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Key to Wellness: An Organic Garden Challenge!

Hello all.  I truly hope all is well with you today.

For me, I am very much looking forward to Spring!  In psychology, there is a syndrome called Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is described as someone who, in the winter months, becomes depressed from a combination of seasonal environmental factors; such as a lack of Vitamin E from healthy exposure to the sun, increased isolation from staying indoors more often due to weather, as well as a lack of the fresh, beautiful New England air we have more than ½ of the year in our beautiful Ocean State!  They then become completely renewed and happier as soon as Spring starts and they are able to get outside again. Children experience more behavioral problems during this period as well, and then are suddenly improved when it warms up and they get outside to play, see their friends more, etc. This year, I’m looking forward to this improvement in my very moody, very beautiful 12 yr old preteen who is testing my last nerve at the moment!

I have always believed I am effected by this syndrone to a certain extent.  This year, I am very excited to be settled in a year round residence. I am conquering many new adventures, from turning 50 last December, opening up a new Business, starting a Blog, to becoming a new puppy owner!  Lots of Bucket List items underway for me this year. In that mindset, I have decided to take on another challenge, and I am inviting all of my new ABetterWayRI.com friends to join me! A full produce Organic Garden, available year round!  My goal is to grow so many wonderful organic fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs that by the end of the summer, we can start sharing recipes!  

Recycle & Reuse

Now instead of adding to our waste/trash, or ending up eating take out/non-organic out of lack of fresh ingredients, we can pick our own organic fruits, vegetables and herbs as we need them.  I consider myself a lifetime Chef by hobby and family generation, so having all of my favorite fresh items available all the time is a Chefs Paradise of my dreams! It’s a great budget-trimmer as well, as even if you don’t have much waste, the prices of fresh organic produce are climbing almost as fast as their popularity.  Lastly, it is a great motivator to eat healthier, as well as in weight management, as fresh organic herbs are a great substitute for adding fats and salt. Another added plus for us!

Other benefits?  For me, as important as having a Chefs Paradise, is minimizing waste and creating a greener, healthier atmosphere for all of us.  Most of the waste that could become Compost ends up instead in trash cans, followed by neighborhood dumps. There, it does not breakdown in an organically friendly way, and thus releases toxic chemicals into our community air.  It pollutes our Earth at the same time. We then breathe it in, buy & consume plants grown in the Earth, and the cycle continues. To me, this is such a vicious cycle of us killing Our Earth & Ourselves!

So will you take on the Organic Gardening Challenge with me?

I have been doing online research, combing through various YouTube videos & “How to” articles:  I believe I have a very basic, very economical way of creating a great Organic Garden. I am planning on having a “Container Garden”.  Portable, with an old metal shelf set from my basement storage, brought outside & placed right at the bottom of the stairway to the backyard, up against the back of the house.  I went to our local thrift store, the ReStore on Rte 2 in Exeter RI. I recommend them highly for their vast array of recycled/reused items, or any local consignment store. I scored some clay pots for a few bucks each as well as some larger bins for lettuce & spinach that I believe are clay.  I prefer containers/pots that are an organic material, as opposed to any kind of plastic, even “BPA free”, which I don’t think exists in the majority of cases.

I also found a great old dented copper pot with a lid, which will act as my daily indoor compost bin.  An old, black trash can with a lid that had a large crack in the bottom was hiding under my back stairway unused.  I cut out the bottom of it with a small saw I use often for projects. I am using that as my outdoor composter. The only requirements for this is that you need it to be open to the ground/soil on the bottom, so earthworms and other microorganisms can aide in the breakdown of your compost.  It also has to have some kind of lid, although that doesn’t have to be a tightly sealed one.

If you have an old storage bin unused, that would work well too?  You could also use refurbished wood and/or wire mesh, which would be a more organic substance & just make your own box-type.  I used what I had. It should be black, or at least have a black lid. That attracts the most heat, which also aides in the compost formation.  If it’s not black, it’s okay… You can either paint it black, or use a large black trash bag placed onto the top of it in the meantime? I’m a believer in reusing when at all possible.  

There are two schools of thought on outdoor composters:  The above ground, easy rotating kind, which range in price & size, from $60-200.  The other is a self-made, open to the ground kind. In my research, (for my budget & need to recycle/reuse whenever possible to minimize our carbon footprint on our Mother Earth), I find the self-made ones are seemingly the best.  Also, it should take less time to breakdown, as the Earthworms & other Insects will speed up the process naturally, as will the added air that is created with a manual turning of the compost every 3-4weeks with a pitch fork. Another item I found at the ReStore, so that is also not on my below Grocery List:

Grocery List:

(Not included) Clay/copper/BPA free plastic/wooden pots for outside and inside use, including one to use as a daily/indoor composter, a self-made outdoor composter, a Pitch Fork, and a basic shovel, that I already had from gardening years ago.

  1.  Large lawn bags, compostable.  To be used to collect lawn & garden weeds, raked leaves, etc
  2. Pruning clippers.  Top pick: Fiskars Power Gear Titanium Bypass Lopper Branch & Brush Trimmer- Comes with a smaller pruner in a set at Home Depot for $40.  Carried by Amazon.com
  3. Basic Garden Tool Set:  Top pick: Ergonomic Travel Set/Fiskars 3 Piece Softtouch Garden Tool Set ($16 Amazon.com)
  4. Basic Compost Soil Testing Kit:  Top pick: Lusterleaf Rapitest Soil Test Kit.  ($14 Amazon.com)
  5. Basic Garden Gloves in an organic material:  Top pick: Pine Tree Tools Bamboo Working Gloves ($8 Amazon.com)
  6. Basic lightweight watering can
  7. Starter Pots in a compostable material: Best bought at a local discount store.
  8. Grass-fed animal manure:  So not any pet that is a meat eater.  Rabbits & chickens are okay, but the best place to buy manure is your local farm, preferably that has organic and humanely raised animals.  This is another benefit of living in our Ocean State. There are farms everywhere, and they are a wonderful resource. God Bless Our Farmers!!
  9. If you choose to have an outdoor/seasonal garden, go small and above ground.  In my online research, it’s recommended to do either 3ft by 3 ft or 4ft by 4ft, no larger.  Recycled boards can be set up to border. You should then turn over the ground first, and then to start, add manure & organic bagged soil to form a top layer, as our compost won’t be ready for at least 4 months.
  10. Organic Seeds (More on this later):  There are many out there, so I’m going to let you google this one.  It seems to really depend on what plants you decide to grow.  

Another reason I chose a Container Garden.  This way, as the compost is being processed, the starter pots can be growing.  My plan is to grow them as long as possible in starter pots, and then use as much of the compost as I can when I replant them.

So now we are ready to start!  The first and by far most important step in this process is:

MAKING YOUR OWN ORGANIC COMPOST

So lets just get out the elephant in the room out there right now by saying this is not a romantic concept!  When I learned that there is not one “How to” out there that does not state that this is essential, and the most important step in the entire process.  Called “Black Gold” by all gardeners, I decided that I would first educate myself, and then decide if this was something I, and my friends, would realistically be able to adopt into our lives.  

After I got over my initial discust, I learned that this is not the discusting, moldy, smelly mixture you might have been thinking of.  It also includes just about all of your lawn waste, which is great, and seems to dramatically reduce a carbon footprint, reusing & composting things that would otherwise be filling trash bags.  I was sold after some education! I would recommend watching the many 5 minute youtubes out there, and you will see that it is really a very simple mixture of 4 key ingredients:

1)  Nitrogen:  Green/Wet material:  These are your kitchen scraps, and come to find out, paper and cardboard products.  So you reduce your recycling too! There are some simple DO’s and DON’T’s:

DO add: 

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps,vegetable skin peels, Corncobs, Eggshells (The more you crumble them up first the better)
  • Coffee grounds and teabags in compostable filters
  • Newspapers, papers, cardboard, shredded & slightly dampened
  • Flowers going bad/refrigerated veggies on the way to rotten
  • Dead plants (Not decayed)
  • Rabbit or Chicken manure

DON’T add:

  • Meat, fish or dairy products of any kind
  • Animal fat or bones
  • Diseased plants
  • Citrus fruit peels 
  • Glass, metal or plastic fragments
  • Pet manure 

So these are the items kept in your indoor composter until it’s full

2)  Carbon:  Brown/Dry Material:  Called Humus in the gardening world.  The compost filler, not the spread! This will make up over 50% of your compost.  Best collected in your lawn bags. Tip: Make sure, if you have a gardener, you let them know you’d like them to help you fill your lawn bags.  They might not have compostable ones, so make sure they use yours. Examples of good inclusions are:

  • Annual lawn weeds/garden weeds/prunings/grass shavings.  Do not add perennial weeds, unless you want to have to weed them out later!
  • Hay/straw/Dead grass or plants that are dead & dry
  • Wood chips and/or shavings, small branches & twigs, pine needles & pinecones
  • Dried or raked leaves
  • Dry hair from hairbrush, either human or animal. You could even put the drain hair in with the wet material.  So cool.
  • Lint from the dryer!!  Finally a use for this!!  Love it!!

3) Water

4) Manure

That’s it!!  Then, we mix ingredients with air/oxygen occasionally & we’re done.  So simple right? The key is in the layering & mixing, which is also the next & final step to composting.   We are already almost done with the most essential & difficult part of the garden!!  

Next, choose a good place for your outdoor compost pile.  For me, I have a small space in the corner of my yard, next to our house and close to the area I will be placing my shelfs with my Container Garden.  The place should be close to your garden/plants, so you can easily access it.  

Use a basic shovel and turn over the soil/lawn in your compost area.  You should then make sure your composter is well placed into the soil, as to defer nocturnal scavengers from access, like squirrels or raccoons.  You could even dig it out a bit, place the composter, and fill in a little. Then, you need a good amount of very dry brown carbon material, preferably hay/straw or dried grass.  Twigs and clippings are good too, as your goal is to get ample drainage for the bottom. Then, your nitrogen, or green/wet material, at least one filled indoor composter. Then a thick layer of manure.  Repeat with humus (60%), greens, and manure weekly or as often as you have enough nitrogen (green/wet/indoor compost)   

Moving forward to your 3-4week turning over/mixing:  If it has a smell of any kind that is anything more than a good soil smell, add more humus, particularly dry leaves or hay/straw.  If it seems a little dry, add about a watering can worth of water. Mix all well from the bottom to the top with the pitch fork & shovel, making sure to mix all the layers together.  Add layers on the top and close. Preferably it will stay closed with a black lid to keep it heated. It should really never be saturated with water, so you could open it to rainfall instead of adding water, but be careful it’s not excessive.

And TaDa… Done!  We have just made our first batch of Black Gold.  Good for us!! 

On average, compost takes 4-6months to fully process, although I’m thinking the bottom of the pile might be the first to be good, maybe a little sooner??  Especially if you use the Earth and creatures in it. We shall see. I am hoping that this is a great relaxation and motivation therapy, as I already am feeling excited to see seedlings!!  I started composting yesterday, and it’s very satisfying for me to be using my newspapers, mailings and other cardboard items… I am even shredding Starbucks coffee cups, wetting them & putting them in the composter.  It just feels really good! I have been all about green since my daughter was born, first realizing the importance of fresh organic produce when I made her own baby food from scratch, and froze it in ice cube trays. I’ve never looked back!

MAKE A GARDENING PLAN & BUDGET

So while I suggest making the budget first, I also think that means deciding how important these plants will become in feeding your family.  For me, I have already decided to do this in Stages, both financially and physically. In 2 months (May), I will be purchasing a organic Lemon, Avocado and Blueberry tree, and placing them in larger clay pots on each stairs leading out to my garden.  I also plan on buying a Organic Topsy Turvy Strawberry & Tomato planters & placing them in front of kitchen and dining room windows. (My April goal) That way, hopefully that will be a plant it and forget it type of situation! I’m also trying other types of organic tomatoes from seed, Heirloom and Cherry.  I am also going to bring everything inside in the fall, and make them my living room plants, as well as a kitchen indoor garden area… It will increase indoor air quality, particularly in the winter months!

Other things to decide?  Well, in addition to whether you are going to go with a Container, or above ground/Outdoor garden, you also need to decide whether you are going to do just vegetables, or herbs/fruits/flowers too.  I’m definitely doing Sunflowers and Wildflowers, which will go in front of my porch. I might also do a rosebush on the porch later in the season.

So my gardening plan is, admitingly, a little optimistic, and long in process.  I think I’m going to just approach it monthly. As for the month of March, I will be focusing on compost & starter pots.  I have some little known RI gardening facts to share:

Rhode Island has approximately 150 days from the last frost (when you start putting plants outside) to the first frost. (When you harvest)

Look up your local last frost, as it varies by your proximity to the ocean.  For instance, in Kingston, the last frost is 4/29. In Block Island, the last frost is 5/23.

As far as plants that grow well in Rhode Island… Well, I suggest you look it up online.   Both types of plants that are RI friendly & growing schedules are readily available. You can pretty much grow anything here, except for things like mangos, oranges or bananas, that require a tropical environment.  There are also a few local RI Organic farms and Gardening Shops that have informative websites about locally grown organic plants. Since I’m really not sure about which ones would be best, I suggest you check that out for yourself.  Purchasing seeds from local shops will probably increase the likelihood they will grow well in this area. For most of the basic organic vegetables, herbs and flowers, it’s anywhere from $1.50-3.00 per seed packet. Follow directions for watering and placing outside.

LAST STEPS & TIPS

I strongly recommend a water filter for all watering.  I use a basic Brita water filter for my daily use, from my coffee pot to my spaghetti pot.  They need to be changed every 3 months, maybe 2 if you are using it for all your watering too.  More than one would also be helpful. You can purchase one that attaches to a hose for an outdoor garden.

There are several good options of organic pesticides, like lemon water in a spray bottle for example.  I have chosen to buy netting for my Container Garden, leaving it open at times during the day for bees, and then placing rocks at the bottom to avoid it coming open otherwise.  That’s another decision you can make on your own.  

You should pick a place, both for your starter pots and your outdoor garden area, that has full sunlight.  Further defined as at least 6hours a day of direct sunlight.

TIPS for your Outdoor/Above Ground Garden:

Plant seeds thickly to minimize weed growth.

Consider mulch in the form of wood chips or hay for the border.  It will help with weeds and hold in moisture and heat.

Remember not to plant outside in any form until the last frost.

Look up local growing schedule for each of your plant type and follow instructions.

Make sure to make labels (wooden sticks & label stickers on both sides written on) for all of your seedlings with type of plant.

Happy Growing!!  Have Fun and be Inspired!!

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