Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Trashy Garden

A friend of mine bought her first house last winter, and she’s very excited about planting a vegetable garden. Gardening has been on my mind, too (or rather my lack of preparation for this years’ garden). Since I've been putting together some ideas for my friend, I thought I would share them here, too: tips for recycling trash into the garden.

I'm not talking about composting, although I do that as well; I mean stuff you would throw away (or recycle) that can be used in, or for, the garden. Since it's mostly things that you don't acquire every day (how often do you get holes in socks?) you need to plan ahead and set these things aside as they accumulate. I present you, therefore, with my list of Handy Trash to hang on to:

Plastic containers (like the ones that cherry tomatoes, berries, and salad greens come in): these make great (and free!) seed-starting containers. The tomato and berry ones are my favorites because they already have small slots in the bottom for drainage. The ones from pre-washed salad greens are bigger and will hold more seeds, but you may have to poke holes in the bottom.

We covered this tip in show #7, but here’s what you do: fill the containers ~2/3 full with pre-moistened seed starting mix (most seeds do better in seed-starting mix than regular potting soil, with some exceptions). Add the seeds to the depth and spacing recommended on the package. Put the filled container in the kitchen sink and gently water the seeds (use the use the sprayer attachment, if your sink has one). I like to add just enough water to "flood" the surface then let it drain thoroughly).

Keep the closed containers on a tray with a rim (to avoid drips) in a warm place until the seeds germinate. They don't need direct sunlight, but they shouldn't be in total darkness either. I leave them on top of the radiator, or above the fridge. Check the containers every day and spritz the soil with a little water to keep it moist, but not soggy. As soon as you see the seedlings begin to sprout, open the top of the container and move it to a brightly lit spot. Sunny windowsills are OK but the seedlings lean towards the light – you will have to rotate the containers every day or two. I use a homemade grow-light setup down in the cellar.

When the seedlings are big enough to transplant (usually defined as having two “true” leaves), move them into 3-4" pots filled with regular potting soil. Dump the used seed starting mix onto the compost pile, rinse the plastic containers and recycle them (with your regular recycling waste - I don't re-use them to start more seeds).

Holey socks: When was the last time you saw someone darn a sock? Do you even know what "darn a sock" means? Those socks with the holes in the toes can be turned into great ties for tomato and other plants: they're stretchy and soft, so they don't damage the plants and they even expand a little as the plants grow. (My mom always used strips cut from T-shirts as plant ties, but my family goes through socks a lot faster than we go through T-shirts).

Here’s what you do: cut the toe and cuff ends off of the sock, then cut the sock into rings ~1/2” wide (see my artful schematic). Cut each ring open to make a flat strip. If you don't want the cloth strips to be obvious in the garden, use black or brown socks. (I prefer white socks because it's easier to locate the strips at the end of the garden season – I cut them off and throw them away. If you wear 100% cotton socks, you can put the used strips in the compost pile).

Newspapers: save the regular print pages, not the glossy-paper ads. Newspapers can be used as mulch in the garden, either shredded into strips, or laid down flat. (If you lay them flat, make sure you use at least 5 pages thick to suppress the weeds). You can add a layer of mulch on top of the newspapers to diminish the trashy look.
Shredded newspapers are also great for adding "carbon-rich" material to a compost pile, or as bedding in your worm bin (I haven't set up a worm bin yet, I'm still accumulating newspaper).

Paper and/or plastic milk cartons: use 'em as "plant protectors." Cut the tops and bottoms off, and when you put your tomato seedlings into the ground, slip a milk carton over it. Push the carton into the ground an inch or so. The carton will protect the plant from cutworms, and if you get a late frost you can gently pack a little shredded newspaper into the carton to add insulation.

Wine corks: put them in the bottom of pots for drainage. They weigh less than rocks, and I know that they take a VERY long time to break down because I tried adding them to the compost pile. Three years later I am still finding intact corks in the garden. Of course, you will have to drink an awful lot of wine before you accumulate enough corks to make a 2” layer in an 18” pot, but these are the sacrifices that must be made.

That's it. Try it out...if nothing else, a bucket of wine corks and pile of socks on the back steps is a sure-fire conversation starter for visitors.

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