Pittmoss Review

3 x 3 raised garden bed with Pittmoss mixed into the soil that was previously in the bed. Clockwise from the top left, the plants in this are culinary sage, rosemary Hardy Hill, lemon thyme, and French thyme.

This post is to document my experiences (to date) with a new-to-me planting/potting medium called Pittmoss. Before I get into details, I should state up front that I purchased the Pittmoss and all of the plants I’ll be talking about, and there are no affiliate links in this post.

To be honest, my decision to try it really came down to the fact that, while the cost per cubic foot of the Pittmoss was relatively high, shipping costs for my other choices would have been prohibitively expensive, and I was really looking for something that would just show up on my doorstep. (I’m lazy, remember?)

I’m not sure where I first heard about Pittmoss, but it’s basically made from recycled paper with other stuff (eg, bark, compost, microorganisms from bovine compost, etc) added to it. I was interested initially because it’s peat-free, but then also because it uses recycled paper. (Their website says upcycled.) I believe it’s called Pittmoss as a play on peat and because the company is based in the Pittsburgh area.

I ordered several 2-cubic-foot bags of the stuff, and they arrived at my doorstep, as expected. They were packed in cardboard boxes, which I stacked up. Leo decided that the stack was his new perch and he greatly enjoyed lounging there for a few days until my fall plants arrived.

Amsonia Blue Ice.

The Pittmoss smells… essentially like what it is: old paper. It’s a bit musty but the smell doesn’t bother me. If you’re into that old paper smell, you may even enjoy it.

Once my fall plants arrived, I took them and the Pittmoss to the patio to begin planting. I have to say, Pittmoss is very lightweight. Usually, carrying 2 cubic feet of potting medium would have meant I need a break. (I’m not very strong. It’s probably related to my laziness.) But carrying 2 or even 4 cubic feet of Pittmoss is no big deal.

Once you open up the bag, it looks a bit like gray insulation. The texture is super fluffy. There were a few chunks of paper still stuck together. When you break them apart, you can see all the colorful bits of shredded paper. It’s a little like breaking up an owl pellet, I suppose. (I’ve never done that personally, just seen it done.)

Russian sage.

I used a bit over 2 cubic feet to top up my raised bed and mixed it in with the existing soil in the bed. I used about another cubic foot mixed with existing soil to fill 2 large round containers, a 1’x2’ rectangular container, and a window box.

The raised bed got sage, rosemary, and 2 types of thyme and will also be getting some yarrow later. The rectangular planter got oregano, the window box got chives, and the two round containers got russian sage and amsonia blue ice.

Oregano in a rectangular planter. The Pitmoss looks like gray fluff/mush here.

Pittmoss claims to have “improved water retention” and to require ⅔ less watering. I’m assuming this is compared to peat-based planting media. I’ve planted a whole variety of plants in this stuff, and their water needs range from ‘really liking dry’ to ‘really liking wet.’ I’m really curious how they do with the Pittmoss. My suspicion is the rosemary will be the least happy, but we’ll see.

I’m also curious about how much this stuff will compact, given how fluffy it started out. I don’t want my plant roots trapped in paper mache. Similarly, I’m curious how this will hold up over time, as everything I’ve planted in it so far is a perennial. I may just try some basil indoors to see how it does with an annual. (The basil on the patio has become a tasty snack for something that owes me a few bucks for seed and watering.)

So here’s a bullet point summary, if you didn’t read the above.

  • Good:
    • lightweight and easy to carry
    • fluffy texture is kind of neat
  • Neutral (for me):
    • smells like old paper
  • To be determined:
    • how much it compresses over time
    • how it does for perennials
    • how different plants like the water retention

It should also be noted that this is a purely observational, uncontrolled, non-blinded experiment. It has no scientific validity, but it’s fun. I’ll post updates.

The Patio Gets New “Walls”

I’ve lived here for a little over 10 years. In that time, the patio walls have been a particular challenge. They’re made from cinder blocks and have been painted maroon. They probably contribute to the concrete oven effect, and over the years, I’ve gotten really tired of looking at them.

One of the neighbors has some reed fencing that they used to cover their patio walls. This year, I decided to try it for my own patio. The patio is still really warm, and it will probably still be an oven next summer, but at least it looks better now..

I ordered something called ‘reed roll fencing’ and used zip ties and string to attach it to the rebar coming up from the cinder block wall. At the bottom, it’s pushed against the wall by the planters. The trickiest parts of the installation were getting the fencing unrolled and keeping it upright while I attached it. (It might have been easier with a 2nd person, but there’s a pandemic, so I just did it myself.)

The results are a little wonky, but overall, I’m pleased.

On the USPS

Blue USPS Mailboxes. Image by EraserGirl / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
EraserGirl / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

It’s time for another political detour, my loyal readers. As you are probably aware, the US Postal Service (USPS) is being sabotaged. This is at least partly because Trump wants to steal the election. However, it also seems to be that the Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has a financial stake in several competitors to the USPS. DeJoy is also a top republican donor.

The following tweet shows a map of where mail sorting capacity has been reduced overlaid with 2016 electoral results.

Here’s what’s being done so far:

So what can you and I do?

If you’ve experienced an issue with your mail, you can fill out this form from Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, who is leading an investigation into mail delays related to the actions take by DeJoy. I think this is also open to people outside of Michigan.

It’s possible to email DeJoy or to the members of the USPS Board of Governers. The Board of Governers does have the ability to fire DeJoy, but they are also Trump appointees, so that may or may not do very much. This tweet thread provides email addresses.

And as always, you can call or email your elected representatives and ask them to tour a USPS facility and to hold DeJoy accountable. If you’re not sure who your elected officials are, this site will tell you who represents you on a local, state, and national level. 

Heat, Water, and Weeds

I know I’ve been absent from the blog for a while, I am probably one of the laziest gardeners in the world. My last baby chard harvest was on in mid-July, and after that, I basically let my garden go a little wild—at least as wild as it’s possible to go in the middle of South Philadelphia. There are weeds everywhere, and things are looking a little… spent. About the only garden task I’ve kept up with is refilling the bird feeder, and that’s not really gardening.

The stoop hosta, which seems to thrive on neglect.

Fortunately, I’ve learned from previous years that I am a lazy gardener. Back in May, I had set up a soaker hose with a smart timer. It took a little tweaking, but the plants now get watered every day for 5 minutes at 6am and 5 minutes at 7am—without me having to lift a finger. It’s a smart system, so it automatically delays watering in the event of rain. And if I think the garden needs extra watering, I can turn it on using my phone.

The hose setup, with a regular hose (bright yellow-green) on the right, and the smart timer and soaker hose (black) on the left.

You have no idea how much I love how lazy this allows me to be. No. Idea. Now if only the garden would weed itself.

Colors in the Garden

Last week, I was looking at my “blue” plants and thinking that really, they’re more like purple. Then a few days later, a gardening podcast I enjoy listening to, called Let’s Argue About Plants, released an episode called “True Blue Beauties.” Of course, even on the podcast, there was some argument about whether some of these plants weren’t in fact purple. Overall, I think they did a good job, and I might have to add some of these plants to my “Someday” list.

My not-actually-blue (but I still love them plants) include Salvia Blue Hill and Phlox Swizzzle Blue. Salvia Blue Hill looks more purple to me, though apparently it’s more blue than some of the other mounding salvias. Phlox Swizzle Blue is more of a lavender color with some pink in the center. Meanwhile, my purple coneflowers are more on the pink side, if you ask me.

My purple coneflowers, which look pink.

Meanwhile, in another part of the color wheel, there’s the red/orange issue. This year, I planted painted lady runner beans, which are now flowering. The blossoms are lovely, but I was expecting something red and white. Instead, in my garden, they look more like orange and a lighter color ranging from white to creamsicle.

My painted lady runner beans are orange and creamsicle colored.

This is just the spring and summer flowers. I have two asters that won’t bloom until autumn: Crimson Brocade and Bluebird. They got a bit burned last summer, though, so I’m not really sure what color the flowers will actually end up being. Maybe red and blue? Maybe pink and purple? I’m looking forward to finding out, but I suspect it won’t be quite what I expected.

Local Politics

I have to confess, it’s the Black Lives Matter and the Defund the Police movements that have really gotten me to pay attention to my local government. I’ve voted in local elections and had a general idea about who I wanted to support, but I didn’t pay much attention aside from primary and general election times.

And then I learned how much of the city’s budget goes to the police force vs other services. The proposed budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year would have increased the police department’s budget by $14 million, but cut funding for healthcare, social services, libraries, and education.

Philly Police Funding

Last week, 14 out of the 17 city council members signed a letter saying they couldn’t accept the proposed increase to the police budget. I’m pleased about that, but I wanted to know more about the 3 who didn’t oppose the police budget increase and when they could be voted out.

The members who didn’t sign the letter opposing the police budget are David Oh, Brian O’Neill and Bobby Henon.

  • David Oh is a Republican member at large. He was the first Asian American elected to the city council. 
  • Brian O’Neill is a Republican and represents the 10th district. He’s been on the city council since 1980, which means he’s been on the city council longer than I’ve been alive. 
  • Bobby Henon is a Democrat and represents the 6th district. He was indicted in January 2019 for embezzlement and theft by federal officials.

Basics about the Philadelphia City Council

The Philadelphia City Council has 1 member for each of its 10 districts plus 7 members at large. They have 4 year terms, and there are no term limits. Elections for city council members happen in odd years, (when there’s no major national elections). The next one will be 2023 (assuming the world doesn’t end before then).

The party breakdown of the members is:

  • 14 Democrats: 9 districts plus 5 members at large
  • 2 Republicans: 1 district plus 1 member at large
  • 1 Working Families Party: 1 member at large

A map showing all 10 districts is available on the city council website. The Committee of 70 has more detailed maps for each of the 10 districts. Interestingly, districts 6 and 10 are right next to each other. The numbering doesn’t appear to make much sense, but I suspect there are historical reasons behind it.

For the Future

I’ve still got a lot to learn about what my local government does and doesn’t do, but it’s clearly long past time I started.

What about you? How closely do you follow your local politics?

Nira supports Black Lives Matter and thinks you should, too.

Gardening Failures, Part 1

When it comes to gardening, I have failed a lot. Over time, I’ve come to accept that this is all part of learning how to garden in general, and in my garden in particular.

First, I should define failure. It’s different for everyone, but in my cases, it’s been one of the following:

  • Seeds never germinating
  • Seedlings never becoming full grown plants
  • Plants making it to ‘adulthood’ but not surviving as long as might be expected
  • Plants surviving and living out their expected lifespan, but not thriving.

I’ve had failures in each of the above categories.

My most recent failure was a bunch of lavender seedlings, which germinated on my windowsill and then flopped over within a few days of emerging from the soil. I have no idea what went wrong.

These lavender seedlings probably never stood a chance.

The saddest failures, for me, have been my clematis and pink coreopsis. The clematis did well for a few years, but it seems that last summer simply was too hot and dry for it. It also probably got a bit root bound in the container it was in. It was a gorgeous plant, though, and I suspect I will try again with the same or a different clematis variety eventually.

Coreopsis is a plant that loves hot summers, which my concrete oven definitely provides. Unfortunately, it seems to be winter that did my coreopsis in. We had an especially mild winter this year, so I suspect that it was the damp, rather than the cold, that was the problem.

Nasturtiums are a plant that is supposedly easy to grow from seed, but I found them difficult to get started. I managed on my third try, but I’m not really sure why it worked—just that it did. That said, I am sure I will eventually try again, especially now that I’ve stumbled across a few pink cultivars. (Plant and seed catalogs are dangerous.)

Nasturtium. This was my 3rd attempt, and the plants still don’t look so great.

Cosmos and cornflowers are also supposed to be nice, easy annuals. The ones I planted last year did all right, but the the plants just weren’t that nice looking. I’m trying the cosmos again this year, though. The seedlings are looking pretty good so far, but they’re only about two inches tall, so we’ll see.

A droopy cornflower plant with one flower.

I have also, believe it or not, had trouble with hyacinth bean vines in the past—at least until last year, when suddenly, I seemed to have gotten the hang of them. Suddenly, hyacinth bean vines became one of my best garden successes, and I happily gave seeds to almost every gardener I knew.

This was take 2 with the hyacinth beans. The patio chair was eventually rescued.

You may have noticed that I titled this post “Gardening Failures, Part 1.” I’m not sure when I’ll post Part 2, but I know I will eventually. I’m always tempted to try (and retry) things, and I’m sure I will have other failures. I just don’t know what they are yet.

Selfish Gardening

Recently, I decided to start gardening selfishly—although perhaps I should say I decided to continue gardening selfishly.

There are a number of ways in which a garden can be a force for good in the world.

  • A garden can do social good by providing food for an individual, family, or community.
  • A garden can support bees, butterflies, and other pollinators—which in turn supports our ability make food.
  • A garden can support wildlife beyond pollinators by providing food and habitats for birds, small amphibians and reptiles, and invertebrates like bugs, worms, snails, etc.
  • A garden can support water management, either by being efficient in its use of water or by mitigating flooding by absorbing rainfall.
  • A garden can help support and preserve populations of native plant species.
Salvia Blue Hill – This is the first plant to bloom in the garden this year, and it’s making me so happy. I did see a bee buzzing around the flower spikes earlier today.

My garden… doesn’t really do any of those. I mean, I grow some food, and I have some pollinator plants and plants that provide seed for birds. I have one or two native plants. My planting containers are probably better than bare concrete as far as managing water goes. But my garden isn’t really designed around any of those purposes.

Instead, my garden is an entirely selfish endeavor. Its purpose is to lift my mood and give me something to do. And maybe that’s enough?

The Early May Cold Snap

Like most of the northeast, we had some unseasonably cold weather last weekend. I had already planted several cold sensitive plants and was worried that they’d freeze and die. I devised some covers out of old clothes and bedsheets for the beans and basil seedlings. I didn’t manage to get everything under cover though.

It turns out, I probably needn’t have worried. Everything pulled through—even the beans that didn’t get covered. 

The patio is almost all concrete, which traps heat. In winter, or during a cold snap like the one we just had, it’s often quite useful. I can often start gardening a little on the early side and continue later into the fall. 

The runner beans after the cold snap. This is a different set of plants than the ones in the first set of pictures.

The difficult months for my garden are July and August, but I’m slowly learning how to deal with those—mainly by carefully selecting which plants I try to grow. I suspect the beans will be fine this summer. We’ll see how the basil does.

Flower buds on the perennial salvia.

Interestingly, my perennial salvia (Blue Hill) has put out some flower buds. I’m not really sure if this is normal timing for it. I got this plant last June. It thrived last summer,  and was already lush and green even in early March. We had a strangely warm winter, so it may have just gotten an early start, or it might be that the cold snap tricked it into thinking it was later in the year than it actually is. Either way, I’m eager to see how the salvia does this year, especially since these will probably be the first flowers to bloom on the patio this year. 

Gardening with Cats

When I’m in the garden, the cats are usually with me. They seem to enjoy being out in the fresh air,* and Leo especially enjoys chomping on plants.

Garden cat with echinacea.

This has meant that I’ve had to modify my plant selection in order to keep them safe. A remarkable number of plants are toxic to cats, including:

  • Daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, lilies, and irises
  • Peonies
  • Garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, and chives
  • Parts of the tomato plant
  • Hydrangeas, azaleas, and rhododendrons
  • Foxgloves, lupines, and monkshood
  • Morning glories

I don’t grow any of the plants listed above, and I usually spend a good bit of time checking if a plant I’m interested in is reasonably cat safe.

I say reasonably because some plants are more toxic than others. Most of the ones listed above are pretty bad for cats, and can even kill them.

I do, however, grow some plants that could have some mild effects, such as mint and rosemary. Even catnip can be dangerous in large quantities. In addition, some cats, like Leo, will inevitably throw up the plants that they eat onto the carpet. (That seems to be part of the fun for them.)

For other plants, I make concessions about location: Hostas are also toxic to cats, so I only grow them in front of the house, where the cats are not allowed to go. Eventually, I may grow some other shade-loving plants that aren’t cat friendly, such as hellebores (lenten roses) and dicentra (bleeding hearts) out front as well.

The big exception to all this is snake plants. They’re toxic, but I have some in the house because Leo shows no interest in them and they do well in low light.

At some point, if I can figure out a way to keep them out of the cats’ reach, I may try growing chives and other, less cat-friendly people food.

If you’re thinking of growing a plant, I recommend first checking out the ASPCA’s lists of toxic and non-toxic plants. It’s not a complete list, but it’s the most comprehensive one I’ve found.§

If you just want some suggestions for getting started, though, I recommend snapdragons, petunias, alyssum, pansies and violas, cornflowers, and cosmos for ornamentals. For edibles, chard, beets, lettuce, the broccoli and cabbage family, cucumbers, and most squash seem pretty safe.

Some beans do contain toxins that break down when cooked, but most are fine to grow around cats. You should probably avoid castor beans, though. Hyacinth beans are fine to grow, but can be tricky to cook properly.

Finally, if you’re not familiar with sweet peas, they aren’t edible and are toxic to animals and people. Edible peas (ie, garden peas, English peas, snow peas, and snap peas) still often have pretty flowers, though.

Footnotes
*Or what passes for fresh air in the city.
Grape hyacinths are a different species and are listed as cat-safe by the ASPCA.
These are often featured in cosy/country mysteries.
§Sometimes, a plant isn’t on either the toxic or nontoxic list, and you have to decide if you’re going to risk it.