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Posts Tagged ‘soil health’

Occasionally the New York Times publishes articles like this one on the crises modern agriculture brought on by gawdawful weather. Some discuss government-paid crop insurance and lament the plight of farmers across the country. This one actually mentions compost as a way to ameliorate the effects of drought, as well as gray water systems, and the importance of maintaining seed banks so that we can weather the weather with drought- and heat-resistant varieties of crops. I’m going to go ahead and add a plug against big Ag companies that promote and sell and monopolize crops with single varieties that are bred or genetically engineered to do well in shitty soil with lots of synthetic fertilizer. Bad idea. We need to be increasing the genetic diversity of our crops and animals, not whittling our base down to a teetering giant disaster waiting to happen.

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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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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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Though I’ve heard of Wendell Berry, I’ve never read anything he’s authored until this morning. I will commit myself to reading much more. Funny how the more you learn, the longer your reading list grows.

Here is a beautiful piece about “soil husbandry.”

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