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)