Friday, November 18, 2011

Getting kids excited about worms

After setting up my own red worm composting bins this past summer, it was natural for my youngest kids to be interested in what I was doing. For my preschooler, I involved him in choosing the kitchen scraps that were most appropriate for the worm bins. He also helped tear cardboard and newspaper into small-sized pieces for bedding. Every so often, he enjoys seeing their progress and occasionally insists on holding them.

My first-grader was also excited to be involved, but I perceived that she was ready for a little more responsibility of her own. We took a couple large-sized cottage cheese containers, poked a number of small holes in one for drainage and in the lid, and sat it into the second container (to catch excess moisture). She helped shred newspaper and tear bits of cardboard for bedding, wet it, and then she chose twenty worms from the larger bin to start with. I added a small scoop of partially decomposed bedding to the freshly shredded paper to give the worms a jump start. (I could see a number of worm cocoons in this bedding, so I knew that it would help her numbers) This was going to be an experiment to see not only how well the worms would do in a container this size, but also to see how well she would do in being responsible for a pet. (She has been wanting a hamster, but this was a more manageable start for her)

Over a period of two months, she gave her worms little bits of food that we had set aside for the compost bin, and made sure that the bedding hadn't dried out too much. About once a week I had to remind her to feed her worms. She did pretty well for the first month, but after that her interest started dwindling. After two months, her interest was near its end so I asked her to count her worms to see how she had done. She counted over 90 worms as she sorted through the bedding, an amazing increase in only two months! (Now I'm wondering how much of that increase came from the cocoons, but no matter the case, it was a good learning experience for her.) Despite the excitement of seeing so many worms, she was ready to add her worms back to the family worm bin. Perhaps this was the best approach in the long term... to offer a young child that isn't quite ready for long-term commitment, an opportunity to safely try out a new skill and still feel like she has contributed to the family. Now some of the family worms will always feel like they belong to her, and that's a good thing!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Vermicompost - A Living Soil Amendment

I found a site with video from Cornell University about their experiments using vermicomposting techniques and why they work to improve the quality of soil and the plants grown in that soil. This site also describes their various experiments using vermicompost.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Letting chickens feed themselves

The old fashioned way to raise chickens was to let them forage for food out in the yard, supplemented with a little extra grain that is thrown out. So why do I spend $15 a bag on chicken pellets that I have to feed them every day? All of the current experts say that that is what you have to do to have a productive flock, but until I read this blog article by Robert Plamondon, I didn't know why: Why Chicken Feed?

In summary, yes,  you can let hens fend for themselves if there is enough to forage, but they will likely be starving and won't be laying consistently. Supplementing foraging chickens with a balanced feed will yield high production with highly nutritious eggs and meat, much better than what is available from the standard supermarket fare.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A new vermicomposting bin

Well progress can really be slow, but I think that as long as you can keep up on the day to day stuff and occasionally make some progress on the extra stuff, you will eventually get somewhere. I wanted to document my progress with my vermicomposting project. The garden has done reasonably well in a few aspects but it is still abysmal in others. (Half the corn didn't even come up, and what did is less than a foot high.)

Red Wigglers

Back in June, I found that a local farmers market had a organic farmer selling garden seedlings and red wiggler composting worms. Since my budget has dictated that I start out small, I decided against ordering a large amount of worms from an online vendor. There are a lot of different ideas for worm bins with different pros and cons, I think it is actually better to start with enough worms to see some real progress but not so many that you can't deal with them all. I chose to purchase one pound, which is approximately 1000 red wiggler worms, and costed about $30. With the shredded cardboard bedding, the worms came in two large yogurt containers.

Unique worm bin based on experienced vermicomposters

My primary inspiration for the bin came from multiple plans for bins at I didn't want to spend a lot of time and money building a wooden bin without understanding what the worms would need over time in my local climate, not to mention that a large wood bin would be very heavy. I decided to choose a plastic bin with handles and a lid that could be easily removed.

My other inspiration came from the commercial vermicomposting bins that are somewhat shallow and can stack up to six bins high. They have small holes at the bottom of each bin so that the worms can migrate upwards and the excess water can drain downwards. They have small vents in the sides for increased air circulation. Even though many bins will stack, it would be important that the bins would have some space between them even when stacked so that the material in the bin would not be compressed, crushing the contents of the lower bins. I would also be important to add enough compostable material that the upper bins would touch the top of the vermicompost in the bin directly below it, otherwise the worms would not be able to migrate upwards.

I decided to purchase two long, shallow, plastic bins at initially, the type that slides under beds for storing sweaters and other seasonal clothing. I would have preferred one that wasn't quite so long, but all of the other bins that I found to be this shallow were much too small, the size of a shoebox. I would have also preferred bins that were not clear because worms will avoid the light. (I found a dark shelf in my garage, so hopefully this won't be an issue. I added strips of cardboard around the sides to also help with the light problem.) The bottom bin I left as-is to allow it to collect any water that would drain out of the upper bins. It would also catch any worms that decided to escape from the upper one. The upper bin I started using a awl to poke holes through the plastic but I found that a drill with small bit was more effective. I drilled dozens of holes in the bottom, a single row of holes in the sides towards the top, and a number of holes in the lid for ventilation. 

For worm bedding I used a layer of well composted material from my outdoor compost bin (about four months old), shredded newspaper that I sent through a paper shredder, and finally some slightly composted kitchen waste that was starting to break down in a different compost bin (about a week or two). I made sure that each layer was moist before adding the worms to it. I finally added some damp cardboard that I tore with my hands. Over the next few weeks I found that the thicker cardboard was better than the newspaper for retaining moisture and acting as a mulch for everything below it. The worms wouldn't come all the way to the top unless it was damp. I also found that after a few days there was a lot of water that had condensed in the top bin. I initially left off the lid just a crack to eliminate the moisture but then I drilled in quite a few more holes in the lid to allow for better air flow. Every other week I would take soft vegetable or fruit trimmings and bury them in the worm bedding. I also added a sprinkling of water around the edges that tended to dry out quicker.

Initial Results

By the end of July, the compost, newspaper, and cardboard had all been nearly broken down, with a large amount of worm castings and new worms mixed throughout. The two small containers of worms had spread throughout the bin with a large amount of cocoons and juvenile worms as well. I'm curious the exact propagation amount, but I'm not prepared to sift through the entire bin to count. I knew that I would need to start another bin soon as a new home for the expanding worms.

By mid August, I purchased a third plastic bin that would fit inside the others. I prepared it like I did the second bin with the exception of the lid. Since the bins would fit inside each other, I didn't need to use the lid for the new bin at all. Instead I can just use the old lid that is already full of holes for air flow.

Next Experiment

Purposefully, I didn't put any of the red wigglers into the new top bin by hand. I'm hoping that my plan works and the worms will migrate through the holes into the upper bin. Of course there are a number of things that could go wrong: drilled holes too small, upper bin environment not acceptable, air gaps between top of compost and bottom of bin doesn't allow worms to reach holes in upper bin, and I'm sure that there could be others. If all goes well, I can check in a few weeks to find worms in the upper bin. I'm going to leave it there for about a month before I try to remove the worm castings from the lower one because I would rather that the cocoons would hatch and the juvenile worms would be able to migrate upwards, instead of being mixed in with the outdoor soil and lost as a resource for my vermicomposting experiments. I'm sure that I won't get them all, but I'm hoping that this approach will be more successful than the other techniques that I have read about by sorting through the bin by hand.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A week with a garden tractor and backhoe

With as much earth moving as we had to do, we decided to just rent some equipment to help us get the job done and to save our backs from all the shoveling and moving with the wheel barrow. (In comparing prices, three days of rental are the same as the weekly rate, so for us it made sense to get it for the whole week.) Once we knew that we were going to have it available, we ordered manure for the garden and gravel for a new french drain that we needed to help prevent the flooding that we have had in our basement.

The majority of our time on the tractor was spent grading the area next to our garage, house and shed that faces an uphill slope. We needed a better slope away from the house and to either side so that any significant rain or melting snow would flow around the house instead of pooling up next to the house and seeping into the basement. A neighbor who has a lot of experience with home construction suggested that there should be at least a 2% grade away from the house for at least 10 feet.

Once the basic grade was set, we used the backhoe attachment to dig a trench at the lowest part of this grade to make any water flow even better. Unfortunately we ran into a lot of rock that the backhoe couldn't handle so the trench wasn't as deep as we would have hoped. At the highest place in the back it is only six inches deep, while in other places it is about four feet deep. This trench was sloped so that when we put in gravel and a perforated drain pipe, the water would flow into the gravel, fill the pipe and flow downhill and around the house. Again, it is important to make sure that there are not low sections where the water will be trapped and pool up. As a precaution, I wrapped the pipe with a fabric sleeve which is designed to keep silt from getting into the pipe and clogging it up.

What I didn't anticipate with this work was to hit a water line going to some secondary water tanks while we were digging the trench. This accident bent up the 1 1/4" line to the point of needing to replace a short section of pipe. The backhoe also detached the pipe from the valve about four feet away and six feet underground. Luckily our trench was about two feet away from this buried valve and nearly as deep. This had to be excavated by hand so the nearby trench made it a lot easier to dig it out without damaging the good water line. It took a couple of trips to an industrial plumbing store and about $500 in parts, but I was able to remove the faulty valve, get the parts to branch the line into the existing trench, add in a garden hydrant (faucet), and reconnect the line going to the storage tanks. This new water source will certainly be helpful for the garden. It isn't right next to the garden, but a lot closer that the exterior house faucets that we have had to use for the past two years. I plan to eventually install a couple more small faucets right next to the garden areas so that we don't have to drag hose and sprinklers around so much. Another faucet next to the chickens would certainly help there as well.

After all this critical work with grading and trenching, we wanted to improve the garden soil while we have the equipment. So we brought in a dump truck load of well composted and screened steer manure. It took quite a few trips with the scoop on the garden tractor from the driveway to the back yard where the garden is, but it was a lot easier than doing it with a shovel and wheel barrow. There is now two to three inches of this good manure over the primary garden and a scant amount over a second garden that we want to develop. We ran out of money to buy enough to cover this second garden well, but we have a plan for this. Because we were already having this gravel and manure being delivered, they threw in a load of partially composted steer manure at no additional cost. This benefits the farmer who doesn't have to store and process this manure, and after we pile it up near the garden that we can eventually use it, the pile should be able to compost over the summer and be ready to spread by hand either this Fall or next Spring.

Talking with neighbors about our big grading and gardening project, we discovered someone with a big rototiller that was happy to loan us for a few hours. If the weather cooperates, this will let us till in that newly spread manure. After a few years of adding organic material and tilling it in, that should break down the hard concrete-like layer of clay soil that forms here. No-till methods allow you to pile up compost knowing that the roots of the vegetables can reach down to get all the nutrients that they need while maintaining the natural health of the soil bacteria and earthworms that often are killed by tilling. (At least that it the goal!)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter!

Easter is a wonderful time to be with family, to ponder on new life, renewal, and new growth. With the nice Spring weather in areas warmer than we live, there are strawberries growing and being harvested. We have only a few strawberry plants and they didn't produce very well last year, so we are left to purchase them from someone else's bounty. After seeing this strawberry pie made on television, I couldn't help but make two of them for Easter dinner with the family. We used a frozen pie crust, so it wasn't as good as it could have been, but it was sure tasty!

I found that the recipe was quite accurate with one exception: the cooking time to cook the frozen berries was actually closer to an hour. It may have been because we were making two pies at once or because our berries may have had more water or juice in them that needed to cook down.Over all, a very good pie that I would probably make again as long as I had enough time to cook the berries. (Next time, I'll enlist the aid of one of my able-bodied teenagers to stir the pot while it is cooking.)With luck, we'll have more strawberry plants of our own to harvest enough berries for more pies!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Soil test in garden box

My wife found a soil test kit similar to the one shown at the right. She wanted to see if all of the amendments which we have put into our garden box is at the right levels. We have added quite a few things, so we felt that it should be doing fairly well across the board. We knew that our soil is really alkaline, so that is one of the first things that we looked at. Here are our findings:
  1. pH: Adding a lot of organic matter in a raised bed is going to mean that you are avoiding many of the problem in the natural soil. In our case, the test showed that the pH is essentially neutral, unlike most of the surrounding soil. This was a good validation!
  2. Nitrogen: It was surprising that the Nitrogen levels of this garden box were extremely low. This is after adding six bags of manure and some blood meal, which is high in Nitrogen. The only thing that I can think of is that there is probably a lot of high-Carbon organic matter mixed into the soil that hasn't decomposed completely. This will tie up much of the available Nitrogen. I was hoping that this wouldn't be the case, but it looks like it is a problem. I suppose that I could top-dress the soil with more aged manure, since we have already planted a lot of peas and lettuce (which hasn't sprouted, by the way) or we could call those seeds a loss and add a bunch more fertilizer and till it in. (We'll have to decide.)
  3. Phosphorus: This test showed that the soil sample was moderately high in Phosphorus. With all of the amendments this was expected. No need for further amendments here.
  4. Potassium (Potash): This test showed that the soil sample was high in Potassium.
Once we overcome the problem with the Nitrogen, all of the other tests showed that we have good levels in the other measurable levels. The Nitrogen problem may even be the cause of the seeds not sprouting. (It is nice to have some reason behind failures, even if not all of the evidence is known.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Chicks moved into modified garden box

At the end of February, we purchased a variety of chicks from our local farm supply store. They have been in our garage in a children's wading pool with a heat lamp hanging from the ceiling and plastic bird netting to keep them from flying out. With about twenty birds, this has been a decent size to keep them until they outgrew that space. Lately, they have started getting spooked and flying around their confined space when the kids make too much noise or when it is feeding time. Now that the worst of the cold weather seems to have past, it was time to put them outside with the other animals.

The chicks are large enough with mature feathers to handle the extremes in temperature at night and during the day, but I don't think that they are ready to be mixed with the existing flock. Introducing new chickens can always be a challenge with the new ones always getting picked on, even if they outnumber the older birds. Here is what I did to prepare an area near the existing flock but to provide protection from them:
  1. Board up the access from the chicken run to the chicken coop where the mature hens are laying eggs. The coop has an access door to the outside, so they don't really need to be in the run except for protection.
  2. Build a temporary fence out of deer netting and T-posts to keep the birds in and hopefully to prevent wandering predators from threatening the chickens. We have had threats with neighborhood dogs, raccoons, and a family of foxes. Our Great Pyrenees has done his part to scare off many of the threats. Even with the help from our dog, we still lost a few chickens that were roosting outside the protected chicken run over the past few months. (I think that it was from foxes, based on similar issues with neighbors with chicken problems.)
  3. The chicken run is really a long garden box enclosed with hoops of electrical conduit and poultry netting. The mature chickens have been protected in this area the whole winter, accumulating layers of straw, wood shavings, kitchen food scraps, and their own manure. After a long winter without being turned, the lower layers were pretty compacted and starting to stink. I didn't want to put the new chicks into this toxic area so I cleaned it up by using a rototiller to mix it all up so that it can decompose more effectively. This material fluffed up to about eighteen inches worth of partially composted bedding.
  4. Finally, I topped the garden box with a couple inches of fresh straw. The chicks are bound to scratch down to where the old composting bedding is, but I'm hoping that it is composting well enough to not be a problem of introducing bacteria levels that the new birds can't adapt to.
The older birds seemed very intrigued with the new chicks peeping from the chicken run. Several of them stood near where they could watch them while the chicks mainly huddled all bunched up in the corner. Once they get used to each other in a week or so, I'll open the outside access and let the chicks out to mingle with the older birds.

Later this summer I plan to build a new chicken run for the birds to use. This will be the third garden box, the first being planted as a garden this year. In order for the current chicken run (second garden box) to be able to be used for planting vegetables next year, I'll want to add some additional soil amendments, mix it in, and let it compost in place over the winter without additional chicken manure. (Right now, it would be too "hot" for plants) Ideally it would sit for a whole year, but hopefully six months will be good enough as long as I mix it every now and then.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Update on garden box greehouse

We have had a few snow/wind storms over the past three weeks since we put together the garden box with our custom greenhouse cover (see previous post). Unfortunately, the duct tape isn't sticking like you would think. It starts to come off and then the adhesive must get wet or dusty and then it won't stick any more. Looking at some different greenhouse suppliers, it looks like the repair tape is something more like clear packing tape, perhaps being a little thicker than standard packing tape. I'm going to try replacing the duct tape with packing tape, but even with packing tape, we'll have to wipe off the plastic to make sure that it has a clean surface to adhere to. Otherwise it will have a similar problem of getting the adhesive all gummed up with dust and dirt.

Hopefully this last snow storm is the last one of the season. We have one rain storm forecasted this week, but other than this we should have pleasant weather. Sounds like it is time to get a big load of composted steer manure!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Adding a composting trench to the garden

After reading about incorporating vermicomposting into a garden by creating a worm compost trench, I decided to give it a shot in our makeshift greenhouse / garden box. We have already added a fair amount of amendments to the soil, but after our poor results last year, I wanted to make sure that the plants would continue to have a good supply of nutrients throughout the growing season. Essentially what you do is to dig a fairly deep trench near a row of vegetables. The plants can be just starting but shouldn't be far enough along that the trench would impact the roots. Then you just fill the trench with layers of food scraps, manure, straw, shredded newspaper, or other compostable items in a reasonable balance so that the resulting compost will provide a good source of nitrogen. (Be careful of too much carbon, such as leaves, straw, wood chips, and paper) The idea is that the compost will eventually break down with the help of the worms and provide nutrients to the nearby plants which will actually grow their roots towards the rich compost. When I first started gardening years ago, I tried some of the time released chemical fertilizers but I think that this natural organic method will be even superior. (fingers crossed!)

Is it me, or something about this idea seem odd to you? Everything that I have read and my own experience has shown that uncomposted organic material can actually be harmful when added directly to the soil where your garden plants are growing. The key to this technique is to create the composting trench far enough away from the young, tender roots, are not damaged by high composting temperatures or by loss of nitrogen during carbon fixation but close enough so that when the compost starts breaking down and building up new sources of nitrogen, it becomes immediately available to those roots when they are mature enough to reach out and use them.

I went ahead and dug the trench down the middle of the entire length of the box in the "greenhouse". I dug down about six inches to the clay soil under the garden box and piled it up on either side. Another unplanned benefit with this technique is that both long rows have about a foot of good soil before the roots hit the hard, clay soil underneath. I had saved about five gallons worth of vegetable clippings, which I chopped into small bits to speed the composting, which went to the bottom of this trench. I added about a wheel barrow load of uncomposted rabbit manure mixed with hay to cover the chopped veggies. I'm pretty nervous about adding this "hot" manure, but since I won't be adding worms for a while and it will take a while for the seeds we planted on the rows next to the trench to even germinate, I'm hoping that things will even out. Maybe the hot composting action of this trench will even help to warm the soil and the greenhouse. Obviously there is a lot that I have to learn about balancing the nutrients that seeds need to germinate and grow, but I think that this sounds promising.

Actually, the idea to use the rabbit manure in the garden came from another gardening blog from "El" in Michigan. She has chickens, goats, and rabbits and builds hot beds in the Spring to get a jump start on warming the soil enough for the seeds to germinate. The difference between us is that the composting trench makes it so that I'm not planting directly over the compost like the hot bed technique. Hopefully mine is a reasonable compromise of the two ideas.

But wait... will I still get a benefit if I just do the composting trench without adding composting worms too? Well for one thing, composting worms are not going to like the compost if the composting temperatures make it too hot. It takes time anyway before the worms would be happy in that trench. Without the worms, it will just take longer for the compost to break all the way down. With the worms, they will be able to work through the compost and make those nutrients more readily available to the nearby plants. Either way, I won't have to dig the compost out of a compost bin or worm bin and add it to the plants. It will already be close enough to be useful.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Turning a garden box into a basic greenhouse

Since my backyard soil is rocky and alkaline with high clay content,we have been spending a lot of effort on raised garden beds as I mentioned previously in my post about soil amendments. Because of budgetary reasons, I haven't ordered kelp meal or composting worms yet. From everything that I have read, I think that both items will be a great benefit to the garden, but neither were high enough of a priority with all of the little emergencies that have come up recently. (We came home from church yesterday to a leaky toilet with water all over the floor!) Life certainly keeps things interesting, so it is important to keep your plans flexible and work toward your goals as time, efforts, and money permit.

Despite this, we were able to purchase some plastic and cover one of the garden boxes. This box was used last Spring for young chickens and turkeys with plenty of straw, wood shavings, shredded paper, and leaves as bedding. The walls and roof were constructed of electrical conduit bent into hoops tall enough to walk under and poultry netting stitched together with wire along the top of the hoop and stapled down on the long sides of the garden box frame. I ran a lightweight rototiller along the composted material and new soil amendments and was pretty happy with the 8 to 10" of dark, fluffy soil in comparison to the lighter clay soil that it was sitting on.

Rather than purchase and ship expensive greenhouse plastic, we just bought a big roll of 6 mil clear plastic from Home Depot. It isn't wide enough, so we cut it to length and used duct tape to join the seams. I cut lengths of 2x4 into strips which we used to screw down the sides of the plastic to the box. The ends of the tunnel were left loose so that we can get in an out fairly easily. This means that we have to weigh down the loose plastic with a large rock or bit of firewood to keep in the heat and prevent the wind from causing damage. Building a more permanent door is on my to-do list, but this will work for now.

In our area we get a lot of wind that is funneled from valleys along the nearby Oquirrh mountains. So with a big storm forecast for this past weekend, I was concerned that the new plastic would be blown off or torn. On the contrary, even with the cold, piercing wind, the duct tape held the seams together and the furring strips screwed down easily secured the long sides. It was the loose ends that started to pull free from their weights once the wind caught some of the loose material, but over all it held together very well. I think that the key is to keep the plastic stretched tight and secured. A digital thermometer has recorded temperatures inside the greenhouse up to 90 degrees during the day and down to the 30's at night, probably because the wind pulled loose the ends, losing a lot of its heat. As long as we can keep the ends secure, we should be able to get a jump on the planting season.

My wife was excited about planting a few cold-weather seeds so on Saturday morning she planted seeds for peas and radishes. We have seeds for several types of salad greens which will go into the ground soon as well.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Still thinking and reading about vermicomposting

Life has a way of throwing a wrench into your plans. Not only has it snowed again this week, but my basement sump pump isn't working correctly (plugged / frozen discharge line) so my basement got flooded from the already saturated soil behind the house. It seems that all of my free time has been spent using a secondary portable sump pump and garden hose to pump out the root cellar and window wells several times a day. Evening activities with the kids for school or boy scouts (I'm a scout leader) also fills up my schedule. That doesn't mean that I haven't been thinking and dreaming about my worm bin project.

I found a great blog about vermicomposting at which is also a good source for purchasing worms as long as you are looking for a large quantity. (A single pound of redworms is $35 while ten pounds is $180, only $18 per pound including shipping!) The best price that I could find locally was $25 per pound plus tax and driving one way about an hour. I have figured out that my little five gallon bucket bin works fine with a handful of earthworms but to consume the large amount of food scraps that our family of eight produces, we'll need about ten pounds of redworms and a more shallow bin with larger surface area. (Earthworms do fine in deeper bins, but don't thrive in this environment) I think that something this size would make a better fit as part of the outdoor landscape next to the garden, chickens, and rabbits. Besides, the resulting compost will be used in the garden anyway so that seems to be a natural fit. Once I figure out what kind of bin to make that will fit that criteria, I'll start building it and place my order for worms. (They have several great ideas for bins at this site too) I'm leaning towards a large wooden bin, but I want to research more about how it handles during hot, summer temperatures and if there are issues with ants or other critters getting into the bin. I'm hoping that it if set it into the ground with a styrofoam insulated lid, it will be protected enough to do well year round.

That said, it may be a few weeks before I can start on the worm bin. The weather forecast is looking good so a permanent solution to the basement flooding will preempt most other projects. That will be such a relief to get fixed once and for all!

Friday, March 4, 2011

How many composting worms do I need?

I need to figure out how many red wigglers composting worms I need to purchase for my new compost bin (yet to be built). I know that I could start these worms out in five gallon buckets, with holes in the bottoms for drainage, so I'm not worried about building the bin quite yet. Several sources confirm that a pound of red wigglers (about 1000 worms) will consume between 1/2 and 1 pound of food each day and turn that into castings. One pound of food scraps or worms are about the same in volume at about 2 cups. There are many sources that sell them in 1 lb increments.

Worms are going to be able to consume scraps that have been ground or broken up a lot easier than large chunks, but Anna at The Walden Effect has been experimenting with vermicomposting with food wastes from a local elementary school in her area and found that with nine pounds of worms, they were able to consume all 37 pounds of the whole food scraps (including meat) within five days. If she had equipment to grind up those scraps, it may have been even quicker. This equates to each pound of worms being able to consume 0.8 pounds of food, confirming the estimate of a pound of worms consuming 0.5 to 1 pound of food.

Food scraps are not the only thing to add to your worm bin. They need a supply of clean, moist bedding and grit or sand to help them grind their food (birds need grit too). I have tried using our paper shredder on newspaper and it works great. Non-glossy junk mail and cardboard would work well too. Mixing shredded paper in a bucket of water will shrink it much more than you might suspect, so having a large bag of shredded paper can save time from having to go back to get more. Don't forget to consider adding crushed leaves, grass clippings, and straw to the shredded paper. That type of bedding will take longer to break down, but the end result for your garden will be much better than just shredded paper which has a Carbon:Nitrogen ratio of 175:1.

What is not recommended to feed worms?
  • Animal manure from cows, horses, or other farm animals should be composted or aged before adding to a worm bin.This high nitrogen source may start composting in the worm bin, elevating the temperatures, and "cook" your worms. Once the "heat" is taken out of the compost, worms do an excellent job at finishing that compost to make it more available for plants.
  • The levels of bacteria and parasites present in cat, dog, and human manure manure would contaminate your garden produce and make its way into your food. It shouldn't be considered unless composted under high temperatures first. Expert composters don't want to lose this plentiful source of nitrogen, but personally, I have enough other sources of manure so I'm not going to risk it.
  • High salt content would have a similar effect to your worms that it does to slugs. They are both get their body moisture from their very porous skin, so salt can kill in large quantities. If you see food in your bin that the worms are avoiding, this may be why.
  • Large amounts of acidic food (citrus, coffee grounds) can throw off the pH of your bin and introduce mold and spoilage. Small amounts of mold are a natural part of decomposition and fine for worms but too much mold is an indication that the worms are not able to consume the food they are given (too much or wrong kinds).
  • Oils, milk products, and meat (especially uncooked) can go rancid and attract local vermin (skunks, opossums, raccoons, in particular). Worms can handle them in small quantities, but you will need to make sure that their bin is secure. These animals would love to find a good source of food scraps and will likely consume a lot of your worms at the same time.
  • Large, hard food scraps such as corn cobs, fruit pits, seeds, and thick fruit peelings are better off ground up or thrown to your traditional compost bin instead. Worms are not able to do anything with them until normal decomposition processes break them down into soft, small bits that they can deal with.

Anna has experimented with various levels of worm castings and found that although castings improve the fertility of soil significantly and increased levels of beneficial bacteria, you can have too much of a good thing. Soil made up of more than 20% castings doesn't have as much macronutrients as traditional compost but at this level, "plants germinate better, grow faster, and produce higher yields. ... Worm castings have much higher percentages of humus than either soil or compost, which helps the castings hold more water and stay aerated, while also providing binding sites for micronutrients that would otherwise wash out of soil during heavy rains.  The castings are also chock full of plant growth promoters like cytokinins and auxins, along with increased levels of micronutrients like calcium, magnesium, and sulfur.  Worm castings also host ten to twenty times as much microorganism activity as plain soil." (Thanks Anna!)

Something else to consider is how fast red wigglers reproduce. Several sources seem to confirm that this species of worms will reproduce quicker than your standard garden variety earthworm. Your population of red wigglers will double every three to four months in optimal conditions. Wow! So if you decide to purchase all that you need right now, you will need to think about selling off the extras (or feeding them to your chickens) in a few months. Since I have a lot of hungry chickens, I don't think that this will be a problem!

and watch our home food waste to determine how much food we can give to worms every day. Adding cooked foods, including meat, will make a difference in that calculation, but if included, will determine why type of bin needs to be purchased or constructed.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

New baby chicks!

This past weekend I took a few of my kids to the feed store to see their baby chicks. We have had some decent success with chickens, primarily raised for egg production. But we treat these birds more like pets, so when one dies or needs to be harvested, it is a sad event. Our gardens have obviously also benefited from us having chickens.

Last year my eleven year old daughter and nine year old son talked me into buying them each about a dozen chicks. They both promised to work doing chores for weeks afterward to pay off their debt. When the birds were old enough to start laying, my daughter decided to advertise her birds in the local classifieds. These were australorp hens which she was able to sell for about $15 a piece. Many of the people willing to pay that much for a good hen had purchased just a few chicks that year and some turned out to be roosters, so they wanted another hen or two so that they could get enough eggs from their small flock. My daughter wasn't able to sell her roosters so I agreed to buy them for $2 a piece so that I could put them in our freezer. (She couldn't bring herself to just give them away, and our small flock couldn't handle six roosters.) My son wanted a longer term income so his black sex linked hens were able to consistently turn out a lot of brown eggs. I have had eager buyers at work who appreciated the delivery of fresh cage-free eggs to the work break room refrigerator.

These birds have been free ranging during the day but roosting and fed in a 5'x20' garden box. This box has poultry netting with hoops of electrical conduit for support. We have added layers of mulch, depending on what was available to the garden box, and the chickens have been happy to dig through it and leave their own fertilizer. While they have free ranged in the summer and fall outside this coop, in the winter we have kept them inside with a large layer of plastic over the top for shelter from the cold wind and snow. We have had to add layers of straw or wood shavings more often then when they were not confined, but this extra mulch and manure should compost in place and yield good soil next year after it has had time to decompose.

This year, the same two kids have purchased new chicks. My daughter now has a dozen rhode island red pullets, since she is starting from scratch again. My son still has his ten black sex lined laying hens and purchased another five golden sex linked pullets, making a total of fifteen birds. The difference now is that these kids have been able to save up money from last year's profits to purchase these birds without borrowing money from me. That is what I call a milestone!

Between my wife and I, we also have a menagerie of birds: a few australorp (we kept a "calm" rooster), a couple ameraucana, a couple silver laced wyandotte, and a pair of bourbon red turkeys (we hope to hatch some turkey pullets this Spring). We also purchased a few chicks to add to our flock with a mixture of rhode island red, ameraucana, and buff orpington pullets. Since chickens are most productive around a year of age, we wanted to supplement the hens that we already had with new ones so that we could have consistent egg production as the older hens aged. We prefer a varied flock instead of a single breed flock because various breeds have different strengths. One may be a more frequent layer, one has a pleasant temperament, and another will be a better forager that can lead the others to the best source of weed seeds, grasshoppers, and grubs. Some breeds we won't purchase again because of inconsistent laying or poor temperament, but all have their unique value.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Using worms and black soldier flies in the garden

photo credit:
Last Spring I started hearing about black soldier flies (BSF) as a great resource for composting food waste (even better than worms) as well as a high-protein food source for poultry. I found the best site to learn about these insects at where I was able to find plans and videos for building my own bin out of a five-gallon paint bucket. Jerry is the site owner and designer of a commercially available BSF larvae bin (biopod), and is very happy to respond to questions that you may have about his designs or black soldier flies, in general. I was also able to order a batch of larvae from him, since these flies are not native to Utah. People who live in the Southern United States can bait their bin and expect to attract wild BSF flies to lay eggs and start colonizing their bin at no cost.

What I found after trying to raise my own BSF was that they consumed food waste quickly and in large amounts, just as it has been promised. I was hoping that after enough BSF reproduced, I could start a second BSF bin and start feeding them to my chickens. There are quite a few people commenting on the blog how much their chickens love to eat the larvae. Obviously they are very high in protein and a good supplement to their regular feed. Here is a video from YouTube showing what a small colony of BSF larvae can do to a fresh hamburger in five hours (I didn't have this many larvae, nor the wish to have them eat a perfectly fresh hamburger that I had just bought):

Unfortunately I didn't understand the reasons why BSF don't naturally thrive in the arid environment where I live. Although there are plenty of neighbors with horse and cow manure which the flies like as a food source and a good supply of food scraps that I left in the bin, I found that the larvae would mature, leave the bin, transform into adults with wings, and fly away. There were a few adults that flew back to lay eggs, but there weren't enough eggs to keep the whole colony going. (They look like wasps as adults, but they are harmless and only live long enough to breed and lay eggs.) I also read on the BSF blog from others living in cold climates how the larvae are difficult to keep alive during the winter. Despite their potential advantages, I abandoned my BSF plans last year.

This winter, I decided to see if I would have better success with earthworms that with the BSF larvae. I used the BSF bin that I created from two five-gallon buckets, and removed the extra pieces that the worms didn't need. (The inside bucket was drilled with a bunch of small holes so that excess water and "compost tea" would drain into the second bucket.) I used a paper shredder to fill the bucket half full of shredded newspaper which I then soaked in water. I bought a couple of containers of worms from Walmart (where they sell fishing equipment), just to try it out. The fifty worms have survived just fine in my garage, but they were not active enough to eat much of the food that I left for them. The larger scraps were not touched, but the smaller scraps were starting to be broken down. I tried moving the bucket to the laundry room where it was warmer, but my wife didn't appreciate it there. It is for a good cause, right? :-) For now, it is tucked away in the basement until I can find a better place. Being in a warmer place has encouraged the worms to be much more active.

photo credit:
I'm hoping to get a larger bunch of worms that will be able to break down food scraps faster (before they spoil and get moldy) and to be able to use the worm castings in the garden. If some of the worms end up in the castings, it is just going to help the garden or provide a nice treat for the chickens. I'm thinking that the Canadian earthworms that I already have were good for this "test" but I would rather put my money towards the more productive worms used in traditional vermicomposting.  Red wigglers are much smaller and you can buy a pound of worms (about 1000) for around $25. This rate is obviously much cheaper than the ones that I bought as bait worms, but most places don't sell them in amounts smaller than a pound. There are many, many, places where you can order them online, but without knowing for sure, it is probably preferrable to find a place that will sell you a few different varieties in your order since some may be better suited to your location than others. (I'll let you know when I end up ordering my own red wigglers)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Still shoveling snow but getting ready to plant

This weekend I went on a date with my wife to look for gardening supplies. Yes, I know that that doesn't sound very romantic, but when we both enjoy working in the yard then taking our time, strolling through Home Depot and holding hands without the kids is a romantic event. It is fun to dream about what we would like to do and buy a few things that we can afford to get us going in that direction.

My sweetheart still has a bunch of seeds from last year that she wants to use again, but we wanted to get enough supplies to take one of our garden boxes, add enough soil amendments to get it jump started, and then cover it with plastic to create a makeshift greenhouse. I have a lot of questions about this particular garden box, and I don't know if the plants will grow well there, but I feel that it is worth the risk to try. In this particular box I had chickens living in it for a few months last summer. In anticipation for using it this year, I moved them out so that the manure would have time to compost.Unfortunately this soil has a lot of big rocks so I brought in top soil last year. But good quality top soil for gardening is difficult to obtain around here (Utah is a desert, after all) but at least the top foot or two of dirt has been screened for rocks. Since this new alkaline soil has a high clay content, I knew that I really needed to figure out what to do with it.

I recently read Gardening When It Counts, by Steve Solomon, and got some good ideas. I referred to his table on Carbon-Nitrogen ratios and realized that the shredded paper that I was using for chicken bedding has an extremely high Carbon content (175:1) where the optimal ratio for growing vegetables is closer to 12:1. He says that soil humus has a C:N of 12:1 in every climate, in every soil, so that should be our target for amending soil. If the C:N is higher than this optimal ratio, the microbial population will "burn" the carbon for fuel until the C:N is reduced to match the surrounding soil.

If this comes from added organic material, the level of humus in the soil will be increased, the soil will be healthier, and it will have better tilth. At this point, the Nitrogen in the soil will be available to the plants that need it.Thinking about our garden box, if I still have much uncomposted material mixed into the soil, the microbes will be busy breaking down that carbon and won't release the nitrogen that is needed for the plants until this is complete. (My compost piles haven't been terribly productive with the local deer and our chickens helping themselves to most of what I can add from kitchen waste.) At this point, unless I can rake the paper back out easily, I'll just leave it in the soil and take my chances.

Here are the amendments that I bought for my 5'x20' garden box:
  • four bags steer manure (hopefully this will be about a 1/2" layer, C:N about 12:1)
  • one bag peat moss (helps add organic material to soil as well as acidifies it a bit)
  • one bag perlite (helps in clay soils by preventing compaction and water loss)
  • one bag sulfur (acidifies soil... need to calculate actual amount to add)
  • one bag bone meal (great source of Phosphorus... need to calculate actual amount to add)
  • one bag blood meal (great source of Nitrogen... need to calculate actual amount to add)
  • one bag Plant-tone (I have never heard of this product before, but caught my attention because it adds natural soil bacteria with a bit of natural fertilizer to get it started. Hopefully this will help balance the relatively sterile soil that we have here)
Again from the book by Solomon, he suggests adding seed meal as an alternative source of Nitrogen and kelp meal for its excellent balanced source of trace minerals. The kelp meal is also supposed to be really good for laying hens, so I probably will want to get extra for them. I haven't found a local source of either product, so I might have to order them from outside the area. (Agriculture Solutions seems to have reasonable prices for kelp meal as long as you are willing to buy in bulk, but shipping certainly adds a lot to the cost.) From their web site:

  • Contains over 60 trace elements utilized by your plants
  • Plants develop more extensive root systems
  • Greater resistance to nematodes, disease and pests
  • Improves seed germination
  • Stimulates soil bacteria
  • Increases plants stem strength
  • Helps plants deal with stresses of drought, high temperatures, and frost
  • Increase nutritional value of fruits and vegetables
  • Increases shelf life
  • Encourages better aerification of soil
  • Improves moisture retention
  • Helps normalize soil PH
  • Improves soil structure

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chicken tractors put the manure where you need it!

About seven years ago I started researching the best ways to raise chickens for producing eggs. We had a few neighbors with a few hens and it seemed like a good thing to supplement the family food supply with a few eggs a day. Little would I know when I first started that I would be building chicken tractors! No, not the kind of mechanical beasts that farmers use to plow fields. Chicken tractors are light, mobile, bottomless pens to protect and enclose your chickens in a confined area while they nibble at what is growing on the ground, scratching for insects and seeds, and depositing their manure on the pasture, lawn, or garden where you left them. As long as the tractor pen is moved regularly, they will naturally take care of many of the weed, garden pests, and fertilize the ground without you needing to do much more than feed and water them and move their pen. If you put this on your lawn, you will need to move it every day to prevent the chickens from tearing up your grass.

Last week I started reading a chicken tractor classic, Joel Salatin's, Pastured Poultry Profits, originally published in 1993. This book has probably done more to change how small farms and homesteaders think about producing meat in a healthy, sustainable, and profitable manner. Here is a video clip where he is featured from the movie called, Fresh: (You'll notice that his original chicken tractors have evolved to be larger and moved by tractors)

My ideas for raising chickens have also evolved a bit since I started originally, particularly since my current home doesn't have enough pasture / grass to move a chicken tractor around so that they can eat the grass. Instead I built a semi-permanent pen over a long garden box. This way I can add bedding and compost to where the chickens are living. They peck at it, scratch the ground up, and add their own contributions to the soil. Then the following year I move them to a new garden box and they can do the same to the new one. Right now I only have two large boxes and I hope to build one or two more each year so that I can rotate the chickens through each box every three or four years. (Once we have more boxes, they won't be exclusively in a single box.) I'll create another post soon where I post photos and describe what I've done a bit more.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Helping rhizobia thrive in the soil with biochar

Continuing the idea of helping nitrogen fixing bacteria (rhizobia) to flourish, I have been researching using biochar (terra preta) and how it helps the foundation of the soil. This approach has been used by natives of the Amazon for thousands of years with great success in charging their soil with carbon. I don't have a rain forest of trees handy, so I have been screening the ashes from our wood stove this winter and saving the charcoal.

With my research, I have found that adding biochar not only increases the pH but offers microscopic locations where this type of bacteria like to set up residence. But before you dump your bucket of ashes into your garden, note that you need to take a few steps to avoid negatively impacting your garden seeds with this strong, alkaline additive.
  1. Not all charcoal is created equal. Charcoal briquettes have a lot of additives that would not be good in your garden. You can actually put waste material in a metal can in your fireplace and the high temperature baking without much oxygen will turn that waste to charcoal. Because pine needles, coffee grounds, and manure is acidic, the charcoal produced from these products will be more acidic than the charcoal made from traditional firewood. For soils which are already alkaline, the more acidic charcoal is obviously a better choice.
  2. Crushing the charcoal will increase the surface area and make it more effective for the bacteria. It also makes it easier to distribute evenly using traditional fertilizer spreading equipment. The caveat with crushing is that larger pieces will obviously take longer to break down in the soil and provide better tilth than charcoal powder which may compound hard pan in clay soils. (That is the last thing that I need in my soil which becomes nearly hard as concrete once it dries out.)  The ashes should be separated from the charcoal by screening it and handling separately. (Ashes are highly alkaline and care must be taken to know if its natural liming action is needed for your soil type.)
  3. Charcoal needs to be "activated" by soaking in water and a high nitrogen source. Otherwise it will pull existing nitrogen from the soil and away from growing seedlings. Nitrogen sources may include chemical fertilizer (if you must), a compost tea, etc. (I have heard some people use urine for this purpose, but I'm not ready to jump on the humanure bandwagon quite yet.) Compost tea is created by putting several scoops of composted manure into a 5 gallon bucket of water, and letting it sit for several days before adding the biochar. The smell of the tea is bound to be strong (I haven't tried this myself) but is wonderful for charging the charcoal with enough nitrogen and beneficial organisms. Another warning: compost tea which sits too long without sufficient oxygen can actually encourage the harmful types of bacteria to develop. Some gardeners will counter this risk by using an old fish tank aerator to bubble the water while it is sitting, then use it right away to prevent the harmful bacteria from getting established. Adding an extra food source like molasses will further encourage the beneficial microorganisms to reproduce quickly. (This reminds me of adding sugar to yeast when preparing dough for bread.) Any extra compost tea makes a great fertilizer and may even be spread with a sprayer if it is filtered.

I haven't been saving enough firewood charcoal to make a big difference in the garden, so I think that I may try making some out of manure in an outdoor fireplace. (I'm not brave enough to risk cooking a can of manure in the house!) Our alkaline soil will benefit from a less alkaline charcoal.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

It's alive!

What could be more dead than dirt? We all know the difference between soft, squishy mud between our toes and beach sand. It looks and feels different. Your nose will tell you the difference between a rich, fruity loam and a sterile, powdery clay. But beyond the structure of the soil, what makes plants grow better in one soil over another? I wish that I knew the complete answer, but for now I have some ideas. Here is one difference...

Nitrogen fixing root nodules
After taking a round of antibiotics, your doctor may recommend eating yogurt for the acidopholus bacteria to help replace the naturally occurring bacteria in your body to help you digest food. Did you know that dirt needs bacteria to process and store the nitrogen necessary for plants to grow? Even legumes which are known for the nitrogen producing nodules on their roots require the same bacteria for them to make their internal nitrogen available in the soil. This bacteria, with enough carbon (organic material) mixed into the soil, can process the nitrogen from rotting organic material and store it in the earthy loam to make it available for plants. Your nose will also tell you if things are out of balance. That nitrogen is instead released as ammonia gas, which contributes to greenhouse gases rather than benefiting those plants, you and your family.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A new growing season looming

There is still snow on the ground, but the weather was pleasant outside. My wife and I were able to take a walk and enjoy the sunshine after being cooped up for several weeks. With that kind of weather, it makes me think more about what is going on outside and how to prepare for the coming growing season. We still have quite a few seeds from last year (hopefully they're still good), but we would like to order a few new seeds to try out.

We live in a desert climate on a hilly, one acre lot with lots of sage brush and natural grasses. Last year we paid to have someone create a few garden terraces and top the rocky, alkaline, clay soil with a foot or two of screened topsoil. Unfortunately, amending the new topsoil with a little organic material wasn't enough and the large garden space we have didn't do very well. Certainly these terraced gardens will eventually prove themselves to be much better that what we started with, but for now it is clear that we need to do something different.

It feels like we are starting from scratch. I have already decided that I want to do things that work for the long haul even if I can only do it a little at a time. Like many of you, we don't have the money to just pay to do everything at once. We'll have to do it a bit at a time as we are able to do so. It is important to my wife and I to make this whole process sustainable and healthy for our family. I have been visiting the local library quite a bit and reading gardening blogs for months now and I think that I have some reasonable ideas to start with. There is just too much to share all at once, so I'll share bits and pieces as I go along. Thanks for coming along for the ride!