Monday, February 28, 2011

February—A Month of Contrasts

While most of the east and Midwest were getting slammed by horrendous snowstorms and flooding the first part of the month, here in Northern California we experienced another “false spring”, much like we had last year. Temperatures reached into the 70’s in some places with the resulting warmth causing many of the winter vegetables to bolt.

My Pak Choi varieties took the biggest hit, including ‘White Stem’, ‘Ching Chang’ and ‘Tatsoi’. But the 4” pots of ‘Tatsoi’ setting on top of the compost bed were not bolting, instead growing into huge, substantial plants. I didn’t have a spot for them in the garden so the pots were set over the fallow compost bed, along with some pots of Collards and Broccoli. I just bunched up the soil around them and left them for the winter. Their extremely healthy, robust growth confirmed what I was trying to change in my composting practices: switching from composting in separate bins to composting right in the garden bed.

For years I had been tending to 6 compost bins, made of circles of chicken wire that would get
filled with leaves, grass clippings, garden waste and kitchen scraps. Once one bin was filled, it was left to compost on its’ own while I filled the next bin. Usually every spring and every fall I would sift out the finished compost and work it into the cinderblock beds that are my vegetable gardens. It was great for keeping the soil loose and made gardening in the beds really easy to work in.

But I found that I had to add more fertilizers to get good growth from my vegetables as the years went on. And last years winter garden just didn’t have any oomph at all. Not only that, all of the cabbages, kale, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts got hit with a massive infestation of gray aphids and no amount of hosing off or insecticidal soap would stop them. My summer plants didn’t fare much better. The bush beans, melons, tomatoes and peppers just didn’t seem to thrive. Something was lacking in the soil.

I looked over where 3 of the compost bins were on one side of the yard, and then to where the other 3 bins were on the other side of the yard. Plants all around them were thriving and even getting a bit pushy. It was my eureka moment. All the wonderful nutrients that were being made from the breakdown of the compost by the microbes, earthworms and soil bugs were benefiting whatever plants that were reaching their roots under the piles. By the time I would haul the ‘finished’ compost to my garden beds, a good portion of the nutrients were used up.

That’s when a second light bulb came on. Why don’t I compost right in one of my cinderblock beds? It would mean keeping one of 5 beds fallow for a season to build up the nutrients, but it was worth a try. And to make a richer garden bed, I decided to concentrate on vermiculture to produce earthworm castings right in the garden bed.

So last October, I began to put all the kitchen scraps in one bed: egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit scraps and vegetable scraps only. No leaves and no grass clippings, just the type of food earthworms would love and could break down quickly into nutritious castings.

Now I can see how well it’s already working with the pak choi, collards, and kohlrabi—and with them still in their pots! Contrast that growth with the sluggish growth of the cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts that I planted last month in another tired bed.

One more month of feeding the bed should be enough, then one more month to let the earthworms finish everything off and it will be just the right time to put in tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and melons. I can taste them already!


  1. What a great idea! I'm putting in two raised beds this year for Tas and me to garden in. I won't have enough space to leave one fallow but is there any harm in working eggshells, coffee grounds and the like into the soil around the plants throughout the year?

  2. Since you're putting in two beds, you may have enough room at the end of one bed, or in a corner, to start "in-place" composting. I'll be posting directions on starting up a raised bed and some of the best ways to set it up. Tas is going to love gardening!