Sunday, December 27, 2015

House cleaning

The Jora composter on the Harlem terrace

Before 2016 dawns - or dooms - on us, a tying up of unspoken loose ends. Old, new, confessional, revelatory, mundane, evangelical, edible, or just plain horticultural.

1. First up:

I gave the fancy Swedish composter away.

When I returned to the Harlem terrace from a four week trip in March and April, the vegetable scraps that I had been feeding to the bin daily for six weeks prior had turned into a sewage-like sludge whose stench was eye popping. Despite being fed the prescribed wood pellets and being turned daily by the increasingly alarmed and incredulous Frenchman, the compost could not be saved.

The fault was mine: not enough brown matter added initially (we had no leaves, hence the purchase of wood pellets, but still not enough). But also, we should not have begun a batch in winter, especially not that winter, despite the manufacturer's assurances.

You knew this wasn't going to work, didn't you?

The chopped salads of vegetable and fruit trimmings simply stayed frozen, not generating enough heat to break down gradually until they did so en masse in spring, and with microbial ill effect. And for me the daily prescribed shredding of vegetable bits for the very small compost return became a form of tyranny which I felt relieved to end.

So the composter was cleaned thoroughly and donated to the Urban Garden Center in Harlem for their educational programs. For me, it was The Flop of 2015. I am not proud.

But I am free.

The brown bins

2. But!

In October, in Carroll Gardens, these brown bins appeared like magic, at our doors. Part of a pilot project for a zero waste future (in addition to New York City's established paper, metal, plastic and glass recycling), Mayor De Blasio's administration, carrying on part of Bloomberg's legacy, provided these organic waste collection bins to every residential building in our neighborhood, along with small kitchen bins. I tip our little kitchen bin into the big one every couple of days. The brown bin is then emptied twice a week by the Department of Sanitation when they collect regular trash. It will be turned into compost.

It is the best thing, ever.

Fava bean bruschetta

3. When Anne Raver wrote a story for the New York Times about our Harlem terrace in June, she asked me for some fava bean recipes. So I made this bruschetta for fava beans and garlic scapes. There was no space to run it with the article, so there it is (Southern Hemispherians can make this now...).

Winged euonymous, Woodstock

4. Invasive plants. I have not mentioned just how much I would like all eastern seaboard gardeners to dig out their Euonymous alatus - commonly known as winged euonymous (it has those wings on the stems), or burning bush (which sounds like a porn star name and an STD): Stop admiring it and yank it out.

Euonymous alatus fruit

While it turns famously scarlet in the fall, this shrub's seeds (above) leave your garden via birds and are then spread into woods and thickets where the plant crowds out natives and alters the ecology of your local wild areas. Grow an alternative, like North American native blueberries (which turn red and orange in full sun), or fothergilla (orange and yellow and handles shade). Both will appeal to pollinators, both have flowers, and of course, with the blueberries, you get...

...blueberries. Yes.

Alliums and Camassia bulbs

5. There are 60 Allium bulbs buried in the garden. Lots of small (and cheap) Allium sphaerocephalon, quite a few A. aflatunense 'Purple Sensation,' and a handful (expensive!) of white 'Mount Everest.' All from Brent and Becky's. I think the bees will like them.

Also buried, Camassia leichtlinii 'Semiplena.' This is new, to me - an American bulb of the plains, and a Native American edible going way back. While I planted them for their flowers, I have a growing collection of forageables in the garden, a living lab.

Too soon!

6. In late fall I carefully dig up my containerized lily bulbs and store them with some peat moss in unsealed plastic baggies (per the recommendation of Judith Freeman, of The Lily Garden) in the crisper drawer in the fridge. I have found that my lilies rot in very snowy winters (the snow in the pots melts while the water is unable to drain, as the pot bottom stays frozen).

But when I dug up the last lilies yesterday (their leaves had still been green, and feeding the bulbs), I discovered that they have already made new green shoots! Great confusion, all over.  In late March, or early April, I will plant them out again. I hope they last in the fridge.

Great northern flicker. Photo: Julia Miller

7. Somewhere in these back gardens there is a great northern flicker - the ground-feeding woodpecker that I first encountered in a large migratory flock in Green-Wood Cemetery. Julia Miller told me that her garden two blocks over attracts one, where there are a lot of back yard trees (our back gardens have few). But the other day I realized that the unfamiliar, penetrating bird call I have been hearing nearby belongs to the flicker (it's the "kyeer" call in this Cornell link).

Maybe I'll see it one day.

Arugula, m√Ęche, red mustard

8. The results of the soil sample I sent to Cornell came back just before Christmas: Happy Christmas, you have lead! 560mg/kg, while the acceptable level is 400mg/kg.

We also have low pH (acidic soil), and too much phosphorus (the middle number on fertilizer bags - probably from previous fertilizing, affecting runoff, and the environment, not us directly).

Naturally, the lead result provoked flat panic and a firing off of uninformed questions, followed by days of calmer reading and learning.

The takeaway: the solubility of heavy metals is pH dependent. Low pH allows lead to be taken up by plants. Raising the pH to about 6.5 prevents that from happening. I really had not appreciated the role of pH in soil processes before, despite knowing what relative pH specific plants liked.

The consensus seems to be that the health risk with lead in the soil lies in direct contact with the soil itself, either by breathing in the dust, or ingesting it (as children might, or from unwashed hands or leaves) - rather than from eating the plant, where lead does not accumulate readily. Plants affected most (in low pH, and with high lead levels) seem to be taproots (like carrots), then leafy greens; fruiting parts, like beans and tomatoes are not affected.

That said, I still want as little as possible sucked into my leaves. I have ordered crushed oyster shell to add to the soil to raise pH.  I am not choosing lime, because our magnesium levels are fine, and lime would raise them, too. I did not know that either.

This 2013 research paper based on work done at Cornell was very helpful to me. And yes, it could be worse. We could have a lot of arsenic, instead.

If you garden in-ground, I recommend a soil test. It is money well spent. My soil health assessment plus additional heavy metals screening was $80, and comes with pages of results as well as management recommendations for your situation. If nothing else, it provides an intense learning curve.

Daffodils, Christmas Day

9. There are daffodils poking up in Prospect Park and in our garden, and the smallest Alliums have made wiry leaves. In keeping with our crazy non winter, and in response to a Cornell suggestion to use green manure cover crops to improve our soil condition, I have ordered crimson clover and more fava beans to plant in our central vegetable plot.

Yes, I will plant them in December. No, they might not make it, but at this stage anything goes; two days ago the two rows of garlic I planted broke the surface.



  1. RE: the food waste pick up by NYC is brilliant! I wish cities in the southwest would get with it and do more recycling. So good for the planet. What wonderful sweet smelling compost.

    1. It is a good idea, and I hope NYC sticks to it.

    2. good luck, I mean I'm sure they are determined to do so.

  2. Yeah, wow, so much here. First off, the compost. I fear we may have sewage-in-the-making in our yard, too as we are not attentive about the compost. Not a problem right now, but will need to be disposed of come spring when we (hopefully) sell the house and move to the Hudson Valley. On a better note, our town (Concord, MA) provides free compost, which not ideal for vegetable gardens (who knows what's really in it) was great for helping improved the 'curb appeal' of our front flower garden -- I will NOT resort to mulch as I hate the stuff.

    Then, yes, we have done our part here in terms of burning bush removal as husband has dug up several from our property.

    Finally, thank you for all the soil information. Perhaps there will be gardening at the new house, perhaps we will pay someone to help with planning -- someone in Carroll Gardens, perhaps as we plan to live near the Metro North line within an hour from NYC.

    Happy New Year!

    1. Wow, Hudson Valley move - that is fantastic.

  3. Having just given away our composter, it's comforting to hear you had to do the same. We had a different version, but the same result, smelly sludge.

    Now I'm struggling with my sourdough starter. It's bubbles in a friendly way and smells like it has potential, but after four weeks, no large bubbles and it never doubles in size. Maybe it will make good compost?

    1. I think I should make a house call for the starter. There is hope.

  4. What are the odds that the despicable substance produced by the composter (it attacked me in my dreams a couple of times) would turn out to be the absolute soil equalizer? Increases pH, draws the lead out and yeah, it's unfortunate if squirrels disappear in it as though digested by quicksands? ;-)

    1. If I put that stuff in the garden the lead would get up and walk out.

  5. I wondered about the composter! Interesting, as I am just researching replacing the one I left behind in the divorce. Mine had 2 chambers and a turning handle also but as I have many, many leaves to rake up in fall I never got the 'sludge.' However, now I wonder if I should wait until Spring. I've been dumping the veggie scraps, coffee grinds, and eggshells directly into the veggie garden but I would prefer them broken down prior. A quandary, for sure!

    1. With leaves you'd be fine, I think. But do you have space for a pile?

  6. Have you thought about Bioremediation to help with the lead levels in your soil?

    1. Yes. Though from what I have read it is not yet very effective with lead because plants do not absorb enough. But studies seem to be ongoing. The good thing is that pH-raising will make the lead unavailable altogether for absorption, though it will not affect the splash-effect. I will probably leave my leafy crops where they are, then pull up and discard, plant cover crops with the added oyster shell, and test pH going forward.

  7. Your description of burning bush had me in stitches!

  8. I think I recall an expereeement at the beach farm. I used crushed fish bones to "capture" lead. It smelled, at first, but there were no cats around, and then it didn't. Capture the lead with fish bones, which may or may not increase your pH, adds phosphate, which you may or may not want...

    1. Thank you, Frank! I have the oyster shells for the pH (easier), and I have too much phosphorus...

  9. Related to city composting...Vermont is making huge strides in reducing food waste. (We also had a dismal failure with a suburban composting effort. We are having better luck here in Vermont with more space to work with).

    1. I am cheered that I am not the only one! Yes, a pile makes all the difference...


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