carried off by a strong wind, so make sure it’s weighted down very thoroughly.

A low tunnel I built in one of my previous gardens from PVC pipe, 6 mil clear plastic sheeting, and 2×4 bottom weights. I should mention that the 2×4 weights weren’t strong enough to keep the plastic in place during wind storms, and I ended up adding rocks to anchor it more solidly.

Tip #5: Add thermal mass. A great thermal mass material will absorb heat from the sun during the day, and then release that stored heat during cool periods. In a garden situation, water is by far the best and most available thermal mass material. I save empty gallon jugs to fill with water and place throughout my garden for this purpose, but I’ve also used 5 gallon buckets with great results. There’s a product called “Wall O Water” that creates 360 degree water-based thermal mass around a single plant, and the manufacturer claims it will protect a plant down to 16 degrees! I don’t think I’ve ever tried it in weather quite that cold, but I have used these for years and I can say that they’ve handled whatever the weather has thrown at them and they have the benefit of being much more convenient and user-friendly than any of the other protection options. They work from exactly the same principles as the gallon jugs of water though, so don’t feel like you have to go out and buy fancy items just to have a successful garden. For more information about thermal mass, this article is very educational! Note that the water must be placed out during the day to give it a chance to store warmth. In a pinch, if you don’t have time to set them out in advance, you can fill the jugs with very warm water from your tap.

Gallon jugs of water are added under the plastic covering for extra thermal mass
Gallon jugs of water are placed around potato plants before adding the plastic covering. These potato plants are too numerous and too closely spaced to benefit from “Wall O Water”, so they will be protected by gallon jugs of water + 6 mil plastic sheeting. The gallon jugs also have the benefit of lifting the plastic away from the tender plants.
Plastic covering is placed over four gallons of water and potato plants.
These “Wall O Water” plant protectors are made up of many narrow tubes. Each tube is filled with water, and then the protector is placed around a single plant. The thermal mass of the water protects the plant inside very effectively, even in very low temperatures. This is one of the very few “garden gimmick” products that I actually use and recommend (perhaps the only one). If they’re not in your budget, or they’re not the right fit for your plants, then the gallon jugs of water under plastic covering work similarly well.
I’ve added 6 mil plastic sheeting over the trellis in this bed that contains the Wall-O-Waters. The plastic will seal in the heat of the Wall-O-Waters for the benefit of the other plants in that bed that would be otherwise unprotected. This extra layer of protection shouldn’t be necessary for the cucumber plants directly protected by the Wall-O-Water.

Tip #5: For even more protection, add an extra layer. Have you ever noticed that if you go out into the depths of winter wearing a t-shirt and leggings under a big bulky coat, you actually feel colder than if you had a tight layer of wool thermals under jeans and a lighter coat? Two layers of plastic with an air gap between them will far surpass the protection of a single layer. The air gap can be created with a layer of bubble wrap, or by adding a physical separation like an outer hoop structure. If you also add thermal mass inside, your plants will ultra-protected. That level of protection isn’t needed tonight for our 26 degree cold snap, but it’s a useful strategy that can help you grow plants all winter long.

The Foundation of Our Future

Gardening has enjoyed increased popularity in recent months. Perhaps because we’re all spending more time in our homes and our yards due to shelter in place rules. Perhaps because many of us have lost our incomes due to economic shutdowns and are trying to reduce our food costs. Perhaps because it’s great therapy during stressful times. Whatever your reason for beginning a garden, welcome to the pastime. I’m glad you’re here. And I want you to succeed, which is why I’m about to share the #1 most important garden success tip I know: grow compost. Compost is the absolute lifeblood, and the foundation of a healthy organic garden. If you have some food scraps and a few spare minutes per day, you can do this. And if you do, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful rich soil that will help your garden succeed. It’s one of nature’s great miracles.

What is compost? It’s a nutrient rich soil amendment that you can make from your unwanted food scraps. Soil loves it, worms love it, and plants love it. To start, you’ll need materials from two categories: “greens” and “browns”. Greens are fresh, moist plant products that could include food scraps, grass clippings, certain manures, and weeds. Browns are dried, dead things like fallen autumn leaves, wood chips, or paper. People have done research on creating the ideal balanced compost pile and there is plenty of literature available on that topic. I don’t measure my compost very carefully though. I just shoot for roughly twice as much brown material as green. If you have too much brown material, the compost process will be very slow. If you have too much green material, the compost will smell and might get very hot. If that happens, just adjust as necessary and keep composting. It will all work out.

Once you have some materials, you’ll need a place to put them. This can be as simple as an open pile in the back yard with no structure whatsoever, or as fancy as a compost tumbler. I’ve tried a number of different composting systems, and they all produce the same compost. The difference is mainly in how tidy they look, and how much effort is required to produce the compost.

Mantis ComposTumbler Compost Tumbler

The compost tumbler pictured to the right of this paragraph (made by Mantis) is the pièce de résistance of my compost system. I watched Craigslist for years, waiting for it to be listed there at an affordable price. The hand crank design makes it very easy to turn the compost every day. By turning the compost every day, and keeping it moist, compost is finished in just a few weeks.

Wire Bins for Compost Overflow
Wire Bins holding compostable materials that don’t fit in my tumbler. They look messy, but they do the job!

Between actively managed batches of compost in the tumbler, I store compostable materials in these wire bins as overflow. If I was constantly adding new materials to the tumbler, then the materials added later in the cycle wouldn’t be finished composting at the same time as the materials added in the beginning, meaning that there would always be some whole banana peels in my compost. So I use these wire bins to store the materials in waiting. You can see from the photo that I have quite a backlog of compostables, but I plan to completely catch up now that I’m a full time farmer (aka unemployed…)! Even if I didn’t have the tumbler, I could finish these compostables just as quickly by turning them every day with a pitch fork. But, that would take more free time than I have. Or, I could turn them less often, and they would turn into compost over a longer period of time (maybe several months). Or, I could not turn them at all, and they would still become compost after a few years! Moisture is necessary to the composting process though, so try to water your compost pile during periods of drought. Once per week is enough. It should be moist like your garden soil, but not soggy.

You’ll know your compost is finished with it reduces to at least half its original size, no longer feels hot to the touch, and looks like rich black soil. It should not contain any large recognizable chunks of banana. It should smell neutral and earthy.

Ideas for “Greens” To Use In Your Compost:

  • Vegetable peels
  • Used Coffee Grounds
  • Apple cores
  • Banana Peels
  • Leftovers nobody wants to eat
  • That parsley you bought with good intentions but it got all wilty and gross in the back of your crisper
  • Moldy bread
  • Livestock manure, or manure from certain herbivorous pets (do your own research on this, not all manures are safe to add)
  • Weeds you pulled from your garden (but be sure not to include their seeds)
  • Grass clippings


  • Unbleached Napkins
  • Unbleached Coffee Filters
  • Unbleached Paper
  • Fallen autumn leaves (preferably shredded)
  • Straw
  • Wood Chips (these will take a long time to break down, delaying your compost, but they do work)

Items Generally Recommended Not To Compost:

  • Plastic-looking items that say “compostable” on them. These are only compostable if they’re heated first. Industrial composting facilities can handle these types of items, but it’s difficult to manage at home.
  • Items that are bleached or dyed. Though I add these to my compost anyway, as long as they make up a tiny percentage of total compost.
  • Meat or dairy products. These products can make your compost smell, and possibly attract animals to your compost pile. However, I add them anyway, because I don’t care about those consequences.
  • Foods that are very salty or oily. Again, I do this anyway as long as those items constitute a tiny percentage of my total compost. If there’s too much salt in the compost it can harm plants, and oil takes a long time to fully break down. In tiny amounts, I don’t notice any problems.

DIY Recycled Seedling Pots

Life on our home planet looks rather alien right now. Our sense of normalcy has been disrupted by the tiniest of creatures. And right now, like many of you, I find myself at home, newly unemployed, and a little shaken. But even with the stock markets in free fall, nature remains a constant and steadying force. Seedlings still grow towards the light. Hens still lay eggs. Flowers still bloom. And seedlings still outgrow their starter pots.

I didn’t plan this project just because of the recession, or because I’m tightening my own budget due to my recent change in income. I’ve been collecting cans for months with this project in mind, and I’m especially glad of that preparation given the current circumstances. But if you don’t have all the materials shown here, that’s ok! Exercise your creative muscles and think about the materials you do have, and what you could make with them. People make planters from juice cartons, milk jugs, origami newspapers, yogurt cups, and pretty much any container imaginable.

My Materials: Potting Mix, Worm Castings, Water, Power Drill, Empty Tin Cans

Step 1: Eat the soup, tomatoes, green beans, or whatever is inside of the can. Ideally, you would do this at your leisure. The point is not to eat 16 cans of whatever in one afternoon so you can make this project.

Step 2: Clean the cans in the dishwasher, or in whatever manner you usually clean your dishes. Smooth the cut edge of the can if it is sharp. I have a fancy can opener that cuts a blunt edge, so I didn’t need to take any further action on these cans. However, you could probably use a metal file or maybe even a sanding block to smooth them. Please be careful not to cut yourself on any sharp edges.

Step 3: Drill holes in the bottom of the cans. It is a good idea to wear protective gear during this step, like a dust mask, eye protection, and gloves. It may also be a good idea to clamp the can in place or brace it against something so it doesn’t run away from you when the drilling begins.

Empty Soup Cans with Drainage Holes Drilled In The Bottom To Be Used As Planters

Step 4: Prepare your planting mix. Start with a neutral substrate, such as peat. Add a small amount of the worm castings if you have them, or whatever fertilizing ingredients you prefer to use on your plants. If you’re using the worm castings, aim for about 2-4 tablespoons per gallon of potting mix. A little goes a long way, and too much can overwhelm your delicate plants. If your potting mix is dry, rehydrate it before moving on to the next step.

Step 5: Plant something in the cans! If you’re planting a seed, then fill the can almost to the top with soil mix. Pack it down gently, and then plant your seed according to the directions on the seed packet. If you’re transplanting a small plant, then start with just enough soil to cushion the plant inside the can. Place the plant inside, and gently fill in soil around the plant. I labeled mine simply with Sharpie on Masking Tape. Another option could be to make these recycled plant markers.

Jalapeno Seedlings Planted Into Recycled Soup Cans

Step 6: Nurture your plant every day. And, enjoy!

Tomato plants growing in recycled tomato can planters