Rock the Rox Box

rox boxI’ve been dreaming about gardening with Archer for a long time (read: since before he was born). I’ve got Sharon Lovejoy’s book Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots and plan on collecting the rest of her titles. Now that Archer is 18-months old, he’s mobile, focused and interested. He enjoys watering “the babies” and he loves grabbing fistfuls of worm castings and scattering them in the veggie beds. There’s only so much watering and scattering for a toddler to do though, and so for a long time I’d been planning to turn one of our seven raised beds into a sandbox for him. I imagined Archer playing happily each afternoon while I pruned and harvested nearby.

A few months ago we emptied the soil out of one of the beds, sanded it smooth and painted it to match our front door.* Soon after, my friend Foster came over with her daughter, Archer’s buddy Emma. After excitedly telling Foster about my plan to turn the empty bed into a sandbox, she mentioned something about using safe sand. Wait, what? There is such a thing as UNsafe sand? Foster met my incredulity with the calm explanation that the bags of play sand you can pick up at Home Depot are adorned with a Prop 65 warning. You know, the same warning you see in parking garages and, um, Starbucks.

“There are chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm in sand?” I asked Foster incredulously.

archer in rox boxThat night, after Archer was in bed, I learned that the warning label on play sand refers to the presence of crystalline silica and, in some cases, asbestos tremolite. While river and beach sand also contain silica (crystalline silica is a natural constituent of the earth’s crust and is a basic component of sand and granite), play sand is actually a man-made material, produced by crushing mined quartz. Inhaling silica dust can cause lung damage and a group of diseases collectively known as silicosis. That said, problematic levels of crystalline silica dust in play sand is rare, and the documented cases prompting the labeling are in industrial settings, where the sand is ground or hammered, resulting in lots of breathable dust over extended periods. There are not conclusive studies on children’s exposure.

In other words, despite the Prop 65 cancer warning, play sand is probably really pretty safe. Probably. Really! And so, resolved in my findings, I planned to hit Lowes and pick up a whole lot of play sand.

rox box 2And then I saw this great post from Young House Love, about turning their sandbox into a rock box. Inspired, I dug deeper (har) and discovered The Boneyard at Walt Disney World, an open-air play space designed to look like a dinosaur dig site where kids apparently dig happily for hours on end – in a giant rock box (or as Disney puts it a sandbox full of “non-stick pebbles”)! I was sold. I made a trip to our local building supply and picked up six big bags of pea gravel. I splurged for smooth pebbles in a pretty color – it is in our front yard, after all.

The way I see it, there’s a lot to recommend a rox box. It’s much easier to clean up after playing in the rox box than after getting covered in sand. It’s safe – no concerns about inhaling dust. We don’t need to cover it – the neighborhood critters are decidedly uninterested in utilizing it as a litter box.

Best of all, Archer and his friends love the rox box. It’s become quite the destination for the local toddler set. Most afternoons we hang out in the front yarden, sorting and digging, pruning and weeding. He’s got his safe space to play (and entertain his growing circle of friends), and I’ve got time to cultivate the garden. It’s a win-win! (Now I just need to find a place to store all of the toys that have accumulated in the box.)


*(None of our veggie beds had ever been sealed and they had all gotten pretty rough and splintery; after Archer got a few splinters we did some research and settled on a non-toxic, soy-based wood sealer for the rest of the beds. More on that here.)

My Cup of Worm Tea Runneth Over

Sorry to mix my idioms, folks – but, it’s true. Last week I learned that Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden’s Grow Native Nursery in Westwood gives out free worm tea on the second Sunday of every month. “What’s worm tea?” you might ask. Well, I’ll tell you: Worm tea is water infused with worm castings. Worm tea is incredibly rich in nitrogen, phosphate, calcium, magnesium, and potash, and makes a great organic plant food that also acts as a natural repellent for aphids, spider mites, scale and white flies. I wish I had known that last spring, when my garden was overcome by aphids. If you’re local, grab a container and head out to Grow Native Nursery on the second Sunday of any month for delicious (to your plants) worm tea made from the castings of worms lovingly fed and cared for by CWT veterans. If you don’t have a local nursery or botanic garden offering free worm tea, don’t despair: You can buy it online or brew it yourself.

Here’s a close up of the RSABG worms’ living quarters, situated in a large bed made entirely from reclaimed building supplies.

They eat really well.

Making Amends: Worm Castings and Compost

Look at that sad, worn out, depleted soil!

It’s been slow-growing in my veggie garden this fall. Nothing like last year, when our lettuce, cauliflowerbroccoli, and chard were big and bountiful. I’ve been delinquent in my soil duties over the past year, neglecting to add compost or worm castings, and though I added a touch of Vegan Mix Fertilizer and Liquified Seaweed, the soil in my raised beds has become depleted and compacted.

Part of why I haven’t tended to the health of my soil is because I’m learning as I go. I really didn’t know how many crop rotations I could grow in the same soil without adding amendments. Turns out: Not many. By the second or third crop in each bed, my plants just stopped growing. I have lettuce seedlings in the bed that contained my cucumbers over the summer, and the lettuce hasn’t grown in weeks. Compare that to the amazing bounty of lettuce that I grew last winter and spring in new soil, and the moral of the story is clear: Productive gardens start with healthy soil.

Luckily, I happened upon an organic nursery mere blocks from our house (more on that, later) and they set me up with just the right mix of worm castings and rich organic vegan compost to dig into my beds. It’s been two days, and my plants are already perking up. I’m looking forward to being able to use my own compost, but until it’s cooked, Black Gold  Earthworm Castings and Garden Compost Blend should do the trick.

My Compost is Too Wet – What Should I Do?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

It has been crazy windy here in Los Angeles over the past couple of days. Fallen trees have caused serious damage, and thousands of people across the region have seen their water and power knocked out. The one silver lining? All of the dry leaves that have come down with the wind are a perfect addition my wet compost.

We don’t have a large deciduous tree on our property, so I lugged my rake and bin up the street and started gathering leaves off of the sidewalk. Word to the wise: Ask your neighbors before you take leaves that have fallen from their trees: They might compost or mulch them, too. I see so much mow and blow action every day on our street, I never even considered that the cute little old lady whose leaves I was gathering might be mulching in her backyard. She came out in her robe and slippers and very politely asked me what on earth I was doing. I suppressed the urge to say “community service.” Luckily, my friend Steph had loads of leaves for the taking, as her compost bin is full to the brim.

I got my city-subsidized compost bin late last March, and it’s been a little over eight months since I started trying to turn my kitchen scraps into compost. A few more months, and I’ll able to start adding this nutrient rich fertilizer to my garden. If you need extra browns for your compost pile and don’t have dry leaves available, you can also use high carbon materials such as shredded cardboard, newspaper, and paper bags, fruit waste, peanut shells, pine needles, sawdust, straw, and vegetable stalks.

Beneficial Bugs: Red Wigglers VS Grubs in Compost

Look who I found in my compost bin:

From my Googling around, I’m pretty sure that this delectable looking creature is a grub. Grub worms are beetle larvae, and there are over 30,000 species of beetles worldwide. I’ve heard that grubs are murder when it comes to turf lawns, but what I’m not entirely sure about is whether grubs are beneficial to my slow compost pile. Some people say that grubs are excellent converters of organic material into humus; Others complain that grubs are a nuisance in the garden and should be picked out of the compost.

My bin is teeming with red wigglers, which are a huge help:

Red wiggler worms can consume their body weight in organic material every day, and their castings are rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

But what about the grubs? How can I tell if this particular grub is a composting friend or foe? Do you leave grubs in your compost, or pick them out and feed them to the birds?

Radish While You Wait

There are still a number of days before I can hope to see my beets, onions, and carrots germinating, which makes the baby radishes that are enthusiastically popping up even more impressive. Weirdly, the Botanical Interests radish seeds are germinating, but the radish seeds I got from SLOLA (and planted in a different bed) are not. I have no clue why. The good news is that the Botanical Interests radish seeds are certified non-GMO and untreated, so I may be able to save them and offer them to SLOLA.


Can You Be a Gardener if You’re Afraid of Seeds?

I’m afraid of seeds. They fill me with a cocktail of anxiety, insecurity, and dread. They’re so tiny and vulnerable. Once they’ve been planted and watered, they have to be kept watered, because letting them dry out can prevent germination. I learned that the hard way when I tried to grow carrots from seed last January. Apparently carrots are especially hard to start from seed. But still, I failed. F-to-the-ailed. I have succeeded at growing one crop from seed thus far: Lettuce. If you’ve never grown anything from seed before and you want to enjoy success right out of the gate, sow lettuce seed. It’s almost impossible to screw it up, and it germinates in a matter of days, which is incredibly encouraging.

The thing is, I want to be able to grow more than just lettuce from seed. I mean, seedlings are great – there is No Shame in buying and growing food from seedlings – but in order for this to be a self-sustaining front yarden, I need to master the art of sowing and then saving seeds. I mean, can you really – really – be a gardener if you’re afraid of seeds? I think not.

So, what’s the best way to get over a fear? You’ve got to face it, then let it go.

With that in mind, I planted a bunch of seeds last weekend. Onions, beets, and radishes from SLOLA (talk about pressure!), plus snow peas, carrots, another variety of radish, and a pot full of lettuce.

So far, the lettuce and the radishes are germinating. I’ll take that as a good sign: The radish seed packet says they take  5 – 10 days to emerge, while carrots take 10 – 25 days. If I succeed at growing carrots from seed this season, I may have to throw a garden party.

Happy Halloween and a Homegrown Jack o’ Lantern

It was a dark and stormy night bright, sunshiny day, with highs in the mid 70s. All across the city of angels, boys and girls beasts and ghouls prepared for a night of trick or treating.

It may have seemed like good clean fun…

cleaning out a pumpkin for carving into a jack o' lantern …but right in the middle of that merciless metropolis, an innocent pumpkin was about to be ripped from its patch, poked with sharp objects and gruesomely gutted until, tortured and terrified, it manifested a face so that it could cry out in agony!

homegrown jack o' lanternHappy Halloween, everyone!

Are You Going to the Green Festival?

green festivalAngelenos, San Franciscans, and New Yorkers take note: The Green Festival is coming to your fair cities, and you can buy tickets online!

Los Angeles – October 29-30 – LA Convention Center
San Francisco – November 12-13 – SF Concourse Exhibition Center
New York – April 21-22, 2012 – Javits Center North

I’ll be hanging out at the event in Los Angeles this Sunday, October 30, and would love to see you there. There are so many great programs planned, and I’m especially looking forward to checking out my friend Mike Lieberman‘s (Urban Organic Gardener) talk on Container Gardening in the City, Sunday at 3:00 PM in the Sustainable Home and Garden Pavilion.

In addition to the Über awesome and inspiring Mike Lieberman, you can look forward to more than 125 renowned authors, leaders and educators; great how-to workshops; cutting-edge films; fun activities for kids; organic beer and wine; delicious vegetarian cuisine and diverse live music. There’s even a Yoga and Movement Pavilion, not to mention a marketplace featuring more than 300 eco-friendly businesses.

An all-access pass for 2 days of fun at Green Festival is only $10 when you buy online! What are you waiting for!?