Sunday, October 13, 2019

Compost and the Chipper Shredder

Up until now, our compost material has been chiefly horse-manure.  We compost our kitchen scraps and selection of plant trimmings throughout the year and when the compost tube is full we incorporate it into the manure pile.  But in the fall when we cut back all of the vegetation, we end up wasting a lot of compost opportunity.  We just pile it at the edge of the woods and let it return to nature.  With the effort involved with sourcing, moving and composting horse manure, it makes much more sense to make use of all this green yard waste instead.

Last year while Tim was watching me chop down and manage my buckwheat cover crop, he decided we needed some sort of shredder to deal with the long, woody stems that end up in a tangle.  This year when I gathered up my cornstalks, he decided it was a necessity.  How could we possibly waste all of those cornstalks?

We had researched on-line several different brands and sources for a chipper shredder.  Since we live in a retail dead-zone, there aren't too many ANY places you can just walk in and comparison shop for a chipper.  We could mail order one.  Or Tractor Supply could order one in. We wouldn't see what we were buying until we unpacked it.

It just so happened, that the weekend we were planning to go to the new farm supply store opening in town to see their single offering, a DR Chipper Shredder, we stumbled upon a (never) used vintage model sitting in a garage at an estate sale.  And when I say never used I mean there had never been gas in the tank.  The man had purchased it in 1994 and just stored it in his garage. And now we know why - because it is a fearsome beast not for the faint of heart.  But I digress.  It was now part of his estate, and no one knew anything about it other than that they had the receipt from 1994.    A deal was struck for a bargain price and the chipper came home with us.  What Luck!

It is a Troy-bilt Tomahawk with a 5 hp Tecumseh motor.  Just a starter model.  Troy-bilt also had 8 hp Briggs-Stratton motors and those Tomahawks are 2 inches wider.  Remember back in the 90s when we started to complain that they didn't make things like they used to?  It hadn't gotten that bad yet.  I am now complaining that they no longer make things like they did in the 90s.  It makes the $800 DR model at the farm supply store look like a child's toy from Dinkytown.

The comparable DR Model available locally for $799
This older Troy-bilt is big, beefy, weighs about three hundred pounds and is a fearsome beast.  The motor tried to start up on the second pull.  After sitting for twenty-five years.  Another couple of tries and it roared to life.  When we tried to engage the lever that runs the flails, the motor smoked the belt and stopped dead in its tracks.  The sticker says to "engage the lever slowly" and they mean SSSLLLOOWWWLLLYYY.  You have to put just enough friction on the belt to get the flails spinning, and gradually increase the speed until the motor and shredder RPMs are compatible, and then and only then can you lock the lever all the way.  I'll be that poor guy tried to engage the flails, scared the pants off himself with all the squealing and the smoking, and decided to never try again. And I don't blame him

Once it is running it will pulverize anything you let it get ahold of.  Its like a slightly unhinged horse or cow (or dog) that you don't really trust but treat with respect, and get along with just fine, until one day it turns on you, pins you up against the barn wall, and tries to kill you. The first time we stuck a cornstalk into the shredder hopper, it disappeared instantaneously.  Quicker than the eye.  There one instant and gone the next.  Holy Shit!

The screen it came with on the left, and the
 eBay grill, modified to fit this model, on the right.

But there is a problem with the cornstalks.  They are full of corn syrup and very sticky, even after being cut and dried for a couple of weeks.  The Tomahawk came with a discharge screen with  3/4" holes.  The cornstalks gummed up pret. ty. quick.  We found that we had to stop the chipper every five minutes and clean the screen.  Which isn't really difficult.  You just pull three pins and it slides right out.  After you practice a few dozen times, you could do it with your eyes closed.  You just have to stop the thing and then get it started again.

After our cornstalk episode we went indoors and Googled the owner's manual (the stickers give adequate instructions to start and run the machine) and the manual says for wet materials to just remove the screen.  Removing the screen allows the shredder to shoot vegetation right through without really chopping it that much.  The screen holds the material back so the flails can chop it finer.  You can get screens with larger holes, and a quick search of eBay found a bar grill instead of a screen.

We've decided that we need to process our compost in smaller batches so we can easily sort through the types of material we want to shred and set the machine up for that.  There are some things that shred beautifully.  Small leafy branches, for instance, contain the right ratio of dry wood to wet leafy greens.  It is wise to keep a few dry sticks around to clean the shredder.

It loves marigolds because of their woody stems.  It's really fun to give it a marigold plant and have it come out in a shower of green, yellow and orange confetti.  Bush bean plants are also a big hit.  Impatiens shred easily but have a high juice content and turn into mush that needs to be cleared from the shoot.  Long stemmy grasses and day lily leaves need to be held back so they don't just shoot through unscathed.  If you have these things in separate piles, you can give the machine the perfect combination to keep things running smoothly.  We kept a few three inch tree limbs for last to clean the flails.

The Before Pile
It takes several days (five) to cut down all of our perennials and annuals.  As I said before we have usually just piled the bulk of the waste at the edge of the woods and let it return to nature.  We ended up with a sprawling pile of vegetation to deal with.  There is everything from woody day lily stems to juicy impatients.  This would all compost down eventually, but if you run it through the chipper you not only reduce the volume by at least two thirds (advertised as 10:1, but maybe and maybe not), you also mix the wet with the dry.

The After Pile
Two and a half hours later we had reduced the pile to about a fifth of the volume.  It was a sizable job but gratifying and sort of fun.  Now I will have to turn the pile now and then so it composts down to something useful.  Next time we trim shrubs and tree limbs we won't have to pile them out back for a brush fire.  We can just wheel out the chipper and turn them into mulch.

Shredded cornstalks
Some of the material I used right away as mulch.  The cornstalks went straight back into the beds they came from.  I'll leave this until spring and then rake it into the soil.  Right now the consistency is much like grass clippings, forming a thick mat over the soil to block weeds until spring and feed the earth worms.

The buckwheat was both stems that were cut a month or more ago and left to dry mixed with green cut that day.   A total of four beds of growth went to the poorest bed which needs the most help. The combination of wet and dry made a nice mulch.

Now the remaining pile of horse manure residing on the Poop-deck will be re-located to somewhere that we can still get to it.  Having acres and acres comes in handy sometimes.  We will probably mix it into one of our older compost/topsoil piles created from sod edgings, green waste and other soil incidents. We use that material for repairing the lawn or starting new landscape beds.  Then we will develop a system for shredding and composting all of our green waste in a tidy and organized fashion.  The gardening system continues to evolve.

Sunday, October 6, 2019


I thought maybe an old dishpan would hold all of the apples I need to deal with today. Or not. 

First half a dozen pies for the freezer 
and then some applesauce 
and then...

A photo really doesn't do justice to the volume of apples.  The "normal" sized apples from the old Empire tree are in the back.  This is the bulk of the harvest from my two young Northern Spy trees.  

Three of them weighed in over a pound a piece.

The "south tree" produces a couple of dozen huge apples each year.  
The "north tree" has, over the past three or four years, set ONE apple each year that it dropped mid-season.  

This year it went all out and set and kept 12 big apples.  Well done little tree

Friday, October 4, 2019

Frost on the Pumpkin

The weather man is warning there may be 
a light frost tonight so I've prepared my garden.

I gathered up the pumpkins

I picked the last of the apples

Tim pulled the water pump but first filled all of my watering cans

I covered my lettuce with a frame and frost blanket.
I don't know if it will ever amount to anything,
but I don't want to give up just yet.

I pulled the last of the cucumber vines, and the worst looking beans
The colors of the Marigolds have been brilliant

The Nasturtiums are still gorgeous

I stopped to admire the Dahlias

Especially this color
There is still much gardening to be done.  Annuals to remove when they freeze.  Pots to empty.  Dahlia tubers to dig.  Seeds to collect.  Perennials to cut back.   Leaves to chop.  Weeds to pull.  Bulbs to plant.  Mulching to be done.    
I'm ready for cooler weather.  Apple pies.  Crock pots. Campfires...

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Autumn Countdown

There is not a lot left in the garden, but there is still growing going on.

Most of the beds are cleaned out and being weeded

The second bed of cornstalks is cleaned out

I arrange my stalks around a shepherd's hook and tie them with jute twine
Two beds still have buckwheat in them.

The tomato bed is full of nasturtiums that have re-seeded from the earlier plants

As expected, the older bed of bush beans has begun to flower again

The younger bed of beans is supplying more than enough beans

The cauliflower are growing by leaps and bounds.
I finally had to get serious about covering them with a row cover to keep the butterflies off.

I am still paying the price from my earlier laziness.
Every couple of days I pick caterpillars then hose off all of the 
poop to make them easier to spot next time.

We have plenty of cucumbers still growing

It is apple season.  I have a pot of applesauce cooking on the stove now 
and I needs to make some pies for the freezer.

The lettuce is actually growing...

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Brick by Brick

Another thing we accomplished over the past couple of weekends:  Our long awaited fire pit is finished.   We probably have at least two or three good sized bonfires each year to take care of the tops of whatever trees we've had to take out as well as any fallen limbs and general brush.  We sort of enjoy these fires, but they are too massive to sit around and roast marshmallows over. 

For many years we've been wishing we had a fire pit for cool evenings and early autumns.  We also wished we had a place to put the lawn furniture where it didn't need to be moved every time the lawn is mowed. This patio was built from about 500 re-claimed city road bricks and other reused materials.  It doesn't look like a huge project, but it took more than four full days of dirty, heavy work to complete, in addition to brick-getting excursions.

Day 1 involved leveling the site and building the frame out of reused 2x4s.  The ones we had to use were fourteen feet long, so the patio is fourteen feet square.  There is also a nine inch drop from right to left.  The slope of the lawn had to be excavated and the frame leveled all the way around.

Day 2 the pit itself had to be dug (pick-axed) out of the hard clay ground.  There is a level of concrete blocks at the base, and the pit is filled with six inches of gravel to hold rainwater below the surface while it drains away (slowly - verrrry slowly).  A second layer of solid blocks was glued on top of the foundation blocks to raise the edge above the level of the patio.   We had a heavy iron grate which was cut to size and placed in the bottom of the pit, sitting on house bricks to further elevate the fire surface above any moisture.

Days 3 and 4 was bricklaying.  The bricks were all "free".  They came in two batches.  The first, largest pile of about three hundred was found and brought to us by someone who owed us a favor (debt paid in full).  We also had almost a hundred bricks hanging around which we have used to hold things down and prop things up.  But the last hundred and forty had to be searched for.  Finally, the exact right amount of bricks was located, the only price being the effort of hauling them out by hand a thousand feet from the road and a nasty case of poison ivy.  The other alternative was to buy them from the city scrap yard.  .75 per brick, and you still have to go get them and load them yourself.  So it all worked out, except for my poor husband with the poison ivy.

Anyway, the hundreds of bricks were laid over two day's time.  A careful eye was kept on all the gaps as well as the level.  Then size 1A gravel was swept into the cracks

Each time it rains it helps the "grout" settle into the cracks.  We've used the 1A on another brick walkway and liked how the jagged edges knit together so well.  It will probably need a little more added as the gravel slowly works its way down to ground level and forms a hard network.  The top soil around the low sides has been replaced and graded into the lawn and grass seed planted.

We added a few cut up telephone poles that are fanny height and give a good definition to the back of the patio.  These will have some plants planted between them.

Last month the poplar tree (which fell two winters ago into an area too wet and mucky to get the tractor into until this summer) was hauled out and processed.  We have plenty of nice split cord-wood to feed our autumn fires.

And we also have our horseshoe pits for fun
Our city still has a lot of brick streets.  After laying two hundred square feet of bricks you begin to wonder how it was done on such a large scale.

Jump to 2:00 to see the actual brick laying

And this is how it happens now

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Lettuce Pray

Let us pray for the well being of my lettuce...

DO you see it?  There are two lettuce plants in this photo
I knew it was being sluggish.  I planted it in Mid-August and it hasn't changed a bit in weeks.  Last week, out of desperation, I transplanted it anyway to see if that would jolt it into growing,  I've been perusing my own blog and found this entry from Sept 18 2016.  Just look at those lettuce seedlings!  What gives?

Lettuce Sept 18 2016

This is what tired out mildewed zucchini looks like.  I had been holding the mildew at bay for several weeks with Safer-Gro Mildew Cure which also worked really well on the pumpkin vies.

Over the past week the growing tip on one vine shriveled and let me know
 there would be no more blooms.

The other growing tip was still viable but sluggish.  But I don't need anymore zucchini.
So out they came.

This is what you get if you ignore Jade Bush Beans for a few weeks.  They're monsters.  I'm using beans from the newer rows but I've still been too lazy to pull these plants out because I want them for compost and the compost tube is too full to accept them.

Yesterday I picked four cucumbers.  This one I'll leave on the vine a couple of days.  These late season cucumbers do not keep in the fridge as long as the summer ones.

Yesterday one bed of corn stalks were removed.  That was a chore!!! 
I cut the stalks and stacked them in a shock to store until I can process them for compost.
The roots I pried out with a fork.  Fun stuff

I removed the last of the tomato vines last weekend but I left the Nasturtiums which are just beginning to bloom again.  I've been collecting the seeds for next year.

Now - I have to get my butt out of bed, make breakfast, and get back to work.   I have a lot of perennials to move, ground cover to plant, shrubs to prune, bulbs to set out, a car to wash.....

Its the last day of Summer.  Make the most of it!

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Dirt Locker

For several years now I have wished that I had a place to store lightly used soil.  Anyone who does a lot of gardening in containers will know what I mean.  Sometimes when you dump a container, there seems to be no soil left in there.  There is nothing but a mass of roots, and the dirt has completely disappeared.  Other times you have a large container half or three quarters full of slightly tired soil.

The Dirt Locker
Now there are a few things you can do with it.  You can dump it into gardening areas to improve the native soil, you can put it into your compost pile or you can leave it in the container for next year.  For my large whiskey barrel planters, of course I leave it in.  They are too big to dump over, and they are large enough to mix in new ingredients.   Before I plant again I will add a balanced fertilizer, and then top it off with fresh potting mix to replace what was removed with the roots as I pulled out the dead plants last year.  

A mass of roots, some empty plastic pots for filler,
but still some usable potting mix to reclaim
But my raised beds cannot take large quantities of new material each year.  Putting it into the compost seems a bit of a waste since it is still light and fluffy and full of peat and vermiculite and perlite.  As for leaving a bunch of half filled pots around - well I like to scrub out my containers and store them away each winter.  We have a lot of autumn leaves to deal with and we need a clean slate.  Stacks of containers everywhere just collects leaves.  And the winter weather will continue to age the planters unnecessarily.

Some of the ingredients that go into mixing your own potting mix
Absent from photo: large quantities of compost and peat or coir
Another plus of saving and reusing potting mix is the cost savings.  Whether you buy it by the bag or mix your own, potting mix can represent a large portion of your gardening budget.  You can go broke pretty quick growing a year's worth of potatoes in containers of brand new medium.  It never hurts to have a quantity of lightweight, clean potting mix on hand.  Often you just need it as a filler at the bottom of a large container.  I also have used straight compost for filler, since we usually have a substantial amount of that cooking, but that could be considered a waste of good compost.  In the cases where I've used compost, I always try to return it to the compost pile when I dump the pot.

So this weekend my husband treated me to a 73 gallon deck box.  Now I can store a useful amount of used potting mix for the filling of large containers.  I will still buy bags of new potting mix for topping off each pot, and those dump neatly into a large Rubbermaid container so I can tote it around and store it temporarily in a dry place instead of having half full opened bags of soil setting about.

My typical potting day set-up
I'm pretty tickled with my dirt locker.  It is just one more step towards getting all of my potting activities in one spot.  Next year the plan is to add a greenhouse where I can have all of my pots and supplies stored together near where I actually keep my plants and pot them up.  Right now I have containers and the potting bench stored way back in a canvas storage building.  My compost pile and messy work area where I store half filled containers is in another spot.  My cold frame for tender plants is up by the garden shed.  And my soil additives and hand tools in the garden shed.  I spend a lot of time in the spring bent over a wheelbarrow filling pots.  In good weather I bring the potting bench up to the garden.  On cold rainy spring days I round up everything and take it back to the potting bench and then haul it all back to the cold frame. I can put in a lot of steps in a work day.  Yet another way that gardening is good for your health!