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!