4 Weird Ways to Use Your Spent Coffee Grounds

coffee grounds

Enjoying a delicious cup of home brewed coffee is a perfect way to begin the day. But after making the coffee, what is the best thing to do with spent coffee grounds? Coffee drinkers go through a lot of coffee, and if you make it at home, then you end up with a lot of grounds to dispose of.

Continue reading “4 Weird Ways to Use Your Spent Coffee Grounds”

5 Household Wastes You Should Be Recycling in the Garden

Recycling for the Garden

Garden Recycling: Using Household Wastes to Build Soil and Repel Pests

One of the satisfactions of gardening is the ability to work sustainably and close loops. Instead of just buying inputs and discarding wastes, gardeners can reuse discarded materials, reducing both cost and waste.

Compost is the primary example of this recycling. Some household discards also have more specialized uses in the garden. And, some don’t even have to be composted to utilize their thrown away nutrients. Here are five household wastes to recycle in the garden and how to use them: Continue reading “5 Household Wastes You Should Be Recycling in the Garden”

101 Sustainable Gardening Tips: Useful Tips to Start Today

carrots resized

Learning: Gardening and Environmental Education

1. Pay attention to your land.
2. Learn your average frost-free dates. Notice how they vary year to year.
3. Notice where water collects and where the soil dries fast.
4. Notice where wild plants grow most abundantly.
5. Read gardening and farming books.
6. Talk to local farmers.
7. Consult your local Cooperative Extension.
8. Contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District.
9. Check out online forums like Permies, Gardening Channel and Homesteading Today.
10. Borrow issues of different homesteading magazines before subscribing to any.
11. Evaluate everything you read and hear. Notice disagreements and consensus.
12. Make small-scale experiments. See what works on your land.
13. Notice changes in crop yield and soil structure.
14. Start small. Build up gradually. Don’t get overwhelmed.

Building Soil:

15. Make soil-building a top priority.
16. Add organic matter to your soil to build nutrients and increase water retention.
17. Compost makes for great results.
18. Compost food scraps (not meat or bread) and coffee grounds.
19. Compost yard wastes (not from treated lawns).
20. Compost manures (not dog, cat or human).
21. Mix high-carbon material like sawdust or straw with high-nitrogen material like manure before composting.
22. Age/compost sawdust at least a year before putting it on your garden.
23. Get compost materials from neighbors.
24. In winter, use an indoor worm composting bin.
25. Never leave your soil bare.
26. Plant cold-hardy cover crops after harvest. Let them overwinter.
27. Plant legumes (clover, vetch, alfalfa, peas, beans) to fix nitrogen.
28. Plant deep-rooted crops to break up hardpan.
29. Mulch plants with sawdust, lawn clippings, leaves etc.
30. Mulch empty beds that aren’t cover-cropped.
31. Grow low ‘living mulch’ like white clover under tall plants.
32. Mulch acid-loving plants with pine needles.
33. Add wood ashes around plants that like low-acid soil.
34. Don’t till your soil. Let the earthworms do that.
35. Add compost to the top of your garden beds every year.
36. Grow perennials to absorb carbon and build soil.

Managing Water:

37. Collect and store rainwater.
38. Use drip irrigation to minimize water waste.
39. Space plants closely to shade soil and minimize evaporation.
40. If you must water from overhead, do it in evening or early morning to reduce evaporation.
41. Don’t leave disease-prone plants with wet leaves overnight.

Managing Microclimates, Stretching Gardening Seasons:

42. Use microclimates wisely.
43. Put heat-loving plants like eggplant and pepper in full sun against south-facing walls.
44. Put shade-loving plants like lettuce North of tall plants like asparagus.
45. Extend your growing season with cold frames.
46. You needn’t buy new frames; old storm windows and scrap lumber will do.
47. Make succession plantings to extend your growing season.

Selecting and Saving Seeds:

48. Plant non-GMO seeds.
49. Grow heirloom varieties for biodiversity, flavor and nutrition.
50. Learn to appreciate odd-looking vegetables. Many heirlooms weren’t bred for uniformity.
51. Get seeds from co-ops and seed saver exchanges, or from neighbors.
52. Learn to save your own seeds.
53. Collect seeds from disease-free, quick-growing, productive plants.
54. Label collection date on seeds. Some seeds can last up to five years, and others are best to plant the following year.
55. Start with easy seeds like peas and beans.
56. Work up to saving tomato and lettuce seeds.
57. Wait until you have some experience before trying to save squash and cukes. Then read up on how to prevent cross-pollination.
58. Save garlic cloves and potato tubers, not seeds; these are easy.
59. Only save potatoes if they’re disease-free.

Garden Troubleshooting:

60. Pull weeds before they go to seed.
61. Learn and target your area’s most obnoxious weeds.
62. Don’t use weed killers. Pull weeds by hand, or use flame or boiling water.
63. Use ‘smother crops’ like buckwheat or vetch to outcompete weeds between crops.
64. Rotate crops to minimize diseases.
65. Spray leaves with 1 part milk in 9 parts water to deter harmful fungi.
66. Hand-pick most pest bugs.
67. Put out beer or yeast in shallow dishes to kill slugs.
68. Encircle plant stems with cornmeal to keep cutworms out.
69. Use organic insecticides as a last resort.
70. Attract insects and animals that eat pest bugs.
71. Plant dill, sunflowers and Queen Anne’s lace to attract beneficial insects.
72. Put out water and shade for toads.
73. Offer perches and baths for birds.
74. Attract pollinators–butterflies, bees etc.
75. Have something blooming in your garden for as much of the growing season as possible.
76. Enjoy and use useful weeds.
77. Add nutrient-rich comfrey to your compost.
78. Eat purslane, amaranth, lamb’s quarters, garlic mustard, Jerusalem artichoke tubers.
79. Leave clover to build soil nitrogen–unless it’s smothering your carrots.

Adding Animals:

80. Raise both plants and animals for a more complete ecosystem.
81. Use animal manures (not cat or dog!) in your compost.
82. Feed garden excess to animals.
83. Give goats carrots, kale, spent pea and bean vines.
84. Give pigs the same types of things you can eat.
85. Use a chicken tractor.
86. Remember, pigs can handle overripe produce, sour milk or whey, and cracked eggs.
87. Give rabbits carrots, turnips, beets, parsnips, kale, and pea vines.
88. Give chickens kale, mustards, and amaranth.
89. Give chickens the insect pests you hand-picked.
90. Give any of the above pumpkins and squash.
91. Use garlic as a natural antibiotic and dewormer.
92. Feed livestock garlic leaves and bulbils–they work like garlic cloves.
93. Don’t feed moldy or diseased plants to animals.
94. These are suggestions, not full guidelines. Research before deciding how to feed your animals.

Saving Money in the Garden:

95. Minimize purchases. Consider what you really need.
96. Be wary of trendy new items. Try tools out before buying them.
97. Share tools and equipment with neighbors who can be relied on not to wreck or lose them.
98. Discard as little as possible. Recycle what you can.
99. Use other people’s discards.
100. Get discarded food-grade buckets from grocery stores to make plant pots and animal feeders and waters.
101. Get discarded bread trays for seedling totes. Ask nurseries for used plant pots and seed starter packs.

What the heck is aquaponics?

Photo courtesy of AIDG

If you hang out with gardening hippies, you may hear the term “aquaponics” thrown around. So, what the heck does it mean?

Aquaponics is a gardening technique designed to maximize water efficiency and minimize the need for fertilizers. The technique involves farming and raising fish in an integrated system, where fish produce natural fertilizer while plants filter and oxygenate the water. A well designed aquaponic system requires minimal supervision and creates two desirable crops – fresh herbs and fish. The components of the system produce synergy: fish and plants grow more efficiently together than they would in separate tanks.

…when the aquaponic system is fully operational after six months, it leaps ahead of inorganic hydroponics. This leads to earlier maturity of greenhouse crops under aquaponics and much heavier cropping.

Aquaponics is a portmanteau of the words Aquaculture and Hydroponics. It gets improved results due to the symbiotic behavior of several living organisms. The plants and fish complement each other, but a lot of the productivity depends on integrating bacteria and microorganisms in the system. Bacteria convert fish waste into useful nutrients for the plants, and phytoplankton produce food for the fish.

Aquaponics is an old concept – the ancient Aztecs and Egyptians used the technique with various plant and fish species. In China and Thailand, it’s traditional to raise fish in flooded rice paddies. Since the 1970’s, several universities have been developing modern techniques and applying scientific method to get the greatest performance.

Compared to conventional agriculture, aquaponics is a huge water saver. On a farm in Oklahoma, it takes 6 gallons of water to grow a head of lettuce. At 24 heads per case, that means raising 1,250 cases of lettuce using conventional methods would require 180,000 gallons of water. A DeepWater aquaponic system uses about 16.1% as much water to create the same results (and it generates more than 3,600 pounds of fish fillets and 7,400 pounds of fish scraps for use as fish feed or fertilizer).

Here’s some more information on aquaponic water efficiency, comparing aquaponics to hydroponics and conventional farming techniques:

Estimated total value of output is then A$405,000 ($305,491 USD) — which represents water use efficiency of around 173 liters/A$100 of production.

This compares very favorably with the Australian commercial hydroponics figure of 600 liters of water used per A$100 of production.

There are many different aquaponic systems, but two major schools have emerged. These two approaches look very different, and each is best for certain crops or locations. These competing systems are Deep Water Aquaponics and Reciprocating Aquaponics. The primary difference is where the plants are positioned. In Deep Water Aquaponics, plants float on top of a pond of water (usually inside styrofoam rafts with holes for their roots). In Reciprocating Aquaponic systems, the plants are outside the pond and water is carried to their roots along irrigation tubes.

Photo courtesy of Aria Fotografia at Flickr.com

  • Deep Water Aquaponics
  • Deep Water Aquaponics is also known as Raft Culture Hydroponics or “the UVI system”. One of the main proponents of this type of hydroponics is Dr. James Rakocy of the University of the Virgin Islands. He offers training courses and maintains an aquaponic demonstration facility with 15 full scale systems that have been in continuous operation for several years. The system is very productive and water efficient:

    UVI’s aquaponics system, which occupies an eighth of an acre and uses 29,000 gallons of water, can produce annually 11,000 pounds of tilapia and 11,000 pounds of basil or 1,250 cases of lettuce.

    Here’s a cool photo-tour of the UVI system. Note – the fish are grown in separate tanks to prevent them from eating the roots of crop plants.

  • Reciprocating Aquaponics
  • Reciprocating Aquaponics is also known as “Flood and Drain” or “Ebb and Flow”. This system uses gravel or sand beds to filter water from fish tanks, and then irrigates plant beds using irrigation pipes (or positions plant roots inside the irrigation pipes). The result is a system with more control over temperature and humidity. Some plants that don’t do well in hydroponic systems thrive in these conditions, because their roots are protected against rotting. Biofiltration beds also allow more microbial activity in a smaller area, which is important when space is limited. On the flip side, the filtering media will get clogged over time, and cleaning it is hard work.

    This type of aquaponic system was developed by Mark McMurtry and many other pioneers. Several different ebb and flow systems have been built since the mid 1980’s.

    If you’re looking for a cool way to renovate the pool in your back yard, or if you want to do more with the rain water in your rainbarrels, there’s no time like the present to check out an aquaponic system.

    Photo courtesy of ideonexus at Flickr.com

    How to plant a victory garden

    Photo courtesy of Sunfell at Flickr.com.

    Everything old is new again. This is doubly true for trends that never went completely out of fashion, like vinyl records and Victory Gardens. Originally conceived during World War I as a way to ensure food supplies for troops, these community gardens took off in a big way during the second World War. By 1944, up to 40% of the vegetables on American tables came from a Victory Garden.

    Now, with the rising price of staple foods, increasing awareness of the environmental cost of industrial farming, and increased interest in self sufficiency and independence, Victory Gardens are making a serious comeback. The Smithsonian Institute has a new exhibit on Victory Gardens, and vegetable rows are replacing ornamental bushes nationwide.

    Modern-day Victory Gardens look a little different – gardeners are now blogging about their successes and even using Twitter to send gardening updates!

    Success with Victory Gardens is snowballing into more awareness of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Urban food pantries are stocking up with fresh fruit gleaned from “ornamental” trees. Believe it or not, some HOA’s are embracing community gardens. There’s even a campaign to start a Victory Garden on the White House lawn:

    Benefits of a victory garden:

    • Cut grocery bills
    • Gain access to fresher food
    • Boost vitamins in your diet
    • Increase the health of your soil
    • Insure against food shortages
    • Reduce exposure to pesticides and other chemicals
    • Avoid disease (or ensure access to your favorite veggies if an outbreak occurs)
    • Preserve oil supplies / reduce dependence on foreign oil
    • Grow produce for sale or gifts

    So, let’s say that you’ve been bitten by the Victory Gardening bug. Where to begin?

    It can be a bit daunting to start your first Victory Garden. There’s a lot to learn about soil, planting seasons, and local weather conditions. Hit the books! The library is a good place to start – a little bit of research can go a long way in getting the best results. As the old saying goes, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of perspiration. Your state’s Extension Office can also be a good source of information and expert advice.

    Try looking for help from your neighbors – local gardening clubs often know the best times to plant and which species do best in your area. Find a local Gardening MeetUp, and you’ll find a pool of knowledge and maybe even people willing to lend you seeds or cuttings from their favorite plants. No matter which plants you choose, PBS is a great resource for beginner gardeners.

    In the past, Victory Gardens were all laid out from a universal template. That didn’t work out very well for people who tried to grow the same plants in California as they did in Maine and Florida. Instead of a cookie cutter layout, you should tailor your garden to local conditions. Work with your climate to choose the best plants. For example, even if you love rice, it may not make sense to grow rice if you live in the middle of the desert.

    We’ve learned a lot in the last 50 years, and it’s easier to start a vegetable garden in your yard than ever before. Incorporate this knowledge in the layout and composition of your victory garden, and you can achieve amazing results. Our grandparents didn’t have much practical experience on designing to minimize erosion or using cover crops that naturally fertilize the soil, but there’s a wealth of useful information on these techniques. Here are some other research topics that you might want to consider:

    Even if you have limited space or no yard, Victory Gardens can be grown in containers and indoor planters. Hanging planters can turn any patio or balcony into a vertical garden.

    If you don’t have a patio, many plants will thrive in window planters or grow boxes. There are also light boxes and grow lights that can turn the deepest, darkest basement into an oasis of life. Indoor plants not only make rooms beautiful – they also can help reduce sick building syndrome by providing fresh air and absorbing indoor pollutants.

    Not a gardener? No problem. There are entrepreneurs eager to turn other people’s yards into gardens. Also, there are other steps you can take to promote food safety and sustainability.

    Photo courtesy of mental.masala at Flickr.com.

    The right power cords save power and money

    Photo courtesy of abrunglinghaus at Flickr.com.

    Many of us have a blind spot for extension cords. We tend to treat these power cables as interchangeable parts, but not all extension cords are the same.

    Length is important. The longer the extension cord you use, the more energy is lost in transmission. If you only need to add 5 feet, it doesn’t make any sense to use a 100′ cord!

    The thickness of the wire is also important. Thin cords lose power faster, and they can also heat up dangerously with heavy power loads. When using extension cords, it’s important to make sure that the wire is thick enough to safely and efficiently conduct electricity. Wire thickness is often referred to as “gauge”.

    Gauge numbers are rather tricky. Even though it seems counter-intuitive, thicker wires have a low gauge, and thin wires have a high gauge. Many power cords are available in 18, 16, 14, and 12 gauge sizes. Of these choices, 18 is the thinnest and 12 is the thickest. Thicker wires are generally more expensive, but they can save substantial amounts of electricity. Thick electric wire can also handle higher amperages than thin wires without bursting into flames. That’s good to know if you want to avoid burning your house down or melting your tools.

    So, know your cords! Pay attention to cord gauge and length, and they’ll pay you back with a reduced electric bill.

    Photo courtesy of ClintJCL at Flickr.com.

    Coffee Break For Your Plants

    Coffee Roaster Americans drink a lot of coffee.  It’s the second largest commodity traded; right after oil.  And the bulk of those coffee grounds go right into the land fill.

    That’s a shame because coffee makes a great fertilizer and composting agent.  It’s high in nitrogen and also contains potassium and phosphorous.  You can simply sprinkle it around existing plants and water it in or add it to compost.  Paper coffee filters break down quickly during composting so you can just toss them in the compost whole.

    If you’re not a coffee drinker; or just need a lot more coffee grounds than you generally produce through your own consumption a visit to your local coffee shop is in order.  According to Fort Worth, Texas based Panther City Coffee Co, most coffee shops are willing to hang on to their grounds (and a busy coffee shop can produce hundreds of pounds a week) as long as you are polite and considerate.  Keep in mind it is a bit of a hassle for the employees to keep and package; it helps if you supply a container, and be sure you pick up the grounds regularly so they don’t sit in the way for weeks at a time. 

    Texans Create Super Tomato Cage!

    Check out these excellent Texas Tomato Cages which come in a variety of sizes and will “last a lifetime” as they say on their website. They’re made of galvanized wire and fold up for quick storage. Pretty cool that these folks are running a successful small business with this simple product. Good for them! From the looks of it, this tomato cage is extremely well built. An excellent gift for the vegetable gardener. Your friend or relative may even thank you with a reciprocal gift of big fat home grown tomatoes!