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I finally made it out into the garden yesterday after a long hiatus (from both garden and garden blog). David got a job in Olympia (woot!) and so I’ve been trying to make the most of his absence (pooh!) by working a shit-ton in lab (hoping to graduate by next summer!!!) and have consequently been ignoring the garden. Weekends have become very busy. So far David has come back to Seattle each weekend, and we race around town running errands and trying to get stuff done while also trying to spend 24/7 with each other. (I don’t know if that’s the correct usage of 24/7…) But this weekend had a good chunk of gardening together time, and was awesome.

The fallen leaves that we put in the chicken run have been turned into a rich, composty, soil-like material and we raked out 3 wheel-barrows full and spread them over the garden beds. This required raking up the fallen leaves that had been covering the beds, which we then dumped into the chicken run to make more compost. (We’re so clever!!) The leaves had lots of nice worms in them that were gobbled up in a frenzy. I offered one giant worm (fatter than a pencil, 6 inches long) to Cornelia and she hesitated at first, lunging her body forward and back like someone working up the courage to leap over a stream. Then it was BAM! BAM! and the worm was gone.

I then transplanted a bunch of things that sorely needed transplanting- 6 big lettuce plants, 2 rows of arugula (i’m trying to be more adventurous with salads this year), little tiny leeks in the bottom of a trench inside a mini greenhouse, an assortment of 6 broccoli plants, one cabbage, and 16 swiss chard plants. I sheltered all the transplants with plastic covers so that a) they’d stay warm enough, b) the rain wouldn’t leach out all the nitrogen from the chicken poopy compost we just added (organic gardening can cause eutrophication too, don’tcha know), and c) the surface of the dirt would stay dry to keep the slugs away… maybe… we’ll see if that works.

I also broadcast buckwheat cover crop seeds over the beds that will grow tomatoes and squash/cukes/melon later this summer. Buckwheat is supposed to pull up potassium from the subsoil which will help the plants set fruit… if our subsoil is accessible by buckwheat root and actually has any potassium in it.

Of note: covering the garden beds with fallen leaves over the winter has turned out to be rad. The dirt underneath is nice and soft and full of worm castings. And the leaves are easy to clean up when it comes time to plant in the spring. I like the idea of crimson clover cover crop, but it’s harder to deal with in the spring if i want to practice no dig gardening. Normally one would mow the clover and turn it into the soil 3 weeks before planting to let it rot and provide organic matter and nitrogen to the next crop. But that requires a lot of digging, when i am attempting to do no digging this season. I could chop the clover down, give it to the chickens, and then let the roots rot in place for a few weeks before planting… but that requires waiting, and the ground is bare for a few weeks. I could pull the plants out and compost them, but then the soil structure is disturbed- perhaps not as much as by digging, but still. Then again, the chickens do love to eat clover… shrug.

Have not yet attempted any grafting. My 15 (ungrafted) tomato plants are getting big, so I may just try to graft my curcurbits this year and try the tomatoes next year. Or i may try some tomatoes and give them to neighbors who have space… as long as they keep a good record of the plants’ performance compared to non-grafted controls of the same variety. I like science.

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We moved into our current house and yard at the beginning of August a couple years ago, and having a long list of veggies that needed to be planted by July 15th, set about tearing out 4×8 chunks of the lawn to make garden beds.  The grass came out, the 4×8 frames of 2×8 boards went around each bed, and new dirt- a pickup truck load of quality soil from a real store, not Craig’s list- went in.  Seemed logical and like this would grow us some fine vegetables… but we’ve been struggling to improve the soil every season.

So this post is about what i would do differently, and what i will do differently when we move to a new place sometime in the future.

First- the soil in residential areas is most often craptastic.  It has no nutrients, no organic matter, no structure, and very few earthworms or soil bacteria/fungi/nematodes, etc (hereafter referred to as “soil critters”).  This is because during construction, the top soil on the lot is scraped away to lay the foundation, heavy machines drive around building the house and compacting the soil, then a layer of “top soil” is replaced that is geared toward accepting sod for a new lawn- sandy for drainage, but with little organic matter.  The soil in the sod itself is clayey to hold the sod together- bad for drainage and air circulation.  (David knows- he used to lay sod as a summer job.)  Soil in the yards of rental houses is often the worst, because none of the short-term renters ever invest any effort in improving it.  When we first moved in, you could pour water on the soil and it would just run off and pool at the lowest point.

Where am i going with this…?  If you add anything to your soil when you start your garden, it should be compost.  Crap loads and shit tons of compost.  Don’t buy dirt- you’ll just have to add compost later.  Compost is organic matter.  Organic matter 1) increases the ability of the soil to hold water, 2) slowly releases nutrients for your veggies, and 3) attracts and makes a home for soil critters.  Add compost, and when you water your garden, the water will stay where you put it and you’ll have to water less frequently.  Your veggies will grow bigger and healthier with compost.  Soil critters will come to feast on your added organic matter, and more soil critters = better air circulation, soil structure, and nutrient cycling = better veggie growth = awesome root systems = even better soil structure, more organic matter content, and even more soil critters!

If it is late fall or winter (like now) and you want to start your garden in the spring, there are a few things you can do to get an earlier start.  It’s a good idea to wait until the soil dries out in the spring before you start digging around in it. When disturbed, wet soil loses its structure very easily and then dries into chunks of rock hard dirt- i know, because i didn’t think digging in wet soil was a big deal, and now i have beets that have taken almost a full year to grow to the size of a golf ball.  If you know where your garden will be, you can build plastic hoop houses or some sort of tarp structure to shelter it from the rain so that it dries out more quickly.  If the soil in your future garden is bare, cover it with fallen leaves or grass clippings or other organic material that can break down over time, providing compost for your beds while sheltering the soil from the rain and preventing it from becoming too compacted.  If there’s grass in your future garden spot, you can start killing it by laying cardboard down over it- it will be easier to pull up in the spring if it’s mostly dead.  And you do want to tear out the grass- if you turn it into the soil it will revive and overgrow your garden beds very quickly.

If you are lucky enough to move to your new yard/plan your new garden before winter, ie, september-october, you should plant a cover crop in preparation for the spring.  A cover crop will do similar things to a layer of fallen leaves- improve soil structure with its root system, increase organic matter when you cut it and turn it in in the spring, and protect the soil from compacting rain.  Cover crops also add nutrients to the soil: nitrogen-fixing cover crops like crimson clover return nitrogen to the soil when turned in, and others like alfalfa and buckwheat have root systems that bring up nutrients like phosphorous from the subsoil.

In the spring, you should turn in any cover crop or remaining leaf compost 2-3 weeks before you want to sow seeds so it can decompose fully.  If you don’t have time, put them in the compost pile- fresh decomposing plants can inhibit the growth of new seedlings.  In beds where you’ll plant cool-weather spring crops like broccoli and peas and radishes- that’s all you have to do.  In beds that will grow summer crops like tomatoes, beans, peppers, melons, etc, you can sow a spring cover crop (or let your current cover crop keep growing, as long as you cut off flower heads so it doesn’t go to seed), and turn it in for even more organic matter and nutrients before you plant those heat loving crops. Again, give the cover crop a few weeks to decompose before you plant new seeds.

This coming spring i’m going to try to sow buckwheat as a cover crop in beds where i’ll plant tomatoes, peppers, melons, and squash because buckwheat adds phosphorous to the soil and those “veggies” all need phosphorous and potassium to produce their fruits.  Buckwheat is a summer-sown cover crop, but grows very quickly- so i’m hoping i can get at least one round in before i plant the tomato seedlings.  Also- with the chicken manure compost we’re producing, we don’t really need any more nitrogen for the garden- that’s hot shit!  Heh.. heh… heh… get it?  So i’m thinking about switching over entirely from crimson clover to buckwheat (and a winter crop like wheat) for all my cover crop needs.

In any case, focus on the soil- it’s not just a container for plant roots and fertilizer- healthy soil will a magnificent garden make. (And a lower water bill, less fertilizer run-off, less fertilizer or none at all, more worms for the chickens, more pest-resistant veggies, happier renters that move in after you….)

 

 

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Last winter i vowed to keep the garden going strong over this winter with cold frames and plastic hoop houses and over-wintering crops like purple sprouting broccoli.  With my exam and post-exam scramble to catch up on research, i have not made good on the cold frames and hoop houses (yet), but the broccoli, chard, rutabaga, and beets are going strong! I think dumping some not-quite-finished chicken poop compost on the broccoli bed (quick source of nitrogen) really helped the fall and winter broccoli get going- i don’t think anything has grown so big and green so quickly in our garden!

I had big plans for a winter kale garden too… but the kale seems to have entered sit-tight-and-wait-out-the-winter mode.  Half of the kale is planted near a black walnut tree, which, turns out, releases a chemical called juglone that inhibits the growth of other plants.  Solanums (tomato family) and brassicas (cabbage/broccoli/kale family) are particularly sensitive to this chemical, so that may be why these plants grew a foot tall and then… just… stopped.  The other half of the kale is planted in much better dirt, but i sowed them too late to allow them to grow big before the cold weather came in.  If i had taken the time to put up a plastic cover over them, they’d probably be pretty big by now, and we could pick leaves throughout the winter and the plants would come back to life in the spring.  Sigh… school keeps getting in the way of my garden!  I now have little plastic cloches over the small kale plants (liter soda pop bottles (from Smalls) and square baby salad green tubs (from Kate and Dave)), but i think it may be too cold for these to provide good protection.  Hopefully i can get my butt in gear and put a real hoop house over them before we leave for the holidays.

One thing that we have totally rocked at this fall/winter is collecting fallen leaves to cover the bare soil in the garden beds.  We raked up our leaves, the neighbors’ leaves, raided the park up the street after dark (mind you, it was only 8pm, but since it gets dark at 4:30, we felt real sneaky), and traded some eggs for several bins of leaves from our neighbor Jill who had already raked hers up.  I’d feel bad, but she has an electric leaf blower.  Now all of the bare garden beds that aren’t growing cover crop are buried under 4-6 inches of leaves, and the chard, beets, and kale have leaves stuffed all around them to protect the ground from freezing.  The leaves decompose slowly and provide food for earthworms and soil bacteria, etc, leaving the beds in much better shape than if they had been left bare under the rain all winter.  The difference is amazing- almost fluffy dirt vs. a packed down gravel bed with some soil underneath- i think that’s why the beets i planted in the spring (in an bed that had been left bare) are still waiting to grow big in November/December.

Also, the chickens looooove fallen leaves.  In total, i think we put 4 or 5 garbage bins full of leaves in their run.  They go nuts digging through them at first, then as the leaves settle down they provide a source of entertainment now that the chickens are not allowed on the lawn very often (it’s too wet nowadays and they destroy it faster than ever.)  I hear that worms and other bugs will make themselves at home in the leaves of the chicken run (until they get eaten), and the scratched up and pooped on leaves make great compost at the end of the winter.

Pictures and actual building of cold frames and hoop houses coming soon!

 

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I passed my general exam yesterday, in no small part due to the all natural gift basket that Danny sent. It was full of delicious goodies like potato sticks and whole grain chips and pistachios and fancy mustard and salsa. It all came in a customized tote bag, pictured below, with all of our pictures on it. I don’t know what I like more- that I’m wearing a blonde wig and lipstick, that David is wearing only a tie, or that Tilly is purple. Inks looks pretty normal. Also, the all natural packaging is perfect bedding for the worm bin!

Well done, Daniel!

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Turns out that the grubs we found in the worm bin are black soldier fly larvae; I identified them with this blog, which is entirely about the wonders of the black soldier fly and it’s larvae.  Apparently these little grubs (actually, they’re not very little…) can process food waste faster than red worms and like things a little slimy and wet.  This is what our worm bins usually turn into, because i can never add enough bedding to keep up with Kate and John’s wet coffee grounds and my tea bags (which increase in number exponentially when i’m home studying all day).  I’m hoping the two can co-inhabit the worm bin; worms will supposedly “finish” what the grubs have already processed, making it into even better compost material.

The adults are harmless- don’t swarm or carry disease or sting or bite- and only live for 5-8 days, so they apparently aren’t much of a nuisance.  They may also repel other types of flies, which would be faaabulous, given the fly explosion we had during the warm months of the summer. Ugh.  Also, you can harvest as many of the larvae as you want to feed your chickens, use as fish bait, or supplement your dog’s protein intake (ummm…), and more will grow.  I wouldn’t have thought of that last one, save for one comment on the blog, “can u feed grubs to ur dog?”

COOL!  Still gross, but COOL!

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Today for a study break, i finished pulling out the tomato plants (with David’s help) and hung them up with the rest in the garage.  Dave and KK say that this is the way to get your green tomatoes to ripen- hang the whole plant upside down and wait.  I picked a couple ripe sungold cherry tomatoes today from the plants i hung up last weekend, so i think it’s working…??

Then, i added worms to the new worm bin that has just been collecting food outside the back door with no worms to eat it.  I pulled back the top layer of bedding in the old bin and picked out a good handful of worms, then noticed some grub-looking things in the next layer down and picked a few of them out to show David.  We decided we didn’t want whatever they were going to grow into to take over our worm bin, so we went back out to dig them out and give them to the chickens.  We discovered there were way more of these grublets than we were expecting- a gross amount- there were just grubs on grubs on grubs.  We had been picking them out by hand and putting them in a bowl, but when we came across the mother load, David just dug in and scooped out big handfuls.  It was fairly disgusting… and stinky, since our worm bin is too wet!  In any case, we determined there were too many to dig up, so we piled what we had in the chicken run.

Chickens seem to have some sort of reptilian shape-recognition with food items.  If you put a square of cornbread or half a loaf or bread or a baked half squash in the run for them, they’re like, WTF is that?!   They’ll eventually eat it after minutes (sometimes hours) of sideways investigative glances, pecking, flicking whatever it is off their beaks all over the place.  There are other things that they just immediately know are food, even though they haven’t seen it up close yet.  If you shake anything grain-like out of a jar, they immediately come running to gobble it up.  So, small, dry, and tumbly = food.  Apparently the form of a grub- plump, oblong, sluggishly squirmy- also triggers immediate recognition and spurs them to start gobbling with out too much investigation as to what these yucky larval stage things that were just dug up out of a box of rotting food actually are.

We also picked some fall broccoli and some tomato stragglers, and collected the dry runner bean pods to save the seeds for next year.  Aren’t they beautious?

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A flock of chickens is essentially a pack of little garbage disposal composting machines.  Food and yard waste goes in, fertilizer comes out.  But, they don’t eat everything.  Here’s what we’ve found our chickens like to eat.

First, what goes in each food/yard waste bin?

Chickens get:
fruits and veggies
grains, cooked and raw
bread
leftover meals
dairy (but not too much cheese)
But don’t eat:
citrus fruit and peels (taste bad)
meat, fish (they could, but this increases the chance that pathogens will end up in your fertilizer)
garlic and onion (makes eggs taste funny)
raw potato (poisonous)
dry beans (poisonous)
avocado pits and peels (poisonous)
rotten or moldy food
sweets and junk food
and eggs that look like eggs (they’ll wise up and start eating their own!)

Worms get:
moldy and spoiled food
coffee and tea
paper towels
tough peels
But not:
citrus
meat or fish
greasy, oily stuff

Food waste bin gets:
citrus
meat, bones, fish
greasy, oily stuff
houseplants (can be poisonous)
pits, peels, and egg shells (take forever to break down in compost or worm bin)

That gives you a general idea of what should go where, but chickens do have favorites, and some things that we throw into the run just don’t get eaten.

Favorites:

  • kale and swiss chard and broccoli leaves and other leafy greens.  we grow kale just for them- it’s super nutritious and they absolutely love it.  in fact, if you hold it up above their heads, they will jump almost a foot in the air to grab it.
  • yogurt.  i don’t know why, but they frickin’ love this stuff.  they’ll drink it out of a bowl, but when they were little we had to dip their beaks in it to show them what it was.
  • anything grain like- cooked rice, oatmeal, millet or wheat or barley or flaked corn or scratch mix from the grange- essentially anything that can be shaken out of a jar and pecked up.  they come running immediately.
  • mealy worms from the pet store- fantastic treats for young chicks that you are trying to handle and tame.  they won’t eat earthworms until they’re much bigger- worms are intimidating to little chicks.
  • moths, earthworms, grubs, bugs that click and jump around, etc.  if you want to see ancient dinosaur instinct come out in your chickens- watch them hunt bugs.  it’s actually rather scary.
  • beds of clover (crimson clover cover crop), wheat grass (harder to grow), pea vines (after you’ve eaten the peas), long grass, etc.

Not so much:

  • cabbage- i find i have to chop this up finely for them to eat it- otherwise it’s to tough for them to rip apart.
  • same with bread crusts- they’ll eat the soft inside, but i have to soak the stale crusts in water for them.
  • stems of broccoli, swiss chard, etc- they’re just not as good as the leaves.

Tricks:

  • try to clean out your fridge often- catch leftovers before they go bad so you can give them to the chickens instead of the worms.
  • chickens always eat the best things first, so if you want them to eat chopped broccoli stems, don’t put kale or grain out too.
  • they’ll eat more and less appealing things if their not free ranging.  if i want them to finish some wilted lettuce or chopped cabbage, or eat their weekly dose of crushed egg shell for calcium,  i’ll put it in the run when we leave them in there for the day- that way there’s nothing much better to do, like chase bugs.
  • for tougher stuff like stems, cabbage, and bread crusts, make them a smoothie!  i blend this stuff with yogurt, kefir, or just water and put it out in a bowl for them to drink.

Next spring i plan on trying out buckwheat as a cover crop- it attracts bees and makes more phosphorous available for the next crop- and i’m hoping that the chickens will enjoy eating it.  Gotta keep them well fed and entertained so they don’t destroy the lawn!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Compost is exciting.  The act of composting takes care of food scraps and yard waste so they don’t end up in the land fill.  And using compost in the garden delivers much needed organic matter and nutrients to the soil.  Composting closes the loop, bringing your garden, be it containers on the patio and a worm bin or a full blown hobby farm, closer to sustainability.

Here’s how composting goes down in my garden, which consists of a few raised beds on a small city lot:

Kitchen scraps get sorted into bins 1) for the chickens 2) for the worms 3) for non-edible food waste (bones, pits, citrus rinds) taken to Cedar Grove composting.

For our yard waste,  cut grass and fallen leaves go into the chicken coop as bedding that will get scratched apart and pooped on.  Weeds like morning glory (the bane of my existence- it cannot be killed!!!) and shotweed go into the yard waste bin so that they don’t end up sprouting in the garden.

The chicken bedding (w/ torn up leaves, grass, veggie scraps, and chicken poop) gets put into a compost tumbler every couple months.  The nitrogen rich chicken manure heats up the material and helps it compost really quickly (so does the black barrel).  We spin the barrel on most days to aerate it, which helps the material decompose aerobically, instead of anaerobically (a process that produces methane gas, which is 30 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas… which is why we don’t want this stuff buried in a landfill).  When that’s done, it gets put directly onto the garden beds.  One potential problem with this is that we use pine shavings for bedding inside the coop, which can take a while to break down, and if put into the garden unfinished, actually take nitrogen from the soil to help them decompose.  This may be compensated by the super high nitrogen content of the chicken poop.  But once our bag of pine shavings is used up, we’re switching to timothy hay, which breaks down more quickly.  We use it as the bedding in the run, and it works pretty well- by the time we rake it out of the run to put in the tumbler, it’s 1/3 broken down already.

Worm bin.   We have a food scraps worm bin, and a dog poo worm bin.  Vermicompost from the food scrap bin goes into the garden when it’s finished, and the dog poo vermicompost will be used on our non-edible plants- an assortment of woefully neglected flowers and shrubs in the front yard.  Why a dog poo worm bin?  Never would have ventured in that direction, except that Inka loves to clean up after our chickens.  (Maybe that’s why she doesn’t hunt them- they have developed a symbiotic relationship; they provide her with delicious snacks, she protects them from would be predators, which, so far, just include the cat and friends’ dogs that come over.  We’re hoping she’d protect them from raccoons as well.)  Anyway, Inka is stealing the lawn fertilizer that the chickens provide, so i decided to reclaim it (and reduce dog waste going to the landfill) with a dog poo worm bin.  However, now that’s it’s been a few months since we got the chickens, the delightful novelty of chicken poop seems to have worn off, and Inka does not eat as much.  So….  we might not continue with this bin, unless it makes such fantastic compost that we can’t not continue.  We are saving more organic matter from going to the landfill… but it’s still gross.

With all of these avenues of composting, you’d think we’d be a streamlined operation here, but the compost doesn’t seem to come fast enough.  Half of our garden beds are in dire need of an infusion of organic matter, and by the time we have a few batches finished to feed them, the other half will be at that point.  We also don’t have a good sunny location to put our compost tumbler; the sun’s heat would make it go more quickly.  So we end up putting partially finished compost on the garden beds.  This releases readily available nutrients to the veggies, but finished compost contains nutrients in forms that are slower to break down and therefore are released to the plants over time- good for long term feeding and to avoid nutrient leaching.

We also never seem to have enough room or containers for all of the material we want to compost.  We’ve got four people total living in our house and producing food waste.  David and i have built worm bins one after another to hold everything coming out of our kitchen- we’ll soon be at number four- and the worms don’t seem to be munching quite fast enough.  Now that the chickens are full grown, they should be able to help us out with a good portion of the food scraps.  Someday we’ll find a balance… perhaps when we move to a place with a bigger yard with space for a real compost pile or another couple of tumblers… and more chickens… and a couple goats.

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Check out these great articles about organic farming and gardening:

This is a good overview of the development, principles, and future challenges of organic agriculture:  Organic Agriculture, a global perspective.  A bit slow, but you know, in case you were wondering.

An amazing, horrifying seven-part series about the dangers of synthetic fertilizers used in modern agriculture by Seattle’s Grist Magazine:  The Nitrogen dilemma- is America Fertilizing Disaster?

My new favorite book!  The New Organic Grower, by Elliot Coleman.  Great information about crop rotation, green manures, composting, and how to pick a good plot of land for your small organic farm.  Here are a couple of my favorite chapters:   Chapter 2 Land            Chapter 7 Crop Rotation

Renewing Husbandry   This is the 2005 article by Wendell Berry I mentioned previously- a stirring tale about the fall of soil husbandry.

Another fascinating book, this one entirely about soil, and how it is the key to a successful garden:  Start with the Soil, by Grace Gershuny.  Written in 1993, it’s a bit out of date with current USDA organic regulations, but still quite awesome.   The soil community       Hummus and Soil Health     Compost- gardener’s gold!

A shorter article from Mother Earth News in 2003 about building soil health and fertility using no-till gardening and farming methods.  Building Fertile Soil    I had heard about no-till, but some people advocate no digging whatsoever!  I announced to David last night that we were switching to no-till gardening.  “Huh?”  I repeated myself.  “I understand your words, but what the heck does that mean?”  I don’t know either quite yet…

More articles to come!

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