Wednesday, December 10, 2008

DRM's missed opportunity: Digital resales

Here's a story via Digital Music News about a new service, Bopaboo*, that lets people sell their "used" MP3s.

Artists and music labels have long hated used record and CD stores because the labels don't participate in the resale revenue. Part of the DRM strategy was keeping the first sale rights, and preventing any second sale. A few services like the defunct WeedShare and PassAlong attempted to emulate digital redistribution, but weren't true second sale enablers.

But the missed opportunity for the labels and for DRM providers was allowing a service to act as a second sale clearinghouse, where the labels could have participated in a share of the resale revenue. (Though I'm sure their margin demands would have killed any market even if labels welcomed the concept.) This provides an opportunity for the service to benefit from a captive market for second sales since the service holds the secret DRM keys that are needed to revoke the license. No other service could revoke the license.

Through license revocation, DRM can guarantee that a digital track is no longer playable for a seller. A service that made a DRM first sale could revoke the license from the seller, and grant a license to the buyer. Most labels even included a set number of burns for a first sale. The selling service could keep track of how many burns were used, and issue the new license with only the remaining burns available. If no burns were left, a non-burn license could be delivered - the buyer could play the song on his computer or a portable player, but couldn't burn it to CD.

The number of burns remaining would surely affect the market value for the second sale. Imagine a DRM service with a product page similar to Amazon's physical product pages that include a price for "new" from Amazon, or "used" from any number of sellers:

The Cinematics - Race to the City
New: $0.99 (5 burns)
Used: 4 burns left, $0.80 (4 available)
Used: 3 burns left, $0.65 (1 available)
Used: 2 burns left, $0.50 (2 available)
Used: 1 burns left, $0.35 (6 available)
Used: 0 burns left, $0.25 (12 available)

Labels could still participate at some percentage of the second sale value.

The seller could have burnt a song to CD once, then rip it back to her computer to keep. But nothing, even with DRM, is preventing her from doing that now and sharing the copy freely. Why not incent her to make a little of her investment back rather than giving the file to strangers for free? If she gives it away free, she's destroyed her own opportunity to sell it.

Of course all this so far still depends on DRM being more user friendly! And any owner who had lost her download or DRM database couldn't resell the song because revocation would be impossible. But she can't resell a CD she lost either.

Even without DRM, a second sale service could guarantee the destruction of the MP3 file on the seller's computer before delivering it to the buyer. Again, the seller could have made any number of copies elsewhere. Again, nothing's preventing that today, with no option for any second sale revenue to the labels.

* Domain name scarcity is destroying natural language!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Competing Against Free

It's not hard to understand that the most difficult problem the music industry faces today is the pervasive availability of free music. Now, when I say free, I mean stolen, but that is merely a semantic difference that is immaterial to how people are finding, playing, and acquiring music today. So I will call it "free" for the rest of this post.

Many people I talk to think free music went away when Napster went legitimate, or when the RIAA started suing their customer base. But free music is still as easy if not easier to either stream or download from the internet. Some sites only let you stream music, while others let you download. Many services are run in countries far from the music industry's influence. Other services skirt the illegal sharing problem by acting as hubs that link to music on other servers.

Here are just a few sites that let you play or download free music: - An MP3 search engine. SkreemR scans the web for MP3 links and adds them to its search index. Type a song or artist name and get a list of MP3 download links. Sure they also link to places like Amazon or ThumbPlay where you can buy MP3s or ring tones, but you can also stream and download the song for free. The finally-out-of-beta Songbird player (shown below) makes it even easier to download: it integrates a SkreemR search right in the player and converts free MP3 search results into a list complete with download buttons. You get free music to download to your PC or take with you on your portable MP3 player.

Songza - An MP3 search engine. Songza only lets you stream the results in an embedded player on their site, often in the form of a video from YouTube, but sometimes from MP3 audio source. As long as you don't mind playing music from your PC, you get all the free streams you want.

SeeqPod - An MP3 search engine that also powers other music experiences. SeeqPod only lets you stream results in an elaborate embedded playlist manager on their site. Warner filed suit against SeeqPod in January 2008. EMI filed suit in February, 2009. - An addictive Twitter-like micro-blogging service with free music streams. lets you search for songs, and play them for yourself and the site's social network. Songs are served either from a web server where the MP3 was found, or from Amazon's AWS hosting service. Blip lets its users upload music. Though they tell users to only upload original content, they serve plenty of copyrighted music from AWS. They're ripe for being shut down by Amazon.

Project Playlist - An MP3 search engine with Facebook application. Project Playlist only lets you stream results, and add songs to a playlist on the site. You can find other people's playlists and play them. The RIAA filed a lawsuit against Project Playlist in April 2008. They claim that since they don't host MP3 files, they aren't liable for theft. EMI, in what gives the appearance of blackmail, dropped its suit after Project Playlist agreed to license their catalog. - Organizes links to MP3s on other people's web sites into a streaming, locker, and mobile sideloading site. EMI filed a lawsuit in January 2009.

Note that several sites play music for free legally, either because they've negotiated on-demand playback rights from the labels (e.g. CBS,, or they play non- or minimally-interactive radio style playlists under US compulsory license laws (e.g. Pandora).

Though some of the illegal free music sites have no business model, or have a model that would collapse if any royalties were actually paid, the preponderance of these extra-legal sites is evidence that content owners would benefit from a simple, legal way to let innovative services access streams for a reasonable price. Without such a service, music will continue to be played, but no artists or labels will be paid for the usage.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Music is the Bermuda Triangle of the Internet

How Will Owen Van Natta Turn Piracy Into Profits?

" has been the Bermuda Triangle of the Internet, swallowing anyone foolhardy enough to try to navigate its treacherous waters. The short reason for this seems to be that the money that record labels want to charge for the right to play their music is more than anyone can make from advertising or subscription fees."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

UMG CEO Doug Morris Interview in Billboard

Exclusive Billboard Q&A: UMG's Chairman/CEO Doug Morris

This should be good: another interview with UMG CEO Doug Morris. Earlier, I commented on an interview Mr. Morris gave to Wired magazine in 2007. Now he's back with some more confessions. The interviewer jumps around with disjointed questions and starts the article trying to position the ego of the head of the world's largest music label as somehow modest. Here are some points from the interview that struck me as odd.

On promotional distribution, Morris says he doesn't do promotion, yet says his first experience with breaking a band was through radio promotion and a record order that included 20% promotional units.

"We don't look at anything as promotion. Take a look at MTV. It turned out to be a disaster for us. We sold some records, but they built this huge company and we gave them our [music] for nothing, and what did we get?"

What did he get?! His companies didn't just sell "some records". They sold tons of records from the free prmotion MTV gave them, and MTV built a business. If Morris wanted to own that business, why didn't he start it himself? His attitude towards digital is the same thing. If he thinks he can do digital better, why doesn't he? Because, as he admitted to Wired last year, he has no idea what digital is. So why not make and sell great music, and let someone else build your business by figuring out how to promote your product?

Morris brags how he pulled his videos from Yahoo! and might not renew Universal's YouTube agreement at the end of the year.

With YouTube, the quality isn't great; it gets low [cost per thousand]... Why would you want to be in the middle of music-generated product that doesn't demand high CPMs?

...we called [Yahoo] and I said, "You're making money off our videos and not paying us anything... we don't want the promotion, we want to get paid." And [they] said basically something like, "Over my dead body." And we took all our videos down. As soon as our videos came down their viewership went down, because we're about a third of all their videos.

Morris doesn't mention that his sales also went down, and have still been falling ever since. Most businesses want to be where their customers are. So why didn't he work out a deal with Yahoo? I imagine his demands included more than just getting paid. They probably included getting paid too much, and unrealistic technology limitations that would have shrunk Yahoo's usability anyway. Morris says videos are now a cash-positive business, which is great, but what additional value is he leaving on the table?

Regarding RIAA lawsuits and theft of music, Morris makes this ironic statement, as anyone who has tried to deal with the labels says they're the ones that are not logical:

You have a lot of people who think that things should be free. I don't know how they think we should produce it for free, but there's a lot of people who aren't logical.

Morris even obliquely refers to his disasterous comments from the Wired article about not being able to recognize a technology person by claiming he can recognize other great business people (bold added):

Whatever their education is, whether it is or isn't, it's about them having some connection with culture and the fact that they are competitive and driven and intelligent. When you get that group of people together, you win. I can recognize them a mile away.

I give Morris credit for building a label that has around a third of the music market (by having best acts around, and lots of them), but his lack of digital savvy will help bury any post-physical future major labels may have had.

Friday, October 10, 2008

DRM is Poisonous

I will admit that I used to think DRM was an enabling technology, especially for unlimited music subscriptions. Without DRM, nobody will let you download an unlimited amount of content. Without an unlimited amount of content for a fixed price, music consumption is bogged down with any number of 99 cent buying decisions. An a la carte permanent download (PDL) world is just not how music should be enjoyed.

Unfortunately, users do not want subscriptions to music. They've never really subscribed to music: radio is free (paid by advertising on a fixed and predictable compulsory license rate structure); and LPs, singles and CDs were purchased a la carte giving the customer a sense of physical ownership. Thankfully, now to the rescue of unlimited consumption comes streaming and an always-connected broadband world. Now DRM doesn't matter - services can still provide an "all you can eat" experience without too much worry that the user will walk away with your entire catalog. To limit or turn off consumption, just turn off streaming access.

So back to the thesis of my headline: DRM is poisonous. Not only was customer support for Microsot's DRM expensive, most companies who have tried a DRM music service are now feeling the pain of what it means to migrate, sell, or shut down their DRM services. MTV's Urge, Microsoft's MSN music store, Yahoo!'s Music Unlimited, and Wal-Mart's a la carte store have all had their customers revolt after attempting to shut off DRM re-licensing for PDLs they sold. This is a brand manager's nightmare.

And those are the DRM service that have already closed. What will happen when Napster is sold or shuttered? What will happen with Rhapsody decides to change its business model? What happens when Apple wants to change its delivery method? Yahoo! has announced they will be giving coupons to re-purchased music on Rhapsody to customers whose PDL licenses have been lost. Wal-Mart has decided to keep its DRM license servers up longer. In an already razor thin margin business, dealing with DRM customer service issues, and keeping servers running after a service has been shuttered turns music into a money-losing weight on distributors.

Next up is what happens to the CinemaNow and Movielink movies you have purchased? Movie studios understandably want to protect their content, and in their case, streaming is not yet an option for high resolution HD 720p or 1080p video. Netflix, Hulu and others seem to be able to stream decent video quality, but customers will soon demand higher resolution as they convert over to newer, larger flat-screen and home theater displays.

So I'm converted: DRM is evil.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

YAPF - Yet another physical format

Music On microSD: I Can't Believe The Labels Fell For This

SanDisk is going to try to sell music on teeny tiny SD memory cards.

The link above says it all for me. Though I'll bet it wasn't the labels falling for it (they likely extracted healthy advances from SanDisk); it's SanDisk that I can't believe fell for it.

Physical music is dying. It doesn't matter whether it's CDs, cassette tapes, DVDs, or tiny chips with music already on them. Sony once proposed selling flyers with album download codes at stores, which customers would enter into their computer at home to download the album. That sounds like a solution for the retailer, not for the customer. People are simply not getting their music at stores as much as they used to. That trend will continue its downward spiral as more mobile phone delivery and always-on connected services come on-line.

SanDisk claims that people are already walking around with microSD players in their mobile phones. But most people with phone memory use it for their photos and contacts. To play music, you'd have to disassemble your phone, take out your contact list and photos, and plug in your music. When the album was done playing, you'd have to do it all over again. Imagine trying to switch out a microSD card in the car, on the train or bus or airplane, in a kid's messy bedroom, or even in your own living room. Your music would quickly join your pocket change in the folds of the sofa.

Even with a USB dongle attached to your computer, you'll still need to change the music far too regularly. Maybe SanDisk needs to sell a SD card changer (though it would more likely be a tiny 50-port rack that all your SDs get plugged into for both storage and playback.) If they expect you to simply upload the album from the card to your computer, then what was the point of getting the card in the first place? Your computer is already hooked up to any number of download stores.

At least SandDisk will have a lot of unused inventory they can erase and resell as mere memory.

UPDATE 2008-12-05: YAPP II

Here is news of another USB memory stick music solution. An Australian company D:Net Media is going to attempt to sell music and bonus materials (videos, remixes, interviews, biographies, photos, lyrics, etc.) on a memory stick in stores. Their product apparently includes an online service component that sends you updates when more media related to your purchase becomes available. Though the bonus materials are a nice bonus, this again sounds like a solution primarily for retailers, not for users. The web site with more info is DDA4me.

Resnikoff on DRM-Free

Resnikoff's Parting Shot: The Downer on DRM-Free

Paul Resnikoff of Digital Music News spends an amazing amount of time following the digital music business. Where does he get the time!?

In the post linked above, Paul discusses the lack of any sales bump from licensing non-DRM music to Amazon and others, and compares it to Apple's continued dominance, even though most Apple music remains locked up in Fairplay DRM. The complaint seems to be that non-DRM is not moving the needle.

I look at it the other way around: it was DRM that didn't move the needle.

This proves DRM was an unnecessary technology the music labels forced on distributors for years. DRM is inherently anti-consumer, and at the razor-thin margins the labels require (driven by Apple's refusal to budge on the 99 cent price point), no distributor can afford the customer support calls DRM creates.

Even after DRM has been proven a failure, the labels continue to make stupid mistakes even now with restrictive licensing rights and lack of margin to build a business.

MySpace Music

Why MySpace Music Is Likely to Fail

Here's a post by Om Malik on the coming-soon MySpace streaming music with upsell to Amazon MP3 downloads experiment. Om thinks it will be a failure. I hope he's wrong, but the key lines from his post are:

The record labels are still not facing the proverbial music and understanding that their business model is completely broken... They need to learn that they don't need to start a company, but instead encourage a thousand others

The music labels must get out of the way of distribution - both in terms of price and rights.

My usability opinion is that any web-based streaming service is bound to fail as the music stops playing when the web page it's playing on unloads. One way around that is to pop out a player that can be minimized to the task bar, but that defeats any display advertising. Online music will only succeed when it becomes custom radio, complete with local, regional, and national audio advertising and the occasional upsell to a favorite "now playing" song or album download.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Death of the Album, or the Hegemony of iTunes?

I wasn't sure what headline was more appropriate for a summary of the Wall Street Journal article at the link below. So this post is about 3 topics: the control iTunes' distribution gives it, digital merchandizing (aka "albums"), and whether iTunes actually harms music sales.

More Artists Steer Clear of iTunes
Apple's Online Music Store Sells Lots of Singles, But Labels Seek Higher Profits of Full Album Sales

First let's look at these snippets that address how iTunes' uses its distribution to get what it wants. Exclusives are as old as the music industry, but Apple's ability to dictate both the a la carte singles business and fixed low pricing is enviable as a distributor, but frightening as an album merchandizer.

"iTunes, with few exceptions, requires that songs be made available separately."

"Apple isn't willing to sell songs for more than 99 cents."

"[Apple] often asks for exclusive sales rights for songs in exchange for prominent placement on its home page."

"Apple has said it makes little profit from iTunes because of the costs of running the online store."

That last point is important! Apple iself admits (or claims) that it only breaks even on the thin margin business labels' impose on the download business. Apple makes money on its player hardware business, not the music. But its insistence on the 99 cent retail price point defines the market for any other competitor. This keeps Apple's competitors out of the market, further harming the labels' strategic business of distributor diversification.

Next let's look at some of the very intersting data from the article on how the album as merchandizing is faring.

Merchandizing online has always been more difficult than in the physical world. In the real world, we can walk down aisles packed with goods and quickly filter what we want visually, but sometimes find new stuff by mere serendipity, or by seeing distant end-caps or hangers. Shopping online allows us to get directly to a product we're searching for without walking past a single other product. There's no opportunity for peripheral vision, minimal real estate to merchandize related products, and minimal attention spans to intersperse much merchandizing into a goal-driven acquisition flow (like purchase). So the album remains an important merchandizing tool, even online.

"Katy Perry has sold 2.2 million downloads of her hit song "I Kissed a Girl" in the U.S., nearly 10 times the 282,000 copies she has sold of her "One of the Boys" album."

"Rapper M.I.A. has sold 888,000 downloads of her surprise hit "Paper Planes," compared with 272,000 copies of the album "Kala."

"Last year, U.S. consumers downloaded 844 million individual songs from digital-download stores, according to Nielsen SoundScan. By contrast, they bought only 50 million digital albums."

Finally, let's look at how iTunes' insistence on a la carte singles downloads may be directly hurting the music business, perhaps even as much as illegal downloading.

"In so many ways it's turned our business back into a singles business," says Ken Levitan, Kid Rock's manager. Mr. Levitan says the rise of iTunes is far from being a boon to the industry; instead, he calls it "part of the death knell of the music business."

"...many of [Kid Rock's] 1.6 million U.S. album sales [which is not available on iTunes] to date would instead have shown up as 99-cent downloads...

"AC/DC has never licensed its music to iTunes. The Australian hard rockers sold an estimated 2.7 million CDs world-wide last year, up from 2.55 million in 2003... [Meanwhile] Overall U.S. album sales -- of both CDs and digital downloads -- declined 21% to 500 million copies in 2007 from 2003"

Since the beginning of 2006, only the Beatles have sold more "catalog" albums in the U.S. than AC/DC -- also without licensing their music to iTunes.

"...the act that sold the most individual songs digitally -- the Rolling Stones -- sold the fewest albums..."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Common Licensing Authority

Movie Labels (sic) To Launch New "Open Market" Play Anywhere Scheme As Last Ditch Effort To Save DRM

Here's a link to an idea Sony is pitching to help simplify delivery of DRM-protected rights. It's a media delivery concept that's been kicked around for a while: common licensing authority. The idea is that some transparent, neutral third party is authorized by content owners to supply rights (i.e. DRM licenses) to retailers' customers. The third party would ensure rights are delivered properly, and report to retailers and content owners on the number of licenses delivered. Content owners can then reconcile those numbers with reports from the retailers.

It's a fun idea in theory and similar schemes have been pitched to the music labels with no results, but it will never work for several reasons:

1. DRM is inherently customer unfriendly. Microsoft's disasterous marketing of its DRM and logo program (WM DRM, Janus, "Plays-for-Sure") shows that too much choice is actually a bad thing for the user experience. Unless you implement a seamless vertical like Apple/iTunes/iPod/Fairplay has, DRM ultimately gets in the way. DRM is not easy - not for customers, and not even for distributors. Content owners will continue use DRM as a crutch to remain lazy, anti-consumer, and kill innovative new distribution models.

2. A common licensing authority must be seen as a neutral player. It could be set up as a disinterested industry consortium, but if Sony is seen to be controlling it, distribution will be limited.

3. Licenses must work across platforms or consumer messaging will be prohibitively complex. This is not as easy as it sounds. The DRM must work the same on anything: Windows PCs, Mac PCs, Linux PCs, cable set-top boxes, DVRs, auotomotive entertainment systems, mobile phones and PDAs, portable devices, etc. The complexity matrix is daunting.

4. The DRM market is fractured. Microsoft won't license its DRM for Linux desktops. Apple won't license its DRM to anyone. 3rd party DRMs (like Macrovision's) have some support from the studios, but the market is too fractured. Macrovision is currently the only company positioned to offer a common DRM. Content owners are afraid of Microsoft, and would shy away from declaring its DRM as the standard.

5. Common rights will commoditize distributors who will reject the inability to leverage brand advantage. The alternatives, like charging more for additional rights or granting exclusive rights, will only increase the complexity of consumer messaging.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Yahoo! Opens up Buzz

Yahoo's Buzz social bookmarking service was built as a competitor to Digg, and even Yahoo's own social bookmarking services. For the first 6 months of its life, Buzz only worked with links from top publishers Yahoo! allowed into its system. Just this week, Yahoo! opened Buzz up to the whole internet. Now you can submit links from any web site.

If you want to add a Buzz link to your site, Yahoo! offers simple JavaScript badges you can embed on your page to let your visitors Buzz the page for you.

Though Yahoo! doesn't document how to build your own Buzz links, here's how it can be done using an URL. The basic syntax of the URL is:

Each of the values is described here:

  • submitUrl - The page URL your want to submit (with special characters escaped)

  • submitHeadline - The title of the page you're submitting (with spaces converted to + or %20)

  • submitSummary - The description of the page (with spaces converted to + or %20)

  • submitCategory - The category you want Yahoo! Buzz to list your page in. Possible categories are: business, entertainment, health, images, lifestyle, politics, science, sports, travel, usnews, video, or world_news

  • submitAssetType - The media type of your link. Possible types are: article (which they display as "Text"), image, or video.

Here's an example link to Buzz up this blog entry.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Labels kill distribution

Pandora can't make money, may pull the plug

Here's another story about the music labels and publishers pricing a popular service out of business. Pandora is the most loved personalized radio service on the internet (in the US anyway - the British publisher association blocked them from the UK market some time ago). Due to increases in compulsory radio rates, and differences in prices between terrestrial, satellite and internet rates, Pandora can no longer survive paying 70% of their gross margin for content.

The article attempts to lay some of blame on Pandora for extending onto devices without support for their current method of monetizing stations. But it's not for a lack of trying creative solutions. Pandora has tried various ways to monetize their service, including subscriptions paid by the listeners (failed even with free trials), a la carte song upsell via Amazon Associates (that pays only 10% of any MP3 purchase back to the referring site), advertising (their current model), and others. All of which don't work given the too-high cost of the content.

So rather thanfinding a way to make the most popular music discovery service work for all parties, content owners will force Pandora's shutdown over lack of net income.

Investors will only buy music for others for so long. The labels today are betting the farm on "stupid VC" advances that will never be recouped. That's no long term music strategy - offering yet more proof for this blog's thesis that the labels will put themselves out of business and the industry will be reborn without them.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Hubris from Warner

Warner Threatens To Pull Music from Guitar Hero, Rock Band

This is rich! Warner Music Group CEO Bronfman is complaining that companies are finding ways to successfully monetize his music. He complains that MTV in the '80s, Apple in the 2000s and now Activision are ripping him off - even though his company signed voluntary deals with all three.

Bronfman should be jumping for joy that these companies have found successful ways to promote his artists' material. The labels did not create any of those three companies and would never have been able to. The digital distribution companies the labels helped create have all struggled with anti-consumer restrictions on the content customers avidy want, but go elsewhere to find.

As for Bronfman's assumption that video games will also eat his lunch, I can't think he's more wrong. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are both great games that engage the player with music, but they don't presage an era where all video games are music upsell vehicles. In fact, sales of music-based games are falling fast. Game manufacturers for years have tried to figure out how to include advertising and upsell within their games and none have succeeded until now. But this does not mean that all video games will now succeed as either. Those two games are music-focused. You still aren't going to sell music through shoot 'em up games, or Ms. Pac Man.

The labels need to get out of the way and let visionaries like MTV, Apple, and Activision create distribution channels that consumers actually want to engage with, rather than crushing every new idea because it doesn't fit the labels' failed business model.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Control vs. Scale

Music industry 'should embrace illegal websites'

Here's an article that agrees with my position that the increase in availability by several orders of magnitude offers an unprecedented revenue opportunity for music - just as the increased distribution of shareware created an entirely new market for software.

Record companies should ask themselves: "What are the costs and benefits of control versus the costs and benefits of scale?" said Mr Page [MCPS-PRS publishing society chief economist].

I don't agree with the article's first-blush interpretation of embracing illegality, but read further to see that there's got to be some way content owners can participate in the increased distribution users demand. I propose an industry standard for marking MP3s as legit per user, and users can either purchase a per-MP3 right, or subscribe to an all-you-can-eat service. Regardless of where you get the MP3 file, the service checks an encrypted header to see if the file's yours. If not, it helps you legitimize the file through your own choice of service provider.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Napster and Amazon

Here are two Fortune stories on CNN about digital music that show what's wrong with the music labels' expectations, and the only way to survive under the labels' regime.

The first is about Napster's problems as a digital music pure-play trying to survive on the razor-thin margins it makes on music. Napster has never been profitable.

The second is about Amazon's MP3 store and its (and Apple's) successful big box store strategy of using music as a loss leader to get customers through the door, hopefully encouraging shoppers to attach other, higher margin, items to their purchases.

Apple doesn't care that they're not making money on music purchases. They're making tons of money on their iPods, and some more on iPod users who are switching from Microsoft to Apple PCs. Yet, the labels continue to allow Apple to define the market prices for music downloads.

The major music labels insist their content has intrinsic value. Unfortunately, the digital market disagrees - and the customer is always right.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Growing Up

When I first started growing vegetables four seasons ago, I set out to experiment with vertical gardening: growing stuff up things. Here's what I have learned so far.

I purchased two trellised arches from a local nursery and a 25-foot roll of four-foot tall wire fencing from a home store. The arches were fairly expensive, but the fencing was moderately priced. I set the ends of the arches as sturdily into the ground as I could and anchored the wire cages with a reinforcing rod (rebar). I used tin snips to cut two sections of fencing about 6 feet long and rolled each into a cylinder about 23 inches in diameter to create a planting cage. I attached the remaining section to a wooden fence with southern exposure at my house. Then I scoured seed catalogs for twining or vining vegetables.

The first year, pole beans were an obvious place to start. I also found Alderman shelling peas, sugar snap peas, and Marketmore 97 cucumber vines that grew six to eight feet long. I densely sowed the peas directly in the ground at the base of the arches. I started the beans and cucumbers in pots, then planted the beans in a circle around the wire cages and the cukes along the bottom of my fence. The pole beans were of course a success, though disentangling the vines from the cages at the end of the season was a challenge. The peas also produced well, but I should have added support as they grew by occasionally tying the whole mass to the arches. Our high southerly winds blew the whole mass off the arches into my garden path. What a tangle of peas I had to deal with! I used twist ties to attach the cucumber vines to the wire fencing as they grew, and ended up with far more than I could ever eat.

The second year, I decided to get a little adventurous and try winter squash. I started Waltham butternut and delicata squash in pots, then transplanted them to the base of my arches. I had great success with the butternut, but not the delicata. I had to frequently weave the butternut vine tips into the trellis as they grew. If I waited too long, weaving the hollow vines caused them to kink and drastically reduced their vigor. The delicata vines were simply too stiff to weave without severe damage and the connection between the developing fruits and the vine was so delicate that the slightest nudge caused the unripe fruit to fall off within a day. A co-gardener also successfully grows summer squash up structures right along with her pole beans. I also decided to try the same pea varieties on my cages rather than on the arches. I direct sowed the peas around the outside perimeter of the cages. Again winds blew the entire pea mass to the ground.

Last year a co-gardener gave me some Marion berry starts. I decided to dedicate my arches to this long trailing bramble. By the end of the first season, the thorny stems had grown over the top and were trailing down the other side of the arches. I also decided to give up on my vertical peas. I purchased shorter varieties and supported them with a half-unrolled wire cylinder laid low to the ground. What a disaster! Though the peas didn't blow over, rats made a fine meal of the low hanging pods.

This year the Marion berries continue their takeover of my arches, and I decided to try peas vertically one more time. I filled a round area of ground the same diameter as my wire cages with pea seeds then installed the cages. Success! This year the vines mostly grew up the inside the cylinders and out over the top. Though I did start calling the masses my "pea monsters," the winds were not able to tumble the vines to the ground as in previous years.

There are more vertical growing techniques I want to try. A south-facing wall or fence can double the square footage of growing area, leaving level ground free for low growing plants. Tomatoes can be grown upside down from a hanging pot by pushing a seedling through the bottom hole before filling the pot with soil. A flat trellis supported horizontally a few feet above the ground can be a platform for trailing squash or melons while growing shade-loving plants like lettuce below. Exploring these and other space-saving possibilities will keep me growing up for years to come!

Copyright © 2007, Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Creative Commons License
Growing Up by Brian Ballard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at

This Coffee Tastes Like Dirt! It Was Ground This Morning.

Seattle loves its coffee, ensuring there are tons of used coffee grounds and stacks of burlap bags available all around town. Gardeners are the main beneficiaries of this surplus waste!

Used coffee grounds are a great source of nitrogen for your leafy plants and compost. You may notice that organic fertilizers include seed meal, which is nothing more than ground up seeds. Coffee is brewed from the seeds of coffee plants – making it seed meal too!

For a balanced compost, add some grounds to other nitrogen-rich “greens” (like fresh pulled weeds and grass clippings from lawns where pesticides or herbicides aren’t used), and carbon-rich “browns” (like fall leaves, ripped up newspaper and a little sawdust from non-pressure treated wood). There’s no exact recipe for compost, but about half greens and half browns by weight is the general rule. Compost materials should also have a good variety of textures to encourage air flow, so don’t just use fine materials like coffee grounds and sawdust. Mix them with other ingredients.

Many gardeners claim a light coffee mulch discourages slugs and other bugs from attacking their plants. The residual caffeine is repellent to some species, but apparently not earthworms. Gardeners also report that adding coffee grounds to soil feeds a profusion of earthworms. Your worm bin will benefit from occasional sprinklings of cooled moist grounds too, but don’t smother your workers with grounds! Keep a balanced bedding with other food sources.

If you mulch with grounds, remember they’re full of nitrogen – something fungus loves too. To prevent a fungal bloom, apply your coffee mulch thinly and not where it will remain soggy. A too-thick layer will also tend to shed water when the grounds dry out.

There is a lot of confusion among gardeners and chemistry dilettantes about the pH or acidity of coffee grounds. Though a cup of coffee is acidic, the used grounds are much less acidic, and certainly no more acidic than common peat moss soil amendments. If you have a small amount of cooled grounds from your morning coffee, you can safely spread them around without worrying about throwing off your soil’s pH. If you pick up a few bags of used grounds from Starbucks or another coffee shop, spread it around thinly or mix it well with plenty of compost material or soil. If you regularly apply lots of grounds to your garden, occasionally mix in a cup or so of garden lime or wood ashes from the fireplace. Coffee grounds are not recommended for house plants as trace salts may build up after repeated applications.

The best recommendation for using coffee grounds in your garden is to remember your mother’s admonition for moderation in everything. Don’t go crazy with coffee grounds, but as an amendment with compost and soil, you won’t go wrong recycling coffee grounds into dirt.

Copyright © 2007, Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Interbay Mulch

When you put your garden to bed for the winter, that doesn't mean nothing happens during the dark, cold, or snowy months. Left bare and exposed to the elements, important nutrients will wash away, and soil organisms will go dormant or even freeze to death.

There are many ways to over-winter your garden while at the same time improving the soil for a head start next spring. One way to invest in your beds was invented at Seattle's Interbay P-Patch: Interbay Mulch.

While similar to sheet composting or Lasagna gardening, Interbay Mulch attempts to bring critters responsible for decomposition all the way to the top layer of organic matter. The full distribution of organisms makes this composting method somewhat faster than sheet composting.

Making Your Mulch

Once your beds are cleared of this season's crops, create a mix of equal parts greens (grass clippings, coffee grounds, fresh chopped plants, composted manure) and browns (fall leaves, non-pressure treated sawdust, dry plant material, etc.) just like you would for a hot compost pile. Though it's tempting to use mostly browns, thinking there's plenty of time for them to break down, be sure you add enough greens for a balanced decomposition process.

Spread your mix in a good foot-thick layer (or more if you have the stamina) on your planting beds. Water the mixture well to wet it down, then cover it all with a layer or two of burlap bags. Wet down the burlap too (or soak the bags in water before placing them). The burlap keeps the mulch dark, damp and insulated so organisms can work all the way to the top of your batch.

That's all there is to it! During the winter, check your mulch every few weeks to be sure it's still slightly damp. You might also turn your mulch at least once during the winter.

Room and Board

Gardeners have experienced a few problems with Interbay Mulch. During the chilly winter months, mice or rats sometimes set up house in the mulch as it retains a bit of warmth under the burlap blankets. If you've incorporated kitchen scraps into the mulch, rodents may not even have to go far for food! You can minimize this problem by excluding food waste from your mulch, and checking under the burlap for rodents every few weeks.

Moist burlap also provides the kind of environment slugs just love! During your occasional winter bed checks, pick out any slugs and kill them.

After a few years of experience, several gardeners at Interbay have noticed that too much organic material can cause their beds to shed water in the dry months. Interbay Mulch may not be appropriate to use every winter. Next winter, plant a cover crop where you had mulch this year. Then rotate back to mulch the year after that.

In the Spring

By the time spring rolls around, your Interbay Mulch will be finished. A few weeks before you're ready to start planting, remove the burlap and turn the beautifully decomposed mulch into the soil. You'll notice a better response from your vegetables and flowers next year as your investment this winter pays off!

More Reading

Here are two great articles about Interbay Mulch on the web. Read them for a more detailed history and additional recipes.

Interbay Mulch at GardenWeb

How to bake a batch of compost at The Christian Science Monitor

Copyright © 2003 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Designing and Building Raised Beds

As spring approaches, we wait in excited anticipation for delivery of our first seed catalog order, or impatiently mark off the days to our first sowing. New gardeners wonder how to best lay out their gardens to squeeze in all the vegetables from their recipes, impulse buys at the seed rack, or favorite flowers. Veteran gardeners want to manage planting schedules or crop rotation better, provide easier access, and even squeeze in a few more plants than last year. Raised beds are a great way to help organize your garden plot and improve yield.

Benefits of Raised Beds

Gardening in raised beds offers several advantages over growing in flat earth, or even mounded rows. The soil in raised beds not only drains better, preventing rot, but actually warms up sooner in the spring and stays warmer later into the fall, extending your growing season. Soil in raised beds doesn't get walked on, so it stays less compacted, improving oxygen and water flow that creates a healthier underground environment for roots and organisms.

Raised beds are more accessible to people who have a hard time bending over or squatting down to ground level. Edges of raised beds built at 15 to 19 inches high provide comfortable seating while working in the garden.

Some P-Patch locations do not allow framed raised beds, but those who are allowed to build them may enjoy their benefits.


Beds can be any length, but standard lumber dimensions and the size of your garden plot will help you decide how long to make your beds. Most P-Patch plots are 10 feet by 20 feet. You must remember to accommodate narrow paths between your plot and your neighbor's – so you don't really get to build out to the full 10-foot or 20-foot dimensions.

Lumber is sold in a few standard lengths: 8, 10, and 12 feet are the most common. Designing your beds based on standard lengths will help reduce the number of saw cuts you must make (or pay for). Though I've built beds longer than 14 feet, transporting the lumber is challenging, and butting shorter boards end to end creates wobbly joints. I prefer to build 8-foot long beds since that doesn't require cutting down standard lumber and leaves room for paths within a 10-foot plot dimension.


Optimal raised beds are anywhere from 2 to 4 feet across. If you can only access one side, a 2-foot wide bed makes sense. That's about as wide as your kitchen counters at home. Typically you have access to all sides, where widths of 3 or 4 feet give ample access.

Four-foot wide beds only require one cut of an 8-foot board, however more than a few 4-foot wide beds don't fit nicely into a standard P-Patch plot. Some 3-foot wide beds are inevitably required, though that means two cuts of an 8-foot board. If you don't have a power saw (and don't want to spend hours with a hand saw), you can usually get a home store or lumber yard to make one cut for free, but you may end up paying for other cuts.

(For those of you paying too close attention: Yes, if you follow the construction diagram below, the outside dimension of the beds will be 3 inches wider than the short board (two 2-by widths). That doesn't really affect the general layout options at the end of this article.)


Here's where standard lumber sizes get tricky! The end measurement of a 2x8 is really 1 1/2 inches by 7 1/2 inches. A 2x10 is really 1 1/2 inches by 9 1/2 inches. A bed made with one 2x8 or 2x10 high is adequate, but doesn't provide comfortable seating. 2x10s also get quite heavy. I prefer walls made of two 2x8s high, which means I'll have a low seat at 15 inches.

The long sides of your bed will require some vertical bracing. Many folks use rebar, but pounding rebar into the ground can damage water or drainage pipes, and become obstacles that attack your knees and shins! Use one short piece of 2x4 (cut as long as your walls are high) for every 4 feet of bed length. Also use short 2x4 sections to strengthen the corners of your beds rather than just attaching the edge of one board to the end of another. You will have to make six cuts to get six 15 inch sections from a standard 2x4x8' (with a little scrap left over).

To prevent the sides from bowing out after the beds are filled with soil, you can set the beds a few inches into the ground, or nail a length of plumber's tape (that anodized metal strapping with holes) from side to side across the bottom of your bed.

Use three-inch anodized nails or deck screws to join the lumber. Use two per board at each of the positions shown below. If you use screws, pre-drill holes in the 2x8s (but don't pre-drill the 2x4s). The drill should be slightly larger than the bore of the screw you're using. I like to pre-fabricate the short sides at home since it makes the work at the garden easier.


The best lumber to build your raised beds from is Douglas fir, which will last from four to six years in the garden. Cedar is very brittle, tends to splinter easily, and doesn't stand up to garden tools well. Commonly available cedar fence boards are not strong enough to contain the weight of soil. Treated lumber contains a variety of harmful chemicals including cyanide and should never be used to build garden beds.

You will need three or six 2x8x8' boards (three for single height beds, six for double height beds) and one 2x4x8' for each individual bed you build. You will need 56 nails or screws per bed (plus a few extras to make up for those you bend or lose in the dirt.) Nails and deck screws are typically sold by the pound. A store employee can estimate how many screws or nails you'll get in a pound.

If you don't have a vehicle suitable for transporting lumber, most lumber yards offer delivery for a fee, or even free for large orders.

Sample Layouts

Here are some example plot layouts that fit a few standard raised beds into a typical 10-foot by 20-foot P-Patch plot with room left over for paths. Line your paths with a layer of compost material, wood chips, or even pavers.

Fill your newly built raised beds to a few inches from the top with soil from your garden, or mound up compost materials as high as you reasonably can to create next season's soil. No matter which direction you orient your planting beds, the old rule of planting rows in a north-south direction will still expose your plants to the maximum amount of light as the sun moves overhead.

Copyright © 2005 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Wise Water Usage in the Garden

Here are some tips on how to conserve water while still growing great vegetables and flowers.

When you lay out your planting beds, use the row and trench method: plant seeds in mounded up rows and water in the trenches. This allows water to collect and sink into the soil, rather than running off. Build soil dams at the end of the trenches to prevent water from flowing out the ends. You can also plant in little hills surrounded by a moat. The moat allows water to sink slowly into the soil. If you don’t have a problem with damping off (when seedlings fall over due to rot just above the soil line), you could even try planting in shallow depressions. This again keeps the water near the plant where it will soak in.

I can’t say enough about mulch. Not only does it slow the evaporation of moisture from the soil, it keeps down weeds and prevents dirt from splashing up onto your vegetables. When you plant seeds, sprinkle a thin layer of fresh grass clippings, barely covering the ground, to help even out germination. Once your seedlings are up, or after transplanting, mulch with about an inch of grass clippings. Be sure your clippings come from a lawn where no herbicides, pesticides, or weed-n-feed type fertilizers are used. When your plants are larger, begin mulching with two to three inches of brown leaves if you saved any from last fall. Otherwise, mulch with two or three inches of chopped garden debris or purchase bagged mulch from a garden center.

Mulch also evens out the wet and dry cycles between watering. This helps vegetables develop more evenly, and can prevent fruit from splitting if it gets too much water at once.

Try to water in the morning before 10am. This allows leaves to dry off quickly, preventing mildew. Later in the heat of the day, more water will be lost from evaporation. Try not to water in the evening: that leaves soil and foliage damp for hours, encouraging mold and attracting slugs.

Water slowly and deeply. If you try to put too much water on the ground all at once, much of it will run off. Any water that does soak in will likely stay in the top few inches of soil, causing roots to grow near the surface where they will quickly dry out. Watering slowly soaks the soil more deeply. This encourages roots to grow downward, where they will be less susceptible to drying out.

Be smart about how you apply water to your garden. Don’t water the leaves, water the roots. Spray nozzles are great for washing your car, but are not so great for watering your garden. You end up shooting high pressure holes in the soil, or much of the water simply blows away in a fine mist. The rest of the water ends up on the leaves where it either evaporates or causes mildew. If you use a small sprinkler, don’t leave it unattended. We have all forgotten to turn them off, flooding the garden and wasting water! Water wands (those 2 foot metal watering attachments with what looks like a shower head at the end) or sprinkler cans are the best tools to gently apply a lot of water right where you want it.

The flavor of most fruit and tubers actually improves if you stop watering about two weeks before harvest. Too much water near harvest time may cause tomatoes to split, or potatoes to rot. Allow onions and garlic to dry out before harvesting.

Following these simple tips, you can conserve water and improve the production of your garden at the same time!

Copyright © 2005 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Pruning Raspberries

Raspberries are a sweet garden delight that always seem to be gone too soon. Here is some information on pruning raspberries to maximize your harvest.

Raspberry roots are perennial, but their canes (or stems) all have two-year lifecycles. Canes of some varieties produce all their fruit in the second year (these are called summer-bearing). Other varieties bear some fruit on the top third of the cane during the fall of the first year, then on the bottom two thirds in the summer of their second year (called everbearing or fall-bearing). Let new canes grow each year, eventually establishing a cycle where some canes are in their first year, and others are in their second year.

Varieties of raspberries come in four basic colors: red, yellow, purple or black. All purple and black raspberries are summer-bearing. Black raspberries are very susceptible to disease, and are not commonly grown.

Red is the most familiar color, and yellow raspberries are actually cultivated mutations of the red variety. Red or yellow raspberries may be summer-bearing or everbearing. Tulameen, Willamette, and Meeker are typical summer bearing reds. Some everbearing reds are Heritage, Autumn Bliss, and Summit. Everbearing yellows include Fall Gold and Golden Summit.

When everbearing canes lose their leaves in the fall of the first year, cut back just the top third where the canes bore fruit. In the fall of their second year, prune everbearing canes all the way to the ground. Remove any weak first-year canes, and thin the remaining first-year canes to about 6-8 inches apart. Many people feel the fall crop is less tasty than the summer crop.

After summer-bearing canes drop their leaves in the fall of their second year, prune them all the way to the ground and thin as described above. Purple and back raspberries should also be topped to about 2-3 feet during their first year to encourage branching.

When you followed every year, these pruning methods will help ensure you get the most enjoyment out of your raspberries.

Copyright © 2005 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Is There Such a Thing as a Good Weed?

We all curse weeds in the garden, but what is a weed and can it ever be a good thing? I define a weed as anything that's growing where I don't want it. The offspring of one season's prized tomatoes can be next spring's weeds! However, when we talk weeds, most of us mean common invaders like bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), chickweed (Stellaria media), and other plants we fight every garden season.

What good could come of a common weed? Some weeds with taproots like dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) break up compacted soil. The deep rhizomes of horsetail (Equisetum telmateia) help bring nutrients up from deep in the soil. A winter cover crop is nice, but even weeds are better than bare soil. They help prevent erosion and trap nutrients that would otherwise leach from the soil.

Most over-wintering weeds begin blooming sooner than other plants, providing an early food source for foraging insects like honey bees (Apis mellifera). Any leafy plants left growing in the garden provide a home for beneficial insects like ladybugs (Coccinella sp.) and spider-like daddy longlegs (Leiobunum sp.) On the other hand, I invariably find cutworms (larvae of most moths in the Noctuidae family) hiding among the weeds in my plot. Larger weeds like the Himalayan blackberry (Rubus procerus) provide cover and food for birds and other small animals.

When chatting about weeds, the question "What's the name of this weed?" always arises. Here are a few descriptions of the most common weeds in my garden. (Click on the linked scientific name to see photos to help you recognize these common weeds).

  • Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis): That white morning glory's real identity!

  • Chickweed (Stellaria media): Light green mass of tiny leaves that slowly invades your plot over the winter and leaps to life in the spring.

  • Henbit (Lamium purpureum): Square stems look suspiciously like its invasive cousin, mint.

  • Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum): The feathery leaves of this biennial are deceivingly beautiful, but treat this dangerous plant with care. Wear gloves and a long sleeve shirt when pulling it. Bag it and throw it away with your household green waste.

  • Quackgrass (Elytrigia repens): This pesky grass grows from aggressive rhizomes. Each joint in the root can sprout a whole new infestation! Dig this weed and let it dry thoroughly or hot compost it before digging it back into your soil.

  • Shepherdspurse (Capsella bursa-pastoris): This starts out looking a bit like a small dandelion, but I think the small flat seeds look like hot pepper at the pizza restaurant.

  • Shotweed (Cardamine hirsute): These seeds shoot all over the place the moment you touch it.

With the exception of poison hemlock and quackgrass, you should simply pull your weeds before they go to seed and bury them 8 inches or deeper in your garden. That's too deep to re-sprout, and they will contribute to the organic content of your soil.

Copyright © 2006 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Preventing Club Root

Club root is a fungus-like mold that causes bulging, malformed roots on vegetables in the cabbage family (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, kale, and turnips). It also infects mustards. Though misshapen roots are the most dramatic symptom, plant leaves may also wilt too easily during the growing season.

Club root prefers damp, acidic soils like ours here in the Northwest. Its spores live a long time, so crop rotation is not very effective in preventing this disease. Though nearly impossible to eradicate entirely, maintaining a well-drained soil with a pH of 7.2 or above does hinder its growth. If you suspect your garden is infected, take advantage of wintertime to raise the pH of your soil by adding agricultural lime (calcium carbonate) to your beds.

Be sure not to infect other parts of your garden. Don't move soil from an infected area to an unaffected area, and disinfect your garden tools regularly with a mild bleach solution. Don't compost infected plants or leave them in the garden – discard them (roots and all) in your regular household trash.

Copyright © 2004 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Preventing Tomato Late Blight

Until last year, I was innocent of the ways of tomato blights. My effortless introduction to growing tomatoes just the season before had not prepared me for the speed and efficiency of airborne fungi. Surely growing tomatoes was as easy as planting a few indeterminates on flimsy cages and sitting back to wait.

Then early last July, a vigilant gardener spotted late blight on a few tomato plants in a corner of the Interbay P-Patch where I garden. Not since 1998 had our P-Patch dealt with this ravenous killer. Dire warnings of its blitzkrieg-fast, unstoppable spread seemed utterly unbelievable.

The years had lulled us into a sense of complacency. Our tomatoes were left to sprawl and crawl and crowd together in the cool Seattle nights. Surely a few dark smudges half a garden away could not affect my plans for San Marzano sauces, my Seattle Marinaras.

But alas the warnings were true. The Phytophthora infestans fungus that causes late blight thrives in our cool, damp weather and spreads rapidly by airborne spores. It overtook our garden within two weeks. The fungus can also affect potatoes, and was responsible for the infamous Irish potato famine of the late 1840s.

You can identify late blight by looking for dark (almost black) blotches and smudges along stems and leaves. Fruits also begin turning grey or black from the top and harden as they discolor. A different fungus, Alternaria solani, causes early blight, which appears as dark bull's eye leaf spots with lighter, often yellowish halos.

Late blight spores are ever-present in the soil, and once it successfully infects a plant, it's nearly impossible to control in an organic garden. About all you can hope to do is prevent an outbreak. Here are some tips on to help you keep late blight and other tomato fungal diseases from getting a foothold.

  • Mulch your soil thickly with leaves or burlap to prevent soil containing spores from splashing onto leaves.

  • Leave adequate space between plants for good air circulation. Mature plants should not be allowed to intertwine.

  • Keep leaves dry. Apply water directly and gently to the soil, not from overhead. Water in the morning so damp leaves can dry during the day.

  • During damp weather, loosely cover your tomatoes with plastic to keep the rain off, but don't wrap them so tightly that condensation forms.

  • As your tomatoes grow, begin clipping off the bottom-most leaves to encourage air circulation. Once your tomatoes are about two feet tall, remove all the leaves from the bottom six inches. Keep removing leaves up to about two feet from the ground as the plant grows. Continue to thin out leaves above two feet to encourage air circulation.

  • Keep your tomatoes well staked or in sturdy cages. This keeps them up off the ground where soil would be more likely to splash onto leaves.

  • In the fall, remove all infected foliage from your garden and dispose of it at home. Do not compost infected plant material.

  • Rotate your tomato plantings so you never plant tomatoes or potatoes in the same spot within four to six years. The longer between plantings, the better.

  • Don't allow volunteer tomato seedlings to grow. They tend to be weedy and close to the ground, providing easy access to splashed soil.

  • Add a bit of lime to your soil. This helps plants remain healthy enough to recover from minor infections, improves fruit formation, and helps prevent blossom-end rot.

  • Don't work around wet plants, when you're likely to spread fungus and spores from plant to plant on your clothes.

Copyright © 2006 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Build a Simple Coldframe

Spring never comes soon enough, and summer never lasts long enough! One way to extend our growing season is to use a coldframe to trap heat and shield plants from chilly winds. This lets you grow crops later into the fall, and start planting earlier in the spring.

To build a simple coldframe, you will need four six-foot cedar fence boards, about five feet of pine or cedar 2x2, 32 two-inch nails, a section of clear or translucent plastic slightly larger than three-feet by three-feet, a hammer, and a regular office stapler or staple gun.

Cut each fence board into equal three-foot halves (or ask the home store or lumber yard where you buy the boards cut them for you). Cut four 10½-inch lengths of the 2x2 with a hand saw.

The fence boards will become the walls of your coldframe. The 2x2 sections will provide a nailing surface for the ends of the fence boards. Nail the ends of two fence boards to two 2x2 sections. Stand these wall sections up, and nail two of each of the remaining fence boards to each end to form a square as shown in the photo below.

Once you have the walls of your coldframe all attached, spread the plastic across the top and staple it all around the edges of the coldframe. You may want to insert cross-brace or two just under the plastic to support it in rainy weather. I've used old sticks or bamboo for cross-braces.

Your coldframe is now ready to use. Place it over low-growing leaf crops in the fall. Place potted seeds under the coldframe to sprout, or leave it over seedlings or transplants until they're well established in the spring. On those rare sunny or warm days, you may need to prop up one edge of the coldframe with a brick so your crops don't bake. Once you're done with the coldframe, discard the plastic and break the frame down into flat sections for storage until the next time you need it.

Copyright © 2005 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Making the Most of a Small Garden

New gardeners are generally eager to get growing and by summer generally find they over-planted in the spring. Who could imagine those miniscule seeds or tiny starts would get so big so fast? Seemingly frail tomato seedlings play this trick on me every time. Here are some strategies and vegetable selections for the small garden.

Compact growers produce well without taking over:

  • Bush beans and peas: Just a few plants produce about as many string beans as your family will be willing to eat. Look for pea varieties that grow 32" or shorter.

  • Determinate cherry tomatoes: Though these will still take a lot of space, they're not as aggressive as regular or indeterminate tomatoes.

  • Dwarf varieties: Many vegetables also have dwarf cultivars that may be more appropriate for small plots.

  • Herbs: Low growing herbs like chives, parsley, cilantro (coriander), thyme, tarragon, sage, and oregano or marjoram pack a lot of flavor in a small space.

  • Root crops: Just a few radishes, onions, shallots, beets, garlic or carrots are all you need to spice up the rest of your dishes.

  • Salad greens: Leaf lettuce, arugula, spinach, and mustard greens like mizuna are easily managed. Try small plantings every few weeks to extend the harvest. My greens even seem to bolt less readily when crowded together.

Maximize vertical space, but be cautious about shade:

  • Cucumbers: Cukes can be trained up a strong mesh or trellis.

  • Pole beans: These are adept at holding on to any vertical stick or trellis.

  • Some squash: I've successfully coaxed butternut squash up a trellised arch, but had less success with delicata squash. Experiment with one or two seedlings of your favorite squash.

  • Taller peas: Pea vines 36" and taller can be trained to vertical supports. You'll need to tie them off regularly since their tendrils aren't strong enough to hold on during our windier days.

Inter-plant seasonal crops to maximize your harvest by spreading it further throughout the season. Just as spring crops like spinach, lettuce and peas are half grown, interplant a few summer crops like bush beans, basil and more lettuce. Just as your summer crops are half grown, harvest the remainder of your spring crop and interplant some winter crops like kale, collards, chard, and winter leeks. As you harvest some winter crops in November, plant a few garlic cloves or sew in a little mache (corn salad) for next spring.

Some aggressive vegetables folks with small gardens should avoid include:

  • Artichoke, cardoon, rhubarb, zucchini: These large leafy plants quickly dwarf their surroundings.

  • Asparagus: Though small when harvested, the remaining stalks you let grow to power next spring's shoots are too tall for small gardens.

  • Brambles: Raspberries, blackberries and other perennial brambles grow too tall and shade most small plots. They also spread by runners.

  • Corn: The stalks simply grow too tall and will shade the rest of your plot. Successful pollination usually requires more stalks than will fit in a small space.

  • Indeterminate tomatoes: "Indeterminate" means the thing never, ever stops sprawling!

  • Mint, lemon balm: These aggressively invasive plants can be confined in a container, but should not be planted in the bare ground if you have any hope of growing anything else.

  • Potatoes: Though you could try just one potato plant, harvesting generally requires you to dig up a significant chunk of real estate where other plants may be growing.

  • Squash, melons, pumpkins: Most of these grow meandering vines that smother anything up to 10 feet around.

Perhaps the best advice to new gardeners with small plots is to simply plant less. Otherwise you may end up with a surplus of one crop, but nothing else to harvest. Start with just a few plants to find out what grows best for you, and how much space each eventually consumes come summertime.

Copyright © 2006 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Compost Q&A

Here are some compost questions from astute readers.

Q. What do we do with garden waste that isn't applicable for chopping up and putting back in the garden, like sticks, raspberry shoots, noxious weeds and the like?

A. Believe it or not, you can put most any plant material in a hot compost pile! Temperatures in piles I've described here can reach as high as 160 degrees F. That's enough to kill most bad bugs, weed seeds, and pesky roots. However, our reader is right: some stuff just should not be put back in the garden, especially plants suffering from viral infections. Bag infected plants and throw them away with your regular household trash. Any old wood (like stakes or raised bed boards) should also be thrown away as they'll simply take too long to compost.

Q. Are there 'manual' options to using a chipper/shredder? It would be nice to know if one could get garden waste and "browns" ground up nice and fine like the shredder does, without messing with a machine. Manual chopping doesn't really do the trick.

A. Mercifully, it's not necessary to chop everything super-finely for compost. If you can get your plant material chopped to about 3" sections or shorter, and bruise the tougher stuff, then enough critters and fungi will get access to break down the material. I like to step on sunflower or corn stalk sections, partially rotten onions or garlic, and tomatoes or other fruit to bruise or crush them first.

Q: I have been chipping away at a stump in our backyard and would like to know if I can incorporate this wood in my soil or worm bin?

A: Though the individual chips might be too large for a worm bin, you can certainly use the chips as mulch on top of the soil, or incorporate them into your soil. A few chips in the soil are fine by themselves, but if you add a lot of chips all at once, they will steal nitrogen from the soil as they break down. In that case, add some composted manure at the same time to provide extra nitrogen.

If you want to add the chips to compost, treat them as a brown and balance them with greens (lawn clippings, vegetable food scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves, etc.) Be sure the chips are pretty small (about 1" across). Otherwise they'll take too long to break down.

Q: I am building leaf mold and have a variety of leaf types in bags. Are there any particular leaves that are not good for creating leaf molds?

A: Leaf mold is essentially slow compost made of just leaves. It's used in similar ways to compost, and also for starting seedlings.

Most leaves are fine for creating leaf mold. It's better if you can chop them with a mower or leaf shredder first, but starting with them whole is OK too.

You might want to exclude pine needles or large, waxy leaves like those from magnolias, hollies or rhodies simply because they take too long to break down. If you want to include these types of leaves, definitely chop them first.

Some gardeners are suspicious that leaves from certain tress will harm their compost or leaf mold. I couldn't find any definitive studies to back that up. The primary theory seems to be that, after enough decomposition, any natural poisons are broken down enough not to be a problem.

Here's some more info on making leaf mold: Leaf Mold FAQ at GardenWeb.

Copyright © 2003 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Soil pH Basics

A pH value indicates how acidic or alkaline something is on a scale from 1 to 14. Pure rainwater or distilled water is neutral with a pH of 7.0. Acids have pH less than 7 (lemon juice and vinegar are around pH 2). A pH above 7.0 is more alkaline (baking soda is around pH 8, ammonia is about pH 11).

Most vegetables like a neutral or slightly acidic soil (pH 6.0-7.5). In areas with wet, rainy climates like the Pacific Northwest, soils tend to be acidic. Soils with lots of leaf matter also tend to be acidic, as do clay soils. So the soil in your Seattle garden is more likely to be slightly acidic than alkaline - but don’t worry, it might not be too acidic.

Simple Soil pH Tests

Here are a few basic pH tests. These test are not exact by any means, but should give you a general idea of whether your soil pH is too far from neutral. If either test indicates your soil is too far from basic, you should get a more accurate test from an expert, or try the mild corrective actions mentioned.

To test if your soil pH is too low (acidic, also called sour): Add a pinch of baking soda to a tablespoon of wet soil from your garden. If you don’t hear a lot of fizzing, then your soil is not too acidic (try testing for alkalinity). To correct acid soil, add a few scoops of lime, dolomite lime, or even wood ashes to your plot and dig it into the top few inches of soil.

To test if your soil pH is too high (alkaline, also called basic or sweet): Add a tablespoon of white vinegar to a tablespoon of dry soil from your garden. If you hear fizzing, then your soil is probably too alkaline (try testing for acidity). If you don’t hear a lot of fizzing, then your soil is not too basic. To correct slightly alkaline soil, dig peat moss into your planting beds.

Copyright © 2003 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Soil Basics

Good soil is more than just dirt; it's a complex mixture of sand, silt, clay, and living and dead organic matter. Soil is about 50% mineral matter, 25% water, 25% air and 5% organic matter. (Yes, I know that adds up to more than 100%, but these are approximate figures.) Plants absorb nutrients from the minerals in soil.

Loam, the most desirable mineral matter for growing vegetables, is made up of about 40% sand, 40% silt and 20% clay. Sand is made up of larger particles about 0.5mm to 2mm across. Silt particles are about 10 times smaller than sand and are usually coated in clay. Clay particles are 100 times smaller than sand.

Sandy soil has large spaces (pores) between particles that lets water run through too fast, leaving it too dry and washing away nutrients. The pores in clay soils are so small that they trap too much water, pushing out all the air and drowning roots. A good mix of all three components holds enough water and air for healthy root growth. Clay even carries a slight negative charge that helps it capture nutrients, which are typically positively charged (the main exception being nitrogen).

Simple Soil Composition Test

To test the mineral makeup of your soil, mix several handfuls of soil from around your garden plot together (taken from the root zone about 4-8 inches deep). Fill a medium or large jar about half full with some of the mixed soil. Fill the rest of the jar with water. Cover the jar and shake it well. Set the jar aside for a few hours or days until all the soil settles. Sand will settle first, then silt, then clay. Organic material may form a thin layer on top of the clay, or might still be floating. The layers of sand, silt, and clay should be fairly distinguishable. In optimal soil, each layer should be about equal (with maybe a slightly thinner clay layer).

Correcting large deficiencies of sand, silt, or clay is usually not feasible since you'd need much more of each ingredient than you would care to lug to your beds. If there's not enough sand, you might consider adding a few bags of play sand or greensand. If there's not enough silt or clay (I know that sounds like garden heresy, but clay really is important), you might bring a few buckets of local clay-laden dirt from your yard (if you own a house.)

The best solution for any type of imbalanced soil is simply to add more organic matter such as compost or manure. Organic matter helps aerate clay soils, helps sandy soil retain water, helps buffer pH levels, and feeds the living organisms necessary for good soil. Yet another reason to make your own compost!

More Reading

The Real Dirt on Dirt by John Harmon on HGTV

Soil Common Sense by Charlie Nardozzi at

Copyright © 2003 Brian Ballard

Common Compost Problems

Here are some common composting problems and how to solve them. Don't worry - you can't do any permanent damage to your compost!

Pile Won't Heat Up

Once your compost reaches maturity, it won't heat up very much between turnings. But if you've just made a new batch and it doesn't heat up after a few days, there could be a few reasons.

You may have used too much brown material - in this case, add more greens like fresh grass clippings, used coffee grounds, or composted chicken or steer manure.

If your pile is too dry, add enough water as your turn it so it's as damp as a wrung-out sponge.

If your pile is too small, it won't have the critical mass needed to retain heat. Make your batches in one of the 3'x3'x3' wooden bins at Interbay.

Heat loss will be faster in the winter so you should cover your batch with several layers of burlap. The wooden sides on most bins at Interbay also help insulate your compost.

Larger Items Don't Break Down

Larger sticks and branches take a very long time to break down. Sometimes sticks interfere with your ability to turn the pile easily. If you can, use pruning shears or long-handled loppers to cut sticks into small sections. Otherwise, exclude large woody items from your mix.


Not all bugs in your compost are bad. Some bugs help break down large plant material so smaller critters can help with the decay process. Pillbugs (also known as roly polies) and sowbugs look like tiny armadillos and help chew up rotting material. Don't kill them. (Here's some trivia: The difference between sowbugs and pillbugs is that pillbugs roll up when frightened, but sowbugs can't roll up.)

Any big fat white grubs you might find in your compost are probably beneficial and should not be killed.

Fruit flies are attracted to, and breed in, exposed food scraps or fruit. Cover any food scraps or fruit with a layer of dirt or finished compost, or dig them deeper into pile so the flies can't reach them. Don't just throw them on top.

Though ants in your pile don't necessarily help or hurt the decomposition process, they probably signal that your pile is too dry. Add water to your pile as you turn it. The ants should be gone the next time you're ready to turn.

Slugs just love the moist, warm environment of a fresh compost pile. I often find them sticking to the burlap covering as I remove it to turn a batch. Pick out any slugs or put the burlap on the ground and squish the slugs.

Plants Sprouting

If you have rootstock or stems that seem to be sprouting in your pile, be sure to chop them to 3" sections or shorter. I have this problem mostly with mint roots. A hot pile should kill most rootstock.

If seeds are sprouting in your compost, be sure your pile has enough green material and moisture to heat up and kill seeds. Seeds usually sprout in slow, cold compost piles that take a long time to break down. Turn any seedlings under before they can set seed.

The Pile Smells Bad

There are a couple of reasons why your pile might stink. If it smells like ammonia or urine, you've got too much green material. (You're also losing valuable nitrogen!) This usually happens when you've added too many grass clippings. Add more brown material like fall leaves as you turn your pile.

If your compost smells like rotten eggs, then there are anaerobic bacteria in action producing hydrogen sulfide. Your pile needs more oxygen, and potentially less water. Turn your pile to introduce oxygen, and don't add any more water. Be sure to cover your bin with piece of plywood to prevent rain from soaking your compost.

Animal Pests

Bury food scraps or fruit under dirt or more compost to keep raccoons, rats and mice away. Covering your bin will also keep larger animals out. Rodents like to bed down in warm compost. Catch any rats or mice you can and drop them into a bucket of water to drown them. Don't set a mouse or rat free: they will multiply to dozens in a few months!

More Reading

Cures for Common Compost Questions at Organic Style

Composter Problems at Quinte Waste Solutions

Compost Problems at REAPS

Guide To Home Composting by Ann Costa at GAIAM

Backyard Composting Problems and Solutions from Washington County, Minnesota

Large C Shaped Grubs In Compost Pile at GardenWeb

Copyright © 2003 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Getting Creative with Compost Ingredients

There's no special trick to successful composting other than ensuring a good mix of greens and browns. But there is an endless list of things that might be good -- or might be wrong -- to add to your compost.

The Good

Though potentially off-the-wall, these items can actually increase the overall benefits of your compost:

  • Clay - Soil should be a good mix of organics, sand and, yes, even clay. The clay in dirt can even help capture nitrogen (as ammonia) before it escapes from your pile. (Don't add modeling clay.)

  • Egg shells - These add calcium to the soil. (Don't compost rotten eggs.)

  • Granite dust or greensand - This adds several trace elements. You can get granite dust at tombstone manufacturers. (Greensand is just a term for rock dust.)

  • Hair - This sounds icky to me, but human and pet hair contains lots of nitrogen and composts nicely I hear.

  • Junk mail - This is the most satisfying thing to tear up and throw in a pile! (But see glossy paper below.)

  • Oyster shells - Either whole or preferably crushed, these add calcium.

  • Seaweed - Seaweed contains lots of nitrogen. Wash it down first to remove salt.

  • Soil - Some gardeners like to jump-start their compost by introducing extra organisms from soil. Though all organisms needed for decomposition already exist on plant material, adding a few shovels-full of soil can't hurt.

  • Wallboard or drywall - Crumble it up as much as possible, and don't over-do it! Drywall is made of gypsum, which includes lots of calcium.

  • Wood ashes - Wood ashes from non-pressure treated wood are high in potassium and can be used sparingly in compost. Don't use more than one or two shovels-full per batch since ashes are very alkaline and will disrupt the pH of your finished compost. (But see below for coal or BBQ ashes.)

The Bad

These things can go into compost if you're really, really good at composting, but the average gardener should avoid them:

  • Dairy products - Same issues as meat (below).

  • Diseased plants - Your pile would have to get awfully hot to kill all viral pathogens. Bag diseased plants at your plot and take them home for disposal.

  • Fat or lard - Same issues as meat (below).

  • Human urine - Though urine from a healthy person is sterile and contains lots of nitrogen, don't include it at our community garden. You can give it a try in your home compost if you must.

  • Meat scraps - It takes a very specific set of conditions to safely decompose meat or dairy products. It's very hard for the average gardener to reproduce these conditions.

The Ugly

Strictly verboten! Never ever, ever put these things in your compost. At best they won't decompose, at worst they may cause disease in humans!

  • Animal urine, feces, or litter - Cat feces in particular can contain parasites that cause brain damage in toddlers, infants, or unborn children. (Pre-composted horse, cow, rabbit, chicken manure or manure from other vegetarian animals is fine to add to your compost.)

  • Coal ashes - These ashes contain harmful chemicals, even after burning. Don't use BBQ grille charcoal ashes either.

  • Glossy paper - Don't compost glossy paper, catalogs or magazines. They include special clays and inks that aren't the best for your soil. Don't compost paper with colored ink either.

  • Human feces (including diapers) - Leave it to the city to try to figure out how to deal with your poop! It can contain all kinds of viruses, bacteria and other diseases like dysentery, e. coli, and cholera. Even composted human waste from municipalities should never be used on food crops.

  • Metal, Plastic or glass - These items will simply never decompose. Broken glass in the soil is obviously dangerous to gardeners.

  • Pesticides, herbicides or fungicides - These will kill the very organisms you're trying to encourage in your compost!

  • Petroleum products - Liquid petroleum products will poison the soil and groundwater. One measly pint of gasoline can contaminate 750,000 gallons of water.

  • Pressure treated wood or sawdust - Pressure treated wood contains cyanide and/or other chemicals that kill beneficial soil organisms.

More Reading

Lists of other things you can or should not put in your compost:

Compost Ingredients at MasterComposter

All About Materials by Steve Solomon

What can I compost? at the HDRA

Materials for Better Composting at the Chicago DOE

Copyright © 2003 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

Have a Tea Party with Your Veggies!

Here is an interesting way to use your compost in a foliar application: compost tea. Many gardeners swear by its affects in perking up their plants!

What is Compost Tea?

Compost tea is a small amount of compost steeped for a short time in water, much like brewing tea from tea bags. The result is a rich solution containing both beneficial organisms and nutrients that you use when watering or to spray on leaves.

What are the Benefits of Compost Tea?

I originally thought the benefit of compost tea was simply as an organic replacement for water-soluble fertilizers like Miracle Gro or Peter's Plant Food. It turns out that compost tea is actually much more than a mild fertilizer. It also helps inoculate your plants against disease by introducing beneficial bacteria and fungi to the soil or leaves. The process of making compost tea creates an environment where beneficial organisms flourish at the expense of harmful ones.

Bacteria and fungi are very important in the soil, helping roots absorb water and nutrients. These organisms are also important when present on leaves. Spraying plants with compost tea helps control various mildews, molds, blights, and wilt diseases. The theory is that the beneficial organisms compete with the bad ones for food and space. They may even actively kill harmful organisms by eating them or creating natural antibiotics.

How Do I Make Compost Tea?

Compost tea is relatively easy to make from finished compost. Simply fill a 5-gallon bucket about 3/4 full with room temperature, chlorine-free water (either let tap water sit out for a day, use rainwater, or dip some water from a pond or stream.) Then add one shovel-full of fresh compost and stir. You can also use cheesecloth or another loose fabric to hold the compost as you steep it.

Let the mixture sit overnight (stir it occasionally if you're around). When you return, strain the top half of the liquid through a screen or cloth and spray it on plant leaves or water with it. You must use the tea soon after brewing it; otherwise oxygen in the water will be depleted and the beneficial organisms will die or go dormant.

Oxygen-loving (or aerobic) bacteria and fungi are generally helpful. Anaerobic organisms (those that can live with no oxygen) are usually not beneficial, can cause disease, and just plain stink! If you can't use your tea within 12-18 hours after starting it, you will need to aerate it to add oxygen. You can do that with an electric sump pump to circulate the liquid, or better yet by pumping in air. You can use a regular aquarium air pump to oxygenate the tea.

If you aerate your tea, you'll get the best results if you use it within 1-3 days. If you need to keep your tea for longer than that, add a cup of un-sulfured molasses (or other sugar source) every few days to make sure there's enough food to satisfy your growing colony of beneficial organisms.

After using your compost tea, add the remaining solids back to your compost pile, or mix it into the soil.

Never use bad-smelling compost tea. That's a sure sign there are too many nasty anaerobic organisms lurking in it. If your tea smells like sewage, aerate it for a day or two until the smell goes away. (However, you can use your tea if it simply smells yeasty. Foam that may form on top of your tea is not bad for your plants either.)

More Reading

Here are some compost tea resources and recipes on the web.

Compost Tea Basics at GardenWeb

Compost Teas for Plant Disease Control at ATTRA

Brewing Compost Tea by Elaine Ingham

Compost Tea at PA EPA

Compost Tea by Doug Green

Copyright © 2003 Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.