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Friday, July 19, 2013

Using Russian Comfrey for Compost Tea

Purple/blue flowers places Comfrey in the Borage family.
Out of all of my gardening resources, I've found more useful info from Prince Charle's book, Organic Gardening. One of the topics that I found most intriguing was his use of Russian Comfrey Bocking 14 hybrid (Symphytum x uplandicum) as a composting tea. His gardeners at Highgrove not only use it in the ornamental beds and kitchen garden, but also on house plants. So, of course I had to get some.

As it turns out, Bocking 14 Comfrey is a superior variety for composting tea. It is fast growing, very high in nutrients and does not set seed nor does it have a creeping root system that will take over your garden. Once established, its leaves can be cut three to four times a year, with the final harvest in the fall. I have it planted next to my cold frames.

Liquid Comfrey tea is made by steeping the cut, bruised leaves (whack ‘em on a tarp with a hoe or crush the leaves by hand if used in smaller quantities) in a container of water. As the leaves rot down, add more leaves with more water. The result is an extremely stinky, putrid brew (hold your nose, folks) rich in nitrogen and phosphorus and particularly high in potash. The leaves are also full of silica, calcium, iron, magnesium and other essential nutrients to help your fruiting plants thrive. If you want to go and get all detailie about it, here's an article about the many uses and plant nutrients in Comfrey. There are several videos on the subject on YouTube.

Usually ready within 2 weeks after the first cut, apply as a 10% solution, or roughly 1-2 cups per gallon of water. I have it fermenting in a 5 gallon bucket. If you have a lot of it, use a rain barrel with some chicken wire on the bottom to access the liquid without clogging the spigot with slime. Keeping the lid loose, lets air in to help with the process. Some folk may even advocate a small fish tank pump to oxygenate the solution, as research has shown that compost tea is more effective when air is circulated through, although most recipes do not call for aeration. Perhaps that would tamp down the odor some. Other than that, one simply adds more water when adding more Comfrey, which also adds more oxygen anyway.

Another method is to simply place cut up leaves in a bucket with a weight on them. The leaves decompose into a black goo that is diluted 15:1, water to goo. This reminds me of making sauerkraut but instead you could call it comfreykraut, I guess.

Bocking 14 fermenting away in a bucket.
I have to say that it does smell like something died. After applying it, the garden stank for awhile. And the liquid formed a white film on top: perhaps a yeast of some sort? It also attracts flies, so keep away from doors and windows. I also use the leaves as a mulch for my beds. I just harvested my fava beans, so after whacking in their roots to take advantage of the nitrogen, I put a layer of Comfrey leaves on the beds with some compost over that. Let the leaves wilt a little first so they don't per chance, sprout. The leaves will compost in, replenishing the beds with nutrients. I've applied the tea to my tomatoes, annual flower containers and broccoli. This is best as a fertilizer for flowers, fruiting vegetables, berries and fruit trees. Root crops may seed too fast and lettuce may bolt. So far, the annuals have really popped alive.

Just 3 starts has given me enough Comfrey to keep my garden going well. Being a tuberous perennial herb, these plants should last for many years. I found Bocking 14 Comfrey mail order at Horizon Herbs out of Oregon.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Our Little Green Roof Shows Amazing Potential

Finished green roof. Mason bee boxes nest in the gable.
Of course, now that the green roof is finished there hasn't been much of any rain in the forecast. Only the night after it was planted, a gully washer tested its merits. It passed muster with flying colors. Water was pouring off of the other, more conventional roofs here, but scarcely a drop came off the green roof. After all was said and done, only a few drips emerged out of the drain pipe. That means it was doing its job; that is, mitigating storm water run-off. I'm looking forward to seeing how well it does in a prolonged period of rain.

Although installed more and more in commercial developments, green roofs are underutilized on residential structures. The benefits of a green roof are many and include: mitigating and cleaning storm water run-off; reducing the urban heat island effect; providing summer cooling and winter insulation, thus lowering energy costs; providing habitat for beneficial insects and providing noise insulation, just to name a few. Green roofs have been used by different cultures for hundreds of years, but we are just starting to understand how well they function as a viable roofing system. Being that we live in the Norwegian ghetto, having a green roof keeps up with Scandanavian tradition as these roof systems planted with turf on birch bark water-proofing were quite common in that part of the world, once upon a time.

The perception of green roofs being expensive and high maintenance is unfortunate. In reality, most green roofs require little to no maintenance. Just the occasional pulling of unwanted seedlings or top dressing every few years with compost is all that’s usually required. Like any type of garden, it’s about the soil. A low-nutrient, free-draining soil will cause much less of a weed problem than a soil rich in organic matter and nutrient levels. Dead heading is not necessary, and the use of drought tolerant plants such as succulents, eliminates the need for constant irrigation.

This roof is called an ‘extensive’ roof system, meaning that the substrate is less than 6 inches thick. ‘Intensive’ roof systems have much deeper substrates, allowing for larger shrubs, grasses and even trees. Extensive systems are lighter weight (around the weight of a tile roof) and the plant materials used most often consist of succulents which can grow well in a shallow, rocky soil. Last fall, I picked up 9 sedum tile flats for half price at a big box store.

This roof system caused Roland to exacerbate an eye-rolling habit he usually expresses around me. It started with my initial proposal of installing a green roof the minute he announced that he was going to build a garden shed, followed with, "How do I do that?"

Installing the front drainage gravel.
So, after showing him many pictures from my green roof books, the first thing he did was build a bowl on top of the structure. I liked the rafter tail details on the green roof pavilion at the Arboretum, so I had him replicate that. Of course, it couldn't be a simple shed roof; he had to put a dormer on it to make it more appealing. That only complicated the water proofing part. Tar paper went on and sat there for two years whilst he figured out in the back of his mind what to use. Pond liner would have been an inexpensive solution for a straight up small shed roof, but having that gable complicated things a bit. The liner needed to be weldable and regular roofing materials often used in large commercial installations is very expensive, even though we needed so little of it. However, while at the big box, he came across the solution - PVC shower pan liner. It's a heavy gauge, weldable and only somewhat expensive instead of extremely expensive ($85 vs. $400 for the roofing stuff - eye roll). So, he picked up some scraps at a discount and then stashed them until he could get enough of the stuff to do the job. A year went by and still no green roof. Sedums over wintered in their trays. There the roof sat until the Edible Garden Tour. Now I had leverage. Deadlines make the world go around. 

Installing the liner.
Roland came home with the rest of the liner and we proceeded. He laid down new tar paper, then the liner which he glued together with PVC cement. We had an argument about laying down some landscape fabric over the liner. I felt it would help keep the fines from flowing down and protect the liner. Roland saw it as unnecessary and slippery to walk on (more eye rolling between whining). I do know that if you use a separate drainage layer, having a geo-textile is extremely important to keep the fines from clogging it up, but I'll admit, it may have been unnecessary here. I like to fault on the side of caution. Roland built a wooden grid system out of pine to help keep the substrate from shifting down to the bottom. It is designed to last long enough for the plant roots to get established. A metal screen set back 6" from the bottom end of the roof held back the substrate and allowed for a row of pea gravel to go into that area for added drainage. He installed conventional flashing for the edges.

The substrate mix.
Next, came the substrate, or growing medium. On this roof, the drainage material consisting of lava rock, was mixed in with compost and a small amount of perlite. I needed 12 cubic feet of material, so the ratio was 7 cubic feet of lava rock, 4 cubic feet of compost and a cubic foot of perlite. I mixed it all together on a tarp and schlepped it up to Roland in 5 gallon buckets. He now complained about the treacherousness of the round lava rock - like walking on ball bearings - while he walked around the roof distributing the materials (more eye rolling ensued). 

The plant material - sedums with Hens and Chicks.
The next day Roland took it upon himself to pull out the largest chunks of lava rock claiming that he was going to break his neck and couldn't get the sedums into the medium (more eye rolling). He divided the succulents and planted the whole roof while I was at work. I came home to a lovely roof all planted up and a crate full of large lava rock chunks. He had added a bit more compost too. A drain hole leads down a chain to a rain barrel to capture what storm water runs off there is, being slowly released off the roof thanks to the mitigating properties of the roof materials. I'll periodically water it during our dry season while the plants get themselves established.

A lot of folk who came through the tour commented on the green roof. They thought it was a great idea and looked really nice.

I proclaimed to Roland, "I think you should convert the roof on the front porch of the house into a green roof when you re-build the front porch deck."

His response? More eye rolling.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Successful Garden Tour - Wish We Could Have Been There

After a week of busting our humps getting the place ready for the garden tour, the place has never looked better. Nothing like a deadline to get things done! Thanks to my lovely daughter, Shawn and her wonderful husband, Rick for being the tour guides by-proxy while we were gallivanting about in Boise.

It never fails that weekend activities always come in conflicting clumps. Between winning tickets to the Antiques Road Show for Boise (Nooooo, couldn't get 'em for Seattle), Sustainable Ballard's Edible Garden Tour and a big sale going on at work, last weekend proved to be an exercise in juggling, compromising and making difficult choices.

Winning tickets to the Antiques Road Show is a crap shoot, so we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and make an extended weekend out of it. Unfortunately, the ol' job situation turned it into a whirlwind trip of three days instead five. I was lucky to get any days off thanks to a big sale scheduled for that weekend, but my boss came through for me so "I wouldn't be miserable." He probably didn't want a grump at work.

We had a good time in Boise despite the hot weather. The thermometer hit 103 in the afternoon and dropped to a balmy 91 by 10:00 PM. Thank God for air conditioning....and copious amounts of hefeweizen with lemon, of course.

The entry point where you also check in your firearms.
The Road Show part lasted a whopping two hours. Talk about efficiency in line management. We had our assigned entry time of 8:00 AM and could line up at 7:30. So, after getting up at the butt crack of dawn (and losing an hour to mountain time PLUS a 10 hour drive with the dog making monkey noises in the back seat), we grabbed breakfast at the hotel and drove on up the the Boise Expo Center about 10 minutes away. Parking was easy. We went through the first check point then on to another building where the main line up to get into the production area was located. That snaked around like the TSA lines a the airport, only friendlier. Then the first table where you were assigned tickets for the items you brought. Folks were schlepping all sorts of stuff on all varieties of carts, wagons and bags. Our items were small, so we had two bags which contained some of my grandmother's costume jewelry, two of a series of contemporary NW Native prints, an old sapphire ring, and a set of Stickley Brothers book ends.

The main line to the item tickets table, TSA style.
After we got our item tickets we proceeded into the production area to stand in the individual lines behind a circle of curtains used as the backdrop for the production. No cameras allowed at this point. Cell phones off. The appraisers were lined up on the other side of the curtains and the filming was done in the center. You couldn't hear a darn thing of what was being said out there, but there were several stations being filmed at once. We went to the jewelry appraiser, a gal from Rago Auction house. To our surprise she said the sapphire is a synthetic! She said it is a mid-century Continental birthstone ring set in 18 karat gold (we knew that much) and worth $150. Good grief! Why would anyone stick a synthetic stone in a 18 karat gold setting! One could speculate that the stone was swapped out at some point. I've also heard that real stones were hard to get back in the 1930's so synthetics were often used instead.

Where you get your items assessed and get your tickets.
We also learned that the bookends were from around 1914 and worth $50-75, in our opinion way undervalued, although the guy ended up taking them to another table to get info on them. He told us that we could probably find a book with the stamp number in it to find out the pattern. Thanks. The prints had the poster guy stumped (the poster fella you always see on TV), and again weren't valued except as decorative items and my grandmother's jewelry were worth as much as the ring.

It was fascinating to see how the production was done. After we went through our lines we headed to the next room where you could go into the feedback booth (which we didn't) and then on to the sponsor's displays. We stopped at the Subaru booth and entered a drawing for a Tiffany lamp and then out the door at 10:15 AM. It was still cool enough out that we weren't entering a heat blast. We went back to the car with a feeling of "what just happened?" The appraisals were fast; not surprising since they herd through 6,000 people in a day.

Our hotel, The Riverside, was located next to the Boise river (duh), so we grabbed the dog and walked along the lovely river walk to downtown Boise to see the Farmer's Market. It's a large set up in the middle of downtown Boise (about a mile and a half from the hotel) where several main streets are closed off. I was delighted to see a number of organic farmers and ranchers there. I purchased some coffee, bread and hand-made peanut butter. The crafts people were the typical ones you see - pottery, jewelry, etc.. Boise is a conservative city, so I imagine that the few progressive, crunchy granola's are represented here. Sitting next to the Boise river. I talked to Shawn on the cell for a while. She had plenty of questions about what the different crops were, our techniques, etc. She and Rick were enjoying being the docents.

We walked back to the hotel, stopping at the outdoor cafe/bar for a beer and a bite. They allowed dogs, so Snorky sat on a chair with a bowl of ice water at hand. The rest of the day involved sitting in air conditioning, and finding the only large antique mall in town which contained the usual garage sale worthy items you usually see anymore. We were going to check out the botanical gardens outside of town, but it was just too hot. We ate dinner at the Crab Shack, duly dissing the quality of the crab (we're naturally crab snobs) and then got ready to leave town the next morning.

The Geiser Grand Hotel, Baker City, Oregon
The way home felt faster, even when we spent two hours in Baker City, Oregon to stretch our legs and gawk at a part of the Oregon Trail. Baker City has a grand old hotel called the Geiser Grand Hotel (I'm sure it's pronounced gizer, but I kept calling it geezer). Very Victorian with the elaborate scroll work inside and out and the obligatory corner turret, beckoning to the days when area gold mines supported a robust economy. Now the town's main street supports consignment shops, antique stores and several other marginal small businesses. Being a Sunday, not much was open. It's main economy now seems to be tourism, with a museum about the Oregon Trail and recreational activities including connecting itself to the highway that goes up to Hell's Canyon.

The Oregon Trail came before the town, bi-passing it around 5 miles to the north. An interpretive center afforded a possible afternoon of pioneer education, but we opted out instead taking a short but hot hike on part of the rutted out area that was also adapted as a road to several mines. It was very hot and open. When we got back to the car, Snorky made a B-line to under the car as the only shade until we shoved him in the car and blasted the A-C. After that intermission, it was onward toward home. When we got to I-90 we hit the wall of stop and go traffic near the pass. A wreck and road construction created a 10-15 mile back-up that took 1-1/2 hours to navigate through.

Visitors during the tour.
Shawn reported that at least 100 people came through our place during the tour. It would have been fun to talk to folk and answer questions about our food production and what we've done to the place. I guess our place was all the buzz on the tour. Although we had a fun time on our road trip, we found the Road Show a bit disappointing and feel that the appraisers are glorified pickers for the production and we were volunteers coming to them for that end purpose. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. If you didn't have anything instantly recognizable that wowed them, they quickly blew you off. Sorry to say that my cynicism gene got a recharge.