Monday, September 1, 2014

Simple Composting and Compost Screening Tool to Make

Hello Folks!  It is the end of August 2014 and Fall is on its way already.  Due to an Auto Accident and a long recovery,  my garden started a little slow this year.  I didn't get that one 4 X 8 plot rejuvenated but I did manage to get in the major vegetables I wanted this year and done a little experiment with making and using compost plus trying out Manure Tea. In my last issue, I showed you how to make and plant a 3 X 6 Onion Bed.  Used for either early small Green Onion production or larger Late Summer Bulb Onions.

The  White and Red Onions are finished and while they are only medium sized, they are beautiful and tasty. The tops on the White Onion side were all down and drying.  The Red Onions were almost all down, so I pulled them all. They are drying out in the sun for a few days before bringing in for storage.  I planted about about 60 bulbs of each kind of Red and White and harvested at least 150.  I am happy with the results of the first season of using the new Onion Bed. 

Hopefully, by next year planting time, the Onion Bed Soil will be amalgamated and ready to plant by early spring.   The Red Onions were a little small, I felt.  I will look for a different brand next year.

 I also tried a Manure Tea mix of 1 part manure water to 6 parts water.  The Manure water was made with 2 pints of Commercial Composted Cow Manure and 2 pints of water stirred well and allowed to set for a few days in warm weather. From this, I made a strained Manure Tea.  (1 cup of strained Manure Water to 6 cups of out of the hose water) and out of this, I poured 1 cup of tea around each of  my vegetables.   

I used Manure Tea on All my vegetables to see how it worked out on the different types of vegetables.  I did notice some burning on All my plants which tended to set them back a couple weeks until they recovered and grew New Leaves.  None of the plants died, but there were a lot of yellow leaves on the bottom foot or two of my Tomato Plants. This mix was too strong!

The only other time I had Ever applied Manure Tea to my plants, was when years ago I made a mix of Rabbit Manure and Water and poured it around my front porch railing Coleus flower boxes.  I had heard that Rabbit Manure is so mild that it never burns plants.  Rabbit  Dooky!

   After about 2 days, they begin to shrivel before my eyes.  And they were just small plants from the grocery store anyway. Just getting established in their boxes.  I soaked them down several times with generous buckets of water, hoping I could stop the carnage!  In the end, I saved about half the plants ... and then they started to grow.  And Grow. And GROW!  The Coleus plant leaves got Humongous!  As big as dinner plates!

 People driving nearly a half a block away on a busy street were turning around, coming back and pulling up to the curb by our house.  "Where did you get such Giant Coleus?  Are these plants for Sale?    I just told them we had rabbits for sale ...


There was also some yellowing on my Zucchini Plants, my new bedded Onions, on my Cucumbers, and on my Dill.  I decided some modification of my Manure Tea Recipe was in order!  I then changed my recipe to 1 part Manure Water to 10 parts Water and made another application 2 weeks later.  This time no burning.  All the plants are Thriving like crazy now except for the Onions whose harvest time has come.

Through out this experiment, I applied 1 cup of Manure Tea to each plant in the main root area.  I also tried to stay about  2 inches away from the main stem. A few day later,  all the plants started a nice growing spurt which I attribute to the newer milder Manure Tea Mix.  My plan was to apply Manure Tea every few weeks or so. 

In another experiment this summer, I wanted to see what adding a 1 inch layer of new Sifted Compost around each plant. to help keep the moisture in and how it works as a purely natural Fertilizer.  In addition, I added an inch of wheat straw on top of the whole thing to help Shade the roots of each plant.  My Cucumbers are putting on fruit fast this year, full of flowers  and have the large sturdy stems and leaves. 

Simple Easy Composting
Composting is probably the easiest thing in the world - if you are willing to wait 6 to 8 months for the results. Nature takes a while but you always get good results in the end. Even if you do nothing!

An easy way to make compost, is to watch for leaves that never got raked along fence lines... Take a fork. Pull away last years leaves on top and down below this you will find finished compost.  Just fork it into a container and take it home.  However leaves, even dry ones, are not compost.  Put them directly on your plants, and the next good rain will paste them together an make a barrier that keeps your plant from getting moisture and air.  And while the leaves underneath are composting, they are Stealing Nitrogen from the plant to do the process.  The plant actually suffers from the process!

Compost in 3 weeks!
It's true, vegetable matter, egg shells, banana peels etc add good nutrients to a compost pile - but don't do a lot to speed up the process.  Instead of taking Months to make compost - how about 3 or 4 weeks using equal amounts of just two free items.  Grass Clippings from this week and Dried leaves from last year.  No special Ben is necessary.  just make a pile Alternating equal amounts of Grass and Dry Leaves.  No additives - unless you want to. Try to make the pile about 3 foot around and 2 or 3 feet tall. Dampen down with water.

Easy Compost Recipe

           One Part of Old Dry Leaves
           One Part  of Fresh Lawn Clippings.
           Or 1 Fork Full of Grass Clippings for ever Fork of Dry 
            80 degree days or better for a few weeks to Heat the pile and get it started Composting.   Pray for Rain. Or sprinkle and mix the pile is damp through out.  Not soggy or dropping.

Take a hand full of the leaf/grass mixture and squeeze. It Should not drip, but should feel like a damp sponge rung out.
If it is too Dry,  add a little water and mix.
If it is too Wet, add equal parts Leaves and Grass Clippings until you get that damp rung out sponge texture.

Try to turn with a Garden Fork every 3 or 4 days.  The mixture of leaves will start to look "Crumbly" in about 2 weeks.  In about a month, 90% will be broken down and ready to spread over your garden soil - or sift and pore into your Container Plants or Plant Boxes.

This is about 90% composted.  At any time, you can reach into the bottom of the pile and pull out some much needed compost. 
The good stuff is usually near the bottom of the pile that is still working.  It takes a few weeks and  a few turnings to be able to find this stuff in a New Compost Pile. And I'm impatient.

Rolly-Polly Bugs

 You may see a few small gray Accordion Looking Bugs crawling about and through the fresh compost. Anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 inch (1 Centimeter) long. About as thick as a skinny Soda Straw.

Rolly Pollys won't bite you. Let them alone.  They actually help the composting process a lot and work at it very hard.  They will not usually hurt the plants.  They like to chew up Dead Organic Matter for their sustenance.  If the baby bugs are extremely hungry, they may attack your plant roots - but this is rare. I have Never seen it happen however.  I'm not sure what they are Officially called.

When I was a kid, we called them "Rolly Pollys" and watched them crawl around in the palm of our hands.  And they seem to be everywhere there is dead matter to be broken down into healthy soil.  Under Brush, damp rotten Boards, and in every Compost Pile.  They are Beneficial Bugs and help you make great compost.

This is freshly screened compost.  I have circled in green a Rolly-Polly.  You should be viewing it at actual size.

Another bug you will see often are Millipedes  (translated means 'many legs'.  Kinda resemble gray or black skinny hairless caterpillars with lots of legs and can move very fast.  DO NOT CONFUSE with Centipedes  ( ten legs?) usually Bright Red, Orange or Yellow in Color.  Millipedes are also usually found in Compost. Centipedes more rarely.  Centipedes Are Dangerous, like to bite and come with a mean streak and are poisonous.  Don't touch them!

While I am at it.  Often you will see Wolf Spiders in Gardens.  They are looking for Bugs to eat and are (to my knowledge) not dangerous to people.  I have had many run over my arms picking vegetables and have never been bitten.  They are medium size, rather plump looking, and are called Wolf Spiders because they are Gray and have what looks like a woolly coat of grey fur on most of their body.  I leave them alone.  And they are Beneficial to your Garden.  Likewise, colorful little garden snakes.  But learn which ones they are!  Even Moles are benificial in that they are busy turning the soil.  Voles  however (a relative of Moles) not only turn the soil,  they eat the tender roots of your plants.  Moles just look for Grubs.  If you have them, worry about the Voles most.  Learn the difference.

If you have never used Composting or using the great Rich Soil it produces, you need to give it a try.  I have applied a cover of about one inch or more around all my plants.  Tomatoes, Onions, Cucumbers, Dills, Asparagus.  And even around a Volunteer Watermelon Plant - that originally came up in my Compost Pile .  It's doing great, except for the one small melon that our Dachshund managed to eat when she found a break in the fence. Others are coming along nicely too.  All in all, there were 3 volunteer watermelon plants  and one Roma (?) tomato plant growing in the compost pile this spring.  I couldn't kill them.  So I transplanted them to a better spot! The screened compost around this Cucumber plant not only helps hold the ground temperature down,  It also helps hold the moister in down below and becomes the perfect fertilizer when the plant is watered.  However, to really keep the hot sun from drying out the box, I will be adding Wheat Straw on top of this in a day or two.  It does not Mat Down as just leaves or dried grass would.  Wheat Straw Reflects the Sun off of the soil and provides a kind of Air Conditioning for the plants roots!

Because of their great qualities and inexpensiveness, both of these (Compost and Straw) are great additives to protect your plants in the heat of the summer.  If you see lots of Crickets, it means that the Straw is doing its job and they are comfortable in it. And,  you have a great supply of good Catfish bait handy! 

[  To make the Handy Sifter shown in this article, Check out my article :  ]

  Making a Scraping Tool for your Compost Screen

If your compost is a little damp,  as it should be; You need to help push it through your screen for easier and faster results.
I was just using my hand but if your Compost has sharp sticks in it or even bits of glass, you need a better way.  

I looked around for a tool - maybe a stick to see if it would work better.  I found an old board in the trashcan I have situated in the corner of my garden.

[By the way - to interrupt my narrative - you have probably noticed the January 1, 2008 on some of these pictures.  No. these pictures are not 6 and 1/2 years old!  When you reload batteries in My camera - it resets the date back to it's original factory time.  You have to notice and reset it to the correct date.  I didn't notice this time.

  That's what happens when your the Gardener, the Writer, the Photographer,  Editor,  and publisher of a garden blog! Little things tend to slip in unawares!  These pictures are all within a day or two of September 1, 2014.  Rather than take additional time to edit the wrong date out, I ask for your understanding.]

I found out that with the help of this old board, I could easily and quickly rub the damp compost through the screen and soon have some fine compost to spread around my plants.  Each Garden Fork Full gave me around a Gallon of fine Screened Compost.  At this point of screening, you can pick out any bits of trash, sticks, small branches, plastic, glass, rocks and other junk that may have ended up in the Compost pile.  Extra large pieces of Compost?  Just throw back on the Composting Pile to further break down for later screening.  

This is what is left after sifting my compost.  Extra large Chunks of Compost etc.  In the red area we find an old plant pot label.  In the Green oval, a small rock.  lots of small plant sticks etc.. Pick out the trash and throw it away, then recycle the rest back to the compost pile to continue working.  Nothing good is thrown away!

Using a practiced eye, I noticed how the configuration of my hand and the old board fit together as I worked.  What felt best. I come up with this.  how I could cut it out so my hand and thumb would fit comfortably.  An Ergonomic tool custom made for easy holding!  I will show you how to make this easily in an hour just using simple tools and a little stain varnish to help protect it from the weather for a few years. 

This is the set-up I use to sift out my compost.  To the upper right is the trash can to throw out any junk that may be left in the sifter after screening.  The Wheelbarrow with the beautiful Purslane plant that made itself at home, provides the height i need.  The Blue tub catches the sifted compost and the Sifter of course is self-explanatory.
 This sifter is Several Years old with a few simple repairs and you can find out how to build one for yourself.  Search through the articles for Compost Sifter plans.  I should be listed as one of the Favorite Articles on the narrow column to the left of the main article here. 
  You will never be without this light and hand tool again!  Let the "young'uns" play with those big awkward things used for sifting Construction Sand!  This hand "Soil Sifter" is my own invention and you may use my instructions for making one or two.  Please be my guest. 

After you have built this little hand gadget, you are really ready to start saving great sifted compost.  Use it for everything from Raised Garden Beds to the Pots and Containers of Flowers and Vegetables around the house.  Even bushes and trees can greatly benefit from its water retention qualities and its great Fertilizer Power when watered into your top soil.  It also helps to "fluff up" your soil and keep it airy and loose the way that plants love the soil to be and thrive on it.

I have found that with the second finger in the center, and the thumb and little fingers on the sides, you can get some great leverage and push a lot of compost through in just a few minutes. 

As you will see in the single page plan below, there is a bevel  on the business end of the tool.  The angle is not too critical. Somewhere between 30 and 45 degrees works well. 

 Cut it with your saw or just use a Wood File or Sander to get the angle.  The Bevel greatly facilitates the ease of using the tool and really helps to quickly move the broken flakes of compost through the screen.  You will have a couple gallons of fine quality sifted compost in just a few minutes.  If I was selling it, I would say it is worth 3 to 5 dollars a gallon to fine Flower Growers.  That's how good the quality of this stuff is when you make it yourself.  And the Material is Free! 

To finish it out to keep it from deteriorating outside in the garden, give it a light stain for looks and protection. Spread it with a varnish of any kind.  I like any popular spray can version.  It will last for years.  It probably costs you about 3 cents worth of new lumber. 

Compost Screening Tool

Drafted a simple picture to follow so you can make your own.  I used a chunk of White Cedar Fence Board about 3/4 thick.  You can cut it out with a power saw (Jig Saw or Band Saw) or just use a hand held Coping Saw to make yours.  Hardware Stores always have them.  They cost around $10 dollars plus a package of blades. 

After cutting the tool out, I rasped it with a wood rasp to round the edges and smooth the curves.  Sand a little and spray with a can of paint or Clear Lacquer.  Your done.  Less than an hours work. 

Happy Composting Garden Friends! 

 Contact me at
Please leave a comment if you made your own Wooden Scraper for screening Compost or if you just enjoy the article. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Square Box Gardening #14 - Raised Bed Onion Soil Mix


     Here is the Soil Mix I used in my Raised Bed Onion Box.

I am not guaranteeing that it is Perfect and you will raise the finest onions in the world.  There are just too many variables - and you may want to make changes. You may decide to use a Commercial (Chemical?) Fertilizer for example instead of the Composted Cow Manure I have been buying and using for the last few years. I get this in a bag at True Value so I guess It's Commercial too!

Or, you might substitute Horse Manure - or add Epson Salts (Magnesium Sulfate) to the soil. Tomatoes, Peppers and Onions love it and Need it and its usually found in good soil. You may want to use your own Garden Compost in place of the Cotton  Boll that I use in my soil mix. I really like Bocca Brand Top Soil that I get from Dutches Green House.  I feel like it is of good composition and I won't get a bag of half clay.
I got about 15 bags of really cheap stuff when I first started serious gardening from a Prominent  Big Box Store that shall go unnamed. The next year  I scraped up this "dirt" and used it to fill holes and truck ruts in the back alley. The Trash man was forever grateful...  But I digress... 

                           "My Onion Soil Mix Recipe"

2 Parts Construction Sand  (Course Sand, not fine Children's Sand)
10 Parts "Bocca" brand Top Soil (At Most Plant Nurseries
5 Parts Cotton Boll   (Most Plant Nurseries)
3 Parts Composted Cow Manure   (True Value Hardware)

How to Mix:  Always go around the outside in a circle around your unmixed pile. Shovel into the Center of the pile and turn the shovel over. Keep this up going in a circle around the pile. Use this method wether you are mixing soil, cement or bread dough.  It works best.

Always go in a Clock-Wise direction.  If you go Counter-Clockwise, you will just Unmix the Mix your Mixing.  Pretty soon you have nothing but a wispy Molecular Vapor going out into space. And you will just have to go out and buy more stuff. [Just a little joke folks.]


                                        Just 30 Days Later

It's been almost exactly 30 days - a Month - since I set up the Raised Bed Onion Box and planted about 150 bulbs in it.  This is how it looked today.  I  added about an inch of screened garden compost to the top just about 3 days ago to not only give the onions nourishment, but to help keep the soil moist as we move into summer.  I will begin a regular regime of adding a diluted mix of Manure Tea about every 2 weeks as well as digging in a little bone meal and Manganese Sulfate - Epson Salts.  This will continue until the tops start falling over and the watering and fertilizer will be cut back to prepare the onions for harvesting. 

So there you are.  If you wish to contact me you may do so at  

                     May you have a Great Garden this Year!  

If you would like to make a comment,  I would love to hear from you about gardening. Unfortunately, the comment section doesn't seem to be working well and people have to jump through hoops to make a comment.  I can't seem to fix it so I will probably remove it in the near future. Just send an e-mail to the address above.  The Wicked Witch of the West (who lives in Western Kansas),  will be monitoring all comments before publication.

Note:   The largest Onion bulb I got out of the Batch was 3 inches in diameter.  The average was about 2 - 1/2 inches. I harvested over 130 usable onions in the 3X3 Foot Square plot. The soil mix test turned out very successful I believe. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Square Box Gardening #13 - How to Plant Big Bulb Onions in My Raised Bed Onion Box

Have you built the Raised Onion Bed that I give instruction for a few days ago?  Well, even if you haven't, this information will help you to get those Big Onions like you buy in the Grocery Store.  The only difference is they haven't aged in a warehouse for several weeks! You know exactly how they were Processed, Where they come from and how Fresh they are.  And using a raised bed in a box, you know exactly how much water you used, what kind of fertilizer, and what soil mix you used to get the best production.  To help you repeat the successes you had next year - or correct your failures!  The best part of Learning to Garden.  
 If you just found my blog, check the Article List in the right column to find the article that  immediately proceeds this one. "Growing Large Onions in a Raised Bed Onion Bed".

           Preparing the Raised Bed Onion Box for Planting

Find a level spot for your box if you can.  As you can see, the Onion Box I built is Not setting on a very level area.  The Right side is about 2 inches higher than the left!  I can dig down on the Right side (and both ends somewhat) to set the box down level with the Left side.  Or I could level the box, set it on some small blocks and shovel  a small truck load of Fill dirt on the Left side.  Or I could build a "Skirt" around the box that will keep the box level and save a ton of extra work.  At my age, I am Not into tons!  I am more into 2  or 3 gallons or even 2 or 3 cups!  It's the very reason I got interested in Square Box Gardening.  So I would still be able to garden after the lumbago and arthritis set in. Thankfully, I haven't suffered much from either one so far. I digress....  Anyway, I chose the "Skirting" method.  Which we will get to in a few minutes.

 Because of the semi-hurricane force winds we've been getting lately here in South Central Kansas, I layed it down and quickly threw a few chunks of soil on the plastic to keep the box from doing the kart-wheel, kite thing.  You probably know,  if you built one of these Onion Boxes,  as large as they are;  they are surprisingly light and can easily be toted to the garden under one arm.  Myself, I tracked down my dear wife playing free-cell on her laptop where it was air conditioned and comfy while I sweated and swatted  in the noon-day sun!   I figure two arm carriers  are better than one.  

                                      Leveling Out the Box

     The best tool for leveling is a large construction site level - but any level at hand will work.  You can even make your own.  Take a 2-liter bottle with a cap. You put water in it about half full. close the cap.  Lay the bottle on its side on a flat surface that is level.  With a marker, mark where the water comes to the center of the cap and another mark where the water comes to the center of the bottom.  Lay the bottle with it's marks on something you want to check for lever. Rotate the bottle until one of the marks meets the water line. Lift or lower the other end of the bottle until the opposite mark Also meets the water line.  When both points match up with each other, you have a Level  and your bottle is teetering right over the center of the earth!   Check your box with it. 
Save the water filled bottle. The next time your wash machine starts walking across the floor or your drier tries to fly, use your bottle to check for level.  In All directions - side to side; front to back.  Do likewise with your onion box.  This is probably one of the most important steps you will take in setting up your box correctly.  If your box is not fairly level, you may see a lot of soil and plants go over the side with the next big gully-washer you have.  You might even put a few marks around the box marking one inch up from the soil after it is firmed in.  Fill water in the box to this level and you have just added an equivalent of an inch of rain to your onions. In reality, if you have good draining soil, a half-inch mark might be more accurate when you are watering.  Experiment. 

Sometimes, your ground is just slopping to much like mine was in this picture.  In that case, you will need to have extra boards ready to "Skirt" the bottom of the box and make up the difference.  I draw a line all around the box that is 3 inches from the top.  Fit your boards to meet this line and screw them to the Onion Box.  Dig down along the sides until the boards set solid and the tops are level with the Onion Box.

If you have to skirt the box, place stakes around the sides of the     box to keep the pressure from the soil from bulging out the bottom.
I used 1 X 2 stakes.  Snugged them flush to the skirt sides and pounded them in deep.  

Here is a close-up showing how the corners were reinforced.  Use as many stakes as you need.

Add about a quarter of the soil mix at a time.  with the palm of your hand, gently firm the soil all around the box. A little more  firmer at the very edges of the box.  Just as you would a flower   pot.  Add more layers and firm the same until you are about 1-1/2 inches from the top of the box.     You need to leave about that
 much for when you need to add water.  Check your soil fairly often.  Your onion soil should be damp just below the surface at all times.  Never let the onions dry out.                                                  

I use a board marked off in 4 inch increments at a guide.  I also mark the top of the box along the length every 4 inches.  This gives me nice and uniform points to make holes for the Onion bulbs.  The holes should not be very deep.  About an inch. The tops should just barely poke through the soil.  This would be the pointy end up. The blunt end down.  As shown in the picture below.                               

The dirt encrusted Fore finger and Thumb nail  are extra. The bulbs should be plump and firm.  Throw any tiny bulbs or dried out husks away.  They will not sprout and would be a waste of space.

Your Onion Bed should look something like this when you are finished.  cover just a little and firm down with the palm of your hand.  I have heard that some onions are actually just dropped in an
open furrow and they plant themselves.  I really don't know about that.  About a week or two later your onion bed should look like this.  I water mine every day enough to keep the top moist.  If it looks like rain - I water it anyway.                                                          

I hope you enjoyed the articles about building an Onion Box and how to plant your onions.  This is a another article in the "Square box Series - although the box isn't square, the principals are the same.  If you get tired of planting onions in this box, you can plant spinach, or carrots, or just about anything will grow and grow well in these boxes.                                                                                 

Until next time, Happy Growing!
Robert Mader


Friday, June 20, 2014

Square Box Gardening # 12 Growing Large Bulb Onions in a Raised Bed Onion Box

Grow over 150 Large Bulb Onions in a Raised Bed Box Smaller than a Ping-Pong Table!

Everybody knows how to grow Green Onions or Scallions.  Well, almost everybody.  However, growing Big Bulb "Dinner Onions" like the ones you find at the local Grocer seems to be a big challenge - at least for most of the gardeners I know in South Central Kansas.  We mostly have ours shipped in from Texas or Mexico.  But you don't actually Grow them here Ourselves!

Really?  The first year I tried to grow big onions I was moderately successful. They weren't 3 or 4 inchers but they were a respectable baseball size!  Bigger than the Green Onions or Scallions everyone else grows. They were even bigger than a Quarter!  I was so happy.  I was jumping up and down when I pulled them. (That was back when I could still jump up and down).

I didn't know a lot about growing Onions then but I kept trying. I learned a few Secrets of Growing Large Onions from bulbs.

  1. Don't bury seed bulbs too deep.  The tops (pointy end) should break the soil when you plant them.
  2. The Soil should be a little sandy.  
  3.  Very little Clay should be in your soil mix. Sand and clay will make for a Concrete Soil plate that keeps both water and air and nutrients from reaching your plant roots.  
  4. Do not use Childrens or Sand Box sand. It is way to fine.  Use Construction sand.  I got mine from sacks of sand to weigh down cars and trucks on icy roads.  Ace Hardware had it.  I have unknowingly purchased the weight bags with childrens sand in them.  Don't use these. The sand particles should be 1/16 to 1/8 inch in diameter.  Check to be sure. The Plant Nursery I frequent didn't have Sand period. "Lowes", "Home Depot", most any respectable lumber yard should have construction grade (course)  sand.  Don't leave it out of your soil mix.  I suppose that Perlite from the Plant Nursery would be a decent replacement although it will cost you a bundle for enough to mix with your Onion Box soil.  Instead of sand.
  5. Use finished Compost to mix in your soil.  Cotton Boll is good but is usually not finished composting and can overheat your bed (smothering new plants) when it is mixed in at planting time.  You should add it a couple of months before planting time if you can. Other than that, I find it excellent. Most Nurseries have it.  If you open the sack and it is still hot and moist inside, it shouldn't be used with new plant soil mixes. Completed Compost from your own pile will also work and is Free!  Likewise, "Composted Cow Manure". It will burn your plants and either set them back or even kill them. If it is giving off heat, it is not finished.  
  6. Water, Water, Water.  Onions love water - but can't live in constant wet. No Rice-Paddy like plots that drain slowly after raining or watering.  The water should disappear within  a few minutes or so at the surface. Thus the use of a well-drained (sandy) soil mix for your onions.
  7. Fertilize, fertilize, fertilize.  After the  plants start growing until they slow down near the harvesting period in late summer or fall.  About every week or so.   Onions mature in about 100 days around here.  If you are in the Northern States, you should plant "Long Day" Bulbs.  In Southern States, you should buy "Short Day" Bulbs. In Mid states, buy an Intermediate bulb but almost any bulb whether short or long day will also work.  Use a fertilizer with at least 10% Nitrogen. The first number in the series.  15% is even better and I have heard as high as 20% is OK.  Seems a little high to me but - experiment. The Number series will not show a percentage sign - though that is what it is.  You will see on the box or bottle of fertilizer a number series.  3 numbers separated by a dash.  For example, I have an inexpensive box of granulated fertilizer called "Nursery and Landscape" put out by Penngreen (R).  An all around use fertilizer.  On the box is the number series 14-4-7.  Good soil has 3 Major plant Nutrients:  These three are always shown the same.  The first Nutrient in the number series (14) is the Nitrogen Percentage in the fertilizer.  The second number - 4 - is Phosphorus.  And the third number is Potassium.  Each has it's own Chemical designation.  N-P-K in the number series.  As a comparison,  My Fish Emulsion Fertilizer is 5-1-1.  My box of Miracle Grow granulated fertilizer is 28-8-16.  28 percent N, 8% P, and 16% K.  Adding up to a total of 52% of Major Nutrients and 48 percent other minor or less important ingredients.  In a later article i hope to go into fertilizers more through.  For now, read the labels carefully.  Check to see what plants they are recommended for.  Onions need a ton of nitrogen.  But your tomato plants while they need a good quantity of nitrogen, could end up producing mostly leaves with to much!    
Plant more onions in a raised bed. 3 to 4 inches in all directions. You don't need the "12 inch space between cultivator rows".  You don't need empty rows.  You should have few weeds to tend with and are easy to pull out once or twice during the growing season. Onions must be kept weed free.  Weeds steal nutrients. Keep the beds clean. It should be easy.  One of the benefits of Raised Bed growing. You should be able to plant at least 150 to 175 bulbs in this bed. 

                           Building a Raised Bed Onion Box

I am now going to show you how to build a Raised Bed Onion Box.  Simple, easy, inexpensive. This bed is about 3 foot wide and 6 foot long.  Feel free to alter the lengths and widths.  You may use Concrete Blocks or Timbers if you like.  This is just an inexpensive way to build an Inexpensive, Simple, Easy to build Onion Bed to help you get started.  Then I will help you Plant the Box.  

 You will need:

  •        Hand Drill and cheap set of small bits 1/4 inch and less.
  •        Hammer
  •        Hand Saw if you have no Table Saw to make cut-offs.
  •        A level ( I will show you how to make a "Bottle Level"              that requires a bottle with a cap filled half way with                    water. a drop of food coloring etc. might help.) A level is            essential. Or simply fill the bed with water after putting the        soil in and making sure it is even with the sides all the way        around the box.  But you must observe quickly before the          water disappears!


  •        3  Cedar or Pine Fence Boards
  •         Dry Wall Screws
  •         2 x 2 x 8 board
  •         Any Oil Paint or Outdoor Wood Stain or thin Oil Paint
Note:  You may be planting on a steep grade or very bumpy Ground.  One end of the bed may sit flush on the ground and the opposite end (when leveled) may have a  2 inch Gap!  To have a level bed, you may need to add a "Skirt" at the bottom.  This will double your Fence Boards if you apply a "Skirt."  Or you may just have to add or subtract soil here and there.  I will explain this later.

                       Dog Ears

Cut off the dog ear as shown on the end of each board.  This will explain why the 6 foot boards end up making a 70 inch or so Onion Bed - unless you borrow a board stretcher from an obliging neighbor. These are very, very rare and hardly available any more.... 
Cut One of the 3 boards in half after cutting off the "dog ears".  You now have 2 Side Boards about 70 inches long and 2 End Boards about 35 inches long. The important thing about the lengths is that the Sides match and the Ends match.  If you want to end up with a nice squared off box.

                  Dry Wall Screws

You will need at least 12 drywall (now often called  "Multi-Use") screws as shown above.  If you add a Skirt, you will probably need more.  They should be at least 1-1/4 long.  You might use Galvanized Nails #6 - the same length or longer. I believe screws go in faster and hold the boards together better.  It's a toss up. Use what you are comfortable with.  

                                 2 X 2 Corner Braces
Cut Four 2 X 2 Corner Braces.  The End Boards are fastened to the Corner Braces and then the Side Boards are fastened to those Corner Braces.  It is not advisable to attach the end boards to the side boards directly.  The finished box would be to awkward and with not very strong end joints. The Corner Braces are shown above.  They should be the Width of the Boards Long plus One Inch.  About 6-1/2 inches long.  The Stub allows you to stack and secure another set of boards to make a deeper Bed if you wish to use it for other plants later. Make a second Box.  Attach it to the Original and Screw it on.  The Second Box would have braces Short one inch from the bottom and would be held firmly in place by box # 1 and a few screws where the 2 corners but together.  

Boxed Potatoes any one?  Or giant carrots!  Do you see the possibilities?  I hope to build something like this for potatoes or other deep rooted plants in the near future.

           How to avoid Splitting the Board Ends
I used a 7/16 inch width bit to drill the Screw Holes in the boards. Because the holes are very close to the end, the pressure from driving the screws directly without drilling a Pilot Hole first, would likely split the end out.  Pilot holes should be slightly smaller  across than the screw that is to be inserted in the hole. This allows for some grip for the screw but prevents break-out.
 A 1/4 bit is used here to make a "Dimple" around the holes to allow the head of the Dry-Wall Screws to set Flush with the board.  That way the Screw Head sets down in the board nice and pretty.

 It just looks better!

This is a close-up of how the screws  are set in.  This is an End Piece. Notice it is Flush with the Corner Piece. and the screws are centered to the Corner Piece with One Inch sticking out.

                    Here you see the two finished Ends of the Box.

                         Stagger the Screws
Here I have drilled 2 Pilot Holes in each end of the Sides.
Notice how the 2 holes are " Staggered" between the End Piece Screws.   This is so the screws will not run into each other and cause a disaster!  A common carpenter practice. "Staggering" that is....

     Find a Flat Surface as Large as Your Onion Box
 You must have a fairly flat surface to attach the Sides to the End Boards.  The two boards should be flush with each other at the top of the boards and at the ends where they meet.  Also notice, the two side screws that you see on the dark Side Board are set further back to accommodate the Flush attachment to the End Board.

                               Attach a 2 X 2 Center Brace
Add A Center 2 x 2 board - not shown in the earlier pictures. Attach it dead center and flush with the top of the sides with a couple screws. This keeps the pressure of the soil from being able to bow out the center of the Onion Box.

                 Finishing the Box Will Allow the
              Onion Box  to Last Several Years.
Although you can pay 35 to 40 dollars a gallon for outdoor wood stain you might check with the hardware stores to see if they have any Clearance Stain.  These are usually a little old and have a slight "off " smell when you open them.  These are water base and the latex puts out a sour smell. It is slight.  Merchants know people want what they pay for and they don't want "old " stain for 35 dollars!  These are usually marked way down as clearance items and theyt can add any color. I like redwood for my boxes.  Some of my boxes are 10 or more years old.
The "On Clearance" stain cost me $1 a gallon.  I snatched up 5 gallons and they were so glad to get rid of it they colored it for free!
If you cannot find a deal like this, use any old oil paint and thin it by half with Mineral Spirits (AKA Paint Thinner) to make a good penetrating outdoor wood stain.  Use a cheap brush. The rough cedar wood will destroy the brush in the end!
                   Add a Cheap Plastic Bottom - 
                         Stop Weeds and Grass
Using this method, you can just set the Onion Box on the Grass by stapling on a cheap plastic bottom.  A couple of Industrial Strength Garbage Bags - opened up - will work super!  I had some extra "Landscape Cloth" laying around the Garage and I used it.  Lay across the box from side to side.  
Overlap 3 or 4 inches. Staple or Tack down a few places. Cut
 off   and lay another along side of it (overlapping ) until you have  covered the full length.  Trim around the edge when you are done leaving about a 2 inch overlap.  Try to get it done before it rains...

You can get 4 mil plastic sheets at the dollar store for about 5 dollars and have lots left over.  Winterizing Plastic would do.  Heavy industrial use 6 mil plastic comes in big rolls at Ace Hardware.  It's a little expensive and you'll have a lot left over.  However, Its considered Greenhouse acceptable!  Build a Hoop Post settingsHouse with the extra.  Somewhere around here you will find an article I wrote on how to do just that! Check the Article list. 

              And Here is the Finished Onion Box

  Up Next:   "How to Plant Big Bulb Onions".

  Future Articles in the Works:
      " Onions that Stand Tall and Walk Around"
      " My Onion Soil Mix Recipe" 
      " Build an Easy Onion Drying Rack"

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Egg Carton Tomato Seedlings - Fast, Easy, Cheap!:

I heard someone say it is finally Springtime.  Well. There is no Snow at least in South Central Kansas!  My "Weather Bug" tells me the temperature outside is now 43 degrees and heading down until Morning.  I have a ton of work to do in my Garden but my bones say it's just to cold out there.  Do I worked up a new Project I hope you will try.  

There is a little project I have been wanting to try for several years and I decided to give it a go:

Starting my Seedlings in Egg Cartons.
I done a little experimenting and come up with what I think is an exciting new way to do this.  I've seen the method where you save eggshell halves, put them in an Egg Carton, then later transplant them to the garden or pots.  But I didn't have any Shells when I started this project.  So I came up with a way to use the Egg Carton only -  with a little cutting. Either with a Big Kitchen Sheers or a Little Band-Saw - which is Faster!

 I used the old-style "Paper Mache" type Cartons mostly but the new Strafoam Egg Cartons will work to start the plants - though you won't be able to go directly into the Garden with them.  You will need to transplant the plants into trays or pots as soon as they start putting out their True Leaves.  It will depend on the plants you seed into the cartons wether you need to transplant into holding pots or trays with the old gray Paper Mache cartons.  With the Styrofoam cartons, the lids have no holes and make perfect drip trays with out any extra work.  However, the Paper Mache wick water very fast and very little gets into the Tray Lid anyway. Most Paper Mache Cartons have a Top Lid with Holes in it.  Just lay a strip of newspaper or Aluminum foil down to catch the drips (if there is any) You might want a drain hole in the Styrofoam egg cups but it probably isn't necessary in the Paper Mache egg cups.  They dry out pretty quickly and you will need to mist (before the seeds sprout) and water (after they start sprouting) daily - or more often.

Be sure to Never let the cups dry out completely.  

Step One:  Prepare the Carton for reassembly.

Cut the locking flap from the carton.
Cut the Top from the Egg Cups.  

Not shown but best do it now, Cut down the center of the Egg cups so you have 2 sections.  This is easy with a small saw but can be done with a Scissors.  Be careful with your fingers. This part Can be a little tricky.  Always know where your fingers are while you cut. If you are a natural Cluts, let someone else do this for you! Spare your fingers!

Step Two:  You can use the Lid Lock Piece to block the holes in the side of the Egg Carton Lid Piece.  

 Apply Glue to the Carton Lid Soon to be your Drip Tray.

Apply a little pressure for a few minutes until the two pieces start to hold.  Go to the next step.

Step Three:  (You may skip this part if your Carton Lid has no holes. Or you just don't care anyway!)

Seal the holes in the Carton Lid with a piece of Cardboard, Plastic Wrap, or Aluminum Foil if you are worried about leaks.

Step Four:  Set the Egg Holder Cup sections in the Tray you have just finished.

I cut off the tips of the middle section just because they looked crazy and awkward like that.  Do what you will with them.

Your Egg Carton is Ready to Seed!  

I will  show you how I do this if you would like.

Seeding Your Egg Carton Trays
For Seedlings, I like to use this Mix. You may use what you wish.
1 part sifted Compost
1 Part sifted (1/4 inch screen) Perlite
1 Part sifted (1/4 inch screen) Potting Soil .

I mix it well then add enough water to make a moist (but not muddy) mix.  If you over-do the water.  Just add in a little dry Mix until it is the right consistency.  If you squeeze a handful, no water should drip out of the lump. It should hold together by itself for a few seconds.  Construction Sand (not fine play sand) may be used in place of the Perlite. However, Perlite holds moisture.  Sand does not requiring your watering or misting more frequently.  (The seeds must remain moist but not wet.)

 Step One:  Put Seeding Soil Mix in the Egg Cups.
 Fill the Egg Cups with your Soil Mix.  Firm each down slightly with your fingers.  You should feel a little resistance.  Let up.

Step Two:  Poke holes for the seeds.  
I use a short piece of 1/4 inch wooden dowel for most seeds.  A Pencil would do if you like.  Poke a hole in each Cup to the depth you seed package recommends.

Step Three:  Put Seeds in the holes.
Drop one seed in each hole.

You can put 2 or 3 seeds if you are seeding Tomatoes or Peppers because you can later carefully separate the plant roots from each other and transplant each little plant to its own pot.
  Most seeds are sold with a 85% germination rate expected so usually All will come up with only 12 Pots to an Egg Carton. I just plant extras if I am not sure I will have enough.  Egg Cartons are Cheap - and I save most of my own seeds anyway so they're
cheap too!

However, I would recommend only One seed for plants such as
Cantaloupes, Squash, Cucumbers or Watermelons, Pumpkins etc.

Step Four:  Drop a little soil in each hole to cover the seeds and again press down lightly to firm in the seeds.

Step Five:  Again lightly mist the seeds planted until the soil is wet on the top.


The Tricky Part about Germinating Seeds: 

 The seeds must be kept moist at all times.  The Temperature should be at least Room Temperature (72 degrees or so) at all times.  There must not be any chilly drafts.  The seeded containers should be covered at all times Except allow at least an hour of fresh air to pass over the Egg Cartons every Day. This goes a long way to preventing "Dampening Off" or introducing Mildew to the soil surface.  I Very few plants need light to germinate.  I think maybe lettuce.   But don't quote me!  A Bread Sack fits nicely over an Egg Carton to Keep the soil moist and warm. I allow a little air to get in

I sometimes use Freezer Bags and leave the ends unzipped. And open them wide for more fresh air for about an Hour a day. Every day!

Again: Keep Warm.

            Keep damp (Never Wet).
            Give Fresh Air at least Once a Day for about an hour.
             Keep Covered to avoid drying out.
             When the first seedlings sprout - Give them light!
              Remove the Cover but keep the new plants moist. and 
When you see the Seedlings Start to come up: 
When the first few seedlings appear, get the whole tray under lights immediately.  Even a desk light (non-hot) Fluorescent is best.  No more than a foot away with 75 or 100 watts equivalent.
  Old Incandescent bulbs will Cook your tender new plants. Do not get any closer than a foot to 18 inches.

  Florescent bulbs can get within 2 or 3 inches of the top leaves. The closer the better for more light.  If you cut the distance from the light by half - your plants get 4 times Stronger. It's the law!

You need to get rid of the covering completely to keep the new seedlings from touching the cover.  Which can introduce rot to the leaves. 

 Under ideal conditions, some of your seedlings will sprout from almost Twice as fast as shown on the seed package.  Don't be surprised! Tomatoes are fast. Peppers as still a little slow.

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