Sunday, April 13, 2014

Best Garden Tools Ever

My life changed forever in 1989.

That was the year Ed and I were married and I moved into his home on Sherrett Street in Portland, Oregon. Ed came with serious landscaping issues. The front yard was nothing but dandelions, and the back yard had a huge pile of dirt snuffing out some clumping bamboo.

I made short work of the dandelions and then turned my energy into freeing the bamboo. Turns out it was a junk pile of yard debris, car parts, tin cans, and a garden fork.

The garden fork was in surprising shape, the wooden handle was horribly warped, but the tines were rust free. I really didn't know what to make of it. First of all, who would bury a perfectly good tool and second of all, what the heck was it used for? I grew up on a farm and a pitchfork was one of the primary tools in use. We had a regular hay fork and another type we used to muck out the stalls. But this fork was different. It had four tines that were broad, flat, and thick. I cleaned it up and put it in the garage.

Weeks later I was trying to dig up more dandelions and not doing well. The roots kept breaking off in the heavy clay soil and wrenching on the plants with a hand tool was killing my back. I thought of the garden fork tucked into the garage and gave it a try. I've never looked back. Turns out, it became one of my two favorite tools. I use it for almost everything in the garden. It is the perfect tool for digging up weeds, breaking up dirt clods, turning the compost, aerating a bed, prying up rocks, moving sod, turning over soil, and chasing off raccoons. It's the first tool I mention whenever people ask me what they should have for gardening. My fork has replaced the hoe completely and most times I use it instead of a shovel.

My second favorite tool is my Felco hand pruner. I've had other types over the years. People used to give me pruners for Christmas gifts because mine were always so beat up. I went through brand after brand and nothing would last. Most couldn't be sharpened and others simply fell apart. Yes, I was hard on them. I'd use them to cut branches that were too big or dropped them onto hard surfaces. My biggest frustration was that none of them would keep an edge, thus making the pruning all the harder. I finally broke down and decided to spend the extra money to get a pair of Felco's on the advice of another gardener. It became one of those moments when you say to yourself - "Why didn't I do this years ago!!"  I've owned the same pair for almost fifteen years and they have never failed me. We sharpen them about three times a year and they hold their edge under the most abusive circumstances. I use them as pruners, not to mention tin snips, hose cutters, wire cutters, box cutters, staple pullers, grafting knife, and a handy tool to pry on things. They've been dropped, run over, squished into mud, stepped on, lost in the compost, and left out in the rain. Despite this horrible treatment they can be cleaned up, sharpened, and put away for another day. They are more reliable than I am, that's for sure.

I love to garden, but I also don't want to work harder than I have to. My garden fork and Felco pruners have made my life so much easier and allows me to get done what I need to in order to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Speaking of fruit, I need to trim that tree. Never mind that the branch is over two inches thick - honey, hand me the Felcos!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Steal this idea! Tool Cleaning Bucket

I struggle with taking care of my gardening tools.  I usually manage to clean them off - somewhat, but invariably the handles get all muddy and I have rust spots popping up.  Shovels, hoes, rakes, cultivators, pitchforks, hand weeders:  all of them rusty.

A couple of years ago I heeded the advice of a gardening show and bought linseed oil to rub onto the metal and handles - with the idea of putting up the tools for winter.  This worked for the Vermont-based show host, but I lived in Oregon and gardened all winter.  There was no tool storage for me - just many days of working in the wet maritime Pacific Northwest.  I used the oil off and on when I remembered until the day I dropped the can in the driveway.

That's all changed now thanks to Holly and Carolyn, two master gardeners that passed on a tool cleaning bucket idea during their roses workshop.  Carolyn relates that she got the idea from a Bob Villa program.

It's really very simple and works great!  You need a lidded bucket (I used an empty kitty litter container,) a bag of builders sand (got mine at Lowe's), and a quart of motor oil.  You can also use mineral or boiled linseed oil.  Mix the sand and oil in the bucket and you're ready to go.

With my heavy clay soil I still have to use a putty knife to clean off the worst of it, with lighter soils you can use steel wool.  Next I dip the tool in the bucket, then use a rag to polish.  The sand acts as an abrasive and the oil coats the metal plus softens the dirt.  As an extra bonus the sand cleaning helps keep everything sharp.  I use the rag to clean and lubricate the handle too.


I keep the bucket in my tool cabinet so it's nice and convenient.  

I have a tool chest on the back deck where I keep all my hand tools like trowels, cultivators and pruners.  For them a yogurt container suffices and it fits into one of the drawers.


I'm really happy with the results and the containers are great reminders to take the time to clean the tools.

I hope this inspires you to create your own tool cleaning bucket.  Let me know how it goes!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bake and Shake Composting

It's getting that time of year to start planting the summer vegetable garden, but before you do, make sure that your soil is ready to produce a whole new crop of edibles. I refresh my planting beds with compost that I've made from yard trimmings and kitchen scraps.

I've been using a three-bin compost system for years and really like the tidiness and speed in which I can create usable compost. Raw material goes into the first bin, and then is moved to the next second the following week. Moving it to the next bin helps keep everything aerated so the microbes, earthworms, and various other creatures can continue breaking down the plant material unfettered. After another week it is turned again into the third chamber.

By the time it has spent a week in bin three, it is pretty much ready to move out. Just to make sure, we built a screen to fit on top of the wheelbarrow. I fork the compost onto the screen and then shake it vigorously. The material that has broken down completely sifts through, leaving the chunks on top.

We build the screen out of materials we have on hand and make sure that it's not too heavy for me to manipulate. One year we made it entirely out of two-by-fours and I was barely able to shake it when it was loaded down with compost.

Our latest iteration is comprised of one-by-twos, 1/2-inch square galvanized mesh, and two handles from a wheelbarrow that we had to "put down" because it had completely worn out. The frame is built to sit on top of the rim. This way the wheelbarrow supports the weight and gives a smooth track surface to aid in sifting. Since there isn't any lifting, it's really saved my back from getting strained.

I shake it a good dozen times until I can see that what remains on top will not fit through the screen. This material is then tossed back into the first bin to go through the process again. Depending on what else is happening in the garden, I may take the chunky bits and place them around my ornamental plants as mulch.

The compost that remains is then wheeled over to the vegetable beds. I usually mix it into the top six inches of existing soil with my garden fork. Then I rake it level, set my irrigation, and plant my seeds. I'll also use it in established plantings as a side dressing or to mound hills for potatoes and corn. No matter how much I make there is never enough to go around. When I get really desperate I will buy compost in a bag - but it is never as good as what comes out of my bin so I try to hold out. I scrounge grass clippings and yard debris from the neighbors whenever my own fresh supply gets low, just to keep my piles cooking. I know, I should probably find other hobbies.

I really believe that the reason I am able to successfully grow food for my friends and family is due to my plant recycling efforts. The compost I produce smells great, really holds moisture, and my living plants love it. I never have to use commercial fertilizers and the compost contributes to a healthy soil environment. I encourage every one to start their own rot pile and give the "bake and shake" method a try!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

House Worms

Composting with worms is both fun and rewarding.  Most importantly, it doesn’t have to be outside in the heat of Central Texas, you can keep your worms in the house.

Done correctly, worm composting is odorless, insect-free, and a great way to compost your kitchen’s vegetable scraps.  Your reward is years of fun, worms for your friends, and most importantly, rich worm castings to add to your plants.

The worms used for home composting are Red Wigglers.  These are a smaller variety than the earthworms in your yard and are better suited for living in shallow soil.  If you can’t find worms locally, you can always mail order them.  I got mine from

There are several great resources for bin plans made from a variety of materials. I opted to make mine out of three 10-gallon heavy-duty, lidded plastic totes.  I chose this size because it will hold about 2,000 worms and it’s not too heavy for me to pick up when filled.  You can use smaller or larger bins depending on your situation.

The bottom bin is to catch excess moisture called “chelate”.  This is the moisture that drips down from the worm bedding and can be used as compost tea.

The next two bins are to hold the worms.  The first sits right on top of the bottom bin.  The third bin isn’t used until your original bin fills and will be used to start a new colony.

Chelate aeration holes
Start by drilling ¼” holes in the first bin about 2 ½” to 4” apart and 2 ½” from the bottom.  These holes are to provide aeration for the chelate and keeps away odor.  You may never generate excess moisture, but if you do, you can drain it out and use it directly on your plants.  It should smell very earthy.  If it stinks like rotting garbage, throw it away because that means that you have bacteria instead of healthy microbes.  Rinse out the bottom bin before placing your second worm bin back on top.

Drill holes bottom of 2nd bin
The second bin will be your first home for the worms.  Using a ¼” bit, drill holes on the bottom about 2 ½” apart to allow excess moisture to escape.  Drill another line of holes at the very top of the bin along each side.  These holes are important for aeration.  Repeat this pattern on the third bin.

Bin 1 and 2 with holes.
Place shredded paper into one of the bins with holes on the bottom.  Moisten with water then add your worms.
Moisten the paper

Add worms.
Top them with vegetable matter and more shredded newspaper.  Now stack this bin on the first one you made and put on the lid.  Done!
Add scraps and more paper to top it off.

Once this bin get’s about 6” of finished castings and compost, you’ll want to move your worms to a new container.  Add shredded paper and vegetable scraps to the third bin that you made.  Stack this bin on top of the other two.
Worm bin with all 3 stacks.
The worms will migrate to the third bin on their own in search of the fresh food, thus eliminating the need to screen or dig around to move them manually.

Here is what I have learned to be a successful worm farmer.
1. Place the bin in a cool area away from sunlight.  Under the sink or against an interior wall are examples.  I have mine in the dining room against the wall.
2. Refrain from adding new scraps until they have consumed the previous meal.  Excess feeding will cause the vegetable scraps to rot and smell.
3. Only use raw vegetable scraps.  Do not add oils, meat or dairy.  Try not to add too many citrus peels as the acid makes it hard for the worms to digest and could cause a harmful build-up.  I only add them occasionally and only if all other citrus has been digested.  I also don’t add eggshells because they also don’t break down fast enough.
4. When adding scraps, cover them with newspaper to prevent odors and fruit fly development.  If you find that you still get fruit flies, freeze your vegetable and fruit scraps to kill the fly eggs.  No need to thaw it before adding to your bin.  We eat a lot of fruit and I got so frustrated the first time I raised worms in the house I evicted them to my outside compost bin.  Freezing the peels restored harmony.
5. Worms usually only live for a year but lay eggs to replace themselves.  You can keep a worm bin going for years and rear generations of progeny.  Just think of it, your own worm dynasty!

I use the castings directly on my vegetable beds, container plants, and roses.  It’s great stuff and quite the conversation piece.  You will give a whole new meaning to “I have worms.”  Happy vermicomposting!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fish Recovery Shock Treatment

This is the second part of my post on the Calapooia river restoration and a visit to Thompson's Mills state historic site. 

The mill was built in 1858 and in order to power it, water was diverted from the original course of the Calapooia river via a series of dams and ditches to create a mill race.  Thompson's Mills began as a grist mill then was converted to a hydro plant in the seventies.  
Here is the master plan for the area that provides even more history:

The day that we visited the parks department was just about to open the site to the public. One of the very last items to be completed was the redesign of the millrace.  The plan was to erect a dam and essentially create a pond that could be enlisted for demonstrations.  They used an inflatable dam to block the stream and then pumped out the water.  

As they pumped out water, they had to recover the fish that lived there and move them upstream.  Of special consideration were the lamprey fish who spend the part of their freshwater life in Oregon's tributaries and rivers
Catching the fish unharmed can be a tricky business.  These fish & wildlife guys were shocking the fish in the remaining puddles and then gathering them in buckets.  
The "shocker" had this power pack on his back that sent electricity into this wand.  The electricity jolt is very mild so as just to stun the fish temporarily.  

Here are some of the fish that they had gathered.  They were really neat and quite colorful.  Lampreys are also called eels and are a relative of hag fish.  These guys can be parasites on salmon, but are an important game fish for Native American tribes on the river - the Columbia in particular.  The fish were placed in this plastic receptacle to measure their length before returning them to the river upstream.

Not just fish were recovered.  This really old bottle was discovered in the muddy bottom.  It will be sent to the Oregon Historical Society.

Some local waterfowl were taking advantage of the water removal too.  We couldn't see if they were eating anything in particular, but there was lots of mud to sift through.

It was great to be out tromping around and to have the opportunity to chat with both Parks and Fish&Wildlife employees and get all my questions answered.  Hopefully all this work will help restore the steelhead run.  They are hoping it will naturally occur - since there are fish in the Willamette, and will wait a few years before resorting to planting fish.  What an amazing sight that will be - seeing those gigantic trout swimming up the Calapooia and right under I-5.  It's enough to make me want to start shopping for a new steelhead rod.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Playing in Mud With Friends

Last fall I went back to Oregon for a visit and was able to spend time with my friend Mark.  We went to college together and have been great buddies ever since.

Mark is involved in the Calapooia Watershed Council and took me on a tour of one of their projects.  It was one of those typical fall days in Oregon - a little rain, a little sun, and a lot of mud.  But it was well worth it because the project really highlights why I love Oregon.

The watershed was involved in restoring the run of the Calapooia River.  In the late 1800s a ditch was built to divert water from the Calapooia River to Thompson's Mills.  The Sodom ditch and dam were greatly effective, and actually began to grab nearly all of the water from the Calapooia.  The Mills became the oldest water-powered grain mill in the state and was operational until the 1970's.  It was then converted to a small hydro plant that produced and sold electricity.

In 1998 the winter steelhead, which is a magnificent gigantic trout that spends part of it's life in the ocean, was listed as a threatened species.  This was a huge deal in Oregon because the steelhead is one of the state's most important game fish.  The perfect steelhead rod is passed down through generations of fishing folk and much debated.  Unfortunately the rod my grandfather gave me broke during the move to Austin.  Dang it.  Once listed, every fish run was scrutinized for viability and improvement.  The Calapooia was reviewed because it branches directly off the Willamette - a main artery through the heart of Western Oregon.  The Sodom dam was a fish barrier on this important habitat.

The state ended up purchasing property and water rights which enabled the removal of the Sodom dam and now allows the Calapooia, and the ditch, to run free, completing over 60 miles of mainstream and tributaries for the steelhead restoration.  Here is a link to their website for more information.

Mark and I walked through the area where the dam once stood.

I couldn't tell where it was until Mark pointed it out.  You can see where some of the bank used to be and where they restored the river.

Whole logs were pile-driven into the bank to help build structure and to prevent the channel from eroding during floods.  Large rocks were also added.

Willows, pines, grasses, and woody shrubs - mostly natives - were planted on top of the restored embankments and were absolutely thriving.

We then jumped in the car and went downstream to visit the actual mill.  It is now a state historic site and was getting ready to be opened to the public.  While we were there the State Parks and Fish & Wildlife were doing a fish recovery.  More on that in my next post.